Silicon Valley wins again

A Silicon Valleyite has gotten another distinguished award. Yesterday, John Perry of Stanford University was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which states: “To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.”

Perry’s original research was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February, 1996. Perry did not go in person to receive his award, which is no surprise since the awards were given out at Harvard University.

Berkeley fog

I had to drive to a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (UUCB) yesterday, and because I had to drop Carol off near the Rockridge BART station in Oakland, I wound up driving over Grizzly Peaks Boulevard. This was the route I drove to get to work for a year in 2003-2004: from north Oakland up over Grizzly Peaks to UUCB. It is the most dramatic route I have ever commuted along: a section of Grizzly Peaks Boulevard is a winding mountain road through Berkeley Hills a thousand feet above the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. On a regular basis, I would pull over during my commute to enjoy the view: the sun setting over the Golden Gate, the play of light on San Francisco Bay, the view down into the wooded canyons along the ridge.

As I drove along Grizzly Peaks Boulevard this morning, a huge bank of fog was moving in through the Golden Gate from the Pacific; it had mostly covered the city of Berkeley, and was at the foot of the Berkeley Hills. It was so beuatiful, I had to stop, even though I was a little late for the meeting. Looking out I saw the brilliant white of a thousand-foot high fog bank stretching out across the bay, and looking down I could see ridges and cnayons covered with live oaks and eucalyptus trees, and I could see one little corner of the city of Berkeley before the fog blocked my view.

By the time I drove back up over Grizzly Peaks Boulevard three hours later, the fog was swirling up over the peaks, and there was no view of anything except white fog.

People are (mostly) thoughtful

Not everyone is thoughtful — there are plenty of people who are selfish or just plain mean-spirited — but a great many people are thoughtful. One of the guests who has been staying at Hotel de Zink, the 15-bed rotating homeless shelter that our church has been hosting this month, stopped by this afternoon. She had noticed that some of the other guests had no sheets, so she went out and found some sheets, and walked here to the church to drop them off. Of course we had to lock them up so no one would steal or vandalize them (being aware of the fact that not everyone is thoughtful). But still — it’s nice when thoughtful people look out for those around them.

Not Emerson?

Recently, I have been trying to track down the origins of the following quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts — but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This quotation appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, but there is no source listed for it in Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. (This quotation does not appear in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the predecessor to Singing the Living Tradition.)

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson are available online at I searched the complete works for “tribute,” using both the online concordance, and a brute force search using Google, and did not find this quotation.

Emerson’s complete sermons are also available online at — these are the genetic texts (including manuscript variations) used in the definitive four-volume The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Albert J. von Frank et al. (University of Missouri Press, 1989-1991). Using a brute force Google search, I did not find this quote in the sermons. I was also able to search eight of the ten volumes of Emerson’s letters online using Google Books (vols. 1-5, and 8-10). This quotation was in none of those volumes. All my searches used the relatively uncommon word “tribute” as the key search word.

At this point, I have not searched vols. 6-7 of the Letters; The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth et al.; and The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth. Nevertheless, I’m assuming that Emerson probably did not write this passage, and the attribution should read “attributed to Emerson.” Can anyone prove me wrong by providing a definitive source for this quote?

(1/5/22: Click here for another Not Emerson hymn.)

October 2 sermon topic: discuss….

My title for this Sunday’s sermon here in the Palo Alto church is “Liberal religion, Silicon Valley style.” I’m a big believer in the notion that any religious organization will be influenced by the immediately surrounding community. Therefore, Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley should have some distinctive features. So what are some of the most important of those distinctive features, and how do they affect the way we do religion here? Here are three possible answers:

(1) One distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the ethic of hard work: here in the Valley, people believe that the harder one works the better off one will be. By contrast, Thoreau’s famous book Walden, an important book for many Unitarian Universalists, extolls the virtue of spending less time working hard, and more time contemplating Nature. I’d say Silicon Valley liberal religion extolls the virtue of lots of hard work, and tends to ignore thinkers like Thoreau.

(2) Another distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is that we live in a truly multicultural and multiracial place. Santa Clara County is a white-minority county with no dominant racial or ethnic group; this is what the rest of the United States will look like within a generation. And while our congregation is 85-90% white, that also means that we are 10-15% non-white, and we’re all so used to living in the multiracial, multicultural world of Silicon Valley that it seems to me we’re pretty relaxed about becoming an increasingly multicultural congregation.

(3) Now add another distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life: the engineering and entrepreneurial drive which lead us to believe we can fix anything if we put our minds to it. I think Silicon Valley is going to be the place where liberal religion figures out how to be truly multiracial and multicultural. Here in the Valley, multiracial doesn’t mean there are both black and white people in the congregation, it means there are whites, blacks, East Asians, and South Asians; and people who were born in several different countries (Russia, India, Taiwan, etc.).

So liberal religion in Silicon Valley is characterized by a strong work ethic; by multiculturalism; and by a can-do attitude. This raise the interesting question that I’m going to try to address in the sermon: Does this mean all we’re going to do in our congregation is work our asses off? Because if all we’re going to do is to work our asses off (or work our collective ass off, whatever), even if it’s for a good cause, I’m just not interested. There has to be a better way to do religion….

