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?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What if an individual discerns new truth, but the gathered community rejects it?

[The Trial of Anne Hutchinson]

This problem has been faced many times in our denominational history. Two of the better-known precedents are the Antinomian Controversy involving Anne Hutchinson in the 1630's and the Lord's Supper Controversy involving Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1830's.

Friday, July 13, 2007

God is still speaking.

[Charles West Cope, Pilgrim Fathers Leaving Delft]

PeaceBang has drawn a lot of responses to her post about the UCC’s new slogan, “God is still speaking”. What I’d like to explore here is the backstory, which many UUs may not be aware of, but which explains why their slogan would catch our attention.

The oldest congregation in the UUA is First Parish Church in Plymouth, Mass. It was first gathered (in secret, to avoid persecution for heresy) in 1608 in Scrooby, England, spent a few years in exile in Holland, and migrated to the New World in 1620 aboard the Mayflower in pursuit of the freedom to worship openly.

Around 1800, in one of the earliest outbreaks of what would later be called the “Unitarian Controversy”, the Plymouth church divided, with the liberal faction remaining in First Parish and the stricter Calvinist faction forming a new church that is now affiliated with the UCC. Because of this schism, both the UUA and UCC now trace their earliest origins in North America to the Pilgrims of Plymouth.

What this dry old history means to us today is that, contrary to the intuition of many contemporary UUs, the Mayflower Pilgrims were UUs too. Well, proto-UUs. Liberal Calvinists. Free-thinking dissenters branded as heretics. A hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, when Unitarianism was arguably at its zenith, it was the Pilgrims, not Theodore Parker or Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Unitarians all looked to as their denominational exemplars. The Pilgrims truly have a more rightful place on the Famous UUs list than many of the names who are actually there. (Which makes for great elevator speeches about who we are, by the way.)

And what exactly did these early religious liberals believe that set them apart from more rigid Christians? Here’s Governor Edward Winslow of Plymouth writing in 1646, recalling the farewell sermon given by their pastor John Robinson, who had remained behind in Holland in 1620 and died before he could rejoin his congregation in the New World:

We were now, ere long, to part asunder; and the Lord knoweth whether ever he should live to see our faces again. But … he charged us, before God and his blessed angels, … if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry. For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.

He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period [full stop] in religion; and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans: they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of God's will He had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. "And also," saith he, "you see the Calvinists. They stick where he left them, a misery much to be lamented.

"For though they were precious shining lights in their Times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living," saith he, "they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received."

Here also, he put us in mind of our Church Covenant; at least that part whereby "we promise and covenant with God and one another to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us…," but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth; and well to examine and compare and weigh it … before we received it. "For," saith he, "it is not possible … that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once."
[Emphasis added.]

“The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word”. That is the pastoral charge that would form the foundation of what are now two entire denominations, the UUA and the UCC. That is the understanding that informed the original covenants of so many of the oldest congregations in both denominations, with their expressions of devotion to truths yet to be known. And it is the source of many subsequent paraphrases in both denominations, such as these 19th-century examples:

It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.
(Unitarian minister and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his Divinity School Address)

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
Who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her campfires!
We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly
Through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal
With the Past's blood-rusted key.

(Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell, from his poem "The Present Crisis")

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind --
By notions of our day and sect – crude, partial, and confined:
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred,
For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.

(Congregational layman George Rawson, from his hymn “We Limit Not the Truth of God”)

Reason's noble aspiration
Truth in growing clearness saw;
Conscience spoke its condemnation,
Or proclaimed the eternal law.
While Thine inward revelations
Told Thy saints their prayers were heard,
Prophets to the guilty nations
Spoke Thine everlasting Word.

Lo, that Word abideth ever;
Revelation is not sealed;
Answering now to our endeavor,
Truth and right are still revealed.
That which came to ancient sages,
Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew,
Written in the soul’s deep pages,
Shines today, forever new.

(Unitarian minister Samuel Longfellow, from his hymn “Light of Ages and of Nations”, #190 in the grey hymnal)

So, when in the 21st century the UCC undertakes a new outreach program with the slogan “God is Still Speaking,” it’s only natural that their phrase would resonate with many UUs as well. After all, the understanding that it expresses is not new to the UCC or unique to them; rather, like some of our own favorite UU slogans, it’s a restatement of a bedrock principle that we UUs have always held in common with them.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Junk Summer Reading

Skaneateles Lake, New York

It's summer, life is a bit slower, and it's a good time to kill some time with pulp fiction of unpredictable quality.

So I picked up a paperback to read on a return train trip from New York to Boston the other day. It's called The Fourth Perimeter, by Tim Green. The plot involves the revenge planned by an ex-Secret Service agent, now a multi-millionaire technology entrepreneur, after his only son (who has also become a Secret Service agent, in spite of his family fortune) is murdered and the crime scene altered by the murderers to look like a suicide.

Before many pages had turned, it became apparent that much of the action was going to take place in and around Skaneateles, New York, the region where my father and stepmother were born and raised, so this had some personal appeal. It's not often that your idle entertainment evokes real venues you know and supporting characters whose type you immediately recognize. I've had the same breakfast in the same coffee shop, and the Presbyterian pastor who in the book buried the dead son might well have been the same one who in real life married my father and stepmother. As a drama critic might say, there is an extraordinary unity of time and place. To me, anyway.

