Saturday, August 27, 2005


The other night at bedtime my daughter asked how people started having babies. She is only six, but her mom is a midwife, so she did not mean the obvious mechanical question. No, she wanted to know how anyone had the first baby if no parents had been born. I'll admit, I ducked the question. It was bedtime and was trying to get her to sleep. But you would think that two years of seminary might give me a better answer.

Either something came from nothing or something has always existed. I'm sure I will give her an appropriately vague UU sounding answer. She really likes The Everything Seed. Apparently six year olds are comfortable with a vocabulary of reverence.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Urban myths?

Chalicechick and Jeff at Transient and Permanent are both talking about how UUs make distinctions between "birthright" UUs and "come-outers" and the assumption that people not born into the church are sometimes thought of as bitter refugees from their original tradition.

To me this is a lot like our language around "crusty" humanists. I belong to a small fellowship movement heritage lay led congregation. (Readers playing the home game can try to guess from the picture I posted before)

In my congregation there is a spread of secular atheists, new age, Vedanta, Buddhist, Christian and pagan members. (think two or three of each really). People do nice lay led sermons about what was good about their family traditions or something they really liked about Catholicism. They also do sermons on Hinduism, Buddhism or other world religions. No one bats an eye if I read from the Revised Common Lectionary one week or someone talks about Yom Kippur and atonement. We also have our share of what I would consider lectures about different topics. But all told, it is pretty well balanced.

I don't think we do a good enough job of including our pagan members. And I think we are a little hesitant to try new liturgical elements or to constrain the time taken by Joys and Concerns on any given Sunday.

I know that our stereotypes exist for a reason, but I think we often let a small number of cranky individuals give us the wrong idea. And again, it is a reason why I think the notion of The Tyranny of Structurelessness is important. If we do not use structures to facilitate participation and access, the loudest and most privileged will always win out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Life (and brushing teeth)

I noticed today that there are few things in life funnier than picking up
a 3 year old so he can spit out toothpaste into the sink.

At that age he doesn't really know what he is supposed to be doing. But he sure puts a lot into it. My six year old will fill her mouth with water to rinse and then spit like a pro. The younges on he other hand knows he is supposed to get stuff out of his mouth but is not entirely clear on how he is supposed to do it. He'll just let a white torrent of toothpaste run down his chin (and neck) and then wipe it off.

In theory this has to be done, so the toothpaste does not give him a stomach ache. And it can be challenging if you are already dressed for work. My kids really like the idea of brushing their teeth. Which is a good thing.

Something so small can be a sublime joy if you allow it. Or it can be an incredible frustration if you make it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


The August issue of Sojourners arrived at my house yesterday.Several good articles on peace in the Middle East, Israel/Palestine in particular, including cover of Isreali peace activists and a Palestinian Christian involved in liberation theology. There is also a review of Sister Helen Prejean's latest book and an interview with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and her dad Don Saliers who teaches theology and worship at Emory University. (They have a new book out called A Life To Live: Reflections On Music As Spiritual Practice)

All told it is a very good issue and it remind me how reliably good Sojourners is. I know for some who try to separate religion and politics it may seem too political, but their political coverage is really well based in their theology. There is also a good article on mysticism, contemplative practice and Teresa of Avila.

I think Sojurners is a great project for people who advocate for a religious left. It's also a useful thing to show to certain secularists who ask where has the religious left been all this time?

So read Sojourners, especially if you are a humanist social justice activist. Let it stretch at your theological issues with Christianity.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Panoply of Virtues

My six year old tends to think that all that matters is fairness. And by this she really means sameness. If her brother gets a snack, she should get a snack, even if she has already eaten. If her brother gets two of something that she only had one of, she figures that entitles her to have two the next day while he gets none. We try to explain to her that fairness is complicated sometimes and not always what she wants. If her little brother goes to bed early because he didn't nap, should we send her to bed early just to be fair? If her older brother only gets one present (because it is more expensive and electronic) does that mean she can only get one?

To me it feels like she can only focus on one virtue at a time. And it seems to me that she is not alone in this regard.

Most of the adolescents I have had the joy and concern to work wth over the years tend to fixate on freedom as the one and only virtue. It seems to me that many people I know and many UUs seem to be this way too.

It seems silly to say so, but committment and belonging are just as important as freedom. I'm reminded of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart and the idea that liberals in particular have been won over by a psychotherapeutic expressionist sense of identity that degrades all social bonds to reciprocal contractarianism ("for as long as we both shall love").

There is a line is Bowles and Gintis book Schooling in Capitalist America that suggests that the function of schooling in a capitalist society is to render the individual sufficiently fragmented in consciousness such that s/he is unable to consider collective solutions to problems. The book is problematic in lots of ways, but I do find this section useful:

"To reproduce the social relations of production, the educational system must try to teach people to be property subordinate and render them sufficiently fragmented in consciousness to preclude their getting together to shape their own material existence. The forms of consciousness and behavior fostered by the educational system must themselves be alienated, in the sense that they conform neither to the dictates of technology in the struggle with nature, nor to the inherent developmental capacities of individuals, but rather to the needs of the capitalist class. It is the prerogatives of capital and the imperatives of profit, not human capacities and technical realities, which render U.S. schooling what it is. This is our charge."

