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Saturday, August 27, 2016

SUNDAY MORNING


Someone wishing to criticize my qualifications as a writer about religion said,  “She doesn’t even go to church.”  That person assumes that a religious person is simply one who physically goes to church, which undoubtedly means to them attending a group in a building with a leader at the same time each week for about an hour.  The number of people might be small (where two or three gather in “My Name,”) or might be thousands, but all in the same space.  Probably the religion in question is Abrahamic in origin, though they probably don't think of it that way.  

Radio and television services are a gray area created by technology.  Those in attendance may be there by proximity (they live in the “parish”) or by affinity (they are in sympathy with the thought stream of the group).  Radio and TV audiences are unknown, unnamed, uncanvassed.  Part of the point of gathering is to create a community that knows each other or at least has a reasonable expectation that the other people will be compatible to them.  

We’re talking about the water in which fish swim without reflection about it.  These gatherings go back to the roots of the Abrahamic religions with tribal assumptions and try to recreate the tribe.  In order to reflect constructively on the practices of “church” in writing, I will sometimes go back to these roots and usually concentrate on what is still conventional now, but I think it is a good idea to realize that other religions might never gather in this kind of audience. It is rather like any European-style arts presentation: opera, symphony, theatre, ballet, movies, vaudeville, travelogue and university lecture hall.  It’s always useful to check our assumptions.  In this case, the idea of gathering as audience to a presentation by one or a few others was seriously challenged in the Sixties and Seventies, but was never dropped.



We do not all gather for spoken words and prayer now, but many will fill an arena for sports, perhaps violent ones like football, soccer, or rodeo.  They persuade the audience that conflict and winning are central to life.  If compared to Roman gladiator spectacles or to Christian rallies, people get angry.

The idea of one celebrant as powerful might have originally been an adaptation of the authority of the rabbi or teacher who had studied the writing of the Torah or Gospel or Koran— even memorized some of it.  If literacy and learnedness were a qualification for a rabbi, then the magic of Communion gave a priest even more power.  The advent of Christianity pulled in the idea of sacrifice -- not the older holocaust blood sacrifice of a lamb, rather the substitution of bread and wine.  Some Unitarians, including Emerson, do not approve even of a bread/wine communion, considering it a leaning to "magic" instead of the natural wonder of existence.


Part of the custom of the Unitarian fellowships — which were based on the lack of affording ministerial leadership because of thin population — is that they often meet in small spaces, maybe schools, where it was not necessary to unscrew the pews because the seating was individual chairs that could be easily arranged in a circle.  But meeting in schools with movable chairs also meant that the loss of use of the space to convey mood and meaning: no stained glass, no stations of the cross, and so on.  Still, a chalice to light if it doesn't set off the fire alarm. 

Even the asceticism of some believers who prefer relatively empty spaces could be challenged by posters that depicted prepositions as piggies trying to get over/under/through/
around a fence.  Banners, candles, boomboxes and opening prayers or songs are ways to summon up gathering and focus.  But the secular world creeps in from the surroundings to the content of the service. The need to have some kind of spoken word can drift to the secular and then even away from the usual equivalent to the Sacred: political thought and therapeutic reassurance.  When the committee looking for speakers begins to invite town officials, some call it "City Sewer Syndrome."  At least it gets down to basics.

The Sixties and Seventies brought in many new ideas and possibly the membership of African-Americans introduced more attention to movement and communal song from religions that did not build temples but maybe gathered around a fire to sing and dance.  Most of us know Native American pow-wow dancing, enough to recognize the symbolism of the fancy-dancer, which has managed to escape from the trope of "war dancing."  


What I’m getting at is the undone work of a new analysis of conventional church, both those who improvise and those whose predecessors made sure of fine architecture.  There are ceremonies all around us, some with spiritual dimensions, that are going unrecognized.

Returning to the very beginning of the Abrahamic religions, another vital thread is that of print -- writing -- maybe beginning with the Ten Commandments.  Leaving oral culture meant more openness to variety but also a need for a reference point that could be carried along, thus scrolls like Torah. Adopting print culture was gradual and top-down, because only the elite learned to read or had charge of the documents.  It also meant hierarchy, and institutions were more technical and elaborated, less influenced by either crowds or charismatic individuals.

When some Unitarian ministers felt the need for reconciliation among religious traditions, something like Bahai which honors most religions that have a book, the result was mostly written materials arranged in traditional sequence around a theme.  Duke Gray felt strongly that the only truly legitimate sequence was Anglican vespers.  I doubt that The Malleus Maleficarum, the medieval treatise on witchhunting, was used by anyone, though there are groups now that identify with either the darker medieval lore or the modern Wicca.  The KKK has evidently persisted semi-invisibly.

A private chapel for family devotion.

