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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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Shadow Knows: The Ethics of 'Outing' the Powerful

“Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow”

–TS Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’


Ashly Madison-esque affairs...

Brothels and escorts...

Walkers and Beards...

Being in the closet...

Whatever shiny myth characterizes the dominant cultural force in a society will always have a dark side. And so it is with dominant hetero-normative sexuality.

Carl Jung said that in the course of trimming our identity to fit our prevailing social norms, we fashion a kind of shiny shop-front-window identity he called a ‘persona’, which we use to ‘fit in’ and get on in society. Think of the ‘you’ on Facebook. Or your latest CV.

But this comes at a cost. In fashioning that identity, we ‘enshadow’ those compulsions and behaviours which our social norms have deemed unacceptable. And so a shadow self is formed, and grows under the weight of its own unexpressed inertia. The shadow’s very suppression makes it gather strength, and it finds ways (usually indirect) of asserting itself.

For example—and NOT naming any names here—let’s say you are in public life and have decided that the best way to ‘get on’ and have a successful career is to go the whole hetero-normative happy-family route. However, there will be desires and compulsions that you have that do not fit this picture, like, say, a powerful, innate, sexual orientation toward your own sex. So you closet it; you ‘enshadow’ it. But it doesn’t go away; it can’t. In fact, it makes you disengaged from the kids, abusive (verbally or otherwise) toward you partner, and aggressively power-seeking in your field.

Worse, you only feel truly yourself a few times a month when you can discharge this energy in highly secretive little sexual binges among others with just as much to lose as you. Which is fun.…for a while, but ultimately merely serves to drive home the lie you’ve made yourself live. You feel…hollow much of the time. Lying becomes second-nature, so you become more disconnected from any metric that would discern Truth. Your whole raison d’etre becomes control, which is to say, power.

The first casualty of this inner war, as with all wars, is truth. Not capital-T truth—the truth of your actual experience—what you know to be truly what you think and feel.

They say we don’t trust our public leaders anymore. I wonder why. You know who I trust? Senator Penny Wong. And I trust her precisely because she’s not been prepared to play this game. It means she’ll never be PM, but who cares? She’s very obviously happy in the life she lives. The Australian media has decided (in some sort of gentleman’s agreement) not to talk about leaders who are firmly closeted, many of whom are notoriously, egregiously, lying to our faces, and overall, that discretion is a good thing for many reasons . But we should question the trustworthiness of people who vaunt themselves into positions of power over us, especially when they can’t be straight with us (forgive the pun) even about who they are.

Like many people, I’m torn about the ethics of enforced ‘outing’. People should be free to choose the life they want, even if it’s a fiction. The problem comes when power is involved, because in a democracy, power needs to be accountable. And how can it be, if the truth of the identity of the powerful skulks in its own shadow?

Answers on a postcard please? Or twitter @saunitarians

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Right Stuff: Religion, Refugees, and Radical Hospitality

If you have 20 minutes and enjoy a bit of fiery oratory, have a listen to this 'call-to-arms' given before Palm's Sunday March protesting Australia's barbarous treatment of asylum seekers. Click the link below:

Expanding Horizons » The The Right Stuff: Religion, Refugees,and Radical Hospitality

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Theology and Sexuality: 3 recent (short) articles

Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted anything here. Suffice to say, things can get rather busy when you're the lone employee of a church of 130, and the only full-time, working Unitarian minister in the Australasian region.

However, I hope you enjoy this selection of three recent articles from my "Theology and Sexuality" column from Blaze magazine, Adelaide's glossy GLBTi monthly.

Bear in mind, the tone and content reflect the audience and the medium. They are NOT pulpit-fodder.(Sorry about the weird spacing below--there was nothing I could do to fix it, short of write the damn things over.)

“Poly Parroting”

One of the basic ideological differences between LGBTi and the normative ‘straight’ communities is the difference between intentional relationships and conventional relationships. In sexual terms, the LGBTi community has been and is more likely to openly embrace non-monogamous sexual relationships, whereas in ‘straight’ culture, the sexual norm is conventional monogamy (albeit inclusive of its shadow-side of affairs, swinging, and the sex trade to offset the obvious discontents of monogamy). Perhaps the straight community could learn a thing or two from the polyamorous-ness of LGBTi culture.

Some of the intentional values at work in polyamorous relationships include non-possessiveness, true gender equality, open communication to negotiate boundaries and make agreements, fidelity and loyalty (not as sexual exclusivity) to the promises and agreements made, and thus the emphasis on honesty, trust, loyalty, and respect for all. Not a bad way conduct one’s most intimate relationships, eh? Since so many ‘straight’ people are not actually monogamous anyway (aye, even in their hearts) why not develop a straight non-monogamy that is socially defensible and acceptable?

Not that the polyamorous life is without its challenges, of course. Parenting and custody ramifications can be a legal and social minefield, as can the struggle to overcome the culturally-taught possessiveness reflex that reduces all humans to commodities to be ‘owned’ to some degree. This is part of the cost of doing business.

But an intentional, rather than conventional, approach to sexual intimacy seems to me to offer one truly vital, human thing we’re all hankering deeply for. No, not more sex with more people (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but community. Writer (and Unitarian) the late Kurt Vonnegut said of ‘straight’ couple divorcing, that if their dispute could be reduced to one sentence, it would be this: “Why aren’t you more people?” If I’m honest, the one thing I’ve always truly envied about my LGBTi friends is that they inhabit an intentional community of like-minded people that truly support each other, in a degree of intimacy largely unknown among friendship groups of ‘straight’ couples.

