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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What can and can't be measured

A recent post by the wise and excellent UU Minister Ton Schade does what he always does--introduce the heads of several nails to the hammer of his clear vision. Each dot point has the ring of a resounding thwack!

Rev. Tom Schade

Much of his post echoes the changing ecclesiological landscape described by Mike Piazza in this year's UUMA institute seminars. Only on one point do we substantially differ.

My own (admittedly limited) experience is that the idea of place seems to matter just as much as it ever did and perhaps more, not less, in a world of virtual communication and associations. (Yes, I am aware we are in a virtual communication space right now...) Ironically, though, if our places are going to be imagined on the model of 'community hub', they require more paid professional staffing in a context of diminishing financial support.

For example: we were renting out our manse at a handsome return, thus becoming a landlord- neighbour, and thus its use for our community was limited to the sanctuary and a couple small adjoining rooms. This naturally limited what we could do to engage the community. Over the past year, though, we have re-framed the manse as a community hub, administered by a single, woefully-underpaid, part-time admin. assistant. The flow of community groups through the place has increased markedly, as has added to an already healthy vibrancy.

It looks quiet here. But the manse is around the back, and it hums.
BUT the financial return is a fraction of the rent we were getting. Money you can measure; relevance and vibrancy you cannot. When it comes to the crunch, my fear is that the older generation (boomers raised in  culture of unquestioned economic rationalism) will always look to what's bankable in the immediate term. The only way around land-lording again, it seems, is to grow a culture where community pledging can be fostered to match community need. But as Tom rightly points out, that effort would further drain an already shallowing pond of people's disposable revenue in the post-GFC context.

I study and pray daily for a vision that finds a way to reconcile relevance/vitality and finance.

No word from On High yet. (C'mon God....where's my enlightenment? I haven't got all day...)

In the meantime, any human wisdom (from you, dear reader) would be welcome.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rollercoaster as lifestyle choice

This is just a strange anomaly, surely, and probably means nothing. Because we all know there’s no plan or design or pattern or MEANING to the universe, don’t we? Or was Einstein right when he said “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous”?

On my way to the biennial ANZUUA conference in Melbourne last week, I stopped off to catch up with my youngest daughter, Rosie. She moved there earlier this year to prepare for study at RMIT. In the intervening months she’s managed to get plenty of paid work in the lively nightlife of the St. Kilda area, established a thriving social circle, landed a boyfriend (whom I tried hard to find fault with, but couldn’t), and moved into a funky share house across the road from St. Kilda beach.

This house is in the shadow of the Luna Park rollercoaster, so now Rosie’s grown-up lullabies involve the blood-curdling screams of strangers hurtling toward an eye-popping adrenaline rush. “You can get used to anything daddy”, she says…

Basically, living near this means 20,000 noisy neighbours
But here’s the thing: I thought I was the only person I knew who grew up in this uniquely odd fix--in the shadow of a rattling rollercoaster and summer nights of screaming mayhem. My family home in West Baltimore was in the shadow of the Gwynn Oak Park rollercoaster. So Rosie’s 'lifestyle choice' officially makes this unlikeliest of home-sweet-home settings a family tradition!

Our old house is just out of shot to the right
I’m told that anomalies like this run in families. Coincidence or epigenetics? Or a shared something deeper?

It’s tempting to say that Rosie’s whole life has been a rollercoaster ride, and that my life choices bought her a ticket on that ride. International move, family break-up, changes of address, new step-parents, and a major shift in Dad’s career and income level just when she most needed the ride to stop for a while. She fell in a heap for a couple years, and during that time, we orbited the gravitational pull of her collapsing self, the way even light is sucked towards a collapsing star. (This is how ‘black holes’ are formed.)

Down and down into herself she plunged, and we thought Rosie might never come back. But she (ahem)…rose again. And Rose in fact blooms again, rather like the roses that are blooming everywhere, now it’s Spring. It’s easy to forget that just a few weeks ago, these breath-taking sprays of fragrant roses were barren stems, fracturing and scoring the sky  like the rickety limbs of old wooden rollercoasters in the off-season.

