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  1. Crowdsourcing request: multicultural sourcesComments

    I want our services to draw on the full range of human experience, but I am all too aware that my education has mostly introduced me to the wisdom of white, Anglo, European-American or European people. (Mostly men, too, but I do pretty well scouting out the women.) So I have made a commitment to include voices from outside the dominant culture in every service I lead: people from Asia, Africa and the African diaspora, Latin America, aboriginal cultures, etc.

    A wonderful effect of this requirement is that it’s pushing me to read lots of people who weren’t on my college or grad school syllabi. I’m currently reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith, have Flight by Sherman Alexie cued up in the car CD player, and had a fascinating couple of weeks dipping into Howard Thurman.

    What history should i be reading, whom should I be quoting, what writers / artists / composers from the non-dominant culture have rocked your world? Please let me know via the comments!     —Amy

  2. Sermon: A Religion for this World (Easter Sunday)Comments

    Easter Sermon: A Religion for this World                   

    Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

    given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, March 31, 2013


                And now I’m going to tell you a story too. But first I need you to tell me something. When you walk into a Christian church, what are some of the things you see? Especially the things up front here, at what’s called the altar?

                (People say: cross, crucifix, candles, flowers)

                Thanks! Here’s my story.

                Once upon a time, in fact, just about ten years ago, there were two people who were Christian and studied Christianity and wrote books together about religion. They were traveling in Europe to some of the oldest churches, the ones that have been around since a few hundred years after the Christian religion began. They were beautiful churches. The traditional shape for old churches is a cross or sometimes a capital T, and this part of the church (gesturing over altar) is called the apse—often it has a high ceiling or dome and the inside of the dome is covered in pictures. The apses at these churches were filled with pictures of Jesus and the saints, the natural world and stories from the Bible. And after a while, these two people started to notice something odd about these pictures.

    photo of Sant’Apollinaire apse by Tango7174 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

                They went to one, in Ravenna, Italy, that was built in the sixth century. Its ceiling is a gorgeous mosaic of flowers, trees, and birds. In this mosaic, a blue sky stretches behind hills of mossy green rocks. Sheep are in the hills, and the figures of saints, and in the midst of it all is the face of Jesus. But there is no crucifix.

                They went to the catacombs outside Rome, which were places people were buried and so they had a great deal of religious meaning. There they saw many pictures of Jesus. There’s Jesus’s birth, and Jesus healing people, and Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus as a shepherd. But there is no crucifix.


                They went to the church that has the earliest image of Jesus of any church apse, Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which also has mosaics, created three to four hundred years after Jesus’s time. It shows Jesus holding a book and talking with his students. There is no crucifix.

                They started to wonder what was going on, and they did some research, and they discovered something amazing: there are no images of Jesus on the cross for the first thousand years of Christian church-building. For the first half of Christianity, crucifixion is not a central image. It’s not an image at all.

                There are crosses, yes. They just don’t have Jesus on them. He’s doing other things: healing, teaching, making gestures of welcome and blessing. The people who built and worshipped in these holy places knew all about the crucifixion. It was part of the story, a key part of the story, as Dan just related; it’s told in all four Gospels. Jesus died and he died on the cross. That just doesn’t seem to be the part of the story that interested Christians for half of the history of Christianity.

                This is quite a shocker to people like me, and maybe you, and most people who walk into a Christian church nowadays. It was quite a shocker to the two people in my story, whose names are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker and who wrote a book about what they learned, called Saving Paradise. (Parker, by the way, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the president of our Starr King School for the Ministry.)

                Apparently, the crucifixion isn’t as central to Christianity as we have been led to believe. It wasn’t the center at all for those thousand years, until something changed. What made things change is an interesting question, and Brock and Parker go into it at length in their book, but we don’t have time to get into it today. The question for us today is: if the crucifixion wasn’t the center of the religion, what was?

                That’s what Parker and Brock asked, and the answer was right there in those mosaics and beautiful apses. It had paradise. A very particular kind of paradise. A paradise that is right here in this world that we live in right now: that is right here in the life we’re living right now.

                At its heart, the holiday we celebrate today, Easter, is about how to find paradise.

                At its heart, Unitarian Universalism is about the same thing: what paradise is, how to know it when we see it, and rejoice in it, and preserve it, and sustain it.

                So what is paradise? There are different ways to answer this question, and the answer we give will have a big effect on how we live.