Content matters.  Membership matters.  Form matters.  Place matters.  When I was learning the history of religion in America, I heard about how the congregations of the north tended to be influenced by their siting where there had been forts or commercial hubs, therefore creating towns that could support churches, compact congregations that gathered every Sunday.  But in the South -- where the governmental organization responded to stretches of land along rivers, which served as roads, and a commerce based on cotton agriculture/slave labor -- the religious base was the white household.  A chapel was included in the large building in the style of European gentry, while out in the back was a satellite black community that was oral, which allowed for a Christian-appearing surface of gospel but carried under that a rich tradition from another continent.  Occasional tent rallies were popular for everyone.

On today's reservations the Catholic ministers who follow the element of sacrifice that is Communion and other vivid symbols like Holy Water and Unction, do much better than the Protestants with their readings and hymnals.  The oral culture of indigenous people persists so long as they are in contact with the land.  Blackfeet were fortunate to be able to stay on familiar terrain, though it was much shrunken and the buffalo were removed.  Pentecostals have done well with their emotional oral culture and movement, but they suffer (or maybe benefit) from being considered low class.  Maybe for lack of a print literature.


Universally among all congregations I know was that they had no interest at all in what I’d learned at seminary.  They wanted reassurance, a little guidance (not too much), the feeling of being with friends once a week, a name for themselves and a little explanation they could use for family.  Sundays (Unitarians generally follow Christian practices) had more structure if they included church.  National festivals could be marked.  Then there was Sunday School, which was often the real reason for a group, because that’s a middle-class marker of respectability.  Like learning to read and figure.

Like the other bourgeois markers of the middle class:  cleanliness; good manners including lack of profanity; avoidance of drunkenness (no spitting tobacco); dental care; eyeglasses (now contacts or corneal planing); fountain pens (now replaced by handheld devices); regular employment, craft or business; a green flat weedless lawn; an up-to-date car; and so on.  It’s hard to know whether these things are disappearing because the middle class is disappearing, or whether the middle class is less visible now for lack of these clues.  



But surely one of the disappearances is Sunday morning church.  I haven’t gone non-religious — I have changed social classes and am no longer middle class.  Now I am Class X, as Paul Fussell defined it:  low income, highly educated.  Religious all the time, not just on Sunday -- and post-Christian.  


Friday, August 26, 2016

ENTITLEMENT AND VENGEANCE

The woman in the centre is Eloise Cobell
Who sued the United States of America and won.

Where I live on the East Slope of the Rockies is right at the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation.  Because European law was largely based on genetic descent from legal marriage as a way of controlling inheritance, particularly inheritance of power as in the case of kings, the military and religious authorities addressing the remnants of the decimated indigenous people were particularly concerned about who was “married” and who was the product of an unlawful relationship and who was actually produced by a lawful relationship by a dalliance outside the marriage.

To remind us of the context of the times, among the tribal warriors there was a high likelihood of death, so men who didn’t die would accept “marriage” to their brother’s wives and children, which mostly meant taking on the burden of feeding and protecting them.  When this custom developed, there was no city hall, no paper giving permission, no one keeping records until the missionaries came.  

When the government, through the military, had killed most of the warriors, they accepted the obligation of feeding the impoverished and displaced women and children, the old and ill still suffering from white diseases, they had to first make a list of who deserved “commodities” promised in treaties as a way of ending the military expenditures that were draining government budgets.  



This grudging bunch of administrators immediately set about making lists of those who were entitled by their belonging to the tribe (or what was left of it) but there were no citizenship papers for tribes.  And tribes are not defined by boundaries, but by relationship to the center, usually a nucleus of families.  The generals fell back on provenance: who was descended from whom.  Their conscientiousness required that they determine who was “married” to whom and “marriage” by definition meant to them one man plus one woman.

So they had to explain to the polygamous chiefs, who got to be the chief by sustaining so many people, that they could only have one wife.  They would have to choose ONE woman.  One chief — some say it was Sitting Bull — finally said,  “All right.  I’ll do it.  But you have to tell the wives I don’t pick.”

Somewhat parallel, a wise person once explained to me that ministers (and other people of power) must not fuck a parishioner unless they are willing to fuck them all, not because of religious scruples but because providing for one person’s needs and ignoring the others would really screw up the social dynamics of the group, which would seriously damage the annual pledge drive.

Expectations are a huge part of human life, especially when the context is religious because religious institutions as well as individual expectations are distilled and intense, but rather unlikely to match the realities.  In the case of intimate relationships, biology is always interfering and so is the resulting economic necessity to produce and feed children.  This depended upon the fertility and gestational capacity of women and the men’s ability to capture and keep women.
1910

In those days a high proportion of women died in childbirth, so second and even third wives had to be taken.  Extended families with unmarried adults who could pick up the slack did better than those who had to settle for grudging and incompatible legal replacements.  Sometimes those children ran away; we have no idea how many simply died from neglect, misuse, and failure to thrive due to a failure to form any expectation but misery.  This continues in spite of birth control and the female ability to earn her own money.

