Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For all your midwinter celebrations...

...there's only one wine.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Palin's Turkey Interview: the Outtakes

[courtesy of Slate V]

Saturday, December 20, 2008


One particularly dark morning last week, I started my car down the driveway on my way to work, and then stopped it again.

On the lawn, not 30 feet away, stood two large coyotes.

This was extraordinary. Coyotes are not historically native to New England, but most of us who live here are at least peripherally aware that their range has expanded eastward over the last century to include the northeastern US and eastern Canada. (Eastern coyotes are bigger than western ones, because their ancestors crossbred with wolves during their migration. Some studies put the proportion of wolf DNA in the eastern coyote at around 28%.) In the last two decades their population has risen smartly and they are being sighted more frequently in suburbia, as surrounding farmland falls out of use and reverts to scrub and woods. Nevertheless, we are usually aware of their presence more from the occasional eerie sound in the night or cat that doesn’t come home in the morning than from personal encounters. They are largely nocturnal, and tend to be intimidated by humans in daytime, avoiding us if they can.

Yet here were two of them, up close. I rolled down my window. "Hey, what are you doing here?" I asked them. They stood there calmly holding their ground for about a minute, unintimidated. I stared straight into their eyes, and they into mine. Then they slowly turned away and wandered nonchalantly over toward the neighbor’s yard, and I continued down the driveway toward my civilized obligations.

I think they were out in the open that morning because it was so dark. The mornings are at their darkest right now. This is the season of the winter solstice, the longest nights and shortest days of the year. It is the season around which many cultures in many parts of the world have independently developed ceremonial observances to express the spiritual hope that darkness and despair will not prevail, and that light will return.

In the Christian tradition that is the spiritual heritage of Unitarians and Universalists, this season and the hope it expresses are known as “Advent”. That hope is expressed as well as any culture has ever expressed it in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.” In the Christian view, of course, that darkness was epitomized by the rigid, spiritless religion practiced in the Jerusalem Temple and the cynical, oppressive civil authority exerted over Judea by Rome, and that light was personified in the infant Jesus. This Jesus would grow up to preach a novel new gospel – that a “Kingdom of God” would come that was not the exclusive province of a distant supernatural heaven, but that would soon find its fulfillment on earth as well, and that we ourselves, in all our human inadequacy, were its chief builders. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he preached. “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” he prayed. He used witty, ironic parables to drive home his points. His ironic short tales can still put modern masters of the genre like O. Henry to shame.

This grown Jesus died cruelly, almost 2,000 years ago now, brutally executed on trumped-up charges of sedition and insurrection. Christians believe he rose again and ascended into heaven, and while antisupernaturalists may find that impossible to believe literally, in either case he is no longer here. Advent, then, is a season of waiting in darkness for the light to return, both in the celebration of an innocent baby’s birth long ago, and also in the hope for the breaking forth of a future Kingdom governed by divine principles of justice, equity and compassion, where the meek are raised up and the haughty brought low. It is the arrival of this glorious Kingdom, governed by its glorious King, that orthodox Christianity has by long tradition called the “Second Coming”.

In the meantime, though, we wait in darkness, just as in times long ago. In his poem “The Second Coming”, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats described the darkness:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And surely, many of us can find echoes of Yeats’s words in the state of our world recently.

In Navajo and other Native American cultures, Coyote is known not just as a wild animal lurking around the fringes of human settlement, but also as a mythological figure, a deity. In Navajo lore, when Coyote appears, something very different and unforeseeable is usually about to happen. He is sometimes a gadfly, pestering and distracting; he is sometimes a trickster, waiting slyly and patiently to lure the unsuspecting into radically changed circumstances; he is sometimes vaguely malevolent; he is sometimes a buffoon; but in an especially fundamental sense, he is also the original source of much of the wisdom that guided the ordering of creation.

In orthodox Christianity, this same ordering principle of the universe is given other names. In Genesis it is identified with the Hebrew God, but elsewhere it is given the Greek names Sophia (meaning “Wisdom”) or Logos (meaning “Word”). The same first chapter of John equates these differing perceptions: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... All things were made by him, and without him was not one thing made that was made.” John then goes on to identify the Word as present in the person of Jesus: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

In this dark Advent season, it was Wisdom in the persona not of the pure Christ Child but of the wily Coyote who so unexpectedly appeared to me. He is Wisdom as the trickster, the paradigm shifter, the sly one who laughs across the emptiness and waits unseen, and then suddenly turns everything upside down in ways that could never be anticipated. Yeats wondered:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In these dark times, I don’t know what change is in store, but I hope and believe that the shift Coyote brings will be benevolent rather than malign, just as our optimistic liberal faith urges. I see small portents at last of a favorable change in the wind, a break in the storm – or at least I would like to think I do. It is darkest just before the dawn, but the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

Many regulars in the UU blogosphere know Pastor Perpetua. (If you don’t, you owe it to yourself to go check out her blog. She rarely has time to post, but every post is a gem.) This month, in her congregation’s newsletter, she devotes some thought to the context of Advent as a season of waiting (“especially if you have small children in your life,” she writes!), and mentions that what orthodox Christians await at Advent is the Second Coming. She goes on to say that “our [UU] faith does not teach that Jesus will come again,” and asks instead, “what is coming into birth for you?”

