Wednesday, September 07, 2005

quite contrary

There is a tendency I want to discuss which for lack of a better name I would call "asshole contrarianism." I have written in this space about the issues that arrise when freedom is treated as if it were the only virtue in the world. I am torn between the notion that this kind of contrariness stems from reason being turned into an end rather than a means or more from the lack of reason.

In UU communties, the devils advocate, naysayer or "asshole contrarian" is stereotypically seen as a cranky humanist, but sadly it is a syndrome that affects UUs of all theological (and atheological) stripes.

Most of my UU blogger colleagues feel a certain derision towards people who might be described as "true believers." I am at a stage in my life where I have been idealistic and optimistic. But I am also at a stage in my life where I am done being jaded and cynical, with everything kept at a protective, ironic distance.

I remember when I was younger I sometimes had friends who quit listening to certain bands once they became popular (REM and U2 were both common in my generation) as attempt to demonstrate their uber-hipness.

Sometimes I feel like people, in an attempt to protect themselves from vulnerability, the pain of caring or the numberous risks of intimacy feel the urgent need to deflate anything that other people are starting to believe in.

Recently I have seen this on the UU Theology listserv as people attack conceptions of gnosticism, presumably just because it is popular among some segment of UUs. Politically I have seen it in attempts to knock Cindy Sheehan down a notch after she became popular.

On some level, I think the tendency towards group think often generates a tendency towards oppositional group think. I will admit that I am a fan and admirer of both UUA president Bill Sinkford and Starr King School for the Ministry president Rebecca Parker (who preached an amazing sermon for SKSM chapel yesterday). It is a necessary corrective to have some degree of skepticism towards leaders like this. But I think there is no need to knock them down a notch just because they influence people or to knock people who are influenced by them.

Too many people it seems, especially among a wide swath of UUs, want to feel wholly self-invented.(I especially see this as a marriage of Manifesto humanist supersessionism and Reaganite bourgeois rugged individualism) For me, I am happy to recognize my influences.

My political thinking is influenced by the anarchism of Peter Kropotikin, Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, as well as the marxism of Rosa Luxembourg, Bertell Ollman and Harry Braverman. The socialist ideas of Michael Harrington are also a key inluence.

Theologically I am influenced especially by Jacques Ellul (a Barthian conservative Christian anarchist) and Paul Tillich (a theological liberal who courted with socialism). If the whole Bible were the Gospels and Romans 8, I would be a great Christian too. Mahayana Buddhism also shapes my thought, especially sutra passages about Avalokitsvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

Intellectually, I am influenced especially by the Frankfurt School and some of the more reasonable and socially engaged postmodernists.


At 3:53 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

Hey. This is a comment entirely unrelated to your (very interesting) post, but I had a question for you and I don't have your e-mail address. Do you know anything about the talks between SKSM and Meadville Lombard? I keep getting these bizarre letters from the new school president that talk about progress being made and how it is being made jointly, but not so much about why the schools are talking in the first place (unless you count banalities like furthering the future of our great institutions) or what vision we are progressing toward. So, what's the skinny? Is the leadership less glib at SKSM? My impression is that the fact that Meadville is offering a class taught by its janitor is an indication that all is not as it should be on this end. I also wish we had a professor of theology. Professor Grodzins is sorely missed, as well.

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Tamara Lebak said...

Greetings...Thanks J, for your frank claiming of influence, I am always intrigued to follow the ripples of influence to the present.

I am a fourth year at Meadville and just wanted to let you know that I have a different opinion of the status of our school being reflected in "our offering a class taught by the janitor" and push back a little at Matthew. I will in no way disagree that Meadville is ripe with conflict, but dismissing our custodian as unworthy and a litmus test of our plight felt like a personal attack rather than insight to the well-being of our school.

Just to let everyone know, Dr. Jon Rice, our custodian happens to have a Ph.D in History. The locus of his work is in History/American Studies/Black Studies. His doctoral work was centered on the history of Chicago and has taught courses at several local colleges. He is not only gifted but a delightful soul.

I understand Matthew's frustration and share similar concerns about the lack of communication around the proposed merger (and in general frankly)..I will miss Dean and Thandeka deeply and do feel that it will affect my returning experience to Meadville.

