Thursday, October 9, 2008


Bill Maher's Religulous was almost exactly what I expected and worth seeing. He makes no attempt to be comprehensive, cherry picking from among the wealth of religious extremists in the Abrahamic traditions as well as some more mainstream folk. The movie is often hilarious and just as often makes you wonder how our species has survived. He presents an even balance between examples of all too scary reality and the "are you kidding me?" moments.

Maher asks most of the Atheist 101 questions that non-believers consider when either rejecting the religion of their childhood, or attempting to understand theist positions at all. Sometimes, he is just being Bill Maher, a snarky comedian poking fun at the fringes and speaking out against perceived hypocrisies and injustice. Other times, his questions strike at the heart of human need for what religion has to offer and how churches often pervert that desire to gain power and control. Engaging were his own autobiographical narratives, outlining his own religious journey.

For the most part, I agree with Maher's conclusions. The only caveat I would add, which you loyal readers know from my previous posts on dis-organized religion, is that I believe that we can create a religion without the faults of organized religion but that provides people with the loving, covenanted community that can heal, sustain, and transform us into better people and toward a better society. Maher heads toward the conclusion that many atheists adopt, which I believe throws the baby out with the bath water.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Deconstructing Hymns

Yes, I am one of those Unitarian Universalists who reads ahead as we sing hymns to determine whether or not I agree with the lyrics. I believe that our commitment to reason, truth, and meaning demands this of us. Sometimes, of course, my love of a tune or certain lyrics can clash with my reticence regarding other words.

On a recent Sunday morning we sang one of my favorite hymns, “We’ll Build a Land,” a tune I find appealing and singable. The imagery of certain phrases stirs my imagination, such as “raising up devastations from old,” “restoring ruins of generations,” “mantle of praises resound,” and “oaks of righteousness.” At the same time, other phrases trouble me either linguistically, theologically, or both. I’m not sure what “oil of gladness” represents, for example, or whether giving the afflicted “garlands instead of ashes” has meaning beyond the poetic.

My greatest challenge, however, comes during the refrain, which reads, “Come build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, may then create peace.” I am inspired by the commitment to peace. However, I cringe at the notion that we cannot create peace without the input of God (and am curious about the nature of this “anointing”). Over the years, however, I have allowed myself to compromise my qualms in order to enjoy great music shared with other voices in loving community.

Until the day comes that I have time to write The Atheist’s Hymnal, I will gladly embrace the spirit of such hymns.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Religious Servant Leader in Dis-Organized Religion

Fleshing out this notion of dis-organized religion compels me to define the role I would see myself filling within an intentional community. I offer the following as a vision for that role that I would love to make happen.

Human beings need elements of religion to live in harmonious community. These include those parts of our lives that continue (re-) to bind us together (-ligio) as people. Historically, however, the negative impacts of organized religion outweighed the positive contributions to the health and welfare of human community. Therefore, communities are better served by a new kind of religion – a "dis-organized" religion. The essential tenets of such a religion entail a code of freedom:
  • from the construct of "god" in any of its manifestations, or of any "supernatural" or "spiritual" planes of existence (religious atheism is not anti-theist, but stresses the non-experience of a deity);
  • from the presumption that humanity is evil, sinful, or deserving of punishment;
  • from all religious creeds and dogma, or the belief that people must obey religious authority; and
  • from limitations to exploration of religious experience and understanding.
And, it is the freedom:
  • to believe as one wishes;
  • to "be" oneself fully, as an equal partner with and responsible for all existence;
  • to live with and to love others fully;
  • to think and to feel fully; and
  • to experience all within yourself and among others, as part of whatever constitutes our world.

Would there be ministers in this dis-organized religion? While this religion would invent its own reverent language, one may note that the Latin root of the word "minister" means "servant." "Ministers" in dis-organized religion would be servant leaders, helping others explore their religious selves by serving them (for further reading on the concept of servant leadership, see the materials from the Greenleaf Center). For thousands of years in human communities, people have served the role of religious servant leader. This role possesses many names: shaman, prophet, guru, oracle, lama, rabbi, priest, imam, minister. Intentional community needs this role as well, although divested of much of the historical legacy of these examples. For that reason, this role requires a new name and not any of the traditional titles. For sake of simplicity, call this role the Voice.

What is the Voice not?

  • The Voice is not divine or saintly, seeking to be no more or less special than others in the community.
  • The Voice uses powers of reason and intuition, and is not in touch with any supernatural forces, spirits, or "god."
  • The Voice has a unique focal emphasis within the community, but possesses no inherently unique talent, skill, or ability.
  • The Voice is not an authority over others or over the community; if anything the Voice eschews power or dominance.

What is the Voice?

  • Like a shaman, the Voice is "one who knows," who can heal the ailing heart and mind.
  • Like an oracle, the Voice is a visionary, who observes and interprets forces and trends.
  • Like a guru, the Voice is a "destroyer of darkness," who mentors in search of understanding and learning.
  • Like a lama or rabbi, the Voice is a teacher, who enlightens by offering the tools of learning and an objective perspective.
  • Like a prophet, the Voice is a guide, who seeks truth in service of others.
  • Like a priest or imam, the Voice is a celebrant, who builds community through worship and rites of passage.
  • Like a minister, the Voice is a religious servant leader.

What does the Voice do?

  • The Voice monitors the cultural health of the community and individuals within the community.
  • The Voice is a doctor of the community body.
  • The Voice provides expert advice in coordinating the multiple codes of the community’s belief system.
  • The Voice preserves community traditions and helps the community celebrate group and individual achievements and milestones.
  • The Voice mentors and teaches so that all may grow more mindful.

What are the attributes of the Voice?

  • The Voice offers a comprehensive view on all matters.
  • The Voice always looks to the long-term future while meeting the needs of today.
  • The Voice is in touch with the flow of the community.
  • The Voice seeks to be ever more wise, knowledgeable, and insightful.

I have participated in many Unitarian Universalist youth worship services, which in many ways epitomizes the experience I envision for everyone. Is it possible? If it was built, would anyone come? A large part of me wants to buy an old church or warehouse and convert it into a collage of studios, clinics, and other community activities and see what happens.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ministry in Dis-Organized Religion

You, who are on the road,
Must have a code that you can live by.
And so, become yourself,
Because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams,
The one they picks,
the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why,
if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by.
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams,
The one they picks, the one you'll know by.

-- Graham Nash

When I was a teenager, I bought Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's live album Four-Way Street. I remember being enormously disappointed, because the songs did not sound the way I knew them. I traded the album to a friend (for Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I'm sure has all kinds of deep meanings) and didn't listen to CSNY for years.

A few years ago, I rediscovered CSNY and other music from those formative years. Some songs were like long lost friends. Others were new acquaintances. Some, I knew, but had never really heard or understood.

For the past year, I have been on a pilgrimage - a journey not of body, but of the heart and mind. It began over Thanksgiving, when I gave a short talk to several hundred Boy Scouts about Unitarian Universalism. I explained that the UU church is a home for all religious seekers, even atheists like myself. Even though I have been an atheist for many years, over the ensuing weeks I found myself thrust into a new public "outness," when people approached and thanked me for my comments.

When my son was home for winter break, we had several long talks. As a result, I began blogging about disillusion in America and directions we can take to build intentional community together. I began to consider the shape of my future ministry as a religious atheist and what my "church" would look like in such an intentional community.

