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ARTIST: Dar Williams
TITLE: The Christians and the Pagans
(from Gunther Anderson)

Amber called her uncle, said “We’re up here for the holiday
Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay”
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree
He watched his son hang candy canes all made with red dye number three
He told his niece, “It’s Christmas eve, I know our life is not your style”
She said, “Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it’s been awhile”

/ G C Am D / / Em C Am D / / G C Am D / /

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses

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From Chapter 17 – Celebration Days in
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Snow fell on our garden in December, leaving the dried corn stalks and withered tomato vines standing black on white like a pen-and-ink drawing titled Rest. I postponed looking at seed catalogs for awhile. Those of us who give body and soul to projects that never seem to end–child rearing, housecleaning, gardening–know the value of the occasional closed door. We need our moments of declared truce.

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Once the holidays had started, Ron and Harry were having too good a time to think much about Flamel. They had the dormitory to themselves and the common room was far emptier than usual, so they were able to get the good armchairs by the fire. They sat by the hour eating anything they could spear on a toasting fork — bread, English muffins, marshmallows — and plotting ways of getting Malfoy expelled, which were fun to talk about even if they wouldn’t work.

Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. This was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle. Ron’s set was very old and battered. Like everything else he owned, it had once belonged to someone else in his family — in this case, his grandfather. However, old chessmen weren’t a drawback at all. Ron knew them so well he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted. Read the rest of this entry »

the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.
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To Violet, on the first week of Advent

While you sleep, at long last, in what is hopefully a warm room,
the searchlight of a roving mind swings around, time after time.
In the car
on the way home
your mom and I make up a Death Cab for Cutie song:
“Another cold night in Cleveland
in my brown corduroy jacket
I drove alone”
And this is that through which we move, my love.
A mountain range, a peak of which we each are fast approaching,
and as Poincaré before me, I fire light across the distance,
trying to tell you the time.
1999. Two-by-fours in the barn, ready to go,
I sat with a piece of scratch paper, trying to figure this out:
A regular pentagon contains a rectangle and a triangle;
three-sixty plus one-eighty is … five-forty, which means…
and I couldn’t figure it out then; a little bit of shame in front of my grandfather.
Now, though, a better version of me:
five-forty divided by five is one-oh-eight,
and so each of the five exterior triangles is isosceles
and the paired angles then have angles of…
one-eighty minus one-oh-eight is seventy-two
(which divided by two is thirty-six) and there are
five pairs of those angles, which means that
those angles take up five times seventy-two
is three-sixty degrees of the total interior, which
means the total amount in the points is five-forty
minus that three-sixty,
which is one-eighty,
which you divide by five,
so that each point in a regular star
should have thirty-six degrees.


Lay me in a bed with amber glow filling the room,
and place the sound of fun outside, ready to start playing
at the moment I am to awake, so that I can lie there
and bathe in vicarious jubilation.
Place me in the back-right of a blue Ram van, driven by
my father, and let us stop at Great Bend or Clarks Summit.
Let me know when we see “Deer Crossing” signs,
so I can count down from ten.
Put me back again in the passenger seat,
with my head in my hands, not yet on paper half the man
I couldn’t quite convince myself to convince them
I would come out to be.
Sit me in the dark, illuminated by punctual flashes,
with you on my lap, and your mother’s warmth behind us,
and the lights of the tree. We bathed in our own jubilation
and you in the middle of us all.
So this one I just wrote. Happy Advent!

was a lot of fun. it’s always nice when the girls are having a good time and I don’t have to be bending over to pick them up or debating whether I should be intervening. Junebug’s still a little easier to deal with, physically, because she’s immobile, but V is definitely becoming willful–and it’s amazing,  because it’s expressed as a boundless curiosity and she’s a happy kid, upbeat and excited about things–but it’s still havoc on the lower back to chase, lift, re-aim, repeat.

All of which is totally the opposite tone from that which I meant to strike. I laid out a beach towel in the outfield at our local playground/rec center and put some cheerios out and Juniper sat in the grass and I lay back and watched the sky and Violet orbited like a spirograph, and they both thought that my lying down was just the funniest thing either of them had ever seen. Violet decided to tackle me repeatedly; I put my hat on Junebug and she spent five elated minutes trying to take it off again. Antics ensued…

Later in the day Violet saw real live ducks and that, as they say, was the cat’s pajamas.

Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to find  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.

Long time, no talk, kiddo. It’s been a few busy weeks. I’m moving to DC for the summer in t-minus a few weeks. I don’t want to go, but it’ll be good for all of us. In the meantime, I have to finish papers, find a place, paint your room and come up with a topic for my summer research.

I am so tired I can hardly find words for it. I don’t know what it is today, but I’m exhausted. Yesterday, your Aunt Rebecca was trying to explain to Madison that she’s going to have a cousin. She can say “Pickle” and “Violet”, but I don’t think she really understands. I’m not even sure that I do, to be honest.

It’s definitely becoming more real as we become more prepared. The reason I felt like we weren’t ready to be parents a few months ago was actually probably that we weren’t ready to be parents a few months ago. Now we’re getting a safer car and we have a hand-me-down stroller and car seat and clothing and we picked colors to paint the room and I have a paid internship that will allow us to buy diapers and baby food. Readier than ever, which is still probably to say woefully underprepared, but there’s no right time to have kids, just the particular wrong time you have them. So it seems to me.

