UUA politics: Article II revision, pt. 2

Once again, I’ll say that I’m critical of the present Article II, and since at least 2005 I’ve been advocating revision. And while I criticized the current draft revision in a previous post, I think the revision is headed in the right direction — towards a complete rewrite.

But.

In a conversation on Mastodon, Peter Bowden said something that made sense to me: This is not the time to revise Article II.

All the UU congregations that I know are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. We are in survival mode. (As an aside, I’m predicting that in the next few years, as many as a third of all UU congregations are going to go under.)

And for many UU congregations, the old “Principles and Purposes” are woven throughout their congregational life. Many, maybe most, UU congregations have the old “Principles and Purposes” posted somewhere in their buildings, maybe as a framed poster, sometimes even painted right on the walls. UU congregations have incorporated the old “Principles and Purposes” into their bylaws, on their websites, in their Sunday school curriculums, in their worship services, everywhere. When congregations are still reeling from the pandemic, we’re asking a lot of them to remove this central part of their identity.

Does Article II need to be revised? Heck yeah.

Is now the time to revise Article II? Mm, no.

In that Mastodon conversation, Peter Bowden suggested maybe by 2030. At first I thought he was exaggerating, but as I thought about my current congregation I think that might be a realistic time frame for when we will have the bandwidth to take this on.

UUA politics: Article 2 revision

It’s long past time for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to revise the Principles and Purposes section of the UUA Bylaws. The first post on this blog — way back in 2005, when this blog was hosted on AOL — was a critique of the seven principles. So I’m glad that the Article II Commission is working on a revision of the principles and purposes.

With that in mind, I’ll take a look at the draft version of the new Article II, and point out the things that drew my attention.

Section C-2.1 ends with this sentence: “We will transform the world by our liberating love.” I’m not sure what it means, especially the phrase “liberating love.” For me, using the word “love” implies a kind of post-Christian liberation theology. I’m fine with liberation theology. But as a Universalist myself, I’d prefer the phrase “universal love.”

Section C-2.2 begins by stating, “Love is the enduring force that holds us together.” I tend to agree with that, since I trace my religious roots back to the teachings of Jesus. However, I wonder what UU Buddhists think of this — Buddhist teachings tend to be centered more on compassion than love. And what about UU Hindus, and UU Jews, and UU Pagans — does this seem Christian-centric? I don’t know.

Section C-2.2, second paragraph continues with the assumption that covenant is central to Unitarian Universalism. This was a grounding assumption of the old Principle and Purposes as well. But the importance of covenant is a fairly recent historical interpretation, promulgated by historian Conrad Wright in the mid-twentieth century. As history, Wright’s arguments are problematic. So I read Wright’s arguments for the centrality of covenant, not as history, but as mid-twentieth century theology. I feel that covenant-as-theology is showing its age, and needs rethinking.

Section C-2.2, third paragraph includes a diagram. If you want to include a visual, it should be at least as well crafted as the text. This is not a well-crafted visual (using Microsoft Word to create a graphic does not constitute a high level of craft). I used to have a side-hustle as a graphic artist, so I find poorly-done visuals especially annoying. Before this draft goes any further, someone who has some actual visual training needs to create a decent graphic.

Section C-2.2 statement on justice: I’m glad that racism is named explicitly. I’m troubled that sexism isn’t explicitly named, given that clergy sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in our congregations continues to be a major problem. Nor is ableism named, nor is heteronormativity named, nor is… well, you get the idea.

Section C-2.2 statement on generosity: I’m not against this in principle. But the statement as it is worded comes off sounding like the UUA is softening people up to give more money. Needs to be rewritten.

Section C-2.2 statement on evolution: I completely disagree that this should be included as a value. Evolution is more properly a scientific concept. As a value, evolution is a product of European colonialism, where the scientific concept was perverted to mean that European civilization was higher and better than all the non-European “savage” and “heathen” cultures. So any application of “evolution” to social science concepts is, to me, immediately suspect.