My son recently asked me to read Days of War, Nights of Love by the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective ( If you have read this post to this point, you should stop whatever you are doing and look into their writings. I don't agree with all of their conclusions - yet - but I find their work inspiring and thought-provoking. The book nudged me further along my path toward ministry in dis-organized religion.

What is the role of religion in a community that rejects "organized" religion? For me, dis-organized religion is a code of freedom:
  • from the construct of god
  • from creeds and dogma
  • from limitations to spiritual exploration

and it is the freedom:

  • to believe
  • to be, to live and to love
  • to think and to feel
  • to experience all within yourself, among others, and as part of existence

What is my role as a minister in dis-organized religion? Well, for the CrimethInc folks, ministry is what I love. I have given up much to become a minister and now know that I would sacrifice almost anything for my ministry. The Latin root of the word "minister" means "servant." I see ministers as servant leaders, who help others explore their spiritual selves by serving them. Service also includes celebrating rites of passage, nurturing through chaplaincy, and offering vision and insight with a prophetic voice to inspire, encourage, and imagine.

I fed my children on my dreams and now they are helping me find my truth in my elder years. I have a long road to go, but with their help, I will travel on.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Visual Displays

About 25 years ago, I attended a talk at a conference by a man named Edward Tufte. He had just written a book titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. His talk and the focus of his book was on what makes a good graph, or visual display of information, as well as what qualifies as a poor graphic.

I loved the presentation and immediately purchased the book (which I still recommend highly). One of the most memorable parts of the book is his presentation of a classic chart by Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), showing the fate of Napoleon's army during its invasion of and subsequent retreat from Russia. Drawn in 1861, the plot displays six variables: the size of the army; its location on a two-dimensional surface; the direction of the army's movement; and the temperature on various dates during the retreat. Tufte suggests that it may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn, and I agree.

I have had a copy of this graphic posted by my desk ever since, which has followed me from office to office. Minard's map is a constant reminder to me of excellence. Every time I look at this graphic, I imagine how I can strive to work to produce something outstanding, either in its impact or in its effectiveness. This graph also reminds me daily that our lives are endless visual displays to those around us and to the world of what humans can accomplish if they put their minds and their hearts to a commitment.

Will I ever produce anything as elegant and memorable as Minard's graphic? Who knows? Perhaps I already have and do not even realize it. Regardless, I find that a worthy goal every day, applied to my work, my interactions with people, or just how I live my life.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Peace and PTSD

I recently completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital here in Pittsburgh. During my time at the VA facility, I visited patients in various life and medical conditions, met some amazing people, and learned a great deal about myself and my ministry. Early in my time there, I met a Vietnam veteran. The visit shaped my entire time in CPE and, in one way has brought me close to the end of a road in my life.

First, I need to share with you the landmarks I have passed on this particular path. When I was 10 years old, my oldest brother, Jon, was my hero and, next to my father, my most important role model. He went to fight in Vietnam. It was 1968, the worst year of the war. The television news bombarded us nightly with images of death, reports of opposition to our involvement, and editorials questioning our core goals as a nation and as a people.

I saw and heard these reports. But, all I cared about was that Jon would come home safely. I did not care about falling dominoes. I did not care about the welfare of people halfway around the world. I wanted our armed forces to bomb our enemy into oblivion so that Jon, my brother, would not be harmed.

Jon finished his tour of duty and returned home. We celebrated in our dining room the night he got back. There he was, thinner and a little older, but still the brother I knew and loved. Almost the next day, however, the change started. Jon talked less and spent much more time alone. He stayed up all hours of the night, reading voraciously. He and his wife quarreled more often. Jon’s patience with his children grew shorter. I did not know what was happening, but sensed that some part of my brother was missing.

I entered junior high school and began a lifelong passion for history, particularly about Nazi Germany. I, too, read voraciously. One book, titled Treblinka, chronicled the events that occurred at the concentration camp of that name in Poland. The account introduced me to the Holocaust and engaged my curiosity and revulsion about the potential for humans to harm each other. My interest in that era of our past gradually shifted away from battles and military strategy, to the people of Germany...not the soldiers and fanatics, but nurses, store owners, professors, and ministers...everyday people. I still believed in war, at least that we needed to fight wars to protect ourselves, our way of life, and our basic principles of freedom and democracy.

One thing that did die in me during that time was my belief in God. Like many people who travel the path that leads to atheism, I could not imagine how the God that all of my friends believed in could ever allow a thing like the Holocaust to happen. Why would the father of Jesus condone war at all? As a result, I lived unchurched for many years, until I happened to discover Unitarian Universalism.

In Unitarian Universalism, I found a religious home that shared my revulsion for war, but still welcomed those who felt that sometimes war is necessary to defend freedom and democracy. Unitarian Universalism welcomed the lifelong learner in me who taught religious education classes and wrote curricula for other churches to use. While writing one of my curricula, Thinking the Web, I explored the theory of Just War. Just War is a doctrine of ethics asserting that a conflict can and ought to meet the criteria of philosophical, religious, or political justice, provided it follows certain conditions. An example of these conditions would be “Just cause,” which states that the reason for going to war needs to be just, such as recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong. Another example is the condition of “Proportionality,” which states that the force used must be proportional to the wrong endured, and to the possible good that may come. The more disproportional the number of collateral civilian deaths, the more suspect will be the sincerity of a belligerent nation's claim to justness of a war it fights.

Taken in it’s entirety, the conditions defining Just War made a good deal of sense to me. At the same time, however, I also wrote a class session on conscientious objection and began to explore the philosophy of pacifism. Honestly, I found unconditional pacifism untenable. I admired Gandhi’s vision of nonviolent resistance, but frankly felt that the position taken by the historic peace churches – the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites – simply avoided the challenges we face in a modern global society.

When I entered the seminary, I took a class on Unitarian Universalist History. I wrote a paper on the Unitarian response to Nazi Germany. My research revealed much division in the 1930's on the issue of pacifism. Those advocating absolute pacifism, led by John Haynes Holmes of the Community Church in New York City, were challenged by ministers such as James Luther Adams, who had traveled in Nazi Germany and foresaw the horrors to come. Many Unitarians straddled the fence, eventually supporting the effort once the European conflict erupted, and more strongly after Pearl Harbor. I found myself sympathetic to what I called Realistic Pacifists, who abhored war, but recognized the necessity of the practice.

And yet, throughout this journey, my doubts grew. I lived through the Gulf War and then the invasion of Iraq. I saw Just War theory brutalized by those with financial motivations, or historic biases against the Muslim people. I read more history, now revealing even more complicity by the United States in the birth and growth of Nazism in Germany and the hatred of America by the Japanese. I began to see more clearly the attitude of Gandhi and Jesus, that violence only propagates more violence, continuing the cycle of humans harming one another.

Which brings back me to my latest landmark on this particular road. One day, I entered the room of a patient. We only shared 30 minutes or so together. Somehow, at that moment, this man decided to share with me his experiences in Vietnam. I believe in synchronicity – that sometimes two events or two people can come together in some larger meaning, but that there need not be any identifiable cause for the meeting. What this man had been feeling for 40 years came flowing out with me.

During CPE, students spend time in clinical sites, in small group processing exercises, and in more traditional learning sessions called didactics. Just the day before, my group learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during a didactic. This man exhibited every symptom.

  • He had been exposed to traumatic events during the war;
  • He reexperienced these events over the years in flashbacks and nightmares;
  • He had never been able to talk about things even related to the experience that would trigger these memories;
  • He experienced persistent difficulty with sleep, anger, and being hypervigilant, that is, sensitive to things such as loud noises; and
  • He had experienced these symptoms for years and they significantly impaired his ability to function in social and work settings.

