Thursday, July 28, 2005

Don't Fence Me In

Fausto and family are traveling through Montana this week and part of next, so Fausto hasn't had much opportunity to log on and won't for a few more days.

I'm sorry to miss out on a lot of interesting discussions this week. On the other hand, we're having a ball wallowing in Lewis and Clark lore, fishing, whitewater rafting, visiting dinosaur exhibits and Native American exhibits and rodeos, viewing old forest fire sites, and just beholding firsthand those purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain. (Yeah, I know, plagiarizing Katherine Lee Bates here could be Exhibit A in the charge of watering down the UCC, but hey, the words fit.)

Will be back anon. Don't let those other conversations peter out in the meantime.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Bikini Weather

It's hot, and the earnest Christians on are earnestly debating whether bikinis are sinful. Authorities on the subject, if the debaters are to be believed, include the Bible, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It's all rather amusing. Click here to see, if you don't have anything more worthwhile to do.

(And if you do click the link to see, you're proving your UU-ness. You know the old joke, about how we would rather go to a discussion about heaven...)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Beam Him Up!

Driving home from work tonight, I heard the sad news that actor James Doohan died today. As Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott, he provided an entire generation with an example of how to merge reason, faith, loyalty, the human condition, and applied science.

Rest in peace, Scotty.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Yeah, What They Said.

Mrs. Fausto and I are in Vermont this weekend, picking up Faustoette from her first stint at sleep-away camp. (There's another essay in that, but it's not today's subject.) While here, we picked up a copy of the Rutland Herald.

What a little gem of a paper! Here's yesterday's editorial, reposted in its entirety:

Politics of dishonesty

July 16, 2005

It is easy for liberals to get in a huff over the dishonesty that has characterized the Bush administration. The furor surrounding Karl Rove and the vindictive unmasking of a CIA agent is the latest case in point.

But there are reasons other than moral offensiveness to avoid politics of dishonesty. There is a good practical case to be made that honesty, while sometimes inconvenient, is more effective in achieving long-term gains in public policy and that dishonesty, while sometimes providing advantages, is self-defeating.

The selling of the Iraq war is exhibit A in the perils of dishonesty. It is widely understood that President Bush and his administration were determined to go to war in Iraq and that they made up reasons why war was necessary. There were no weapons of mass destruction, but they manipulated intelligence to make it seem there were. Bush argued that war would only be a last resort, but now we know it was a first resort.

Now that we are in Iraq we may be inclined to write off Bush's rationale for war as irrelevant. But the pattern was established, and we have begun to witness how dishonest practices do long-term damage.

When Bush began his second term, he let it be known that major reforms in Social Security were his top priority. He got into trouble when he fell into the old habit, resorting to scare tactics to sell his program. He traveled the country warning that Social Security was going bankrupt and that we needed private accounts.

After the dishonest manner of selling the Iraq war, people did not trust what he had to say about Social Security, and the falsehood of his claims quickly became evident. Social Security needed some adjustments, we learned, but it was not going bankrupt. And private accounts had no connection to the system's solvency. In fact, they would make it worse.

What if Bush's Social Security program had been a good one? He would still have suffered the credibility problem created by the war, and even achieving worthwhile ends would have been made more difficult.

There is something to be said for a politics of bipartisanship, which enlists people of both parties to craft a program that will enjoy wide support. Neither side will get everything it wants. But experienced public servants say that the process drives the policy. In other words, a policy hatched by a narrow coterie of ideologues will suffer from narrowness. Policy hatched out of a process where people work together will bring people in, and people will be more invested in the outcome. They will want to make it work.

For people to work together they need to trust one another, and trust is destroyed by lies. Lyndon Johnson was no paragon of honesty, but he helped craft some of the important legislation of the last century by working with politicians from both parties. Medicare was one of the results. Bush's Medicare reform was shoved through Congress on the basis of dishonest claims and without bipartisan support, and the product was as flawed as the process.

Dishonesty won Bush two elections — there were those smears against John McCain in 2000 and against John Kerry in 2004. It is beginning to seem dishonesty may be his undoing as president.

William Sloan Coffin, Prophet

Speaking of the prophetic witness, there's a new book out from one of the masters. Eighty-one years old, and he's still witnessing effectively.

William Sloan Coffin: A man of conviction

July 17, 2005

By KEVIN O'CONNOR, Staff Writer, Rutland Herald

STRAFFORD — William Sloane Coffin says it was almost three years ago when doctors gave him six months to live. So why is the 81-year-old Vermont cleric turned "Doonesbury" character around promoting his new book, "Letters to a Young Doubter"?

He always has listened to a higher authority.

"Hope reflects the state of your soul rather than the circumstances surrounding your days," the retired Presbyterian minister writes in a hardcover now arriving in stores. "Praise God and your soul gets stronger."