Section C-2.2 statement on pluralism: This is not bad for a draft statement. It’s perhaps the best thing in the whole document.

Section C-2.2 statement on equity: I’m not sure how this adds much to the statement on justice. There’s probably something important here, but revision is needed.

Section C-2.2 statement on interdependence: This is not too bad. As is typical with Unitarian Universalists, however, this statement makes humans seem somehow separate from the interdependent web. There’s an easy fix for that, though — reword the statement something like this: “We honor the sacred interdependent web of all existence, which includes all human relationships, the relationships of all living beings, and the relationship of living beings to non-living matter.”

Section C-2.3 is a vast improvement on the so-called “six sources” of the present principles and purposes. I would however remove the phrase “we draw upon, and are inspired by, the full depth and breadth of sacred understandings,” for two reasons. First, there are sacred understandings that we as Unitarian Universalists find reprehensible. Second, this smacks of colonialism, where colonial powers felt they could appropriate any religious tradition for their own uses; I feel this phrase gives tacit permission to Unitarian Universalists to do that kind of religious misappropriation. The second sentence is all that’s needed here.

Section C-2.4 is quite good. It could replace the statements on justice and equity in Section C-2.2.

Section C-2.5 is half good. The last sentence should be dropped. This is the kind of sentence that can too easily be warped and weaponized. Plus, it simply isn’t necessary, given all that has gone before.

What’s missing: The big thing that’s missing in this draft of Article II is any statement in support of democracy. This, when many parts of the world seems to be heading in the direction of fascism.

This is a deal-breaker for me. I can put up with poorly-drawn diagrams, I can put up with outdated mid-twentieth century covenant theology — but I could not, in good conscience, vote for a statement that does not explicitly support democracy.

The basis for inter-religious dialogue

Raimundo Panikkar was a scholar who studied inter-religious dialogue. He held doctorate degrees in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. While serving as professor of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Panikkar wrote a short essay about the necessary conditions for inter-religious dialogue:

“The modern kosmology (sic) assuming time is linear, history is paramount, individuality is the essence of Man (sic), democracy is an absolute, technocracy is neutral, social darwinism, and the like, cannot offer a fair platform for the Dialogue [between religions]. The basis for the Dialogue cannot be the modern Western myth.” — “The Ongoing Dialogue,” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, vol. 2, 1989.

We Unitarian Universalists mostly assume that we have somehow moved beyond myths; yet most of us buy into the modern Western myth. Our “Seven Principles” specifically affirm individuality and democracy as among our highest values. Many of say “We believe in science,” and part of that belief is that science (and there seems to be little difference between our “science” andwhat Panikkar calls “technocracy”) represent a culturally neutral viewpoint. And of course we affirm that time is linear. All these things seem to us to be axiomatically true; how could they be doubted?

Yet I think Panikkar is correct. We think of human individuality, democracy, belief in science, and the linearity of time as axiomatic — but we also know from our own tradition of logic that axioms cannot be proved from within a logically consistent system. These axioms, like all axioms, are in some sense matters of belief. They are part of our foundational myth.

We Unitarian Universalists think we’re supremely rational and we don’t have myths. This attitude can cause problems when we try to engage in inter-religious dialogue. I don’t mind if we think we’re right and other religions are wrong — that’s what human beings do — but I do mind when we we’re not even aware that that’s what we’re doing.

A divided nation

The United States is divided so badly that it’s hard to believe. My liberal and progressive friends blame it all on the Republicans. Not surprisingly, the conservatives blame it all on the liberals. No one seems to listen to anyone but the people they agree with any more.