As we spoke, I shared my feelings about my brother and stories Jon had shared with me. He told his own stories, including one about a Vietnamese girl who used to come into the soldiers’ PX. He said that the soldiers bought her whatever she wanted because she was so pretty and innocent. He went on to tell me that, one day, he picked her up...and she exploded. She had been booby-trapped.

He began to cry and I joined him. He was frustrated by his tears, but I told him what I had learned the day before. You have been through a traumatic experience. Crying is the reaction any normal person should have when faced with such an abnormal experience. These tears have waited 40 years to come out of you.

Afterwards, I reflected on this visit and felt deep sadness for this man. I could only imagine the tragedy of his life for the past 40 years. I realized fully for the first time that the victims of war include not only the dead, the wounded, the imprisoned, and the displaced, but all of the soldiers engaged in the conflict, their families and friends, and everyone whose lives they touch. I realized that no cause, no reasons, no justification could warrant the destruction of war, the destruction that war caused this man for the past 40 years. And, I knew that we will continue to devastate the lives of men like this until we end war; until we disavow all violence toward one another; until we pledge once and for all not to harm each other.

Therefore, I have committed to live the rest of my life nonviolently. I will militantly defend the innocent with my own life if needed. But, I will strive never again to harm another person mentally, physically, or emotionally. I make the distinction set forth by John Haynes Holmes in his 1916 book New Wars for Old, in that I will lift my “militancy from the plane of the physical, to the plane of moral and spiritual force.” As a human being, I will struggle to maintain this pledge. As a human being, I recognize that I will harm others. But, as a human being, I know that we have the potential to end war; we have the potential to love each other; we have the duty to try to live nonviolently. The cycle of people harming one another cannot stop until enough of us pledge to end our violent behaviors.

Will I advocate that the Unitarian Universalist Association join with the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites, and become a peace church? Yes. But, I will also advocate that we understand that the path to pledging to nonviolence can be long and difficult. I will advocate patience and understanding as people struggle with the commitment. As a noncreedal peace church, Unitarian Universalism can become a home for people struggling to make this commitment where they will not be judged for their current position on the matter; a home for further discussion about both the practical and the theoretical issues of war and peace; and a home for people to share their feelings and experiences openly in loving community.

(this is the bulk of the text of a sermon I delived on Sunday, August 10, 2008 at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mother's Day

I know, I am early and there are 44 shopping days left until Mother's Day. Sadly, that statistic tends to dominate our thinking regarding holidays. Hardly a celebration remains unsullied by the taint of consumerism.

As a father, I admit to appreciating a day devoted to my dedication as a parent. But, isn't our reward knowing every day that we did our best to raise our children to face the world and, hopefully, make it a better place? Wasn't my reward all of those years with my own children and the opportunities to coach, advise, and educate others' children? Do I really need a card, or a grudgingly purchased gift to confirm the quality of my fatherhood?

This wasn't the original purpose of the holiday. Unitarian abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic after reviewing Union troops in Washington, D.C. in 1861. However, the ensuing four years of death and destruction convinced her that peace was the only path for a sane society to pursue. With the outbreak of more madness in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Howe issued a proclamation calling for a congress of women to "promote the alliance of the different nationalities,the amicable settlement of international questions,the great and general interests of peace."

After achieving her goal, Howe's Mother's Day for Peace was celebrated for several years, but never achieved national recognition. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mother's Day with an intent to honor mothers, but commercialization of the holiday quickly became rampant. The original meaning of the holiday was soon lost.

Last summer, some colleagues in Kansas City initiated an effort to reclaim Mother's Day. Julia's Voice is a group of "mothers and others" joined together to return Mothers Day to its original intent. They are looking for people across the country to join with them on May 11 to speak out against war. I will be preaching on the subject on May 4 (the Sunday before Mother's Day) at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh and I encourage others to join them.

The best way to honor mothers is to incorporate the best qualities of motherhood into our social policies and governmental actions. The best way to honor mothers is never again to put them, their children, or their partners in harm's way. The best way to honor mothers is to strive for a world where peace becomes the norm. As an aspiring Unitarian Universalist minister, I have always been frustrated at our lack of unique holidays. We have our rituals, such as Water Communion and Flower Communion, but our liturgical calendar seems filled with observances from other religious traditions. Let us work to reclaim this holiday created by a Unitarian and embodying an important principle of our denomination -- the goal of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Illusions in America Today #8

The news last week that 1 in 100 Americans are currently in prison should shock every citizen of this nation. Our elected officials want desperately for us to feel "safe," which really translates into being complacent and satisfied with the status quo. In fact, this trap of safety is what should appall us into action, as we watch another generation lose their futures and dreams in the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system.

No matter how one assesses this issue, a system that incarcerates 1% of your population for criminal activity is a failure. Every dollar spent on building prisons is a dollar not spent on education, health care and job creation. Every brick laid for prison walls is a 100 year commitment to maintaining a physical facility at a time when we are closing down mental hospitals, bridges are collapsing, and social service agencies scramble for dollars just to stay open.

If we agree that the current system is broken beyond repair, what is the answer? First, society must address the core basic needs of its people in order to prevent the roots of crime - economic injustice, hate, and lack of opportunities. Instead of mandatory sentencing, we should have mandatory funding for education and health care for every citizen. Every dollar spent on policing should be matched by at least a dollar on community development and economic improvements.

How would an intentional community handle this issue? Our intentional community is committed to nonviolence, so the top priority must be placed on dealing with crimes involving violence. But, what are the roots of violence? The best way to address violence is to live nonviolently in every aspect of life, which includes not only personal relationships, but economically as well. No one should earn money at the expense of another's well being. Every citizen must receive equal treatment and access to services and freedoms. But, most importantly, every citizen should expect to contribute to the well-being of the communities and to their neighbors. These are expectations that should be taught from the youngest ages and accepted by everyone in the community regardless of age or ability.

Would we ever incarcerate anyone? Yes. But, only those whose repeated acts of violence show that they are presently incapable of normal social interaction. At that point, they give up their rights as equal citizens and enter into a mandatory program of treatment and training designed not to punish a criminal, but to truly reclaim a human being. For nonviolent offenders, there are many useful tasks that can be assigned as compensation to the community for their lawlessness. Forced labor is not cruel and unusual. Locking someone up in a tiny cell for years on end is cruel and unusual. Forced treatment and training is an infringement on absolute individual rights. But, it enforces the right of the community to survive and thrive which, in the end, best serves the rights of the individual as well.

Just as education is not solely the responsibility of professional teachers, the management of criminal acts is not solely the responsibility of trained law enforcement agents. We must reexamine our notions of justice and address every level of the system in order to better use our precious financial and human resources.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

George Romero's Diary of the Dead

George Romero's latest film offering is getting limited distribution, and I recommend that you catch it quickly. As the latest in his Living Dead movies (following Night, Dawn, Day, and Land), Romero offers us yet another entertaining, yet meaningful glipse into horror. Here are a few comments without spoilers.

Night of the Living Dead is an American classic. Other directors have tried to copy it a hundred times, mostly failing miserably. In Diary, Romero returns to the events of the original Night and tries to copy his own masterpiece, updating to modern times and with a different perspective. I think he achieves this goal. He pays due homage to the original without simply xeroxing its formula, succeeding in creating a whole different story with different people that is engaging and meaningful.

