February 6, 2015
In his editorial column of February 3, “Making a Better Secularist”, David Brooks has made three terrible mistakes. In responding to Phil Zukerman’s vision of secularists, Brooks has overlooked reality.
First, he accepts Zukerman’s idea that “religion” is equivalent to conventional Christianity or Judaism. He makes this clear in his second-to-last paragraph when he gives only Jewish and Christian examples when speaking of a need to “exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” In reality, religion is rich and complex, offering many responses to the realities of human existence. To assume there is but one alternative to so-called secularism is to overlook the glorious abundance of religious diversity, including non-theistic forms. My religious tradition is part of this diversity but is not part of Brook’s article.
Secondly, David Brooks has accepted the illusion that all so-called ‘secularists’ are purely atheistic individualists. In reality, Zukerman’s Secularism is one current in the mighty river of humanism. Humanism centers morality, like Brook’s secularists, on “individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility”. Humanism appears within religious traditions and outside of them. But most importantly, humanists have long understood that each person makes moral choices within a network of relationships, shaped by human culture, and as a small, linked, strand in the infinite, interconnected, web of being.
Finally, Brooks accepts the false idea that, as he puts it “You either believe in God or you don’t”. Beyond the fact that there are many understandings of ‘God’, there is another option. We place moral purpose and spiritual experience at our communal center. In my congregation, both non-theists and theists (and even atheists) together, shape the meaning of life, find shared identity, and choose common purpose. The “better secularist” that Brooks imagines has long existed and thrived in such communities.
At the end of his article, Brooks invokes an “enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.” He imagines “secularism” becoming “less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” The better secularists that he imagines have existed in our congregations for a long time now.
January 26, 2015
On Saturday a couple of weeks back, I went to see the movie Selma. It told me only one thing I had forgotten, that Malcolm X had visited Selma, and talked with Coretta, but did not talk directly to Martin King, Junior. On the Monday after I saw the movie, Malcolm and Martin showed up at the “4 Mile March 4 Justice.”
In front of the Ferguson Police Station, the group paused to hear a speech, a poem and a song. One young black man spoke about many things. He said he was a father who did not want to raise his daughter in a world where she was 80% more likely to be shot during an encounter with the police than the average white American. I understood that completely.
He then testified to learning of King’s non-violence approach. He said that maybe this was the right way, and sometimes maybe not.
From my point of view this means this Saint Louis youth did not yet understand King’s approach. Even Gandhi said that if the choice was quiescence in the face of evil, or taking up violence to stop evil, violence was the better path. But non-violence is an absolute way of rejecting and countering the violence of oppressors with the power and courage and clarity of the ultimate truth. It is backed with what King called God. Non-violence depends upon a faith stance, that Love is the greatest power, and it bends the universe toward Justice. This abiding in Truth, gives the non-violent protestor strength and courage, and it leaves no room for maybe.
But this young man did not have that kind of faith, (I don’t know for sure if I do either) at least not yet. After this brief mention of King, the speaker said, “I have also studied the ideas of Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed.” He said something positive about their ideas on black self-determination and self-defense. He spoke of standing against oppressors. I could not tell if he was promoting violence.
Then, his voice rose a little, insistent, addressing directly his black brothers and sisters. His exact words are lost to me now, but he said something like this: “If we are killing each other we are only helping our oppressors.” I understood that completely, even though it was a bit simplistic.
I can’t remember his exact words. Someone recorded them, but I can’t find that recording online. Perhaps I mis-understood, perhaps I got the flow of his ideas wrong. They did get my attention and got me thinking, even if I did not understand him completely.
That afternoon, as the air cooled and the sun slid low in the sky, I was happy to hear that Malcolm were carrying on the dialogue they never really had when they were alive. There they were, in the minds of those who follow after them.
January 22, 2015
I took a walk with a couple of hundred people on Monday (including a few members of my congregation and Unitarian Universalists from other parts of Saint Louis). There were other marches that day in other parts of the city, but I chose to go back to Ferguson proper. I had not seen the streets of that town for well over two months.
After an opening speech and prayer we walked the 4 and 1/2 miles from the Canfield apartments to the Ferguson Police station. We listened to a poet and a speech and sang a song, then walked back, chanting all the way.
I smile whenever someone sings out “Show me what democracy looks like” and the people respond with “This is what democracy looks like.” Democracy is messy and can entail some yelling and protesting. Marches alone are not democracy, but they can be part of the processes we value so dearly.
