Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why I'm Getting More Calvinistic, Part Deux

First of all, if you're interested in this issue you should read all the smarty-pants comments and recommendations in the previous post.

I've got a lot of good summer reading to add to the pile, including Dorrien's essay.

So I'm puzzling through this, and I suspect some of the recommended readings will help me. It also helps me to consider what both Philocrites and Fausto have said: namely, that what's missing from UUism is careful discernment of theological claims we've been fairly casually making for a long time (too long, really), and realism in our religion. What I see in contemporary UUism is this kind of pushing back the night with our humanist will, i.e., "we know it's terrible but you and I can make a difference!"
And we can, and of course we need to keep preaching and living that.

But we're I'm coming down is that while I believe in natural religion and an instinctual sense of the Moral Law (because,as Channing so beautifully posited, we're possessed of God's own nature), what I'm coming down to is a personal conviction that --whether within religious communities OR left to our own devices -- we're more prone to delusion and justification, sin and erring, than to virtue.

Why? Not necessarily because that's how we were made (a la the Puritans' idea) but because our age is so fraught with toxins of body, mind and spirit that we are functioning less well morally as a species because of them.

Many of our daily practices (like spending hours on the internet, for instance, gathering points of view, articles and conversation) subject us to such an onslaught of perspectives, while our lack of sleep and sabbath rest, overstimulation, environmental and dietary poisons, goods and services to feed our myriad addictions available 24 hours a day (a new thing under the sun, indeed!) and rampant materialism -- not to mention the dozens of other temptations and anxieties to which our age is prone -- have what I am certain is a highly deleterious effect on our moral sense.

As a modern gal, I do believe that a lot of our moral sense is developed along with our cerebral cortex, and I think that not only are our children's attention spans shrinking due to Electronic Childhood, but their moral reasoning also suffers. Meanwhile, their parents are spinning out on life lived the speed of light, with constant media buzzing in their brain, every possible entertainment, pleasure, distraction and indulgence available to them in either fact or in fantasy, and daily evidence that the seven deadly sins aren't so much deadly as just great fodder for consumption over the Stairmaster via Dr. Phil.

I suppose every age believes it's especially corrupt. Don't think that while I'm writing this I don't feel like a 21st century Cotton Mather. Which I'm not sure is such a bad thing.


Blogger Kim said...

OK, I'm confused. You said (I think) that you were beginning to think that we are inherantly bad (Calvinism) but now you say it's the modern culture that is making us bad. I would say, that makes it not "inherant". We are certainly easily swayed by the culture we are in, and formed by the culture we are in -- after all, we are social animals, and don't really exist outside of our culture.
Here is a Russian Folk Tale that speaks to this issue:

I certainly agree that our culture is excessively materialistic and individualistic. We need to work on that. As I see it, cultures go through waves of spiritual/material "corrections". Isn't that why religions periodically need Reformations?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Kim, believe me. I'm confused, too.

Blogger Jaume said...

I find both the Rousseaunian "inherently good" and the Calvinistic "inherently depraved" views equally simplistic and actually as preconceptions / prejudices about the human being. A friend of mine and a Spanish-Catalan UU as well, told me once: "Unitarianism is not about believing and ignoring all that we have seen happening in the world, but about believing *after* all that we have seen happening." I thought it was a very insightful response. It is about spiritual and moral maturity, about acknowledging our Shadow and learning to live with it. It reminds me of that often-quoted phrase, "optimism of the will", which is much more existential than we usually are willing to admit. And it brings me to Beckett, that wonderful 20th-century theologian who was born 100 years ago. It is about keep waiting, rather than hanging ourselves from the tree, which would perhaps be the most reasonable attitude, things being as they are...

Sorry that I do not participate in any kind of flirting with Calvin. I'm too much of a Servetian to do that.

Blogger Wally Nut said...

I know of a 14 year old who sat in her conselors's office and confronted the classmate who was bullying her, and looked her straight in the face and said, "I don't like it when you do that to me," with so much power and integrity that the bully said she was sorry and it would not haopen again, and meant it. I see ripples going into the future, where bully remembers this day twenty years from now and traces her own integrity back to that moment. Some may call me naive, but twenty years ago, those who were bullied learned to "take it" or became bullies themselves, or internalized "victim energy." What that 14 year old girl exuded was "moral sense," the kind that will not accept abusive practices into her life, but will also expect moral sense from the abuser. I do not remember seeing such fiber amongst my peers when I was that age, and certainly not in myself. Children like her do not have Guilt like we had it, but they have integrity and they have compassion, but it is the kind of compassion that expects morality from others, but also doesn't sugar coat it when it isn't there. Myself, I am more and more hopeful each year.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Jaume, your comments make clear to me that I have changed as a result of ministering within a community. When I was grappling only with my *own* shadow side, or with the shadow side of evil people I read about and could keep a distance from, I was content to stay far from Calvin and put my trust in Jung.