Speaking out also seems to fortify the firebrand. Forget that he was diagnosed with chronic cardiac problems in 2003 after a series of strokes. Sermonizing on everything from the Iraq war (which he opposes) to gay marriage (which he supports), he's still strong of heart.

"I didn't think I could write any more, but my editor said, 'You still have another book,'" Coffin says at his Strafford home. "I said, 'I'm supposed to be dead now.' She said, 'I'm not impressed.'"

And so he started writing his 185-page "Letters to a Young Doubter," a sequel of sorts to Rainer Maria Rilke's century-old classic "Letters to a Young Poet."

Coffin, a Vermonter since 1990, remembered back to his tenure as chaplain at Yale University from 1958 to 1975, when he was jailed for protesting racial segregation laws in the South, indicted on federal charges of conspiring with Vietnam draft resisters and immortalized as the Rev. Sloan in the comic strip "Doonesbury." [Note from Fausto: This is only half true. Coffin was only half the inspiration for "Rev. Sloan". The other half was our very own UU Rev. Scotty McLennan, now chaplain at Stanford U. But Coffin was McLennan's mentor.]

He envisioned a volume of letters written to an imagined student named Tom — after the Bible's Doubting Thomas — that would address "problems of faith, the difficulties of personal life, and the ever more confusing and complex problems in today's world."

'Fanning the embers'

Consider, Coffin writes, "President Bush's messianic militarism, a divinely ordained form of cleansing violence, and all in the name of a Jesus Christ who is the mirror opposite of the Jesus of the four Gospels."

"Osama bin Laden believes in faith-based violence; Bush believes in faith-based violence," the minister says in an interview. "Osama believes it's redemptive violence — he's going to take out the bad guy; Bush believes it's redemptive violence — we're going to rid the world of evil. You have to watch it — you become like the enemy you hate."

Some may consider Coffin a heretic, but the minister says he began honing his message as a U.S. Army liaison to French and Russian forces during World War II.

"I considered World War II a necessary evil, and I think I still do," he writes. "However, I now realize, particularly in the nuclear age, that war, like most necessary evils, is far more evil than necessary."

"How can the president call Iran, Iraq and North Korea 'the axis of evil' when the whole of humanity suffers infinitely more from environmental degradation, pandemic poverty and a world awash with weapons?" he continues in his book. "We must agree to be governed by the force of law, not by the law of force. … We don't have to lead the world; we have to join it."

Conservative readers, be warned — Coffin's just getting started. The husband, father and grandfather writes about abortion: "First of all, questions about abortion really should be addressed to women. … I can't see what right a man has to override the choice of a woman. So I remain pro-choice, pro-women's choice."

And homosexuality: "In a Washington cemetery, on the gravestone of a Vietnam veteran, it is written, 'When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.' Why, like the army, are so many churches on the wrong side of history? Why is a man loving another immutably immoral?"

And the religious right: "Those who are more intent on quenching the bonfires of sin than on fanning the embers of creativity — these are poor examples of Christianity. God doesn't want us narrow-minded, priggish and subservient, but joyful and loving."

'Better to wonder'

Coffin, holding court in a recliner beside a stack of Christian tomes, can't understand why so many religious people are speaking out for the death penalty and against homosexuality.

"Is this the word of the Lord for our time — that we should hate, fear, discriminate?"

He says of churchgoers who feel uncomfortable welcoming gays and lesbians: "With whose suffering do you ally your sympathy — the people in the church who are bigoted or the people who can't come to church because they're being discriminated against?

"Over the years I have been convinced that the more important question is not who believes in God, but in whom does God believe," the minister continues. "Rather than claim God for our side, it's better to wonder whether we are on God's side."

Coffin can be just as scathing with liberals who lament the state of the country.

"I get a little bit annoyed when somebody says, 'I am so disillusioned.' I'm old enough to say, 'Who gave you the right to have illusions?' If we're disillusioned, we have only ourselves to take to task. I like fighters, not whiners."

In his new book, Coffin quotes everyone from French writer Albert Camus to Vermont mystery novelist Archer Mayor. The minister also offers his own words on what makes a good sermon.

"No souls are saved after 20 minutes," he writes. "Be rich in emotion, strong in conviction and tender as only the truly strong can be tender. Love your congregation, and be the first to do what your sermon calls for. If you can't persuade yourself, how will you persuade others?"

"A good sermon is like a good whodunit," he says in an interview. "The surprise is the discovery of inevitability — why didn't I think of that?"

"When people complain that their prayers aren't answered," he adds in his book, "generally their prayers are answered and the answer is 'no' and they haven't heard it."

