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Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

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I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home dad/full-time grad student for the last five months or so, now, which really mostly means I’m not getting as far ahead on my dissertation as I’d like. That said, thanks to Violet’s near-constant demands for entertainment and my interest in saving my lower back by sitting as much as possible and letting her go unheld as often and long as she’s willing, I can now play guitar–badly, but I can decisively call it playing guitar now, not just whatever it was I did when I held a guitar and interfaced over the last near-decade. I now know all the basic chords and can string them together at will and have memorized a bunch of songs, many of which include at least one drop of the f-bomb. This is complicated.

Many of my favorite songs feature the f-bomb, and at their best, they feature it just the once (the exception that proves the rule: “F$%# and Run” by Liz Phair) , but it serves an essential purpose–it’s either the part of the song where the decrescendo ends and you need to imply that the meaning is still emphatic, even if the sound is not loud, or it’s the part of the song where the crescendo has occurred and the words contain too much denotative meaning to express the necessary, and so only expletives can get the job done, and when one is grasping for an expletive, anything worth doing is worth doing right: hence, f-bomb. (example of the first: “1330 Oak 1995” by Kind of Like Spitting. example of the second: can’t think of it right now–feel free to come up with one of your own and holler if you like)

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I got a mailer on the introduction of FF Meta Serif, which is a font for those out there not into design. It’s exciting because I liked FF Meta a lot, but mostly because now I’m pretty much an economist/dad and I like that I get mail when new fonts are invented.

This isn’t a paid promotion or plug–hell, I bought FF Meta with expenses paid, so I don’t know that I’d pay for it; plus, I’ve never used it. Still, if you want to see what looks like a nice, fat, readable font, go for it: http://www.fontshop.com/features/newsletters/nov2007_a/

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Now, for what I intended originally to write about. Cheryl and Violet and I have become members at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and it’s been a really great experience so far, a few months into attending. I have an elaborate religious life-story, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s been uniformly positive, and still I’m an atheist. Going to/joining what is, effectively, a church, definitely seemed like a complicated idea–one I bristled against at first when Cheryl said she thought we should try it out.

I comprehended my hesitation a little better during today’s service. There’s a quiet period in the service, an “Invitation to Meditation” is what I believe they call it. As the meditation closes, the minister names those people who are having milestones or hardships so that we may keep then in thoughts/prayers as we see fit. After he says names, everyone is invited to say their own names, out loud or silently. It’s a beautiful ritual, the effect of which is at least to give everyone there a moment in the week to think about the people in their lives and try to figure out if anyone is experienced abnormally great joy or sorrow. I don’t believe in any metaphysical powers of prayer, but I still find I really like it.

Not to mention the “sanctioned” or what-have-you stating of names/events made by the minister, which often involves requests for cards/flowers/visitors/donations/condolences in the case of people in the hospital or grieving and merely information in the case of landmarks.

The rationale of it notwithstanding: today the Rev mentioned a member whose name I had never heard and don’t remember. She had, evidently, after a long and difficult process, successfully brought her adopted 18-month-old daughter home from Nepal.

I’ve been really callous, internally, at least, about international adoption (I have begun/continued to default on really callous, internally, I’ve begun to notice–which is one of the reasons why I sort of need to be part of a spiritually nourishing and challenging congregation) and sort of miserably failed at viewing it as a personal milestone, and seen it more as sort of a weird upper-class white affectation.

It dawned on me today that the brief reference Rev. David was making was a really watershed moment in someone’s life. She had sought out and successfully taken responsibility for a new person. A new person in her life.

A new person! A new person. A real, live, life. A new life. Someone different than everyone else–not even just everyone else you know, but EVERYONE else, ever.

I don’t know–for many people, this may be far less complicated than it is for me. I have spent a lot of spare brain cycles justifying decisions to strip people away, to reduce interpersonal connections. These were people who had other people; I am (or at least have been historically) almost universally unnecessary in the lives of others. This isn’t just a fear of commitment–I’m fine with commitment, which is sort of a well-delineated and totally enforceable contract, the optimal length and terms of which are totally solvable.

To some extent, it has been a question of the best way to climb that mountain.

(That mountain, here, is how to be good–which is sort of the central question of my life, I think.)

When being good is a destination, even if it is a destination in only the most abstract sense, it becomes simple, sometimes, to see other people as hindrances. It’s like trying to go to the movies in large groups. It’s difficult, verging on pointless, at times. It’s just better to all go by yourselves.

This is sort of the dominant meme of personal existence in a lot of our culture, I think, and it’s certainly something I’ve imbibed. The explosion of the nuclear family is in part, a result of this and a cause of this. Growing up, I definitely was urged to move out and move on, as my father had done before me and his before him. The suburban American dream involved perfect labor mobility, a lack of emotional and personal attachment to a place and people and a culture and a tradition.

We are not atomic; we are not built thusly. And people have expectations of us, they place constraints on us, on our hearts, even through no wish or fault of their own. These are the ties that bind, and they sometimes constrict.

More often in my life, if I choose to be honest with myself, people know me better than I know myself. They know my best self, at least, and when I have guests, my house gets clean, and when I cook for other people, I make everything more delicious (the trick is that extra stick or two of butter), and when people disagree with me, I either figure out why I’m right, or find out I’m wrong and then I can be right forreal, forreal.

A new person. I know better now what that means, because I have one of them. In fact, I have lots–not just Violet but new friends, fellow members of the congregation. I was going to say “So often,” but the truth is “Always…” Always, the other people sitting in the service are total ciphers, and not only do I neither know nor care, but I can hardly fathom that they have lives outside those walls, that things happen, that they lie awake at night hoping that they outlive their children, hoping that they get to see all of it, then when they face their own personal end, that it be sweet and not bitter, and that the version of themselves they get to know therein is someone with honor and honesty and decency.

I never really saw other people as keys to that before today–I must have known on some level, because I’ve spent much of my life attaching and detaching–I mean, I am living a full and healthy life (much of which has been rigged in my favor, I’ll admit). I still think of conversation as an unpleasant necessity sometimes, and I think I’ll embrace it more, now.

I’m glad to be necessary, to feel like I have to–like it’s a moral imperative to– sacrifice some of my maximization just to help out, that maybe that’s maxing something else–a better function (by maximizing of course, I really mean blindly staggering generally northward, metaphysically, but the modeling thereof is similar, WLOG, I argue).

A new person. It’s a whole new life opening up ahead of you, every time you engage. And I think I thought it stood as good a chance of being bad as good. I was almost certainly wrong. New people are almost always a boon, a gift; even to brush up against people briefly and tangentially is to live a richer life. As I say that, a part of me I’ve known for a long time rebels, but the evidence is against him, and I don’t know that the argument of experience is enough to quash the force of identity–but it’s definitely a conflict worth embracing.