Contents: March/April 2002
Forrest Church's "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century" inspired 20 of the 53 responses we received to the November/December UU World. Several offer to update Church's reading list. Ted Lau of Chesterfield, Missouri, proposes more Jung and less physics, but Harriet and David Roberts of Southbury, Connecticut, suggest more neuro-science. Meanwhile, Dr. Alan Powers, an English professor from Westport, Massachusetts, appreciates Church's "metaphorical wit" and suggests that Unitarian Universalism needs more vibrant metaphors and better hymns. "Truth in poetry is paradoxical, even offensive, startling," he writes, "but not lulling."
Richard S. Gilbert's essay, "How Much Do We Deserve?," launched a lively economics debate. Twelve correspondents tackle his "canons of distributive justice." Mark Hoover of Lake Orion, Michigan, objects to an income cap; but Milt Lauenstein of Gloucester, Massachusetts, takes issue with the "canon of need": "To maintain that [shirkers] have a right to a decent living no matter what they do doesn't seem like the soundest way to organize a society."
We also received letters thanking the UUA Religious Education Department for providing four-track audiotapes of the magazine to people with impaired vision. "The enunciation of the readers was clear as a bell and a pleasure to follow," writes E. E. "Pat" Wolfe Jr. of Columbia, South Carolina. Call (617) 948–4361 for more information.
Just RightThe only thing untimely about the November/December issue of UU World was the hastily inserted editorial that said it was the wrong magazine for the current times. Forrest Church's article ("Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century") and Richard Gilbert's article on distributive justice ("How Much Do We Deserve?") point the way out of our current horror better than almost anything I've read written in response to the September 11 tragedy.
Me, Me, Me, vs. UsNo better words could have come at this time in our history, nor could have comforted and encouraged me more, than Forrest Church's explanation that "Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny."
Looking at a denomination splintered into a thousand "me, me, me" theologies, I am encouraged that one of our leading theologians can find words to draw us back onto a common ground. It is not our differences but our differing gifts that endow us with so much. Clearly Church's great gift is exhortation to unity, and I thank him for sharing it.
Agree To DifferLike many Unitarian Universalists today, Forrest Church thinks that if we keep redefining "God" more broadly we will eventually all agree to the concept of something greater than ourselves, an object worthy of reverence. Please give up this quest. We non-theists are not all stupid or stubborn or arrogant. We simply disagree about the ultimate nature of the universe, and, scary as that may be, it's not a bad thing.
God or Chemistry?The wonderful, unfolding workings of the natural world are quite sufficient to inspire my humility and awe. As we explore the nature of the genome and how it interacts with the environment, we gain new insights into the chemistry that makes us human, that underlies our capacities to hate, to love, to be afraid.
Dr. Redford B. Williams
Hillsborough, North Carolina
Brave BoastForrest Church mischaracterizes as a "boast" the statement that one does not believe in God. For many, to make this statement means something entirely different: a personal truth arrived at by much searching and at great emotional cost. For some, it takes great courage to admit non-belief in the face of disappointment and even censure from family, friends, and loved ones. For others, admission of non-belief in God may be the first step on a long road to recovery from religious abuse.
I was grateful, therefore, to read Rosemary Bray McNatt's positive review of Proverbs of Ashes ("Bookshelf," November/December). I hope that a Unitarian Universalist theology for the 21st century will include not only religious humility and awe, but recognition of and healing for the victims of religion as well.
Karen L. Allendoerfer
Too LittleDiscussing reason, rationality, and the irrational, Forrest Church fails to distinguish between belief and behavior. The issue is not that many beliefs are irrational, limited, and limiting. The issue is that some believers try to impose their irrational beliefs on others.
There are many who have adopted scientism as their religion, but scientism is not rational. It is the irrational belief that science can resolve "trans-rational" issues. We must recognize reason's limits as we explore the trans-rational, but modern mysticism typically falls into the contrary trap: It fails to recognize the limits of the trans-rational and ignores the rational. The result is more irrationalism, a silliness that is fun for about half a second and then degenerates into self-indulgence. Worse, it leaves us incapable of fighting malignant irrationalism in the world.
Unitarian Universalism is polarizing into two foundationless and mutually destructive factions hyper-rational scientism and anti-rational mysticism and Church needs to yell louder if he is attempting to reverse this.
Too LateForrest Church's plea for a new Universalism, embracing a theology stressing transrational salvation for all while retaining Unitarianism's light of reason, deserves attention and respect. Yet the impact on Unitarian Universalism of atomistic decision making, secular humanism, scientism, and anti-theological ideas and impulses has been so profound that there is virtually no chance that any theology can be reconstructed to underpin our intellectual diversity even if God is understood as Tillich's "ground of being," as Church suggests. He is right: Unitarian Universalism suffers from fragmentation. But, for better or worse, the results of ultra-liberalism and pluralism cannot be escaped, thereby denying our movement a unified voice and vision.
Paul F. Power
Only One?Church's Universalism isn't nearly as universal as he seems to think. Witness the dismissive remark, "Search for a lifetime which is all we are given. . ." One lifetime is all? Perhaps for him but not for me. I'm sure I've had many past lives and have delved deeply into them. And I hope I shall have future lives, seeing that I've missed out on so much in this one owing to ill health and other problems. Perhaps in a future life I'll be born into privilege as he was and be ready to dismiss all the rest. But I hope not. I hope I won't have lost sight of what came before.
