Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Continue reading “Boomer challenges”

Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public, “Truth isn’t truth.”

Nests

It was the first day of Sunday school, and our middle school ecojustice class took a tour of the various projects the class works on — small-plot gardens, rain barrels, composters, and so on. It is well past the end of nesting season for birds, so one of the things we were able to do is check on the nesting boxes the class built a couple of years ago.

Both the nesting boxes in the front yard of the church campus had been occupied. One of the nesting boxes did not have a great deal of nesting material in it, and if there was an active nest, the eggs wound up sitting on wooden floor of the box:

The other nesting, box, however, had clearly been occupied — probably for more than one year, as there appeared to be at least two layers of nesting material. Evidence of occupation included fecal matter, and one of my co-teachers, Francesca, found an infertile egg, with some black mold on it, buried in the nesting material:

I had seen Western Bluebirds active around the nesting boxes during nesting season, though I never saw any nestlings. The appearance of the nests and egg corresponds well with the description given of Western Bluebird nests and eggs in Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (Baicich and Harrison, 2nd ed., Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): “Nest: A slight cup in a cavity. Of dry grasses and a few feathers. … Eggs:… Subelliptical to short subelliptical….Blue and unmarked. 21 x 16 mm.” I would characterize the blue as light blue, or sky blue.

The nesting boxes are showing signs of wear; the front of one split in two while we were opening it for inspection. So one project for the class this winter will be to make new nesting boxes.

Fanzines

From 1995 to 1998, I published a science fiction fanzine. This was before people published their fanzines on the Web, so it was photocopied, stapled, and mailed out. What eventually killed it off was the cost of printing and mailing two or three dozen copies; I didn’t have much money in those days.

It’s hard to explain the whole subculture which surrounded science fiction fanzines in the days before the Web. It’s important to know that there were several different types of fanzines: genzines, with multiple authors writing on topics of general interest to all science fiction fans; personalzines, written by a single person who wrote about whatever interested them; newszines, with news of science fiction fandom. Most fanzines were personalzines; genzines and newszines required a higher level of skill. Fanzines were distributed in several different ways: apazines were distributed through an APA, or Amateur Press Association, where fanzines of APA members were collated and distributed to all the members; a clubzine was distributed to the members of a science fiction club; but most fanzines were made available for the “The Usual,” which meant there were three ways to get a copy: send a letter of comment (LoC), send some modest sum plus a self-addressed stamped envelope; or send your own fanzine in trade. I started a fanzine primarily because I needed something to trade for other fanzines. Other science fiction fans, called “letterhacks,” fed their fanzine habit by writing innumerable letters of comment. And many fanzines carried reviews of fanzines they had received, along with the editor’s address. Fanzine subculture was really a social network organized around the written word; in a very real sense it can be seen as a precursor to today’s online social networks, because a significant proportion of the users of the earliest social networks — BBSs, Usenet, etc. — were science fiction fans, and those early users shaped later social networks. It is not a coincidence that one of the very first web logs, or blogs, was written and hand-coded by Poul Anderson, a science fiction author.

The other part of science fiction fandom’s social network was, and still is, conventions. A science fiction convention was where you met face-to-face the people that you had come to know through reading fanzines and writing letters of comment. Or maybe you didn’t meet those other people: many science fiction fans were (and are) strongly introverted, and a feature of some of the science fiction conventions I attended were sessions in which a whole bunch of people sat in a room together and read books; no one talked. To those of you who are extroverted, this will sound crazy, but for those of us who are strong introverts, this sounds like the perfect way to be social, and even though I never attended one of those sessions it was comforting to know they were an option. Science fiction conventions also attracted a fair percentage of people whom we would now call neuroatypical; it was normal to be neuroatypical at a science fiction fan, just as it was normal to be socially awkward, or to be socially adept, or to be neurotypical. Science fiction fans, in my experience, could be a very tolerant group of people; though at the same time, science fiction fandom has always been subject to intense feuds and violent arguments (to read about a recent science fiction kerfluffle, do a Web search for “rabid puppies hugo”). These conflicts, of course, made wonderful material for several months’ worth of fanzines and letters of comment, and a regular feature of most fanzines was “convention reports,” where someone would tell in excruciating detail all about their experience at some science fiction convention; and the next issue there would be letters commenting on the convention report, and later more letters commenting on the comments, and so it could go on for months. And of course the WordCon — the annual world science fiction convention — was the biggest convention of all, the one which generated more fanzine column inches than any other.