Marriage is social, a group definition of recorded legal liabilities and advantages.  American laws at all levels are likely to embed in themselves various privileges and obligations — social expectations mostly about money (taxation, SSI) but also legal things like testifying in court.


Biology includes the phenomenon of love that some thinkers call “limerence” — “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one's feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.”  It’s genetic, hormonal, related to “bonding” or “attachment” and some say it usually persists about four years, if you can go by divorce statistics in a world where ending a marriage is relatively easy.

Many people, sitting in a pew closely watching a preacher for an hour every week, find themselves developing “limerence” towards that person.  They “have a crush,” the way they might feel about a movie personality or a rock star.  But it seems real and results in expectations.  Part of the reason for the huge taboo on either the minister or the parishioner acting on this is that it only lasts four years.  Maybe less.  If the minister is suddenly pitched out of the pulpit, so that his/her social status and earning capacity is ended, limerence evaporates.    For those who expect their intimate partners to be like their parents— or maybe like their parents ought to have been — the disappointment is likely to be bitter but provide income for therapists, lawyers, and UU district execs.

The crater of Mt. St. Helens

I gratefully recall a sad and bitter conversation with Emil Gudmundson, district exec, at the top of the stairs in Fleck House, back in the day when the UU’s actually owned property and provided for their ministerial students.  My granddaughter  — actually a step-grand — was being buried back in Portland as the result of what was suspected to be vehicular suicide.  I didn’t have enough money to go, though I’d been close to her.  Also, Mt. St. Helens was erupting, killing many people and changing the landscape forever.  The events seemed related.

Emil entered my sadness with me.  Being a frank and brave man, he confessed that his psychological impulse was always to offer the comfort of his body.  But he never did because he knew it would bring damage to his wife and to his religious community.  He just wanted me to know that he felt badly for me.  He’s been dead a long while and no account of him betraying expectations or standards has ever surfaced.

From my side I longed for my ex-husband, the woman’s grandfather, who had called me to give me the news.  He had been generous with the consolation of his body, which didn’t agree with my expectations, but I never did get over the limerence.  He’s been dead for seventeen years and I still feel it.  So did the other wives.  

Bob Scriver, scuptor

I have never understood the vengeful intensity of peoples’ reaction to other people’s intimate relationships and missteps.  Heartache ought to be considered punishment.  Surely violations of the rules should be judged by a jury of peers (the Fellowship Committee) and be proportionately punished after confrontation by the accusers.  That’s Law 101, a matter of written social consensus in a democracy, not ideological condemnation from an emotional point of view that privileges one class of people (female parishioners) over another (clergy).  It seems to me a reversal of the claim that powerful people are entitled to take both money and services from those “beneath” them when students try to control administrators.

Lately there seems to be an insistence that laypeople must control the clergy, hold them to higher standards, but not higher esteem than those who didn’t have the privilege of a fancy education.  (We’re talking about UU clergy, learned ministry, grad school and doctoral level diplomas.)  And certain people insist that women in general are entitled to higher esteem than men.  This is represented as “equality.”  Clergy shouldn’t consider themselves “better than” anyone else, though the indignant ones seem to feel that’s not true of themselves, ordained or not.  “You are our servant,” they say.  “We pay you,” which sounds a lot like “we own you.”  

I walked.  I’m living on the greener side of the fence, though the green is not from money nor envy.  The turning point came at a workshop for ministers about understanding spouse abuse.  They drew concentric circles and put the receiver in the middle.  “It’s about limits and control,” they said.  At first the abuser is permissive.  Then they begin to impose limits: budgets, schedules; pretty soon it’s clothing standards or objections to certain friends; then your music is offensive and your cooking is inadequate;  pretty soon you call your mother too often . . .  and before long there are small violences that grow into broken bones and bruised faces. 


Now I feel a certain obligation to stand up for those that accusers are still trying to control.  But I also see that the larger society is in witch hunt mode.  If you were amused about the story of Blackfeet and monogamy, you need to hear the bitterness and violence of the present generation as they struggle to divide entitlement to the wealth of the corporate tribe.  Now blood draws to prove parentage confront traditional accounts of whose baby you are.  The U.S. government dodged the bullet by passing a law that tribes define their membership.

The old warriors of the UU community are unable to protect the young ones entering the ministry or those of their cohort caught in the Sexual Revolution and the suddenly changed rules.  Emil and I sat at the top of the stairs in Fleck House, looking through the tall window across the street at the imitation cathedral that is First Unitarian of Chicago, while the sadness and loss of being human enfolded us quietly in the twilight.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A NO-BULL PARADIGM


Religion is not revealed truth.  Religion is institutions (some dogmatic and some not) that translate a culture into a system that can be consulted, performed, relied upon to store wisdom.  In many instances (ideally) religious practices distill the ecologically and economically anchored ways of people as individuals and groups into a rhythm of symbols and practices that guides life streams.  If that begins to fail, there is trouble.

