2012-06-29

We Need Religious Institutions

Atheist spirituality is an encouraging development. I'm always glad to see an interest in wonder, beauty, awe, and mystery. And gratitude. Especially gratitude.

Spirituality, though, isn't just about pleasant experiences of inspiring (usually) nature. It's about making our peace with quotidian annoyances, tragic loss, and every single moment of this dear life. It's also about living compassion for others, not merely a private enjoyment of sublimity.

Spirituality must be developed. Spiritual experience may descend upon one unexpected, in a great exhilarating whoosh, yet integrating that sudden awareness into all of one's life takes some work.

Spiritual development requires discipline: daily study of spiritual texts, daily journaling or prayer, daily silence, and an ongoing habit of calling yourself back to mindfulness. (For more on this, see the Lake Chalice series that begins here.)

The spiritual atheists say that spirituality doesn't require "God," or the supernatural, or religion, or religious institutions.

Lake Chalice has ventured before into alternative ways of understanding "God," and why neither "supernatural" nor "not supernatural" are helpful terms. (See the four-part series that begins here, as well as "Respond to WHOSE Love?" and "Parts of Speech, Parts of God.") Rather than repeat itself on "God," and "supernatural," today Lake Chalice turns to the other alleged who-needs-'em items: religion and religious institutions.

Spiritual development, for atheists or anybody else, requires a regular discipline. Spiritual development, for atheists or anybody else, also needs the resources of a community that embodies a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning.

I know that religious community is difficult. I know that it would be so much easier if it didn't have people in it. But that's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts.

It's worth it.

For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- those other folks that you'll find in church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or sangha -- they will help you see your own flaws and pettiness. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

We can learn to grow spiritually -- in church, together -- if we do the work -- in church, together. Whether we are atheist or theist, we need religion. I don't mean the authoritarian religion. But our spirituality needs a community of accountability -- that is a place where we can account for ourselves to others. We need a place where we can sharpen and deepen our religious-spiritual insights: a place that will call us on our stuff, will hold up the mirror so we can see ourselves when we hit those places -- as we inevitably do on the the spiritual path -- where we can't tell the difference between genuine wisdom and the ego's love for deluding itself with a story about how wise we are.

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.

If I'm serious about spiritual depth, I need the humility to place myself in a relation of accountability to a long and rich tradition -- a tradition of many people who have wrestled with what I'm wrestling with, who have, like me, been fooled into thinking they "got it" and "had arrived" but who eventually came, through connection with a community of fellow spiritual travelers, to see through that delusion to a deeper wisdom.

We need places to do our work, whatever spiritual work it may be that is most important for your growth.

For some of us God is a part of spirituality. For others of us, God isn't. Either way, we need each other on the spiritual path: a community committed to deepening on the path together.

Amen.

* * * * *
This is part 6 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Previous: Part 5: "What's Missing From Atheist Spirituality"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"

2012-06-28

A Most Excellent General Assembly Adventure

The Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly 2012 in Phoenix was my 12th GA. My first GA was 1998 in Rochester, NY.

I missed '99, '02, and '03, and have then attended the last 9 in a row. GA 2012 was the first time I'd been to GA without LoraKim since that first one in '98. I stayed at a Motel 6 about 3 miles from the Convention Center. I rode the light rail in every morning, and back every evening.
The Phoenix Convention Center
The Phoenix light rail took me back and forth between the
Airport Motel 6 and the Convention Center.
From the 3rd floor of the Convention Center, the light
rail going by. I bought a 7-day pass for $17.50.
Inside the light rail. The interior bike racks seem to get
good use.
Wed. evening, GA opens with the
banner parade. Here's the AZ delegation.
Yay for the banner parade.
The cumulative effect is moving -- but, really,
only if you're there.
I did a little filling in for LoraKim (but not much) by
hanging out some at the UU Animal Ministry booth,
and once or twice even doing something vaguely helpful.
The current president of UU Animal Ministry, Rev. Beth
Johnson (center), minister of Palomar UU Fellowship
in Vista, CA
The SOSL heart logo
UUA Moderator Gini Courter is my hero!
She is gracious, skillful, very funny, very
smart, and very wise.
Maria Hinojosa delivers the 2012 Ware Lecture

Beth Johnson (minister of the the Palomar UU Fellowship in Vista, CA, and current president of the UU Animal Ministry) and LoraKim Joyner (community minister based in Gainesville, FL, past president of the UU Animal Ministry, and my spouse and erstwhile co-minister) are, like, BFF (though I haven't heard them use that lingo). LoraKim remains on the UUAM Board and heads UUAM's "Reverence for Life" program (see here). Through the year she and Beth are regularly in phone or Skype contact, and the three of us have enjoyed each other's company at past GA's. Beth and I hung out often at this GA, discussing various issues and plotting the formation of a commune that either would or wouldn't allow nonhuman companion animals. I emailed to LoraKim to inquire about whether Beth's preference for "5 cats and 3 dogs" would be acceptable. She replied:
"Depends on how many people are there. That's a lot of resources to be using up, but if enough people are sharing the dogs/cats, then perhaps in some scale it knocks down the nonhuman companion/human companion ratio."
But let me speak of General Assembly itself. It was amazing.

At my first GA in 1998, I was amazed at moderator Denny Davidoff's skill at guiding Unitarian Universalist wrangling toward decisions in which majorities ruled and minorities felt honored and included. When her term ended, I thought no one else could have those skills. But Gini really is amazing -- bringing a hipper style to the wise, nonanxious presence at the helm.

I will always remember an episode, a few years ago -- at the 2007 GA in Portland. The agenda was tight, and we were running a little behind schedule. A proposed Action of Immediate Witness was under consideration, and the debate was heated. The proposal called for repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' and in those days there were advocates for queer rights on both sides, and they formed lines at the Pro and Con microphones to take their 2 minutes each speaking for and against the proposal. In the midst of this, a delegate stepped to the Procedural microphone, which always takes precedence over the next speaker at the Pro or Con mics.
Gini: I recognize the delegate at the procedural microphone.
Delegate: I'm ____ from ____. Madam Moderator, what is probably more important than whether this Action is passed is the conversation and its complex issues. I was wondering if there were time for prayer?
Gini (not pausing a second): There should always be time for prayer.
And a couple thousand Unitarian Universalists entered into thunderous silence in that cavernous convention center hall, and prayed. Gini said, "To whomever we pray," and asked "that delegates be reminded there is enough love to go around if we create it; Let us be centered, forgiving and caring."

That was five years ago. In Phoenix, Gini was as lovely, gentle, and wise as ever.

