Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Define “human”

What does it mean to be human? It is the fashion in liberal theology today to state that humans are embodied beings; we are not just some disembodied soul temporarily trapped in flesh; rather, you can’t separate our being from our flesh. If you want to leave any transcendent reality out of this definition, you might wind up defining humans as the entirely biological product of evolution; extreme versions of this would say that humans are nothing more than DNA that wants to replicate itself.

Now consider the fact that less than half of the cells in your body carry your human DNA. In article posted today, the BBC reports on the latest research about the human microbiome; latest estimates hold that only 43% of the cells in your body carry your DNA; the rest are “bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.”

This would imply that to be an embodied human means, not that you are a solitary organism, but rather you are an ecosystem. In fact, the boundaries of your ecosystem may be less well defined than you have thought. Indeed, the latest thinking in medical science is that we might want to begin monitoring the information stored in the DNA of all those organisms. The BBC quotes Rob Knight, professor at the University of California San Diego:

“It’s incredible to think each teaspoon of your stool contains more data in the DNA of those microbes than it would take literally a ton of DVDs to store. At the moment every time you’re taking one of those data dumps, as it were, you’re just flushing that information away.”

“Data dumps”? Ah yes, the Brits do seem to find ways to include poop jokes where you least expect it. But seriously, this seems to bring us back to that older definition of what it means to be an embodied human, but with a twist: to be an embodied human is still to be a collection of information encoded on DNA; but now there’s a lot more information, not just from humans but also from archaea, bacteria, viruses, etc.

Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Ch’ang-O, the Moon Goddess

Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:

Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:

Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.

The Rabbit in the Moon

The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:

To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.

How divine is Ch’ang-O?

Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:

1. Ordinary human
2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage)
3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess)
4. Human who became divine
5. God or goddess with a non-human form
6. God or goddess that acts like a human
7. God or goddess that is far above humans
8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it

In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.

Ch’ang-O in popular culture

The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.

Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:

03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]:
…The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.

03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]:
Go ahead.

[some material omitted]

03 23 17 28 CC:
Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]:
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription,” Tape 61/3 page 270 [Houston, Texas: Manned Spacecraft Center, July, 1969], pp. 178-179.)

— And don’t let the conspiracy theorists fool you: the Apollo astronauts saw no sign of Ch’ang-O, nor of any rabbits, nor of a cinnamon tree (actually a cassia tree in the myth).


Updated 3/7/18 with revised drawing and Apollo 11 transcript.

A rabbi in hurricane land

Abs sent me a link to a Washington Post article about Rabbi Michael Feshbach, an old college friend of mine who is the new rabbi at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Yes, St. Thomas, one of the islands hit by two Category Five hurricanes this month.

The Post article was written before Hurricane Irma hit, and the good news is that Mike has posted on Facebook that he and his family made it through Irma safely. Not only that, but the congregation’s Torah scrolls came through both storms with minimal damage. A curfew has been imposed on St. Thomas, so they’re having to adjust the times of their services; but at least they can hold services.

Rabbi Michael offered one of the best progressive theological readings of these two disastrous hurricanes in the Post article. Asked by the reporter what the meaning of the hurricanes was, he gave a thoughtful response:

“‘I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ‘I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’ God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane. ‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said. For Rabbi Feshbach, God is there for how we react to tragedy and how we help each other get through it.”

I concur with all my heart. And if Unitarian Universalists in the Bay Area of California can react by helping in any way, all Rabbi Feshbach and his congregation have to do is ask.

Saving Universalist theology

(Be forewarned: this is a blog post about theology. Some of us enjoy theology, but if you don’t, this will not be fun for you.)

Mark Morrison-Reed, in his lecture “The Black Hole in the White Psyche” (online here, and in the fall, 2017 issue of UU World magazine), asserts that Unitarianism appealed to members of the African American intellectual elite through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, citing the Unitarian affiliations of people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Whitney Young. Universalist theology, on the other hand, did not appeal to African Americans:

“Universalism … was difficult for African Americans to embrace. A loving God who saves all is, for most African Americans, a theological non sequitur. Why? In an article entitled ‘In the Shadow of Charleston,’ Reggie Williams writes about a young black Christian who said, during a prayer group following the murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, ‘that if he were to also acknowledge the historical impact of race on his potential to live a safe and productive life in America, he would be forced to wrestle with the veracity of the existence of a just and loving God who has made him black in America.’ This is the question of theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of evil? In the context of Charleston, the context of Jim Crow, the context of slavery, what is the meaning of black suffering? Why has such calamity been directed at African Americans? If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving.”

What Mark says is clearly true. Yet there were a tiny handful of African American Universalists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What drew them to Universalism? Continue reading “Saving Universalist theology”

How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism

The current issue of Geez magazine (“Contemplative Cultural Resistance”) just arrived in my mailbox from Canada, and the issue opens with a quote from Walter Brueggeman’s 2005 essay “Counterscript.” Geez had to abridge the quote, but here’s the original:


“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

“I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

“I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

“I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that ‘if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: ‘It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.’

“The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

“It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”


Later in the essay, Brueggeman goes on to say that this script has “failed,” for “we are not safe, and we are not happy.” He points to the complicity of the Christian church in “enacting” this script, adding:

“It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script.”

Unitarian Universalism got kicked out of the Christian church more than a century ago (a fact we’re now kind of proud of), but like many Christian churches we too are enacting the script of therapeutic technological consumerist militarism. We firmly believe that we can find ways to live our lives with no inconvenience. We firmly believe that we can find a fix for every problem.

The next two points may not be as obvious, and will require some explanation.

We may protest that we fight consumerism, but we live our lives as though resources are ours to exploit. We cut down on our oil use, but we firmly believe that the sun and wind are ours to exploit for energy. We say we are anti-racist, but the financial health of many of our congregations can be traced back to seed money accumulated through exploitation of people of color: land appropriated from Native American peoples, labor appropriated from persons of African descent, etc.

We may protest militarism. Many of us may be peaceniks, and some of us have been arrested protesting militarism. But in the end we depend on systems that protect therapeutic technological consumerism, and so we protest that upon which our livelihoods depend.

Brueggeman goes on to say: Continue reading “How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism”

Noted with comment

“The contemporary version of religion is sport. It is sport, with its sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies, and pantheon of heroes, which is the opium of the people. It is also the culture of the people, in both major senses of the word: a communal form of life, but also a chance to display or appreciate the kind of artistry from which the mass of citizens are otherwise largely excluded.”

— Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (Yale Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 45-46.

And consumer capitalism favors sports over organized religion not least because sports can generate a large amount of consumer spending. Ordinary religion does not generate so much consumer spending: Scientology generates ongoing spending by adherents though one could argue that it’s not spending on consumer goods; Hiillsong Music and other producers of Christian pop music generate some significant consumer spending; and not much more. How can religion serve as the opiate of the masses when what the masses really want to do is spend money on consumer goods?

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.