Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More on polyamory, with speculation on the wisdom of ancestor worship and reviving the dead



On my previous polyamory post, I expressed my doubt that polyamory, whatever its merits, has any compelling connection to UUism. E. Isaacson offered the following intriguing and articulate response:

Where's the connection?

I guess we have suppressed any recollection that Mary Wollstonecraft, a member of the Rev. Richard Price’s Unitarian congregation, made waves with her 1792 tract on the Vindication of the Rights of Women, by denouncing monogamous marriage as an oppressive patriarchal institution, which she characterized as “legal prostitution.”

It seems we have suppressed as well any memory that Wollstonecraft’s lover, William Godwin, expressed remarkably similar sentiments the following year, writing in his 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice that “marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness.”

It’s best to forget as well, I suppose, that Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Godwin’s daughter, leaving him to raise the girl – and that their daughter in 1814 eloped with the notorious polyamorist and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Never mind that in 1818, as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, she published her own novel, which she titled Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.

It’s best to forget that the government took Percy Bysshe Shelley’s children from him, reasoning that one who believes people should be free to love one another – without legal restrictions – cannot be a fit parent.

Who could think that the polyamorist Unitarian radicalism started by Mary Wollstonecraft, which attacked the very foundations of England’s patriarchal social order, might be tolerated? And who among us would fault Edmund Burke for denouncing Wollstonecraft and the Unitarian Society as “loathsome insects that might, if they were allowed, grow into giant spiders as large as oxen”?

So – let the secular world remember our Unitarian forebear Mary Wollstonecraft as the founder of modern feminism. Let the secular world praise her lover William Godwin as an influential and enlightened social philosopher. Let the secularists honor Percy Bysshe Shelley as a great romantic poet, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the author of one of western literature’s most important novels.

But ask twenty-first century UUs what these people stood for? Well, we're not really interested in the connection.


Unfortunately, E.'s comments may make a rousing oration, but as a coherent argument they are unpersuasive. I fail to see how the romantic entanglements and consequential troubles of a few famous Romantic-era muses, some of whom were coincidentally also Unitarians, would make polyamory an especially UU issue, either then or now. The Wollstonecraft-Shelleys weren't Unitarian because they were polyamorous, and they weren't polyamorous because they were Unitarian. There was no direct connection between their Unitarianism and their polyamory, and even if there had been then, E. hasn't explained why that connection would still apply today. If Mary Wollstonecraft's indictment of the social institution of marriage didn't even catch fire among the Unitarians of her own time, why should it now?

In fact, the Wollstonecraft argument sounds like one more example of the misguided UU propensity toward "ancestor worship", which I think has little if any validity as a spiritual practice or dependable means of faith formation. To me, saying UUs today today should support or practice polyamory as a social institution because Famous UU Mary Wollstonecraft once did makes no more sense that saying UUs today should support or practice slavery as a social institution because Famous UU John C. Calhoun once did. (No, I'm not saying polyamory is the moral equivalent of slavery, but I am saying that in neither case was there any obvious nexus between the religion and the arguments for the social institution.)

Wouldn't a more enduring religious lesson from these particular ancestors have to do with the fatal hubris of trying to invent a living thing in our own image by breathing new life into dead parts?

18 Comments:

At July 17, 2007 at 10:45:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Incidentally, I'll also draw what I think is an important distinction between the way I've drawn on incidents from our religious past in my own recent posts and the common misuse of the memory of "Famous UUs".

In my examples, I am exploring the precedent of how our gathered religious community has wrestled with enduring religious problems within an explicitly religious context. I think it is a legitimate use of history to examine how similar religious questions have been resolved within our tadition in the past, and whether the principles that appled then still remain valid. That's a very different use of history than surveying our past, selecting from it a few particularly attractive or intriguing or well-known characters whose appealing attributes may or may not have been in any way related to either their or our own theology or religious praxis, and raising them to iconic stature as avatars of our present religious identity.

 
At July 17, 2007 at 11:39:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Jeff W. said...

I think E. might make an equally persuasive point that because Shelley and Wallstonecraft were novelists and poets, that 21st century novelists and poets have suppressed the memory of their polygamist ancestors and should rightfully be championing the end of monogamy. Hopefully Stephen King and Timothy LaHaye will get right on it.

 
At July 17, 2007 at 1:32:00 PM EDT, Blogger Ellis said...

I agree that the Wollstonecraft/Shelley polyamorousness wasn't necessarily grounded in their Unitarianism.