'Unduly optimistic'

Coffin, strong if a bit wobbly in his speech and walk, today gets much of his world view from a lace-curtained living room window overlooking the Strafford green.

"Nature gets more interesting as you get nearer to joining it," he says with a laugh.

Although happily retired in a town of 1,085 people (it's 15 unpaved miles north of the junction of interstates 89 and 91), Coffin remains a player in national publishing. Westminster John Knox Press released "Credo," a collection of excerpts from his sermons and speeches, to surprising success in 2003. It has similar hopes for his new book, for which the author will limit his public appearances to the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich on Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. and the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.

"Although if Oprah calls …" he says.

In the meantime, Coffin will continue to sermonize from his armchair pulpit. One day he's talking with a reporter for a local paper, the next he's welcoming the Los Angeles Times. His concerns are the same ones he spoke about after Yale: world hunger, homelessness and human rights as minister of New York City's Riverside Church and peace as former leader of the SANE/FREEZE nuclear weapons freeze campaign.

"I'm an old man in a hurry," he says. "I used to think the basic wisdom of the American people will come forth. I've waited quite a long time now. I may have been a little bit unduly optimistic."

Then again, Coffin still finds hope in his heart.

"You ask about my health," he writes in his new book. "I have known better days but none happier. My spirits are high and everything else is commentary."

Commentary he pens longhand on a legal pad.

"I suspect this will be the last book, but I said that after the last book," the minister says. "My wife asked, 'How long are you going to write?' I said, 'I'll know when I've stopped.'"

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

On Crying Wolf

Steve Caldwell was discussing at Liberal Faith Development the concern over recent incidents at the GA that were perceived as racist. Steve was suggesting that many UUs harbor discriminatory unwittingly racist or “ageist” attitudes and fall into denial when it is pointed out to them. Over there, I was responding that we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that other factors than discrimination may have been involved in these incidents as well. Unfortunately, some of the participants took some of the comments in the discussion personally, so Steve has decided to take a break, and the conversation is dwindling down there. Although the racism issue is still being discussed elsewhere, I thought I’d try to repeat my points about the “other sides of the coin” here.

My question was this: Why do we seem to be preoccupied to the point of self-flagellation over issues of discrimination and oppression, but show far less concern for other denominational problems that to some eyes seem even more glaring, and present a real impediment to our ability to be taken seriously by the broader society?

One of these other problems is, I think, a reckless and uncritical encouragement of an attitude that 25 Beacon has loftily called "the prophetic witness". Not all social ills are equally dire; not all involve an equally unambiguous religious, spiritual, or ethical dimension; not all are equally prone to be remedied, especially through prophetic action. Learning when and how to give the prophetic witness judiciously and effectively, rather than recklessly and indiscriminately, is something that we UUs need to be just as concerned with as we are with the existence of discrimination and oppression. Abusing this witness through undisciplined condemnation or advocacy does nothing to further the societal changes that we hope for, but instead only marginalizes the voices who abuse it and, along with them, the causes they support.

Unfortunately, I do not think "institutional" UUism is nearly as concerned with teaching the appropriate (and inappropriate) uses of the prophetic witness as it is in promoting a more indiscriminate enthusiasm for what James Luther Adams has called "the prophethood of every believer". In practical application, this undisciplined enthusiasm often leads to a "boy who cried wolf" problem in which the ostensibly prophetic message is ignored or spurned because the messenger's previous recklessness in advocacy or condemnation has already damaged his or her own credibility. As in the case of the boy who cried wolf, this can occur even when the message of the moment happens to be valid. I think it's a real problem for both the UU movement as a whole and ourselves as autonomous, conscientious individuals.

I also think it’s a problem that is not evenly distributed across all UUism, but is especially concentrated in a few spots within the UUA. These spots include the Washington Office, YRUU, certain policy-making bureaus of 25 Beacon, and certain individual congregations' social action committees. In particular, I think a significant part of the recent troubles that YRUU has experienced stems from overemphasizing the prophetic witness and underemphasizing or ignoring other issues of faith and character development that are probably more important in the adolescent years, combined with grossly inadequate training in the effective and appropriate use of the witness.

Returning to the recent incidents involving youth at the GA: when they are seen through the lens of UUs’ "conventional wisdom" about the pervasiveness of racism, one familiar image emerges, and that is the paradigm for which “official” statements have been issued, and which is being actively debated elsewhere. When, however, they are seen through the lens of youthful immaturity combined with poorly conceived institutional promotion of reckless, undisciplined witnessing, an entirely different and less familiar, but no less valid and compelling, image falls into focus.

Steve accuses those who minimize or dismiss the pervasiveness of racism and “ageism” among UUs of being in denial. However, to my mind it is no less a case of denial to dismiss the one image than it is to dismiss the other.