This year’s WorldCon is in San Jose, and it going on right now. I thought about going. I’ve only been to one WorldCon, in 1980, and it would be fun to go one more time. Then I thought of the crowds of science fiction fans mobbing the San Jose Convention Center. I don’t like crowds, even crowds of tolerant people who do things like sit in a room together reading books and not talking. And I remembered years ago, when I was still publishing my science fiction fanzine, I wrote a con report which said, in essence, “I didn’t go.” So this is my con report telling you why I didn’t go to the WorldCon that took place a short drive from where I live.

Confucian autumnal rites

Anyone who has read Confucius knows that Confucius said you had to do the rites right. But what do Confucian rites look like?

You can find out what one of today’s Confucian rites looks like by visiting Autumnal Sacrifice to Confucius Web site. This fabulous site includes video footage of the Autumnal Sacrifice from a Confucian temple in Taiwan, along with succinct text to provide background.

I’m part way through this Web site, and it’s fascinating. For example, when you sacrifice to the ancestors, it turns out they don’t like strongly-flavored food, so you give them things like celery that have a mild flavor.

Above: offering of celery at the Autumnal sacrifices

(Thanks to Warp, Weft, and Way for pointing me to this Web site!)

Name games and icebreakers

With Greg’s help, I expanded the page on icebreakers and name games on my curriculum site: there are now seven time-tested name games and nine icebreaker games. These are all suitable for Sunday school groups, youth groups, and adult groups in UU and other liberal or progressive congregations.

Above: illustration for the Zombie Name Game

Boomers and privilege

I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse; what can be a useful tool for analysis among like-minded persons does not always translate well to a wider context. For example, when white people of the professional and upper middle classes gain awareness of how they have personally benefited from structural racism, they may find it helpful when speaking with others who are challenging structural racism to use the phrase “white privilege”; in that context, “white privilege” becomes a useful shorthand way of referring to the specific benefits professional and upper middle class white people get from structural racism. However, when professional and upper middle class white people use the term “white privilege” in public discourse, working class whites can rightfully challenge them on at least two counts: first, the experience of white working class people in accessing the fruits of structural racism is different from that of white people of the professional and upper middle classes; second, white working class people have themselves been the targets of discrimination by white professional and upper middle class people (for one example, see Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of why upper middles class whites embraced eugenics, in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America).

A big part of the problem here, I think, is that the nuances of intersectional analysis get lost in public discourse — “white privilege” is a short-hand phrase that sums up a good deal of thoughtful analysis, and short-hand phrases often do not translate well to the public arena. Obviously, the same applies to the phrase “male privilege,” another phrase that is sometimes used in public discourse. Nevertheless, just because I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse, I do find that talking about privilege is helpful when I’m trying to analyze structural inequalities; with the caveat that when you’re dealing with individual people, one individual can experience more than one kind of structural inequality. So it’s important not to reify specific kinds of privilege, e.g., “white privilege” is an abstraction, not an actual thing.

With all that in mind, I’d like to explore the notion that here in the U.S. Baby Boomers have some kind of privilege. “Boomer privilege,” if it exists, arose for a couple of demographic reasons. First, there are large numbers of Boomers, and so it is easy for them to find many others who share a set of life-shaping experiences; because of this, it’s easy for Boomers to assume that their experiences are normative, and then to extend what they perceive as normative to other generations who may have a quite different set of experiences. This perception of what is normative is similar to one of the generating causes of white privilege, dating from when whites comprised the vast majority of the U.S. population: “whiteness” came to be seen by many white people as normative. Continue reading “Boomers and privilege”

Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.

I’m in the process of updating our congregation’s “Neighboring Faith Communities” course for middle schoolers (available online here).

