The first world religion

Quick, what was the first world religion? — that is, the first religion that expanded well beyond its origins within a given culture and/or political unit.

April DeConick, an expert on Gnostic religion, asserts that Manichaeism was the first world religion. “Who gets taught that in World Religions courses?” DeConick adds. After its start in Persia in the third century, it had expanded to the Atlantic ocean by the fourth century, and along the Silk Road to the Pacific ocean in China by the eighth century or so.

Bookstores in the age of ebooks

According to this BBC feature article, best-selling author Ann Patchett believes it is still possible to have a successful bookstore. Six months ago she opened a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, and although she didn’t need to make a profit, in the interview she says “we’re doing really well.”

Patchett addresses the rise of ebooks. She does not denigrate ebooks, but points out that that many readers still appreciate a physical book. “Just because ebooks are becoming popular doesn’t mean that we should scoop all the other books into a pile and burn them,” she says. “And there is a spirit or attitude of, ‘Well, books are dead, it’s over, forget it.’ And it’s not over.”

The local butcher

I was chatting with one of the guys at the meat and fish counter at our neighborhood supermarket while he was weighing out a pound of Dover sole for me. I asked him if he was more of a meat guy, or a fish guy.

“You have to be both,” he said. “The fish used to come in here whole. We’d gut it over there” — he pointed to the counter where they crack Dungeness crabs for you — “and fillet it. But yeah, I first worked for a butcher.”

“Working with meat must keep you physically fit,” I said. “Having to lift all that weight.”

“No, not really,” he said. “That enough?”

“One more,” I said.

He threw on one more fillet, and wrapped the fish up. “Nah, once you get it on the hook, the cuts just fall off as you work. We don’t get many whole animals in these days, though — but once in a while.” He handed me the package. “Anything else?”

I said no, and thanked him. There was another customer waiting. I moved away, glancing at the door of the cold room in the back, which must have meat hooks on the ceiling, and a band saw, and other butcher tools. I’m seen the butcher work with a knife, and it looks like he’s got good hand skills. I imagined him hauling a carcass up on meat hook, using his knife so that the cuts of meat fell off with little effort, and I couldn’t help but remember Cook Ting in the Chuang-tzu, who tells Lord Wen-hui how he cuts up an ox:

“…Whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.” [Chuang-tzu, ch. 3, Burton Watson translation]

The difference between the two is that Cook Ting is very articulate and gets very mystical about butchering — “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill…” — whereas our local butcher is plain-spoken and down-to-earth. I have to admit, I prefer our local butcher.

Man is not the measure of all things

Dad and I have been talking for some time about our discomfort with the term “humanist” (a term which, by the way, can be applied to both Christians and atheists). Neither one of us seems to have much interest in putting humanity at the center of the universe; we’re both more willing to call ourselves religious naturalists.

My fever came back this afternoon, and I slept through the time I usually talk with dad. But late in the evening, I came across the following in a book of critical essays on science fiction; it begins to express some of the feelings I have about the position of humanity in the universe:

It isn’t that mankind is all that important. I don’t think that Man is the measure of all things, or even of very many things. I don’t think that Man is the end or culmination of anything, and certainly not the center of anything. What we are, who we are, and where we are going, I do not now, nor do I believe anybody who says he knows, except, perhaps, Beethoven, in the last movement of the last symphony. All I know is that we are here, and that we are aware of the fact, and that it behooves us to be aware — to pay heed. For we are not objets. That is essential. We are subjects, and whoever among us treats us as objects is acting inhumanly, wrongly, against nature. And with us, nature, the great Object, its tirelessly burning suns, its turning galaxies and planets, its rocks, seas, fish and ferns and fir trees and little furry animals, all have become, also, subjects. As we are part of them, so they are part of us. Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh….

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” [1975] in The Language of the Night (Ultramarine Publishing, 1980), p. 116.

Fever dreams

For the first time in years, I’m running a fever. It’s been so many years, I’d forgotten what it can be like to have a fever: the way you can feel like you’re not quite in this reality, the hazy thinking, and so on.