                One answer is: paradise is another place and another time. To be specific, it’s where you go after you die, maybe only if you’ve been good. Another word for it is heaven. It’s a realm beyond the body, beyond the world, beyond the life we live right now, and in this answer, in this way of looking at things, that’s good, because in this way of looking at things, the body suffers and the world is a mess and life is scary, so you want to get beyond all those bad things to the blessed place, the only truly good place. The way you get there is: you die.

                If that’s how we think about paradise, then it makes a lot of sense to have the crucifixion front and center. That way we’re constantly reminded that this world is a terrible place where good people are tortured and die; and we’re shown the way out. The way out is to die too; if we do, we’ll be resurrected, the way Jesus was.

                For the last thousand years, that’s been the dominant view within Christianity. Not the only one—Christianity is a very diverse and complex religion—but a big one.

                A different way to understand paradise is this: we were already given a perfect world, right here, in this life. The Bible called it Eden. At first sight it looks like that’s what’s going on in those beautiful mosaics. The grass is lush and green, the birds are flying, there are flowers and trees of many kinds, a river runs gently through … Eden was called a garden—but you might notice, if you read the first few chapters of Genesis, the garden of Eden wasn’t really a garden, not like the garden you might grow around your house, or like the Gamble Garden. Those require a lot of work and attention. In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they needed, without having to do a thing. They were just fed as babies are fed, fruit dropping into their hands—no weeding, no mulching, no effort on their parts.

                The problem with this understanding of paradise is that if you look around the world we have, which is beautiful but does require our work and attention, we’ve obviously already blown it. So we tell stories that explain why things aren’t perfect anymore. We talk about how we messed up; we fouled the nest; we were given perfection, but we were imperfect, so paradise is a thing of the past. And the only way we can get it back is to wipe out everything and start over. Interestingly, the crucifixion has been used to promote that idea too. When, after a thousand years, the crucified Jesus started showing up in the art of the churches of Europe and Asia, another Jesus started showing up there too: the angry judge, who sent some people to the pit that was hell, others to the glorious, walled city that was heaven. In that view, all of the bad people and bad things will be cleared away one day, and the few good survivors will get to live in paradise once again. If you can call it paradise when most people are locked out.

                There’s a third way, a third paradise, not of the future nor of the past, but of the present. Brock and Parker saw it in the mosaics of Ravenna and the catacombs of Rome. This third view of paradise envisions it in this world, among the rivers and trees and hills and sky we know. It’s not the long-ago Eden to which we can’t return. It’s in figures like Mary, caring for her baby. Like shepherd saints, who tend the flocks of sheep. And most of all, in Jesus, who is shown healing sick people, feeding crowds, speaking to his students of books and wisdom. It’s not a dead Jesus—Jesus is never dead on those walls—it’s the living one: the rabbi, the teacher, who taught anyone who chose to learn from him that they should love one another and care for everyone. This vision of paradise shows a world that is beautiful, holy, vulnerable like a little baby, full of potential, and imperfect. It’s our world: a paradise that is all around us and within us, and that also needs us. We can destroy it or we can sustain it. We are the shepherds too. This paradise doesn’t ask us to suffer and die, like the crucified Jesus; it certainly doesn’t ask us to kill to avenge that crucified Jesus, the way the church of the second thousand years began to do. It shows us the living Jesus and his care for creation, and it invites us to take care of the earth and its beings, the way he does, and so make this world a continuing paradise.

                That’s how we find life in the midst of death. That’s our Easter.

                Ours is a religion for this world. And that means two things. One, that it’s a religion of this world. We live as fully as we can the one life we know we have, this “wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver says. We look for heaven here on this “happening illimitably earth” (e. e. cummings). The other meaning is that ours is a religion for, on behalf of, this world. It’s a world that needs us, just as we need it. We are part of a web of interdependence, nurtured by the beings all around us and the other people we encounter, who need us in turn. If we do not depend on them, we have nothing; if we harm them, we harm ourselves.

                That’s the teaching of the third way, the vision that comes through in the early centuries of Jesus on those walls and ceilings. When he was walking in the fields, when he was tending his sheep, when he was restoring the temple, when he was speaking to his students as the great Greek philosophers spoke to theirs. When he was a teacher and a friend, not a corpse.