On the other hand, I am also reminded of the Robertson Davies quote that CC recently invoked in her review of the 2007 Service of the Living Tradition:

Many authors write like amateur blacksmiths making their first horseshoe; the clank of the anvil, the stench of the scorched leather apron, the sparks and the cursing are palpable, and this appeals to those who rank "sincerity" very high. Nabokov is more like a master swordsmith making a fine blade; nothing is amiss, nothing is too much, there is no fuss, and the finished product must be handled with great care, or it will cut you badly.

On that score, picking up this book is far more likely to give you burned hair than paper cuts. More than a few of its premises strain credulity. There are improbable plot twists to convince you that if deus ex machina is a valid literary device, then the incarnation of deus is not Jesus but the weird guy with the manic laugh in the dunk-the-clown booth at the county fair. In the craft of its language, too, the brute force of the smith's hammer is still palpable in the dents and weals left behind. Here's a sample:

The eastern sky had begun to glow in a crimson wash that extended from one end of the lake to the other. The low ceiling of purple clouds hovered just above the fiery horizon in a dramatic, brooding mass. The angry blood-red sky somehow filled Jill with foreboding.

And later:

The moon rose over the ridge on the east side of the lake like an enormous luminescent melon.

I don't know about you, but watching the sunrise usually calms my nerves, at least if I'm awake that early. It's the enormous luminescent melons coming over the ridge that fill me with foreboding.

What are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Poly and UU: Where's the Connection?

(Four people who never made the Famous UUs list)

I've weighed in at several other UU bloggers' polyamory discussions, but one point I've tried to make seems to be getting lost elsewhere so I'll raise it again here.

I get that there are disagreements about the merits of polyamory (or lack thereof).

I get why some people think it is a sociological issue.

I get that people who make polyamorous life choices find themselves outside a monogamous social convention.

I get that it is fair to debate whether they find themselves there as a result of their own willing choices or as victims of unfair social prejudice.

What I don't get is why anyone would consider it a Unitarian Universalist issue.

I submit that it is totally absent from our denominational and theological history (except for a brief, disastrous experiment in the 1960's and '70's), that there has never been a GA resolution or similar consensus among UUs that the social convention of monogamy is morally oppressive or even problematic, and therefore, that Unitarian Universalism has no compelling religious or moral interest in the cause.

Who says otherwise, and why?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

They Get More Creative

Just received this impressive piece of spam, on my employer's e-mail account, no less. Had to share.


You may be surprised to receive this mail, as you read this, don't feel so sorry for me because I know everyone will die someday.

My name is Mrs. Angela White, a business woman in London. I have been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer which was discovered very late due to my laxity in caring for my health. It has defiled all forms of medication right now and I have only few hours left to live, according to medical experts. I have never particularly lived my life so well as I never really cared for anyone not even me but my business. Though I am very rich, but I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and I only focus on my business as that was the only thing I cared for in my life. But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world. I believed when God gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life in a different way from how I have lived now, but now that God has called me through this way I willed most of my properties and access to my immediate and extended family and as well as few close friends.

I want God to be merciful to me and accept my soul and so with that reason I decided to give alms to CHARITY ORGANISATIONS, as I want this to be one of the last good deed I did on earth, so far I have distributed money to some Charity Organization in countries like India and Africa. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore.

I once asked my family members to close one of my accounts and distribute the funds which I have there to CHARITY ORGANSATION in Rwanda and Pakistan; they refused and kept the money to themselves. Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them. The last of the funds which no one knows of, is the cash deposit in one of the banks here. I want to know if you can be of good help to dispatch these funds to CHARITY organizations. I have set aside 40% of the total amount $1,500,000.00 One million five hundred thousand dollars) for you and your time and patience for carrying out this duties. This means you will keep $600,000 (Six hundred thousand dollars) for yourself and donate the rest to any charity organisation. May God be with you as you have decided to take a bold step to heal the world with me or even in my demise. I am going in for an operation now, and I don’t think I will make it. And this hurts.

If you can give me this assistance, you can then contact my lawyer who will assist you in getting the funds to you in my absence if i die or not. He would give you more details. His name is Barr. Bob Coleman and his email address is: (Note: address withheld to protect the innocent) He would guide you through receiving the funds.

Best Regards,

Angela White

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Now is the Time?

Time for what?

Other than opening your wallet, I mean.

I went to the uua.org website and surfed around the "Now is the Time" pages to try to figure out why they need the dough, how they intend to spend it, what concrete results they hope to achieve, and what their vision is for our future. About all you can find is some vague happy talk about growing.

Well, sorry, but this birthright UU and Yankee-by-choice grew up indoctrinated in the probative value of rational skepticism. So, as Michael Servetus said, right before they lit his personal barbecue, "Where's the beef?"

Growth doesn't just happen by throwing money at it. If you want a bountiful harvest, you have to cast good seed, and it has to fall upon fertile ground. If your seed is bad it won't sprout. If it falls on poor soil it may sprout up quickly, but it will soon wither. At least, that was the point of a UUA-approved lesson that I taught from the "Jesus and his Kingdom of Equals" curriculum to a bunch of fourth- and fifth-graders last spring. Don't they read their own propaganda?

It also happens to be the point of Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:2-20, and Luke 8:4-8, where the lesson first originated a couple of thousand years ago, but (as PeaceBang notes) these days a lot of UUs seem to consider themselves more authoritative than Matthew, Mark and Luke.

I would dearly love to see our denomination grow. However, to do so we need a vision, a message and a concrete action plan that can succeed. I just don't see them. I'm not interested in helping the UUA piss away $20 million try to persuade people that UUs are more authoritative than anyone else about anything, but I don't see much reason yet to hope that they would do anything else with the money.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Oh, my.

Is this what they mean by "the Light of the World?"