I worry about you already. I worry that I’ll imbue you with the latent prejudices I haven’t managed to get rid of, that I’ll limit you in some way, or that I won’t limit you enough in some way. Your mom and I talked about what we want for you and it’s hard to know where the line should be drawn. I want you to be able to do anything and to want to do the right thing. I don’t even know what the right thing is, but I hope you do.

I also go through little talks in my head. The talk about why you should be nice to people, the talk about how to handle dating, how to handle mean friends, disappointment, boredom, about wonder and never losing it, about being happy as a skill rather than a state of mind. I know a lot of it will be ineffective or annoying or frustrating, but how can you be a dad and not try? My dad was very compelling as an indoctrinator, and on one hand, I hope I’m the same way, but on another hand, I fully expect you to know I’m wrong about something I don’t know about.

Lucky for all of us, you’re probably smarter than I am. I just hope you’re smilier too.

So. It would appear that people get unhappier around my age and then get happier when they get to retire. More interestingly, Americans seem to be unhappier now than “ever before” defined very loosely. Check it:

The midlife happiness crisis. – By Joel Waldfogel – Slate Magazine

Why are we less happy now than we used to be? Do we know how to be happy?

My hypothesis: Increased opportunity leads to greater chances for failure. Past generations have outstripped any dream they could have had for themselves–explosive economic growth has meant that lives their parents couldn’t have imagined, lives they, as children, couldn’t have imagined, became suddenly possible.

Anecdotal evidence: my grandfather was the oldest of eleven, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Worked three jobs, owned a house and saved enough money to put all five of his kids through college, despite the fact that he died at 55. In a world where life used to mean the same fate as your parents and theirs before them, for a brief period, a lot of people in each generation (5 in my dad’s family alone, not counting my grandfather, who didn’t have 11 kids) outstripped the previous generation.

My dad had a lot of opportunity. He went to Cornell, got a degree in Chemical Engineering. If he and my mom weren’t living in Shanghai, though, their life would be very similar to that of the previous generation. Owning a big house is not that qualitatively different from owning a small house, really–not for two people. All the entertainment in the world can’t provide the same overriding sense of significance and accomplishment, real, deep-seated utility and subjective well-being measurements as expanding your family’s capacity.

So economic pioneers feel really good; that’s my theory. It feels good to cross particular lines, to go from not quite having enough to having enough. There’s a huge utility jump from being unsure you’ll be able to grant your kids the freedom to live as they want to being sure you will.

For a lot of people, those lines are still there, but as a society, we no longer feel ourselves crossing that boundary. The birth of the middle class was a social welfare windfall. If we want to be happy now, we have to work for it.

Religion probably has something to do with it; it’s similar to the opportunity thing. With no opportunity, no one feels like a failure. With opportunity, lots of people do. With religion as a fundamental force in life, people can let things go, acknowledge that there’s not much they can do to change the order of things–God’s will be done. But in the falling-off of religion as an institution and the adoption of religion as life philosophy, people take responsibility for the things they shouldn’t, for the error terms in life. People feel like they are responsible for their outcomes, good or ill.

I don’t think it’s true. I’m not sure that what I’m positing is actually happening, although I think it is. I think people have turned economics into religion, but have ignored the uncertainty. This is the whole point behind “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” in my view. If outcomes are y, and effort is x and characteristics are z, we can model outcomes like this: y = a + bx + cz + e. All you can control is your x. A is determined by society at large, z is nature and nurture, and e is sheer random chance. You can’t take credit or blame for y. You can only take credit or blame for x. And that’s not something anyone else can observe, really. Some of it, they can, but only you really know if you did what you could.

And if you do what you can, then for some people, society screws  you. For other, society gives you a leg up. For some people, your genetics screw you; for others, it’s a boon. The error term screws everybody sometimes. For other people, it’s the only reason they’re hanging on. You don’t have to believe in God to “give it up to God.” You just have to admit you’re powerless. I think it makes everybody happier to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the error term.

A problem arises because y is positively correlated with x, and all we get to see is y, and so if we need to hold people responsible for their actions, all we can really hold them responsible for is their outcomes.

Additionally, a problem arises if we’re relying on other people to let us know whether our level of x is sufficient or not. That kind of external measurement is not going to give us a very good estimate of the effectiveness of our level of x. The error term is probably correlated with our level of z and our level of a. So those with preternatural talent or beauty are often congratulated as though they’d expended a lot of effort, while those who try hard and fail are soundly dismissed.

In truth, x and z are probably codetermined, and so we might not be able to assume the two are even separable. This has serious implications for our approach to moral and ethical responsibility in a metaphysical sense, but I think a good justice system should be invariant to metaphysical changes in responsibility–founded on a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist structure. Only you and God know your intentions, and I don’t believe in God, and so I’d support measures to be taken based on what we observe and what we expect, rather than what we think we know.

Happiness is having a good metric of one’s own worth, and a good metric for the extent to which things are out of our control.

Any ideas on experiments or data sets that would help me look at this stuff more is greatly appreciated.