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.

Exodus: The Card Game

A few months ago, I wrote about prototyping “Exodus: The Card Game,” a game based on the wanderings of the Israelites. After lots of play with both kids and adults (and lots of changes to the rules), prototyping is finally done. I made 6 decks using the online printer Board Games Maker; the printing quality is excellent, and here’s what a deck looks like:

One of our curriculum goals in our Sunday school is to play more games. “Exodus: The Card Game” is designed to supplement an upper elementary or middle school unit on the Hebrew Bible. Once you learn the rules, play takes about 15-20 minutes, so it fits nicely into a typical Sunday school class time. And the rules are fairly simple and straightforward; I’m including them below the fold so you can get an idea of the game.

The only problem with this game is the price. I bought 6 decks, and the price including shipping and handling came out to just under $25 per deck — pricey for a card game. (If I printed 1000 decks the price would drop to about $6 per deck, but what would I do with 1,000 copies of this game?)

If you’d like to buy a copy of the game, email me and I can get you a single copy for about $27. (There’s a price break at 6 copies, which knocks approximately $2 off the price; next price break is at 30 copies.) If you’re going to the Pot of Gold religious education conference in Sacramento on Sept. 29, I’ll have a few extra copies of the game to sell.

Continue reading “Exodus: The Card Game”

New book: Unitarians in Palo Alto

For the past five years, I’ve been researching Unitarians who lived in Palo Alto from 1895 to 1934, and writing short biographies of these ordinary Unitarians. I’ve finally collected these biographies and printed them in a perfect-bound paperback book, Available on Lulu.com either as a print copy for $10.84 (plus whatever Lulu charges for shipping and handling), or as a PDF download. The Introduction to the book appears below the fold.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1895-1934: A Biographical Dictionary
by Dan Harper
ISBN: 978-0-9889413-5-9

A biographical dictionary of Unitarians living in Palo Alto, Calif., from 1895 to 1934, most of whom were associated with either the Unity Society of Palo Alto (1895-1897) or the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934).

Continue reading “New book: Unitarians in Palo Alto”

Obscure Unitarians: Eliza Corbett Thompson Stebbins

Eliza (Elsie) Corbett Thompson Stebbins was born in England on April 6, 1879, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. She attended the University of California at Berkeley c. 1898-1901, but she does not appear to have graduated. In 1900, she gave her occupation as “Teacher of Music,” and lived in a boarding house in Oakland.

She married Horatio Ward Stebbins in Santa Barbara on February 14, 1906; Horatio was the son of Rev. Horatio Ward Stebbins, long-time minister of the Unitarian church in San Francisco. The younger Horatio, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taught mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Presumably the younger Horatio was also affiliated with the Unitarian church, though the extant documents do not mention him. Elsie and Horatio had one child, Amelia “Amy” Adams Stebbins (b. June 11, 1912).

Elsie served on the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto beginning in 1916.

She died May 25, 1968, in San Mateo.

Notes: 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 U.S. Census; University of California Reg-ister, 1898, 1901; “Marriages,” Christian Register, March 1, 1906, p. 249; Eliza “Elsie” Corbett Thompson, “The New England Mathers,” https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=mikemather63&id =I147333 accessed 11 September 2018); Bulletin of the Massachusetts In-stitute of Technology, Boston: Register of Former Students (Boston, Mass.: May, 1915), p. 470; California Death Index, 1940-1997, Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.

Obscure Unitarians: “Mr. Wolff”

A “Mr. Wolff” served on the Committee of Ushers of the old Unitarian Church in Palo Alto in 1908. Who was this man, mentioned only once in the extant records of that long-defunct church?

A likely candidate is Franklin Fowler Wolff. The son of a Methodist minister, he was born in Pasadena in 1887, and rejected orthodox Christianity while he was in his teens. He studied mathematics, psychology, and philosophy at Stanford University, and received his A.B. in mathematics in 1911. He then did graduate study in philosophy at both Stanford and Harvard, returning to Stanford in 1914 to teach mathematics. But after only a year, he left academia to pursue his own studies, and changed his name to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. He eventually became known as a spiritual teacher, a mystic, and a writer.

This identification of “Mr. Wolff” should be considered tentative. Another possible “Mr. Wolff” is Marcus Wolff, who received his A.B. in economics from Stanford in 1906; however, he appears to have been living in San Francisco in 1908.

But if Franklin Merrell-Wolff did indeed attend a Unitarian Church while an undergraduate at Stanford, barely out of his teens, it would not surprise me — the Emersonian philosophy that underlies much of Unitarian theology could have had a distinct appeal to a developing mystic.

Notes: Ron Leonard, The Transcendental Philosophy of Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1999).

Guide to visiting other faith communities

Here’s a five-minute video I made about what to pay attention to when you visit services at a faith community that’s not your own. Drawing on Ninian Smart‘s seven dimensions of religion, the video suggests that when visiting another faith community it’s most interesting to focus on three of Smart’s seven dimensions: the emotional/experiential, social, and material dimensions.

Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Continue reading “Boomer challenges”

Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public, “Truth isn’t truth.”

Nests

It was the first day of Sunday school, and our middle school ecojustice class took a tour of the various projects the class works on — small-plot gardens, rain barrels, composters, and so on. It is well past the end of nesting season for birds, so one of the things we were able to do is check on the nesting boxes the class built a couple of years ago.

Both the nesting boxes in the front yard of the church campus had been occupied. One of the nesting boxes did not have a great deal of nesting material in it, and if there was an active nest, the eggs wound up sitting on wooden floor of the box:

The other nesting, box, however, had clearly been occupied — probably for more than one year, as there appeared to be at least two layers of nesting material. Evidence of occupation included fecal matter, and one of my co-teachers, Francesca, found an infertile egg, with some black mold on it, buried in the nesting material:

I had seen Western Bluebirds active around the nesting boxes during nesting season, though I never saw any nestlings. The appearance of the nests and egg corresponds well with the description given of Western Bluebird nests and eggs in Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (Baicich and Harrison, 2nd ed., Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): “Nest: A slight cup in a cavity. Of dry grasses and a few feathers. … Eggs:… Subelliptical to short subelliptical….Blue and unmarked. 21 x 16 mm.” I would characterize the blue as light blue, or sky blue.

The nesting boxes are showing signs of wear; the front of one split in two while we were opening it for inspection. So one project for the class this winter will be to make new nesting boxes.