Thursday, June 28, 2007

Aside to Robin Edgar

Robin, in contrast to the policies at some other UU venues, you are welcome here. You have a fine mind, and you usually offer illuminating insights when you are willing to apply it strictly to the topics at hand. I hope you will continue to do so here, because your participation often enriches the discussion.

As you've probably noticed, however, I have deleted a few of your comments recently. I did this because I thought you were not sincerely engaging the immediate discussion, but instead, you were diverting attention to other concerns that were not at issue here. This blog is not intended to serve as a vehicle for raising issues that you can and do raise elsewhere, so I will continue to delete posts that I do not consider appropriately responsive to the immediate topics at hand.

I would like to think I can count on your co-operation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

And cogently explains the reasons why here.

It is a time for mourning whenever, as William Butler Yeats once put it,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I am not as pessimistic as Comrade Kevin, perhaps because I am a member of a healthy congregation, led by a healthy, sensitive and articulate minister, in a region of the country where the positive identity and beliefs we once possessed have not yet been entirely discarded in favor of a value system built only upon the supposed efficacy of "witnessing against". But I do appreciate the grievances expressed, and at times feel them myself.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Object Lessons from an Unaffiliated, but Kindred, Institution

[Famous UU Horace Mann]

The following is an abbreviated version of an op-ed essay in this morning's New York Times. Re-posted here without comment.

Where the Arts Were Too Liberal

June 17, 2007


THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing.

Established in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by the kind of free-thinking Christian group found only in the United States, Antioch College was egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism. The college’s motto, not in Latin or Greek but plain English, was coined by Horace Mann, its first president: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

For most of its history the institution lived up to that calling. It was one of the first coeducational colleges in the United States, and at a time when slavery was being practiced 70 miles to the south of its campus, it was one of the first colleges not to make a person’s race a factor in admission. It was also the first to appoint a woman as a full professor. All this happened before Lincoln became president.

Later Antioch would incorporate pragmatism, that most native of American philosophies, into its curriculum, balancing a student’s experience of learning inside the ivory tower with regular jobs off campus in the “real” world.

Yet it was in the high tide of liberal activism that the college lost its way. I know this firsthand, because I entered Antioch in the fall of 1968, just when the tide was nearing its peak. So much of the history of 1968 reflects an America in crisis, but if you were young and idealistic it was a time of unparalleled excitement. The 2,000 students at Antioch, living in a picture-pretty American village, provided a laboratory for various social experiments of the time.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time. …

Each semester, the college seemed to create a new program. “We need to take education to the people” became a mantra, and so satellite campuses began to sprout around the country. Something called Antioch University was created, and every faculty member whose marriage was going bad or who simply couldn’t hack living in a village of 3,000 people and longed for the city came up with a proposal to start a new campus.

“It was liberalism gone mad,” a former professor, Hannah Goldberg, once told me, and she was right. The college seemed to forget the pragmatism that had been a key to its ethos, and tried blindly to extend its mission beyond education to social reform. But there were too many new programs and too little cash reserve to deal with the inevitable growing pains.

For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough. … Most of the talented faculty members began to leave for other institutions, and the few who were dedicated to rebuilding the Yellow Springs campus found themselves increasingly isolated. … Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview. … Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.

I grieve for the place with all the sadness, anger and self-reproach you feel when a loved one dies unnecessarily. I grieve for Antioch the way I grieve for the hope of 1968 washed away in a tide of self-inflated rhetoric, self-righteousness and self-indulgence.

The ideals of social justice and economic fairness we embraced then are still right and deeply American. The discipline to turn those ideals into realities was what Antioch, its community and the generation it led was lacking. I fear it still is.

(Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Third Annual Boston Area UU Bloggers' Picnic

If you go out in the woods today,
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go out in the woods today,
You'd better go in disguise.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

If you go out in the woods today,
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely out in the woods today,
But safer to stay at home.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

Every teddy bear who's been good
Is sure of a treat today!
There's lots of wonderful things to eat
And wonderful games to play!
Beneath the trees, where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please --
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

Picnic time for teddy bears,
The little teddy bears are having a lovely time today.
Watch them, catch them unawares,
And see them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily dance about --
They love to play and shout,
And never have any cares.
At six o'clock their mommies and daddies
Will take them home to bed
Because they're tired little teddy bears!

The third annual Boston area bloggers' picnic was held today at the First Parish (UU) in Milton, Massachusetts. Some who are by now old regulars were joined by other delightful fresh faces, and questions of moment were discussed. For the first time, the sun shone, and we sat and ate and talked outside in the balmy June air. Philocrites took a group photo, which one hopes he will post anon.