As in most of his work, Romero succeeds in horrifying us not with a monster, but with the monster represented by humankind. In Diary, Romero is no longer subtle about this message, putting into the narrative "movie within the movie" the voice of judgment, ending with a powerful ultimate question. What other director indicts our society this forcefully while still entertaining and thrilling audiences?

Fans of horror films walk into a new Romero movie expecting excellence because he generally delivers it. That's why, when he tries something new, we have to roll with the punches of a master at work and try to go with his flow. The vehicle of this film, of film students chronicling the events, succeeds where Cloverfield perhaps failed in that these are purpose-driven people acting in ways that even they have troubling articulating. Jason is not a cardboard hero. He has trouble at times explaining his muse and why he is doing what he is doing. The characters are conflicted, which is of course trademark Romero. He never gives you an easo hero or heroine and never hands it to you on a plate. You, the viewer, will be entertained, but he also wants you to think and to leave the theater mad and frustrated by the world.

And, of course, the fanboy in me wants great special effects and he delivers again. There are a couple of memorable dispatchings of zombies and some subtly creepy images. The video taping was effective without the jarring quality of other films (like Blair Witch Project) that have used this vehicle. So, my recommendation is "Don't miss it." Diary is an admirable addition to the Living Dead lexicon and deserves our praise. This is the work of a master craftsman in his prime, challenging us the way all great artists do.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Role of the Church in an Intentional Community

My premise has been that America suffers under debilitating illusions and that our best solution is the creation of intentional communities seeking to disillusion themselves. These communities would model for others more just and loving ways for humans to live together. What role would the church play in such a community?

My answer involves the creation of a pizza, with the following ingredients:
  • recognition of ceremonies of human rites of passage common to most religious traditions (birth, mariage/union, death, coming of age, etc.);
  • celebration of an inclusive liturgy that honors the wisdom found in all religious traditions;
  • promotion of the principles that are the bedrock of our moral code, which again are generally common to most religious traditions;
  • education for all ages on spiritual practices and ways of understanding core elements of life and human relationships; and
  • empowerment of all citizens to pursue their unique ministries within the community.

All of these ingredients would be laid on a foundation that is noncreedal, yet open to the reverent language and imagery of all theologies. Therefore, this church will not require a belief in any supernatural being or forces, but will recognize that human knowledge is limited and that a commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning is essential.

Briefly, what do each of these ingredients of our religious pizza entail?

Rites of Passage - Every child is a holy child; love between people is our core principle; aging, life transitions, and death are natural processes.

Inclusive Liturgy - All religions derive in part from a shared foundational wisdom worthy of celebration; our church would honor all messages of universal redemption and commitment to a higher ideal.

Moral Code - Nontheism; the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods is not relevant to the creation of loving and just principles for living; as children of all universes, we are imbued with the ability to define a moral code and to live by it.

Religious Education - Science may never explain all that exists, certainly not in ways that help us here and now to deal with life's challenges; we can educate (not indoctrinate) people about the art of living and train them to use tools to cope and to aspire to greater consciousness.

Ministry - Ministry is not the task of professionally trained individuals alone; all of us have the capacity to minister to each other; each of us has gifts worth sharing that should be encouraged to blossom and grow.

Peter Morales, candidate for the Presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association has a short video on YouTube. While I have no position at this time on the election, I was moved by a sentiment he expressed relative to the need for this denomination to grow. He said that we must feed the spiritually hungry and house the religiously homeless if we are to heal and transform the world. I could not agree more. Our church, and the church I propose, would reach out to all people of every cultural and religious background - theist, atheist, deist, polytheist, pantheist, etc. - in recognition and celebration of our shared beliefs in principles affirming love, justice, and unity with all existence.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Illusions in America Today #7

I am dismayed to see this morning, yet again, that another tragic incident of mass murder has occured in our country. Sadly, the frequency of these events numbs us to their horror and paralyzes our collective action. Time and again, we read about the inability of our governments to address the issues and of our courts to maintain an equitable system of justice.

So, what is the answer? Do we lobby for tighter gun control? Do we advocate for more rational sentencing for violent crimes? Do we seek to ban televnision programming that glorifies serial killers? These are all potentially worthy responses. But, the root of the problem would remain. The root of the problem is the acceptance of violence as ever being a solution to our problems.

Now, you may immediately think, "But, what do I do when faced with the threat of violence, with the evil actions of I just roll over and let them win?" My answer is no. Does this mean that we let tyrants engage in genocide? Of course not. But, we must disillusion ourselves of the notion that in the long-term violence ever breeds anything but more violence. We must begin to commit to a societal course of nonviolence if we are to ever end the stranglehold it has on our lives. What would such a commitment mean?
  • We would strive toward a vision of national policy where every possible means is exhausted before ever considering aggressive military action.
  • We would plan for the eventual cesassion of the production and sales of all weaponry.
  • We would initiate curricular reforms in our schools to promote the principles of nonviolence and peace at every level of society.
  • We would craft more fair and constructive techniques to address criminal justice challenges, starting with the elimination of the death penalty.
  • We would migrate our investments in war to investments in domestic health and to ameliorating sources of violence, such as economic injustice, fear, hate, and poverty.
At the local level, what specific actions would an intentional community undertake to model a commitment to nonviolence?
  • All private ownership of guns would be banned. The founders of this nation never envisioned the society of today and would have been appalled at our allowing of a fringe misreading of the Bill of Rights to directly lead to thousands of murders each year.
  • Children would be taught conflict resolution skills and the community would openly and cooperatively resolve differences divorced from influences of privilege.
  • Punishments for crime would involve community service and constructive action rather than incarceration.
  • Physical and mental health provision would be a top priority for the community, to avoid the majority of problems that lead to violent behavior.
Like many of the illusions facing us today, the solution is about vision and finding the courage to name that vision and struggle toward its achievement. Prophets throughout history have taught us that nonviolence is the path to justice and the defense of human rights. Maybe we cannot achieve their dream in one lifetime, or even two or three. But, until we commit to achieving the vision, we will continue to read headlines about senseless death.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Funding for Continental Youth Programming

Apparently funding for continental youth leadership by the UUA will end in June 2008, according to a letter from the YRUU Steering Committee. As a former adult-at-large member of Youth Council with 15 years of experience in youth work in our denomination, I read this announcement with mixed feelings.

Recent directions in Young Religious Unitarian Universalists at the continental level have distressed me. For instance, I have disagreed with the prioritization of anti-racism and anti-oppression work above all other objectives, particularly given the methodology used by the training during the late 1990's and early part of this decade. I have read with increasing dismay the conclusions of the Consultation to and with Youth on Youth Ministry, seeing between the lines a carefully scripted agenda.

Continental YRUU leadership was not perfect by any means. However, eliminating Youth Council and throwing the leadership of our movement to the district and congregational level is a mistake. Youth ministry depends heavily on the encouragement and sustaining of strong leaders, both youth and adult. A congregation can consider itself fortunate to have more than one such leader. Even districts can be challenged to find people willing to shoulder the burden of sustaining healthy and thriving youth programming.

I have been involved in the Youth Adult Committee of the Ohio-Meadville District for many years and consider it to be an example of a quality program of youth ministry. But, even our program has teetered occasionally, depending perhaps too heavily on the devotion of a handful of dedicated people who too often suffer burnout from the stress.

A key problem with this decision is that it disempowers a ministry that traditionally must fight for legitimacy. At the congregational and district levels, there exist too many people who fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of youth programming in our denomination and who constantly challenge our right to host conferences and other activities. Youth empowerment is not a universally accepted ideal in our denomination, even in a district with a solid record like mine. Continental Youth Council, even functioning less than effectively, provides a legitimacy -- a recognition that the denomination supports our importance and our philosophy.