I had actually watched Hinojosa's hour-long Frontline program "Lost in Detention" which first aired on PBS last October. (If you haven't watched it, please do: see here.) As harrowing and horrifying as the immigration detention system is, as revealed in "Lost in Detention," the impact didn't hit me until I heard Hinosjosa's Ware lecture.

Five or six months ago, I referred to the immigration situation in a sermon. I called it "the Selma of our generation" and the most significant social justice issue we now face. I was pretty much taking Peter Morales' word for it on these points. (I trust him.) One or two of my congregants criticized me for this. They have their own pet justice issues, and they didn't want their favorite issues minimized. "With our issue still as bad as it is," they said, "you could say immigration was one of the most significant social justice issues, but don't say it is the most significant." I acknowledged the legitimacy of their concern, and let the matter drop.

What I was taking Peter Morales' word for before, I am now more firmly convinced of. Our injustice to immigrants is the most significant social justice issue of our time in the U.S. See the Frontline "Lost in Translation," and then watch the video of Hinojosa's Ware Lecture (see it here) and I'm confident you'll agree.

At the same time, we must also be aware of how our current system pits oppressed people against each other -- for instance, in grant programs that fund assistance only for groups that can prove they are more oppressed than other groups. In the competition for the distinction of "most oppressed group," we all lose. (This was a point made during a talk I heard during "Ministry Days" when the ministers gather for a couple days immediately before General Assembly begins.) The abuses of immigrant detention must be seen not just as an immigrant issue or a hispanic issue. If my country can do this to anybody, then everybody is in danger. So let's stop comparing the levels of oppression of various groups -- for this only helps solidify the status quo -- and let's recognize that if we allow the kind of treatment that is now going on in these detention facilities, then that treatment is more likely to befall anybody. Indeed, if we wake up to the truth that we are each other, then we realize that those abuses are happening to us.

Saturday was the day of the vigil at tent city. Most of GA attendees were in their yellow "Standing on the Side of Love" (SOSL) t-shirts for the day. A number of our clergy had yellow clergy shirts with the SOSL heart logo on the sleeve.

A delegation of a few UU leaders had a tour of Tent City before the rest of us arrived. Read about the delegation's experience (see here).

We got on buses, and we went to the "tent city" detention facility. There were a couple thousand of us.

The Associated Press coverage of the event (article here) was carried in 247 newspapers across the country.

Check out the "Storify" account of the vigil: see here.

If the Catholics have Cardinals....
...then Unitarian Universalists can have Canaries!
Rev. Sam Trumbore, Albany, NY
Rev. Kathy Schmitz, Orlando, FL
It's probably best not to wear the SOSL
baseball cap with the clergy shirt -- unless
the jockey look is what you're going for.
Police with riot gear were there.
and a dozen or so counter-protestors showed up.
Speakers on the dais who took turns addressing the crowd.
Yours truly and Rev. Beth Johnson
Abhimanyu Janamanchi and his dad, Rev. Abhi
Janamanchi, Clearwater, FL
Here's some UUA video of the vigil. (At 32 seconds in, there's a shot of the interior of one of the buses. That's me on the left -- yellow hat, about 5 rows back.)



The local news in Phoenix devoted a nearly-four-minute story to covering the vigil. "Look at that crowd!"


Arriving at Tent City from UU World on Vimeo.

For a 15-minute video of speakers addressing the crowd at the vigil -- Rev. Susan Frederick Gray (minister in Phoenix), Carlos Garcia (Puente Arizona), Rev. Peter Morales (UUA President), Rev. Geoffrey Black (UCC President), Rev. Warren Stewart (Baptist minister in Phoenix) -- see here.

The next day after the Saturday night vigil was the final day of GA. At the end of the last plenary session, Gini Courter gave her annual moderator's report.

She said: "All over the country UUs expect transformation,” -- both personally and socially. This "Justice GA" of 2012 has transformed what GA is.
“The Rev. Dr. Bill Jones said, ‘Once you are aware of historic oppression, from that point forward, you are either condoning it or you are ending it.’ Now that we know we can do this, we have no excuse. We are capable of putting Unitarian Universalism on the road to a different future, to answer questions like, Are we going to be reactive or prophetic?”
Gini's words continue to echo with me:
"We know we have power. We know we are called."
She concluded with this benediction by Rev. Nancy Shaffer:
“The work of our faith is the rearranging of this world toward justice,
so that bounty is shared and no one is left out.
The work of our faith is the making manifest of relationship,
so that parts and whole are known as one;
and good is uncovered and sustained.
The work of our faith is the naming of the holy,
by all its many names:
Life that cares,
Life that enlarges life,
Life that holds us even when we cannot see it,
even when we do not yet know it.
Rearranging, making manifest, naming the Holy:
this is the work of our faith.
Gladly we enter it again and again and again.”
Delegates gave Gini a standing ovation -- standing, and still standing, on the side of love.

2012-06-26

Environment Destruction: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?

We have obligations to earlier generations, and we also have obligations to later, future generations – the most basic of which would be ensuring that they have a functional planet to live on. With our greenhouse gas emissions, overfishing, pollution, wetland destruction, and deforestation, we are reneging on this most basic obligation to our great-grandkids.

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah identifies four current practices that are on the brink of widespread moral condemnation – practices which will prompt future generations to wonder, “What were they thinking?” and shudder in horror, much as we today shudder at the witch-burning and slavery practices of past centuries:
1. The U.S. prison system (discussed here),
2. Meat production (here),
3. Warehousing our elderly (here), and
4. Environmental destruction.

Appiah identifies these four based on three criteria (discussed here). Our environmental damage easily meets all three.

Criterion One: The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), widely credited with launching the environmental movement. The first Earth Day was 42 years ago.

Greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by two United Nations organizations, the UN Environmental Program and the World Meterological Organization. IPCC reports bring together contributions from the peer-reviewed published work of thousands of scientists. In 1990, the IPCC issued its first assessment report; in 1992, a supplementary report; in 1995, a second assessment report; in 2001, a third assessment report; in 2007, a fourth assessment report. (The fifth is due in 2014). It is well established that global temperatures are rising, and that most of the increase is due to human-generated greenhouse gases. Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 centimeters by the end of the century.

Deforestation. Half the forests that once covered the earth are gone. Each year, another 16 million hectares disappear. Since 1990, half the rainforests have disappeared – and half of all plant and animal land species live in the rainforests.

Water pollution. So much water is already impaired by anthropogenic contaminants that nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water, and water pollution accounts for the deaths of more than 14,000 people daily.

