Deconstruction and reconstruction

“…The term ‘postmodern’ had been used sporadically by process [theology] thinkers since the 1960s. The later French movement that gave ‘postmodernism’ wide currency reinforced many Whiteheadean criticisms of modernity, but it concluded on a ‘deconstructive’ note. Whiteheadians [and other process thinkers] joined with other constructive critics of modernity in emphasizing reconstruction.” — John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 2007), p. 561.

Unitarian Universalists are in the direct lineage of process thought, through the contributions of thinkers like Charles Hartshorne and Bernard Loomer, both of whom were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And for many years, our thinking emphasized the reconstructive aspects of postmodernity. More recently, though, I’ve been feeling that we Unitarian Universalists (and I include myself in this critique) have been following the French postmodernists by emphasizing the deconstructive aspects of postmodernity. This is due, I think, to our adoption of liberal political discourse, which currently emphasizes deconstruction over reconstruction — liberal politics tends to default towards breaking down stereotypes and attacking the sacred cows of the existing social order, as opposed to trying to construct a better social order. We who ally ourselves with liberal politics know what we are against, but we sometimes find it difficult to articulate what we are for.

Speaking for myself, to get out of reactive deconstruction, it’s been helpful to think about process thought. But the process thought of Hartshorne, Loomer, et al., seems a little dated these days. Maybe for us Unitarian Universalists, the work that Dan McKanan is doing around ecospirituality is one way to be reconstructive rather than deconstructive. Although, finding myself still in a deconstructive mode, I can’t help but keep looking for someone who isn’t a Western white male….

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 4

Read part one


I’m always a little surprised at how much the children seem to like Ecojustice class; we do try to make Sunday school classes fun, but this class seems to be more fun than most. Late last year, I overheard a conversation that helps explain why. A seventh grader told a fifth grader, “You have to take the Ecojustice class. You actually get to do things.” When he said “You get to do things,” that seventh grader—who happens to be a non-praying atheist—did not mean his friend would get to pray or read sacred texts. He had grasped in an intuitive way that the curriculum of Ecojustice class is based on a progressive educational philosophy where “the learning experience is a part of life, not a separated preparation for life.” (23) While we aim to inculcate religious literacy and the core values of our religious tradition, including familiarity with sacred texts, these things cannot be taught separately from the lives we are in the midst of living.


Our progressive educational philosophy cause us to look with alarm at the seeming inability of local faith communities to address the global environmental crisis. We all know people of faith have to address the global environmental crisis, yet in spite of this apparent consensus “that religion must play a central role in building a more environmentally sustainable society, religious organizations and individuals have achieved few tangible results.” (24) Religions have done pretty well at linking their sacred texts and traditions to abstract thinking about environmental justice, but this does not seem to have had much effect in the real world. The specific conditions of the global environmental crisis require a new approach to ecological theology, just as the conditions of Latin America required the new approach of liberation theology; (25) sacred texts and theology cannot be treated separately from the immediate reality of our lives. To put this more directly: when I asked a group of elders at UUCPA about sacred texts and environmental ethics, one replied, “You don’t get your ethics by reading, … you get your ethics by living.” (26)

That seventh grader who urged his friend to do the Ecojustice class knew that words—whether spoken or written words—are not the most important teaching tool. In U.S. culture, we often equate teaching with explaining, which “makes teaching a talkative affair” where we assume that “to teach is to tell.” But this assumption is not accurate, because most teaching is actually nonverbal teaching. Example and experiences will always prove more powerful than speech: “No amount of talk can substitute for the well-placed gesture of the human body.” (27)

The teaching that takes place in the Ecojustice class is always connected with bodily movement and gesture. Before the class even begins, the children take part in the worship service, sitting near to other people of all different ages, standing up to sing, running out the door to their classes. When we arrive in the classroom, we sit in a circle so that we are aware of each other’s faces and bodies. When we say opening words together, we have hand motions to go with them. The children run to get food scraps and dead leaves to put into the composter; they pick up worms in their hands; they peer over a fence to look in the creek; they saw wood, hammer nails, and help hold things that other children are hammering and sawing; they pick up tools and materials and put them away. Of course I and the other teachers explain things with words, but those words are linked to specific bodily actions: hold the hammer like this, don’t forget to put a little water in the worm composter, etc. When we had the ethical discussion of removing House Sparrow eggs from the nesting box, this was not an abstract discussion, we were talking about a living organism that might cause a problem that we had to face with hands and hearts. At the end of class, when we say together “Hold fast to what is good” (based on words from a sacred text), we hold each other’s physical hands.

