Liberty and democracy in liberal religion

From Gary Dorrien’s new book, Economy, Difference, Empire:

What would a just society look like? What kind of country should the U.S. want to be? For more than two centuries U.S. American politics has featured two fundamentally different answers to these questions. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which democratic rights over society’s major institutions are established. In the first vision, the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the just society minimizes the equalizing the role of government. In the second view, the right to self-government is considered superior to the right to property, and the just society places democratic checks on social, political, and economic power. Economy, Difference, and Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice (Columbia University, 2010), p. 143.

Unitarian Universalists would seem to align themselves with the second vision, the vision of a democratic society, given that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) claim a commitment to democratic process. However, it is not clear to me that this is the case — the major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

Thus I see a built-in theological tension within Unitarian Universalism between theological liberty on the one hand, and on the other hand a commitment to democratic theological community in which the right of self-governance is superior to the right to believe whatever one wishes. There is a difference, however, between Unitarian Universalism and wider U.S. society: it is much easier to remove oneself from Unitarian Universalism. There are many people who feel themselves in complete alignment with theological Unitarian Universalism and more specifically with the principle of a free and responsible search for meaning without a creed, but who also find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation — many of these are the people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists on national polls but who aren’t part of a local congregation.

One last note on this topic: Historically, Universalists were more committed to theological liberty than were the Unitarians, and the loose structure of their national organization reflected that commitment to liberty. The Unitarians, by contrast, affirmed theological liberty and had, on the face of things, fewer theological restrictions than the Universalists; but beginning in the late nineteenth century the Unitarians poured far more of their energies into their democratic institutions. When the two denominations consolidated, the Universalists felt themselves out-organized at nearly every step of the way; and the new denomination has ever since then invested more energy into its democratic structures than into theological liberty.

He’s dead?…

Osama bin Laden is dead. It feels strange to write that. I could wish he had been brought to trial — or brought to justice really — rather than killed in a firefight. But they’re reporting that he used another person as a human shield, which reveals a lack of courage and a moral depravity. So he’s dead. I can’t help but think that the world is a better place without him.

By sheer coincidence, today I’ve been thinking about the Cain and Abel story from the book of Genesis. You’ve heard the story: Adam and Eve are the first two humans. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. God favors Abel over Cain, and in a fit of pique Cain murders Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel has got to, Cain replies, How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper? But God, being God, knows that Cain has killed Abel, and tells him so. Cain is ashamed. God punishes Cain, saying: I’m cursing you, your life will be tough, you’re going to be a vagabond and a fugitive forever. Cain says, I’m gonna be a vagabond and a fugitive, and everyone who finds me out will try to kill me. But God says, Not so, anyone who kills you, vengeance will be taken upon him sevenfold. Then God set a mark upon Cain to let people know about that. There’s some kind of weird complex poetic truth to the Cain and Abel story that I can never quite wrap my head around. It is obviously not a literally true story, but like the best fiction it gets at deeper truths — what the deeper truths are is open for debate.

And although it’s an inexact and incomplete analogy, I can’t help thinking of Osama bin Laden as a Cain-like figure: someone who commits a heinous murder, and who, after his crime was committed, had to become a fugitive and vagabond. It’s an inexact analogy, and Osama bin Laden was not Cain, but I have to admit I do worry about the aftermath of his death. Osama bin Laden is dead, the world is a better place without him, but I would not call this a neat and tidy ending to his story.

I do feel an enormous sense of relief that he’s dead. He was both depraved and powerful. And now the question is: what next?

Humanism and liberationist theologies

In a recent comment on a post I wrote about Cornel West, Kim Hampton makes a statement that I quite agree with:

I agree that the biggest reason that West is not talked about [among Unitarian Universalists] is the fact that he speaks from a liberationist standpoint … but I think you may be downplaying the fact part of the reason he is such a liberationist is that he is a forthright Christian. And Unitarian Universalism is still trying to figure out its relationship to Christianity.

This raises another interesting issue for me. In the contemporary theological landscape, socialism is almost exclusively associated with either a Christian liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Cornel West), or a Neo-pagan liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Starhawk). Humanists, by contrast, tend to be associated with a more moderate political philosophy. So humanist William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International, sounds like pretty straightforward natural-law human rights advocate and political liberal; and humanist Sharon Welch, ethicist and theologian, sounds to me like a pretty straightforward second-wave feminist and political liberal. Of put it this way: while I can think of some prominent Christians and Neo-pagans whom I would call socialists or leftist councilists, all the prominent humanists I know of seem to accept late capitalism without making a serious challenge to it.

In addition, it seems to me that much of humanist dialogue in recent years — at least, among the humanists I know — has largely divorced theology and religion from social justice theories. This is not to say that humanists aren’t concerned with social justice; indeed, the opposite is true in my experience, as the humanists I know tend to be strongly committed to social justice and political action. But most of the humanists I know seem to remove ethics from religion, and their theology focuses on ontotheology almost exclusively. Sharon Welch is an excellent example of this: over the years, the trend she has followed has been to remove explicit religious concerns from her ethics, to the point where I would not longer call her a theologian and instead I’d call her simply an ethicist (without a qualifier).

