My guilty pleasure: I love hard-boiled pulp fiction. Every once in a while, I come across a passage that is just so — so hard-boiled, that I have to read it twice to make sure it really says what I thought it said. Like this one:

I kissed her.

“To hell with that stuff,” she said. “Really kiss me.”

Fifteen minutes later, the kid came up with the half case of Scotch.

I showed up at Ashbury’s place about two o’clock in the morning. I still couldn’t get the girl’s hair out of my mind. I thought of that strand of the hangman’s rope every time I thought of the way the light glinted along those blonde tresses.

Gold Comes in Bricks, 1940, Erle Stanley Gardner.

I will never look at blonde hair again in quite the same way. I’m not sure that is a good thing.


Henry, our music director, stood up during joys and concerns (what this congregation calls “Caring and Sharing”), and spoke poignantly about his mother. Henry said his mother had died in 1999, which was a while ago. But he has learned over the years that while the pain immediately after someone dies does lessen, it never goes away, and remains always, as a kind of “dull pain” (to use Henry’s words). He managed to put into words what I’ve been thinking myself. My mother died in 1999; Carol’s mother died just over two years ago; and this year I’ve been very aware of that dull pain of which Henry speaks. This is not exactly a profound insight; but it’s funny how I manage to forget this repeatedly, until suddenly there it is again.

A key concept

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about an article on the Alban Institute Web site which introduces the concept of distinguishing between that which is foundational and that which is accretional within a religious tradition. The article focuses on foundational and accretional practices in worship services, but the concept can be applied more widely. A good bit of Harvey Cox’s latest book, The Future of Faith, is his attempt to show that belief is an accretional practice within Christianity, whereas faith (in his careful definition) is foundational. So this has gotten me thinking about what is foundational and accretional within the liberal traditions of Unitarian Universalism. Liberal traditions tend to embrace the surrounding society, so my feeling is they accumulate lots of accretional practices — and as shed lots of those accretional practices as time goes on. This raises the interesting question of what, exactly, is foundational to Unitarian Universalism; a question to which I have no firm answers yet, but I’m thinking about it.

The joys of a San Francisco summer

Summer is upon us in the Bay area, and it is time to reflect again on Mark Twain’s description of Bay area summers:

Along in the summer, when you have suffered about four months of lustrous, pitiless sunshine, you are ready to go down on your knees and plead for rain — hail — snow — thunder and lightning — anything to break the monotony — you will take an earthquake, if you cannot do any better. And the chances are that you’ll get it, too.

Liberty and democracy in liberal religion

From Gary Dorrien’s new book, Economy, Difference, Empire:

What would a just society look like? What kind of country should the U.S. want to be? For more than two centuries U.S. American politics has featured two fundamentally different answers to these questions. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which democratic rights over society’s major institutions are established. In the first vision, the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the just society minimizes the equalizing the role of government. In the second view, the right to self-government is considered superior to the right to property, and the just society places democratic checks on social, political, and economic power. Economy, Difference, and Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice (Columbia University, 2010), p. 143.

Unitarian Universalists would seem to align themselves with the second vision, the vision of a democratic society, given that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) claim a commitment to democratic process. However, it is not clear to me that this is the case — the major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

Thus I see a built-in theological tension within Unitarian Universalism between theological liberty on the one hand, and on the other hand a commitment to democratic theological community in which the right of self-governance is superior to the right to believe whatever one wishes. There is a difference, however, between Unitarian Universalism and wider U.S. society: it is much easier to remove oneself from Unitarian Universalism. There are many people who feel themselves in complete alignment with theological Unitarian Universalism and more specifically with the principle of a free and responsible search for meaning without a creed, but who also find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation — many of these are the people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists on national polls but who aren’t part of a local congregation.

One last note on this topic: Historically, Universalists were more committed to theological liberty than were the Unitarians, and the loose structure of their national organization reflected that commitment to liberty. The Unitarians, by contrast, affirmed theological liberty and had, on the face of things, fewer theological restrictions than the Universalists; but beginning in the late nineteenth century the Unitarians poured far more of their energies into their democratic institutions. When the two denominations consolidated, the Universalists felt themselves out-organized at nearly every step of the way; and the new denomination has ever since then invested more energy into its democratic structures than into theological liberty.


At lunch time, I drove down to the marshes at Baylands Nature Preserve. A baby American Avocet stood at the edge of the water swishing its tiny beak back and forth to gather insects and other invertebrates from the water, just like the adult avocets a few yards away. Out in deeper water, a Mallard hen watched carefully over two baby Mallards swimming on either side of her. I couldn’t help noticing the difference in the way the two species raise their young: the American Avocet is a precocial species whose young are on their own from hatching, while the Mallard is an altricial species whose adults care for their babies for some time. It seemed that everywhere I looked I saw birds nesting or getting ready to nest: Cliff Swallows building their nests of clay on the side of a building, Forster’s Terns apparently nesting on a tiny island in the middle of the marsh, Marsh Wrens warbling madly in the rushes.

I looked across the bay at the green hills of the East Bay. Except some of the lower hills at the far end of the Dumbarton Bridge don’t look all that green any more. It’s been warm for the past few days, and it looks like the rains are finally over and gone, and now some of the low hills are turning summer-brown. The higher hills and mountains are still brilliant green, but it won’t be long before they turn brown, too.

Baby birds and hills turning brown: these two markers in time are as good as any to mark the end of the winter-wet season, and the beginning of the summer-dry season.

He’s dead?…

Osama bin Laden is dead. It feels strange to write that. I could wish he had been brought to trial — or brought to justice really — rather than killed in a firefight. But they’re reporting that he used another person as a human shield, which reveals a lack of courage and a moral depravity. So he’s dead. I can’t help but think that the world is a better place without him.

By sheer coincidence, today I’ve been thinking about the Cain and Abel story from the book of Genesis. You’ve heard the story: Adam and Eve are the first two humans. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. God favors Abel over Cain, and in a fit of pique Cain murders Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel has got to, Cain replies, How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper? But God, being God, knows that Cain has killed Abel, and tells him so. Cain is ashamed. God punishes Cain, saying: I’m cursing you, your life will be tough, you’re going to be a vagabond and a fugitive forever. Cain says, I’m gonna be a vagabond and a fugitive, and everyone who finds me out will try to kill me. But God says, Not so, anyone who kills you, vengeance will be taken upon him sevenfold. Then God set a mark upon Cain to let people know about that. There’s some kind of weird complex poetic truth to the Cain and Abel story that I can never quite wrap my head around. It is obviously not a literally true story, but like the best fiction it gets at deeper truths — what the deeper truths are is open for debate.

And although it’s an inexact and incomplete analogy, I can’t help thinking of Osama bin Laden as a Cain-like figure: someone who commits a heinous murder, and who, after his crime was committed, had to become a fugitive and vagabond. It’s an inexact analogy, and Osama bin Laden was not Cain, but I have to admit I do worry about the aftermath of his death. Osama bin Laden is dead, the world is a better place without him, but I would not call this a neat and tidy ending to his story.

I do feel an enormous sense of relief that he’s dead. He was both depraved and powerful. And now the question is: what next?