Quoted without comment

From Ursula K. LeGuin, from her science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness:

“To be an atheist is to maintain God. His [sic] existence or his non-existence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus ‘proof’ is a word not often used among the Handarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.”

Out of the mouths of Scots

Sometimes another blogger says what you want to say, but better, and more concisely. Earlier today, Scottish blogger and science fiction author Charles Stross wrote about how the Supreme Court of the United States intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying in part:

“It is unwise to underestimate the degree to which extreme white supremacism in the USA is enmeshed with a panic about ‘white’ people being ‘out-bred’ by other races. This also meshes in with extreme authoritarian patriarchal values, the weird folk religion that names itself “Christianity” and takes pride in its guns and hatred of others, homophobia, transphobia, an unhealthy obsession with eugenics (and a low-key desire to eliminate the disabled which plays into COVID19 denialism, anti-vaxx, and anti-mask sentiment), misogyny, incel culture, QAnon, classic anti-semitic Blood Libel, and Christian Dominionism (which latter holds that the USA is a Christian nation—and by Christian they mean that aforementioned weird folk religion derived from protestantism I mentioned earlier—and their religious beliefs must be enshrined in law).”

That just about covers it, doesn’t it.

Next, let us discuss how Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is about to jump genres, from science fiction into historical fiction….

Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.

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.”

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.

Many conservative Christians are appalled by anti-vaxxers

Steve Hassen, a conservative Christian, has written a blog post that explains why conservative Christians should get vaccinated. The blog post is based on a podcast interview with Professor Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“I asked Throckmorton for his view on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks about vaccination? He and his family are vaccinated. When I asked him about Christianity and science, he told me Biblical sources provide believers guidance. He pointed out that Timothy, a disciple of St. Paul, had a stomach ailment. He was not advised to pray or just have faith but to take a little wine (that is, treat the ailment). Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels, was himself a physician. God gave us incredible gifts: our minds, intelligence, and curiosity. Certainly, we are meant to use our minds and think and not allow irrational fears to cause harm and death.”

Hassen covers a lot of ground in his blog post. He takes on Trump: “How can anyone [who’s] religious think God is using Donald Trump?” He explains how science and conservative Christian faith are compatible. He critiques Christian nationalism and dominionism, two of the biggest threats to U.S. democracy today. And he touches on the problem of narcissism in the pastors of mega-churches (some of what he says there reminds me of one or two people who used to be ministers of some of our largest UU congregations).

Hassen reminds me of the conservative Christians I used to know back in the day: people whose intelligence, morals, and ethics I held in great respect, even while disagreeing with them on some theological points. Unitarian Universalists who like to demonize white evangelical conservative Christians might want to read this post, and expand their horizons a little bit. If we’re going to stop the threat to democracy represented by QAnon and Trumpism, we need all the allies we can get.

The big divide in U.S. religion today

U.S. Catholic bishops have voted 155 to 55 (with 6 abstentions) to deny holy communion to U.S. politicians who support abortion rights. Elected officials who openly support the death penalty will still be allowed to receive communion, even though the church’s catechism states, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Elected officials who deny climate change will still be able to receive communion, even though Pope Francis has said, “We need to act decisively to put an end to all emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century at the very latest, and to do even more than that.” This is typical of U.S. religion today.

I have come to believe that the big divide in U.S. religion these days is actually politics, not theology. Do you support the Republican party line, or the Democratic party line? — that’s how the U.S. religious divide is defined. The U.S. Catholic bishops voting to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights, yet taking no action on politicians who support the death penalty, may not seem logically consistent. Nevertheless, their stance is entirely consistent with Republican politics.

I’m pretty sure that Unitarian Universalists suffer from the same problem, on the other side of the political divide. Unitarian Universalism is doing its best to stand up against racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism (to some extent), and other forms of systemic injustice. Classism, however, is mostly dismissed or ignored within Unitarian Universalism. Nor does Unitarian Universalism engage in systematic critique of capitalism. Our stance may not be logically consistent, but it is entirely consistent Democratic politics.

Therefore, fellow Unitarian Universalists, before you speak scornfully of the Catholic bishops, first reflect on how Unitarian Universalism hews so closely to the Democratic party line. Instead of speaking of another religion with scorn, we might instead reflect on the words of a wise ancient Jewish teacher who said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” In other words, I do hope we Unitarian Universalists don’t become merely a special interest group of the Democratic party.

UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism

Here’s the first short lecture I used in last night’s online class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies:

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

For accessibility, the text of the lecture is below. Note that I may have altered the text a little when reading it.

Continue reading “UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism”

A 1907 Unitarian sermon from Palo Alto

This is the only sermon I’ve been able to find that was preached at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, which existed from 1905 to 1934. It’s a sermon preached at the dedication of the new building of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, March 24, 1907. It was doubtless revised for publication, and then was printed in the Christian Register (later called the Unitarian Register) on April 25, 1907, pp. 465-466.

George Stone, who preached this sermon, was the first minister the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto ever had. He was actually the American Unitarian Association’s Field Secretary for the West coast, and part of his duties were planting new Unitarian churches; since Palo Alto was a college town, it was seen as a likely spot for a Unitarian congregation, and that’s doubtless why Stone went ot Palo Alto in 1905. He worked with the new Palo Alto congregation for about a year, until 1906, when they called their first settled minister, Sydney B. Snow. Evidence in the extant documents of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto show that they considered him their minister, even though he wasn’t a called minister. And in 1907, he returned to Palo Alto to preach the dedicatory sermon when their new building was complete.

But this sermon is of more than historical interest. True, we might not agree with some of the theology, and certainly the gender-specific language (e.g., “man” for “humankind,” male pronouns for the deity, etc.) now sounds dated. But Stone argues for the continual progress of organized religion; looking back at old forms of American religion, Stone says that our spiritual forebears “were passing through a stage of evolution which to us seems a sad one.” And he acknowledges that some day, he, too, will seem outdated: “Who knows but our descendants will look back upon the record of our lives with equal pity and tenderness?” Yet Stone has some powerful things to say about the purpose of public worship. A Unitarian congregation, says Stone, “stands for the solidarity of the race rather than for the single individual” — and yet, all these years later, we Unitarian Universalists are still overly individualistic, and reading Stone’s sermon might help us realize how far we have yet to go in our religious development.

“Public Worship” by Rev. George W. Stone

The mission of Unitarianism is to help mankind to a higher and more spiritual faith than it has had before; for Unitarianism is not a theology and a philosophy only, it is a life. It is, least of all, a negation or a denial of some other religion. It is a comprehensive religion, including the good in the older religions. No man is ready to become a Unitarian until he is able to do his own thinking. In order to be a Unitarian he may outgrow the old theologies, but he must not outgrow religion. Until he learns to use his freedom wisely, and not make it simply a license to reject everything he cannot understand, until then, he may not be orthodox, but he is not necessarily a Unitarian, for Unitarianism is a positive faith. It believes that love is the only divine power in the universe, and that at last all mankind will grow into it, that the process of man’s development from the animal, through the human, into the spiritual, is now going on, that it will one day be completed.

Continue reading “A 1907 Unitarian sermon from Palo Alto”