Limits of reason

How far does reason serve to cure, or at least to palliate, the miseries of humankind? Not very far, according to Samuel Johnson:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain: the armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them. —Rambler, no. 32

Johnson wrote this partially in response to the Stoics, who professed to be able to ignore misery, and to maintain equipoise when faced with calamity. But he, as someone who valued reason, was also exploring the limits of reason. Reason cannot cure every ill:

The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects. —Rambler, no. 32

Thus, says Johnson, patience and not reason serves to maintain our peace of mind when we are confronted with misery, torment, and suffering.

Classical music video no. 6

There are several young classical composers that critics are calling “indie-classical,’ because they combine the singer-songwriter sensibility of indie rock with classical music complexity and depth. Today you get three videos, all of “indie-classical” music:

Continue reading “Classical music video no. 6”

Classical music video no. 3

Today’s classical music video is of the Bang on a Can All-stars rocking out on Steve Reich’s “2×5” (2008). Steve Reich (b. 1936) started out as a jazz drummer, but soon switched to composing lcassical music. He is best known for his early minimalist compositions. Bang on a Can is a group of composers and musicians who have produced some remarkable performances and compositions in the twenty-five years since they were organized. If you have a chance to attend their 12 hour Bang on a Can Marathon, held each summer in North Adams at Mass MOCA, go — it will change your image of “classical” music forever.

Alas, the videography is boring. On the other hand, it’s fun watching the interaction of the musicians without constant intrusions from the videographer.

By the way, this video proves something I had though impossible: you can have a group of four electric guitar players in which not one is an egomaniac. There are four electric guitars, and two bass guitars, in this video, and every guitarist is an extremely disciplined musician showing very little ego in a very tight band.

Classical music video no. 2

Today’s classical music video is a collboration between Ben Frost (b. 1980) and Daniel Bjarnason (b. 1979). Frost is both a performer, primarily heavily modified electric guitar, and a composer; he has worked with Nico Muhy, Bjork, and Brian Eno, among other musicians. Bjarnason has also worked with classical and rock musicians in his native Iceland.

This is another meditative piece: “Cruel Miracles” is part of a longer work titled “Solaris,” which was inspired by the brilliant 1972 film of the same title directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The visuals are in fairly standard music video format, but I do like the way the videographer emphasizes the computers and sound boards necessary for this performance: this is not nineteenth century classical music.

Classical music video no. 1

“Classical music” — an imprecise term for art/concert music in the Western tradition — has been getting a bad name in liberal religious circles. Its primary defenders promote classical music written in the nineteenth century. Its detractors rightly point out that nineteenth century music is outdated, but then typically go on to advocate commercial pop musics which are distinctly lacking in musical or intellectual depth.

Neither nineteenth century classical music nor contemporary commercial pop musics do much for my spiritual life. But I have been getting a lot of spiritual sustenance from twenty-first century “classical music,” better known to its listeners as “new music.” This week, I’m going to post some videos of new music that do something for me spiritually. First up is this fabulous music video — music composed by Anna Clyne (b. 1980) and artwork by Josh Dorman — which I would love to use as a “reading” or meditation in a worship service:


Oops! Did something wrong, and this didn’t publish Monday as I meant it to do; so here it is on Tuesday.

An online tool I’d actually use

Anne, who sits on our congregation’s board, pointed out a really useful online tool: Their tagline reads: “Organize volunteers online for free.” It was started by church people; the founder writes:

We were having a party for our church small group one time and told people with last names starting with A-M to bring drinks and those with N-Z to bring snacks. We all showed up and were shocked to find that every snack family brought chips and salsa and every drinks family brought Diet Coke! It was the most disgusting party meal ever!

Anne says she has used this successfully. I’m going to be trying it out, and thought you’d want to know about it, too.

Disruptive forces acting on congregations

In an essay on the Alban Institute Web site titled “Restructuring the Rabbinate,” Hayim Herring writes:

Individuals can access educational, spiritual, and cultural resources on their own, independent of congregations. The Chabad movement continues to expand its network of synagogues, minyanim, religious schools, preschools, camps, and college campus houses, and undoubtedly is planning new initiatives. This movement abandoned the typical synagogue financial membership model of “joining” a synagogue for a relationship-based model of involvement. They understood that people who are emotionally connected to a rabbi and community are willing to contribute voluntarily. Chabad’s global reach and its ability to work with families over a lifespan has been a disruptive force for many established synagogues.

