Skimmer

While my laundry was in the machines at the laundromat, I took a walk along the bay. High tide pushed the shorebirds in close to the bike path, so it was easy to sort out dowitchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Black-bellied Plovers. There were also half a dozen Black Skimmers spaced out along the water, each one making a striking contrast to the mixed flock of shorebirds.

Decline, or….

In a recent story posted on UU World, the house organ of the Unitarian Unviersalist Association (UUA), Chris Walton reports that “UUA membership rises for first time since 2008.” The increase is tiny, though — up only 980 members to 148,242; less than a tenth of a percent. Because this could be within the margin of error, we’ll have to wait and see if decline continues again next year; at this point it’s safest to say that at best overall membership remained flat this year.

In bad news, the ongoing decline in religious education enrollment continued: numbers of children and youth are down 2,557 to 40,269; this decline is less than one percent, but it continues a ten-year trend of decline, so that we’re down about 27% since 2009. Searching for reasons for this decline, Chris points out several possible factors: lower birth rates beginning in the mid-1990s (Chris fails to mention the additional drop in birth rates during the Great Recession); people no longer bringing their children to organized religion; and, adds Chris, “our basic model may no longer work,” citing the popular “Death of Sunday School” paper by Kimberley Sweeney.

I would add that children today are a white-minority age group while UU congregations remain dominated by white people. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that there is a certain amount of racism that keeps young families with non-white members out of many UU congregations.

But in my opinion, financial factors are having the biggest impact on dropping religious education enrollment. First of all, the cost of nonprofit employees keeps going up (due to rising insurance costs and other factors), so congregations are less and less able to afford qualified religious education professionals. Second of all, the UUA budget has been contracting, and there simply isn’t money to develop the kind of religious education resources that we need for today’s kids — resources like videos, games, apps, etc. Third, today’s parents are used to having a wide range of choices for their children, and most congregations can only afford to offer one class per age group (or, when money is really tight, one intergenerational worship service for everybody).

In my opinion, two big forces that are pushing us into decline: demographics and finances. If you look back in history, the Great Depression offered similar challenges: people weren’t going to church as much, and there was no money; and during the Great Depression, large numbers of Unitarian and Universalist congregations closed their doors forever. I fully expect to see a growing number of Unitarian Universalist congregations close their doors forever as demographics and finances do their work.

Nevertheless, I think individual congregations can take positive action so that they don’t have to close their doors. There are obvious steps to take, none of which is rocket science, but none of which is easy. First, engage in hard-headed and realistic financial planning, and plan now what staffers and what programs you will cut first, and plan how to deal with the aftermath of those cuts — if you’re lucky you won’t have to make those cuts, but if you do have to make cuts you’ll have a rational management plan in place. Second, stifle white dominance so non-white people can find space in your congregation — and if you’re not sure how to take the first step, go read Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. Third, figure out how to customize your key programs and ministries so you can serve people who want more than one choice on Sunday morning — not just worship services and Sunday school, but Forum and adult classes and supervised play and maybe a Navigators program and social hour with decent coffee and more.

Change is coming. We better learn how to manage it.

Senet, an ancient Egyptian game

Quite a few years ago, when I was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA), I saw the ancient Egyptian board game Senet made out of faience (a type of pottery) and wood. Scholars and board-game-lovers have invented modern rules for Senet, based both on ancient Egyptian depictions of people playing Senet and on the several surviving copies of the game. I’ve read through several modern reconstructions of the game, but all the modern rules seem overly complicated. I wanted a set of rules that would be easy for school aged children to learn.

This week I came up with a simple set of rules, rules which remain fairly consistent with what is actually known about the game but are easily learned by school-aged children. The rules are below the fold.

The interesting thing about Senet is that it can be understood to represent the journey of the ba (roughly equivalent to soul) after death through the underworld to some kind of eternal life — it’s not just a game, it’s religion! Some day, I’ll write a lesson plan that ties Senet to ancient Egyptian religion. In the mean time, it’s still a fun game.

