Catherine Keller on “Ecologies of Diversity”

Catherine Keller, author of From a Broken Web, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the 2016 Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. This year’s conference theme is “Nature and Environment in World Religions.”

Keller’s address was titled “Ecologies of Diversity: Beyond Religious and Human Exceptionalism.”

To help address the global environmental crisis, Keller believes religions must move beyond human exceptionalism — that is, religions have to get over the notion that humans are somehow more privileged than other organisms. Furthermore, she believes that we must also move beyond religious exceptionalism.

She said she assumed that those of us attending the conference are participants in a faith that is “planetary.” “By talking together, we hope to get and give some hope,” she said, “Hope for the planetary future.” She added: “Those hopes come encoded in our sacred texts.”

Keller went on to make three main points:

First, the unprecedented planetary emergency should not be treated as exceptional, she said. The current ecological crisis is driven both by politics that use emergency powers to prolong the crisis, and by various types of exceptionalism. Instead, she said the planetary emergency can be understood as “an emergence.”

Second, Keller believes “an alternative politics” is needed. “The key to this alternative is, I believe, what might be called ‘entangled difference’.” Her 2015 book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement goes into more detail on “entanglement,” which she relates to the concept of quantum entanglement.

“Difference is not a separation, but a relation,” she pointed out. Thus, difference and entanglement can go hand in hand. “And so while difference may exclude or ignore” that from which it is different, there is still a relationship between the things that are different.

Third, Keller said, “If we can turn catastrophe into catalyst, the answer is hope.” In fact, she said that “catastrophe must become a catalyst” in order for positive action to happen.

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Sabbatical

I’m taking sabbatical time this year — four non-consecutive months, plus three additional non-consecutive weeks — to work on a writing project.

November is the first month of my sabbatical. So of course I was up late last night, madly finishing of my list of things that Must Be Done Before The Sabbatical. I checked off the last item on my list at 11:28 p.m., and went to bed.

This morning I awoke feeling a little stunned: I was actually on sabbatical. In more than a decade as a minister, and two decades working in congregations, I’ve never had a sabbatical before. It’s a funny feeling knowing that the only thing I am supposed to do this month is — well, what am I supposed to do with a sabbatical?

In contemporary language, a sabbatical is a tool for sustainability. It is abased on the ancient Hebrew custom outlined in Leviticus 25.2-5:

“When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.”

So during my sabbatical time, I won’t sow or prune, nor will I answer email for four hours a day, nor run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to catch up on administrative tasks. Instead, sayeth Elohim, I’m supposed to let my soul lie fallow.

Not only is a sabbatical about sustainability, it is also about social justice for workers, immigrants, and other sentient beings, according to Leviticus 25.6-7:

“And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee. And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat.”

I have not done so well in carrying out this part of taking a sabbatical. While I’m away, the Religious Education Assistant and members of the Religious Education Committee have to take care of some of the things I normally do, though I have tried to minimize what they have to do. Ideally, an entire community would all take a sabbatical together; everyone would stop work. However, in this ear of globalization and consumer capitalism, if everyone stopped working we would face economic ruin — the next version of the iPhone would be delayed by a year! there would be no fossil fuels to burn and send carbon into the atmosphere! — so I will just have to accept the fact that I am going to have to go on sabbatical by myself.

And what will I do while on sabbatical? How will I let my soul lie fallow? I’m going to write: writing seems to be good for my soul, and I’ve been too busy the past few years to write much; you may see some of that writing here on this blog. Maybe I’ll do some other things, too; I don’t really know; this sabbatical thing is new to me.

(I’ll include the official statement about my sabbatical below the fold — not that you care, but just so it’s here on my blog, in case someone is looking for it.)

  Continue reading “Sabbatical”

Did God really say THAT?!

Chris Schriner has started writing a new blog titled “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.” Chris decided he wanted to take on Biblical literalism, so that’s what he’s writing about on his new blog. Chris is learned, funny, and provocative. He’s also a former psychotherapist, and a humanist who is sympathetic to theists. Who better to write such a blog? In his most recent posts, he’s been taking on capital punishment in the Bible, like the following words spoken by God in Exodus 20.15: “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” Wait, did God really say that? If so, as Chris points out in one post, then there are going to be a lot of toddlers on death row.

So what are you waiting for? Go join the fun by clicking here.

Women and organized religion

Last summer, Barna Research Group released a report in which they examined trends in 14 different religious variables for the period 1991-2011. One of their more interesting findings was that women, long the majority in many congregations, have been dropping out of organized religion:

Church attendance among women sank by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44%. A majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week. [Link to report.]

A year earlier, Jim Henderson, an evangelical Christian author and minister, had contracted with Barna Group to conduct a survey of how self-described “Christian” women who attended church regularly felt about their experience of church. The vast majority of those women felt satisfied with their church, with their church’s leadership, and with their church’s views of women.