Overfishing. 25% of all the world’s fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted. Another 52% is now fully exploited and in imminent danger of overexploitation. The overall ecological unity of our oceans are under stress and at risk of collapse. Because overfishing removes fish that compete with and prey upon jellyfish, we are seeing massive growth of jellyfish populations wreaking havoc on commercial fisheries and further threatening fish stocks.

Wetland destruction. Wetlands (swamps, marshes, bogs, mangroves, estuaries, and salt pans) provide habitats that many species depend upon, reduce the frequency and severity of flooding, and are essential to maintenance of the water cycle and to biochemical processes necessary for ecological balance. Half of global wetlands have now been lost or destroyed.

Desertification: Appiah writes:
Kalmykia is at the northern end of the Caspian Sea 
Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you'll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That's the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe's first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth's surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.
We know – and have known for some time – about these threats.

Criterion Two: The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition rather than arguments of rightness or genuine social benefit.

No one argues directly that environmental destruction is a good thing. The practices that have the consequence harming the environment are defended on grounds of convenience and tradition. We could re-tool for a green economy – provide jobs for people doing things that preserve the earth rather than deplete it – but that would take energy and planning and disrupting the habitual patterns we now follow.

Criterion Three: Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much.

Responsible stewardship of the earth takes time and energy at two levels:

Individual lifestyle changes to reduce, reuse, and recycle. It’s not hard to find out how. It is harder to commit ourselves to making those changes. So, instead, we put it out of our minds.

Calling for legislative action. Many Americans are in denial. Even people like me need the government to pass laws to facilitate my transfer to a greener lifestyles. Once we all went to unleaded gas – thanks to federal mandate – it was a simple thing for me to stop using leaded gas (cars that would use it were phased out, and now the leaded gas itself just isn’t available anymore). As long as high-consumption living is cheap, easy, and all our neighbors are doing it, only very few hardy souls will buck constant social pressure to consume. Lifestyles with zero ecological footprint are possible, but will be rare unless governmental action uses a mixture of incentives, fees, requirements, and bans to create a context for mass transition. Yet this country can’t manage to elect a majority of lawmakers that take environmental issues seriously.

Our great-great-grandchildren will find it hard to forgive us for that. Even if some of them are still, god forbid, wearing high-heeled shoes or eating baconnaise.

* * *
This is part 7 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us."
Previous: Part 6: "Warehoused Elderly: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"

2012-06-25

Warehoused Elderly: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?

Kwame Appiah identifies our treatment of the institutionalized and isolated elderly as a practice future generations will condemn. He writes:
"Nearly 2 million of America's elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. (The United States is not alone among advanced democracies in this. Consider the heat wave that hit France in 2003: While many families were enjoying their summer vacations, some 14,000 elderly parents and grandparents were left to perish in the stifling temperatures.) Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders? Sometimes we can learn from societies much poorer than ours. My English mother spent the last 50 years of her life in Ghana, where I grew up. In her final years, it was her good fortune not only to have the resources to stay at home, but also to live in a country where doing so was customary. She had family next door who visited her every day, and she was cared for by doctors and nurses who were willing to come to her when she was too ill to come to them. In short, she had the advantages of a society in which older people are treated with respect and concern. Keeping aging parents and their children closer is a challenge, particularly in a society where almost everybody has a job outside the home (if not across the country). Yet the three signs apply here as well: When we see old people who, despite many living relatives, suffer growing isolation, we know something is wrong. We scarcely try to defend the situation; when we can, we put it out of our minds. Self-interest, if nothing else, should make us hope that our descendants will have worked out a better way."
Time was, not so long ago, the period from retirement to death was, on average, much shorter than it is now. The average person retiring today will spend more years in retirement than in childhood and adolescence combined.

Time was, not so long ago, that nursing homes were not-for-profit operations generally run by churches. For-profit corporations saw the profits to be made from warehousing the elderly through the many extra years which modern medicine now provides (while often not providing the combination of vivacity and financial means to live independently). One by one the not-for-profits were bought up by profit-making interests.

Geriatricians Ward Ensminger and Norton Hadler (professors at, respectively, the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina Schools of Medicine) write of:
the grim reality of most for-profit nursing homes—‘walled communities’ where the elderly quickly lose their autonomy, in a place that “lies somewhere between a homeless shelter and a hospital; a smelly, run down, unattractive warehouse filled with mentally and physically impoverished , half-dead people.” Care is very expensive, but often not very good….“Older people must be treated as people with a future” they argue. “The remarkable demographic changes that occurred in the 20th century demand a new communitarian ethic.” They call, “for a new community initiative to foster intergenerational communities where the aging live side-by-side with those who can benefit from their presence and experience over time. . . And when it is their time to die, it should be in their own bed, in their own neighborhood, with the full acknowledgement of their extended community.” (see here)
We know that there’s something wrong with the current picture. We know that an older person with many living relatives shouldn't be suffering isolation. No one defends that. Mostly, we put it out of our minds. What are we thinking?

* * *
This is part 6 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 7: "Environment Destruction: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Previous: Part 5: "Industrialized Meat: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"

2012-06-24

Industrial Meat: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?

Lake Chalice is looking at four current practices that we would find it most difficult to justify to our descendants. The criteria, proposed by Kwame Anthony Appiah, are these:
  1. The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be.
  2. The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition rather than arguments of rightness or genuine social benefit.
  3. Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much.
Industrial Meat Production

The arguments have been around a long time. In fact, it has been 230 years since Jeremy Bentham wrote:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But, ‘Can they suffer?’…The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who do it, do it from habit. We choose foods for comfort, I believe, and habits are comforting. We put out of our minds the stomach-turning stories about what the animals went through to give their flesh to our comfort habits at the lowest possible price.
“Ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed -- crammed into cages where they can barely move and fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. These animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law -- in fact, the majority of state anticruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection.” (Vegetarian Times, see here)
If you have the stomach for it, take a look here. (Most folks refuse to look, which satisfies the “just not thinking about it” criterion.)

Appiah offers this suggestion:
“At least 10 million [cattle] at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.”
What are we thinking?

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. Future generations will find it difficult to forgive us for our meat-eating comfort habits that bequeathed them an environmentally devastated planet. In fact, environmental stewardship in general is an area for which future generations will condemn us. More on that to come.

* * * * *
This is part 5 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 6: "Warehoused Elderly: How Will Our Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Previous: Part 4: "The Prison System: How Will Our Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"

2012-06-23

The Prison System: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?

Books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin were crucial for the abolition movement. While Stowe's novel is problematic for perpetuating certain stereotypes, it did serve to make vivid and unignorable the human abuse that went with slavery. When I was in school, I learned that when Abraham Lincoln first met Harriet Beecher Stowe at the beginning of the Civil War, he greeted her with, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” I now understand that that’s apocryphal – Lincoln didn’t say it. Nevertheless, detailed stories of the concrete suffering are a key part of countering the human tendency to not think about what’s uncomfortable, not think about things that, if they did think about, they’d have to make changes.