Praying to a Father God no one believes in as a possible humanoid entity, and that no one really expects to intervene as you ask for it, is practicing emptiness.  We’ve got enough of that in this culture.  Our government, our economy, our sense of citizen solidarity, are all challenged at their core.  This is directly related to losing God, not to death but by evaporation.  Why do we keep up the pretense?

Because that original tribal conception of a mighty leader capable of helping out his family is the base of religious machinery that depends upon that idea.  Think Pope, the Catholic one, not Rev. Pope-Lance.  Institutions within institutions, hierarchies function and provide jobs for people so long as they don’t look down and realize their foundation has long since packed up and left.  Think Trump, who turns out to be deeply in debt.  Think the accumulation of wealth (this includes Mother Teresa) in the face of overwhelming need.

In trying to understand why “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer” has become a model for ministry that authorizes middle-aged educated women to attack male ministers because they teased those women as teens is simply insane.  (If they were rural women they would have been used to being sent to town for some mythical machinery part and other tricky snipe hunts.  It's affection.  Paying attention.  One laughs.) To be enraged decades later is out of proportion.

Those who need proof that our culture is based on media fantasies need look no further than the success of J.J. Abrams who has discovered that if the protagonist of his story is a fierce young beautiful woman with superhuman skills, this works great as the core of even a Western like Star Wars.  It’s the Princess Leia factor.. If there are enough blood, explosions and mutants, it will not be considered a chick-flik so much as a great date adrenaline provider.  You know where that can go.

1894, 25th anniversary of the first Universalist Service

We’ve come a long way from the 19th century society ladies who preached while wearing hats, mostly basing their authority on the Progressive attack on sin, suffering and poverty.  (That went well, didn’t it?  Especially slaying the Demon Rum.)  Our present crop of female ministers seems to be doubling back, though I never hear that they preach about heroin, child trafficking, or — um — poverty.  They lean more to the therapeutic.  Love as an antibiotic.  The Devil is represented by treacherous men.

In the meantime, “On July 1, the Rev. Harlan Limpert will become the chief operating officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This will be the first time the UUA has given a senior executive the title of COO; the new position will replace the office of the executive vice president, which Kay Montgomery has held since 1985.”  In other words, the management replaced a glamorous insider female with a manager trained by Target.  At 51 he felt he needed the rewards of idealistic service.  His model for a successful denomination is iTunes.  I hope he was kidding.

I first met Harlan as a rather randy young intern minister at First Unitarian Church in Portland in the Seventies.  His behavior was impeccable, but I’m the kind of null-woman that men confide in.  (They are not getting an accurate vibe.  Must be the spectacles.)  He was not able to think in preacher’s terms.  As far as I know, he has never served a congregation as their minister, though he has always been active in UU circles and was a chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C. 

Harlan Limpert then

Harlan Limpert now

He says there are two secrets to his success:  he expects work to be tough and he can handle low pay.  If this were really the secret of success, there would be many more female COO’s.  Harlan has been happily married for decades and has never married a member of his congregation.  (Not having a congregation eliminates that accusation.)  The real secret of his success IMHO is that, as Montgomery says,  “He’s so nice.”  Niceness is now the key to the UUA.

The basic pattern of American Christian life is not outer space, nor the military, nor any primarily urban model.  Rather it is still agriculturally based and therefore so is its basic idea of sex: the productive family.  It’s hard to bend that around to being same-sex or polyamorous or even celibate.  It is rooted in the idea that the man runs the farm and the woman runs the house.  It is friendly to extended family, even if some of the family members are needy, but not if they belong to someone else.  The idea is that the minister is the grandfather — see “Blue Bloods.”  Tom Selleck: herd bull.  This paradigm is now obsolete.

Any institution that has lost its power to reproduce itself, its potency in the culture, is castrated by definition.  Love is not prowess.  There went the seminaries (seed beds).  A certain amount of bullshit is necessary for fertility — no bull, no growth.  That’s about as far as that metaphor can go and probably farther than it should have gone.

In 1975 when I first began to step through the gender-separation curtain — not just in religious institutions but also in cop and government settings — there was a joke that went:  “If you want to fuck the opposite sex, be sure to do it a hundred miles away from home.  If you want to fuck the same sex, be sure do it five hundred miles away from home.  If you want to fuck a sheep. . .” and there the joke split off between rural and urban.  As Bob Scriver (who was a justice of the peace and city magistrate) used to say, “if you do something outrageous enough, no one will figure it out or even notice.”  Thus, instead of sheep, one can use small boys.  Or poodles.

This was labeled "South African Humor"

What I see is a denomination that is too nice to allow a bull into the pulpit.  One of the reasons I gave up on ministry was that it meant living in a city.  I did not know that the new city, the new congregation, was going to be world-wide and online.  I don’t think we know what that means yet.  How is a glass screen different from a pulpit?  How is it the same?  How do we share a cuppa with a buddy if we’re separated by thousands of miles?  Skype?  I assume it is through empathy, stories, music, art, and crazy metaphors that make us laugh.  At least, that’s the evidence I have so far.  Nobody but Buffy cares that much about who fucked whom decades ago.  The paradigm has left the feedlot.