It sure looks like the self-described Christian women who go to church regularly like their churches. But Henderson asked himself why so many other women were leaving church. According to a Washington Post report on his new book, The Resignation of Eve, Henderson came to a logical conclusion: women in Christian churches are getting increasingly disillusioned by the sexism that’s all too common in those churches:

In [The Resignation of Eve], the author, an evangelical minister named Jim Henderson, argues that unless the male leaders of conservative Christian churches do some serious soul-searching — pronto — the women who have always sustained those churches with their time, sweat and cash will leave. In droves. And they won’t come back. Their children, traditionally brought to church by their mothers, will thus join the growing numbers of Americans who call themselves “un-churched.”

Never mind that the Bible talks about women submitting to men and sitting silently in church, Henderson declaims. That’s ancient history. “Until those with power (men) decide to give it away to those who lack it (women), I believe we will continue to misrepresent Jesus’ heart and mar the beauty of his Kingdom,” Henderson writes.

Henderson bolsters his argument with data from the Barna Research Group…. And although the Barna data have been disputed by other researchers, Henderson goes further. Even those women who go to church regularly, he says, are really only half there: Their discontent keeps them from engaging fully with the project of being Christian. He calls this malaise among women “a spiritual brain drain.”

I wouldn’t expect many of those Christian women to transfer to their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Instead, I would expect them to join the growing ranks of Americans who are “spiritual but not religious” — i.e., those who have religious leanings but who stay away from organized religion.

However, all this does lead me to believe that we need to continue the feminist revolution that has stalled within Unitarian Universalism. While most of our ministers are now women, men still get the majority of the prestigious, well-paid jobs in the biggest congregations; and while I can’t find any hard data to back this up, I’m inclined to believe the average female minister makes less than the average male minister. Furthermore, the vast majority of professional religious educators are women, who are most often part-time and poorly paid. I think it would be wise for us to correct the existing gender inequities within Unitarian Universalism before we start alienating Unitarian Universalist women and men.

REA conference, part five

During the Saturday afternoon breakout session of the Religious Education Association annual conference, I attended a workshop titled “Practical Neuroscience for the Pews”; it was led by Mary Cheng and Alan Weissenbacher, both doctoral candidates at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Of the six people who participated in this workshop, three were full-time practitioners working in local congregations: a catechist serving a Roman Catholic parish outside Toronto, a pastor serving a Uniting Church congregation near Brisbane, Australia, and me, a minister of religious education from California. Another participant was associated with Fordham, but she also served in a local congregation, and I believe at least one other participant also served a Catholic parish. The workshop leaders encouraged full participation from the rest of us and allowed the conversation to range widely; as a result, this report may seem a little disjointed. However, the workshop seemed anything but disjointed: at the end, several of us agreed that it was by far the best presentation yet.

Goals and ends

Weissenbacher and Cheng began by asking us to consider what our goals are as religious educators, and to consider how brain science gets us to our goals. Then Weissenbacher asked a provocative question: If we use brain science to reach our religious education goals, how are we different from those who use brain science to practice mind control? Does what we are doing lay the foundation for more intrusive mind control techniques? He said that key difference is that religious educators (ethical ones, anyway) respect the agency of the people they are educating; furthermore, religious educators will be quite open about the techniques they are using. Continue reading “REA conference, part five”

A parable told by robots, signifying…

A robot tells the parable of the Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97. Here’s the text of the video:

The kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She did not know it. She had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.

A slightly different version of Thomas 97 will be the reading in the Sunday services tomorrow.

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.

Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….

There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….

The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.

Just to state the obvious

When confronted with a twelve year old girl who had just died, the story about that radical rabble-rouser and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth does not have him saying: “Your daughter is in heaven now because God needed another angel”; nor is he reported as saying, “I know just how you feel, but your daughter is in a better place now.” Nope, the way the story runs is that Jesus walks into where the girl is lying, takes her hand, and says, “Girl, get up!” and she does. (For you Bible geeks, this is in Mark 5.35-43.)

Mind you, I’m not someone who believes in the literal factual truth of the stories in the Bible, nor do I believe in the literal truth of the stories told by Shakespeare, and in fact I have a limited amount of trust in the literal factual truth of stories in the New York Times or on Fox News. Stories have their own narrative logic that is different from, but no less true than, literal factual truth.

So reading this story is not going to make me go out and try to do some faith healing — no more than reading King Lear is going to make me say to my sweetheart, “I love you according to my bond; no more nor less.” (For you Shakespeare geeks, that’s act 1, scene 1, lines 94-95.) However, reading this story in the Jesus saga is going to make me think twice before uttering platitudes to the parents of a dead child. Jesus did not try to placate them by saying, “Your twelve year old is one of God’s angels now.” Instead, he showed up. He didn’t weep and wail. He was matter-of-fact. He paid attention to the parents, and paid attention to what they really wanted.

Just to state the obvious, this story is not a literal story about a dead girl that came back to life, but it is about a different kind of miracle: showing up, not freaking out, and paying attention to someone who needs it.

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