To recap: Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes three criteria for identifying current practices that future generations will condemn:
  1. The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be.
  2. The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition rather than arguments of rightness or genuine social benefit.
  3. Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much.
What practices come to mind as the ones for which our great-great-grandkids will have a hard time forgiving us? Lake Chalice is interested in hearing from you what you think. Appiah suggests four current practices that future generations will condemn. I find his selections compelling. Do you? Lake Chalice will be looking at those four over the next days.

In no particular order, here's the first one:

The U.S. Prison system

The harm is known and has been known for some time. I daresay you know the basics, even if you don’t know these exact numbers off the top of your head:
  • 2.1 million people are in prison the US, 
which means that:
  • while the US has 4 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the all the world’s prisoners.
Most of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them on drug offenses that would not even have been illegal at all in some industrialized nations.

The punishment prisoners face goes far beyond the judge’s sentence.
  • 100,000 inmates are sexually abused every year.
  • 25,000 are in isolation under conditions many psychologists say amounts to torture.
The defenders of our prison status quo tend to cite the administrative difficulty of reform. And: most of us just put the issue out of our minds – easy to do because the whole point of prison is to keep prisoners out of sight.

Criterion 1: The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be.

Check.

Criterion 2: The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition.

Check.

Critierion 3: Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much.

Check.

* * * * *
This is part 4 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 5: "Industrial Meat: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Previous: Part 3: "Three Criteria"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"



2012-06-22

Three Criteria

One way to make a guess about the direction of moral change is to figure, "My own moral and political opinions are right, so the future will be a process of more and more people learning to agree with me."

There may well be a more objective method.

Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral. (For the newspaper-column-version of his thesis, see here.) I was fascinated with Appiah’s ideas about how we might identify practices that are on their way out -- even if they don’t show empirical signs of decline, our attitudes about them are probably about to shift.
Kwame Anthony Appiah

First, the arguments against the practice are out there. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won.

That’s interesting. When I taught public speaking classes, I’d tell my students about persuasion research. If you’re going to give one speech to a roomful of people and shift their opinion, then you need to present arguments they haven’t already heard. Repeating the arguments they already know won’t move them because they have either already agreed with that argument, or already worked out their rebuttal. But when it comes to a whole society shifting moral attitutudes, we’re not talking about one speech to one audience. We’re talking about years of the give and take of public discourse. People need time to know the argument, try it out, see if it stands up, see if a really good refutation shows up -- give themselves several generations –- to, you know, think it over.

Second criteria for a practice beginning to become ripe for moral condemnation: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right,” – or, at least, they don’t say it with much conviction. Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity.

Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.” The witch-persecutors appeared to be making moral arguments, about evil in our midst, but without any evidence of a causal connection between the accused’s actions and any actual harm done, it was a claim without an argument. Opponents of same-sex marriage appear to be making moral arguments, but on closer examination, they collapse to appeals to tradition or human nature.

The third criterion is that we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some important level, we know it’s wrong, we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. The supporters engage in strategic ignorance. They avoid truths that might force them to face the evils in which they're complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.

* * * * *
This is part 3 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 4: "The Prison System: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Previous: Part 2: "Baconnaise? High Heels? Bankers' Shenanigans?"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"

2012-06-21

Baconnaise? High heels? Bankers' Shenanigans?

Our moral attitudes are evolving all the time – in ways significant and subtle. I was noticing this the other night when I watched a couple episodes from the first season of the TV show, "Mad Men." (Yes, I'm a few years behind in my TV.) It's a show about Madison Avenue advertising executives in 1960. I found it striking to see the gender dynamics. All the important people are men, all the women are secretaries, and they are constantly, casually, and routinely subjected to what we today would call sexual harassment. It's clear that in that cultural context, the women's best option (or so they are made to believe) is to play the sexuality and sexual politics game skillfully, for none of the women even think of objecting. The possibility that a workplace could be different has not entered anyone’s mind, male or female, as of March 1960 when the first season opens.

Attitudes do change and shift. The "Mad Men" world existed within my lifetime, and in my native country. It is a world at once familiar and alien. What were they thinking?

Then there are the personal “What was I thinking?” moments -- the times in our own personal past when we can't understand what we ourselves thought we were doing. In the 1970s, I owned a leisure suit, and appeared in public wearing it. What was I thinking?

What will the elementary school children in the year 2100 look back on us, and wonder: "What were they thinking?" Is there any way to know? What is it that’s going on today that is largely accepted – there are voices raising objection but those voices are a clear minority – and that the future will wonder how we allowed that?

Baconnaise, maybe?

When the Washington Post asked readers this question, one person responded:

High-heeled shoes. “The ancient Chinese bound women’s feet because small feet were considered attractive. Are we much better?”

My own pet moral hope is that the people of 2100 will wonder how it is that we ever voted for any candidate that ran a TV commercial. Didn’t we know how expensive TV commercials were? Didn’t we know that any candidate with enough money to buy a commercial had to have raised that money by becoming beholden to the interests of wealthy contributors? Didn’t we see that any vote for any candidate who had TV commercials was condoning that corruption? And didn’t we have the internet for finding out about candidates? By the 21st century, we no longer lived in a world where political candidate advertising had any legitimate informative function. Every voter can go to each candidate's website, read about the candidate and watch videos. Then every voter can visit other websites for critical reviews of the character and policy proposals of each candidate, and can visit independent fact-checking websites to evaluate the factual claims. Why would intelligent and conscientious people ever vote for a candidate who brought the corrupting influence of money into their campaign by airing TV commercials?

Well, maybe I’m way off on that one.

Maybe in 2100 we will wonder how we ever let the national debt get so big. Or why it was that in our economic cycles, the up swings were absorbed by the rich in extra bonuses and the down swings were absorbed by the workers in lay-offs. What are we thinking?

Why did we let bankers and investment firms enrich themselves by billions of dollars by betting on their own failure? What are we thinking?

It’s well to remember, after all, that not all moral movements panned out. While the abolition movement became the new moral common sense, the temperance movement, which gave us a period of Prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, we now regard as misguided.

Movements to protect public decency by burning books or suppressing birth control also turned out not to be such a good idea.

So which movements will catch on, and which will come to be regarded as funny and quaint as a leisure suit? There’s no possible way to tell, right? It's easy to think that, "my own political and moral opinions are the correct ones," therefore, "the future will be a progressive story of more and more people figuring out what I already know." Is there any more objective way to assess what the moral shifts in the near future will be?