I happened to see Perpetua a week or two ago, and I challenged her on that point. “We UUs do expect a Second Coming, at least in its figurative meaning,” I said. “We may no longer feel comfortable speaking in that idiom, but we take a back seat to no one in working to usher in the Kingdom. We may choke on ‘feudal’ or ‘patriarchal’ words like ‘kingdom’, we may not see Jesus as a manifestation of God or even affirm any sort of supernatural Being, but bringing that heaven into its fruition on earth is what we have always striven toward. If ‘the Beloved Community’ is another term for the same thing, we are still hoping and working for it every bit as devoutly as we always have.”

“But orthodox Christianity wraps it up so intractably in the person of Jesus, and we don’t necessarily, at least not any more,” she demurred. “Besides, a lot of the evangelical Christians literally expect that when the Second Coming occurs, they will be swept away from this corrupted place to meet him in the air, and that’s not just mistaken, it’s truly sinful! We don't teach that, and we never have.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “although that millennialist view of the Second Coming is not orthodox, it’s heterodox – probably even more so, and far more dangerously, than our own Unitarian view of Jesus as human. If we UUs hadn’t already watered down the word to the point of triteness, I would say it’s heretical. In the worst sense of the word.”

“That’s true, it is wildly heretical when measured against a standard of Christian orthodoxy,” Perpetua conceded. “The idea that we UUs inherited and retain many orthodox Christian beliefs and values, but merely prefer to use different words to express them now, deserves much more attention than it gets. But the thing is, those millenialists, as heretical as they are, are co-opting the popular understanding of what it means to be Christian today. For someone like me from the other end of the theological spectrum to try to reclaim the orthodox center from the heretical right is far more than I can attempt in just a little newsletter column. It’s more than I could even attempt in a month of sermons.”

And then Perpetua gave me a sly look. A Coyote look. The kind of look a court jester might have used when preparing to deliver an ironic truth.

“But you, you have a blog,” she said. “You could have some fun with it.”

Indeed, I do have a blog. And a few days later, while I was trying to figure out how to begin to develop that idea, I started my car down the driveway on a particularly dark morning to go to work. And then stopped it again.

The next day I emailed Perpetua, who as it happens spent some of her formative years in New Mexico, to ask what profound insight she might be able to offer on the surprise appearance of coyotes at Advent.

“You’ll have to wait,” was her reply.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When Jesus met Buddha

There was a fascinating article in Sunday's Boston Globe about the largely forgotten cross-influences of Buddhism and Christianity on each other along the old Silk Road.


In a widely publicized open letter to Italian politician Marcello Pera, Pope Benedict declared that "an inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible." By all means, he said, we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. While the Vatican does not of course see the Buddha as a demon, it does fear the prospect of syncretism, the dilution of Christian truth in an unholy mixture with other faiths.

Beyond doubt, this view places Benedict in a strong tradition of Christianity as it has developed in Europe since Roman times. But there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course. Europe's is not the only version of the Christian faith, nor is it necessarily the oldest heir of the ancient church. For more than 1,000 years, other quite separate branches of the church established thriving communities across Asia, and in their sheer numbers, these churches were comparable to anything Europe could muster at the time. These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East....

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.

In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas....

One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?

These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop....

Check it out. It's worth the read.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Solstice Mistakes for UUs to Avoid

1. Don’t turn the Flaming Chalice into a seasonal idol. It has no seasonal significance. In fact, it has no figurative significance at all. It began out of convenience as a randomly chosen image for some stationery, for goodness’ sake. (If you deconstruct its components into authentic, historic religious symbols, though, chalices represent the Blood of Christ and flames represent the Holy Ghost. Did you really mean to idolize them?)

2. Don’t turn the 7 Principles into a seasonal idol. They have no seasonal significance. They may be sound rules to try to live by, but they aren’t a creed or a similar statement of our highest truths. They are no more than a transitory statement of broad propositions that all of us in our wide theological diversity were at one time willing to support, a lowest common denominator, a catalogue of platitudes. When they were first written and adopted as a denominational bylaw, it was on the express condition that they be periodically reconsidered and revised as appropriate. We are already several years late in meeting that condition, but we're on the verge of doing it, so it could even be said that whatever denominational authority they once held has now lapsed.

