Rules for prayer

Even though I’m the guy who wrote the essay “Why I Don’t Pray” in the pamphlet “UU Views of Prayer,” I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Not because I’ve started praying (I haven’t), but more because I’m sick of hearing about the alleged virtues of meditation and mindfulness. You see, meditation and mindfulness are being coopted by consumer capitalism: Meditation will improve worker productivity! Mindfulness will help your children get better grades! And if you work more, or get good grades and go to college, you will be able to buy more!

These are fairly recent developments for meditation and mindfulness. Prayer, on the other hand, got coopted by consumer capitalism a few decades ago. Prayer is an integral part of the “Prosperity Gospel,” a mutant offspring of Christianity and consumer capitalism which holds that if you believe in God and pray and give generously to your church then you will get rich. While I try to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, the Prosperity Gospel is bullshit. And it’s clear clear to me that meditation and mindfulness are on track to being coopted in the same way prayer was: soon we will faced with the spectre of the Prosperity Dharma.

Unitarian Universalists have developed some standards and best practices that have tended to insulate us from the worst excesses of the Prosperity Gospel. It is worth reviewing what those are:

1. Prayer is not going to make you rich; some people who pray might get rich, but that’s random chance. (In fact, the same can be said of religion in general.)

2. If prayer works for you, go for it. If prayer doesn’t work for you, then don’t — AND don’t be an asshole and make fun of people who find that prayer works for them.

3. Unitarian Universalists generally agree with Jesus when he says in the Bible, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). In other words, it’s fine if you pray but don’t be a show-off. In fact, don’t be a show-off with any spiritual practice.

4. We do not have to bow our heads during prayer (see previous point). If you want to, that’s fine, but you don’t have to.

Why is it worth reviewing these standards and best practices? Because they can also be applied to meditation and mindfulness. And meditation and mindfulness are coming ever closer to breeding their own mutant offspring with consumer capitalism. And the last thing we need is to be taken over by the Prosperity Dharma.

Join the elite

Those of us who are religious progressives continue to try to understand conservative Christianity in the United States, and more specifically to understand how a religious option that asserts the leadership of Jesus of Nazareth also seems to advocate for consumerism, individualism, and intolerance.

I’ve spent some time learning about the theology of the prosperity gospel, so I feel that I have some sense of how conservative Christians can support consumerism and individualism — and honestly, conservative Christians aren’t very different from many religious moderates and progressives in the U.S. If you live in the U.S., it’s hard not to see consumer capitalism and individualism as normative.

But I have had a harder time understanding premillennial dispensationalism. That’s the theological position that there will be a Rapture, at which time a select few persons will be raptured away by Jesus Christ to be the Bride of Christ. The best known pop culture representations of remillennial dispensationalism is probably the “Left Behind” series of books and movies; a reboot of the movie series just came out, starring Nicholas Cage. And most of us religious progressives stop with the pop culture representations of premillennial dispeansationalism. But a closer look at premillennial dispensationalism is worth our time.

On recent post at the Sojourners Web site, Dr. LeAnn Snow Flesher points out that premillennial dispensationalism is “an elitist theology”: a few people get raptured, the rest of us don’t because the rest of us are disposable. This helps explain why premillennial dispensationalism is compatible with the prosperity gospel, that is, with theologies of economics that privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Flesher goes on to point out how premillennial dispensationalism is compatible with intolerance:

“The entire doctrinal belief system necessitates a separatist perspective and lifestyle, an emphasis on individual salvation, and adherence to a homogeneous set of doctrinal beliefs. It does not in any way foster tolerance for an interracial, intercultural, and interfaith context, and certainly has no tolerance for many of the social issues we struggle with in our nation and world today.”

It’s worth reading Flesher’s complete post here.

Link to Flesher’s post from @anglobaptist.

Is there a Unitarian Universalist “preferential option for the poor”?

I’m wondering why people join Unitarian Universalist congregations. Do we join in order to find a posse to help us further our existing social justice commitments? Do we join in order to help us stay in our current jobs, and maybe get better jobs? In other words, do we join in order to meet our own needs?

I’m a fan of liberation theologies. Liberation theologies talk about a preferential option for persons who don’t have as much power as the rest of the world. So Latin American liberation theologies talked about a preferential option for the poor: the purpose of religious communities was to live out Jesus’s consistent teachings to help people who were poor. Feminist liberation theologies say that religion communities must recognize that women and girls are as fully human as men and should be treated as such. And so on through black liberation theologies, queer liberation theologies, etc., etc.

Why have a preferential option for the poor? In liberation theology’s terms, the preferential option of the poor is how a religious community can begin to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, whether you believe the Kingdom of Heaven is something that’s here on earth waiting to burst out into reality if we give it a chance, or whether it is a reward that awaits you after death.

We can contrast liberation theologies with prosperity spirituality, which is “characterized by the doctrine that God desires Christians to be prosperous.” (William Kay, “Prosperity Spirituality,” in New Religions: A Guide, ed. Christopher Partridge [Oxford University: 2004], p. 91). Prosperity spirituality is designed to appeal to those who find the prospects for the future to be bleak and who don’t want to wait until the afterlife to enjoy the rewards of religion. Oral Roberts was the first great purveyor of prosperity spirituality.

Unitarian Universalism, and liberal religion more generally, strike me as being much closer to prosperity spirituality than to liberation theology. Many Unitarian Universalists are skeptical about heaven, and the rest are probably more concerned with getting heaven into people now, than in getting people into heaven later (to paraphrase John Corrado). Either way, we’re more concerned with how we can make our lives better, than we are in how we can enjoy the rewards of the afterlife. To my mind, this has pushed us into a kind of prosperity spirituality: Join our congregation because your life will be better due to improved mental and emotional health — join our congregation and do social justice to others which will make you feel better about yourself.