It’s not much of a fever, so I’m not getting any fever dreams, which is a little disappointing. I remember having a fever when I was about seven, and hallucinating that a UFO flew by the bedroom window; the UFO looked exactly the rubber stopper we used to plug up the bath tub, so it was obvious that this was not a UFO; nevertheless, I was convinced that I had indeed seen a UFO, and I remained convinced for some years after that. Such are the power of fever dreams.

I can’t help but notice some similarity between fever dreams and mystical experiences: the vague sense of unreality, strange visions, and so on. The difference is that mystical experiences don’t leave you lethargic, thirsty, and unwilling to eat anything; nor are mystical experiences brought under control by taking aspirin.

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.

The implications of living in a multiethnic neighborhood

Carol and I live in a multiethnic neighborhood. Based on income, class, and cultural attitude, the people in our neighborhood are just the kind of people who would come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I’ll give a brief description of our neighborhood, and then based on our experience of living in our neighborhood I’ll tell you why I think they wouldn’t be welcome in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.

The people across the street are white, and the family has been living in the same house since it was built in the 1890s. The house next to us on one side was recently purchased by an immigrant Russian couple, and we often hear them speaking Russian to their Pug dog. Down the street are several houses and apartments with Latino families; the ones we know about are Mexican. There used to be a couple of African Americans living down the block, but I ahven’t seen them for a while. We see east Asian people walking down our street, and based on their looks (an unreliable way of determining ethnicity), I’d guess some of them are probably Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese.

The people in our neighborhood have a variety of professions. We know there are several gardeners in the neighborhood not just because our landlord hires one of them to take care of the yard, but also because they park their pickup trucks on the street. We know of an architect, an artist, a college student, and a test driver who tries out new cars. We all learned there was a child pornographer, but he’s in jail now. There’s a stay-at-home mom, a school bus driver who parks his bus on the street when he comes home for lunch, and several people who walk to the Caltrain station dressed in business casual. Continue reading “The implications of living in a multiethnic neighborhood”

What to avoid when talking about your religion

The January/February, 2012, issue of The Humanist contains an article by Jennifer Hancock titled “Seven Things To Avoid When Talking to Strangers about Humanism” (pp. 39, 41). Here’s her list:

“1. Don’t expect a negative reaction….
“2. Don’t begin a debate….
“3. Keep your definition of humanism simple….
“4. Don’t talk about God….
“5. Don’t make it about them….
“6. Don’t denigrate religion — any religion….
“7. Don’t forget to talk about morality….”

While Unitarian Universalism is not equivalent to humanism, despite a few assertions to the contrary, nevertheless these little suggestions work reasonably well for us Unitarian Universalists as well. Here are seven things to avoid talking about when talking about Unitarian Universalism.

“Don’t expect a negative reaction.” — I might word this a little differently: “Assume the other person is merely curious.” Maybe for some Unitarian Universalists, the default reaction to a discussion of religion would be negative, but in our increasingly secular society more and more people have no default reaction, positive or negative, towards religion. They’re just curious.

“Don’t begin a debate.” — This could be stated less politely as: “Don’t be so damned defensive.” Turning innocent questions about religion into debates is just going to alienate others.

“Keep your definition of Unitarian Universalism simple.” Lots of us have been practicing our “elevator speeches” describing Unitarian Universalism in a ten-second sound bite. Elevator speeches actually do work; if you don’t have one yet, maybe now’s the time to develop one.

“Don’t talk about God.” It turns out that most people aren’t that interested in having theological discussions about whether or not God exists, and if God does exist what is the nature of God. When we asked our Mormon friend about her church, she told us about the people and programs, not about theology. When someone asks me about my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I tell them about the amazing Sunday services, the great people who are part of the congregation, the fun that the kids have in Sunday school, the social justice work that we do; there’s never time to even get to God.

“Don’t make it about them.” If someone wants to ask us about Unitarian Universalism, they don’t really want us to tell them how much their religion (or lack of religion) sucks. After we’re done talking about your religion, if they want to talk about their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), we can politely listen. But if they ask us about Unitarian Universalism, it is wise to take their question quite literally, assume they actually want us to tell them about Unitarian Universalism, and then simply tell them.