The introductory video for this curriculum might be of interest to readers of this blog, so here it is:

I’ll put the script for the video below the fold, as some group leaders might want access to it. Continue reading “Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.”

What’s happening at Willow Creek?

The sixth-largest church in the U.S., Willow Creek Community Church, with an average weekly attendance of over 25,000 people, continues to be rocked by the sexual misconduct scandal involving its founding pastor, Bill Hybels.

Hybels was due to retire in October of this year. However, faced with a growing number of allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct with multiple women over a period of more than a decade, Hybels abruptly departed from Willow Creek in April.

And today, the evangelical publication Christianity Today reports that Steve Carter, one of Hybels’s “heirs,” has resigned from Willow Creek. Carter announced his resignation on his blog, where he says in part:

“Since the first women came forward with their stories, I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and it’s [sic] ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.”

Dramatically, this post is time-stamped mid-day Sunday, and Carter says that he did not appear at Willow Creek today, though he was scheduled to do so: “I wish I could appear before you to say goodbye. I wish I could tell each of you, personally and individually, how much I treasure the time I have been able to serve you. But it would be misleading of me to stand on that stage as if presenting a unified front. I defer to the wisdom of the leadership of this church, so I must stand aside.”

So why did Carter step down now? Back in July, the governing body of Willow Creek — the “elders” — issued public apologies for the way they handled the misconduct allegations against Hybels, as reported in the Chicago Tribune.

Perhaps Carter wanted to elders to go further than they were willing to go. Or perhaps — well, we could speculate for a long time, and not come to any firm conclusions. But I’ve had my own experience serving a (much smaller) church in the midst of allegations of misconduct against a previous minister, and I’ve talked with a number of other ministers who have been in that same situation. And if you’re a clergyperson in a congregation where there are credible allegations that your predecessor engaged in sexual misconduct, you’re going to be in the hot seat. You’re going to be caught between people who want to forget about the whole thing, and people who demand a full investigation and retribution. You’re going to worry about the many quiet people who are coming to church with big problems of their own and don’t want to have to get embroiled in a messy conflict that they feel dosen’t concern them.

I have found such congregations to be very interesting places in which to do ministry because you’re all grappling with big moral and ethical questions, and you’re all facing up to primal emotions like shame, guilt, and fear. These are places where we can all become aware of the limits of human organizations, and figure out how to hold each other accountable for the inevitable moral lapses we all make; figure out how to make promises to one another, and what to do when, inevitably, someone breaks those promises.

At the same time, such congregations can be exhausting places for clergypeople to work. And sometimes clergypeople find that the congregation wants them to make moral concessions they aren’t willing to make. Who knows the actual reasons why Carter resigned — but it can’t be easy for him, or for people at Willow Creek who liked him.

This is a news story that’s worth following for anyone who cares about congregational life — it’s not often that we get this much of an inside look into a clergy sexual misconduct story. And it’s maybe a chance to learn, in case we find ourselves in this kind of situation some time in the future.

Update: Warren Throckmorton reports on August 8 that lead pastor Heather Larson is resigning from Willow Creek; and by the end of the year all the elders will also step down. Throckmorton says: “The news of the elders and Ms. Larson stepping down was greeted with loud applause from the members of Willow Creek gathered in the meeting.”

More on this story:

Statements from two accusers here. (And thank God for the #MeToo movement; I have to think that has empowered at least some of the accusers to come forward.)

How John Ortberg, another male megachurch pastor, set a good example by calling out Hybels and Willow Creek Church — story here.

The Christian Feminism Today blog has some interesting comments here.

Finally, an interesting analysis by Mike Insac, “Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers” — Insac writes from a Christian “Biblical egalitarian” point of view, but theology aside, what he says applies to a wide range of congregations.

Noted without comment

In her poem “graduate school first semester: so here I am writing about Indians again,” Cheryl Savageau, a poet of Abenaki descent, tells about an ongoing conversation she once had with a white professor. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

…but when I mentioned
the European world view,
she said there isn’t any such thing
which was quite a relief to me,
I hate to think there were a
whole lot of people thinking in
hierarchies and as if the
earth is a dead object and
animals and plants and some people
not having spirit…