Any thoughts on this from you, dear reader? I’m willing to hear counterexamples that disprove my hypothesis, but I’m far more interested in a broader analysis: are humanists tending to move to the political right of socialist Christians and Neo-pagans? and is there something inherent in the trend of humanist thought today that is moving humanism in that direction? and aside from William R. Jones, is there such a thing as a liberationist humanist thinker?

The oaks of Elkhorn Slough

A few days ago, I visited Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. I stopped at the visitor center to purchase a day use pass. The ranger who sold me the pass asked me to stop on my way into the reserve to bush off my shoes and dip them into a disinfectant bath. Seeing my surprised look, she said, “It’s to help control Sudden Oak Death Syndrome. You should do that whenever you go walking where there might be oaks. I know, it seems pointless, but I’m the kind of person who would still wash her hands during a cholera epidemic.”

When I was walking around the reserve, I didn’t even think about Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, although I did admire the many live oaks, with their long convoluted branches arching over the surrounding ground. Human beings are really good at ignoring and forgetting the huge problems which loom before us. I suspect this is the origin of apocalyptic literature, which is designed to force us into facing up to really big problems that are completely beyond our control: the book of Revelation was designed, with its striking and hallucinatory images, to get its original readers to face up to the overwhelming power and evil of the dominant Roman Empire. Apocalyptic literature is also designed to help us feel as though we can make meaningful moral judgments about overwhelming problems, and it is designed to give us hope that somehow things will turn out well, albeit in ways that we really can’t comprehend right now.

We still have political debate, writing, and other art forms cast in the apocalyptic genre today. Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” may be one example; and certainly some of the debate within the environmental movement tends towards the apocalyptic direction. Some of the debate about immigration into the United States and European countries vaguely resembles the apocalyptic genre, down to dire warnings and sometimes surreal logic. There is nothing wrong with apocalyptic literature — it can provide some needed comfort and hope — as long as we recognize that it is really a type of fiction or myth. You still have to wash your hands during the cholera epidemic, you probably should disinfect your shoes before walking among oaks, and when you get done reading an apocalypse you still have to deal with reality.

Cornel West and us

I’ve just been reading historian Gary Dorrien’s essay “Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy,” which discusses Cornel West as an intellectual and as a religious leader. (This essay, from Dorrien’s 2010 book Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, is an updated version of a chapter from his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making.)

Dorrien tells the story of West’s intellectual evolution, and his evolution as a public intellectual. Dorrien also gives succinct reviews of major critiques of West. Towards the end of the essay, Dorrien summarizes West, casting him as primarily a religious thinker:

He [West] never really changed, notwithstanding the Left critics who liked his early writings and claimed that he sold out later. From the beginning West was committed to a Christian liberationist vision of social justice and reconciliation, though some readers wrongly took his early writings to be Marxism dressed up as Christian though. West was not “really” a Marxist who used Christianity; it was more the other way around. He began as a liberationist social critic committed to building progressive multiracial coalitions, and he remained one. (p. 334)

I’ve never quite understood why Unitarian Universalists (and other religious liberals, for that matter) don’t spend much time thinking about West, but Dorrien’s summary helps me understand why so few of us seem to bother with West. It’s not his forthright Christianity; for although some Unitarian Universalists might be uncomfortable with West’s trinitarian Christianity, our own humanist theologian William R. Jones showed us back in 1974 how liberal “humanocentric” theists and liberal humanists have plenty in common, or at least enough to build alliances to fight oppression together.

Instead, I think it’s because West is firmly aligned with liberationist Christian theology, while we Unitarian Universalists mostly remain aligned with the old Social Gospel. West is a Christian socialist who’s not afraid of revolutionary ideas, not afraid of taking risks that don’t always work out, and he’s committed to rapid change. The Social Gospel, as it exists today, still uses liberal but not revolutionary ideas, plays down risk, and works towards slower evolutionary change. Unitarian Universalism (and many other liberal religious groups) are not going to be comfortable with West because his theology is further to the left than we are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this means we have cut ourselves off to some extent from one of the few religious progressives who is a public intellectual, someone who has engaged both the academics and the broader public in conversations about progressive religion.

I’ve long been interested in West because in my view he’s the most prominent intellectual still working in the long tradition of American pragmatism that stretches back to Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey. All of us who are American religious liberals really should have some understanding of the pragmatist tradition, since it has been so influential for our religious tradition. So I wonder if we could think about West as a sort of successor to Emerson: a public intellectual who writes essays that are both popular and deeply thoughtful — and on that basis, we might think of taking his theology seriously, even if we don’t quite agree with it.

An appreciation of Peter Gomes

In a recent appreication of Peter Gomes, William J. Willimon tells an anecdote with implications for ecclesiology:

One Sunday, as Peter say in the vestry and prepared for the morning service, a student usher entered and stammered, “There’s somebody preaching here this morning.”

Peter replied, “Of course, me.”

“I mean there’s somebody preaching in the pulpit. Now. Is that OK?”