What these sixth graders, and us adult teachers, experience in the worship service and throughout the class can be understood metaphorically as a form of dance; not high-art dance done as a performance by professionals (e.g., ballet, modern dance, etc.), but participatory social dance done as a community. Even though our congregation rarely includes dance in our formal worship services (as is true of most religious groups stemming from the Christian tradition), you can find elements of informal social dance throughout the worship service, and in the liturgical elements interspersed through the class time: a time to stand and to sit, a time to greet each other in worship; a time to run pell-mell, a time to pick up worms; gestures and movements that express who we are and how we are interconnected. If we did not have these elements of dance, if we did not respect the bodies of all those in our congregation, it is likely that the children would be much less willing to be part of our congregation: “If children are screaming, they might just be having a bad day or else they might be doing what many of the adults feel like doing.” (28) Not that we always manage to respect the bodies of those in our congregation, but at our best, children, teens, and adults embody our values through dance-like moves.

Carla Walter, a dancer and scholar in our congregation, describes a womanist spirituality, drawing on African spirituality, which helps me understand what our post-Christian congregation aspires to. A womanist spirituality, says Walter, incorporating elements like dance, music, oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, and relationships with other people, “draws on ancient knowledge of power in our spirits and communities to move us as it remembers the past, and on today’s hegemonically valued groups to work against intra- and intergroup hatred to build social sustainable structures. Spiritual wholeness is what is sought, in interconnectivity….” (29) This is what we are trying to do with our children and teens: make socially sustainable structures, seek spiritual wholeness. Womanist spirituality, a “struggle spirituality” that was never subject to Cartesian dualism and “the Adam and Eve mythos that informs Western religion,” (30) helps us dance through the resistance to Western religion; rather than correct interpretation of sacred texts to solve environmental problems, it nurtures spiritual wholeness and liberation through interconnectivity.

I don’t mean to suggest that scholars should give up re-interpreting sacred texts, like the Adam and Eve mythos in Genesis 2, to help solve environmental problems. And I appreciate the attempts to describe a straightforward connection from sacred texts to “ecological lived practices that continue to reshape an ecologically conscious social imaginary.” (31) But as a religious educator in a post-Christian congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have found this approach is more likely to lead to restless children and resistant teens, and not a few restless and resistant adults.

DanceService6 copy

Above: a dance choreographed by Carla Walter in a UUCPA worship service

Dance — “the earliest art form” which “allows expression that can’t approximate rational thought” (32) — lies closer to the embodied experience of young people than sacred texts. And while dance may not be prominent in sacred texts, it is there in the texts; in addition to re-interpreting Genesis 2, we might pay attention to texts like Exodus 15:20, where Miriam led women in celebratory dance, (33) as well as many other sacred texts that describe the relationship of human beings, other beings, and the divine in terms of processional dance, ecstatic dance, dances of praise and worship, etc. When we move out of the spheres of Western-style religion, and Westernized scholarship, we may find that dance is valued more highly. Professor Hyun Kyung Chung of Ewha Women’s University in Seoul gave an unusual presentation to the Seventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1991:

“Chung entered from the rear of the hall. She was accompanied by nineteen Korean dancers with bells, candles, drums, gongs, and clap sticks … [and] two Australian Aboriginal dancers dressed only in loincloths and body paint. … When they had all reached the stage, Chung and her companions stepped through a synchronized pattern [of dance] which combined Aboriginal movement with traditional Korean folk dance.” (34)

Some of those present experienced Chung’s presentation “electrifying, powerful, evocative,” while for others it was an “abject surrender of Christianity to a pagan environment.” (35) Many of us in the West have come to believe that hierarchies, orthodoxies, and standardized rituals define religion. Thus the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches gave a mixed response to Hyun Kyung Chung’s incorporation of dance into her presentation. Western Christianity (and Western religion more generally) has been preoccupied with hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. But the majority of Christians now live in the global South, Christianity is no longer no longer shaped exclusively by Western-style religious practices, and Christianity is no longer defined by hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. (36) This should cause us Westerners to rethink the definition of religion more broadly. We should remember that before Constantine’s deployment of Christianity in service of empire, Christianity “meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming Reign of God.” (37)

