Monthly Archives: March 2018

Why my blog will leave Facebook

For several years now, I have linked my blog posts to Facebook. I’ve decided to end that arrangement.

I’m not doing this because Facebook helped Cambridge Analytica meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is nothing new in that ongoing news story. We have long known that Facebook steals information about us and uses that information to make money. We have long known that as a corporation, Facebook has no moral scruples; if corporations were really persons, as the U.S. Supreme Court asserts, Facebook would be a psychopath. Psychologist Michael Tompkins of the Sacramento County Mental Treatment Center describes psychopaths as “skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain”; a phrase that accurately describes Facebook. Facebook lost 14% of its capital value in the last couple of weeks, astonishing that psychopathic corporate entity; and now that entity is trying to figure out how to pretend to be moral, thus allaying our fears so that it can continue to lie and cheat and steal even more from us. But this is a long-standing pattern of behavior; the Cambridge Analytica debacle is nothing new, and there’s nothing in that debacle to make my change my ideas about Facebook.

What has changed for me is I’m beginning to see clearly how Facebook makes its users mean-spirited, unreasonable, and rigid. Facebook reduces public discourse to meme graphics, rage porn, and incestuous conversations among people who already agree, worsening the political and social polarization of the United States. I’m particularly troubled by the effect Facebook has had on the thought processes of Unitarian Universalists.

In particular, I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post meme graphics that play fast and loose with facts; these are ministers who are careful to fact-check their sermons, and it troubles me that they won’t fact-check re-posted meme graphics. I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post rage porn — graphics, videos, or text designed to induce rage, rather than to promote dialogue — these are ministers who would actively resist inciting rage in committee meetings, or in sermons, or in pastoral counseling sessions, and again I am troubled that they feel it is acceptable to induce rage through a social media platform. And I have watched as Unitarian Universalist ministers expel from their Facebook “conversations” anyone who disagrees with whatever narrow conception of “truth” that prevails in that particular conversation; by so doing, they erase nuance, leaving behind only binary, either-or thinking.

It’s not just Unitarian Universalist ministers who do this. Unitarian Universalist lay people are just as bad. I don’t like what Facebook is doing to Unitarian Universalism. To me, one of the strengths of Unitarian Universalism is that it encourages tolerance of other people’s thoughts and feelings, even if I happen to disagree with them. Another strength of Unitarian Universalism is the insistence of the importance of reason, a human faculty that is disengaged by rage porn. Facebook is designed to get you to spend as much time as possible staring at it — that’s how they sell advertising — and to do that, Facebook disengages your reason and erases your sense of tolerance.

There are other horrible aspects of Facebook: it induces feelings of isolation; it is addictive, and interferes with other activities; it is destroying public discourse, and thus directly attacks democracy. These results are not side effects of Facebook; these are direct results of the way Facebook is designed. Obviously, other social media platforms, with socially-manipulative designs similar to Facebook, produce similar results. I abandoned Twitter some time ago. I stay away from Snapchat. And now it’s time to pull back from Facebook.

I’ll still use Facebook to find Sacred Harp singing events. But I no longer want to link my blog directly to what I can only describe as a psychopathic corporate “person” that turns otherwise reasonable people into mean-spirited, unreasonable, intolerant, ill-mannered destroyers of democracy. If you want to read my blog, from now on you’ll have to go directly to my blog.

(Something I should make clear: Amy, the Unitarian Universalist minister I work with, is a responsible user of Facebook.)

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading

My father’s birthday was the first day of spring. He died a month after his ninety-second birthday; he would have been ninety-four this year. Grief is a funny thing: it comes up and whacks you on the side of your head when you’re not paying attention. I wasn’t paying attention to when my father’s birthday was — I always forget people’s birthday’s (Carol can tell you how bad I am). On March 20, I awakened from a troubling dream: we had been in my parents’ old house, the one my father sold after my mother died and which got knocked down so some developer could build a McMansion; but in the dream the house was still there.

When I awakened, all that was left of the dream was confused images: of my parents, and my mother had not yet begun to sink into dementia; of some room in that house which I could not identify; of a fire which burned up all my clothes; of water pouring into the house. Two powerful, unconnected memories were bound up in this dream: the house fire that my parents and my younger sister lived through in 1993, and me showing up in time to see the Fire Department throwing soaked and charred personal items out of a hole chopped in the roof; and the time when I went to Star Island for a conference and they lost my luggage for a week, luggage which contained every piece of summer clothing I owned and my income was so low that it would have been a struggle to replace those clothes. I have no idea why these two memories came together; but my dreams rarely have any real meaning, so I tried to forget the dream. Then the next morning, on March 21, I awakened in the grips of another strange dream, about which I remember even less: back in my parents old house; I discovered a baby robin, nearly fully fledged but still unable to fly, in the bathroom, and I let it out; my sisters doing something or other; a gray spring day. This dream put me in a strange mood all day. I went to visit a friend who’s recovering from surgery. I weeded the garden, though it didn’t need it. I spent several hours working, answering email and preparing for Sunday.