Of the new chants my favorite chant was this one:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other
and protect each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Some people had this on the back of T-shirts with “I learned this from Assata” on the front. But when we asked one woman about that she did not seem to know what it meant. So I did a little internet research. I discovered that these words are from a radical American activist, now exiled in Cuba – Assata Shakur. She says she was shot, unarmed, by the police and framed for the murder of an officer. They say she killed the officer in a shoot-out. She escaped from jail and fled to Cuba, and thinks of herself as an escaped slave.
I still like the words, but with some ambivalence about agenda, or agendas, that they may, or not, hide. Victory against spiritual powers, and principalities in the name of inclusive worth and justice is not the same as victory over persons of flesh and blood. But, ambivalence is not a bad thing. Clarity is not always possible. The whole Civil Rights movement is often like that: excellent, and edgy, importantly good and the cause of suffering, all together.
All-in-all, this walk was a meaningful way to spend a warm afternoon.
August 22, 2014
This week I have gotten many requests to help us here in the Saint Louis area. Often the offers have been for donations of food. This is my response.
Thank you so much for your compassionate outreach. You may be happy to know that First U took a food collection last Sunday and all our baskets were filled. We took our collection to St. Stephens and they were very appreciative. Other sites, outside Ferguson, in Saint Louis City and in the city of Florrisant have been selected to receive donations of food, and supplies are being distributed from those places. Another collection of non-food items has been initiated and UU congregations are joining in that.
Yesterday (August 21), all local UU clergy went to a Community Center that is just north of where all the violence took place. It was a crowded, but very mellow, scene. We offered counseling, care, and help carrying supplies to cars. People were getting help with food, utility bill problems, legal services. It was a hopeful event and others are being organized.
Meanwhile, while all the attention is on the people in Ferguson who have been isolated by protests, stores being closed and streets being shut off, there are also poor people all over the metro area who still rely on continued support of food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and services.
I say all this to let you know that this is not a disaster area, but a very active metropolitan community with many resources.
Given the distances involved, if you want to donate to local food pantries, it would be easier for you to send financial resources to be used to purchase needed items. You could send a check to First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis or to one of the several food pantries in the town of Ferguson.
The other way you can help is to focus on the bigger issues of racial inequality and policing. The best way you can stand in solidarity with us is to look at your own community. If it has not been done, look at how often police in your area stop people of color in proportion to their percentage of the population. Talk to people in your community about how much they trust the police officers to protect them. Ask the Police if they feel trusted. Do people feel that violence is going unchecked, and that the police are one source of harassment and violence in their lives? Ask your local police if they are becoming more militarized or less. Look at mental health practices in your area and the role the Police force plays in that. You may know that only a couple of days ago another young man was killed by police in this city. He was a mentally ill person wielding a knife. Do things like that happen in your town? Do the police kill many people in your city but never see anyone punished for those deaths?
If there are troubles, hold a forum to raise awareness. Hold a rally to protest injustice. Do it in the name of Michael Brown and Ferguson, but focus on your community.
And if things are going well, then hold that up. Be a light. Let the Police in Ferguson and STL County that military responses to unrest and crime are not the norm in America. Let everyone know what justice looks like.
Another thing you can do is look at . This is a site of things happening in the STL area. If a vigil is happening here one night, you can create a parallel event in your church or city to say that you are with us.
Keep being Peace builders. Love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with what you know to be the one God.
August 4, 2014
As a Unitarian Universalist minister I can be morally strong and clear without needing to set absolute rules. I am moral and also free of eternal punishment for moral failings. I don’t need to condemn others to an eternal Hell in order to tell them I think their actions are wrong. However, there are some people who find any openness or change in moral stance as equal to chaos, or worse. For example, a recent opinion piece by Dr. Michael Brown, posted on the One News Now site, floated to the top of the Google alerts on “Universalism”: Universalism is Next for the Soft Love Crowd
In it Brown says simply that if you become welcoming and affirming of gay and lesbian people, by blessing the marriages of such people, you begin sliding down the slippery slope to having no standards what so ever.
To his credit, Dr. Brown does admit that it is very difficult, even painful, to consider God punishing kind, thoughtful and devoutly compassionate people who do good work in the world. He admits it would seem cruel for God to do so. He writes, “I honestly believe that if questions like this don’t cause us some level of pain then we don’t really have the heart of the Lord.”
His response to this pain is to simplistically assert that it is wrong to move away from preaching about future wrath and divine judgement on issues of anything. Then he encourages his readers to pray that those who disagree with him will be brought “back to the truth as it is found in Jesus”.