One point lost in this decision are the indirect benefits of the existence of continental youth leadership. Let me provide a personal example. Right now, there are a significant number of students pursuing Unitarian Universalist ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School whose call came through their work in youth ministry. One fellow student served on Youth Council with me. Another I met at a YRUU Chaplain training. Many of us have experience as advisors. Who knows how many youth who have served on Youth Council have gone on to positions of leadership in our denomination who might not otherwise have done so?

Another point is one near and dear to my heart. As a writer of religious education curricula, I have advocated for many years that churches provide junior and senior high youth with more educational opportunities. I wish I had a dollar for every youth or advisor who said to me how sick they were of just coming to church every Sunday and doing nothing but checking in. Without a visible force of youth leadership at the continental level, I cannot see this situation improving. While moving the control of youth programming to the local levels sounds noble on paper, I fear that for many churches, this means that youth programming will wither and die. This is one reason why a group of us recently proposed the establishment of a youth ministry course at Meadville Lombard.

At this point, all I can do is continue to advocate for stronger youth ministry programming whenever I can. Wherever I go as minister, I plan to be directly involved with the youth of my church. I strongly promote that all seminarians and ministers consider a similar commitment.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Preparation for the Ministry

Sitting in our service yesterday, my minister related the story of Hosea Ballou's ordination. At the convention held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1794, Ballou was in the pulpit with Elhanan Winchester and Joab Young. At the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, Winchester held the Bible against Ballou's chest, crying out, "Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!" Winchester then ordered Young to charge him. My minister quipped that he imagined that I wished it would happen that quickly.

Frankly, yes I do wish it would happen that quickly. Well, at least I wish that it could happen that spontaneously. I do fantasize that I will give a sermon so moving, that the congregation would immediately demand that I be ordained on the spot. Because I am, at heart, a preacher and I believe in the power of the sermon to move people and to change lives.

One conundrum that has perplexed me throughout my long journey toward ministry involves my Uncle Bob, who died about 10 years ago. You had to meet Uncle Bob to really appreciate him. He lived in Memphis and had that mild, slow Southern drawl that just lulled you to sleep. He loved telling whoppers. I mean, he never told little lies...he told massive lies. Uncle Bob's lies were never malicious. In ancient times, he would have been an historian -- never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. And, he did it so convincingly, so gently and sincerely, that you gladly swallowed everything he fed you.

The man also loved to horse-trade. He would be driving down the street and see a car he liked in a showroom window. Into the dealership he would drive and trade in his car. I don't think the man ever owned any car for more than a year.

Oh yes, and he was a Baptist minister. Now, my Uncle Bob never went to seminary or had any formal training. He didn't take college courses on the Bible, do a module of clinical pastoral education, serve an internship, or earn a degree. But, his small congregation loved him dearly all the same. He worked a full-time job selling linens during the week, but the man was a minister.

Do I wish a path like his was open to me? I don't know. I understand the purpose of all the rigorous training and assessment. But, sometimes, I wonder whether all of this structure around the preparation of ministers somehow shapes us a little too much into standard molds. Sometimes, I wonder if all this "discernment" is really more about conforming and less about finding a true self-identity. Sometimes, I wonder if we wouldn't be a little better off having a few Uncle Bob's in our ministry.

S0, that is my challenge. I will jump through all of the hoops and complete every requirement necessary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But, there will always be a little Uncle Bob inside, yearning to tell the occasional whopper and able to adapt and change at a moment's notice if the spirit calls or the situation demands.

Friday, February 8, 2008


As a seminarian, I of course have no life. Between classes, student ministry that feeds my spirit, my job that feeds my body, and various interviews and requirements, I don't get out to the movies often. But, since I am a huge Lost fan, and a lifelong addict of horror/monster movies, I had to go see J.J. Abrams new movie, Cloverfield. If you have not read any reviews yet, DON'T. Just go see the movie without any knowledge of what it is supposed to be about. If you have already read reviews, then try forget what everyone has said (I know that's like telling you to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room) and go see it.

Cloverfield is not a great movie. But, I think it is an interesting movie with real potential for teaching moments and coffee shop discussion. And, I believe that the film has Unitarian Universalist implications worthy of consideration.

First, let me respond to some of the criticisms being leveled at the film. (spoiler alert! From here on, I will assume that you have seen the movie and will discuss relevant details.)

The characters are two-dimensional/stereotyped -- At the beginning, the 20-somethings are presented as urban yuppies in standard stereotypes. But, after everything explodes, much happens against type. The "ice-queen" sacrifices herself to save someone whose advances she has been rejecting. The "dork" sacrifices himself to film for posterity the extraordinary events. The main character's epiphany, while seemingly sudden, is very real. Nothing really matters in life except true love.

The jarring film quality is annoying and unrealistic -- On the contrary, I thought the film looked exactly like a film would look shot under those conditions, taping over a previously taped set of events. If you have ever used a hand-held video camera, you will recognize its reality.

The story is nonexistent -- But, that is the point. There is not supposed to be a "story." This film is one tiny snippet of chaos in a world gone mad. There are no scientists or generals coming to save the day here. Will Smith or Bruce Willis does not dramatically defy the odds. Like most of our lives, when stuff happens, we don't really understand why. These are real people in an incredible situation. They have no super powers or specific expertise to help them.

The movie is insanely short -- You got me there. At barely 70 minutes without the credits, this hardly qualifies as a television episode. Still, it will have zero impact on the small screen.

So why did I like the film? I liked Cloverfield because it provides us some useful opportunities for discussion. For instance:
  • If you thought you only had hours to live, what would you try to do at all costs?
  • For what cause or action would you be willing to risk your safety, even your life?
  • How do you define yourself? Is it job or possessions, or is it the quality of your relationships and who you are as a person?
  • In a crisis, are you a leader or a follower? What drives you toward either?
  • As Unitarian Universalists, how would you assess the actions of the characters? Can you imagine any of them being UU?
I loved the fact that you never know anything about the events of the film beyond the first person experience of the main characters. The film meticulously refuses to sate our curiosity about where the monsters came from, why they are attacking the city, or what happens afterwards. I think the movie successfully avoids all of the typically cloying plot devices we have grown so used to in most popular films today.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that we tend to over-analyze movies. Analysis is not a bad thing, but can limit us if we start from a set of assumptions which do not fit the particular film. For instance, many people hated the 28 Days films because everyone knows that zombies can't run - George Romero taught us that. Who says? Why does a filmmaker have to explain anything to me? Why can't people act irrationally (they certainly do in real life!)

So, I say, give Cloverfield a chance. And, especially, try to avoid the standard "Oscar" questions and get to the more visceral meanings of the film.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Illusions in America Today #6

In the past day, I read two articles that characterize the state of health in our country today. One was an opinion letter from a doctor decrying schemes of socialized medicine that guarantee health care only by destroying the rights of physicians, hospitals and insurance companies. Another was a blog posting from discontinuous permafrost about toxic chemicals in common plastic bottles. If you are like me, you are so thoroughly sick of hearing about how everything in our lives causes some debilitating disease, that you do not even pay attention anymore. Unfortunately, that is exactly the reaction people who crave wealth at your expense hope for.