Update: He posted it. It's here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Time flies when you're having fun

Fausto and Mrs. Fausto have been married 20 years today.

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below -
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.

They say that I'm feeble with age, Maggie,
My steps are less sprightly than then,
My face is a well-written page, Maggie,
And time alone was the pen.
They say we are agèd and grey, Maggie,
As sprays by the white breakers flung,
But to me you're as fair as you were, Maggie,
When you and I were young.

-- George Johnson

Monday, June 04, 2007

Truth to Power

[Marc Chagall, Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, 1956. Courtesy Spaightwood Galleries, housed in the former Unitarian church in Upton, Mass.]

I said it in the thread below, but I think it deserves repeating in its own thread:

I would say that overcoming oppression and healing its injuries is an entirely valid way to apply one's core religious or moral values, but it is not a value in and of itself, much less a core one.

Because of this, I don't like the way AR/AO has been promoted recently as a core collective value within the UUA, or as a necessary part of our collective identity. I don't like the way it divides the world into the self-righteous "us" and the contemptible "them". I don't like the way it replaces a soteriology of grace with a soteriology of victimhood and conflict. I don't like the way it sanctifies victims for things they had no choice over and demonizes even unwitting "oppressors" for harm they may never have intended (or even have participated in), or the way it eagerly and gullibly finds oppression and victimization even in the most unlikely and dubious of instances. (Like a "brown bag lunch", for instance.) I don't like the fact that too often its response to oppression, whether real or imaginary, fails to include any meaningful physical, emotional or spiritual ministry or healing to the actual victim -- other than perhaps nurturing and encouraging the victim's sense of anger and injustice. I don't like the overemphasis of faultfinding, and underemphasis of our historic Universalist gospel of love and forgiveness even (or especially) when it has not been earned. And I especially don't like it when the extraordinary attention and resources that are devoted to AR/AO in some corners of UU-dom seem to crowd out nearly any other avenue or approach to faith formation.

There are many effective ways to combat racism and oppression, and it is a worthy undertaking, but standing like the Pharisee in the Temple court and piously proclaiming the purity of one's observance of the AR/AO mitzvot is not a particularly good way to do it.

I'll add to this that while fighting racism and oppression is a worthy way to express one's faith, there are also many others. Not every UU can, or should be expected to, succeed as a prophetic witness against social pathology while also holding a day job and supporting a family. Perhaps especially our ministers.

In my observation, the disproportionate attention that our (badly framed) denominational "AR/AO work" commands from us shortchanges both our adult laity and our future ministerial college, but it is partlcularly a problem in the area of religious education for teenagers. This is the age where we call ourselves to begin to support our youth on a “free and responsible” journey of faith formation. To my mind, that should be a process of inquiry and elucidation in which they would examine several alternate models of faith and devotional discipline in some degree of critical depth, including especially our own historic religious paths of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Religious Humanism. Instead, the “Coming of Age” program in many of our congregations is cobbled together from a patchwork of old and incomplete pedagogical materials, while much of the fresh material for this age group offered by denominational staff to our RE directors deals narrowly with the topics of either anti-oppression or sex.

Now, oppression and sex are two topics that resonate strongly with most teenagers, and both racism/oppression sensitivity and sexual ethics are very good things to teach adolescents. They do not, however, comprise a necessary or complete guide to faith formation – in fact, for some of the reasons above, our AR/AO efforts as they are presently framed can encourage the formation of a resentful and aggrieved rather than uplifting faith, both in our adolescents and in our much more educated but in many cases only slightly older seminarians. Some of our more astute youth intuitively recognize this and give up on UUism as offering little of value, while many more simply become bored and disengaged. After all, teenagers have more than enough of their own reasons to feel horny and resentful without having to endure adult know-it-alls telling them how to do even that, too.

It’s long past time to stop letting only those two programs suck all the air out of the room for our youth and RE directors, and instead to provide fresher, broader and deeper resources for faith formation to youth, seminarians and adult laity alike. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that our future as a successful denomination depends on it.

And I suspect that’s why PeaceBang’s comments have “gone meta”, as Philocrites puts it. Deep down, consciously or unconsciously, on both sides of this seemingly small conversation about something as prosaic as what to call "brown bag lunches", we all have a sense that the stakes are in fact not inconsequential, but rather, immeasurably high. Avoiding the conversation as some have urged may avoid ruffling feathers, but allowing AR/AO advocates to continue to stake out such a dominant position in our overall religious agenda and leave so little room for other concerns is, ironically, to allow "AR/AO work" itself to oppress our denomination. So IMHO, it’s very good karma that a daughter of Moses has risen up among the Unitarians and Universalists in bondage to speak truth to power.