Friday, October 12, 2007

The UUA and Madison Avenue

The Unitarian Universalist Association's national advertising campaign has begun. Advertising in Time Magazine began with the October 15, 2007 issue and will continue over the next several months with placements such as this UUA print ad (also shown to the left).

According to the UUA's press release, the Religion Pages will offer links to articles and essays authored by Unitarian Universalists on topics including: the relationship between religion and science; the role of religion in American democracy; and religion, morality, and sexuality.

I certainly applaud the goals of the campaign and believe such an effort is long overdue. Our denomination will always debate issues of the relative merits of any continental efforts and their impacts on congregational polity. But, I personally feel that the relative benefits far outweigh the potential harm.

That said, this first print ad even made me cringe just a little. "Is God keeping you from going to church?" I do understand the desire to be catchy, even controversial, in getting the reader's attention. The ad certainly appeals to the atheistic, yet religious person within me. But, I have no doubt that many Unitarian Universalists will see this ad and explode in anger over what they will perceive as an anti-theist tone and the heavy reliance on the term "church."

I will not be one of those criticizing the ad (do not, however, ask me what I think of the new UUA web site, grrrrr). For while I deeply respect those who might find the ad objectionable (and I have no doubt that conversations will continue for many weeks), I will suggest that nearly any attempt to attract broad public interest in Unitarian Universalism in eight words will displease many dedicated UU's. The reality, however, is that we certainly will never get the millions of readers of Time magazine to read Channing's Baltimore Sermon or Ballou's "Treatise on Atonement." Even the text of the seven principles is too long for the average modern attention span. I do not see this as sufficient reason not to produce such a campaign.

We are a tiny denomination - a soft voice amidst a cacophony of shrill shouts. And yet, we have evidence that many people share our religious philosophy, but are simply unaware that we exist. I see no harm in helping people learn that we are here and that we welcome them with open arms; in fact I believe we have a duty to make our presence known. I see no way to make this omelet without breaking eggs.

The key, in my opinion, is to assess the materials and calmly reflect before reacting one way or the other. Then, encourage discussion in your church, congregation, fellowship, society about the issues. Most importantly, now is the time that we should all pay extremely close attention to our visitors. For while we may take issue with this campaign or its specific contents, the result may be to bring people through our doors asking that question that so many of us have asked -- "Where have you people been all my life?"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

As you know from the title of this erudite journal, pizza is one of my guilty pleasures. You've seen that bumper sticker that says, "A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work." Well, for me, even a bad pizza is better than good food that is healthy and nutritious. Well, not always, but work with me here.

Anyway, I have an idea for a book that I offer up to anyone who wants to run with it. Just send me an autographed copy or two when it hits the New York Times bestseller list. The title would be simply "Guilty Pleasures," and it would consist of an encyclopedic collection of the guilty pleasures of famous people throughout history. I know I would read it.

Now, we have to be careful about our definitions. A pleasure isn't truly guilty unless it is really bad or potentially harmful for you. So, no altruistic pursuits and no quaint but harmless hobbies. Wouldn't it be awesome to learn that Michaelangelo had tattoos and body piercings; or that Lincoln loved to skinny dip in the Potomac River; or that Confucius slipped risque limericks into the Analects? Of course, the Roman Emperors would have an entire chapter.

None of us are saints. Given that we are human, we will make mistakes and we will engage in behaviors that are risky, possibly harmful, and even potentially dangerous. I think the point is that, since we must engage in these behaviors by our nature, then we should do so with intent and in a way that maximizes our own pleasure and the pleasure of those people important to us. So, when you engage in your guilty pleasure, be creative about it and do it shamelessly. Drink responsibly, laugh heartily, and love relentlessly. Never be ashamed about your passion.


Browsing the latest issue of the Humanist Network News, I found myself browsing an article by Warren Allen Smith. His online encyclopedia of freethinkers, Philosopedia, defines apatheism (a portmanteau of atheism and apathy), as a subset of atheism, when atheism is defined as lack of belief in deities, rather than specific disbelief in deities. "An apatheist (AP-uh-thee-ist) is someone who is not interested in accepting or denying any claims that God, or any other supernatural being, exists or does not exist. In other words, an apatheist is someone who considers the question of the existence of God as neither meaningful nor relevant to human affairs."

I came to atheism after years of reflection and by what seems to me, appropriately, to be a quite evolutionary process. I certainly would say that I possess a lack of belief in deities. I suppose I have yet to consider whether I also possess a specific disbelief in deities. But, just because I do not believe deities exist, nor that any proof of their existence could be offered, I think it would be slightly presumptuous of me to profess a disbelief in deities.

So, the question now is whether or not I consider the existence of God as a meaningful notion or as relevant to human affairs. Let me start simply. The existence of God has no meaning to me. And, I certainly believe that peoples' belief in the existence of God has led to some of the greatest miseries of humanity in the millennia since the inception of civilized society. On the other hand, belief in the existence of God has also created great beauty and motivate some people to incredible acts of generosity, kindness, and courage.

Therefore, I think the more relevant question is, should the existence of God continue to be a meaningful notion? I would answer that question categorically in the affirmative. I believe that humanity has outgrown its continued belief in the existence of God, just as children outgrow their need to believe in many myths and fairy tales to assuage their guilt or ease their fears of the unknown. I believe that a continued belief in the existence of God will eventually lead to more "just" wars with unjust underlying motives professed by preaching hypocrites with sacred texts in one hand and clubs and stock portfolios in the other hand.