In a post-Christian congregation such as the one I serve, children, teens, and their parents are rightly wary of religion that serves imperial ambitions; rightly suspicious of Western-style religion imposing its hierarchies and standardization on us. As we move away from standardization, then contemporary poems, like the one Beverly read at the beginning of the worship service I described, may serve as sacred texts. As we move away from standardization of religion, we may listen when an elder in our congregation vigorously asserts that “you don’t get your ethics by reading, you get your ethics by living,” we may notice the persons in our congregation who are preliterate children, and we may conclude that reading sacred texts isn’t as important as it has been in Western-style religion. Our bioregion and cultural context may also influences us: here in the San Francisco Bay watershed, an urban area on the Pacific Rim with a large East Asian population, we may find ourselves understanding religion in Asian terms, in non-Western terms, as “a matter of seasonal rituals, ethical insights, and narratives handed down from generation to generation.” (38)

The fact that we no longer have a centralized, standardized definition of what constitutes religion leads to uncertainty in how we conduct religious education here in the United States. Our closest religious cousins in the U.S., the liberal mainline Protestant Christians, also find themselves in the midst of this uncertainty. The disestablishment of Protestantism in the U.S., which occurred half a century ago, challenged mainline congregations—and post-Christian congregations like ours—to embrace “religious, racial, and cultural pluralism”; since then, we have been uncertain what religious education is supposed to accomplish, and who should do the educating. (39) And the uncertainty within religious education, the uncertainty with Western-style religion, is only magnified by the existential uncertainty of the global environmental crisis.


As we re-imagine religious education within our congregation, I find the image of the Web of Life helps to make sense out of the many and varied dance moves we engage in. Bernard Loomer, a theologian affiliated with both mainline Protestant and post-Christian congregations, described the Web of Life as “an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality,” a complex which includes “the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence”; what Jesus called the Kingdom of God was also the Web of Life, although this insight of Jesus’s was “covered over because we have surrounded Jesus with religiosity.” (40) In the Web of Life, humans and non-humans and the inorganic are all bound together in a web of relationships; reworking more traditional Christian terms, Loomer says that sin is when we act against this web of relationships, while forgiveness “is a restoration to those relationships.” (41) Loomer adds that as human civilization advances—as we achieve greater freedoms for minority groups, better understand the dignity of the other, etc.—we create the need “for adopting disciplines that are more complex and requiring virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.” When Loomer said this in 1985, he remained uncertain whether we humans would be able to respond adequately to this challenge: “If the response is inadequate the human organism may turn out to be a dead end.” (42)

Facing this uncertainty, I am sometimes tempted to fall back on old educational models which impose certainty. I could make children and teens find spiritual certainty in a standardized body of sacred texts from which we extract truth. Or — something my congregation would feel more comfortable with — I could have children and teens find scientific certainty in technological fixes to the global environmental crisis. However, the best efforts of both science and Western religion have not decreased the probability of global environmental disaster, nor the probability that we humans will turn out to be a “dead end.” While I wouldn’t advocate abandoning either science or Western religion, they seem to me to be insufficient for making new “virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.”

Imagine religion as a dance which restores us to the Web of Life, rather than acting against the relationships of the Web of Life. In this dance, we are interconnected with other persons as embodied beings bound in a web of relationships. Those relationships begin in the immediate human community where we are dancing; the relationships extend further into the immediate bioregion of the local watershed; and then still further into the relationships of the whole of the Web of Life. The relationships in the Web of Life are not neat and tidy; rather the Web of Life is a thicket and bramble wilderness filled with the messiness of becoming. In this dance, we communicate the reality of the Web of Life through gestures rather than through words or texts, through the interaction of the whole selves of embodied human beings.

As a religious educator, I hope to restore persons to their relationships of the Web of Life. To that end, the spiritual practices associated with womanist spirituality, including dance, music, narratives and oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, relationships with other beings—spiritual practices that treat human beings as fully embodied beings—help connect children and teens (and adults too) to a spiritual wholeness within the Web of Life.