    In the third way, paradise is the whole world, not just a part. Long before people knew that the world was a globe, they used circles to show completion, and that’s what we see in those high, arched, domed ceilings. They show the whole world, and all of it is paradise. That paradise isn’t a walled garden. The walled-off heaven only appears in those angry, judgment scenes, the ones where Jesus is sending a select few to the wonderful paradise, the paintings that show up in churches after the crucifixion starts to appear there. If we are to make paradise here, it will have no walls shutting anyone out. It will be for everyone, because otherwise it can be for no one. It can’t be a parkland carved out of desolation, a lovely, clean, green spot that the rich and lucky preserve for themselves by running air purifiers and waste treatment plants that just spew more pollution into the lands of the poor and unfortunate who are shut outside. Paradise isn’t a realm that only some people get into: it’s a community that we create, where all are welcome. Everywhere, everyone, has something of the holy within, and we strive to make holiness blossom everywhere.

    The most frequently reported miracle in the gospels is Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish. In four books it appears six times, and it appears in the art of the first thousand years, too. Jesus doesn’t make a way to paradise for us by dying on the cross; he does it by making sure there’s enough to go around. In his life and teaching, he took what looked like scarcity, like not enough, and made a paradise for everyone, which is the only kind of paradise there can be. When we create justice and fairness, we take this world in all its beauty and imperfection, and make it into a forever paradise.


  3. Idea map of The DispossessedComments

    I’ve been putting my thoughts about linked ideas, images, and events in The Dispossessed into what the software, MindMeister, calls a “Mind Map,” here.

    Whole sections haven’t been transcribed from my mind to the map, such as the multiple valences of possession, but it’s fun and helpful to get it into this form. What would you add?

    Looking forward to class tonight, 7:30 in the UUCPA Fireside Room. Directions here, campus map here.

    Cross-posted on my blog.

  4. Immigration as a Moral Issue read-along, session 6Comments

    The last class is today at 1:30! You can read the handouts in the UUA’s online study guide.

    I got a lot out of all of the handouts (and have now signed on to the Interfaith Platform on Humane Immigration Reform, Handout 6.4) but my heart is focused on one:

    Handout 6.1: We Are One, Rev. Peter Morales

    “It is true that as citizens we should respect the rule of law. More importantly, though, our duty is to create laws founded on our highest sense of justice, equity, and compassion.”

    Yesterday I went to a Peninsula Interfaith Action clergy meeting (probably the best I have attended in 9 ½ years) and got a good lesson in the language around immigration from Fr. Bob Moran, a priest at St. Joseph’s in Mountain View who is, incidentally, one of the nicest and funniest people I know. He spoke against the term “illegal,” which I already avoid—I particularly hate when people use it as a noun, as in “there are too many illegals in this country,” ouch. What I hadn’t thought about was the term “amnesty,” which he also recommended avoiding. Amnesty implies that someone has committed a crime and is being pardoned. But to refer to immigrants who lack legal documentation as criminals, or imply that they are, is like referring to oneself as a criminal for getting a speeding ticket. Yes, there are laws about how fast one can drive, and you’ve broken one. But you’d never call it criminal behavior.

    Peter Morales, who is now president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, raises another issue that is always what I think of when the topic of immigration comes up: if there are laws against people migrating to the US for work, maybe we need to change those laws. You don’t have to have studied this curriculum to know how unfair, how utterly silly, they are; you only have to have driven past a big farm at harvest time, to give one of many possible examples. US Americans depend on recent immigrants to pick our food. If we waved a wand and banished them all to where they’d come from, the oranges would dry up on the branches and the corn would rot in the fields. So why do we play this cruel game of making their presence illegal?

    Today’s session focuses on action—knowing what we know, having the passion for justice that we do, what can we do now? The steps are all about fixing that situation: bringing our laws into line with our values as UUs and US Americans, so that we, immigrants, and would-be immigrants are not divided between respecting the law and doing what is right.

  5. Here on Urras / Would you move?Comments

    Two more questions in advance of my class on The Dispossessed next week.

    (1) As a teenager on Anarres, Shevek sees a film about Urras, the home planet that’s a lot like ours—multiple countries, all with governments, some of which are capitalist and some communist. The film juxtaposes a famine in the country of Thu where the bodies of starved children are being burned with the wealth and plenty only 700 km away in the nation of A-Io, noting that these exist “side by side” (pp 33-34 in the Avon paperback edition). Do you think  this is a fair criticism? Can it be applied to our world? How would you defend us, or would you make the same criticism?