But even if it had been, you know, the 19th century is not the same as the 20th or 21st century. I'm not saying there aren't parallels, but now that women can vote, own property, have lucrative jobs outside the home and retain custody of their children, marriage is different. The power structures of a typical American 19th century marriage are institutionally and culturally different from a typical American 20th century marriage.

 
At July 17, 2007 at 4:31:00 PM EDT, Anonymous kate r said...

Interesting history that is relevant to this question is that the Puritans, our religious ancestors, made a significant break from Catholics when it came to the theology of marriage. Catholics had a that sex in marriage was for procreation and that women's place was in the bearing and raising of children. The Puritans believed that sex within marriage was also for cementing the bonds between husband and wife and had a much more egalitarian view of marriage. Women were significant actors and partners and not just baby makers. There was a strong sense of marriage as covenental. Thus the "Patriarchal" tradition that many sexual revolutionaries railed against, was not the tradition of our religious ancestors who had vastly liberalized the religious understanding of marriage as a partnership rather than ownership.

 
At July 17, 2007 at 5:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Good points, Ellis and Kate.

Mrs. Fausto and I were married by a Presbyterian minister in a ceremony where the vows included the line, "...and I do promise and covenant, before God and these witnesses...". I don't remember much about the homily other than that it was witty and made the guests laugh, it included an exegesis of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins that we couldn't understand, and he spent a lot of time talking about how important to both marriage and faith the idea of "covenant" and reciprocal obligation was.

Those Presbies come out of the same Calvinist branch of Protestantism that our Puritan predecessors did, and perhaps it's no coincidence that today the mother Church of Scotland is probably at least as liberal as our sister Puritan denomination, the UCC, if not quite so "evolved" as the UUA.

 
At July 18, 2007 at 11:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Zach A said...

I didn't understand your basic argument/question last time, and I don't still.

What does polyamory have to do with UUism? The same thing LGBT issues have to do with UUism. That is, basically nothing directly, but everything indirectly, because this is a pervasive dimension of life (and hence affects UUs) and is a pressing moral issue (and hence UUs should take a stand on it).

By the same token, if there are Unitarians who are poly, and feel UUs should become more accepting of that -- presto, it's now a UU issue. Why else would the whole damn UU blogosphere be talking about still?

 
At July 19, 2007 at 1:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Comrade Kevin said...

I really don't buy E. Isaacson's justification that polyamory has some sort of UU basis.

Admittedly, I never heard of the concept until I went to my first UU con in 2003. It seems to me that polyamory is common to certain leftists who may or may not be UU. I have two good friends who live a polyamorous lifestyle but they identify as neo-pagan. IMHO, poly has become, much like veganism and home composting: a fashion statement.

If we're arguing the merits of the practice, I will set forth the assertion that it takes a particular sort of person to keep jealousy and natural possessiveness at bay. I'm not one of those people. Monogamy may not be how we are intrinsically wired, but it's damned convenient.

 
At July 19, 2007 at 4:05:00 PM EDT, Blogger David Pollard said...

I expect you can find similar tenuous connections between Unitarians, Universalists and various type of sexual non-conformity if you look at the Utopian Community movement in the early 1800's in North America. Sexual non-conformity was also a charge that was occassionally levelled against the Transcendentalists as well. Then in the 1960s and 1970s there were numerous figures within the Association tauting "open marriages" etc. While I doubt the polys can forge this into a bona fide pedigree - the persistance of various type of sexual non-conformity on the fringes of Unitarianism for the past couple centuries does give their presences some (however troublesome) creditibiltiy.

I suspect that in the end that this is going to turn on the idea of whether an relationship is "open" or "closed" more than the number of people involved in it. In far too many of our congregations - while the propaganda about polyamory stresses closed group marriages - in practice what is seen is married men crusing for additional sex partners.

 
At July 19, 2007 at 9:52:00 PM EDT, Blogger PeaceBang said...

Good Lord. On what basis are we claiming MW as a Unitarian? I wrote the biography of her for Dorothy May Emerson's anthology of Unitarian and Universalist women. MW was a Dissenter, as was her lover. She was miserable in love, as any reader of her autobiographical materials will easily find. And as for Percy B. Shelley's great polyamorist successes -- does anyone writing in favor of his behavior know that one of his female loves drowned herself in a lake in London after he fell in love with Mary Shelley and started to pay less attention to her? I'll have to research it, but I believe her name was Claire and I believe she may have been pregnant at the time.

 
At July 19, 2007 at 10:22:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

this is a pervasive dimension of life (and hence affects UUs)

No, it's not, and hence, no, it doesn't.