All is not as it should be..
AND Jon Rice is not the problem.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger jfield said...

Tamara: I am not to interested in getting into M-L politics. I know that both schools have their problems but I am disinclined to discuss them in public blogging at this point. I didn't find Matthew's comment inflammatory enough to warrant deletion even if it was off topic. I did contact him directly via email and also made inquiries with other contacts at the school to verify that the situation was about what I had heard at GA.

It is not unusual for Starr King school to have some of its staffers end up in the adjunct faculty because of their own backgrounds. I assumed that was the case with the reference MG made.

On my real point of posting, I picked my more extreme influences, that other UUs might not have heard of and left out a lot of influences that are quite important to me but are more commonplace (like liberation theology, the Catholic Worker movement, feminist and womanist theology and others).

At 2:22 PM, Blogger TheCSO said...

I definitely see this phenomenon of 'asshole contrarianism' as you describe it. I also see it as influencing some of the more 'activist' political campaigning within the UU church. I think that the Patriot Act skit CC has referred to a few times falls in that category. It's reacting to something as BAD, screw the facts, we don't need to worry about them, just BAD.

Again, I do see what you're referring to, and that is an unfortunate tendency. I see a lot of similarity with what the 'majority opinion' does at times, and feel it's important to note that. My discomfort with a politically active church runs much deeper than this - but it sure doesn't help when so many UUs seem to have knee-jerk contrarian (to the percieved 'mainstream') politics. I'm talking about the people who percieve that their pet issue is important *because* no one else cares about it. The thought that maybe no one else cares because it _isn't important_ doesn't seem to cross their mind. And that does drive me even further away from politics in a UU context, when it becomes obvious that reason is NOT being used in considering those positions.

If you insist on injecting politics into the UU church, or seeing political activism/social action/whatever you want to call it as an integral and essential part of our mission, at least apply the same standards of rational inquiry and intellectual honesty to your political positions as you would to a religious one.

And if you don't apply rational inquiry and intellectual honesty to your religious positions, I think you're a bad UU. I know that we as UUs are reluctant to use that phrase, but I will in that case. I see those qualities, those principles, as essential.

At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Roger Kuhrt said...

Thanks for the glimpses of the demise of two struggling schools.

Just a note, be sure to google to get the books: The Asshole Trilogy--I think they were published by Enthea Press and the pseudonym under which the writer pens his insights is: Dr. X Crement.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Obijuan said...

It's a little too soon to call it a demise.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

Thank you, Tamara, for your clarification of Mr. Rice's academic credentials. My point was not about him (one of the reasons I didn't mention his name), but to wonder if Meadville's paucity of professors was related to the fact that their janitor, however qualified, was teaching a class. It isn't attacking Rice to say he is teaching a class, nor is it relevant that he is a gifted and delightful soul. The real question is whether or not his course reflects the best interests of faculty development and the future of Meadville Lombard. One of the reasons I came to ML was to study with professors of the stature of Grodzins and Thandeka; Rice (delightful, gifted, and one hell of a dancer though he may be), is not an equivalent choice. (At the outset, it is also hard to see how a course about Chicago history fulfills the educational mission of the school, although I'm willing to be convinced.) Were Rice part of a large course offering from Meadville Lombard, I think his class might be an interesting elective for people who'd like to learn more about the history of race, class, and religion in Chicago, but I must point out that his class is one of only four full-credit classes being offered by ML in the Winter 2006 quarter.

Recently, I was asked about what to look for in seminary education and I replied, much to my chagrin, "Financial stability and effective leadership!" I never considered these issues when applying for seminary, but they have had a big impact on the quality of my experience.

Like Obijuan, I think it is too early to talk about demise (although it is sobering to remember other great schools in our tradition that no longer exist) but more open communication from leaders at Starr King and Meadville Lombard would do much, I think, to increase the confidence of current and potential students.

Thanks, Jfield, for letting us hijack your comments! I enjoy reading your blog.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger MysticHeart said...

Color me "asshole contrary." I have some of that going on, I have to admit. I put it down to a certain badgerly tendency on my part by nature.


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