(Query: Would a silent, un-ridden rollercoaster be better? Or worse? Why?)

The scarlet blush of roses that nestle among thorns.
The screams from a ride that’s both scary and fun.
Falling down to rise up again.

Such paradox is the sign of things that are deeply, enduringly, alive. Whatever God may be, paradox is how it reveals itself to us.

In the Amusement Park that is this world of time and space and movement and change, the rollercoaster contrasts nicely with the carousel. The spills and hills that thrill, versus the round and round, that never leaves the ground.

Sedate, but not stimulating...
(Query: which ride would YOU prefer? Why? Answer carefully!)

Maybe the rollercoaster is just the Macpherson way. But maybe also the rollercoaster can teach you (even at my age), that the ups-and-downs are never as life-threatening as your amygdala thinks they are. Comes a steep hill’s crest, and the screaming ramps up, and you feel your guts churning and falling away, and your amygdala begins to squirt out survival chemicals by the quart, and suddenly every cell in our bodies is yelling: “Fight or flee! Fight or flee!” And moments later you clatter to a stop, breathless but intact. And most are ready to go again.

There’ll be other ups and downs coming for her, I know, and some of them may be terrifying. But I thought I saw, as I took leave of her, the look that people have when the ride stops: a kind of startled happiness that says: “Oh wow, let’s do that again!”

"You can get used to anything, daddy." 

Du courage, mon petit. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Freedom of the Pulpit, Freedom of the Pew

The very bedrock of our Unitarian tradition is the free practice of religion, first articulated in the Edict of Torda in 1568.  If people ask you when Unitarianism started, that is as close to a solid inception date as can be offered.  It was a doctrine of radical tolerance of religious diversity, and a bold way forward in the context of the blood-soaked Reformation. Here's the crucial bit of that edict:

Tweet-able form" We need not think alike to love alike.:

"...in every place the preachers shall preach the Gospel according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, and no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone..." 

And so from that time, "freedom of the pulpit" and its corollary, "freedom of the pew", have been among the most hallowed traditions of our faith.  In our tradition, no one is compelled to preach any particular doctrine, nor is anyone compelled to accept what is preached.  What prompted this radical commitment to freedom was nothing less than a maelstrom of factionalism and the blood of countless martyrs.
There are many ways of roasting someone alive. This is the old-school method.
Five hundred years later, this Unitarian's admittedly limited experience of our congregations here and abroad, as well as the history of our movement, suggests that this deep foundation of freedom is little spoken of, and thus is poorly understood. And that's probably because, like most deep assumptions, we haven't looked closely at it for a long while.  We should.  We should look at this, to better understand our unique identity and institutional power as Unitarians.  And we should also look at this to minimise the body count of our own internal martyrdoms, the blood on the hands of those who fell them, and the trauma of those who happen to witness it.
Every martyrdom leaves traumatised witnesses.
This I do know:  When we don't like what we hear, Unitarians, for all their intellect, are not above eating our own, even when our own happen to be persons of actual acknowledged genius.  For example, William Ellery Channing, the most prominent Minister in America and famously called the 'Father of American Unitarianism', whose sermons packed public halls and parks, was unceremoniously kicked off the pulpit of the Federal Street Church in Boston.  His offence?  Vocal support for the abolition of slavery.  Likewise, Theodore Parker so offended the Boston upper-classes with what today would be seen as a non-literal reading of the scriptures, that they blocked him from the preaching rotation of Boston churches.  His offence?  Just not Christian enough.  How times have changed.
Abolish slavery, Channing?!? Get the firewood!
And haven't changed...the common parlance among my UK colleagues for ministries that end up in a shunned heap is a 'failed ministry'.  But if Channing's and Parker's ministries were 'failed', where does the failure truly lie?  In these ministers?  In those congregations?  Both?  Or maybe there's something inherent in the twin freedoms of pew and pulpit that tends to make us fly apart?