Sexuality is a pervasive dimension of life that affects everyone (and not only UUs). Polyamory is not an inescapable part of one's sexuality, but a deliberate choice that is freely made by only a tiny minority (not only UUs, and for reasons that have nothing to do with UUism).

You could make the same assertion about many other unconventional sexual or social choices and be just as wrong about those -- for example, public nudity, bestiality, narcophilia, misanthropy, or miserliness. Like polyamory, none of those have any greater appeal or applicability to UUs than anyone else.

and is a pressing moral issue (and hence UUs should take a stand on it).

No, it's not, and hence, no, we don't need to.

By the same token, if there are Unitarians who are poly, and feel UUs should become more accepting of that -- presto, it's now a UU issue.

That makes no more sense than saying there are Unitarians who eat only raw meat and drink only beer from condoms, and feel other UUs should become more accepting of that, so presto, serving raw meat and beer in condoms is now a UU issue.

Why else would the whole damn UU blogosphere be talking about still?

Because rumors and speculation were swirling at the GA about whether the IA's were being disaffiliated to provide cover for the UUA to cut off UUPA without having to give a reason why.

And because it seemed everyone was afraid to say anything openly until LT had the courage to call bullshit -- both on the UUA for being unwilling to explain their IA decisions, and on the UUPA for claiming any serious relevance to UUism in the first place.

And because once it became safe to talk about it, nobody has been able to give any credible reason why it's an issue that needs to be seen as relevant to our religion.

 
At July 19, 2007 at 10:34:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Claire was the future Mary Shelley's stepsister, who canoodled with Lord Byron while Mary was boffing Bysshe. Claire was preggers with Byron's kid, not Shelley's.

Harriet Shelley was the one who drowned herself. She was Percy's first wife, and was distraught at his enchantment with Mary and Claire. It was due to Harriet's death that Percy finally married Mary, and made her Mary Shelley.

Some polyamorists would say that kind of scandal and woe doesn't happen to real polyamorists, though, because polyamory is just so darn respectful and committed.

Right.

 
At August 2, 2007 at 6:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous e. isaacson said...

"Good Lord," writes PeaceBang, "On what basis are we claiming MW as a Unitarian?" Wollstonecraft, she insists, "was a Dissenter."

I was unaware that being "a Dissenter" precluded one from being a Unitarian. Indeed, I was under the impression that the English Dissenters included Socinians and Unitarians -- such as the Rev. Theophilus Linndsey, the Rev. Dr. Richard Price, and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Dissenters

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Priestley_and_Dissent

http://www.spaceship-earth.org/Biograph/Priestley.htm

As it happens, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society identifies Wollstonecraft as "a congregant at the Unitarian chapel at Newington Green," who was deeply "influenced by its minister, Richard Price."

http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/marywollstonecraft.html

About.com similarly identifies Wollstonecraft as a member of the Rev. Dr. Price's Unitarian congregation.

http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa083099.htm

Try as I might, I cannot find a way to separate Wollstonecraft's religion from her views on the roles of the sexes in society - - and marriage.

http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/rightsofwoman.html

And I doubt it is sheer coincidence that her rather radical ideas were published by Joseph Johnson -- the Unitarian publisher of works by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley and the Rev. Gilbert Wakefield.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Johnson_%28publisher%29#Religious_publications_and_advocate_of_Unitarianism

This is not to suggest that all Unitarians of her day endorsed Mary Wollstonecraft's views, or that all Unitarian Universalists today should.

I seek only to point out that Unitarians have a history of challenging established dogmas and institutions - - including those governing relations between the sexes - - and also a tradition of intellectual pluralism that I think need not necessarily deride people for advancing dissenting views about love and marriage, as Mary Wollstonecraft once did.

 
At August 2, 2007 at 7:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous e. isaacson said...

Jeff W. suggested, rather facetiously I'd say, "that 21st century novelists and poets have suppressed the memory of their polygamist ancestors and should rightfully be championing the end of monogamy. Hopefully Stephen King and Timothy LaHaye will get right on it."

Well, they're not King and LaHaye, but could it be that novelists Robert Olen Butler and Elizabeth Dewberry have taken up the challenge?

You don't suppose they were reading this blog, do you?

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12421611

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/01/AR2007080102502.html?hpid=sec-artsliving

http://gawker.com/news/money-changes-everything/elizabeth-dewberry-left-robert-olen-butler-to-join-ted-turners-collection-284346.php

 
At August 2, 2007 at 11:01:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

The issue is not whether there are Unitarians who have challenged social conventions in the past, for whatever reason, but whether it is normative that we today should challenge any social convention that happpens to stand in the way of our personal bliss, and whether it is normative that the rest of us collectively as a religious organization should support any challenge that a few of us try to raise.