I think a key phrase here is “disruptive force.” This is a phrase that comes from the world of business, and it refers to the way that innovation that provides a good-enough product or service can put high-end or excellent products on the defensive and by so doing, completely disrupt an established market. An example of this is Craig Newmark, who developed Craigslist, a Web site that offered largely free classified advertising; in so doing, Newmark disrupted the newspaper business, for newspapers had depended on classified advertising for their financial survival. Arguably, Craigslist isn’t as good as newspaper classified ads — because it’s a free service there are many stupid ads which merely waste one’s time, and of course when one bought a newspaper one also got journalism along with the ads. But Craigslist ads are good enough, and Craigslist has disrupted the newspaper business model by driving newspapers out of the classified ads business.

As much as we’d like to think that religion is free from market forces, in today’s consumer capitalism nothing is free from market forces. And there are disruptive forces acting on religion. Hayim Herring gives the specific example of Chabad as a disruptive force acting on typical synagogues. While Unitarian Universalist congregations rely on a different financial model than do Jewish congregations, we also have disruptive market forces acting on us. Perhaps the most important disruptive force acting on Unitarian Universalist congregations is the religious-fee-for-service business model. Continue reading “Disruptive forces acting on congregations”

New resource for music geeks

Scott from Boy in the Bands alerted me to’s hymnal app for the iPad. They describe the app as follows:

Use our collection of over 140,000 page scans (and growing) as an enormous hymnal. Put your iPad or other tablet device on your music stand or piano, enter in a hymn title or use our melodic search engine, and music for just about any hymn you can think of is instantly available.

The average person in the pew will continue to use printed hymnals, or song sheets inserted into the order of service, or projected lyrics on the big screen behind the preacher. But this iPad app is going to be a major boon for worship leaders and musicians. Have a request for a specific hymn for a memorial service from the Army and Navy hymnal (as I did once)? — there it is on your iPad. Need to find the more traditional words for a Christmas carol? — just use the search function.

One final thought — I really hope the next Unitarian Universalist hymnal is also sold as an iPad app. I doubt many people will use it in Sunday services, but there are a fair number of people who keep a hymnal at home, and the iPad app would potentially be a lot cheaper, and easier to use.

Another thing to worry about

I’ve just finished reading Mark Chavez’s book American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton University, 2011), which is well-written and blessedly brief. Chavez’s major conclusion: religious participation in U.S. congregations is either stable or declining (it’s not clear which), but it is definitely not increasing.

Towards the end of the book, Chavez brings up a reason why we should be concerned about declining participation in U.S. religion. Chavez writes:

If half of all the social capital in America — meaning half of all the face-to-face associational activity, personal philanthropy, and volunteering — happens through religious institutions, the vitality of those institutions influences more than American religious life. Weaker religious institutions would mean a different kind of American civic life.

Of course we should not be surprised to learn that in this time of civic disengagement in the U.S., involvement in congregations is at best stable, and at worst in decline — that would fit in with the wider sociological trend. Nevertheless, we should worry that congregational participation is at best stable. James Luther Adams, the great mid-twentieth century Unitarian Universalist theologian, used his experiences in Nazi Germany to demonstrate that weakened voluntary associations led to weakened democracy, allowing totalitarianism to establish a foothold.

If U.S. participation in religious congregations declines, that means half of all participation in voluntary associations declines — which, depending on your political persuasion, might be something to worry about. On the other hand, if you want another reason to justify your participation in a local congregation, you could say that going to Sunday services helps fight totalitarianism. Woody Guthrie’s guitar had a sticker on it that proclaimed “This machine kills fascists” — maybe we should place signs out in front of our congregations that say “This machine kills totalitarianism.”

Proposed sign for the front of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (click for a larger image)

How you can change three negative trends in 2012, pt. 1

In my last post, I made three safe predictions for 2012:

1. Baby Boomers will continue to run most liberal religious congregations to suit themselves.
2. Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.
3. Fewer kids will be part of liberal religious congregations.

Each of these three trends, if left unchecked, will lead to continued decline of liberal religion. I’ll take these on in separate posts. Here are my thoughts on fighting the first of these trends:

Liberal congregations can learn basic volunteer management and leadership development skills.

The way you move entrenched leadership out of positions of power is by training up new leaders to take their place. The way you train up new leaders is to revamp your volunteer management system. Continue reading “How you can change three negative trends in 2012, pt. 1”