Technology and the classroom (and youth group and…)

We were sitting in youth group today, talking about plans for a trip later in the year. One youth was checking his online calendar on his smart phone; I lent my laptop to another youth so he could set up a Google Plus group for the youth group to use. And a couple of us talked about how we spend way too much time use the Internet.

And this evening I happened upon a blog post by April DeConick, a professor at Rice Unviersity. She writes in part:

I guess what I am saying is that technology is ahead of us. We are enthralled with it. It has become essential to how we live and work. But we have yet to figure out how to control it. We are like that kid in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory who loves chocolate so much he jumps into the chocolate sea and nearly drowns.

Yeah. That would be me.

So I put this out into cyberspace as a kind of call, especially to other teachers. We need to get caught up with the technology and establish technology boundaries in our classrooms. We need to take back the classroom.

Anyway. If you work with young people, you might want to read DeConick’s post.

Star Wars and me

Carol was telling me about her trip to the video rental store. They have a big fancy entertainment center with surround-sound speakers where they show videos, and when Carol went they were showing the fourth Star Wars movie. I admitted that I had never seen that one, and then I had to admit that the only Star Wars movie that I had ever seen in its entirety was the first movie. “But I saw the first Star Wars on opening day,” I said.

“Really,” said Carol, expressing mild interest.

“Haven’t I ever told you that story?” I said. “I went with my friend Mike. We were in the high school science fiction club together. The auditorium was filled with people from the New England Science Fiction Association. When — what’s his name, Harrison Ford’s character —”

“Han Solo,” said Carol.

“Yeah, when he’s talking about how fast his spaceship will go,” I said, “he says something like, ‘Yeah, it’s so fast it’ll go 32 parsecs.’ And all around us you could hear people murmuring, ‘Parsecs? Parsecs per what?’ And then people started booing.”

Carol laughed at the image of a movie theatre full of science fiction geeks booing.

“And when we came out of the movie, they offered us buttons that said, ‘May the Force be with you.’ And I didn’t take one. Mike and I were sure that the only people who would like the movie would be science fiction geeks.”

“That button would probably be valuable now,” Carol said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I figured it would be like George Lucas’s first movie, ‘THX-1138’ or whatever it was called. Good movie, but no one watched it.”

Carol said that when she learned about George Lucas’s connection with Joseph Campbell, she realized how powerful those Star Wars movies could be. I had no such intimation; I didn’t get that Star Wars was myth, religion even, wrapped up in pop culture. And because of that, today I do not own a valuable button reading “May the Force be with you.”

The news from CERN

The news from CERN is — very interesting. According to the BBC: “Puzzling results from Cern, home of the Large Hadron Colider, have confounded physicists because it appears subatomic particles have exceeded the speed of light.” CERN scientists are releasing their results to allow wider investigation and debate in the scientific community.

Whether or not this experimental result winds up being confirmed, what particularly interests me is the willingness to challenge one of the cornerstones of physics. Fallibilism is a powerful principle: even the special theory of relativity has to be up for grabs; everything has to be up for grabs.

Is there a Unitarian Universalist “preferential option for the poor”?

I’m wondering why people join Unitarian Universalist congregations. Do we join in order to find a posse to help us further our existing social justice commitments? Do we join in order to help us stay in our current jobs, and maybe get better jobs? In other words, do we join in order to meet our own needs?

I’m a fan of liberation theologies. Liberation theologies talk about a preferential option for persons who don’t have as much power as the rest of the world. So Latin American liberation theologies talked about a preferential option for the poor: the purpose of religious communities was to live out Jesus’s consistent teachings to help people who were poor. Feminist liberation theologies say that religion communities must recognize that women and girls are as fully human as men and should be treated as such. And so on through black liberation theologies, queer liberation theologies, etc., etc.

Why have a preferential option for the poor? In liberation theology’s terms, the preferential option of the poor is how a religious community can begin to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, whether you believe the Kingdom of Heaven is something that’s here on earth waiting to burst out into reality if we give it a chance, or whether it is a reward that awaits you after death.

We can contrast liberation theologies with prosperity spirituality, which is “characterized by the doctrine that God desires Christians to be prosperous.” (William Kay, “Prosperity Spirituality,” in New Religions: A Guide, ed. Christopher Partridge [Oxford University: 2004], p. 91). Prosperity spirituality is designed to appeal to those who find the prospects for the future to be bleak and who don’t want to wait until the afterlife to enjoy the rewards of religion. Oral Roberts was the first great purveyor of prosperity spirituality.

Unitarian Universalism, and liberal religion more generally, strike me as being much closer to prosperity spirituality than to liberation theology. Many Unitarian Universalists are skeptical about heaven, and the rest are probably more concerned with getting heaven into people now, than in getting people into heaven later (to paraphrase John Corrado). Either way, we’re more concerned with how we can make our lives better, than we are in how we can enjoy the rewards of the afterlife. To my mind, this has pushed us into a kind of prosperity spirituality: Join our congregation because your life will be better due to improved mental and emotional health — join our congregation and do social justice to others which will make you feel better about yourself.

Sure, I’m exaggerating and engaging in polemic (as usual). But I also think I’m right: we Unitarian Universalists are far more likely to engage in our form of prosperity spirituality than we are to believe in a preferential option for the poor.