    (2) If you suddenly discovered that Anarres existed and you could move there, would you trade the benefits of living in a society like ours for those of that society? For example, would you give up the various things you own, and the possibility of owning more, in exchange for life in a society where you have almost no private possessions and “no one eats while another starves”?

    Cross-posted at my blog, Sermons in Stones.

  6. Living like an AnarrestiComments

    I’m facilitating an Adult Religious Education session on the novel The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin, on February 28. I know some people will come who haven’t read it, but you’ll get a lot more out of the class if you have, so you might want to get a hold of the book now.

    As promised, I’m posting questions about it ahead of time. This first one is more along the lines of a thought experiment and can be carried out whether you’ve read the book or not.

    As you go through your day, wonder what it would be like if no one in our society had money or private property—if everything belonged to everyone. (On Anarres, one of the novel’s invented worlds, if you want a new shirt, you walk into a clothing depository and pick one up.)

    For example, if you go to a restaurant tonight: If this were Anarres, what would happen when you walked into a restaurant? Who is cooking, how does the food get there? Would there be a restaurant? Etc. This is repeatable wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

    How does it feel to imagine this different economy? Freeing, frightening, fragile … ?

    Your experiences and thoughts welcome in the comments! We can start the conversation now.

    By the way, Ursula LeGuin will be speaking in Berkeley on Tuesday, February 26. I’ll be there.

    Cross-posted at my blog.

  7. Theological disunityComments

    Amy and I will be giving a presentation this Thursday evening on the topic of whether there should be more theological unity within Unitarian Universalism today. I’m cheating, and giving you my whole presentation here online. Basically, I’m trying to set up a foundation so we can all go Thursday night and listen to Amy (without interruption  from me, which is good, because I’m bored of listening to me). And when Amy has said what she has to say, then we can go straight to a conversation with you and whoever else shows up!

    OK, here goes….

    In a previous post, I looked at some areas where Unitarian Universalists have a great deal of theological unity. Now I’d like to turn to four areas where there is far less unity….

    (1) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding a fundamental ontological claim of process theology. To oversimplify, process theology asserts that God is in the process of evolving. Therefore, a Unitarian process theologian like Charles Hartshorne might call the concept of omnipotence a “theological mistake”; God cannot be omnipotent because God is in process. By contrast, many Unitarian Universalists today will argue that if you’re going to talk about God, one attribute that God must have is omnipotence; this is the foundation for many arguments by Unitarian Universalist atheists or humanists showing that God must not exist.

    This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of God, and about the nature of reality (ontology).

    (2) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding one key component of most liberation theologies.

    Read More

  8. Immigration as a Moral Issue read-along, week 3Comments

    Sorry to post this so late this week.  Quick thoughts on the readings and videos, which you can find here if you haven’t printed out the curriculum.

    Handout 3.1 Shop ‘Til You Drop on a Mexican Wage

    This was a great exercise. I tried a bunch of different professions and products. When I lived in Mexico I lived like a rich person, because I was drawing an estadounidense salary. I was on sabbatical from UUPCA and my wife took unpaid leave from her job; we could do that in Mexico, where one US salary was enough to live on comfortably, and where we didn’t need to buy a car, computer, major appliances, or other things that are more expensive there than in the US.

    If you’re Mexican and struggling to feed your family, it’s only natural to look at those facts and think it would be a good idea to travel across the border, earn a US salary and send as much of it home as possible.

    Handout 3.2 – NAFTA and Immigration

    I was in favor of NAFTA for purely partisan reasons: I’m a Democrat and President Clinton was pushing it. It’s the worst piece of legislation I ever supported, and I would love to help repeal it. What the law has done to the corn growers of Mexico and all whose livelihoods depend on that crop is reason enough for repeal, though the article gives lots more good reasons. Making this pill even bitterer is the fact that Mexico is the land where corn was domesticated, millennia ago by the Maya and Olmec. Corn is central to the culture and cuisine. The idea that Mexico’s wonderful variety of corn would be replaced by the crappy corn we pay US agribusiness to produce is sad and ludicrous, but it’s happening. I’ve gone to PopVox to tell my members of Congress that I support H.R. 191, which would assess NAFTA’s effects (it’s in a House committee now), and also the reintroduction of H.R. 29, which would have repealed NAFTA and is not before the current Congress.