Clearly he is writing to his own choir, but he misses two essential points. One is that wrath and judgement are real and serious theological issues, but do not necessarily entail eternal punishment in an eternal Hell. Despite all the condemning passages of scripture one must also deal with passages such as Psalm 30:5, Psalm 107:1, John 12:32, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, and Jeremiah 31:34 “…they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The second point he glosses over is that it is in the Truth of Jesus that people do find love, kindness, acceptance and the spirit of reconciliation that moves them to create a more just and inclusive community, instead of the eternally divisive and unjustly judgmental community created by Dr. Brown.
May 2, 2014
Did you notice the religious themes in The Lego Movie? There is nothing very deep, nothing one could call systematic theology. But the movie makers were consciously playing with religious ideas.
Obviously the movie begins with the now well worn messiah theme; there is a mysterious prophecy (which, the prophet says, “is true because it rhymes”) about a chosen hero who is “the most special, most talented, most extraordinary person in the universe”. I have heard UUs repeat this very American ideal that everyone is the most amazing, special and even prophecy fulfilling person in the universe. For example, think of Sophia Fahs’ words, “Every night a child is born is a holy night…”. Also, I must admit that I have heard UU sermons extolling the idea, stated by Emmet late in the movie, that a prophecy, or religious story, can be both completely made-up and completely true.
Then, as the characters are sailing on a sea of Lego bricks, “Wildstyle” says something about “The Man Upstairs”. We can assume (until the big reveal near the end) that this is a reference to the kid who plays with the Legos. But it is also an obvious insertion of God language. As a UU minister my ears perked up. I first wondered if there was some traditional Christian theology being slipped in. Then I thought about the Hindu notion of Lila where the entire universe is an expression of divine play. I wondered, where are they going with this?
The central theme of the movie is about control and creativity, the tension between “fitting in” and “being special.” At the beginning the main character, Emmet, is trying to “be part of the team” by conforming. In the end, his ability to follow directions is what makes him a unique part of a team. This theme takes on theological tones especially after Emmet “dies” and passes through a tunnel of light to a meta universe, where the greater truth of reality is revealed.
My impression of the movie as vaguely religious was reinforced when I came across an article titled Lego Movie’s Got Religion. The authors note that the name Emmet, in Hebrew, means ‘truth’. Also the name of Emmet’s guide and inspiration is Lucy, which means ‘light’ (as in Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia).
The “truth” that Emmet uncovers is pretty humanistic, especially when the man upstairs turns out (spoiler alert)to be an actual man with a big Lego set and alienated from his son. Only vague echoes of the Christian Father and Son here. I could argue that through the reconciliation between father and son, and between Emmet and Mr. Business, that the movie sides with a theology of God as Inclusive Love, or agape.
In the end the Lego Movie is simply a bunch of animated fun and silliness, and an hour and half advertisement for plastic building toys. I liked it, and the Movie’s light religion added to my enjoyment.
April 7, 2014
Recently someone asked me about two details in the new Russell Crow movie, Noah. They wanted to know what was up with the strange glowing skin, and were “the Watchers” from the bible or somewhere else. Here is the results of my quick research, drawing on an interview with one of the script writers, some Jewish bible commentary pages, and of course Wikipedia.
The glowing snake skin is from an interpretation of Genesis 3:21. After Adam and Eve make clothes out of leaves, God gives them some clothes made of skin. Some Jewish commentators Thought this might be snake skin, cast off from the Serpent. The Serpent was an original creation of God, which he said was “good” in the first chapter (6th Day). So the movie makers decided to make it glow with God’s good light. In the movie the people pass it on down from generation to generation as a reminder of their creator and original goodness.
The term Watchers as a reference to certain angels comes from som of the Jewish books that Christians and later Jews did not include in the canon. The idea is that the Nephilim in Genesis are a class of angel that fell from heaven for standing against God on behalf of humanity. In the movie their stone skin comes from a possible root of the name ‘nephilim’. When they sacrifice themselves in defense of Noah, then they are forgiven and return to God as glowing light.
March 17, 2014
Minister’s Column – April 2014
I now serve in the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. In 1922 a child of our church, who had grown into a significant adult poet, wrote:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
These lines, the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, capture the ambivalence of this month. Always it is a mixture of ice and heat, sprouts and snow. The point, I think he meant to say, is not that April is cruel but that all life is a difficult mixture. The poem as a whole speaks to the uncertain inconsistency of human existence.
In my last year of high school, I stood with some UU youth looking at a particularly lovely sunset. The colors, twilight blue, saffron and electric orange, layers of black and yellow, all moved me. I said that it seemed as though I had lived my life just for the chance to be part of that beauty and peace. A good friend of mine scoffed and said “That is ridiculous.” I realized then, though I was content and looking toward college, he was not sure he could even endure another month with his abusive father and alcoholic mother. As I saw the poignant beauty of life in balance, he saw life tipping toward the fearful darkness and cold of winter. Seeing the change in my face, he said, “You don’t need me as a friend. I will just pull you down.” Although I could not find the words to say it, I knew I needed him. I realized how he deepened my happiness. He made my joy in life saner and more grounded. I hoped my friendship helped him also, to see something beyond his own circumstances into the larger circles of hope.