When I began to challenge this misguided Berry Street essay, the UUA told me it was entirely the responsibility of the UU Ministers’ Association, which told me it was entirely the responsibility of the Berry Street essay committee (damn committees anyway) who told me it was entirely the responsibility of the actual speaker.  

Baloney.  Many others were speaking through her.  The leader of a cow herd — rural people know — is never the bull, who goes off to take a nap after doing his duty.  The real path finder is always an older and very experienced cow.  Not me.  I used to get upset and complain about low standards.  Now I only care when a friend is unfairly attacked. I still can't figure out the motive.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

PERINEAL POLITICS

Maureen Mullarkey


Perhaps is not so surprising to use this word in a time when science has introduced us — upclose and on video — to non-human meiosis, known in human terms as “sex.”  My favorite example of sexual predation is a bug that bores a hole in the female and injects his sperm.  Bugs don’t have perineums, which is called in slang about women, “the pink.”  Sometimes it’s called “the slash”, which gives it a bug-like violent vibe, or the “slot” which sort of suggests a coin-operated function.  Violence and monetization are two characteristics of human intercourse of all kinds.  We don’t manage them very well.  Men have names for their unruly little man: Peter or Dick.  Technically, the perineum is unisex.

Those of us who try to understand existence in ultimate terms as well as in the framework of “embodiment” have been challenged to the point of shifting the paradigm of theology from one big old gramps in the sky to an infinitely interrelated and constantly morphing fabric or symphony of electrochemical atomic interactions — the atom being, of course, a pattern of energy.  If being is actually, really, this and not the pattern of brain interaction assembly that goes on through our lives, casting a connectome over the universe that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, what are we to use as a guide for human interactions?  


Rule out drilling holes in each other, though the NRA will not agree with that.  Personally, I’m going to the tension in the relationship between the human individual and the human group, even the species taken as a group.  Even “hominins” taken as a group.  The point is life-going-on, which we call evolution or survival of the fittest, though we get all incoherent about fitness.  It’s not about the biggest, strongest, smartest, prettiest, etc.  It’s about what fits.

Most crucially, “fitness” is a shifting target because the planet shifts, the cultures shift, the mood shifts.  Fitness shifts. Therefore, a system (meiosis) succeeds if it constantly creates a variety of kinds, so that even if everything changes, some of the kinds will survive.  Some will not.  (Goodbye hominins.  Goodbye cave bears.)  In a world jammed with humans, individual survival is often pitched against group survival.  Results vary.

A group that has settled upon an understanding of the world that lets its members survive will attract more people and eventually form an institution with leaders, buildings, images, songs, and dogma — lots of stuff to support functioning.  What supports the institution is likely to be written down and enforced by the group.  Until it doesn’t work anymore.  Then, in a freely joined group, people will leave.

Margaret Sanger

American Christian churches of all kinds are shrinking.  It’s not that people are going from one group to another, but that they are simply going group-less.  The larger culture is not recreating religious sub-groups people want.  Or maybe they just aren’t recognizing them as religious.  This may be the case with a new consensus forming about creation.  Some call it “scientific mysticism” meaning that it accepts all the work of responsible science without wandering off into the woo-woo, but is keenly aware of the awful grandeur of ultimates, eternals, and unimaginables that science points to.  I’m hearing rumors about the formation of new congregations, something like the earliest Unitarians and Universalists reacting against Calvin’s paradigm.

Actually it was Luther who admired the pink ruffles of the perineum as a source of salvation.  He famously said, as recorded by his students, that when the devil threatened him, he put his hand between the legs of his wife and was consoled.  It’s a puzzle to me why the more stringent feminists won’t share the wealth of the original container of life.
Artemisia Gentileschi

There are many jokes about the UU heresies.  One is that if there were two gates to heaven, one labeled “salvation” and the other one labeled “discussion of salvation,” all the UU’s would turn off to the discussion access.  But I often think that the UUA is best not thought of as a denomination but as a ground for denominations.  (I’m trying to echo Tillich resolution between being versus non-being by suggesting a “ground of being.”)  Reading “The Silk Roads” is a bit of a revelation in that it traces how the Greek-Persian rivalry/collaboration, the Christian-Buddhist interactions, and all the other tribal institutions formed by ecologies of river and mountain — especially after erosion and exploitation narrowed the world — had to change to survive.

Nothing has changed more abruptly or more drastically than our understanding of sex in terms of fertility, entitlement, protection, identity, leadership and so on.  Now we might be prepared to accept the idea that a virgin can have a baby — but so what?  We might not think that crucifixion is the most horrible death — today’s Messiah might be more likely to die of HIV/AIDS because of being denied meds.  We’ve accepted leaders and heroes who have sex with people to whom they have no legal obligation.  I won’t bother to name them — it’s a good parlor game.