It turns out that there is.

* * * * *
This is part 2 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 3: "Three Criteria"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking"

2012-06-20

What Were They Thinking?

"What were they thinking?"

From the 15th into the 18th centuries, paranoia about witches in Europe and North America was at its peak. Estimates are that 40,000 to 100,000 people, mostly women, were executed, usually by burning, for being a witch.

Burning people because we thought they were witches? What were they thinking?

From the 16th into the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas. About 5 or 6 percent of them were brought to what is now the United States where, by 1860, the slave population had grown to 4 million. Owning another human being? What were they thinking?

My grandmothers – and many of yours – were born in this country when women were forbidden to vote. Do you remember what you thought when you were a kid and first learned about these things? Probably you were in elementary school. Do you remember?

The basic history of the West, as presented in grade school, comes across as a story of progress: we have learned not to burn witches, not have slaves, that women as well as men have the right to vote. For me, in elementary school in the late 1960s, I remember that sense that we today are superior to our benighted ancestors.

That sense of progress and superiority I felt was nowhere present the evening I heard the word “napalm” on the evening news, reporting on the Viet Nam war.

“Dad, what’s napalm?”

I remember the calm way he answered: “It’s a gasoline jelly used in bombs. When the bomb goes off, the flaming jelly sticks to and burns things. People, mostly.”

He didn't seem bothered by this: he was so matter-of-fact. I was stunned.

(There are times when we are called upon to explain to children such awful things as napalm – or why millionaires pay so little in taxes. Along with explaining the facts, please tell them about your feelings too: that the existence of these things makes you sad – maybe angry or scared. They need to see that it matters to you.)

Moral progress isn't so clear. By third grade, I knew that we no longer burned people we thought were witches. Instead, we burned people we thought were communists.

The moral progress of our attitudes doesn't always match changes in practical realities. No one would speak in favor of slavery today, but human trafficking continues on every continent. Right here in Florida, immigrant farmworkers are locked up, cheated out of pay, robbed of their names, stacked 10 to a room.

Still, we can be glad of attitude change.

When my predecessor in Unitarian ministry, Rev. William Furness in Philadelphia, preached against slavery in 1836, roughly half his congregation was outraged and incensed. I have to admit that there’s something exciting and appealing about being so “out there” as a preacher that I would have to have body guards by the pulpit, or a pistol inside it, as Theodore Parker did.

But realistically I have to be glad that attitudes have shifted. Once, pretty much everywhere, a man understood that beating his wife and children was his husbandly and fatherly duty. Abuse and battering continue, but attitudes in the US and Europe, at least, have shifted from expecting it to accepting it to seeing it as a foible one joked about, to taking it seriously as a criminal transgression.

Homosexuality was once a hanging offense. In parts of the world it still is, essentially. US attitudes have removed it from being a crime, and same-sex marriage is now recognized in six states and the District of Columbia – and in 10 countries.

Torture continues, but its condemnation is much more widespread. Waterboarding was invented in the middle ages by the Catholic Church that now condemns it.

Lynchings were common in the US South, especially 1890 through the 1920s, though lynching of African Americans continued into the 1960s. Disturbing photographs show smiling, celebratory white faces at a lynchings. It was murder, and it was used to kill not just an individual, but to kill the spirits, to intimidate and oppress a whole people – and carried out in a party atmosphere.

What were they thinking?

And: what are we doing today, what practices do we tacitly accept or actively endorse, of which our great-grandchildren, looking back on the first and second decades of the 21st century, will ask: What were they thinking?

* * * * *
This is part 1 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 2: "Baconnaise? High Heels? Bankers' Shenanigans?"

2012-06-19

What's Missing from Atheist Spirituality

I've read Andre Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. I've read a number of eloquent postings described as "atheist spirituality," and watched some lovely Youtube videos on spiritual atheism. These self-identified atheists have some beautiful and important things to say about the nature and function of spirituality in our lives.

But there's something missing. Several somethings.

One, how do you encourage spiritual experience in yourself? In the material I've surveyed, they talk about spirituality as an accident, a big whoosh experience that blows your mind. They talk about those rare moments. They don’t say anything about how to make them more common. They don't say what practices, what discipline, to take up.

I agree that when those whoosh experiences happen, they are an accident. You can’t make them happen. But there are things we can do to become more accident-prone.

The atheist spiritualists provide some hints. If the grand Tetons or waterfalls blow you away, then get yourself out to the mountains and to waterfalls more often. Yes, that’ll help. But if you go there all the time, you get used to it – it isn’t so reliably amazing.

We need intentional practices – a spiritual discipline: journaling, silence, study, and a group to meet with. We need friends along the path, we need to enlist the social side of brain and get it also tied in to the spiritual project, otherwise, we simply run out steam and motivation for the other practices.

Two, how do you integrate that whoosh experience into your day-to-day life? Over and over people have a kind of opening experience, and it feels great. Then it becomes a fading memory of a pleasant sensation.

If you have had such an experience, you learned something crucial about your oneness with the world in that moment. The moment itself, however, didn't teach you how to then live that truth in your life. It didn’t tell you how to remember the insight you learned so you could apply it to regular life filled not with infinte deep starry skies but traffic jams, unreasonable bosses, and pouting children

Three, how do you bring that spirituality effectively to the healing of the world? Spirituality is not just about ga-ga moments, nor is it just about integrating those moments into daily life so that you cope more calmly. Spirituality is about taking that upwelling of your heart’s compassion and turning it into action for others. We need organizations of people to do that – and to help us do it.

Four, I’m concerned about the thin-ness of this spirituality. The spiritual atheist writers have convinced me that their spirituality is very deep in that one moment of experience. But does the experience of the beauty carry over to the tragedy? I do not find in these folks who wax rhapsodic about spiritual experience but stay away from religious institutions, a direct addressing of life’s pain and suffering.

It's one thing to see the divine in a sunset. How about seeing divinity in cancer? Cancer is nature, too.

If you're using spirituality to turn your back on pain and suffering, or numb it with the aesthetic bliss of sunsets, then not only are you not religious, but you're only half spiritual. The spiritual path calls for facing and embracing the cancer too. Spirituality is about making our peace not just with beauty and wonder, and not even just with the challenging and annoying, but with the devastatingly grievous.

* * *
This is part 5 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Next: Part 6: "We Need Religious Institutions"
Previous: Part 4: "Reverence: Primal and Tribal"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"

2012-06-18

Reverence, Primal and Tribal

In the latest issue of our denominational magazine, the UUWorld, our great Humanist minister, Reverend Kendyl Gibbons, writes about “Primal Reverence" (see here).