Earlier in my life, I was more explicitly involved on the political left. I found myself often trying to explain how the version of individualistic freedom that was inherited from the mainstream commercial culture was not really as big a virtue as we might like.

As an anarchist I often worked to point out things like The Tyranny of Structurelessness
and how a fear of explicit structure can be worse than having some structure to work with.

Recently I wrote a paper about how certain discourses around purity and sacrifice within radical anarchist, environmental and animal rights activism show a clear inheritance from Christian rhetoric around vicarious atonement and theological purity.

I don't think it is a bad thing to acknowledge this inheritance and it should not denigrate in any way either Christianity or radical social movements.

It's just yet again evidence that no one exists in a social vacuum. I'm not going to go all the way into "creative interchange" and the decentralization of the individual (although Rebecca Parker did a great presentation on this at the Process Theology Network's workshop at General Asssembly). Personally, I'm still an existentialist and believe in the possibility of individual agency. But like Vygotsky, I believe that there is a dialectic between the social and the organic.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Religious naturalism

I don't have it in me to get to far into the great discussion about religious humanism that Clyde, Shawn and others are having. But on the way in this morning I was talking with my daughter and I had a great moment of naturalist awe.

My daughter asked me about how water was clear and how you could make it stop moving to see through it even if it was still moving inside. (quite a question for a six year old if I do say so my self.) We talked about filling a clear jar at home and letting it sit still until we could see through it like a lens (we both have glasses).

I didn't really explain much to her, but I found myself musing about the mystery that is how atomic particles work such that everything solid appears solid and how translucent materials are translucent. I thought about the Bohr model I learned in school and quantum mechanics, and even a little about the What The Bleep Do We Know movie that could have been better but touched on this question.

It brought back an awe and a mystery that I have carried with me since childhood. I would not want to be corrected by people that study these things more seriously, nor to run off gentle readers who do not want to think of orbitals and the wave-particle paradox.

There is room for awe and reverence in a material world view. I believe that this awe neither precludes nor presupposes other theological considerations.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Four days ago was my 36th birthday and today is my daugher's 6th. (My daughter is 30 years and 4 days younger than me and my youngest son is 30 years and 7 days younger than my brother)

It is hard to believe that it was six years ago when Luna was born. My neighbors are all in shocked disbelief. Luna was born at home, outside in the hot tub that we were forced to buy to close the deal on our house.

Luna's birthstory (in fairly graphic detail) is online here. Her mom is a midwife so her version of the story is rather vivid.

I'm forever indebted to the Rev. Forrest Gilmore for an experience I had during a worship service he lead during my orientation when I started at Starr King School for the Ministry.

Each of the new students had come to the pulpit one by one and had received a blessing as he dipped his hands into a bowl of water from the ocean and laid his hands on ours. When we returned to our seats, we reached out our hands as he talked about ministry and the power of our hands to work and heal. As I held my hands in front of me (roughly in the position you would use at the end of a bounce pass in basketball) my mind and body were transfixed and I mentally returned to the day my smallest ones were born. I could feel them gliding into the world through my outreached hands. I began to cry in joy and could only sit in awe of and communion with the miracle of birth and creation.

I can only hope to ever have an experience at worship like that again, let alone to give that gift to others someday.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Christianities, christologies and me

Scott's comment about Romans 8 in response to my earlier post and some of what he has been saying (along with Peacebang and others) about UU dabbling in world religion raises an issue for me.

In as much as we worry about cultural expropriation of Native American and other faith traditions and practices, to what extent does my use of Christianity follow the same dynamic? I have gone out of my way to criticize UU supersessionary rhetoric when it coms to Christianity.

As a ministry student, I find myself being asked to talk about Christianity to people fairly regularly and to explain people's questions about their own faith traditions.

I came to seminary as one of those people who thought Jesus was good and Paul was bad. I had read the Gnostic Gospels and thought Paul was too dualistic, too misogynist and too hateful of our bodies. It was John Buehrens who started me thinking differently about Paul. Soon afterwards I had the joy and suffering of reading all three volumes of Tillich's systematic theology. I'm not going to make my point here very well. The language and line of thought is new enough to me that I am probably incapable of explaining it to others.

Through Tillich I came to think of an adoptionist Christology that showed that the Spirit functioned in Jesus in a way that it can function through the rest of us when we are so "grasped and shaped." I don't believe in the Holy Spirit (tm) per se, but I do believe in spirit and in a drive for life and towards connection and communion as a fundamental element of what it means to be alive. And I think that Pauline christianity (especially as mediated by Tillich) is as good a way to describe the relationship between our material creatureliness and our ability to be (or at least our aspirations to be) more than mere matter.