But we have NOT reformed our societal protection of children, who are still partly commodities and partly party prizes, rarely human beings deserving of protection for their development.  There is NO UUA scandal-monger pursuing ministers who neglect their children or have children they don’t want.  The conservatives will punish for abortion, defending it with sentimental appeal to babies, not realistic concern or help for a baby that will need public money and attention.

Virginia Woolf

Can we say that our present institutions and protocols are serving either individuals or groups very well?  So many of our schemes from the 19th century have turned demonic so that peace-keeping forces are rapists, humane societies are money-machines, and hospitals are bombed.  What are churches?  What is the putative role of specifically religious institutions in a world where nothing is sacred?

It’s clear that the journey of the individual has become even more intensely a search for the Sacred, that transcends even individual survival.  Thus, the abuse of the pink perineum as a way of waging war is an abomination.  The  use of someone’s perineum for enjoyment in the face of social disruption is ill-advised but human.  It speaks to a greater lack that the individual is not addressing, but there is always the tantalizing hint that sex is sometimes sacred.  Ceremonies, even those of being drummed out, are not enough.  We must look to the swirling fractals of understanding the Big Picture and I mean galactic, not “me and my neighbors.”

Place settings are from Judy Chicago's Supper Party.

This conversation is not merely an address in a venue on Boston’s Berry Street.  It is now on the Internet and global, googleable.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

SNAGGING MINISTERS


Forrester Church, who divorced his wife in order to marry a parishioner

To have my next example of Dunning-Kruger come from the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Association is not just unsurprising but hilarious.  Here you go:  https://uuma.site-ym.com/mpage/BSE2016  It may have been taken down by now.  Free speech be damned.

I’m not going to name this year’s Berry Street Essay author because she will need the anonymity more than the notoriety.  (Probably not her choice.) This feminist minister had been raped in the past (before becoming a minister), says she suffers from PTSD, and has been active in confessional women’s groups.  She talks “health” and testimony.  Somehow, evidently through a friendship contact, she was asked to deliver the Berry Street Essay at General Assembly, which is historical, prestigious, and independently commissioned.  Normally the topic is broadly “religious” but this woman launched a reform movement against what she considered sexually predatory ministers.  She names one minister specifically in a targeting takedown.  She speaks with the fervour of a pedophile hunter.  Or maybe one of those Nazi war criminal hunters.

First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR

I’ve known this man since 1975, right after the single episode of ill-advised choice for which he paid a high price.  Soon after he interned in Portland he married the woman to whom he is still married with no scandal.  They are a highly respected couple and he has continued his life with what I would consider a secular ministry, working with conciliation arbitrators, classes, addiction counselling.  Though this Berry Street woman was educated for the ministry at Harvard, the whole lecture is very much like the kind of accusation that broke open Starr King Theological School over racist issues: in that case someone incensed that her friend was passed over for president by someone she thought was a less-qualified black woman.

When the Catholics were agonizing over pedophilia, I used to quip:  “UU ministers don’t fool around with kids.  They go for rich women.”  And I would provide examples.  But not in print.  It appears that the Emerson Avenger is gaining converts.  The Emerson Avenger runs a website that attacks ministers he thinks are immoral.  No one I know of ever fingers lay people.  Except privately.


One of my Montana fellowships was powered by what I called “the demi-mondaine.”  Smart, employed, divorced, middle-aged women who seduced ministers — or anyone else with a little shine on them — and who explained candidly that the reason they became UU’s was because there were no sexual taboos.  (Usually meaning divorced, which most of them were.)  These were my first ministries, though I was over forty, and I was taken aback when one woman informed me — as a helpful service — which men in the four congregations would sleep with me.  One man asked me frankly to go to bed with him because he wanted “to see what I had.”  He was a school superintendent.  I don’t think this is a denominational problem — I think it’s a cultural problem.

These women were often vengeful, esp. when they found out I wouldn’t do what they told me to do.  They were like drunks who wanted everyone to get drunk with them.  In every church I’ve served or joined, they have been present, sometimes in small numbers and covert.  

Mary Scriver, 1998

In Canada I twice ran into laymen who propositioned me, though I am the very epitome of a tubby English teacher with spectacles.  I am NOT a sexy woman.  I told them,  “You know, I charge a lot more to be the Temple Whore.”  They were undeterred.  They were after POWER.  They thought ministers had power.  No minister ever came on to me.

In my experience UU ministers (and other denominations as well) were vulnerable to supportive intimacy from either men or women because they felt POWERLESS.  The pastor knows a lot, is held responsible for everything, and must beg a committee for any change.  Being in a pulpit is having one’s hands tied behind one’s back, even for the big traditional men.  Probably less so among the gay men because people don’t know the rules.  Lesbian women ministers are a mystery to me because normally I run like hell.  (My bad.)  As soon as the UUA accepted gay/lesbian ministers, they were possibly accepting polyamorous people who did not conform to traditional marriage assumptions, attracted because the whole schtick of the denomination is accepting people according to their own personal ethics. (UU’s purport not to believe in fencing the communion.)