Then a friend sent an email reminder: he’s the choir director at Burton High School in San Francisco, and his choir was having their annual concert and fundraising dinner. Carol and I decided to go. Since it was San Francisco, there was just about every racial and ethnic group you could imagine. There were about fifty choristers, and they looked affectionately and trustingly at their director as he led them in a short concert that encompassed everything from rap to pop to folk to Mozart. The choir was quite good: enunciation, intonation, dynamics were all quite good. The sopranos maybe struggled a little at one point, but they really opened up on the Mozart. There weren’t many basses and tenors — it’s hard for boys to join choirs — but they held up their parts amazingly well. And when we got home, and went for a walk in the light rain, the lingering effects of those dreams had entirely gone.

Is Sunday school dead?

Many liberal religious educators these days are talking about “the death of Sunday school.”

Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright concluded their 1971 history of American Protestant Sunday school, The Big Little School: Sunday Child of American Protestantism with the observation that people have repeatedly predicted the end of Sunday school. And 1971, the year they published their book, was a low point in the history of Sunday school: the Baby Boom was over, people were rebelling against organized religion, and Sunday schools were failing left and right. But during the 1970s, a new way of doing Sunday school emerged, exemplified in Unitarian Universalist congregations by the Haunting House curriculum, which began development c. 1971, with its activity centers, its songs and stories and creative movement, its frank discussion of birth and human sexuality, and its organizing metaphor of being at home as a religious search.

Another low point for Sunday school was 1934. The immense economic dislocations of the great Depression kept many people from being able to participate regularly in local congregations; there were in addition social trends that led to a decline in interest in organized religion. The old ways of doing Sunday school — the opening exercises, the single sex classes, the reliance on verbal instruction — no longer worked very well. In the year of 1934, Angus MacLean wrote something that could have come from today’s debates about the death of Sunday school:

“One or two of our most widely known religious educators have recently suggested that perhaps the church school should be abolished, because of its ineffectiveness. The ineffective church school should be abolished, but it would be foolish to give up the attempt to educate for the good life, until what is known of child nature and human need is taken more seriously. In any case, the most effective way to abolish anything that is worthless is to change it so that it becomes useful. Most church schools are in need of such change. What first steps can religious educators take towards transforming the church school?” — Angus MacLean, The New Era in Religious Education: A Manual for Church School Teachers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1934), pp. 31-32.

MacLean’s answer to transformation was to use the playbook of progressive education (one of the books on progressive religious education that he cites is Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds by Sophia Lyon Fahs). The chapter titles of his book give an overview of what he thought most important in religious education: Studying Personal Relations, Measuring Society, Re-Living History, Finding Great Companions, Sharing in Imaginative Experiences, Exploring Nature, Growing in Faith. And eventually, many Universalist and Unitarian congregations followed his lead, and found great success in so doing.

But all this brings me back to the beginnings of Sunday school. Do you know what the original purpose of American Sunday school was? — it was developed to provide literacy training for children who had to work in factories. It took place on Sunday because that was the only day when child factory workers could go to school. Because Sunday school took place on Sunday, and because it was sponsored by churches, there was a good deal of religious instruction included; and a primary purpose of literacy for American Protestants was so that everyone could read the Bible. But within a generation, Sunday school had changed into something quite different from literacy training.

Is today’s Sunday school dead? I think there’s a good chance that Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is dying. Here are my reasons for saying this: 1. There are too many parish ministers who do not see themselves as having to bother with children. 2. Congregational costs are rising faster than congregations income (due, e.g., to health insurance increases), and you can easily cut costs in the short term, without big reductions in income, by reducing programs for children and teens, programs which tend to require a lot of staff time and a lot of building maintenance. 3. Sunday schools require a lot of volunteer hours, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations are not particularly adept at volunteer management; as a result, it’s increasingly difficult for many congregations to find adequate volunteers. 4. I’m not seeing much in the way of new, theologically rich, intellectually stimulating, and spiritually deep curriculum resources.