All of this however does not make me a Christian in my own eyes, and it makes me wonder about how I use and abuse the Christian tradition. Am I in any way entitled to participate in discussions about the meaning of Christianity?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Labor pains of creation (Romans 8:18-23)

Feminist theologian Sheila McGinn concludes her article “All Creation Groans in Labor: Paul’s Theology of Creation” with an outline of a Pauline theology of creation and how it relates to feminist theology:
From this examination of Romans 8:18-23 we can glean an outline of a Pauline theology of creation: (1) The universe is a creature of God. (2) As a creature, it has a purpose and a goal. (3) Creation is not a static entity, but a dynamic reality still in the process of fulfillment. (4) Creation works with God and humanity to attain its purpose. (5) Creation and humanity are intimately bound with each other. Creation is eager for human salvation, i.e., adoption as God’s children and heirs to God’s freedom and glory. (6) Human fulfillment and the fulfillment of creation are mutually contingent. (7) The fulfillment of the creation will reveal a nature organically connected to what presently exists, but also qualitatively different (“new”). (8) The fundamental feature of this difference is freedom/liberation characterized by clarity of purpose ((liberation from futility) and endurance (freedom from decay).
Many features of a feminist creation-theology come to the fore in this outline of Paul’s theology of creation. As Paul did, we will start with the assumption that there is a loving Deity who generated this universe (1). The earth and its creatures have a right to exist and to endure, quite apart from the benefits human beings can gain from this (2). Indeed, the creation is a dynamic reality, growing and changing all the time (3). The role of the human animal in this matrix of life is to preserve, protect and foster not only humanity but also all the other forms of life on earth, and indeed the earth itself. (6).
Human liberation, including the liberation of women and other marginalized persons from structures of domination, is the under-girding principle and goal of feminist theology (8). This requires a model of power that is reciprocal rather than unilateral. Hence humans must live with each other – and with the earth and other creatures – rather than dominating them. Living out this reciprocity is the key way to become fully human. In this process of living with the creation, human beings may make claims on the earth and its creatures, but the earth and its creatures may make claims on humanity (7). Central among these is self-preservation.
Among the feminist critiques of traditional theologies of creation is the “species-centrism” imbedded in them. The preceding outline of a feminist theology of creation illustrates several of the ways in which this human elitism is undercut. These also are features that a feminist theology of creation shares with the Pauline view.
What is interesting about Paul’s brief encomium on creation is that it goes two steps further than the feminist model outlined above. Romans 8:18-23 depicts creation as alive, active, striving for a goal it shares with humanity. Both of these points—the active role and the goal orientation (4 and 6) – are significant features of Paul’s view. Markedly different from many feminist views, Paul’s theology of creation is intricately intertwined with eschatology: creation is an active being precisely because it has a goal to reach.

Within Unitarian Universalism there is a strong tradition of attempting to build the Kingdom of God in the present world. Unitarians and Universalists are especially known for their involvement in abolition, suffrage and the social gospel. The most recent change to the principles and purposes that the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to promote and affirm was to add “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The official denominational study action issue for this year is the role of human activity in global climate change. Sadly, however, in its own liberal post-Christianity, I believe contemporary Unitarian Universalism sometimes loses the sense of serious purposefulness that McGinn argues is where Paul goes further than a typical feminist theology of creation. There is a tension in our tradition (which is not always dynamic) between freedom of conscience and unity of purpose. It is encouraging to see, however, that others are looking at this passage of Romans and using it to build a stronger sense of purpose of the human relationship to the created world.

McGinn, Sheila E. “All Creation Groans in Labor: Paul’s Theology of Creation in Romans 8:18-23.” Earth, Wind, & Fire: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Creation. Ed. Carol J. Dempsey and Mary Margaret Pazdan. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical P/Michael Glazier, 2004. 114-23.

Been a bad blogger

I've been a bad blogger of late. No posting and really very little reading. It's been busy at home and busy at work. I've been thinking a lot lately about the old joke that every minister has only one sermon, and just uses variations of it in each sermon.

A couple weeks ago I definitely lived out this idea. Because I give a sermon occasionally at my home church, I know the people listening and tend to focus on themes that balance out other Sundays.

I almost always include a little challenging traditional language and often at least tangentially relate my theme to RCL readings for that week. I believe we can grow spiritually through the confrontation with language that we may initially find uncomfortable. I also like to remind people when it ends up that the Bible is more radical or better said than any alternative I might come up with. (I will try to elaborate on this later).

In my home congregation, I try to serve as a foil for another member who likes to emphasize the freedom of our faith and for a faction that is especially interested in personal spirituality. I try to focus on commitment.

Even when you know that your values may change with time, and even if you are free to find your own values, it is necessary to commit and live up to your values at the time. I want people who play Unitarian, Universalist or Unitarian Universalist to understand that they are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that we owe it to our ancestors to live up to the inheritance.