Of course, courting minorities who are looking for respectability means a certain level of prudery in order to guard that reputation, esp. in a time when right-wing religious people are so rigidly predatory.  It seems that the UUA, in order to grow, is discarding some of their free-wheeling past, growing more cautious and guarded.  The phrase “neo-Puritan” comes up.  There’s a callousness to it.


My home district as a parishioner (1975-78) was the Pacific Northwest, which at that time was international, including BC, Alberta, and Alaska.  The ministers were charismatic, high-achieving, and broad-minded.  A few were deplorable, including a gay hustler of young men and a “counselor” whose idea was to “demonstrate” true love to troubled women in their own marital beds.  When he was found out, he cost that church a LOT of money for recompense and re-counselling.  Luckily, they had malpractice insurance.

A saintly senior minister had a lover who later joined my faraway congregation where she clung to the notion that since she considered herself that very respected minister’s consort-for-life, she therefore controlled me.  Another guy was an active member of the Venusian church whose members disrobed and were stroked with feathers by chanting women.  I don’t suppose this righteous female minister ever imagined such things.  She strikes me as willfully but unknowingly unconscious, as Dunning-Kruger would predict.  Therefore I have a hard time with my feelings about such a person being in a ministry that has always claimed to serve every human being.  

I will say, mildly, that this person is old-fashioned and naive.  It appears to me that her gripe is really about ignoring marital vows, esp. in terms of multiple repeat marriages.  She says that people who are repeatedly married to parishioners should be asked to leave the ministry.  She is conservative mainstream American and probably ought to return to a Christian denomination.  The sexual revolution has only offended her, not enlightened her.  What I don’t understand is how this rant got into the UU World, where it was linked by an endorsing editor.  Has she been having coffee with the Emerson Avenger?  How could the Berry Street Essay committee choose such a vengeful person?


But her worst offense was not simply failing to understand that there are many standards of sexual relationship that are far beyond her experience.  She didn’t pick out the more egregious and offensive examples she knew, but rather the admired and politically potent.  To those of us whose ministries included knowing what went on privately, she comes off as childish and ridiculous.

I’m even more baffled that the editor who signed off on this story — I assume it’s Elaine McArdle, a UU World editor — but there are only the initials E.M. — is living in Portland where David has been well-known and respected since 1975 — a third of a century.  Why attack him now?  The facts of this essay have not been checked — they are evidently gossip from therapeutic groups in Nashville about events decades earlier than this minister’s tenure. 

William Schulz

Bill Schulz, a major UU figure, added a note saying that what she reported him saying to her was untrue, that he had never met her at the point she claims.  David Maynard says that the “facts” she told about him are also untrue.  I’m told that this woman checked with the head of the UUA (now voted out) and a UU lawyer.  I think she would have done better to consult someone outside the UU circle.  It looks like they going to have to scramble to avoid being named as co-defendants in a lawsuit as sensational as the one starring Forrester Church whom she also accuses.  Luckily for this twisted sister, he’s dead since his connections were far larger than the UU context.  I hope she has malpractice insurance.


Retired from ministry, living in a village in Montana, a free-lance writer on “religious” issues (U of Chicago Div School MA and Meadville/Lombard MDiv) of anthropological sorts rather than doctrinal allegiance, I see the world in broad brush terms.  My sexual orientation is the most shocking of all:  celibate.  From where I am, the UUA, as represented by this incompletely healed wounded woman, looks to have abandoned its inclusiveness in order to imply virtue.  Stumped as to where to go with theology, some have resorted to prudery.  I thought we were better than that.  Or at least more grown-up.

Sweet revenge?


Monday, August 22, 2016

WEIRDING OUT


This morning I woke in a strange amber smoke world, a little nacreous, with an acrid stifling and alarming reek.  I would be totally weirded out if it hadn’t been predicted by the weather forecast last night.  It’s thinning now (9AM) and is supposed to be clear and windy by afternoon.  I don’t know where the fire is, but smoke is not unprecedented in August on the Montana prairie.  Usually it’s from the far north, where there are no settlements, no reason to stop the fire from consuming boreal forest.  Snow will put it out soon enough.

I would not be as weirded except that my late movie last night was “Under the Skin.”  It’s pure sci-fi in the way that I’ve only found in writing before.  That is, the narrative is metaphoric and leaves reality, but even the metaphor is not easy to interpret.  My copy of the DVD was way too dark, so I couldn’t really tell what was happening.  Luckily, YouTube has so many clips and spoiler-analyses that I slowly realized what was going on, what I had not-seen.