My own sense is that many of us still have 'the bends' from previous experiences of dogmatic, hierarchical religions.  Like scuba-divers who have surfaced too quickly, our systems convulse when confronted with preaching that is not in our spirit.  We can feel as bitterly oppressed and shamed by that free expression as by a papal edict.  But also, as free beings in the pews, we are free to unburden ourselves of these difficult feelings without fear that our expression of dissent will put us beyond continuing fellowship (as in an excommunication).  The result of this can be--and has been--carnage within some of our churches, ironically replaying the darker side of our Reformation past.

Let us, at least, assume the best intentions of the pulpit and of the pew.  Let us assume no one takes the trouble to ascend the pulpit with anything other than the intention to speak the truth as he or she sees it, and does so with hours of thoughtful preparation and with an open heart.  Let us also assume that no free person in the pews of a free church should be the denied the truth of their own experience, and the right to express it.  Let us now imagine a scenario in which the truths of the pulpit and the pew point in different directions.  So what would be your default reaction when you hear preaching you don't agree with?  Button-holing the minister in a rage during coffee hour?  Secretly gathering a cabal of dissent, with the intention of exerting pressure to silence such preaching?  Inwardly seething?  Slipping quietly away?
What would be the appropriate forum for the expression of profound disagreement with preaching?  Certainly not in our public worship, which, since it is open to all, is not an ideal place to lift up the burnt offerings of a church's internal disputes.  Many UU churches have stopped the 'Candles of Sharing' part of the service for this reason.  Coffee hour?  Again, probably not.  Why should a few hijack our one weekly opportunity for large-group, celebratory fellowship? Where then?

I'm just a minister, so my answers to this will probably sound like hackneyed answers.  But for me, a first stop-off point before expressing defiant dissent might be... prayer--a private, internal conversation between you and whatever is your highest thought, deepest feeling, noblest aspiration, most peaceful hope.  Call it reflection, discernment...whatever.  During that time of inward reflection, it's not uncommon to feel fears and angers 'dial down' somewhat.  And who knows?  Without the big feelings, a sense of equanimity may result--an opportunity to remember that no one compels you to accept what you've heard, and the confidence to 'live and let live.'

Having prayed about one's disagreement with a preaching, but still troubled by it, a pastoral dialogue might be the logical next step.  After all, any pastor will want to know of things troubling the hearts and souls of those in his or her spiritual charge.  With immediate post-worship feelings dialled-down, and without an audience to play to, both the minister and the member can speak more calmly and openly.  And who knows?  If not a meeting of minds, certainly a mutual respect for each other's positions becomes more possible in such a context. If no such meeting of minds or mutual respect results from pastoral dialogue, there is then a tough choice to make.  
Our pulpit can't be both free and coerced.  And no one can, or should be, compelled to listen to more of what one finds offensive to one's spirit.  The pew is indeed free, and that means free to leave it altogether, for a while or for good.  What makes such a choice more difficult is the fact that people may come to church for more than their spiritual lives; they also come for community.  And it would be hard to leave a place where you'd found that.  Truth-telling or harmony?  This can be a vexed choice.

In some cultures, like China, social harmony is prized over truth.  In some cultures, like the USA, individuality is prized over social harmony.  The 'downsides' to both these extremes should be obvious.  Is it too much for us to imagine that BOTH the truth of the individual’s experience AND their need for social harmony can live together in a perpetual tension?  Like the yin and the yang, like Kali and Shiva, like Jacob and the Angel, they have wrestled for all time.
Spoiler: The Jacob v. Angel match was a draw.
And that means our challenge as a truly free church is to accept that we live within tensions created by our mutual freedom which never resolves one way or the other, and knowing that, to still covenant to bear each other up nevertheless.