I’ve been blaming this unhealthy division on social media. But in his new book How Rights Went Wrong, Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia Law School, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court, and lower courts, are also to blame:

“…The job of the courts in a pluralistic democracy isn’t to please their base. It’s to work to resolve conflicts, to ratchet them down rather than up. Courts should be reminding us of what we have in common. They should be granting just enough constitutional leverage on each side that we have no choice but to sit down across from each other at the table, to look each other in the eye, and to speak to each other….” How Rights Went Wrong: : Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), p. 163

Instead, Supreme Court decisions have become a zero-sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. Rather than trying to work people we disagree with, to find some common ground, we just want to eliminate them. As a result, progressives now hope that some of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court will die so Joe Biden can appoint some more progressive justices. Conversely, conservatives hope that the conservative justices can live another four years.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are supposed to support the democratic process in our congregations, and in society at large. But these days, most Unitarian Universalists have unthinkingly bought into the anti-democratic notion that Supreme Court decisions are a zero-sum game. Maybe it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to reflect seriously on Jamal Greene’s thoughts — maybe we need to stop hoping that conservative Supreme Court justices will die, and start thinking about how to strengthen democracy.

What’s in store for UUs in 2021?

My crystal ball is cloudy, so once again I’m unable to predict the future with any accuracy, but I have some guesses about what the new year has in store for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

(1) The pandemic will continue to affect Unitarian Universalist congregations through summer, 2021. Dr. Fauci says we’ll see widespread roll-out of the vaccine by May, but not only will there still be plenty of unvaccinated people in June, most Unitarian Universalist congregations will be heading in to their summer slow-down. And I’m expecting a big slow-down this summer for many congregations. Making the transition back to in-person worship and programs is not going to be easy, as staff and volunteers have to be mobilized in different ways. Key volunteers and staff are also likely to feel a little burned out, and will want some down time in the summer. I’m betting most Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t make a full transition back to in-person worship and programs until September.

And when congregations do return to in-person worship and programs, how many people will come back? On the one hand, people will be eager to see their old friends again face to face. On the other hand, we’ve all slipped in to now routines and habit; how many people will take the time to get up, get dressed, and drive to their congregation, when for the past year and a half all they had to do to attend worship was roll out of bed and turn on the computer?

So I predict we’re never going back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I’m not willing to guess what the future holds.

(2) Money will be tight. Financially, I’m expecting the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations will be in worse shape after the pandemic than they were before the pandemic. Many congregations that own buildings depend on rental income to some extent, and a year and a half with reduced rental income will wreak havoc with budgets. All congregations will doubtless experience some reduction in income due to the depressed economy. For congregations with staff, I’m expecting staff cuts, layoffs, and/or salary reductions.

For staff, this has the potential to get ugly. Some hypothetical scenarios: Instead of seeing their position get slashed to part time, parish ministers will convince congregations to cut religious educators and administrators instead; good potential for inter-staff conflict here. Employees will watch their benefits erode; potential for conflict between staff and lay leaders here. Custodial staff will get laid off, and contracted cleaning services brought in to partially replace them; the loss of hands-on services provided by dedicated custodians could prompt conflict between lay leaders and members of the congregation.

So I predict we’ll see cuts in programs and services, along with an associated increase in the number of congregations in conflict.

(3) Generational conflict looms. Baby Boomers (my generation) have been running most Unitarian Universalist congregations for the past decade or two, after they took over power from the G.I. Generation. It’s been a good run for the Baby Boomers, but increasingly I’m seeing the Millennials questioning the way things get done in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Here are two obvious ways to question the Baby Boomer way of doing things: We all have a growing awareness of just how white our congregations are, and the old familiar answer we Baby Boomers gave for years — “There are so few people of color who live near our church” — just doesn’t seem adequate any more. We Baby Boomers have been dragging their feet about livestreaming worship services and other programs, and now that we’re all livestreaming it’s become obvious just how backwards we were.

Here’s a less obvious way we should all be questioning the Baby Boomer way of running our congregations: We Baby Boomers watched as second-wave feminism reshaped big chunks of American society. Unitarian Universalism got radically reshaped by second-wave feminism — with the seven principles and the flaming chalice and two new hymnals — and we Boomers were right in the thick of that reshaping. But now we’re all beginning to realize that second-wave feminism, while admirable in many ways, was also an elitist movement driven by a myth of hyper-individualism and a racist movement that left out women of color. We’re also beginning to realize that second-wave feminism sometimes has transphobic tendencies.