Brooklyn, New York
Eat Your WordsAllen Callahan put words in Jesus' mouth to tell fiscal conservatives that their policies have enriched the wealthy and impoverished the poor (Commentary, "What Would Jesus Do?" November/December). Professor Callahan should own up to the fact that these are his words. The facts are that the wealth of our nation has lifted the poor; deregulation and welfare reform are very successful; and those who serve in government are mostly well-meaning, public-minded individuals.
Callahan's tasteless conjecture of what would happen if Jesus were invited to a power lunch with President Bush reflected his own disgruntled politics and intellectual snobbery a position not held by 85 percent of the country. If Bush invited Callahan to lunch, he would not go away hungry, regardless of his views.
Right QuestionIn a nation where the top 1 percent of wealth holders controls 39 percent of the wealth and the top 10 percent of wealth holders controls 85 percent of the wealth, it is the duty of a church that seeks "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" to work for a world that reflects those lofty ambitions. Thank you, Richard Gilbert, for asking, "How much do we deserve?"
John J. Bell
Sky's the LimitAlthough I agree with Richard Gilbert that human beings are ends in themselves ("How Much Do We Deserve?" November/December), his proposals violate that principle because they depend on government coercion. If we respect people's inherent worth and dignity, we should trust them to make their own economic decisions instead of being forced to fit someone else's definition of fairness.
The "canon of proportional equality" is particularly bad. A minimum income might be justified for humanitarian needs, but what right does anyone have to put a ceiling on someone's income? The prospect of unlimited success motivates entrepreneurs to create wealth. In a free-market economy people earn whatever their customers choose to pay. They're not taking anything from any third party, so no one else has a right to interfere in that relationship.
In addition to a free market's practical advantages in creating wealth, it also has the moral high ground because it is based on voluntary cooperation among people making their own choices based on their own needs. Free choice has far more dignity than the politics of envy.
Lake Orion, Michigan
Costly FixRichard Gilbert builds much of his discussion on the idea of matching income levels to the social value of each occupation. If public parks are more socially beneficial than private pools, he suggests, then public parks employees should earn more than private pool builders. But if landscape workers for the wealthy were systematically paid less than those working on public parks, would anyone cheer this as a moral victory? Would it really serve the social good to enforce wage scales that effectively make every socially beneficial service more expensive, and therefore more difficult to accomplish?
A free economy consists of billions of relationships, similar to what one finds in a biological ecosystem. If we have reservations about heavy-handed manipulation of the natural environment, maybe we should apply those same reservations to our economic environment. In both cases, when our willingness to "fix" things overpowers the awe we should feel toward such a task, we tend to be left with unintended consequences.
No End in SightRichard Gilbert's "canon of need" suggests that a person who makes no attempt to contribute to society, who takes drugs and robs others to feed his habit, has a right to a share of what others work to produce, but that those who do the work have no right to withhold their share from the freeloader. That's a little hard to take. To maintain that they have a right to a decent living no matter what they do doesn't seem like the soundest way to organize a society.
I quite agree that the distribution of wealth in this country and globally is obscene, immoral, and against the best interests of society as a whole. But we need a vision of a better kind of society and how we might move toward it. How do we induce the people with power to give up some of their wealth to make things more equitable? I not get much help on this question from Gilbert's article.
Muslim SilenceI arrived in the United States as a six-year-old Jewish refugee from Germany on Lincoln's birthday in 1939, lucky and grateful to have found safe haven in America. During the height of the Cold War, I found myself in Germany again, as a member of a U.S. Air Force Intelligence Squadron. I wondered then as I drove by the churches, where were their leaders as Hitler rose to power? They were silent.
My family and I have been Unitarian Universalists for over 30 years. I was the Development Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee from 1967 to 1985. These were the highlight years of my working career. We took members of Congress to Central America to show them what the civil wars down there were all about; I marched in protest lines all over this country to defeat death penalty legislation.
After September 11, I find myself wondering once again why our religious leadership is so silent. Though there have been a few courageous statements from some Muslim clerics, I search in vain for the strong and coordinated voices of that faith's highest and most credible leaders denouncing the actions of their fanatics.
I also searched UU World in vain for words from our newly elected president, William Sinkford, encouraging those questions of the Muslim leadership. It is compassionate and commendable that Unitarian Universalists are, as he says, "walking fearful Muslim children to school" ("Our Calling," November/December). It would be more commendable and even more compassionate if Sinkford asked his Muslim colleagues those harder questions that German religious leaders failed to ask when Hitler came to power, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed, when Jews and other "undesirables" were herded onto trains bound for the "final solution." If we don't ask the right questions now, we will get the wrong answers later.
Gold Canyon, Arizona
CorrectionsWilliam R. Harvey, the Julliard violin student whose performance at the World Trade Center site was described in "Hell on Earth" (January/February, page 32), performed solo for two and a half hours for rescue workers, not four and a half hours as reported in the article. We also listed his church affiliation incorrectly; Harvey grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis, Indiana.
The photograph of an anti-American rally in Pakistan on page 27 ("Breaking the Cycle of Violence," January/February) was improperly attributed. The photograph was by Arif Ali, A.F.P./CORBIS. The credit for the photograph of peace cranes hanging outside of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, featured on page 39 ("The Good We Can Do") and on the table of contents, was also incomplete. The photographer was Dick Kaplan.
UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 8-11.
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