“Don’t denigrate religion — any religion.” Denigrating religion either makes us look like schmucks, or it makes us look weird, or possibly both. Denigrating someone else’s religion? — that makes me look like the kind of schmuck who can’t tell you about the positive aspects of their religion so their only option is to badmouth all other religions. And if I claim to be Unitarian Universalist, which means I’m by definition religious, but I’m denigrating religion? — that’s just plain weird.

“Don’t forget to talk about ethics and morality.” In my experience, most people who ask about my religion are really quite interested in what sort of ethics and morality goes along with my religion. When I tell people that Unitarian Universalists aren’t particularly worried about what you believe, but we are concerned with what you do with your life, that we are always trying to make this world a better place, particularly for those who are poor or powerless — this kind of thing is of great interest to people.

So there you have it, modified from Jennifer Hancock’s original article: seven things to avoid when talking about Unitarian Universalism.

Transform and grow your RE program, questions

Below are the questions asked by participants in the workshop “Transform and Grow Your RE Program,” a workshop I led at the Pacific Central District annual meeting on April 28, 2012. (First post in this series.)

Questions about tracking attendance

(1) Under “policy governance,” should religious education [RE] attendance numbers be shared with the Board? (every month?) — the congregation? — or just the executive team?

I don’t think it matters whether you’re using “policy governance” or any other kind of governance, I believe we should share attendance figures as widely as possible. In my congregation, I report RE attendance every month to the Board, key staffers, the RE committee, and the Committee on Ministry. Attendance figures for the year always go in the annual report, which goes to all congregational members. I also sometimes report attendance to parents/guardians and volunteers.

One key strategy for transforming a congregational system is building in as many positive feedback loops as possible. Positive feedback loops are those ways that people learn how things are going, and that they receive good feelings when things are going well (negative feedback loops are destructive communications like malicious gossip, triangulation, scolding, meanness, etc.). So as a general principle, I say we should be building lots of positive feedback loops all the time, especially with crucial metrics as attendance figures.

(2) Can we see a sample of the spreadsheet you use to track enrollment and average attendance?

Here’s a PDF of our Excel attendance spreadsheet for April, 2012, at the UU Church of Palo Alto: REAttendSample.xls

Unfortunately, I cannot share the spreadsheet we use to track enrollment, as it contains the names and birthdates of legal minors. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, questions”

Transform and grow your RE program, conclusion

First post in this series.


Let’s review what it takes to transform and grow your programs and ministries for children and youth:

You have to figure out how you’re going to measure growth, because you will get the growth that you measure for.

Then there are four steps to growth:

One: You must have a compelling vision, and I suggest that compelling vision is encompassed within four big goals: to have fun and build community; to gain religious literacy; to gain the skills associated with liberal religion; and to prepare kids to become Unitarian Universalist adults who are sensitive, moral, joyful, and have integrity.

Two: You must build an infrastructure that will support your transformative and growing program, including $1,500 per kid, one adult volunteer per two kids, 25 square feet of physical space per kid, a good enough program, and plans in place to continue growth.

Three: You can pluck low-hanging fruit as it is available, to help motivate and encourage everyone involved.

Four: You must have at least five years’ worth of patience; and if your congregation is on a stalled growth plateau, you will need twice as much time, a decade’s worth of patience.

And the whole purpose of this is growth and transformation. We want children to grow up into caring, sensitive, moral adults with deep integrity. We want our congregations to grow so that we can accommodate all those people out there who want to join us. They might not yet know that they want to join us, but they are waiting for our fun, moving, life-transforming message. Sometimes we literally save people’s lives, and that alone would be enough justification to expand our reach through growth. We also transform people’s lives (including our own lives) on a less dramatic level because we provide a place where we can makes sense out of life: we make sense out of life being part of a community where we can share our deepest selves; we make sense out of life through an intellectual knowledge of religion that helps us be better citizens in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world; we make sense out of life by gaining personal skills like meditation and singing that help us find meaning; we make sense out of life by joining a religious community whose values we share and believe to be of utmost importance.

Questions from participants, with my answers.