First, reverence comes from the ga-ga experiences of nature – for Gibbons, it’s waterfalls. A waterfall:
“makes me want to weep, want to dance, want to fall on my knees and be one with whatever that is, in everlasting praise.”
Second, reverence comes from the inspiration of heroically compassionate people. Gibbons mentions
"Paul Russesabagina, the Rwandan hotelkeeper who risked his life to shelter his countrymen from genocide at the hands of their neighbors."
She mentions Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Michael Servetus, Jesus, and "every mother who has ever gone hungry so that her children might eat," and "every soldier who has ever died so that his comrades might live," and "every rescue worker who ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center on that awful day." She says:
"Somewhere, there is a hero -- living or dead, close or distant, historical or mythologized -- a hero of conscience or mercy, of generosity or duty, whose story whispers to your secret heart."
Third, there is just the opening up that doesn’t come from any particular source, natural or human. Gibbons describes spirituality as many spiritual atheists do:
"The realization of the open secret, that there is no goal, no test to take, no one keeping score; that that which is not broken is always present, whether we have a name for it, whether we are paying attention; and the final recognition you are -- that each of us is, that unshakable truth -- and that you have been here all along, waiting for the exiled self's return."
With this realization comes:
"that sense of tender, compassionate self-awareness and rock-bottom peace; that return to a wholeness that cannot be achieved, but is there all along, no matter what."
Spiritual health, then, is the growing ability to access and process these three areas of "primal reverence."
"Just as we grow and mature physically, and keep ourselves healthy with regular exercise; just as we grow and mature mentally, and develop our minds through learning; just as we grow and mature emotionally, and deepen our relationships by sharing ourselves with other; just as we grown and mature ethically, and build moral character from the values to which we are loyal; so I am persuaded that we also grow and mature spiritually."
I have also written about spiritual fitness as something we can develop just as we can develop physical fitness, intellectual fitness, and social-emotional fitness: see here.

Among these descriptions of spiritual sources and development, Gibbons sprinkles repeated references to skepticism. She is at pains to let us know that we don't have to become dupes of authoritarian religion in order to have and develop our spirituality. On the one hand, this feels a bit odd to me -- somewhat like the English professor who, while lecturing on a poem, keeps reiterating an insistence that each metaphor "is just a metaphor; please don't take it literally," and, "this is a poem, remember; we don't evaluate it the way we would a work of science, history, or news reporting."

On the other hand -- as I indicated in the June 15 Lake Chalice ("Spirituality, Please, Hold the Religion") -- I understand that a lot of horrible things occur under the name "religion," so I can see why Gibbons would feel the need to reassure her readers that primal reverence does not commit one to ugly religion.

The language in which religions are taught and transmitted has three functions. It has a poetic function, an ethical function, and a tribal-marker function. You'll notice that none of them have much intrinsic connection to believing -- in the normal sense in which I might believe that OJ Simpson did (or did not) commit murder, that the chances are high (or low) that there is intelligent life on other planets, or that the quickest route home at 5:00pm is to take (or avoid) the Expressway.

The poetic function isn't about whether you believe it in the normal sense. When T.S. Eliot writes: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas," the question isn't whether to believe this or not. (Can you imagine the silliness of a debate between one side, upholding the proposition, "Resolved: That T.S. Eliot should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas," and another side opposing the resolution?) As with a beautiful painting, our task is not to "believe" it, but to open ourselves to take in the beauty of what is presented. That beauty helps us, somehow, to understand that life makes sense. The Psalms are the most obvious poetry. The startling grace of Jesus' parables, and of the gospel stories about him also function poetically, as does the narrative of the Deuteronomic history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). All of the Bible can be read as poetry in the broadest sense.

Choosing to devote one's primary poetic studies to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats does not preclude also appreciating Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. So, too, choosing to devote one's primary poetic studies to the 66 books, Genesis through Revelations, does not preclude also appreciating the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Jing, and the Dhammapada.

Some religious language, in addition to its poetry, has a more direct ethical or guiding function. It says, "Here's something to try that might make your life better." Be still and know that I am the lord; do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God; be mindful each moment; everything in Proverbs. These are not matters of believing either, in the normal sense. Rather, they are invitations to aspire to live by the guidance offered. You don't have to "be" Christian to learn from the wisdom teachings in the Christian canon, or "be" Muslim to learn from the teachings in Islamic texts.

Religious language also functions as a tribal marker. "I believe in the Bible," has almost no meaning except as a marker of tribal identification. It demarcates who is "us" (in this case, the tribe that asserts belief in the Bible) and who is "them."

Tribal markers aren't a bad thing. We are a tribal species, after all. The chalice symbol is a marker of my tribe, and I'm proud of it. If you really love the poetry of Mary Oliver, or the ethical guidance of John Stuart Mill, or the approach to psychological understanding of Carl Jung, there's nothing wrong with joining the Society for the Advancement of Mary Oliver's Poetry, the Millian League, or the Jung Club, and making that membership a central part of your self-identity. Community is a good thing.

However, when the tribal function of religious expression is prominent, folks who aren't sure they want to identify with the tribe find it hard to relax into the poetry and the wisdom of a religious tradition.

Personally, I yearn for the day when the national Unitarian Universalist publication talks about reverence without feeling a need to sprinkle in the distracting paeans to skepticism -- the day when it simply goes without saying that reverence, spiritual experience, and spiritual maturity imply none of the crazy beliefs, practices, or actions that have sometimes, over the last couple millennia, gone by the name of one or another religion. But I understand that not all Unitarian Universalists are there yet. Gibbons' readers needed reassurance that spiritual growth need neither imply loyalty to odious tribes or doctrines nor threaten their own tribal identity as Skeptics.

* * * * *
This is part 4 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Next: Part 5: "What's Missing from Atheist Spirituality"
Previous: Part 3: "Spirituality, Please, Hold the Religion"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"

2012-06-17

Happy Father's Day

What makes fathering a distinct form of parenting, what distinguishes fathering from mothering, is a constantly shifting cultural construct. One of the things about Dads, is that they are defined by a spot in family life, yet we – and when I say “we” I mean the general expectations of culture – cut Dads a fair amount of slack when it comes to household competence. This is changing – more and more Dads are expected to know how to cook, and shop, and do child care.

Yet there’s also the case of the Dad who had never done the shopping. Then one time, he had to, and his wife sent him to the store with a list, carefully numbered with the seven items to buy so he wouldn’t skip any. Dad returned shortly, proud of himself, and proceeded to unpack the grocery bags. He had one bag of sugar, two boxes of raisins, three cans of beans, four boxes of detergent, five boxes of crackers, six eggplants, and seven green peppers.

