What we can learn from Afghanistan

Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with Religion News Service, who earned a doctorate in political science from UC Berkeley, has written a short and helpful essay analyzing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Early in his essay, Reese points out that the Trump administration made an agreement with the Taliban declaring that the United States would be leaving, and that the Biden administration is finally implementing that agreement. (This was a helpful reminder to me here that both Democrats and Republicans agreed that it was time to leave Afghanistan; it must have seemed a truly hopeless situation if those two deeply polarized parties actually agreed we had to get out.) Moving quickly past blame and recriminations, Reese’s essay gets to what I think is the heart of the issue:

“What we and our allies should learn from Afghanistan, and what we should have learned from Vietnam, is that the United States military cannot save countries from themselves. If their leadership is corrupt, if their government does not have popular support, if the country is divided by warring ethnic or religious factions, if there is civil war, the American military cannot solve their problems. In fact, history tells us that American troops often make matters worse by using tactics that cause disproportionate collateral damage and by making the local military dependent on us.”

This will be hard for many Americans to hear, but it’s obviously true: our military can’t solve every problem. Our leadership, and our electorate, needs to learn this lesson before we get involved in yet another mess like Vietnam or Afghanistan. Reese ends his essay by advocating for morality in diplomacy:

“Political realists argue that morality has no place in foreign policy, but their tactics have consistently failed. It is time to try a moral strategy that uses diplomacy rather than guns, and fights corruption rather than tries to bribe elites to do our bidding.”

I agree with Reese. Back in the 1970s, the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood was riven by conflict over Vietnam. Some members of the church thought the war in Vietnam was a moral stand against communism. Some church members thought the war in Vietnam propped up an immoral South Vietnamese regime and used immoral methods. When they called Dana Mclean Greeley as their new minister in 1971, they hoped for someone who would offer guidance out of this intra-congregational conflict. Greeley didn’t take sides on Vietnam. Instead he explained that in the nuclear era, war can no longer be considered a reasonable, sensible option. A few months after the United States pulled out of Vietnam, he preached a sermon which was even more pointed:

“War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today. Negotiation should be our commitment. We ourselves ought to be both wiser and more ethical than our fathers, but we are not.”

Back in 1975, Greeley called upon us to learn how to be ethical. Now in 2021, Reese calls upon us to be moral. I agree with them both. Rather than using the military to try to solve problems, our goal should be — as Greeley said so many years ago — to end all war.

Pluralist theories of religion

Many Unitarian Universalist espouse pluralist theories of religion. What is a pluralist theory of religion? According to S. Mark Heim, such theories “attempt to transform religious diversity from an apparent embarrassment for claims to religious truth into supporting testimony for one truth subsistent in all faiths: (“Pluralistic Theology as Apologetics,” ch. 4 in Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion,Orbis: 1995, p. 123).

This is the familiar argument that while all religions might be different in specifics, they all have the same goal. One analogy used is that all religions are paths up the same mountain — the paths start from different places, and take different routes up the mountain, but they all wind up at the same summit. That’s what a pluralist theory of religion is.

Back to Heim:

“There is a great deal of discussion today about ‘post modernity’ and about the possible changes which may follow the dethroning of North Atlantic views of history, knowledge, and justice from their supposed universal status through a recognition of valid alternatives from other cultures. Insofar as such a transformation were actually to take place, pluralistic theologies would seem to be among the most likely casualities, defensively structured as they are around the presumed universality of the codes of modern rationality. Ironically, pluralistic antidotes to Christian particularism may prove to be much more culture and time bound than the theologies they condemn. The very religious traditions pluralistic theologies wish to affirm may find on the whole they have as much to fear from the pluralists’ embrace as the exclusivists’ denial.”

Ouch. Take that, Unitarian Universalists. Heim is telling us that we can’t have our commitment to rationality, which is a Western invention, and at the same time claim a commitment to pluralism, since by claiming the universalist of rationalism we’re undermining the very pluralism we claim to support. Heim continues:

“The primary challenge to pluralist theologies is to make explicit their case for the global normativity of the Western critical principles that determine their univocal definitions of religion.”