Sure, I’m exaggerating and engaging in polemic (as usual). But I also think I’m right: we Unitarian Universalists are far more likely to engage in our form of prosperity spirituality than we are to believe in a preferential option for the poor.

Religion in the deficit debate

As I watch the deficit battle in Washington with fascinated horror, I can’t help but noticing the threads of religion that run through it:

Barack Obama is a self-avowed quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatist who has come out of the mainline Protestant tradition. Like so many mainliners these days, he has distanced himself from organized religion; part of that mainline pragmatism is to stick to religion only when it doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t seem to be drawn or driven by any particular transcendent moral or ethical ideals. You will also notice that he doesn’t go to religious services on a regular basis.

There are at least two religious types within the Tea Partiers. First, there are the followers of the Prosperity Gospel. Generally speaking, the Prosperity Gospel holds that religious success (salvation) is tied to material success; in one common American form, it ties in with residual American Calvinism, and holds that the wealthy are the elect, and those without money are hellbound without possibility of salvation. Whatever the specific form of Prosperity Gospel, if you’re not wealthy, you are morally culpable, you need to pray harder, and the government should not help you out.

Second, you can find the libertarian atheists among (or at least allied with) the Tea Partiers. These are often people who follow the fundamentalist atheism of Ayn Rand and her cohorts. This often takes the form of deifying the individual human, and rejecting as anathema any coordinated effort to help out the poor and unfortunate, who are not deified. The fundamentalist Randian atheists reject any call to a higher moral authority out of hand; sometimes, they’re hard to distinguish from the quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatism of Barack Obama and his cronies.

Ordinary Christian evangelicalism, committed to its own high principles around various social issues, continues to affirm that the churches can and should play a major role in delivering social services. They find themselves allied with the Tea Party’s efforts to de-fund government as much as possible. Catholics who are aligned with their religion’s hierarchy are in much the same position. However, both the Christian evangelicals and the Catholics are committed to government intervention in social issues like marriage and abortion, and many Christian evangelicals and most Catholics remain committed to letting the government fight poverty, out of their Christian commitment to helping the poor; at some point, they will have to confront the vast gulf between themselves on the one hand, and the Prosperity Gospelers and Randian atheists on the other hand. (My guess is that many of them will jump the gulf and join the Prosperity Gospelers or the fundamentalist Randian atheists.)

What is most striking to me is that so many theological groups are missing from the public coverage of the debate. Where, for example, are the mainline Protestants who have been influenced by the various liberation theologies (the feminist, black, GLBT, etc., liberation theologies)? Also missing from public coverage is any mention of the various groups doing ecological theology, including liberal Christians, humanists, and Neo-Pagans.

Religious liberals have been left out of the debate? — this should not be a great surprise. Most religious liberals and religious moderates long ago decided that they would keep their religion out of any discussions of public policy. And having once ceded the public square to fundamentalists, religious conservatives, and religious nutcases (i.e., the Prosperity Gospelers, etc.), we’re finding it very difficult to get back in.

Limits of entrepreneurial endeavor

In the most recent issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Johan van de Gronden, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands, says that markets are not capable of solving all the world’s problems:

As change agents, we’d do well to seek inspiration beyond the language of business and entrepreneurship…. Suggesting that sufficient entrepreneurial tools and practices will solve most of society’s ailments is a category mistake. It comes with the tacit assumption that society is better off when social entrepreneurs replace the many functions of government. This is the classic fallacy of development aid. When NGOs start delivering the services that many poor governments can’t deliver, they involuntarily aggravate the problem rather than build a solution. Governments spiral into a starvation cycle. If citizens cannot hold government accountable for basic services, for the proper spending of the collective revenue for the public good, then on what grounds would they favor one government over the other in the polls? And what reasons would citizens have to pursue a government career?

It seems to me that some of these characteristics are not alien to, say, the state of California. The world’s eight largest economy and home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals is barely capable of running a balanced state budget, while providing a minimum of basic and affordable services to its citizens, from health care to public schooling. There is tragic irony in this, as some of the world’s most generous foundations, finest NGOs, and best universities are part of the same societal fabric. And I think there is a correlation. When we place so much emphasis on the values of entrepreneurship to the extent that we start defining the poor quality of basic services as market failures, we may begin to think that the conception of a business plan in the mother of all solutions.

— Johan van de Gronden, “It takes three to tango: a European perspective on American civil society,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, spring, 2011, p. 23.

The peculiar American proclivity for insisting that markets provide solutions for all problems does interesting things to liberal religious congregations. This proclivity forces those of us in congregations to adopt entrepreneurial approaches in order to remain in existence, because we have to compete in the market with extraordinarily well-funded and well-supported alternatives, such as large market-driven conservative mega-churches that preach the gospel of prosperity, the entertainment industry, therapists, yoga studios, etc. In the same vein, this American proclivity also affects the expectations of those of us in congregations, such that we demand the constant innovation of products and services that is characteristic of American markets.

Those of us in liberal religious congregations have to carry an essentially impossible balancing act. We have to utilize the best resources of entrepreneurial endeavor, not just to thrive, but to survive; and as the years go by, we have to rely more and more on entrepreneurial endeavor. At the same time, we would be betraying our ethical and theological ideals if we go too far down the market-driven path of the prosperity gospel (“Come to church, build a purpose-driven life, and you will find financial success!”), or if we began to believe that the markets are more important than our historic ethical and theological ideals. This is a big part of the basic challenge facing liberal religion today.