I would argue that it is not normative that we should challenge social conventions merely because they exist and/or they seem inconvenient to our unfettered expressions of individuality. I would also argue that the rest of us have no normative duty to stand in solidarity when one of us raises such a challenge.

Not every issue of diversity or personal freedom demands advocacy. There are some issues of diversity or personal choice where tolerance is enough and advocacy is too much. For example, I know some UUs who object on arcane ethical grounds to using personal hygiene products, and while I think it would be wrong for me to tell them how to live their lives, I would not support the UUA lending its name to an initiative advocating broad social resistance to the use of deodorant.

The social conventions that we do have a normative duty to challenge are those that lead to systemic oppression or misery or injustice in society. Likewise, we have a normative duty to support those social conventions that contribute systemically to the welfare of society. I would argue strongly that monogamous marriage falls into the latter category and not the former, at least in most of contemporary Western society in the early 21st century.

What unconventional thing you do behind closed doors in your own bedroom is your business, not mine, and as long as you are not hurting someone else by doing it I will not condemn you, and I will even welcome you if you want to participate in my community or my church. But I will not support you in a campaign for broad social acceptance if what you do carefully under particular circumstances has the potential to be harmful when practiced widely and indiscriminately, and I will object if you try to invoke the moral authority of my religion in such a campaign.

 
At August 3, 2007 at 3:37:00 PM EDT, Anonymous e. isaacson said...

If I'm not mistaken, Fausto, the Rev. Adin Ballou advanced a consequentialist argument in some respects remarkably similar to yours - - against the nineteenth century's free-love movement and the Swedenborgians. See, e.g., Adin Ballou, Practical Christian Socialism pages 358-72 (Hopedale & New York: 1854). First a Universalist minister, and then a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Adin Ballou is remembered as a man of heroic proportions, whose philosophy of nonviolence made an impression on Leo Tolstoy, and through Tolstoy, on Gandhi.

I do have issues, though, with your consequentialist "what if everybody did it?" argument.

You wouldn't apply it apply it to homosexuals, or to transsexuals, would you?

It's easy to picture drastic consequences for society if everybody were gay - - this is a rhetorical favorite of some on the Christian right isn't it? - - or if everybody underwent a sex-change operation.

But the "what if everybody did it?" argument strikes me as an absurd one here. For the truth is that most people are straight, and most people have no interest in a sex-change operation. Welcoming homosexuals and transsexuals into our congregations, and speaking out for their rights, won't change that.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus once declared: "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." Matthew 19:11-12 (NRSV).

Tradition holds that Origen, the third-century Universalist theologian, accepted Christ's teaching and castrated himself. But like Jesus said: "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given." Matthew 19:11 (NRSV).

Thus, I think, the "what if everybody did it?" argument really may not take you very far.

Most of us are heterosexual. Honoring homosexuals' dignity and humanity, and speaking out for their rights, isn't going to change that.

Most of us have no interest in following Origen's example. Advocating equality and justice and dignity for transsexuals isn't going to change that.

Accepting and honoring homosexuals and transsexuals poses no threat at all to the plain-vanilla heterosexuality that most of us enjoy.

Similarly, I suspect, most of us are attracted to the simple beauty of a pair bond.

In fact, I believe it was the natural urge of most humans to form pair bonds that was ultimately fatal to the Oneida Community's nineteenth-century experiment with "complex marriage" under the Rev. John Humphrey Noyes.

That was a curious experiment, to be sure. But it posed no serious threat to our social order.

I don't perceive polyamorists as a genuine threat to our social organization today either. Whatever it is that you or I may choose to say about them, the simple truth is that everybody isn't going to do it.

 
At August 3, 2007 at 9:25:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I appreciate the background info on Ballou. I didn't know that tidbit about him and his criticism of the Swedenborgians. On the other hand, Swedenborg himself impressed R. W. Emerson so much that Emerson devoted an essay to him in Representative Men.

I understand your point about the weakness of the "what if everyone did it?" with regard to gay marriage, but I don't think gay marriage is a convincing analogy in the case of polyamory. Nobody benefits from the prohibition of gay marriage, although gays (most of whom have no choice over their sexual orientation) are rather severely hurt by it.