Friday, July 08, 2005

It's Friday, and time for...

...a gentle reminder to Philocrites. We overeducated UU laity do love to hear trained clergy such as yourself share their ancient literary/cultural heritage regarding the serving forthe of loaves and/or fishes, as well as to debate what the original author(s) may have meant, and whether and in what way it presents truths that still apply to us moderns today.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Oh, those gnostic Unitarians!

Folks who were surprised at the popularity of Elaine Pagels at the recent GA shouldn't have been. Unitarians apparently had discernable Gnostic leanings even before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls in 1945.

For example, there's an out-of-print book first published by Beacon Press in 1935 for use in children's services called The Beacon Song and Service Book for Children and Young People. It used to be common in Unitarian children's chapels; my church's library still has a bunch of copies, and on a recent visit to First Parish in Plymouth I noticed that they still had theirs in the pews of their Brewster Chapel. My church's copies are the Fourth Printing of November 1943, and include some additions that presumably were appended at the time they were first acquired. Pasted to the frontpapers of our copies is an order of service with "We Gather Together", the Lord's Prayer, and "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come", which places my church two generations ago squarely in the Yankee Congregational Christian tradition, and is interesting but not particularly unusual. However, the really eyebrow-raising bit is what is pasted to the endpapers of every copy:


[To those who insist we have always been creedless: neener, neener.]

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
And in Jesus Christ, His Son,
Who was born of Mary and Joseph,
Who lived in a Carpenter's Shop in Nazareth,
Who taught the Sermon on the Mount,
Who died in Jerusalem upon a Cross,
To make me good.

[No particular surprises here. It's more Christocentric than most UU congregations today would accept, but there's no overt supernaturalism, no deity of Christ, no overt confession of the Resurrection -- it's classic Unitarianism.)

I believe that I, too, am a Child of God
And a Citizen of Heaven.

[Again, classic Unitarianism -- with the emphasis on human worth and "likeness to God" rather than sin and separation.]

I believe that I must never, by thought, word or deed, be a traitor to my Heavenly Country; for by so being I should open the gates to those enemies of the Soul -- falsehood, ugliness and fear.

[So, we didn't speak of "sin" per se, but we did speak openly back then in a far more muscular moral and spiritual vocabulary than many UUs today would choose. This is, or at least once was, standard "salvation by character" talk. I presume the omission of the "Harvard commas" is inadvertent.]

I believe that I must live my life in my Earthly Country by the secret knowledge I have in my heart of my Heavenly Country where Truth and Beauty and Love abide.

[Emphasis added. Egad! Zounds! Defeat that demiurge!]

Now unto the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the only Wise God, be honor and glory, forever. Amen.

[From I Timothy 1:17, this was a standard liturgical closing for many years in both Unitarian and Congregational churches.]

The Christocentrism and most of the theology may seem somewhat foreign to many contemporary UUs, but they aren't really out of place in historical Unitarian practice. However, this "secret knowledge" reference sounds strongly Gnostic, and is something I had never heard before in a Unitarian context! Can anybody out there with a firmer grounding in denominational history than I have shed any light on this creed and/or its "secret knowledge" doctrine that we evidently were teaching young Unitarians two generations ago, and where they came from?

Jump right in, the water's fine.

This just in:

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ has voted, by an 80% margin, to approve a resolution endorsing same-sex marriage.

Sometimes we UUs do have to be a vox clamantis in deserto, but it's always nicer to have company.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

"Cooking Under Fire", circa 1430

Philocrites' scrumptious-sounding Middle English recipe blogging has apparently brought my muse back from AWOL with rumblings in her musical tummy. With the aid of a bit of electronic sleuthing, I've just discovered a pair of Middle English recipe books myself, and am now prepared to assist Philo in demonstrating to the 21st century what it might have been like if PBS had brought out its popular Cooking Under Fire reality TV show in the 15th.

Herewith I present my answer to Philo's "monamy". It omits Philo's curds in favor of bread, and it preserves the Anglo-Saxon character þ, or "thorn", pronounced like a modern "th".

Creme Boylede.--Take creme or mylke, & brede of paynemayn, or ellys of tendyr brede, an breke it on þe creme, or elles in þe mylke, an set it on þe fyre tyl it be warme hot; and þorw a straynour þrowe it, and put it in-to a fayre potte, an sette it on þe fyre, an stere euermore: an whan it is almost y-boylyd, take fayre yolkys of eyron, an draw hem þorw a straynowr, and caste hem þer-to, and let hem stonde ouer the fyre tyl it boyle almost, an till it be skylfully þikke; þan caste a ladel-ful, or more or lasse, of boter þer-to, an a good quantite of whyte sugre, and a litel salt, an þan dresse it on a dysshe in maner of mortrewys.