    Handout 3.3 Effect on Worker Conditions and Handout 3.4 – Farmworkers

    If you know Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator terminology, these two handouts might strike you as geared to the T and the F approach to decision making. Meyers-Briggs Ts, so called for Thinking, tend to make decisions based on facts and logic. Fs, for Feeling, rely more on feelings, stories, metaphors. I tip slightly toward the F side of the scale, so it’s not surprising that I leapfrogged over 3.3 to read 3.4 first. The stories of the farmworkers in this handout are so moving, and they are what I’ll remember when I think about why we need immigration reform. But I like to have the facts of 3.3 at my fingertips, both for my own clarity and to be able to explain the issues to hard-core Ts.

    The posted video by the National Farm Worker Ministry is not to be missed. I’m active in the movement to end modern slavery, and there is a lot of overlap between that issue and fair treatment for farm workers. As the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, a partner of the NFWM, has frequently documented, there is quite a lot of actual human trafficking and slavery in US agriculture: workers held by force or the threat of force, denied pay, and unable to walk away from the job. Furthermore, even in cases where there is not literal slavery, the conditions are so exploitative and unfair that the same impulse that makes me an abolitionist makes me want to work for farmworker justice.

    Handout 3.5 Immigration Myths and Facts

    I have a book called They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About Immigration, by Aviva Chomsky—actually, I think it is still lent to one of the facilitators of this class—and this is a great digest of some of the key points.

  9. Theological unity—another takeComments

    In preparation for our class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism scheduled for January 31 at UUCPA, Dan Harper and I are blogging about the topic here. With this post, I am less responding to Dan’s post than tossing my own thoughts into the mix, so I’ll use a new post instead of the comments.

    The second question we posed to ourselves is “Do we need more theological unity in Unitarian Universalism?” and to that my answer is “No, we need less.”

    What I mean by that is that our fear of diversity and difference among us keeps us from talking about our theology/ies.* And that dialogue is something we need more of. In fact, when I am afraid that Unitarian Universalism is withering and dying, it’s the lack of this dialogue that I suspect is the cause.

    People sometimes address our decline in numbers with a call for increased theological unity, asserting that if we are to attract people, we need to know what we all believe and declare it. They usually seem to mean that everyone should rally behind their particular theology. While I agree that what we have to offer sometimes feels weak and half-hearted, what gives us such a tentative air isn’t the lack of a simple, unified statement. It is that we are dancing around the topic instead of digging in. We don’t have to agree about what we believe, but we do have to talk about it. And as long as we are afraid of disagreement, we won’t open our mouths.

    Here I am getting into very personal territory. When I think about my own preaching and how it has changed—in my view, improved—over the past few years, I know that the weakness at the core was my fear of voicing my own theology. Too often, I was hedging. And hedging attracts no one. When I speak from my own theological center, not trying to speak for every UU but just for myself, I contribute to the conversation. The conversation, to me, is where we come alive.

    By the way, our first question to ourselves was “Is theological unity necessary?” That word, “necessary,” always suggests another question, “necessary for what?” What is our purpose? When we know that, we may know the answer to whether we need unity. I have a lot of different ways of stating our purpose: “To transform ourselves, each other, and the world”; the benediction we say at the end of each service; the vision I once set out here. None of them, in my opinion, requires that we possess a single, unified theology.

    *”Unitarian Universalist Theologies” was the name of the core liberal theology course I took in seminary, taught at Andover-Newton Theological School by then-doctoral-student Paul Rasor. His book Faith Without Certainty would probably be very interesting to anyone who wanted to explore these questions beyond next week.

    Cross-posted here.

  10. Theological unity — a conversationComments

    On Thursday, January 31, Amy, the senior minister at our church, and I are going give a class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism. We’re starting our class with an online conversation about the topic. And I’m going to begin my side of the conversation by listing five areas where I think Unitarian Universalists already have some degree of theological unity:

    (1) Women and girls are as good as men and boys: During the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalism, like many liberal religious groups in the U.S., went through the feminist revolution in theology. We came out of those decades with a very clear theological consensus: when it comes to religion, women and girls are just as good as men and boys.

    (2) Human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world: The Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones has argued that humanists and liberal theists have come to resemble each other in that both affirm the radical freedom and autonomy of human beings (“Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525). Today, we have a wide consensus that, whether or not we believe in God, none of us believes some larger power is going to come fix up our problems for us — if humans made the mess, it’s up to us to fix it. 

    Read More