Will we Boomers be able to address the deep flaws of second-wave feminism? Given how defensive we are as a generation, I have my doubts. I’m looking to an alliance between Gen X and the Millennials to find creative, productive ways to move forward. But given how we Boomers cling to power (e.g., every U.S. president since 1992 has been a Boomer), I’m not expecting that the creative solutions proposed by the Millennials and the Gen Xers will suffer from either passive or active resistance by us Boomers.

No prediction here; in my view, this is a long-term trend to keep an eye on.

(4) The number of children and youth will continue to drop in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. The number of UU kids has been dropping steadily since 2005; and denominational and district/regional staffing and support for children’s programming has been dropping over the same time period. As children and youth programs shrink, congregations feel justified in cutting funding, leading to a nice strong feedback loop. Pandemic-induced budget cuts will only accelerate this trend.

There’s a bigger problem here. Families today want more options for their kids. Because of this, one-size-fits all programs are a non-starter. Yet that’s what Unitarian Universalist congregations mostly offer: one-size-fits-all programs for kids. The “conservative” congregations offer Sunday school, the “progressive” congregations offer intergenerational worship; but really both these approaches are hopelessly conservative, because they’re both the kind of one-size-fits all program that worked in the 1990s, but won’t work today. If we don’t offer choice in programming, fewer families will bother to show up.

So I predict the number of Unitarian Universalist children and youth will decline even more steeply over the next couple of years.

(5) Livestreaming worship services will continue. This is my only positive prediction this year: most congregations are going to keep livestreaming once the pandemic is over, and that has the potential for extending the reach of Unitarian Universalist in some really interesting ways.

I predict that congregations that devote some serious effort to continuing and improving livestreaming of worship and programs are going to reap major — but unpredictable- benefits.

Ethics

Every other month, I get to go to the meetings of Elder Journey, where there is usually a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion. Today we were talking about religious responses to the global environmental crisis, and I raised the question of what texts Unitarian Universalists might consult for help or inspiration on this kind of ethical issue.

Cecil Bridges had a great response, which he gave me permission to quote here: “You don’t get your ethics by reading the ‘Seven Principles,’ but by living.”

The same, obviously, holds true for any text, including the usual sacred texts.

How to have sex like a UU?

E., a Quaker and one of my dearest friends, sent me a link to a really good post by Quaker blogger Kody Gabriel Hersh titled “Having Sex Like a Quaker.” In this post, Kody, a self-described “queer, trans, sex-positive, Christian, Quaker youth worker,” outlines some of the basic Quaker ethical and theological principles that should inform sexual ethics and morality:

“Equality. Nonviolence and peacebuilding. Care for the earth. Community. Integrity. The direct availability of God to all people. The presence of something ‘of God’ in every human soul. Listening. Waiting for guidance in our decision-making, and checking out important decisions with our community. Continuing revelation.”

Then Kody goes on to present his own personal “list of sexual of sexual commitments and values,” an evolving statement of personal sexual morality rooted in the above principles.

— So for those of us who are Unitarian Universalists, what would be on our equivalent list of ethical and theological principles that should inform our sexual morality? (And no, the “seven principles” are too wordy and vague, and not equivalent to Kody’s list.)

— Next, based on that, what would be your own personal “list of sexual commitments and values”?

I’ll give my own lists in a follow-up post.

Hmm, why do we…

So why do Unitarian Universalists do social justice work? In other words, what’s our religious reason for trying to improve the world?

I know my own personal reasons for doing social justice work. My reasons come partly from classic Universalism: we don’t have do worry about whether or not we’re going to heaven, but it is our job to make this present world a better world. I have updated classic Universalism with Bernard Loomer’s naturalistic interpretation of the teachings of Jesus: Jesus had a vision of the “kingdom of God,” which Loomer defines as an egalitarian interdependent web of existence in which all persons are valued, and in which no person shall go hungry, and this “kingdom of God” is the highest value towards which we can strive (note that Loomer was the one who introduced the phrase “web of existence” to Unitarian Universalists, which he identified with the kingdom of God). Thus I do social justice work to try to bring about what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” where “God” is understood in an egalitarian, naturalistic way.