An alien is played by Scarlett Johanson, casting that would pull in unsuspecting people who didn’t know this wasn’t a cop show, maybe from Iceland — always a little inscrutable with hard bare scenery, very beautiful but abstract.  (“Lava Field”, a series, is what I mean.)  In the back of a van she undresses a body that looks like her, and puts on the clothes herself.  She sees an ant on the body and looks at it closely.  It looks back.

As the narrative goes along, she is plainly picking up men who won’t be missed and now the strangeness really begins:  she lures them into some dark liquid where everything but their skin dissolves.  The effect is totally convincing.  Eventually she lures a rough logger man who manages to seize her and begin to rape her, but now it’s HER skin that comes off.  In pieces.  Inside is an ebony transfiguration, hairless but whole and beautiful as a pure sculpture.  The man is horrified and sets her on fire.

So it’s about identity, the sexual aspect.  How we want to seize each other, sometimes losing ourselves and sometimes destroying what surprises us, frightening us with difference, like a trick who doesn’t expect a trannie and has such an emotional explosion of horror that he kills.  What if the man who finally grabbed this creature were an artist who could recognize and honor this unique form?  Who is the man on the motorcycle who shadows this “woman” as she goes through the streets in a van?  A pimp?  Some kind of handler.



Not everyone has a taste for this sort of film and reflection, but I’ve been surprised how often young people, particularly those with atypical lives and maybe even those who’ve done a bit of luring and exploiting themselves, can really get off on what it means and whether it works.  It’s just abstract enough to see the reality of it, but also to pull out the pattern.  

Before the vid games that so absorb adolescents with their possibility, the readers of sci-fi often began to explore the genre at about junior high.  (I did.)  Often a chord is struck that is strongest for the loner, the exceptional one.  Darrell Kipp used to say that the book most accurately describing what it was like to be a Native American was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  But Heinlein was also the author of “The Red Planet Mars” which is clearly a prototype for “Star Wars” so near-universally beloved by everyone.


Obviously, the transformation of adolescence when sex is added to identity, is something like being dissolved internally, only one’s appearance seeming the same.  Almost.  Distorted.  Approaching others and hoping for intimate understanding can result in one’s assumptions dissolving, revealing someone unrecognizable: oneself.  That can be horrifying.

This film was adapted — more like “distilled” — from a book by the same name, written by Michel Faber.  The first chapter of the book is at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/may/02/firstchapters.reviews  Faber was born Dutch, grew up in Australia, and as an adult has lived in Scotland.  All three countries claim him, though the expected characteristics of each nation’s people are quite different.  He says he’s simply “European.”  

This specific novel (his first among many) is based on the Scots highlands — not QUITE Iceland.  He’s worked as a nurse and has a vivid sense of embodiment, but a tough one with a strong spine of social justice.  Traveling with Médicins Sans Frontiéres, he confronted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Ukraine in 2004.  The intended anthology of writers facing tough subjects was abandoned by the publisher.  (Freaked?  Politically frightened?)  But Faber’s article, entitled “Heart of Darkness” was published in the English Sunday Times“Bye Bye, Natalia”, a fiction version, was published in Granta.

The same material in different media can be quite different, as different as the same events seen through the eyes of two different people, and maybe that’s what Faber is after.  In his book the Alien examines her body in private ways and reflects on the way humans treat life forms around them, like the sheep on the Highlands.  The film is much simplified and the Alien says nothing except to check out the male prospects for digestion.  We simply see what she sees.  To her, sheep are not edible — the meat is human.  The result of image rather than word is much more immediate, colder, the intense feelings are in the viewer instead of analyzed on a page.


And yet there is so much to think about, and — ideally — to share with others who are interested in analysis and the political horrification that can often get criticism past the defenses of the media-owners.  This IS a polemic, meant to open the viewers’ eyes.  One can approach these images through the sensibility of the Alien or (weakly) through the horror of the stunned victims.  Many critics say the hardest episode to watch is the one where a mother drowns while her child bawls on the rocks of the shore, a child simply ignored by the aliens.  Not big enough to eat.  Too human to touch alien sensibilities.

The Alien could not do this job if she were empathic, able to feel what others are feeling.  It is torture to really share the inner world of some people, but empathy is insidious, it creeps into a person quietly through the eyes, until one is “seeing” almost against one’s will.  A photograph of a little boy: drowned, stunned — and we embrace him, even though he is a victim of human hatred and our own unseeing.  It’s not surprising that Scarlett’s usual fans quickly dropped this film.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyW01TOyEKI is the link for “Under the Skin” Explained.   I recommend it.  It was cheating to go here instead of just reacting, but my version was so dark (literally) I felt justified.  Anyway, this film is dense enough that it will reward and support many interpretations.  Try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izfCswgEnxs  



At the end the flaming body of the skinned alien runs through a snowy forest.  The image is a metaphor, but one deep in the instinctual life of humans.  With relief I hear the wind begin to rise outside though it is fanning flames somewhere.