Above: The game board I made, printed out and trimmed to size. I used whatever I had around the house for playing pieces — 5 light-colored cubes, and 5 coins (mostly old Boston subway tokens). I made throwing sticks out of some pieces of wood I happened to have (popsicle sticks would work better), and I used a rubber stamp to put an Egyptian scarab beetle on one side so each stick has one clear side and one marked side.

Rules for playing Senet follow…. Continue reading “Senet, an ancient Egyptian game”

Tree of Life

Early Sunday morning, I got the announcement from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice: “Local synagogues will be gathering TODAY, Sunday 10/28 at 7PM at Congregation Beth Am for mourning, prayers and mutual support after the tragedy at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA. Other congregations are warmly welcome to join them.”

Several of us from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) decided to join them. Just in case there were a lot of people, we decided to carpool over. We left the UUCPA parking lot and drove down Charleston Rd., and by the time we crossed Foothills Expressway we realized we were in a line of cars headed to Congregation Beth Am. Even though we were fifteen minutes early, there were no parking places left, and we wound up parking off the road under a tree.

When we got inside the synagogue, the sanctuary was already filled, and they had begun opening up the sliding doors into the social hall. We helped set up more chairs, then sat down. The woman next to me was checking the score of the ball game; she was rooting for the Dodgers, but said her daughter was rooting for the Red Sox. When she found out that I came with some Unitarian Universalists, she thanked us and warmly welcomed us to her synagogue.

More people kept arriving. They brought out even more chairs. I told the woman sitting next to me that I was perfectly able to stand, so if anyone wanted to sit down, she should give the chair to them. I stood near the door, and watched people stream in. There were a few women wearing hijabs. I saw a couple of clerical collars. Not everyone was white. People just kept coming in, and when I finally turned to look behind me I saw that now the entire social hall was filled, too, and there were dozens of us standing along the walls.

The best parts of the service were the songs we sang together. I couldn’t see the words projected on the screen at the front, but I hummed along as best I could. There were good speakers, too, but how much could you say about the senseless murders of eleven people? One of the speakers who touched me most was a Muslim woman; I don’t remember what she said, but I remember her tone of voice which said she knew viscerally what it was like to be a target, and that we all had to look out for one another. The other speaker who touched me deeply was the rabbi who said that her ten year old daughter didn’t want to go to temple on Saturday morning because it wasn’t safe; her rabbi mother insisted they go, and that touched me because that’s what we have to do: we can’t hide from this kind of terrorism, we must face up to it somehow.

It took a quarter of an hour to get out of the parking lot. While we sat in line, Laurel told us about the door-to-door canvassing she was doing in the Central Valley to turn out the vote. I couldn’t help thinking that politicians need to back off with their divisive rhetoric, even if divisiveness wins votes; I couldn’t help thinking that it’s mostly Republican candidates who are making statements that incite violence — Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln! We can’t hide from this kind of divisive rhetoric, we must face up to it somehow. Door-to-door canvassing might be one of the best ways to do this; we learned this during the successful campaign for same-sex marriage: demonstrably the strategy that worked best in moving people towards tolerance was face-to-face conversations.

UPDATE 11/2/18: According to the Palo Alto Weekly, there were a thousand people in attendance (in the photo accompanying the article, I’m the tall guy standing in the back).

Above: The view from halfway back in Congregation Beth Am (blurry, because I couldn’t hold the phone steady).

The Tale of the Dhak Tree

Another story for liberal religious kids, which I found as I was cleaning up my files.

One day, four of Buddha’s followers came up to him and asked how they might learn to meditate and rise above earthly things. Buddha explained to the four bhikkus how they might do so, and each of the four went off to learn a different kind of meditation. The first bhikku learned the Six Spheres of Touch. The second bhikku learned the Five Elements of Being. The third bhikku learned the Four Principal Elements. The fourth bhikku learned the Eighteen Constituents of Being. And each one of these four bhikkus learned how to meditate so well that they each achieved Enlightenment and became a holy person.