But people like me who rely upon Universalism and Jesus are definitely in the minority. What is the religious grounding for other Unitarian Universalists doing social justice? And pointing to the “seven principles” is not a sufficient answer — just because we voted to include the seven principles in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1986 doesn’t tell me why we included them in the bylaws (e.g., I would argue that we included the seventh principle on the basis of Loomer’s understanding of Jesus).

I want to know why we do social justice. What’s your reason why?

On wickedness

I’m preparing to write a sermon on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s purposes and principles, titled “Why the Seven Principles Must Change.” I’m thinking of using one of several passages from Agatha Christie’s murder mystery A Pocketful of Rye as one of the texts on which the sermon will be based; Christie, whatever her faults may be, is fairly sound on the topic of wickedness. At this point, I think the second passage below best captures what I’m trying to say in the sermon. If you have any similar quotes that could serve as a necessary corrective to the excessive optimism of the “Seven Principles,” I’d love it if you left them in the comments.

———

1. Calming himself, [Inspector Neele] said, “Oh, there are other possibilities, other people who had a perfectly good motive.”

“Mr. Dubois, of course,” said Mis Marple sharply. “And that young Mr. Wright. I do so agree with you, Inspector. Wherever there is a question of gain, one has to be very suspicious. The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.”

In spite of himself, Neele smiled.

“Always think the worst, eh?” he asked. It seemed a curious doctrine to be proceeding from this charming and fragile-looking old lady.

“Oh yes,” said Miss Marple fervently. “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.”

———

2. “It sounds rather cruel,” said Pat.

“Yes, my dear,” said Miss Marple, “life is cruel, I’m afraid….”

———

3. “…It’s very wicked, you know, to affront human dignity….”

———

4. “…One needs a great deal of courage to get through life….”

Why I disagree with Jonathan Edwards (but like him for it)

I love reading Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century evangelical New England minister, perhaps the greatest American theologian of that century. He writes well, good rational eighteenth century American prose filled with vivid images and solid common sense. And because he is such a clear writer, I can better understand why I disagree so strongly with his theological position. This passage, from his sermon “Knowledge of Divine Truth,” beautifully summarizes one of Edwards’s principle axioms, an axiom with which I could not disagree more:

There are many truths concerning God, and our duty to him, which are evident by the light of nature. But Christian divinity, properly so called, is not evident by the light of nature; it depends on revelation. Such are our circumstances now in our fallen state, that nothing which it is needful for us to know concerning God, is manifest by the light of nature in the manner in which it is necessary for us to know. For the knowledge of no truth in divinity is of any significance to us, any otherwise than as it some way or other belongs to the gospel scheme, or as it relates to a Mediator. But the light of nature teaches us no truth of divnity in this manner. Therefore it cannot be said, that we come to the knowledge of any part of Christian divinity by the light of nature. The light of nature teaches no truth as it is in Jesus. It is only the Word of God, contained in the Old and New Testament, which teaches us Christian divinity.

I couldn’t disagree more with Edwards; yet it is his clarity in stating this axiom that allows me to understand why I disagree with him. This leads me to conclude that there is no use in putting forth unclear arguments. If people disagree with you, they will figure it out sooner or later; better that they figure it out sooner. And better that they have a clear understanding of why they disagree with you.

This, I think, is why I have such a feeling of distaste for the Seven Principles. The prose is mushy, and seems to veil strongly-held beliefs behind weak assertions of generalized platitudes. Of course I believe in democratic process; but what do you mean by democratic process, and in what sense is this a religious and theological matter anyway? Of course I assert that every person has inherent worth and dignity, but do you make that assertion for the same reason I do? — are you making that assertion from the standpoint of natural law, or from the standpoint of Universalism that knows the power of God’s love, or what? The Seven Principles are unclear, and therefore easy to affirm but difficult to disagree with; this is their big weakness.