A better analogy to advocating wider encouragement of polyamory might be advocating suspension of government regulation of the manufacture, distribution and purchase of pharmaceutical products. In both cases, it's the voluntarily selfish and unethical participants, not the voluntarily conscientious and ethical ones, from whom society at large does in fact need protection.

 
At September 9, 2007 at 11:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger T.L. Holladay said...

RE: "the misguided UU propensity toward "ancestor worship", which I think has little if any validity as a spiritual practice or dependable means of faith formation."

You apparently haven't talked to any UU pagans, have you?

Ancestor worship is a very big part of the Heathen path. Polyamory hasn't anything to do with it.

If you want to know more, visit me at http://seeksustainshare.blogspot.com

 
At September 9, 2007 at 11:01:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Okay, all you terribly terribly earnest and literal folks, it's time for a refresher in figurative expression (which, you may have heard, plays a big role in all religious talk), with particular attention to the rhetoric of irony.

Of course ancestor worship is an authentic element of many religious traditions.

The thing about authentic ancestor worship, though, is that people who practice it express reverence for their own ancestors. The real folks whose spirits may have departed this world, but whose living blood still courses through their own veins, who in a figurative but still very concrete way live again in and through the worshipers.

The ancestors they worship are not just any old exemplary people who merely thought or lived in a way that appeals to living worshipers.

They are not people who were nominally affiliated with a predecessor religious denomination, but whose personal beliefs may have had very little resemblance to what the present-day worshipers affirm.

They are, rather, the people from whom the worshipers inherited their very lives.

The thing about both Unitarianism and Universalism as authentic religious traditions is that neither ever practiced ancestor worship. Yes, we have broadened our definition of who we are to embrace all varieties of believers and spritial seekers, and some of our pagan or neo-pagan or eastern-leaning members may indeed practice authentic ancestor worship, and blessed are they indeed if the practice brings them fulfillment. However, even if they do and it does, it is an adopted practice from another tradition, not an inherent element of our own tradition.

When I speak of "the misguided UU propensity toward 'ancestor worship', which I think has little if any validity as a spiritual practice or dependable means of faith formation", I am not speaking of the authentic practice of worshiping one's own ancestors. What I am speaking of is seeming over-eagerness on the part of the UUA and certain elements of the UU RE community to glom on to the names of famous celebrities of the past, find some often-tenuous connection between them and the present-day UU denomination, and then claim the beams of reflected glory as if they were our own. To call that "ancestor worship" is an ironic figure of speech (which is why I enclosed the term in quotes rather than using it straightforwardly), because (a) it does not show any authentic reverence for our own personal ancestors, (b) in many cases, the "Famous UU" in question may have been a religious freethinker like us, but did not have any particular affiliation with us, and (c) in many of the cases where the "Famous UU" was in fact a denominationally active Unitarian or Universalist, his or her religious beliefs were much closer to the mainstream Protestant Christianity of their time than to the principles most of us uphold (and deny) today.

To define ourselves today by our imagined affinity with heroes from the past who were neither our authentic personal ancestors, nor authentic builders of the religious tradition that we inherit and still observe, nor authentic confessors of the religious orientation that we affirm and perpetuate, is a sham and deserves to be named as such. In the particular case raised here, Mary Wollstonecraft may have considered herself Unitarian, but although she spoke against the injustice of restrictive marriage she was not a polyamorist as far as we know, nor did the Unitarians of her day practice or advocate polyamory. Her son-in-law Percy Shelley was a polyamorist but not a Unitarian, and his adventures in polyamory brought woe to almost everyone involved. To hold up Wollstonecraft and Shelley as Famous UUs whose polyamory establishes a successful normative moral principle for contemporary UUs to follow is intellectually dishonest, and an excellent example of the worst kind of false, inauthentic UU "ancestor worship". It shouldn't be difficult for anyone who does practice an authentic tradition of ancestor worship to recognize the difference instantly.

Because it was raised on another thread, I'll contrast the Wollstonecraft and Shelley examples with my discussions of John Robinson, Anne Hutchinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In each of the instances I cited, the person named was not only an authentic member of a practicing congregation that still survives today as a member congregation of the UUA, but each also serves as an archetype of a defining principle or conflict that remains not only alive, but close to the heart of our identity as a gathered religious community, today. Even so, I am not calling for us contemporary UUs to worship them as ancestors in the way that authentic ancestor worshipers do, nor to celebrate them in glib "Famous UU" fashion, but merely to recognize that the same issues and principles with which they wrestled, and which may have originated with them, do indeed remain characteristic of our community down to the present day.

 

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