Although our Unitarian denomination does not have an ‘official’ position on polyamory, we do have an interest in communities of intention, being an intentional, non-conventional church ourselves. In fact, the ‘Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness’ have a developed an RE curriculum called “Love Makes a Family” to help educate people about polyamory. Also, some very lovely and life-affirming rites of passage ceremonies—polyamorous weddings, naming ceremonies, memorial services—have also been written and used in recent years. Check it out at http://www.uupa.org/

Anyone who lives not by doing what everyone else seems to be doing, but by their perceptions and will and values, will have much cause to rejoice in this life. Perhaps it’s time the ‘straight’ community parroted this poly.

I guess you could call me a Kant(ian)

I guess it’s an assumption of this regular column that matters of faith and religion and spirituality might be important to at least some of Blaze’s readership demographic.  So far, the responses I’ve received seem to confirm that assumption (the fact I’m getting any responses at all is something of a miracle). Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks!
But maybe this assumption is less true for some of you. Perhaps for you, GLBTi issues are more to do with the politics of sexuality (remembering that any personal issue is always political). In that case, a more philosophical might speak more directly to your experience. Politics is a species of ethics—the evolving dialogue about how we are to relate best with each other. And there are some ethicists whose thoughts might help you express and live your sexual identity more freely and fully.
My own denomination is actually more comfortable approaching notion of ‘the good’ from a philosophical angle rather than a theological one; we don’t think revelation on ethics or anything else is sealed and comes down from above like a parcel. Instead, we recognise the universe is essentially dynamic, changing, evolving, in flux. But how then shall we tell right from wrong, good from evil?

We affirm, as a starting point, that all beings have inherent worth and dignity. A key ethical principle that seems to flow from ‘inherent worth and dignity’ is that all people have the right to be autonomous, self-governing. As a former philosophy student, I reckon Immanuel Kant’s view of autonomy and the good life elides perfectly with my Unitarian theological principles, and speaks a freshly today to our experience as it did in the Age of Enlightenment. For Kant, what makes humans special (and deserving of that worth and dignity) is that they have the right to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life. Not only can we choose the type of life we want to live, but we can revise that idea in the process of living. When our ideas "evolve," we are being most fully human, most fully ourselves.

But Kant is not a wishy-washy relativist. His ethical line is when anyone does anything that evidences a blatant disregard for inherent human worth and dignity, that action is immoral. Simple and air-tight! How this applies to the cultural dialogue about sexual identity in religious circles—i.e., that non-normative sexual practice is immoral—should be obvious. We are evolving beings, evolving our idea of goodness. The comfortable moral dogmas of the past are inadequate in this respect; they need to be examined, reflected upon, revised, or discarded. This is your human right.

So when faced with the puckered disapproval of anyone who judges your right to choose the life you want for yourself, if doing so does not constrict others, you can calmly look them in the eye and say to them: “Read Kant” (comma insertion optional).

Of genes and privilege

Enough has been said in response to Senator (how did THAT happen?) Cory Bernardi’s dim-witted and myopic ravings about any sexual activity other than the hetero-normative variety. His book’s satiric Amazonrevues alone are far more acidic than anything my humble pen could produce. However, the results of a recent genetic study should, let us pray, nail shut his bilious yap for good. If he’s intellectually honest, that is. No evidence for that thus far, but no one is beyond redemption, right Senator?

I refer to findings produced by a peer-reviewed study at Northwestern University, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which found that homosexuality tends to be genetically inherited. Like most complex biological states, it’s not a case of cause-and-effect, though. Certain genes have a ‘limited and variable’ impact on sexual orientation. Genes alone were found neither to be sufficient, or necessary to sexual orientation, so they don’t completely determine it. The many other contributing nurture factors include the levels of hormones babies are exposed to while developing in the womb. However, the amalgam of genetic predisposition and pre-and post-natal nurture factors point to this: that sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice. Earlier studies have pointed toward this conclusion, so it was no surprise to the scientists involved.

So tell me, Senator…when did you choose to be straight? What was it like? Was there much internal struggle? (Thou doth protest too much, methinks…)

Will these findings help move the political debate forward, however? In the current political climate, I have my doubts. As a culture, we are raising privilege above equality. Look at what’s happening to the Gonski education reforms. Look at how unions and hard-won entitlements are being bashed. ‘Them that’s got shall have; them that’s not shall lose’, as the old song says, and the dominant myth of capital encourages us to see it as right and proper for the privileged to enjoy the privileges of class, race, gender.

But let me ask you something, Cory (can I call you ‘Cory’?). You and your lovely wife can walk down the street holding hands, even canoodling, and never for a moment fear for your personal safety, right? You, who did not choose your sexual orientation any more than Liberace did. That, right there, is you (and I guess your wife) enjoying heterosexual privilege. Privilege for a sexuality given you, not earned. How miserly of you not to wish the same for others, just like you in that regard-- powerless to be other than what they are?

Your notion of God is one who sees everything, yes? If that’s the case, Rev. Rob says there is time for you to redeem thyself. Start by listening to facts, and treating all others as you yourself enjoy being treated.
Maybe he’ll forgive you for that execrable book.