In America today, there are dedicated people who genuinely care about making your world healthier and safer for you and future generations. But, for every one of them, there is someone else who could not care less about your well being and whose number one priority is reporting the maximum possible quarterly profits for his or her corporation. And, for every one of them, there are hundreds of investors (including you and me if we have money in stock-based retirement plans) who want to get the biggest bang from their hard-earned investment dollar. Who wins? I think it is easy to see that the driving force of the American economy will win out over inconvenience, environmental degradation, and potential health risks most of the time.

You may be thinking, but what can I do? I am one person, and I do not have the time or energy to keep up with this mountain of threats. I am one person, so my little boycott or letter to a company cannot possibly make a difference. I am one person, so what can my $100 donation to the Sierra Club accomplish up against billion dollar corporations. And, you would be right. By yourself, there is little you can do. American citizens, lacking a comprehensive and purpose-driven structure, can do little but ride the waves of special interests who wield the power in this country.

But, as intentional communities, there is much that people can do. If we organize ourselves into neighborhoods that share the burden and act collectively, we could make a difference. At first, we would merely set an example for others to emulate. But, in time, hundreds of such communities, working together to make ethical choices, investing only in products that meet stringent codes of health and safety, and ensuring that everyone has fair access to health care, could make a difference.

Perhaps I am innocent...even naive about the way the world works. But, it seems to me that if even one child dies today because health care was not available to help them, then as a society we have failed. If one person develops cancer because of a toxin in plastic bottles who only purpose was to shave 1/10 of a cent off the cost of production, then as a society we have failed. The rights of doctors and the rights of patients are not mutually exclusive. The earning of fair profits and maintaining the health of our citizens are not mutually exclusive goals. But, it will take a new American Revolution if we the people are to reclaim this nation from those who do not share our goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Illusions in America Today #5

Our schools abound with amazing people and success stories. But, the general decline of education in America continues in spite of the dedicated efforts of talented people. Thousands of research projects in recent decades have produced no universal answers to the problem, and massive bureaucracy limits the scope of our interventions to mere incrementalism.

Before identifying the causes of the problem and possible solutions, we must recongize that schools as we know them today are a very new invention of human society. And yet, there are those who want you to believe that the institution is sacrosanct; that the current structure exists for good reasons. The fact is that the American educational system remains the biggest social experiment in human history, but that this juggernaut has no captain or navigator.

I believe that the problems of the American educational system are many, but are mostly rooted in these issues:
  • Lack of equitable funding -- How can we ever hope to overcome classism, racism, poverty, and other societal ills when some schools get $20,000/year to spend per student and others get $2,000/year per student?
  • A time structure that is out of sync with society -- At a time when most couples must both work to survive financially, it is madness to send children to empty homes in mid-afternoon and for one-quarter of the year.
  • Lack of student focus -- Our curriculum is far too rigid to allow teachers the freedom to facilitate student-centered learning and the encouragement of unique talents.
  • Isolation -- Our schools have become the easy repository of too many community problems without the benefit of community support and interaction.
None of this is news to anyone familiar with our educational system. However, if we start with the assumption that every element of the school paradigm is negotiable, where would we start? For instance, imagine:
  • a daily school schedule with hours of time for recreation, socialization, and open exploration;
  • a curriculum based not on grade levels and standardized test scores, but on each student's individual capabilities and talents;
  • full integration with family and community life so that school is more about learning and less about indoctrination and discipline; and
  • a goal of producing independent thinkers, free spirits, happy and creative young adults, who leave school knowing what they want to do with their lives.
In an intentional community, a new paradigm of school is not only possible, but essential. The organization of work must provide parents more time to integrate family and school. We must re-examine the concept of "adolescence" through a postmodern lens to determine the real purposes of formal education in society. Every child must feel safe, healthy, loved, and wanted not just in the schools, but everywhere in the community. Children can develop a sense of worth if they see a point to school and are encouraged to develop their talents to their full potential. Education can succeed if goals come from a community-based core, not a corporate core.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Test Pattern of Our Identity

Sitting here trying to work, and all I can think about is Lost returning to TV tonight (woo , hoo!) Now, I watch my share of television programming, but have found myself uninterested in the recent hit shows. Reality television bores me and I can't bear to watch these cruel competition series. And frankly, after 50 years, there just are not too many new ideas out there.

But, looking back over my life, there have always been one of two shows that I never missed. I don't mean shows like Law and Order, which I have eventually caught in re-runs, but shows for which everything else in life stopped. In a world of TIVO and On-Demand viewing, I think people are missing out on the expectation and planning involved.

So, here is my life defined by shows I never missed (at least until they ran their creative course - I can't watch the death throes of past favorites).
  • Lost
  • West Wing
  • ER
  • N.Y.P.D. Blue
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • L.A. Law
  • Hill Street Blues
  • Dallas
  • M*A*S*H
  • Hawaii Five-O
  • All in the Family
  • Rowan and Martin's Laugh In
  • Star Trek
  • The Addams Family
  • Outer Limits
  • Twilight Zone
I imagine that there is a psychology/self help book in here somewhere -- you know, some kind of typology like Myers Briggs. I would be an RFCJ, a Realistic Fantasist with a sense of Comedic Justice.

Of course, I'm sure others might look at my list and think, "no wonder he is so strange - look at what he watched growing up!" It is bizarre that Unitarian Rod Serling had such an impact on me as a child, since I did not discover Unitarian Universalism until long after his death. And, Gene Roddenberry had far more to do with my theological formation than any minister.

So, what does the list of your life look like?

Monday, January 28, 2008

"To snore, perchance to dream..."

On a (much) less serious note, let me add my (considerable) weight in support of the growing use in common parlance of the word 'snarky.' In the months-old tradition of the pizzatorium, snarky combines the tantalizing flavors of British and American slang, with a solid saucy foundation of meaning and auditory pleasure.

A "snarky" comment is critical in a sarcastic and cynical sort of way. Apparently, the adjective dates back to early 20th century British slang. According to one online dictionary, snarky comes from snark, meaning to nag, snore, or snort from the Dutch and Low German word snorken. To be honest, I don't care about the origin - I just like the word. Snarky is one of those words that one does not really need to know in order to surmise its meaning from context. When someone says, "That was a really snarky thing to say," you really get the picture without Webster's help.

Some definitions I found included a tint of snottiness or arrogance to the meaning of snarky. I wholeheartedly concur, as this adds the anchovy to an already delightful slice. A snarky comment is not only sarcastically witty or cynical, but also best delivered with nose slightly tilted and eyes cast aside in a carelessly caustic manner.

I must admit, however, that too much snarkiness may not be a good thing. I am not nearly as fond of snarky's cousins, sharkily, snarkier, sharkiest, or other variations. The way snarky slithers off the roof of your mouth, beginning the required nose curl in the process, and ends with the harsh finality of the exhaled breath that exposes the canines as if they were fangs, does not translate nearly as well to other applications. So, let's do our best and keep snarky pure and unmodified for future generations to appreciate.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Illusions in America Today #4

I am fortunate to have a little earth mother friend in California who I love dearly. We are kindred spirits in vital ways, particularly regarding our passion for youth ministry. But, one issue separates us. She is vegan and I am an unrepentant carnivore.

I kid her about her diet, mainly because I am a wise guy and I tend to poke fun at people I care about. But to be honest, I respect her immensely. I also know that many of my dietary choices are not choices at all, but simply 50+ years of conditioning and bad habits. Discussing disillusions of America today, we must address our increasingly non-sustainable lifestyle and our hypocritical reverence for life.