“Transgracial” — that’s not a typographical error. Rebecca Tuvel, professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, explores the implications of a “transgracial,” or combined transgender and transracial identity, in a post to the American Philosophy Association (APA) “Black Issues in Philosophy” blog. In this post, Tuvel argues that transracial identity is analogous to transgender identity, where “analogous to” doesn’t mean “identical to.” When she first published these ideas in 2017, apparently some people were outraged. But I think Tuvel’s proposed analogy is less interesting than an essay she refers to written by Ronnie Gladden, who presents as a black man but who identifies as a white woman.

This essay, published in 2015 in Queer Cats Journal of LGBTQ Studies is titled “TRANSgressive Talk: An Introduction to the Meaning of Transgracial Identity.” The author, at that time a doctoral student in education at Northern Kentucky University, identifies their names as both Ronnie Gladden and Rachael Greenberg, so I’ll refer to them as Gladden/Greenberg. (For reference, it appears in 2021 that they identify simply as Ronnie Gladden.) In 2015, Gladden/Greenberg began their essay by saying:

“My confrontation with my internalized racial unrest, along with a growing awareness of my authentic gender identity, has been prompted, in part, by two socio-political shifts: 1) the escalating tensions belying the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and 2) the increased visibility of transgender individuals in a myriad of public spaces. Increasingly, I feel an urgency to be forthcoming about my true identity in an era where transparency is not just encouraged; it is demanded. In spite of presenting as outwardly black and male — by and large I view myself as white and female….”

Gladden/Greenberg writes about an intersectional identity that I hadn’t thought about before. They describe tensions in their life that I wouldn’t have thought about. At the same time, claiming a transracial identity in the U.S. today may not seem possible, given the way we understand race in our society. But a 2014 article in Georgetown Law Journal by Camille Gear Rich, Gould School of Law at USC, titled “Elective Race: Recognizing Race Discrimination in the Era of Racial Self-Identification”, referred to in Tuvel’s blog post, may help to think further about the question of transracial identities. In this article, Rich writes:

“[W]e are in a key moment of discursive and ideological transition, an era in which the model of elective race is ascending, poised to become one of the dominant frameworks for understanding race in the United States. Because we are in a period of transition, many Americans still are wedded to fairly traditional attitudes about race. For these Americans, race is still an objective, easily ascertainable fact determined by the process of involuntary racial ascription — how one’s physical traits are racially categorized by third parties. The elective-race framework will challenge these Americans to recognize other ways in which people experience race, including acts of voluntary affiliation as well as selective and conditional affiliations.”

Rich acknowledges that this new elective model of race poses distinct challenges: “The elective-race framework rejects claims about the obdurate, all-encompassing nature of white privilege and the need for racial passing” (p. 1506). Rich isn’t denying that white privilege is real, but at the same time different individuals may navigate white privilege in different ways. Rich also points out that “neither lay understandings nor institutional understandings of elective race are fully developed”; I’m finding Rich’s article to be an excellent resource as I develop my own understanding of elective race.

Given that a significant number of people — let’s say, a growing number of people — accept the evolving concept of elective race, it should be no surprise to find people who identify as living at the intersection of transracial and transgender identities. I imagine that will be a difficult intersection at which to live. I wonder how Unitarian Universalism (and other religions, for that matter) will respond to the persons living at that intersection.

The basis for inter-religious dialogue

Raimundo Panikkar was a scholar who studied inter-religious dialogue. He held doctorate degrees in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. While serving as professor of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Panikkar wrote a short essay about the necessary conditions for inter-religious dialogue:

“The modern kosmology (sic) assuming time is linear, history is paramount, individuality is the essence of Man (sic), democracy is an absolute, technocracy is neutral, social darwinism, and the like, cannot offer a fair platform for the Dialogue [between religions]. The basis for the Dialogue cannot be the modern Western myth.” — “The Ongoing Dialogue,” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, vol. 2, 1989.