This is how it is. While some look forward to blossoms and new life rising in Saint Louis, like people in most cities, we know there are also bullets planted in guns that will end someone’s life this spring. While some are facing homelessness and endings, others are riding the slow wave of a growing economy. That is why the UU church exists, to bring us all together in community in order to find true beauty beyond mere prettiness.
So may it be, that we find with each other, a rich and poignant and fearsome wholeness. Or, as the poet William Blake wrote several hundred years ago, “Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine…”
March 2, 2014
Since I was a youth four images of The Beginning have lived side-by-side in my thoughts. All weave together fact and fiction into the mythos of the genesis of all things. I quote them here in order of influence:
The first is the Jewish, as adopted by Christians and translated in the NIV:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
The second is from the Dao De Ching as I have memorized it:
1- The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name. Named, It is the beginning of ten-thousand things. Nameless, it is the beginning of heaven and earth. Ever desiring we know manifestations. Without desire we know mystery. These two are different, but arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.
The third is from Christian scriptures, the “Gospel of John,” NIV:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The fourth is my summary of various science sources:
In the beginning was the singularity. The singularity was without form, or time or space. Any description of the singularity is not the singularity. Then, the singularity moved, and it expanded into a universe. At first this expansion was immensely rapid; gravity and particles were formed, radiation and elements, then it slowed to dust and heated to stars and cooled to planets and vast spaces, and the wonder of life.
January 21, 2013
This past Civil Rights Sunday I decided to speak about gun violence. It seemed a clearer and more relevant topic than MLK, theology, race and identity. I am glad for my choice, but the matter of “where do we go from here” as UUs on matters of race still remain pressing and must be addressed.
So, I start publicly writing on that subject here to see if I get any good responses and to help clarify my thinking. Many UUs may be familiar with the fact that both Martin King Jr. and Barak Obama both attended Unitarian churches for a while. Both knew Unitarians, wrote and spoke about Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist people that they knew. In another world, either might might have become a UU. They both chose a more “Baptist” religious identity and community.
In brief, there are two centers to my thinking on this subject of why we are so far short of our vision on matters of race and a beloved multicultural community. These centers are our theology and our identity.
In King’s Doctoral Thesis he judged both the theologies of Lutheran (or Protestant) existentialist Paul Tillich and Unitarian Process thinker Henry Wieman as inadequate. He did this primarily on ‘Personalist’ grounds, insisting that God had to be a person as far as Christians were concerned or else God could not truly care for us or know us or be in relationship with us or choose to act on our behalf. Now, I don’t think he is correct in his thinking here (I think he is choosing a rather limited and narrow set of definitions) but I do think he showed his resonance with a more popular way of thinking. While King chose to align himself with a rather common and civic notion of a personal God he was certainly in line with Unitarians like Theodore Parker, but with not the majority of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. As a movement we chose a heavily Humanistic, Existentialist, and sometimes atheistic theology.
Likewise, Barak Obama did not get from the UUs he knew a sense that our faith was a powerful way to affirm individual worth and dignity, nor a movement dedicated to bringing justice, equity and compassion into human relationships. Though he has Lincoln’s and King’s paraphrasing of Rev. Theodore Parker preaching on his oval office rug, for Senator Obama (in Dreams of My Father) modern Unitarianism was merely a world-religions smorgasbord that practiced radical tolerance of belief. When he went looking for a source of spiritual solace and challenge, and a faith to sustain his political engagement, he did not look to us.
In terms of identity, to put it very simply Unitarian Universalists are aligned with an intellectual minorities, but not racial or ethnic ones. In American racism, the fact is that who you identify with determines who you hang out with and who sees you as “one of us”. Martin King Junior knew that if he was to be a leader in 1955 it would have to be as a Negro in the Black Church. Likewise Barak Obama came to realize that, though he would represent the needs of everyone as a politician, he would still have to do so as ‘a black man’. As Dr. mark Morrison-Reed pointed out, Unitarianism, Universalism and UUism all rose as part of a racialized and segregated society. In that context we developed a white identity. We have striven against that in the past two decades to some degree or other, but in the end we have not become truly multi-cultural as a community. Perhaps some day, but not yet.
So, that is the outline of my thinking. Is this the beginning of a good sermon yet?