And, for a Dad, that might even be kind of endearing.

You know what the most curious thing about father’s day is – about the way it manifests in popular culture? I think the most curious thing is all the emphasis on best and greatest. It’s surprising to me how high the percentage of all father day cards seems to be that say something along the lines of “World’s Best Dad,” “Number 1 Dad” “Greatest Father Ever.” Little plastic trophies that say World’s Best Dad are all over town.

Mother’s Day is a little different, isn’t it? Yes, you can find a card or a mug that says “Best Mom” on it, but you have to look just a little longer to find it. It’s just a little bit weird to think of your mom as in a competition with other moms to out mother them. I know that if you are a mother, then there are those moments when some other mother makes you feel like it is a competition. But from the kids’ perspective, it’s a little funny to think of mom as doing what she does as part of a mothering tournament. Somehow, the competition theme feels a little more natural with Dad.

So, on Father’s Day cards it’s a little more common to see language like “No better Dad could be found," “Gold-medal winning Dad,” and “World’s Greatest Dad.” We’re saying: Go, Dad! Trounce those other Dads. Somehow, it’s a little more natural to think of Dad in a comparative context: “Number 1 Dad,” which, if you think about it, means: “Congratulations, every other Dad is worse than you.”

Actually, though, in 21st century Western culture, Dad’s themselves probably less often feel competitive with other dads than moms do with other moms. Not that there aren’t exceptions, not that there aren’t moments when fathering, too, can get to feeling a bit competitive. But still, overall, and on average: Dads get proclaimed the winner by not entering the game.

Isn't there something fundamentally off about thinking of parenting in terms of "best" and "greatest"? I know that our culture stresses that sort of thinking. We want to be the best at our jobs. We want to have the best products. We need to know that there is more to life than wanting more and better. There are appropriate spheres of values, and when a value begins to take over outside its sphere, it becomes demonic. Pursuit of excellence is an essential value – within its sphere. It belongs in the sphere of our work, our vocations, and in selecting products. Excelling is a comparison concept – it depends upon comparing.

And there are other spheres in life where comparison needs to be beside the point. Family life needs to be one of those areas. Does your love for your children, or your parents, really have anything to do with how they compare to other children, or other parents? Our families are our spheres of refuge from the needs of comparison.

The values of work and the marketplace, of producing and consuming, don’t belong there.
When the family sphere is colonized by values of better and best, rather than values of love, of acceptance for you exactly as you are, something crucial is lost. In the body, when processes that are absolutely essential in their place, start spilling over beyond their place, that’s called cancer.

Stephen Spender's poem, “I think continually of those who were truly great” (see here), gives a different perspective on "great." I love how Spender’s sense of what constitutes greatness seems to have nothing to do with what we usually think of as accomplishments and achievements. The ambition is not for worldly success and victory, but to
"tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.”
Their names aren’t engraved onto buildings or onto plaques or awards – rather their names are
“feted by the waving grass and by the streamers of white could and whispers of wind in the listening sky.”
We know that the striving after better and best is a never-ending proposition, that healing and wholeness begins in loving what is. And yet, how does any new parent not think about how to be a good parent? In a previous generation, parents read Dr. Spock. His Baby and Child Care was huge. A lot of parents lately have been reading Dr. William Sears, who recommends an approach called attachment parenting. Of course we are interested in being skillful parents. It’s just that: in work whatever you’re good at, it usually makes sense to get even better at it. In parenting, everything is about balance.

You want to provide guidance – but not too much or you’re controlling.

You want to provide nurturance – but not too much or you’re smothering.

You want to offer your kids space – but not to much or you’re distant and unengaged.

And how much is too much varies widely from child to child, and from day to day for the same child.

The family sphere is the area where we can just relax a bit. There is so much about our children that just isn’t up to us. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us:
They are with you yet they belong not to you.
Give them your love but not your thoughts for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies, but their souls dewll in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
So give up on this “Best Dad” idea. The ideal here is a nonideal: not even to “Be a good Dad” but just to be a “good enough” Dad.

My daughter, Morgen, is 31 now, my son is 29. I was not a great Dad. I was around. I was often preoccupied, but was sometimes attentive. In my attention, I was sometimes oppressive.

At the family gaming table, I have never thrown a game. I know that a lot of parents do that – make a bad move on purpose to let the kids win or at least have a chance. From the time they were 5 and could play Parcheesi, I played to win. It’s just a game, it’s not important, winning at “go fish” doesn’t really matter, but if you aren’t playing to win, you aren’t really playing it – you’re only pretending to play the game while actually pursuing some hidden parental agenda about your child’s self-esteem or something. What kid isn’t going to figure that out?

Still, I wonder whether it was really necessary for me to develop my own extensive note-taking system for deducing whodunit when the family played “Clue.” Probably that was a little over the top. Oh, well.

It seems to me that Morgen and John grew into their beings – the beings they knew how to become. I didn’t have to make them into anything. So it kind of amazes me to notice how ended up similar to me – while also very different.

I had a second go ‘round at fathering with Yency and Osman – two Honduran young men. Yency came into our household in 2004, when he was 17. Osman joined us 15 months later, when he was 17. Yency adapted and took advantage of what we were able to offer. He worked at learning English, he took the GED over and over until he passed it, he followed through on the citizenship process, became a citizen. Last May, he finished his Associate’s degree at Santa Fe, and next Fall will start the University of Central Florida in Orlando, pursuing a Bachelor’s in criminal justice.

Osman: not so much. His spirit called him in different directions. He loved hanging out with his friends – who looked to a middle-class, middle-aged anglo like me to be a not-so-wholesome crowd. He wanted to work right away, get a little money, and enjoy it. Books and classrooms were not his idea of enjoyment. He was with us a few years, then moved out. There was some trouble with the law: driving unlicensed vehicles, drug possession. He was in and out of jail, and finally was deported back to Honduras. We had seen him through a process to attain legal permanent resident status – and now he will never again have any shot at getting that status back.

I remind myself to resist the temptation to think I succeeded with Yency and failed Osman. Maybe there were some things I could have done differently. Certainly, I have been learning, and would bring a more experienced perspective if LoraKim and I were to take in a 17-year-old again. But I was there – I offered what I could – and the rest wasn’t up to me. If I’d “tried harder” to be “good” at fathering, I’d probably have done worse. The paradox is that the “best” is to just be “good enough.” Just be there. You know, the usual: set boundaries, stay engaged, and let go of outcomes. Don’t overdo it.