We Unitarian Universalists mostly assume that we have somehow moved beyond myths; yet most of us buy into the modern Western myth. Our “Seven Principles” specifically affirm individuality and democracy as among our highest values. Many of say “We believe in science,” and part of that belief is that science (and there seems to be little difference between our “science” andwhat Panikkar calls “technocracy”) represent a culturally neutral viewpoint. And of course we affirm that time is linear. All these things seem to us to be axiomatically true; how could they be doubted?

Yet I think Panikkar is correct. We think of human individuality, democracy, belief in science, and the linearity of time as axiomatic — but we also know from our own tradition of logic that axioms cannot be proved from within a logically consistent system. These axioms, like all axioms, are in some sense matters of belief. They are part of our foundational myth.

We Unitarian Universalists think we’re supremely rational and we don’t have myths. This attitude can cause problems when we try to engage in inter-religious dialogue. I don’t mind if we think we’re right and other religions are wrong — that’s what human beings do — but I do mind when we we’re not even aware that that’s what we’re doing.

What I see in an old photo

Cleaning out the files on my laptop, I came across an old low-resolution photo from 1999, showing a dozen people posing for the camera. It was a photo of the participants in the first “Essex Conversations” colloquium. Using GIMP, I increased the size of the photo to see if I could recognize those people…

I think I can identify most of them. From left to right are Lena Breen, then head of the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); Ginger Luke, minister of religious education; Jeanellen Ryan, leadership development director in the UUA’s religious education department; Frances Manly, minister of religious education; Tom Yondorf, parish minister; Susan Davison Archer, minister of religious education; Susan Suchocki Brown, parish minister; and Susan Harlow, professor of religious education at Meadville/Lombard.

In the front row at left is John Marsh, parish minister; a woman whom I’m sure I know but whose name I can’t remember; me, then a lay director of religious education; and Tom Owen-Towle, parish minister.

Several things struck me when I looked at this photo. Everyone is white. At 38 years old, I was the youngest person in the photo. And today, I’m the only one still active and working in a Unitarian Universalist congregation or organization (see the notes at the end of this post).

After looking at the photo, I dug out the essay I presented at that colloquium in 1999. It holds up surprisingly well in a number of areas, especially in its critique of the limitations of developmentalism, and in its insistence on talking about real live learners — I thought then, and think now, that too much theorizing about religious education is done without having real live children and teens in mind.

But it’s also fun to re-read that old essay to find all the things I no longer agree with. First, and perhaps most importantly, my essay didn’t adequately address how it is that learning and individual development depend on social interaction (I read Vygotsky a couple of years after I wrote it). Second, the world has changed a great deal since 1999, and Unitarian Universalist religious education faces new challenges, especially the ongoing decline of religious education enrollment in UU congregations, and the rise of religious disaffiliation, two linked trends that have been accelerated by the COVID pandemic. Third, over the past decade I’ve become increasingly aware of just how religiously illiterate most North Americans are, and I’ve seen research showing how religious literacy improves cross-cultural understanding, and how improved cross-cultural understanding can reduce violence and conflict in our communities; I wish now I’d made religious literacy integral to the essay. Finally, I’m less critical of schooling than I used to be, since I now believe some of the favored alternatives to schooling promoted in UU circle are artifacts of upper middle class white culture; yet because most children in North America attend school, schooling is can be more easily accepted across racial, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.

A revised version of my 1999 essay was published in the book Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education (Skinner House: Boston, 2001); a book which, somewhat to my astonishment, is still in print. I think it’s past time for another generation of UU religious educators to write new essays about the future of religious education. Unfortunately, a colloquium like the one I attended costs a lot of money, and I suspect the declining financial health of the entire denomination means there won’t be another one in the foreseeable future. And religious education is no longer the priority it once was for Unitarian Universalists, partly because religious education enrollment has been declining since 2005 — but also because the current generation of children is majority non-white, and any attempt to encourage a bunch of non-white youngsters to come into our 95% white denomination is going to run smack up against the systemic racism that pervades the UUA.