5. Finally, there seems to be an infatuation among Unitarian Universalist thought leaders for what they call “faith formation.” My understanding of faith formation is that it comes from liberal Christian world religious educators who find great inspiration in the Biblical book of Isaiah, where it says: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (64.8) So the dominant image for faith formation is of children as unformed clay, who need to be formed in their religious faith. Sunday school is indeed ill-suited to faith formation imagined in this way; if you want to mold children into a certain kind of vessel, there are better ways of doing it than the usual chaos of the Unitarian Universalist Sunday school.

So yes, Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is probably dying — if it’s not already dead.

But I don’t think Sunday school needs to die. Since the first Sunday schools devoted to literacy in the late eighteenth century, the phenomenon of Sunday school has repeatedly changed to meet the needs of different times.

And I don’t think Sunday school should die. I don’t like the image of children being molded like clay. I’m too much of an existentialist to be able to believe in a Christian God who molds passive humans the way he wants, nor do I believe in unbridled behaviorism as an educational philosophy. Instead, I prefer images that are more in line with what I do in Sunday school: the image of a pilgrimage, where adults and young people are traveling together towards some goal they have in common; the image of a community or collective, where we each are transformed while transforming others; the image of a support network, where we support each other as we make meaning in an absurd world.

I am too much of a progressive and an existentialist to wish for the death of Sunday school — I don’t wish for the death of collectives, or the death of of pilgrimages, or the death of shared existentialist meaning-making.

Go on to read “What’s killing Sunday school?”

Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Why we need hermeneutics

By hermeneutics, I understand the ability to listen to the other in the belief that he [sic] could be right.

— from a 1996 interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Welt als Speigelkabinett: Zum 350. Gerburtstag von Leibniz am 1. Juli 1996,” Nicholas Halmer, Das SalzburgerNachtradio (Osterreichischer Rundfunk); quoted in Jean Grodin, Hand-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), p. 250.

Gadamer lived through the Nazi nightmare in Germany, and was rector of the University of Liepzig in 1946 after the Soviets had taken charge of what later became East Germany. He had, therefore, directly experienced how ideologues can restrict public discourse. Yet he affirmed the importance of scholarly independence and, more importantly, openness in dialogue.

In the United States today, we are in a situation where liberals, conservatives, and the far right each hew to set of shared assumptions. If you question the assumptions of liberals, conservatives, or the far rightists, you cannot expect open and respectful dialogue; instead, you will be subjected to ad hominem attacks, and immense pressure will be brought to bear upon you to conform to one or the other sets of assumptions.

For example, if someone were to question the validity of the #MeToo movement: liberals would condemn that person as a Neanderthal sexist and demand acceptance of the essential goodness of the #MeToo movement; conservatives might affirm that person for standing up to “political correctness”; and the far rightists might latch on to that person for upholding “family values” and assume that person was also affirming the right of men to be sexual aggressors. None of these groups would listen to anything that was said beyond the initial questioning of the validity of the #MeToo movement. But I have heard liberal feminists question the #MeToo movement on the grounds that it is in effect a vigilante movement, and that while vigilante movements might be inevitable in situations like this where the rule of law does not adequately protect some individuals nevertheless we should always be extremely wary of vigilantes; furthermore, when we look at our past we find that one of the largest single groups of U.S. vigilantes was white lynch mobs carrying out summary justice against African Americans, and that’s probably not a tradition that we want to carry forward.

The current situation in the U.S. is one where everyone has been rubbed raw by the intolerance of the public sphere; everyone has become an ideologue, sure of their narrow beliefs, not tolerating any challenge to those beliefs. Everyone has their own truth. By contrast, Gadamer calls on us to develop the ability to listen openly to others, aware that I might not always be right and that I can get closer to truth by listening to others. These days in the hyperindividualistic U.S., everyone thinks they can have own truth. Gadamer challenges us to listen to think about the possibility that there may be truth that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own self; and that by entering into open dialogue with someone we disagree with, we might actually learn something.

Ch’ang-O, the Moon Goddess

Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:

Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:

Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.

The Rabbit in the Moon

The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:

To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.

How divine is Ch’ang-O?

Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:

1. Ordinary human
2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage)
3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess)
4. Human who became divine
5. God or goddess with a non-human form
6. God or goddess that acts like a human
7. God or goddess that is far above humans
8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it

In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.

Ch’ang-O in popular culture

The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.

Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:

03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]:
…The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.

03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]:
Go ahead.

[some material omitted]

03 23 17 28 CC:
Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]:
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription,” Tape 61/3 page 270 [Houston, Texas: Manned Spacecraft Center, July, 1969], pp. 178-179.)

— And don’t let the conspiracy theorists fool you: the Apollo astronauts saw no sign of Ch’ang-O, nor of any rabbits, nor of a cinnamon tree (actually a cassia tree in the myth).


Updated 3/7/18 with revised drawing and Apollo 11 transcript.