Unitarian and Universalist views on baptism, late 18th C.

Here are two documents that give a picture of late eighteenth century Unitarian and Universalist views of baptism.

1783: Unitarian baptism ceremony
late 18th C.: Description of Universalist dedication ceremony

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Universalist views on baptism and dedication, 19th C.

As a follow up to this post, here are Universalist documents from the nineteenth century describing naming ceremonies (baptism and dedication).

1839: Universalist baptism and child dedication
1850: Universalist dedication/baptism
1872: Description of a Universalist naming ceremony
1895: Universalist naming ceremony

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Unitarian views on christening and baptism, 19th C.

As a follow up to this post, here are Unitarian documents from the nineteenth century describing naming ceremonies (baptism and christening).

1827: Description of Unitarian naming ceremonies
1844: Unitarian naming ceremony
1884: Unitarian naming ceremony
1891: Description of a Unitarian naming ceremony

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UU views on christening and dedication, 20th C.

Amy Morgenstern, the senior minister, and I have been talking about child dedications recently. As we talked, I realized that one of the results of the social process known as “secularization” (which in the U.S. is more of an adjustment away from communal religious organizations to individualized religious practices) is that fewer and fewer people know that there are established communal practices to welcome babies. Even if they do know about such practices as Unitarian Universalist child dedications, they may find it difficult to understand why they would want to have a communal ceremony, within a religious community, rather than something more individualistic.

This realization has led me to rethink the entire concept of child dedications. After I was born in 1960, I was christened (not dedicated) in a Unitarian church — but what was a Unitarian christening, and was there then a distinctive way of thinking about this naming ceremony? What about Universalist understandings of naming ceremonies? How have Unitarian and Universalist naming ceremonies combined and evolved into Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies?

I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but I’ve been collecting relevant historical documents. Without further ado, here are documents from the 20th century that relate to Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies.

1903: Unitarian naming ceremony
1922: Universalist naming ceremony
1966: Description of Unitarian naming ceremonies
1999: Description of Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies

(Updated 28 Feb 2020: corrections and revisions, added another document)

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Bad-mouthing working-class whites

The December, 2018 issue of the Atlantic carries an article by Joan C. Williams titled “The Democrats’ White People Problem.” White argues, in part, that Trump and the Republicans have a strategy of keeping liberals focused on race and racism, instead of addressing class issues:

“These gestures [Trump’s inflammatory comments on race] may seem like pandering to racists. But in truth they are aimed equally at the left, in an effort to keep liberals’ attention focused on race rather than class. If Democrats were to focus more attention on economic issues, they just might be able to win back the non-elite white voters they’ve been bleeding for half a century.”

I admit that I have little skill in political analysis, so I have to take Williams’ political analysis on faith when she outlines some strategies that the Democrats could follow to regain votes.

But Williams is also making an ethical observation here, and ethics is something I know more about. She is speaking of ethics when she says:

“A final dynamic will be particularly hard to fix: the broken relationship between elite and non-elite white people, for which people of all races are paying the price. This is a white-people problem, and white people need to fix it. (I wouldn’t presume to advise people of color on how to respond to racism, or to suggest that they should refrain from seeing the 2016 election through the always-powerful lens of race. But as an elite white person, I do see it as my place to tell elite whites to stop displacing blame for their own racism onto non-elite whites.)” Williams emphasizes this last point later on: “Once you start a conversation about class, elite white people have to admit they have not only racial privilege but class privilege, too.”

We elites whites cannot dodge our own ethical responsibilities by bad-mouthing Trump and his supporters. Fighting classism is as ethically necessary as fighting racism, and in both cases we elite whites have to begin by examining ourselves: How are we contributing to the problem? And then: How can we stop contributing to the problem?

Or, as a sage two thousand years ago put it: Don’t go trying to pull the sawdust out of another’s eye when you’ve got a chunk of wood stuck in your own.

What to do with racist dead white men

Should we repudiate dead white men who made racist comments?

To make it a Unitarian Universalist question: Theodore Parker was an abolitionist. But as has been documented by Mark Morrison-Reed and others, Parker also believed blacks were inferior to whites, and he espoused views that today many would define as white supremacist views. Should we repudiate Parker for his racism?