Now one day all four of these bhikkus came back to tell the Buddha what they had done, and each of them claimed that their way was the best form of mediation. At last one of them said, “Buddha, each of us has achieved Enlightenment, but we each used a different type of meditation. How could this be?”

The Buddha said, “It is like the four brothers who saw the dhak tree,” and he told them this story:

***

Once upon a time Bramadatta, the King of Benares, had four sons.

One day, the four sons sent for a charioteer and said to him, “We want to see a dhak tree [butea frondosa]. Show us one!”

“Very well, I will,” the charioteer replied. “Let me begin by showing the eldest son.”

The charioteer took the eldest to the forest in the chariot. It was springtime, and eldest son saw the dhak tree at the time when the buds had not yet begun to swell, and the tree looked dead.

But the charioteer told them he could not return right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the second son to see the dhak tree, but now it was entirely covered with reddish-orange flowers.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the third son to see the dhak tree, but now the flowers were gone and the tree was covered with leaves.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. The fourth son waited and waited until at last he could wait no more. The charioteer brought him to see the dhak tree when it was covered with long brown seed-pods.

When at last all the brothers had seen the dhak tree, they sat down together, and someone asked, “So what is the dhak tree like?”

The first brother answered, “It is like a bunch of dead twigs!”

And the second brother said, “No, it is reddish-orange like a big piece of meat!”

And the third brother said, “No, it has leaves like a banyan tree!”

And the fourth brother said, “No, it looks just like the acacia tree with its long seed pods!”

None of them liked the answers the other gave. So they ran to find their father.

“Father,” they asked, “tell us, what is the dhak tree like?”

“You have all seen the tree,” the king said. “You tell me what it’s like.”

And the four brothers gave the king four different answers.

“You have all seen the tree,” said the king. “But when the charioteer showed you the tree, you didn’t ask him what the tree looked like at other times of the year. This is where your mistake lies.”

And the king recited a poem:

Each one of you has gone to view the tree,
And yet you are in great perplexity.
But you forgot to ask the charioteer
What forms the dhak tree takes throughout the year.

***

Buddha then spoke to the four bhikkus. “These four brothers did not ask themselves what the tree looked like in different times of the year, and so they fell into doubt. So the four of you have fallen into doubt about what is true and right.” Then the Buddha gave another stanza for the king’s poem:

If you know truth, but with deficiency,
You’ll be unsure, like those four and their tree.

Source: Adapted from the Kimsukopama-Jataka, in The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), book 2, no. 248.

Moonlight in St. John’s Cemetery

One of the nice things about living in the old caretaker’s house in St. John’s Cemetery is being able to be in the cemetery after hours. It’s a lovely place on a night like tonight, the night before the full moon: peaceful, with a feeling of quiet transcendence. You feel a quiet connection with all those people who were buried here, and with the people who loved them and wanted a calm place to remember them.

Just as I finished taking this photo, Carol said, “Watch out!” I turned around in time to see a skunk walk past, its tail raised in warning. We retreated back into the house, leaving the cemetery to the moonlight.

Epistemology of identity politics within Unitarian Universalism

“Standpoint epistemology,” according to philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter, is the Marxist idea that our social position influences our beliefs; if you are, for example, a member of the working class, your beliefs have been “distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests.” This is in distinct contrast to current “bourgeois academic philosophy” where “standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported ‘knower’ — usually ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘sexual orientation’ — is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others.” A key point Leiter makes is that this kind of thinking is done by “well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class.” The full post, which is short, is here.