Nevertheless, I wish we could put together a group of thoughtful people who are dedicated to religious education, who could spend a long weekend together to talk about what’s needed in religious education for the current generation of children. I wish we could have a new book of essays that address today’s religious education challenges — essays that address how we might keep Unitarian Universalist religious education from completely dying out.

Notes about the people in the photo:

John Marsh died in June. According to the UUA directory of professional religious leaders, Lena Breen, Ginger Luke, Jeanellen Ryan, Frances Manly, Susan Davison Archer, Susan Suchocki Brown, and Tom Owen-Towle are all either retired or no longer active. Susan Harlow, who was a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister, is retired from People’s Church in Chicago. Tom Yondorf left the ministry in 2000 to become a school teacher.

The problem with Diffen

Someone in our congregation pointed me to diffen.com, which says it will et you “Compare anything.” Want to compare the first generation Apple TV remote with the second generation version? Diffen has got you covered. My informant said that Diffen also has a religion category, so of course I had to check it out.

Diffen’s comparisons of religion would have gone well back in the 1960s, when we were beginning to understand that there was a great big world out there but we still unquestioningly accepted a world view centered on Europe and the United States. (A less polite way of saying this is that Diffen is about fifty years behind the current state of religious studies scholarship.) Yet Diffen’s understanding of religion is probably similar to that of the majority of Americans and Europeans. In other words, Diffen probably represents an accurate picture of pop culture notions of religion.

Let’s take one of their comparisons between two religions and pick it apart. Let’s click on Cao Dai vs. Confucianism.

“Place of origin” seems pretty straightforward, right? Clearly, Cao Dai originated in Vietnam, and Confucianism originated in China. Well, sort of. It might be more accurate to say that Cao Dai began in French Indochina; yes, that’s Vietnam, but Cao Dai emerged partly in response to colonial oppression. As for Confucianism arising in China, there was no nation known as “China” when Confucianism began, and indeed the teachings of Kongzi (“Master Kong,” i.e. Confucius) were often a direct response to the political situation of the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou empire. Imperial China arose several hundred years after Kongzi lived, during the Qin dynasty.

Emphasizing the historical nature of religion is not mere nitpicking. One of the key goals of religious literacy, according to the American Academy of Religion, is helping people understand that religions change over time. With its simplistic category of “Place of origin,” Diffen removes historical nuance and may even lull you into thinking that religion is some timeless thing outside of history.

Later we come to “Use of statues and pictures.” Maybe Diffen thinks its intended audience isn’t smart enough to understand a term like “material culture.” But to me this feels like another instance of Western bias. We Westerners are still concerned with the split between Protestants and Catholics. We still think it’s important to know if a religion uses a lot of statues and pictures, because we want to know if that religion is more like Catholicism or Protestantism. But a more fruitful, and more nuanced, line of inquiry is to ask about the material culture of a religion. What physical objects are important to the religion? How are physical objects used by the religion?

You see attempts at nuance as you go down the list of comparisons between Cao Dai and Confucianism. There’s an item asking for a comparison of “Concept of Deity,” and under Confucianism it says, “Most [adherents] believe in One God, but this is not necessary since Confucianism is not a religion but a belief system about social ordering.” Whoever wrote this at least understands that Confucianism doesn’t fit well into the Western category of religion; whoever wrote this also understands that there’s at least some internal diversity within Confucianism. But once again Confucianism is reduced to some kind of simplistic East Asian Christianity. The underlying problem here is Diffen assuming that the way you must compare religions is to compare the “Concept of Deity” — given their Western bias, they obviously assume that all religions must have a concept of a deity. And indeed, a little further down the list, Diffen asks for a comparison of “Concept of God.” Because if it’s a religion, it must have a God (capitalized and singular).