There’s a strong argument to be made that Parker is morally suspect because of his racism. But in an article on Aeon titled “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable,” philosopher Julian Baggini argues that we should be careful about condemning dead thinkers out of hand:

“Why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment. Even a passing acquaintance with psychology, sociology or anthropology should squash that comfortable illusion. The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.”

In other words, progressives in the early twenty-first century have our own blind spot: we still believe in the myth of hyper-individualism — what Baggini terms the “hyper-enlightenment fantasy.” We believe this myth, or fantasy, even though it is so patently false.

This doesn’t mean that Parker gets a pass. It does mean that, even though he was really smart, Parker could not entirely transcend his social environment.

Rather than rejecting Parker for his racism, I think about the fact that even though he couldn’t transcend his social environment, he pushed as hard as he could along the moral arc of the universe towards justice. And I’m pretty sure that if I could measure his progress along that moral arc of the universe, I would discover he moved further from where he started to the ultimate goal of justice than I ever will. That same statement would be true of most people alive today: I imagine there are very few people alive today who are righteous enough that they are in a position to condemn Parker (I know of none personally); it is given to very few to transcend their social environment that far.

This tallies with an observation I’ve made about how progress is made in the fight against racism. I’ve seen more than one congregational program to get white people to understand how they personally are racist; in my experience, those kinds of programs lead to some personal enlightenment for a few individuals, but don’t really change the system. What works better is setting up policies and procedures in a congregation that dial back the institutional racism; in my (limited) experience, this is more effective than consciousness-raining exercises. We can and should think for ourselves; but lasting change is more likely to happen through changing the social environment than through changing individuals.

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.

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.)

Progressive Confucianism

Progressive Confucianism is a new Web site, primarily in Chinese, though with a small amount of English-language content as well. I wish I read Chinese, because the material on Progressive Confucianism in English makes the concept sound pretty interesting, such as this passage:

“The idea that ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue, lies at the heart of Progressive Confucianism.”

(Thanks to.)

Global vs. local atheisms

In a post on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Elisa Freschi distinguishes between global and local atheisms:

“The Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy started as an atheist school since its first extant text, Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutra. At a certain point in its history, however, it reinterpreted its atheist arguments as aiming only at a certain conception of god(s). In other words, it reinterpreted its atheism as being not a global atheism, but a form of local atheism, denying a certain specific form of god(s) and not any form whatsoever.”

I find this an extremely useful distinction, which in my experience is mostly absent in Western thought. In the West, our religious thinking has been dominated by monotheistic religion — Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism — which have tended to force our thought into either/or, binary thinking: either I believe in the the monotheistic Christian (or Jewish) deity, or I believe in nothing. It is difficult for us to conceive of any other option.

In the Indian religious landscape, however, there is a multiplicity of deities. I suspect that kind of landscape allows a more nuanced approach to thinking about deities. In one example, Freschi quotes one Indian philosopher as saying: “I have refuted the inference to the existence of the Lord said by other scholars, but I have not refuted the Lord Himself” (Nayaviveka, tarkap?da, end of sambandh?k?epaparih?ra).

But I can see other possibilities that could also be interesting, such as refuting the existence of certain classes of deities. This brings to mind Xenophanes, a thinker from the pre-Christian West, who made some well-known criticisms of the class of anthropomorphic deities:

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds” (fragment 15, John Burnet translation); and

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (fragment 16, John Burnet translation).

Xenophanes also criticized the class of deities that not only looks like but behaves like humans:

“Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. (fragment 11, John Burnet translation)

All this raises an interesting line of thought: arguments supporting atheism in the Western tradition tend to argue against the monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Judaism. And indeed, Western atheists have developed some powerful arguments against these monotheistic deities. But because their arguments focus so narrowly on the specifics of Western monothesitic deities, I find their arguments less convincing when considering, for example, panentheism. (And no, that’s not a typographical error; see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on panentheism.)

The most interesting point here for me is that in an increasingly multicultural world — that is, in a globalized world where cultures previously separated by comfortable distances now find themselves living literally next door to one another — arguments against the Western concept of “God” might suddenly be revealed to be a local atheism. Similarly, arguments for the Christian or Jewish deity might well be a local theism.