Our embodied approach to religious education might offer at least three helpful insights to more scholarly or theoretical approaches to mobilize religion to address the global environmental crisis. First, the children and teens in our post-Christian congregation are resistant to Western-style religion, associating it with intolerance and bigotry—associations that seem related to the imperial history of Western Christianity. Second, we see that the children and teens in our Pacific Rim congregation willingly and joyfully participate in dance-like embodied religious education—an educational approach that appears related to changes in global Christianity, and that can be conceptualized through womanist spirituality. Third, an accurate description of what I see in this post-Christian congregation does not lead to neat and tidy conclusions; instead I find myself in a thicket-and-bramble wilderness, where nothing about the messiness of becoming is clear and obvious.

A scholar of religion who walked into one of our classes and saw a bunch of sixth graders building birdhouses might be forgiven for thinking this class didn’t involve religion. Where are the texts, the beliefs, the prayers that define U.S. religiosity? Yet our post-Christian faith community might also be forgiven for thinking that organized religion has, so far, not been very effective in dealing with environmental crisis. It may not look like it on the surface, but our children and teens are dancing their way towards socially sustainable structures of spiritual wholeness. As the poet Marge Piercy says:

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. (43)



(23) This description of progressive educational philosophy is from Robert Pazmino, Foundational Issues in Christian Education 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 120.

(24) Anna L. Peterson, “Talking the Walk: A Practice-based Environmental Ethic as Grounds for Hope,” in Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, ed. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Kellar (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 46.

(25) Ibid., 58.

(26) Cecil Bridges, personal communication, February 23, 2016. Cecil gave me permission to quote his words.

(27) Gabriel Moran, Fashioning Me a People Today: The Educational Insights of Maria Harris (New London, Conn..: Twenty-Third Publications, 2007), 51.

(28) Ibid., 81.

(29) Carla S. Walter, Dance, Consumerism, and Spirituality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 49.

(30) Ibid., 48.

(31) Anne Marie Dalton and Henry C. Simmons, Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2010), 105.

(32) Walter, 86.

(33) Ibid., 88.

(34) Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1995/2001), 213.

(35) Ibid., 217.

(36) Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 174.

(37) Ibid., 174, 179.

(38) Ibid., 221.

(39) Charles R. Foster, “Educating American Protestant Religious Educators,” Religious Education, 110 (2015), 548-550.

(40) Bernard C. Loomer, Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), 1-2.

(41) Ibid., 3.

(42) Ibid., 19.

(43) Piercy, 128.

Environmentalism: from sacred texts to the real world

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Introduction and Methodology

Since at least the 1970s and the birth of the modern environmental movement, theologians and scholars of religion have paid a good deal of attention to how religion can support environmentalism and environmental justice. An important part of this scholarly attention has been directed at interpreting sacred texts and narratives to support environmentalism and environmental justice. (1) Both I, and the local faith community I serve, sometimes use this scholarly work to help inform and shape our response to the environmental crisis.

As much as I appreciate the scholarly work that has been done on this topic, I find a gap between this scholarly work and the work we do in our local congregation. Most people in our congregation have little time for reading sacred texts, let alone reading scholarly works. Our lives are filled with family and personal matters—raising children, going to school or working at jobs or coping with unemployment, caring for aging parents or declining spouses, etc. Many of us are also active in social justice work—our congregation is particularly concerned with homelessness and affordable housing, peacemaking, and managing the global environmental crisis, but we also are fighting racism, working to end modern slavery, dealing with the immigration problem, etc. As a minister of religious education, I myself have little time to read scholarly work, given the demands of teaching children’s classes, advising youth groups, managing volunteers, administering programs, fundraising, counseling people in crisis, etc.

Teaching, managing, administering, and counseling; caring, coping, working, and handling family responsibilities—these leave little time for reading or study. From one point of view, these mundane human relationships crowd out the divine. From another point of view, this is where the divine thrives, growing in the midst of mundane relationships. The poet Marge Piercy, in a poem we sometimes read in our worship services, says:

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. (2)

We could try to clear a straight path through the thickets and brambles of ordinary life, to cut through the thickets that lie between sacred text and our lives. I have attempted to do just this in conducting religious education classes for children and teens: to try to develop straight-line connections between sacred texts and young people’s lives. But trying to make direct connections in religious education has never worked as well as “tangling and interweaving and taking more in.” With that in mind, I decided to document the existing “rabbit runs and burrows and lairs” of our congregation’s religious education program, with its interconnections spreading like tangled rhizomes of plants—to document how a real-world congregation resists “an artificial unity” and instead celebrates “the messiness of becoming.” (3)