            Maybe that's not such a hackneyed answer after all.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

GLBTQi: Your struggle is THE struggle

The BBC’s new offering The Eichmann Show is shaping up as one of the ‘must watch’ shows of 2015, and may be instructive to those interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the struggle for GLBTQi justice.
Full disclosure: I love this guy. I'd watch him paint a fence.

The central character Adolf Eichmann (brilliantly captured by erstwhile Hobbitt and proto-Cumberbitch Martin Freeman) was the SS officer charged with arranging the industrial-scale logistics of the holocaust—ghetto-ization, deportation, internment, and elimination of those deemed ‘sub-human’. He has been an especially fascinating figure because of his very ordinariness—a quiet, unremarkable, little efficiency expert. A torturer in a grey flannel suit. It was he who inspired the phrase made famous by Hannah Arendt “the banality of evil.”
The banality of evil
The show absolutely nails the essential ethical disconnect at the heart of all oppression with this speech:

"For each of us who has ever felt that God created us better than any other human being, has stood on the threshold where Eichmann once stood. And each of us who has allowed the shape of another person's nose, or the color of their skin, or the manner in which they worship their God to poison our feelings towards them, have known the loss of reason that led Eichmann to his madness. For this is how it all began with those who did these things." - The Eichmann Show.

Cognizant that homosexuality, too, was swept up in last century’s attempt to ‘cleanse’ the human race, we might, of course, add to that list: “those whose sexuality differs from ours.” But that’s not really my point here.

This speech made we wonder: How many of us involved in struggling for justice for all, have felt that subtle moral slip into regarding those whose views we oppose as something less than fully human? When we confront and challenge the Abbotts and Bernardis of the world, do we not feel the same pull to demonize them? This is a real danger, not simply because it’s hypocritical, but because it’s easy to become what you hate, by adopting their stance, making their contempt for you an excuse for your contempt for them.

The struggle for GLBTQi justice is, at its core, the struggle to recognize the fact of our mutual subjectivity--the first principle my church lifts up as a non-negotiable: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Either you affirm this or you affirm, however tacitly, that (in the words of Orwell’s Animal Farm) “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. There’s no grey area here: you have to choose.

So, dear reader, your struggle for GLBTQi justice is but a species of THE struggle, the struggle of all humanity ever since we were capable of abstract thought and could recognize that ‘others’ were as real as the self. So spare a thought (and perhaps some work) for the other struggles as well—gender equality, justice for asylum-seekers, justice for our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Your struggle is their struggle too. Their victory will be yours, and yours will be theirs. Any victory for genuine human equality lifts all oppressed boats.
Self and 'other'
This is why I think a win for Marriage Equality (which will come, must come, and soon) will be a win for humanity, and a step forward in the spiritual evolution of the race. But that doesn’t mean we should stop there. You will also need to monitor and search the depths of your own heart to ensure that, through exuberant triumphalism or mere banal carelessness, we too find ourselves in Eichmann’s shoes.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Idolatry, Unitarian Style

They say never start a talk or an essay with a fussy, dictionary definition-type overture. Like you're the only one who's bothered to nerdily pore over the OED. (And if split infinitives piss you off, you'd probably better stop reading now).

But two words key words-- "Idol" and "Icon"--describe a useful set of polarities in the "better religion" Unitarianism has been trying to build. And in common parlance, they're often poorly understood and freighted with baggage. So, with that justification out of the way (and eschewing the OED), try these on for size:
  • An idol is object you worship (something 'raised to worth') in itself, for itself. It is something looked adoringly at. Examples--venerated statues that may be touched only on certain days, the 'flag my daddy died for', reading sacred texts literally.
  • An icon is an object that is entirely symbolic, something you look through like a lens to the larger, inexpressible something it stands in for. Examples--stained glass, a mandala, reading sacred texts figuratively.

Got that difference? Now, my point...