My change is occurring as I encounter the deep delusional brokenness and narcissism of the religious liberal who abuses and exploits, lies and denies, and continues to affirm that their own PERSONAL religion (made up from preferred bits and pieces of whatever philosophy strikes their fancy through the years) is far superior to anything the conservatives could design, or that might be arrived at by the wisdom of a GROUP (any group at all).
This kind of person assiduously promotes the goodness of "Building Your Own Theology" while never considering that such an approach renders each participant his or her own demi-god, creator of their own moral order and justification for sin or virtue.

To me, religious maturity in the UU context is not merely acknowledging the Shadow side while one goes merrily on avoiding church and theological systems that one can't subscribe to simply on the principle that we ought never to subscribe to a theological system. This attitude is our undoing, as it promotes incoherence and narcissism at the deepest level of community and of being.
Maturity among us lies in acknowledging that the Unitarian Universalist claims to truth -- whether individual or communal-- must be tested, questioned and honed not against what we proclaim as a movement, but how truly whole we are as individuals and as congregations.
And we are no better than any religious community, although we constantly, CONSTANTLY smugly proclaim that we are. We are hypocrites of the highest order.

My argument with our individualized Designer Religion approach isn't that I doubt the ability of some of our adherents (maybe even most of them) to take the theological endeavor seriously, it's that this philosophy has eroded our efforts toward theological education from the pulpit and in the religious education classroom (on the child and adult levels). Our claims must now be so vague and elementarily humanist that we have silenced ourselves from teaching and debating a rich, real theological tradition that we have inherited, and which of course was Theistically centred until very recently in our history.

In tacitly agreeing that we have no tradition to teach, we have abandoned our people to the shallows of spiritual faddism and left them alone to craft a personal religion with no acknowledgment that they might, along the way, fall into snares and sins of delusion in what they devise.

Furthermore, we have poisoned our congregations by persuading them that the primary responsibility of the UU religious community is to protect their individual right to concoct any religion that pleases them, and then we wonder why our religion fails to thrive. It's because we don't have one; rather, we have a house full of "only children" who mistakenly believe that their liberal religious inheritance is threatened by the presence of other children.

Unitarianism on paper is a brilliant religious tradition. I don't need any persuading of that. Unitarianism in my head is just perfect. If I only had to live it in my head as a religious philosophy, I'd hold it up as the hope of the world. However, it doesn't live in my head; it lives in our people.

And our people have shown me that to center an entire theological tradition on trust in the individual conscience is a mistake. Because of this dawning awareness, I return to the Puritan roots of our American stream and see what value I can recover from it.

Blogger fausto said...

I don't think you have to go back that far. Except for a few Emersonian moonbeams who always were the disorganized minority, I think trust in the integrity of individual conscience is a much more recent phenomenon. I do agree, though, that declining to preach with vigor the wisdom and insight, and yes, (gasp) doctrine of our own authentic, collective religious tradition is a grievous failure.

Blogger Dunno said...

Well I am by no means as immersed in the writings of our UU predecessors as several of you, but I do not a little bit about phil of religion. And I think that it is worth pointing out that the choice not necessarily between Augustinean original sin and some namby-namby-we are-all-saints-at-heart view. There is an ancient Christian tradition, older than the Augustinian story, that takes us to be born not in sin, but incomplete. Moral personality cannot be bestowed, but must be achieved. It through such soul/person-making that we can come to communion with God. This is the Iranaean view, that in the late 20th century was further developed by John Hick.

Blogger fausto said...

Here's a good Puritan notion to get your head around, though: Personal discernment through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is indeed the ultimate spiritual authority, but such discernment must be tempered through the collective discernment of the covenanted, mutually obligated community, or else it lapses into dangerous antinomianism.

The history of the Puritan tradition has been a history of the competing tensions between the excessive legalism of covenantal and doctrinal obeisance and the excessive freedom of undisciplined personal discernment. UUism today stands within the history of the Puritan tradition, but close to the antinomian extreme.

Blogger Oversoul said...

For anyone with nothing better to do, I've responded to this on my blog.

PB yours is a voice that needs to be heard, loud and strong.

Blogger SC Universalist said...

I'm not sure that ive following the conversation too well - of course that's not surprising coming from a guy who thinks that Calvinism is just about the pre-selected not having to worry about anything.....and the non=pre-selected having plenty. I have no idea if you've embraced that or not - - or are using the term to describe our nature of good and evil.
Are babies by nature sinners?

- but what Im seeing in this thread, instead are concerns about the "anything goes" and "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" nature of some folks in (our) congregations.
And of course, plenty of others in non-UU congregations and in no congregations fit there as well (which might be your calvinistic complaint - we're all no darn good).
As comforting as it would be for me, just to quote the various anti-calvinists (starting with the classic soundbite: Is a baby a sinner and damned to hell with birth?), but instead I will go and say, yes' you're right: Not everything goes, and do what you wanta do is not the law at all.
Historicaly the church has been used to send the moral message needed in one's era. Obiously in our time, that moral message includes that "not everything goes". Maybe not because we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, but because there is indeed (as i believe) "the certainty of just retribution for sin".
If we are still preaching the moral teachings needed for a previous generation - my rapidly aging generation - and continue to offer moral instructions that was needed 35 years ago, then yes, we will reap what we sew...