Given that no one can wave a magic wand and excise the notion of God from human memory, one must surely admit that the existence of God has been, is today, and will likely continue to be relevant to human affairs. So the question of whether or not it should be relevant is, in my opinion, moot. The answer, therefore, lies in religious education and in the provision of effective affective worship experiences that do not require a believe in God. I have spent many years committed to the education of our youth in the ways of critical thinking and assessment of moral issues based on Unitarian Universalist principles. And, as a developing minister, I am now committing myself to the creation of worship experiences that are effective and that produce in participants an affect that is as powerful, if not more powerful, than that produced by the purveyors of the God myth.

So, am I an apatheist. Not yet and perhaps never. As a minister, I must care about the impact that peoples' belief in the existence of God has on society, and I must respond by offering religious people an atheistic option to pursue their spiritual paths and to share worshipful experiences with others.

Pilgrimage to New Orleans

The weekend has finally arrived for our trip to New Orleans! A group of 30 Unitarian Universalists from Pittsburgh is flying down on Saturday to work for a week with an organization called Hands On New Orleans doing Katrina-related work. We have been planning this trip for almost six months and I can't wait.

The site where we will be staying apparently has a small computer lab, so I will try to post daily site reports with a smattering of my own editorial comments as the week progresses. I am anxious to do my small share to help rebuild the lives and the city of New Orleans. I also welcome the experience of working side by side with my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the frontline of social justice activism.

We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped fund this trip from the churches in the Pittsburgh cluster. I want to thank everyone who attended our Brunch on the Bayou event in August and the Jim Scott benefit concert in September. I also want to thank everyone who donated directly to this fund raising effort. And, a special thanks goes to Michael Miller from the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills for his magnificent and tireless administration of this trip.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Jena 6 Case and Evolution

As I follow the Jena 6 case, I have come to the conclusion that our news media have displayed ineptitude above and beyond their normal limits. At this point, a reasonable reviewer of the reports of the events that went on in that town has little chance of possessing a complete and factual account. Regardless of the various arguments to the contrary, I am convinced that the malignancy that is our criminal justice system has once again reared its ugly head, displaying its overt racism and classism.

What disturbs me even more, however, is what I perceive to be a growing sentiment - that in time, our justice system with its various appeals and retrials will sort everything out and justice will eventually be served. Perhaps, in my childhood, I might have believed such a fantasy. But, the hard reality is that there still exist too many factions vested in a racist system of law enforcement and in a society that fails to invest in the future of our children regardless of their social status, family background, or ability.

I do not believe we can wait for the laborious process of evolution to eventually produce in this country a legal system that is color blind, or a school funding formula that does not favor the rich. The reality is that evolution consists not only of gradual change and adaptation, but also radical change and mutation. And, since we face forces with powerful resources invested in the status quo. We must be willing to be change agents.

The young men charged in the Jena 6 case are not angels. So what? Neither were their white counterparts who walked away with no charges and no potential for massive prison sentences. This community failed these young people and they should not be held liable. They and their families should not have to sacrifice years of their lives and all of their financial and emotional resources fighting unjust charges. This nation is failing another generation of young people and we should be held liable if we do not advocate for radical change in our legal system, our schools, our taxation practices, and our government funding policies.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Affiliate Status in the UUA reports this week about the ongoing changes in the process of approving organizations for affiliate status in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The article cites folks who have had difficulty with this process and those in the upper echelons of decision making who appear satisfied with these efforts.

As a long-time and active member of one of the many groups now denied affiliate status, I can only report on my perception of this process and its impacts. From my point of view, communication of this process was virtually non-existent. There appeared to be little to no concern for the questions and issues of groups formerly affiliated who would be losing valuable (and perhaps essential) benefits. I worry that this effort, while perhaps guided by totally logical guidelines and solid long-term intentions, will be viewed by many very-committed Unitarian Universalists as uncaring, illogical, and heavy-handed.

Many of the groups losing affiliated status are substantial entities with long histories in our denomination. My little group, Unitarian Universalist Curriculum and Resource Developers (UUCARDS), has a few dozen members and a history dating back only a dozen years or so. And yet, this new process, which provides no replacement for the recognition we received previously, may cripple our little group. At the very least, these changes place enormous additional challenges on the efforts of incredible people whose dedication and contributions to this denomination are huge.

As a future minister, I read the explanations for the changes and can understand, to some degree, the logic for their implementation. At the same time, I hear the voiced pain of those who feel betrayed by a bureaucratic effort into which they had essentially no input and over which any objections were seemingly ignored.

What I take from this unfortunate situation is a renewed appreciation for the impact that even what may seem to be small administrative actions can have, both in an operational sense and an emotional sense, on those invested in a system. I will strive to remember this lesson when I serve my church and participate in management decisions impacting my congregants.

Universalist Weekend

I spent this past weekend as a guest of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention at the Smithton Unitarian Universalist Church. As I learned when they first contacted me a few months ago, a number of the Universalist state conventions did not dissolve at the time of the merger in 1961, and have continued to operate since that time. At this point, the Pennsylvania Convention includes seven churches covering every corner of the state.

It was a wonderful time and I met some very interesting (and colorful!) folks. It is definitely a small world. One long time participant just finished a term on the Meadville Lombard Theological School Board of Trustees, so we had much to talk about. A few folks were familiar from General Assembly. And, the pianist for the Saturday evening concert and Sunday morning service was someone who used to be friends with my next door neighbor 35 years ago.

Networking is something I've always had to work at. I envy those folks for whom it comes naturally. But, the returns can be very rewarding. Especially in a religious organization, the development of social networks can lead to so many opportunities and inspirations that might not otherwise occur. And, of course, as someone who considers himself a somewhat old school Unitarian atheist humanist, it gave me a great chance to brush up on our Universalist heritage, which is alive and well in Pennsylvania!