Unitarians will never be the truly free church they imagine and proclaim themselves to be, until they are disenthralled from idolatry. But...but...but...Unitarian idolatry? Surely not--these are rational people, self-critical, they scorn any vestige of superstition, they know religion is largely a matter of metaphor and symbolic language. How could reflexive, stone-age idolatry find its way past this well-fortified bulwark against bullshit?  MMmmmmweeeeellll....lemme tell ya.

Here are a few examples of Unitarian idolatry common in my (wide, though not entirely comprehensive) experience:

1. The idolatry of the church building.

"This ark of our collective history must be preserved at all costs. Why, what would we do without it, where would we meet? My God, we'd LOSE people if there were no building festooned with relics they neither know nor care about? We'd disband, 'cause what else holds us together besides convenience, routine, and familiarity? And besides it's on my bus route."

Crap, saith the prophet. A church is an exoskeletal creature. The shells are changeable. A church is not the building; church is what caused the building to be built. Can't see that thing that caused it to be built? That doesn't mean it's not there. A little thing called faith built it. You remember faith, "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Remember: the ministries of Jesus and Buddha were entirely peripatetic, moveable feasts, and look at them.

All these lovely shells were moved out of, to another shell.

2. The idolatry of our inviolable financial capital which we must handle like eggs.

"We can't save the world by ourselves, so let's don't even consider divesting from planet-poisoning, low-wage-enslaving, proletariat-addicting financial conglomerates whose sole logic is its own bottom-line. What's good for them is good for us. We can't possibly be a solution to the financial injustice and environmental degradation of the world, so we might as well carry on being part of the problem. Hey, every else is doing it!"

Crap, and self-defeating crap. As if the integrity of religious organisations hasn't suffered enough in recent times. You'd think it rather behoves any group that calls itself a church to practice what it preaches. Money is not an end in itself; money is a tool, a means to working the church's mission in the world. In Unitarianism's case, to liberate people from the idolatry of old religion, that they may each confidently and joyously seek their own religious understanding, their own spiritual way.

See what I mean by self-defeating? "Put away your childish idolatry," we say. And then we make an idol of our money, complete with high priest apologists of 'financial wisdom'.

About half of Jesus' spoken words had to do with our relationship to money and possessions. No prizes if you can guess the gist of what he said about them.

The fear in his eyes derives from what he's doing with his hands

3. The idolatry of "Ye Great and Famous Unitarians of the Past".

"Unitarians have a proud tradition of claiming important and accomplished historical figures as adherents. Never mind the details about actual membership, or explicitly stated affinity, or whether the term 'Unitarian' had even been invented or not, or whether they just stopped off here for a while as they were passing through. Just feel the heft of that borrowed greatness. In the name of the Joseph Priestly and the Tim Berners-Lee and the holy Bertrand Russell. Amen."

Crap, crap, and self-loathing crap. This is the low self-esteem of the stage mother, the name-dropper, the groupie, and the stereotypical physician's wife. As if a sense of accomplishment derived outside the self were anything other than the hallmark of the truly tragic. To bask in the reflected glory of famous UUs of the past lets us off the hook of accomplishing anything original, brave, or meaningful ourselves as a church. My partner is an extremely accomplished academic. But if I ever reach that point of complacency at which my healthy self-regard is dependant on her stature, I hope, dear reader, that you will steal into my house in the night and smother me with a pillow.

If this example of UU idolatry is a symptom of low self-worth, the solution is healthy self-love in the here-and-now, of taking their achievements seriously enough to emulate them.

Yes. Yes, it is.

SO: what if we disenthralled ourselves from these false idols, if we regarded them as the icons they truly are?
  • and saw through our buildings not as old-timey dioramas to maintain and retro-fit at great expense, but as the temporary shelters all dwellings in fact are
  • and saw through our capital not as a thing to hoard, but to invest in creating the better world we hope to build
  • and saw through our famous forebears not a something to boast about, but role models to emulate
If we did, we might love ourselves a little better, we might rediscover the witness and mission of our faith, and we might finally evolve into the idol-free zone we once claimed to inhabit. These things aren't really God, but we've made them so. That is idolatry.