Those of us who do documentary work don’t really fit into the scholarly world. Documentarians tend to use language that is “too subjective” for scholarly articles; we tend to write in the first person singular, not in the scholarly passive voice. (4) We are writers, and also photographers and filmmakers, attempting “to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured,” and we try to figure out “how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence.” (5) Documentary work may seem wordy, non-linear, and overly passionate; documentarians have been accused of avoiding firm conclusions. But documentarians prefer to work this way in order to preserve the tangled messiness of what they have witnessed.

In documenting religious education programs in my congregation, I have protected the privacy of those whom I document, except where I asked for permission to quote someone directly. I have changed names and personal details, and sometimes combined identities to provide additional privacy.

On to part two.




(1) One notable example: Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, series ed., Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998-2004). Our congregation has the complete ten volume series in our library, though it appears to be little used.

(2) Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982), 128.

(3) Michael Mikulak, “The Rhizomatics of Domination: From Darwin to Biotechnology,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 15: Deleuze and Guattarri’s Ecophilosophy (2007): 17, accessed April 1, 2016

(4) Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 28-30.

(5) Ibid., 20.

(6) Footnote 6 was moved to the main body of the text.

Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King

Recently, I talked with Kurt Kuhwald, former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, about the school’s search process for a new president. Kurt had some interesting things to say about the search, and the conflict that erupted during and after the search.

Before I get to Kurt’s thoughts, you may want to review what happened at Starr King. I have a short post about the situation here. Since I wrote that post, the New York Times covered the story in a balanced and well-written article here, and UU World did a carefully-written article in November which you can read here. Now back to Kurt.

Kurt is someone for whom I have great respect, particularly in his thoughtful and passionate approach to ethical issues, and to issues of prophetic importance. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kurt a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about several prophetic issues: global climate change; the protests following Ferguson; and the mess at Starr King. We wound up spending most of our time talking about Starr King, not because it is of greater importance than Ferguson or global climate justice, but because it was so fresh in the minds of both of us. Actually, mostly I listened — Kurt has a unique and powerful interpretation of the Starr King situation, and I wanted to hear what he said.

Kurt has been kind enough to send me several documents that he is willing to make public, and with his permission, I am posting them here on my blog. You can click on one of the links below to go to a specific letter, or just scroll down to read these four documents in order:

Kurt’s letter of resignation from Starr King;
An addendum to that letter giving more detail on his reasons for resigning;
A letter to the Ad Hoc Committee set up by Starr King to investigate the situation;
A letter to the members of the UUA Board regarding Starr King.

As I talked with Kurt, it struck me that there was a deep current of theology running through everything Kurt said. He is talking about a theology of power; he is critiquing one way power is wielded in contemporary religious institutions. This is an incredibly important critque. I believe it would behoove anyone with an interest in the mess at Starr King to read or re-read Bernard Loomer’s important 1976 essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” Finally, out of respect for Kurt’s deep theological insights, I’m going to say that if you’d like to comment here you should exhibit some theological thinking. If you’re not sure how to think theologically about this issue, read Loomer’s essay.

As always, I reserve the right to delete or edit comments that I feel are discourteous, rude, or off-topic.

Scroll down to start reading Kurt’s letters….

Update, 14 January 2015: Kurt Kuhwald asked me if I’d be willing to post Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation from Starr King; until January 9, he was Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice. Since Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake timed their resignations for the same day, and since they share a prophetic vision for liberal religion, I felt it was appropriate to add that letter to this blog post. Having received Dorsey Blake’s permission, I have added his letter below:
Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation

Continue reading “Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King”

A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”


I took a week of vacation last week, which I mostly spent in historic downtown San Mateo — Carol was working this week — but I did take a day trip in to San Francisco to visit City Lights Bookstore, where I got A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987]; originally Mille Plateaux, 1980]). I got interested in A Thousand Plateaus through reading a chapter on Deleuze in Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics by B. H. McLean (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 2012).