3. Don’t envy or covet the authentic seasonal observances of other traditions if they don’t have authentic meaning for you. As your mother told you a million times, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to go along.”

4. Don’t bowdlerize the authentic seasonal observances of other traditions to make them more enjoyable or meaningful to you. It’s an insensitive, self-centered affront to others, who take their own traditions quite seriously and might see even well-intentioned imitation as blasphemy or mockery. We sensitive and enlightened types call that "cultural misappropriation", and respectfully avoiding it has even been included in the discussion draft for the present 7 Principles' replacement. (See lines 26 and 27 here.) Rather, celebrate other traditions’ seasonal observances authentically if at all, and preserve and uphold our own authentic traditions of the season as well. We have enough of our own not-oppressively-dogmatic seasonal heritage to draw upon if we wish – for example, the Puritans’ rationalist rejection of midwinter celebrations of Jesus’ birth as being unsupported from Scriptural or other evidence; or Charles Follen’s 19th-century re-introduction of Christmas trees and other “Yuletide” traditions that had been forbidden as unacceptably pagan by the Puritans; or Edmund Sears’ beloved carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”, which manages to express the spirit of the season without mentioning Jesus; or Charles Dickens' similarly Jesus-less masterpiece, "A Christmas Carol"; or James Pierpont’s “Jingle Bells”; or Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus illustrations.

5. Whatever you do to mark the season, don’t just pull it out of your @$$ and make it up as you go along, while holding forth as if “this” is what “we” do at this time of year. Most people are smarter than that, or at least most other people are, so it only makes “us” all look like fools and dilettantes.

If you’d like to simplify your hectic seasonal planning by avoiding all these mistakes at once, consider avoiding Chalica.

[reposted by necessity from last year, with minor revisions]

Some atheists get it right

Elsewhere in the UU blogosphere, I've recently been critical of two ill-conceived publicity initiatives by groups of atheists or humanists, which seem to me more of a public attempt to express passive aggression toward the Christian majority at a sensitive time of year than to actually reach out to embrace new prospective recruits and grow the movement.

In contrast to those dubious efforts, the striving of a different group of atheists deserves hearty applause:

Atheists sue to take God out of state's terrorism law
By John Cheves
Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader
Tue, Dec. 02, 2008

An atheists-rights group is suing the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security because state law requires the agency to stress "dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth."

American Atheists of Parsippany, N.J., and 10 non-religious Kentuckians are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, set to be filed Tuesday in Franklin Circuit Court.

Edwin Kagin, a Boone County lawyer and the national legal director of American Atheists, said he was appalled to read in the Herald-Leader last week that state law establishes praising God — and installing a plaque in God's honor — as the first duty of the Homeland Security Office.

The state and federal constitutions both prohibit government from getting involved in religion, Kagin said Monday.

"This is one of the most outrageous things I've seen in 35 years of practicing law. It's breathtakingly unconstitutional," Kagin said.

Gov. Steve Beshear's office had not seen the suit and therefore had no comment, spokesman Jay Blanton said.

The requirement to credit God for Kentucky's protection was tucked into 2006 homeland security legislation by state Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, a Southern Baptist minister.

"This is recognition that government alone cannot guarantee the perfect safety of the people of Kentucky," Riner said last week.

Riner said he expects Homeland Security to include language recognizing God's benevolent protection in its official reports and other materials — sometimes the agency does, and sometimes it doesn't — and to maintain a plaque with that message at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort.

In the suit, American Atheists argues that Homeland Security should focus on public-safety threats rather than promote religion. The suit notes that the federal and state homeland security agencies were created as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Muslim fundamentalists, and it refers to those attacks as "a faith-based initiative."

The plaintiffs ask for the homeland security law to be stripped of its references to God. They also ask for monetary damages, claiming to have suffered sleeping disorders and "mental pain and anguish."

"Plaintiffs also suffer anxiety from the belief that the existence of these unconstitutional laws suggest that their very safety as residents of Kentucky may be in the hands of fanatics, traitors or fools," according to the suit.

© 2008 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli declared in part that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...". One of our own Famous UUs executed it on behalf of the United States, adding beneath his signature, "Now, be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty, do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof." Adams was of course no atheist himself, and at the time his native Massachusetts had not yet even thrown off the last vestiges of its historic theocracy, but it was gestures like his that put some of the final nails in the coffin. The hyperbole in the last couple of paragraphs of the news report may raise an eyebrow or two, but bravo to the American Atheists for preserving American freedoms from the renewed encroachment of latter-day theocrats.