My sense is that much of the thinking about identity politics done within Unitarian Universalism follows a similar pattern. We Unitarian Universalists often do give epistemic deference to knowledge based on social position, particularly for social positions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; recognizing, however, that we tend to assume that the social position of white, male, and/or straight persons is distorted, and therefore should be subjected to serious critique. Contrast this with the epistemological approach of some past Unitarian and Universalist thinkers: early Universalists grounded their epistemology in reason and scripture, both of which were assumed to be equally accessible to all persons; Transcendentalist epistemology assumed that all persons had access to the divine through their faculty of intuition; early humanists relied on the powers of reason which were accessible to all persons; etc. Current Unitarian Universalists tend to be critical of all these earlier approaches, since they were typically written down by white, straight, male thinkers.

I find three interesting points here. First, current Unitarian Universalism generally assumes that knowledge is not accessible by all persons equally; the knowledge of white, straight, and/or male persons is assumed to be in some sense distorted. Second, current Unitarian Universalism (as has been the case through most of its existence) tends to ignore class status; the viewpoint of working class white persons are grouped together with elite white persons like Donald Trump, under the assumption that the standpoint of all white persons leads to a distorted knowledge of the world — the standpoint of all white persons, that is, except for enlightened white persons (such as white Unitarian Universalists) who have questioned their white person’s standpoint. Third, many current Unitarian Universalists are now seriously critical of the notion that there exist some kinds of knowledge accessible to all persons.

I know I’m cynical, but I’m tempted to believe this complicated identitarian epistemology helps Unitarian Universalists maintain their comfortable belief in capitalism.

“The perilous whiteness of pumpkins”

Overwork and health issues have kept me away from this blog for a couple of weeks, but I now bring you an important scholarly article just in time for Halloween.

Back in 2015, two scholars published a peer-reviewed article in the academic journal GeoHumanities titled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins.” From the abstract: “Pumpkins in popular culture also reveal contemporary racial and class coding of rural versus urban places.” In other words, according to the authors, rural working class white folks dig pumpkins; urban middle class non-white folks, not so much; furthermore, this difference can lead to riots.

This could have been an interesting article, except I got lost in jargon-filled prose like this: “Spaces where actual pumpkins reside differ from spaces in which metaphorical pumpkins are segregated in the social landscape of modern U.S. cultures.” I’m honestly not sure just what that means, although maybe I just don’t get the jargon of the interdisciplinary study of geography and humanities.

But this next sentence I am quite sure I understand: “Actual pumpkins and the ideas of pumpkins intersect; both stay on the page for the remainder of this article.” I saw no actual pumpkins staying on the page for the remainder of the article. Or I suppose if I had seen the intersection of actual pumpkins, and ideas of pumpkins, it would have looked like this:

By the way, you will notice that this Venn diagram stayed on the page for the remainder of the time you were looking at this article. I have come to expect that sort of behavior from Venn diagrams, although to paraphrase Lord Berkeley’s question: If a Venn diagram is on the page, and no one sees it, does it stay on the page for the remainder of the article? The only reason I can indulge in such stupid sophomoric humor is that the authors of this article needed a remedial course in writing good prose.

Updated Sunday school teacher manual

I just completed a major re-write of A Manual for Sunday School Teachers in Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

Among other improvements, I completely rewrote Section 2, “Basics of Teaching and Learning,” based on my observations of what new Sunday school teachers really want to know. On Saturday, I’ll be leading a workshop on “Teaching 101” at Pot of Gold, the district religious education conference, and I’ll base this workshop on the revised Section 2 (with added hands-on activities).

I’ll post the table of contents below the fold.

Above: A Sunday school teacher coaching a middle schooler on how to use a power tool during a Sunday school class at my church. No, this is not your mother’s Sunday school!

Continue reading “Updated Sunday school teacher manual”

Universal concepts — or not?

Are the concept of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding universal and shared across different cultural and religious traditions? Or are there no important philosophical concepts that are shared among people in all cultural and religious traditions?

The interdisciplinary team of the Geography of Philosophy Project aim to find out. They’re taking an empirical approach, and just opened a Web site where they plan to report at least some of their progress. Not much there yet, but I plan to keep an eye on the Go Philosophy Web site.

(Thanks to.)