There’s no hard and fast distinction between what fathering is and what mothering is. There are some rough tendencies. Whatever our gender may be, call it “fathering” when we’re bringing more of our male energy to the parenting. Call it “mothering” when we’re bringing more of the female energy. For example, Ricky Van Shelton's song, "Keep It Between the Lines" suggests a sense of rules and guidelines, yet also expresses a tender and gentle presence and assurance.


Whether we are male or female, whether our children are all grown, or we never had children, we are still engaged in fathering – for we father ourselves. We bring some fathering energy to managing all of our own inner children. And again, the need isn’t to be your own world’s greatest Dad. Just: a good enough self-Dad.

That said, there is such a thing as fathering that isn’t good enough.

Dr. Margaret Paul (see here) asks:

What was your father like? Was he warm, caring and accepting?
Did he stand up for you and protect you when that is what you needed?
Was he an adequate provider?
Did you feel valued, respected and cherished by him?
Did he treat your mother with love, caring and respect?
Did he play with you and spend special time with you?
Was he interested in the things that interested you and the things you did?
Did he take care of himself physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, and in his relationships?
Could you feel his love for you?
Was he firm and consistent and his parenting without being harsh or indulgent?

Or:
Was he emotionally gone most of the time?
Was he physically gone most of the time?
Was he an alcoholic?
Was he physically, verbally, or sexually abusive to you, to other siblings, and/or to your mother?
Was he a gambler who lost the money that was necessary to feed you and take care of the bills? Did your parents divorce and he was completely uninvolved with you?
Did he abandon the family?
Did you grow up without a father?
Did your father die when you were young?
Was he there for others but completely abandoned himself - giving himself up to your mother or others?
Did he take poor care of his physical wellbeing?
Was he a person you could not count on to keep his word?
Did he get angry or sulk when things didn't go his way?

Now, take a moment to think about how you treat yourself.
Are you a good enough father to yourself?
Do you stand up for yourself with other people?
Do you provide well for yourself?
Do you value, respect and cherish yourself?
Do you take loving action in your own behalf?
Do you take care of your health and physical wellbeing?

Or:
Do you ignore or discount yourself – maybe, kinda like they way your father ignored or discounted you?
Do you judge yourself like father judged you – maybe kinda like the way your father judged you?
If your father succumbed to addictions, do you, too, struggle with that?
If your father provided no financial security, do you fail to provide for yourself financially?

Whether you are a man or a woman, you will always be both mother and father with yourself. The difference between those two roles is somewhat artificial, but let’s call it mothering when you’re paying attention to your feelings and attending to them, acknowledging them. Let’s call it fathering yourself when you’re taking loving action.

Do you spend much energy trying to get someone else to take the loving action for you - to financially support you, to stand up for you and make you important, to take time with you and make you feel special? Even if someone were to do all of this for you, there will still be an empty place inside, a place that needs you to consistently be both the good mother and the good father for yourself - to consistently take loving action in your own behalf.

Loving action.

Loving action that provides for your needs, without harsh self-judgment – that warmly accepts yourself, while also nudging you to “go get ‘em.” That’s how to be the father to yourself that you always wanted. It will probably come easier to you if your actual father was pretty much like that. Whether he was or not – whether your childhood had a good-enough father – your inner child now and always will need one, and you can be that for yourself.

Being responsive to my needs and being there for myself is a pre-requisite for being there for others. I think you know how to do this. Let me bring whatever encouragement I can for you to remember and really do act on what I think you already know. Ray Arata (see here) sums up the four most basic needs:

One, physical exercise. Regular exercise creates energy — energy to handle all of the responsibilities required of a responsible self-father. This is non-negotiable.

Two, quality time with quality people. For men, getting and giving support from (and to) like-minded men on their path flies in the face of an inclination to “go it alone.” So fly in that face. Hang out, and be real with each other. This is another exercise that creates energy.

Three, have fun. If you don’t know what this means, then you’re way overdue! Remembering what you used to do for fun — and doing it — will recharge you in more ways than one. If you are father – particularly of young boys -- you’ll also be able to show them what “fun” is so they don’t repeat the unhealthy pattern.

Four, ask for help. Just because I am my own father, the “man” of my inner house, the leader of my company of me, it doesn’t mean I have to do everything myself. Asking for help is actually a demonstration in humility. These things helps us, as Ricky Van Shelton says, "keep it between the lines."

Amen

2012-06-15

Spirituality, Please, Hold the Religion

The spiritual atheists recognize the importance of spirituality, and they want to liberate spirituality from the institutions they see as dangerous. "We don’t need 'God'; we don’t need the supernatural; we don’t need churches or mosques or synagogues or temples; we don’t need religion," they say.

Setting aside, for now, the points about god and the supernatural, let's look at the points about religion and religious institutions.

I appreciate the point that a lot of what goes by the name of religion has been more harmful than helpful.

We live in a world where people plant bombs – on themselves, in cars, in buildings – and fly jet airliners into buildings – and are led to do so in a way that is enmeshed with their religious understanding and is facilitated by their religious institutions.

We live in a world where, only somewhat less violently, people want to take away women’s reproductive freedom, and punitively stigmatize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and their thinking makes heavy and frequent reference to their religion, and their activism on these points is facilitated by their religious institutions.

We live in a world where our children are liable to be told by their classmates that they are going to hell.

We live in a world where a few people make it their life's mission to devise elaborate refutations of evolution, and where more than a few people work to change the public school science curricula to present their religious views as science.

We live in a world where our own experience of many religious institutions is that they are authoritarian: they don’t allow questioning; they don’t allow critical thinking; they demand uncritical acceptance of authority. They say that the authority is a book, but the perceptive quickly see the authority really is a community of human leaders who have settled on one interpretation of that book, when the book itself equally well – or better -- supports very different conclusions.

We live in a world where we see that “faith” so often means “believe what the authority figure tells you to believe and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray.”

We live in a world where countries that measure higher on religiosity also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates.

No wonder it seems important to separate spirituality from religion, from the "god" that religions seem to focus on, and from any religious institutions.

No wonder there would arise the need to claim the depths of awe and wonder, serenity and compassion, abundance and acceptance, indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal -- while at the same time pushing away as far as possible anything that looked like a religion or a religious institution.

No wonder.

I get that.

That is so not what religion means to me – that is so the exact opposite of my experience of my religion – but I do see how someone could be led to say, “Religion prostitutes the awe and the mystery – bottles up our essence and tries to put a lid on the wonder we naturally feel.”

They haven’t seen religion as Unitarian Universalism envisions it.

And that’s a shame.

* * * * *
This is part 3 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Next: Part 4: "Reverence, Primal and Tribal"
Previous: Part 2: "freshabundantsimpleunifiedsilentserene"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"