“What?” Peter thrust his head into the sanctuary. Aghast, he saw an African-American woman in the pulpit ranting at the docile congregations, screaming over the organ prelude. Indignantly, Peter bustled over to her and hissed through gritted teeth. “You, come down here this instant. Yes, you.”

The intruder stared down at Peter.

“This instant!” he sneered.

Startled, she came down the steps and informed Peter that she had been commissioned to preach that day a word direct from the Lord.

“Look you,” said Peter, in love, “this is my pulpit. I have earned the right to preach in this place. No one is going to deliver any word from the Lord today except for the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes. Now you go sit down on that pew and keep your mouth shut or I will call the campus police after I wring your head off.”

Peter reported that the woman sat there through the service — silent, with a beatific smile upon her face.

“As the prelude ended, I looked with scorn upon my congregation,” Peter confessed. “White, guilt-ridden liberals all, they would have sat there all morning, doing nothing while that woman continued her drivel unabated. They should thank God that their pastor is not some intellectual wimp.”

— “Harvard’s preacher” by William J. Willimon, The Christian Century, 5 April 2011, p. 11.

Would that all religious liberal congregations treated their pulpits with as much respect as Gomes treated the pulpit of Memorial Church.

Bernard Loomer reading list

I’ve been reading Jerome Stone’s Religious Naturalism Today, and through it I’ve gotten even more interested in theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer is the theologian who probably introduced Unitarian Universalists to the web of life as a theological concept. But Jerry also points out that Loomer helped originate another concept that has proved invaluable in liberal religious social justice work:

[In 1976] Loomer also wrote a seminal article on the distinction between unilateral and relational power, which may be the first statement of the distinction between power-over and power-with…. [Religious Naturalism Today, p. 96.]

Jerry’s referring to “Two Conceptions of Power” by Loomer, published in Process Studies 6:5-32, 1976. I’m going to have to add that to my Loomer reading list, which already includes Unfoldings, two booklets of transcriptions of talks Loomer gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and The Size of God, the long essay that revived religious naturalism when it was published in 1987.

By working through these relatively short works by Loomer, it looks like I can (1) gain a richer understanding of “web of life” as a theological and ethical concept; (2) take another look at a key ethical distinction around use of power; and (3) work through a key statement of religious naturalism that uses the concept of God without going beyond the world of nature. All this for less that 200 pages of reading!

A thought experiment

Some scholars of religion criticize the very category of religion. There are several possible critiques, including:

  • “Religion” as typically defined by Western scholars assumes Western religion as a norm, so that for example belief in a supernatural, transcendent deity is a defining characteristic of religion, even though significant numbers of Buddhists and Confucians do not require such belief.
  • “Religion” can’t be separated from the larger culture; there is no religion separate from art, politics, sport, etc.

So here’s a thought experiment. Let’s jettison, just for the moment, the usual definition of religion as something separate from the rest of culture, something that requires belief in a perhaps unbelievable deity, and something the must be associated with a hierarchical or otherwise organized institutional structure.

Once we jettison that definition, we can understand religion as something that is akin to art and politics: it is something that is integral to culture, something that cannot easily be separated out from culture. Using this model of reality, we can make more sense of some otherwise baffling phenomena. Celebrity culture in the West, for example, may be considered as a religious phenomenon: Oprah and Princess Diana are saintly figures in just the same way as the Dalai Lama and the Pope are, which makes it more understandable why they receive the kind of religious veneration as the Dalai Lama and the Pope. Sports may also be considered as a religious phenomenon, right down to the orgiastic frenzies, reminiscent of Bacchic rituals, in which those who are not followers of one’s own sect are physically assaulted. Art and music may also be understood as religious phenomena: we’re all familiar with analogies between rock concerts and religious rites; and, speaking for myself, I get as much religious inspiration by going to an art museum as I get in a worship service.

If religion must be understood more broadly in this way, how then are we to characterize Western-style organized religion? It is a subset of religion, a specific manifestation of the way our broader culture does religion. We might consider it a discipline; early Christians sometimes referred to what they did as a disciplina, and it is Christianity more than anything else which has narrowed our Western understanding of what constitutes religion. However, “discipline” is somewhat problematic because it implies that this kind of religion can perhaps be done by oneself, which is clearly not the case. We could also speak of institutional religion, as opposed to other religious activities such as art, politics, etc.; organized religion is a less accurate way of saying much the same thing, for to say “organized” doesn’t tell us that this is religion organized into institutions.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this thought experiment. What do you think?

Mencius says…

If you’ve been wondering why the United States is the way it is, here’s one possible answer from the Confucian tradition:

Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang.

The king said, “Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?”

Mencius replied, “Why must your Majesty use that word ‘profit?’ What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.

“If your Majesty say, ‘What is to be done to profit my kingdom?’ the great officers will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our families?’ and the inferior officers and the common people will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our persons?’ Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered….

“Let your Majesty also say, ‘Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.’ Why must you use that word — ‘profit’ ?”

Mencius, Book 1, part A, chapters 1-4, 6. Trans. James Legge.