Buddhists aren't immune to idolatry.

Let us look through them instead, as we would through a stained glass window, to the pure light beyond, light that is everywhere and nowhere and endless. That's what icons are for.

This isn't Jesus. It's a picture of Jesus. He didn't sit for the painting, and the artist never met hm.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Planet Porn: An Alien Looks at the Ethics of Our Most Enduring Renderings

from 'A Report to the Galactic Overlords on the Terran Cultural Practice of Depicting Sexuality'

Ever since homo sapiens sprouted opposable thumbs some two million earth-years ago, and thereby became able to use fine-motor tools and mix rudimentary pigments, they have been tireless in their attempts to make representations of their sexual organs and their quaintly varied methods of congress of said organs.

Image pixilated for discretion 
Some of the earliest daubs smeared on the walls of their burrows reveal crude, primal attempts to render and represent what they might easily notice if they simply looked down at themselves. Early stages of what we might recognise as ‘developed civilisations’ saw a refinement of the aesthetics of this practice, evident in an increasing sophistication in the skills and materials of rendering; however this only served to encourage the practice further. Even everyday dining and storage vessels in the early civilisations known as ‘Greece’ and ‘Rome’ were often festooned with figures bearing (quite without regard to the realities of physics or biomechanics) swollen, truncheon-like phalloi and mammary glands the size of our landing craft. Such artful exaggerations were not intended as lampoon, but evidently intended to further increase the pleasure quotient of the shaved, thumb-bearing apes that viewed them.

Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear
The helpful introduction of bodily shame by new cultural influences from certain desert tribes did nothing to suppress this apparently ingrained compulsion in the species to artificially represent 3 biological subjects and actions on 2-d surfaces. On the contrary, what had by now become referred to as ‘pornography’ gained psychodynamic energy from its very  suppression, and sophisticated practitioners successfully blurred its identification (and moral censure) by conflating it with suggestive artistic nudes. Thus, when a male member of the urban bourgeoisie was bested at cribbage or business, for example, he could lift his gaze to his study wall, there to find in a rendering of an ample-prowed washer-woman, say, or a clutch of cream-skinned shepherd youths, confirmation that his functional masculinity was intact.

This is 'art'

At their current stage of development, having mastered the rendering capabilities of the electron and photon, the planetary electronic library known as their ‘internet’ now groans under the specific gravity of pornographic mass. At our last estimation there were only three remaining ‘websites’ that did not depict some manner of sexual content. Judging from the traffic and uptake, no member of the species (of any age) able to afford ready access to the ‘internet’ has not, at some point, sought to view such fleshy illusions. Some simply cannot refrain from doing so. If any were to deny this, they would probably be trying to save face in what remains of moral censure from their fellow viewers and a God they no longer believe in.

History suggests they will find a way

It is all very difficult to make sense of, especially within the limits of this report. However, more worrying than the futility of gazing at 2-d illusions to compensate for what their urges compel them to do in 3-d actuality, is the overlooked fact that (thanks the verisimilitude of the new medium) pornography now requires other humans to offer themselves as objectified images—bared, splayed, often in a rictus of face-contortion—for their entire world to gaze upon at their leisure. To turn themselves into objects, in short. Worse, these hapless beings allow their objectified selves to be packaged and traded as commodities for internet advertising revenue for complete strangers.

Soylent Green is people

One is left to wonder at the empathic disconnect in this otherwise compassionate species, that they have become so bewildered by the real-seeming quality of their own rendering technology, they lack the awareness that the internet image they gaze upon had its origin with some young girl, or boy, in a warehouse in an undesirable suburb of Los Angeles, in front of a camera, having what was probably one of the worst days of their lives.

The mechanics of commodification

Further study is required. Please forward hi-speed internet apparatus to enable research.