What particularly fascinates me about A Thousand Plateaus is the way Delueze and Guatarri contrast “aroborescent” or tree-like thinking with rhizomatic thinking. In the Western tradition, we often structure our thoughts like trees: there are roots and branches, and a central trunk linking the two. Our thoughts have ramifications, just as branches ramify from the central trunk out to the twigs. However, as Deleuze and Guatarri point out: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories.” [Dleuze and Guatarria, p. 16] Thus, arboresecent thinking is related to distinctions between subject and object, to hierarchical thinking, and even to power structures like dictatorships.

Deleuze and Guatarri comment: “It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy…: the root foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type” [p. 18, ellipsis in the original]

Another image that can be used to understand thinking is the rhizome. In describing the rhizome, and rhizomatic thinking, Deleuze and Guatarri are not trying to set up a dichotomy, a dualism between rhizome (good) and tree (bad); they make it clear that rhizomatic thinking can lead to its own forms of despotism. Instead of creating another dualism, they are employing “a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models.” And they summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome as follows:

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and it traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, for five, etc. … It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n – 1)….” [pp. 20-21]

Why should any of this be of interest to you? B. H. McLean points out that “our arborified minds have been trained to essentialize things as isolated entities, rather than as mobile entities that enter into dynamic interconnection with other entities. Thinking ecologically does not come easy to us.” [p. 282] Rhizomes have no beginning nor end, only middles. Bernard Loomer says the great intellectual achievement of Jesus of Nazareth is his articulation of the Kingdom of God, what we would call the Web of Life; I think Jesus’s thought is an example of rhizomatic thought, a non-Western idea which sidesteps subject and object, which sidesteps isolated entities; and like the Kingdom of God or the Web of Life, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…'” [Deleuze and Guatarri, p. 25, ellipsis in the original] And so if we come to an impasse, it may help that a rhizome has multiple entryways.

One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a meeting of Humanist Roots Group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on Saturday 2 February 2013.

Religious naturalism defined

Let me begin with a capsule definition of religious naturalism. This comes from Jerome Stone’s book Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. The very first paragraph reads:

“Religious naturalism, a once-forgotten option in religious thinking, is making a revival. It seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world on a completely naturalistic basis without a supreme being or ground of being.”

Jerome Stone then goes on to list some thinkers who might be considered religious naturalists. If you’re a philosophy or theology geek, some of these names will be of interest to you: George Santayana, John Dewey, Henry Nelson Weiman, Bernard Loomer, Randolph Crump Miller (someone who influenced me through his work in religious education theory), perhaps Gordon Kaufman, and biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Historically, Jerome Stone says the roots of religious naturalism go back to Spinoza, and he also includes Henry David Thoreau as a religious naturalist. He also points out that some (not all) religious naturalists may be willing to use the term “God,” suitably defined. He writes:

“On the topic of God, I find that religious naturalists tend to fall into three groups: (1) those who conceive God as the creative process in the universe; (2) those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously; and (3) those who do not speak of God yet still can be called religious.”

The first group, which includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, would say that while the creative process (whatever that is, in terms of their definitions) is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe, they still think it is useful to name that creative process “God.” I am not particularly interested in this group of religious naturalists, and cannot speak intelligently about them; if this is a topic that interests you, Jerome Stone’s book would be a good place to start to learn more.

The second group, the people who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously, I find far more interesting. If you have some familiarity in Western philosophy, you will want to know that Stone places Spinoza in this group. And this group intersects with those pantheists who understand God as being the totality of the universe, where the universe is understood in completely naturalistic terms. Those who are advocates of the “Gaia hypothesis” — that’s the hypothesis that the entire biosphere of the planet Earth can be understood as one vast, perhaps sentient, organism — might be close to religious naturalism, although true pantheists who include the rest of the universe beyond the Earth, too. Continue reading “One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism”

Theological unity — a conversation

On Thursday, January 31, Amy, the senior minister at our church, and I are going give a class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism. We’re starting our class with an online conversation about the topic. And I’m going to begin my side of the conversation by listing five areas where I think Unitarian Universalists already have some degree of theological unity:

(1) Women and girls are as good as men and boys: During the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalism, like many liberal religious groups in the U.S., went through the feminist revolution in theology. We came out of those decades with a very clear theological consensus: when it comes to religion, women and girls are just as good as men and boys.