Blogger Jaume said...

PB, your concerns about narcissism are quite right. Actually I am dealing with that in my little paper on U+U identity that I am to deliver next July in Kolozsvar. I would say that narcissism is a degeneration of a Self-centered (please note the uppercase) spirituality just as fanaticism and intolerance may be the dark side of a revelation-centered religion. On the other hand, at its best, a spirituality that relies upon the Self can be life-affirming and oriented toward dignity and justice, just as a revelation-centered spirituality can be loving and inspiring. Since the Enlightened Community does not exist, we have to deal with this imperfection of human nature. OTOH I think that each of us as an individual is not inherently superior to other people just because we are UUs. But, while admitting our many shortcomings as individuals who profess a faith, I have no problem to say openly that, as a religious tradition, Unitarianism is, in my view, a superior alternative to most religions. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I would be stupid to be in a religion that I feel to be inferior to others, and I should switch religion immediately in order not to be even more stupid for being aware of that and not doing anything about it. I want to be a part of the best possible religion, therefore I will stay as long as I feel that UUism is, plainly speaking, better. If we, as individual UUs, fail to match the potential of our religion, it is, again, our own responsibility.

Blogger Jaume said...

sc universalist, I just loved your Crowley quote. I am reading Crowley's biography by L. Sutin after having read a lot about the G.D. and the Thelemic orders, and the guy was both crazy and fascinating and terrible. I think that our Neo-Pagan friends among us should also know Uncle Beast a bit better, in order to know their own religion better as well.

Blogger Ron said...

Heard a sermon once in which the UU preacher pointed out how inherently "rude, selfish, etc." that babies are (in addition of course to their other fine qualities for sure) and that the process of culture is to modify that inherent and natural at the time rudeness. This doesn't equate with my sense of evil (so I can't say that babies are evil by any stretch), except it is where evil comes from when it isn't modified and the babies become older. So here is the nod to both the confusion of natural and cultural influences mentioned above by Kim and PB.

And how does that modification happen? More and more I adhere to that axiom, with theological overtones, that people change more from feeling the heat than seeing the light.

Not sure though that in a deeper sense that removes all Arminianism from me, or eternal optimism. Maybe it makes me more of a believer in God that provides us with ample opportunities to both feel the heat and see the light.

Blogger Kevin M said...

You're absolutely right, Peacebang, that we are more prone to delusion and justification, sin and erring, than to virtue. But despite what you say, the reason is that this is how we were made, not by God (a la the Puritans) but through natural selection. If you want to deepen your reflection on these issues, I recommend you read some evolutionary psychology. The book that got me rethinking my humanist assumptions about human nature was "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. It's a bit of a polemic but it's very thought-provoking and worthwhile. Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" may be even more germaine to your concerns, but I haven't read it yet (it's still on the pile).

I talked about this in more length on Philocrites' thread this morning. I really don't think our age is particularly "fraught with toxins;" I think the problem of evil is pretty consistent and pretty deeply entrenched in our nature, and that efforts to blame evil on our shifting social and historical circumstances skirt the issue. (Not that stress and materialism are good things, or that there's nothing we can do to improve our circumstances and our behavior.) But I find that science has given me the most sophisticated and useful set of tools yet for considering evil: both an intellectually acceptable account of its origins and solid guidance on how to address it.

Blogger Kim said...

Ron -- what do you mean by "feel the heat and see the light. "? Is it like Lakoff's divisions of rule by fear and rule by love?

Kevin mentioned "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. I've read it, and, though Pinker himself says the evidence he presents says we are more depraved than virtuous, I disagree. I think the evidence Pinker presents argues for humans being essentially evenly balanced between "good" and "evil".

Blogger Ron said...

Kim asked about "feel the heat" and "see the light" in my earlier post. I wasn't thinking of Lakoff but of behavior therapy...maybe it is just the parent in me these days more than the theologian.

People are extremely resistant to change. That says something about human nature and Arminianism. Recent study showed that only one in ten change behaviors even when faced with death, and I was a little surprised it was so high. Those that do change most often will change only from feeling the consequences (heat) of action; or to put it another way when others change in relation to them, or in some way their world has changed around them first, then "seeing the light" of that change may help them to follow suit and learn to adapt and change in their already changed environment. Friedman and family/congregational systems theory is a guide here.

And yet, and yet, the mission of the church as I see it is to change lives and communities, so they both better reflect God's world as revealed by Jesus. And I've seen change happen. How it happens is the ages-old dialogue.


Post a Comment

<< Home