The vegan issue recently arose in my church, followed by the strident and intemperate voices that always seem to surround the discourse. Like many other topics we Unitarian Universalists discuss, we often fail to allow people time to process the information, express their own points of view, and perhaps in time, come to agreement. Many people know far more about diet and nutrition than I do. But even the most ardent meat-eater must experience a twinge of angst at the industry surrounding the production of beef, chicken, pork, etc.

The cruelty of slaughterhouses and industrial farms does weigh heavy on my mind. I also recognize that the food I learned to eat as a child and to prepare as an adult is not the best diet for human health and well being. But, to me, to essential issue for Unitarian Universalists is life. If we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, then we must respect all life. That commitment calls on us to stop extinguishing billions of lives each year to sustain a diet that is not healthy or sustainable.

The answer is at least vegetarianism, and eventually a vegan lifestyle. I will be the first to admit, this choice will be hard for me. But, my little earth mother makes a mean vegan brownie and delicious cookies. So, maybe she can help me learn to like tofu and edamame beans on my pizza, too.

P.S. Right on the ball, my friend sent me this article from the January 27, 2008 New York Times, titled "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler." I'm not moved by some of the arguments, but there are enough different approaches to the subject that I imagine any carnivore will experience some discomfort.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Disillusionment Vision

Working through this series on disillusions in America today, readers may wonder what vision may possibly replace our current structure. Let me begin with a recent event.

Yesterday morning was our last day of intensive classes at Meadville Lombard Theological Schools for January. My Religious Humanism class was discussing pastoral issues and side-tracked into a dialogue on social justice issues. Now, if you are a Unitarian Universalist, you have almost certainly heard this conversation before. After 20 or so minutes of Wal-Mart bashing and opining for a living wage, I could stay silent no longer. With a quiver in my voice that this topic always arises, I expressed my exasperation with incremental thinking and the eternal hopefulness of Unitarian Universalists and the religious humanist manifestos that set forth visions without tangible blueprints for change.

As I hope my 'disillusion' postings reveal, I have evolved to the belief that we will never transform America into a just society through our current strategies of social action. Effecting the fundamental changes that are needed will require the creation of a large-scale model of an intentional community as a focal point for our vision of the future. Like Gandhi's ashram, we must establish a new type of society from the ashes of failed America, and not merely nail aluminum siding onto our termite ridden home.

So, what is this vision? Later in the day, I had to escape the class for a few minutes. So, I walked out into the Gothic stone sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. I have always loved Gothic stone structures. The power and majesty of that architecture evoked my image of a new 'Architecture of Life' that I propose. I will flesh this plan out in future postings, but the basic plan is that after a period of planning and fundraising, a significant block of property is bought in an urban area that has been destroyed by city policies of the past century. After leveling whatever building shells exist, we build a new community, with these attributes:
  • 500-1,000 citizens, with as diverse a representation as possible;
  • a community center with activity spaces and dining facilities;
  • encouragement of all forms of entrepreneurial enterprises, as well as common community service expectations of all;
  • 100% green architecture and sustainable lifestyle;
  • schools that teach our vision of preparing children for modern living;
  • assisted living for the elderly;
  • basic health care provided for all; and
  • cooperative consumption in all walks of products and goods.

Most important is a commitment to the elimination of the acquisition of private wealth and excessive materialism.

Of course, an enormous number of details exist to be addressed. The hope is that the vision will attract people of all talents and walks of life who will help iron out difficulties and support the developments of this community. So, if this idea interests you, maybe you can join in the planning and become part of the movement to rebuild and re-envision this nation and this world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Illusions in America Today #3

I recently began reading Abbie Hoffman's 1969 book Woodstock Nation. Two portions particularly caught my eye. One was the following from “Thorns of the Flower Children.”
They were sick of being programmed by an educational system void of excitement, creativity, and sensitivity. A system that channeled human beings like so many laboratory rats with electrodes rammed up their asses into a highly mechanized maze of class rankings, degrees, careers, neon supermarkets, military-industrial complexes, suburbs, repressed sexuality, hypocrisy, ulcers, and psychoanalysts.
Education will be a subject of a future posting on this topic, but not today. After the initial assault of reading this passage, I felt that mixture of wanting to soften it for those involved in the system who are indeed doing good work and the feeling that nothing had really changed in nearly 40 years. I was 13 at the time Hoffman wrote this, and was fully enmeshed in middle class comfort. So, the radical hippie message was an alien voice to me.

But, today, after more than 30 years in the American higher education system, I am beginning to speak Hoffman's language. Dealing with the bureaucracy and, too often, hypocrisy of a system that is bankrupting our youth financially and perhaps in other more important ways, has left me cynical.

Then, I read further in Hoffman's book, to a selection titled "Che's Last Letter." I saw Motorcycle Diaries when it came out and then read Che's Diary. The writing did not reflect the angry image I was taught as a child, but a gentle and reflective person. After calling for the youth of the United States to join in the revolution, Hoffman's chapter continues
"What is so revolutionary about your revolution?" But, of course, you are cynical. Your universities teach you to be eternal cynics, a cynicism that can only be drowned in alcohol and diet pills and psychoanalysis and golf. Forget your cynicism...You must vomit forth your cynicism on the streets of your cities...
One may argue with the content or philosophy of the revolution. But, this passage speaks to a truth that the motivation to effect change in the world may only begin with the seed of cynicism. In order to view the illusions we live in, and grow the tree of a new way, we must shed cast aside cynicism as our primary tool. We must be willing to put aside the axe and use the shovel and how. We must always use the microscope, but add poetry and song. A revolution in society must be born of reason, but also passion.

A humanist vision can be critical of our current progress and helps us break down centuries-old paradigms and institutions. But, the intellectualism of the humanist vision needs to embrace the cocktail of Hoffman's anger and Che's compassion. Cynicism can serve as a primary vehicle to disillusion. We should water our tree of transformation, however, with the sweat of our determination, the wine of our creativity, and the tears of our love.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Illusions in America Today #2

When you look over the course of your entire life to date, what has given you the most unbridled joy? What was it in your life that made you so happy or had such worth that you would preserve at all costs?

I would guess that most of you thought about things like family, love of a partner, children, and accomplishments. I would also guess that few of you thought about acquiring some amount of money, buying an expensive car or appliance. We live in a society that espouses a capitalist economic philosophy, and yet, the truly important events and experiences in our lives rarely have anything to do with money or the acquisition of wealth. But, a huge proportion of our lives seem to revolve around getting resources and obtaining commodities.

We have all read statistics about how a tiny proportion of people in our society control a massive amount of the wealth. We read these statistics and we shake our heads at the economic injustice that creates poverty, and its affiliated afflictions of racism, inequality, and hopelessness. But, we continue to buy insurance, invest in mutual funds, and buy brand name products of things that we "need" at Wal-Mart and its clones. Have you ever asked yourself why you do this?

We do this because, from childhood, we are taught that these are the behaviors that make our society healthy and strong. And who teaches us this lesson? Who owns the vehicles of this message and propogates this philosophy on every billboard, web site, television show, and magazine? The answer is people who have money and want to acquire more money. So, if their goal is to procure our resources to fill their coffers, should we not question the basic assumption about whether our current form of capitalist economy is indeed in our best interests?