(2) Human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world: The Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones has argued that humanists and liberal theists have come to resemble each other in that both affirm the radical freedom and autonomy of human beings (“Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525). Today, we have a wide consensus that, whether or not we believe in God, none of us believes some larger power is going to come fix up our problems for us — if humans made the mess, it’s up to us to fix it.

Continue reading “Theological unity — a conversation”

Decomposition theology

Jack sent Carol and me a link to a wonderful article titled “What if God were a maggot?” which outlines a theology of decomposers:

“You can choose who seems holy to you, godlike, a god even, but I’ll take the bacteria and other decomposers. I’ll take the vultures standing on rooftops and fences, raising their angular wings as if in some unchoreographed tribute to Martha Graham. I’ll take the dung beetle. I’ll even take the maggot. Anybody can celebrate a monkey or a panda; they are easy gods, worthy of a simple sort of worship, one of fences and nature reserves. The decomposers are harder. They are everywhere and they need to be, without them nothing would be reborn. Without them we would all be, like the Australians of yore, knee deep in feces and bodies. Without decomposers even the plants would eventually stop growing. Some gods are clever, some gods are beautiful, some gods — it has been said but not proven — are even merciful. You can have those if you want. As for me, I’ll take the maggot and the vulture. I’ll take the bacteria. I’ll even take the catfish rolling in the shallow stink of Techiman’s market, the catfish whose groping mouth reaches up like the afterlife, that tunnel through which, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa reminds us, we must pass to get to some other side.” (Rob Dunn, Scientific American blog, “What If God Were a Maggot?” 20 December 2012)

Back in October, I mentioned Carol’s notion of “compost theology” in this blog post. Decomposition theology is compost theology as seen from a biologist’s point of view, where you look at specific species or clades; by contrast, compost theology takes an ecologist’s point of view, where you look at processes, cycles, and interrelationships.

Whichever point of view you take, I see all this as related to Universalist theology. Classic Universalist theology asserts that every human will be saved, i.e., every human will got to heaven after death. Compost theology asserts that every organism gets saved, i.e., every organism will decompose after death and its constituent elements reabsorbed into the Web of Life — and, according to theologian Bernard Loomer, the Web of Life was what Jesus intended when he said “Kingdom of Heaven.”

This, by the way, argues against the theology of Richard Dawkins, who says that immortality is achieved by an organism’s genes (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins takes a taxonomist’s narrow point of view, in which clades or species are most important. Compost theology, by contrast, argues that cycles and ecological relationships are of equal or greater importance to genes. Dawkins is a fundamentalist: it’s all about genes! Whereas we compost theologians are mystics: all is one, everything is part of an ecological unity.

An obvious point

An obvious point, but one worth making:

Traditional Christianity, which still dominates the United States, sets up a hierarchy of worth among human beings: all humans may be ultimately equal in the sight of God, but those who will be saved upon dying (sometimes phrased differently: those who accept Jesus as their personal savior, those who are Christians, etc.) will go to heaven and everyone else will not. The humans who get to go to heaven thus feel that they are more equal than the rest of us. There’s a good name for this theological viewpoint: it is called the “limitarian” viewpoint because the number of humans who get to go to heaven is limited.

Traditional Universalism, by contrast, leads us to a radically egalitarian viewpoint: all humans will be saved, all humans will go heaven upon dying. The conversion experience for traditional Universalists is not an experience of relief (“Whew, now I’m one of the ones who gets to go to heaven!”); the Universalist conversion experience is an experience of happiness upon knowing that we all get to go to heaven (“Wow, now I realize that we’re all worthy of God’s love!”).

The humanist and non-theistic Universalists may be somewhat less cheerful than the traditional Universalists, because the humanist and non-theistic Universalists don’t say that everyone is going to go to heaven; there is however a very cheerful humanist or non-theistic Universalism which rejoices in knowing that one’s body will return to the ecosystem and remain a part of the web of life. I like the term “compost theology,” coined by my partner Carol, for this theological position. (Since some traditional Universalists feel comfortable with Bernard Loomer’s contention that when Jesus preached about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he meant the web of life, these traditional Universalists find substantial common ground with the compost theologians.)

But the obvious point here is that all Universalists — humanist Universalists, traditional Universalists, compost Universalists — come down on the side of a more radical egalitarianism than the vast majority of U.S. Christians. (This may be what really annoys U.S. Christians about us Universalists: they like to think they’re better than we are, and we’re so very sure that they are not.)