I’m trying to be kind to Diffen. But — wow, I thought Wikipedia’s articles on religion have problems, but Diffen is unbelievably bad.

I don’t think the problem lies in Diffen, though. I think the problem lies in the religious illiteracy of Western culture. Most college graduates haven’t reached the basic, low-level standards for religious literacy established by the American Academy of Religion (more about those standards here). Many Americans are actually proud of being religiously illiterate: many American Christians think all they have to know is their Bible, and many American atheists and nones think religion should be ignored. Americans have a sense of cultural superiority and insularity that allow them to ignore the rest of the world. If you’re a white American, you can say: Why should I bother with Black culture, I’m not Black. If you’re a Christian, you can say: Why should I bother about Jewish culture, I’m not Jewish. If you’re an atheist or a none, you can say: Why should I bother about religious culture, I’m not religious.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, Diffen plays right into this sense of cultural superiority and insularity. Diffen might be great for comparing two different Apple TV remotes, but it’s not up to the task of comparing religious traditions.

CSI Seagull

What happened here?

It’s like one of those crime scenes you see in pop culture. Except that instead of human remains, it’s the remains of a bird. I found this on the dike next to Adobe Creek in Palo Alto, right across from the island in the marsh where there’s a California Gull nesting colony. The rib cage in the upper right corner of the photo is big enough to be from a gull — it’s about eight inches long — and check out that huge breast bone for the flight muscles to attach to. The other bones are scattered in the center of the photo, though there appear to be some bones missing. There are lots of feathers — grey feathers characteristic of juvenile gulls.

Before you start mourning the death of a young gull, remember that the mortality rate of young gulls is high. Something on the order of 75% of nestlings die before they develop flight feathers (Patricia Baird, Comparative Ecology of California and Ring-billed Gulls [Larus californicus and L. delawarensis], Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Montana, 1976). After the birds learn to fly, but before they move on to winter quarters, mortality rates are on the order of 5%, although in bad years post-fledging mortality rates could be as high as 70% (Kristie N. Nelson, Nora Livingston, and Teague Scott, “Population size and reproductive success of California Gulls at Mono Lake, California,” Point Blue, 2015). In short, perhaps 75-90% of young California Gulls die before they’re six months old. Predators

So it would not be surprising if a juvenile California Gull were killed here. Any number of predators might have killed it — a raptor, a dog off leash, a raccoon, a coyote. But any clues to what the predator was have doubtless been obliterated by the carrion eaters that came along after the predator was finished — Turkey Vultures, American Crows, rats, and other critters must have further scattered the bones and feathers.

About all we can say for certain is that a juvenile gull died here. It died some time after it fledged — California Gull nestlings were fledging beginning about a month and a half ago — but long enough ago that the bones are been picked clean and are now dry and without odor.

Generational divide

Paul Gilroy is a professor at University College London, and director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Race and Racism there. He’s four years older than I am, and though in many ways we’re quite different it turns out we share a perception of today’s anti-racism work:

“Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls ‘McKinsey multiculturalism’: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few ‘black and brown bodies’ in the corporate boardrooms. (‘I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%’ he [says].) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.” — “The Last Humanist,” Yohann Koshy, The Guardian, August 5, 2021.

One reason I continue to call myself an “unrepentant Marxist” is that capitalism has proved unable to change racist systems in the U.S. (Indeed, from a historical perspective it’s arguable that capitalism initially thrived due to the way it exploited nonwhite labor, e.g., chattel slavery in the U.S.) I recognize that my view represents a tiny minority in the United States, or indeed in Unitarian Universalist circles, and that I may very well be wrong. However, if capitalism was able to solve the problem of racism in the U.S., I would think it would have done so many years ago. And it’s hard to see how a system built on inequality, as capitalism has always been, could somehow magically create racial equality. While Marxism may be the wrong answer, it’s no less wrong than capitalism.

Where does that leave us? As Paul Gilroy points out, we’re left with an “individualistic anti-racist culture” which does not seriously address unjust societies.