“All academic thinking, whether right, left, or middle, is conservative in the extreme…. Nobody wants to hear what he [sic] hasn’t heard before.” — Hannah Arendt, in a letter to the philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, quoted in Jordi Graupera, “A Philosophy Professor’s Final Class,” New Yorker magazine, January 3, 2023.
What Hannah Arendt says applies in large part to religion as well. Religion tends to conservatism for the same reason academia tends to conservatism: people would prefer not to hear something they haven’t heard before.
However, organized religion is somewhat less conservative than individualized religion. In other words, someone who is “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is likely to be more conservative than someone who is part of a religious community.
This is analogous to the tendency of an autodidact to be more conservative than an academic working in academia. When an autodidact has to listen to a challenge to their hard-won, often tenuous knowledge, it can feel like an assault on their very self-hood. When a tenured faculty member has to listen to a challenge to their hard-won knowledge, at least they’re getting paid for it.
So here’s the question. In a time when organized religion is in decline here in the US, should those of us in organized religion give in to the tendency to extreme conservatism? Or should we try to be a little more open?
Richard J. Bernstein had a strong opinion about this question. Jordi Graupera paraphrases Bernstein’s response: “We must all fight off this tendency to conformity, [Bernstein] said. Even intelligent people learn to go along with what is conventional, he explained, and they reject good philosophy.”
One Mastodonian pointed out that Musk’s CO² emissions from jet flight alone in 2022 are about 122 times the total carbon footprint of the average US resident; or about 370 times the total carbon footprint of the average person in the world. Yet another Mastodonian calculated that Musk’s jet produces more carbon emissions in a single day than the average US car produces in a year. And a particularly cynical Mastodonian noted: “I’m sure we can offset most of that CO² if we all collectively drink with cardboard straws.”
I will note in conclusion that Musk banned Elon’s Jet from Twitter, claiming that releasing this information could endanger his children, who sometimes fly on the jet. I would suggest that Musk is doing far more to endanger his children by flying his damn jet, and accelerating climate change.
Pam, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist congregation just down the street in Scituate, told me about “Healthy Congregations,” a nonprofit that carries on the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. Friedman applied Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to congregational life, which is outlined in his book Generation to Generation. Beginning in the 1990s, Steinke developed workshops to train workshop facilitators in systems theory.
I read Friedman’s book years ago. Family systems theory really does provide good insight into how congregations work. (I feel it also provides insight into how any face-to-face membership organization works.) Somehow I’m going to have to figure out how to fit one of their online workshops into my schedule….
In an essay titled “Jain Ecology,” Satish Kumar records a “water sutra” taught to him by his mother:
Waste no water Don’t ever spill it Water is precious Water is sacred The way you use water is the measure of you Water is witness Water is the judge Your wisdom rests on your careful use of water. (Satish Kumar, “Jain Ecology,” Jainism and Ecology, ed. Christopher Key Chapple [Harvard Univ., 2002], p. 187)
This sutra expresses an ethic that is removed from Western thinking. Most Westerners would agree that humans are sacred, in some sense of the word”sacred.” Some Westerners would argue that animals are sacred. Maybe a few Westerners would contend that plants and fungi are sacred. But as for inanimate objects — or bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota aside from plants, animals, and fungi — I think only a very tiny minority of Westerners would consider these to be sacred.
If water, earth, and air are sacred, it would much easier to advocate for treating them with respect. But since they are not sacred in the West, then if you want to protect them from pollution or wastefulness, you wind up arguing from a selfish point of view — we should protect water, earth, and air because to do so is to protect our own health.
This represents a big difference in the ethics of ecology.
Three of us were in the office in the early afternoon. Each of us was feeling a little bit grumpy. Each of us was glad to be done with 2022, and hoping that 2023 will be a little bit better.
I told them my theory. Here we are, three years into a pandemic. Historically, pandemics have ended after a year and a half. But this pandemic is still going strong. I told them about this article I read that blamed the Ukraine war on the pandemic — Putin took advantage of societal chaos to launch his war.
I think I might even blame the pandemic for what happened in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The Republicans could not elect a Speaker of the House. Sure, we can blame it on right-wing extremists and ideologues. But I suspect part of the reason that people are voting right wing extremists and ideologues into office is that people are afraid and angry and doing stupid things like voting for people who can’t and won’t govern effectively.
It’s time to start playing ukulele again. I’ll never be a good ukulele player, but who cares. Pick up a ukulele, and you can’t help smiling. To quote George Harrison: “[The uke] is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”
Even if I can’t play it very well, a uke makes me feel better. Especially if it’s Carol’s uke, the one with blue flowers painted on it.
Three years ago at this time, I was planning to attend General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists. I was finally getting recovering from a major health issue, and ready to travel again. Then, of course, the pandemic hit.
Well, we’re slowly learning to live with the ongoing pandemic. I live close enough to Pittsburgh, the location for this year’s General Assembly, that I could drive there. The question is — by the time General Assembly rolls around, am I going to be psychologically ready to attend a gathering with more than a thousand people?
I’m not ready to make a decision. Maybe I’ll watch online (I’ve come to quite like online attendance at conferences). Maybe I’ll attend in person (if I drove to Pittsburgh I could stop and see cousins Steve and Cheryl, and friends Paul and Gina on the way). Maybe I’ll set up a local conference-watch party, to combine a smaller in-person gathering with General Assembly programming. I hate to admit this, but I’ve been feeling fairly disconnected from denominational politics so I might just ignore General Assembly.
I wonder what other people are thinking about this year’s General Assembly….