You may ask, what is the alternative? Let me respond with a series of questions.
  • If you lived in a community where your well being was guaranteed by the community, would you need medical insurance?
  • If you lived in a community where, upon your early death, the well being of your dependent loved ones was guaranteed, would you need life insurance?
  • If you lived in a community that valued the elderly and fully integrated their lives in rewarding and meaningful pursuits, would you need retirement plans?
  • If you lived in a community that guaranteed a basic level of a satisfactory lifestyle to every citizen contributing to the welfare of the community, would you need to spend the majority of your life pursuing the acquisition of wealth?
Now, you may well be thinking that this sounds like communism and that we have seen that communism does not work. You would be right in that this sounds like communism at first. But, here is the difference.
  • In this society, you keep your earnings - up to a certain level - and those earnings are yours to spend as you wish.
  • In this society, you are free to pursue the occupation of your choice, with rewards given to those whose activities exemplify social responsibility, justice, and community health.
  • In this society, you will give up unlimited choice of consumer products in return for lower prices and preference given to a market basket that is produced ethically and responsibly.
  • In this society, all market choices are made publicly and disseminated freely by democratically elected citizens (to be more fully discussed in another posting).
Is it possible? Once we shed the illusion that the capitalist system that we have in 21st century America is actually working for the good of all, perhaps such a vision is possible. But it will not be easy. Citizens entering this community must agree to limit their annual income to a cerain level, with amounts exceeding that level going to the community as a whole. The assumption here is that very few people (if anyone) "hit the jackpot" of the American dream, or that they ever do it alone. This model also assumes that the possession of was sums of wealth by any small minority of private citizens is inherently bad for the community, no matter how magnimous those people may be.

Once a caring community of responsible citizens comes together in common purpose, do you really need to buy security? Once you can depend on your neighbors, do you really need more than one home? Once your community functions ethically and responsibly, do you really need the status symbols of wealth? Because, like it or not, our participation in our current system of economics make us complicit in the ongoing poverty and oppression of millions in this country. Until we create an economy that is just, ethical, and compassionate, we will continue to spend most of our time earning money just to buy things and keep us away from the people and experiences that truly bring us joy in life. Until the priviledged in this country sacrifice their "earning potential," that is their ability to acquire more wealth than they would need in a rational and loving community, then the poor will remained consigned to lives of desparation, class systems will perpetrate economic injustice, and people will continue to hate each other merely on the basis of skin color, physical appearance, or accent.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Illusions in America Today #1

The positive meaning of disillusionment is that we can be freed of our illusions. Since I risk misunderstanding and possibly offending strongly held beliefs, I want to be clear exactly what I mean when I call something an illusion. I believe that this country was created with some intent to adhere to a range of noble concepts that were, to a large part, new paradigms for running a nation. They were as imperfect as the people who created them, but I value these concepts and would like to see a return to them, or at least a valiant effort to strive toward them.

While our rhetoric today may still reflect the ideals of the founders, our society today has strayed far from their vision. We may use the same labels, but our actions belie a hypocrisy of commitment, priority, and ideology. What are our illusions in 21st century America? There are many, which I will address in future posts, including among others: democracy, capitalism, freedom, education, and family. But, in this first post, I will address the illusion of primary personal importance. In 21st century America, religion is an illusion from which we should be freed.

What can a person in seminary studying to become a minister possibly mean by saying that religion in America is an illusion?
  • As an atheist, I see my nation violating universal codes of moral behavior, often in the name of the Christian God, to further its own agenda. What part of 'Thou shalt not kill' are we not understanding? When was the last politician we elected who was meek, merciful, pure of heart, and a peacemaker? What would Jesus think of 21st century America?
  • As a humanist, I see millions in my nation continuing to embrace willful ignorance, supporting creationism and intelligent design. I see my government spending billions on an illegal occupation while millions at home lack decent medical care, fairly funded schools, and well-maintained societal infrastructure. Where is the righteous indignation of our churches?
  • As a Unitarian Universalist, I see our government continuing to abrogate the rights of gays and lesbians by denying them equal rights to marry, and invading the personal private decisions to end life.
  • As a parent, I see one church leader after another accused of crimes against children and learn that the church itself not only knew of the behavior but willfully acted to conceal the knowledge from the victims. I see one religious leader after another modeling shocking personal behaviors while railing in the pulpit against those in our society who are marginalized already.
  • As an aspiring minister, I see few of my colleagues calling out corporate war profiteers, or politicians owned by special interest groups. I see few of my colleagues preaching against the power structures supporting racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, and all of the other psychoses of fear and hate infecting our nation.
I could go on, but probably do not need to. If you hold that a creator God loves you and will reward you with an eternity in a heavenly hereafter if you simply believe in him, then nothing I say can ever sway you. But, if you see God largely as an invention to control the masses and to keep people from critically assessing the activities of their religious leaders, then you should be examining this illusion. If you see most religions today as a pleasant anachronism with nothing to offer in the way of solving modern problems, then you should be examining this illusion. If you want your church to truly love all people and to commit action to social justice and equality, then you should be examining this illusion.

So does this mean that all organized religion is worthless? No. But, I do believe that we need to examine the role that religion plays in our lives and ask whether or not our churches are, or can ever meet those needs. In a disillusioned America, what form of church should we aspire to create? Personally, I believe that Unitarian Universalism provides one answer. As a church that does not force a creed on members, and that values the search for truth and meaning, I believe Unitarian Universalism can address many of the illusions of religion while still providing the loving community, acknowledgement of life transitions, and the worship experience. Unitarian Universalism welcomes you whether you are atheist, agnostic, pantheist, pagan, or poly-, mono-, or henotheist. The world has seen many prophets over the centuries, many of whom have delivered a similar message of compassion. Unitarian Universalism honors all of them and their universal message.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


Over the winter break, my son and I had a number of conversations about his future and the state of the world in general. He is a 21-year-old student attending Ohio State University. Tyler is a bright and creative young man. But, he also feels a good deal of frustration in his life and sees few role models out there to mentor or inspire him.

Interestingly, we found that we agreed on many observations about 21st America, although our approaches to dealing with those problems may vary in technique and intensity. As one might expect from a young man, he is inclined to revolutionary change and abandonment of dysfunctional systems. I am still inclined to changing the system from within. The upshot of our discourse was that we would begin the process of drafting a manifesto for a new kind of revolution -- one that creates a new type of society within the existing structure -- and eliciting feedback from others. So here goes.

Why are so many people disillusioned with the current state of American society? Everywhere we turn, we hear people who have turned off the political discourse and, when they do vote, make their choices based on selecting the lesser of available evils. Many young people, after spending 16 or more years in institutionalized education, find themselves unemployable, unfulfilled, or significantly unprepared for the "real" world. Our daily lives seem filled with a bombardment of consumerism and the resultant unhappiness derived from debt and impossible expectations. Many adults find that they cannot give their children the quality of life they received from their parents, and must combat seemingly uncontrollable forces of substance abuse, over-medication, and over-exposure to sex and violence in our media.

Why are so many people disillusioned with the current state of American society? Because we are reminded every day that our nation is not what we thought it was. We are reminded every day that our nation is not what we were taught it was. We are reminded every day that our nation is not what it should be.

What does it mean to be disillusioned? Disillusionment is betrayal. Many of us are frustrated because we cannot live lives that make us happy. We feel angry because it sometimes seems that everyone in any position of authority is either a liar, a cheat, or a fraud. We sense hopelessness because we see no answers to the multitude of problems that beset us. Many Americans feel that their country has in many ways fundamentally betrayed them. That is the negative view of disillusionment.

Is there a positive meaning of disillusionment? I believe that there is. Disillusion means that we are being freed of our illusions. Disillusion means that we have the capacity to make change and to define our nation. By embracing disillusion, we can shed ourselves of outmoded ways of being and create a new society. In my next installment, I will begin to discuss our illusions in 21st century America.