On the eve of the elections and the “increasing heat and decreasing light” of free expression, I think it apropos to remember that in the end it is the torch of reason that should determine how far our first amendment (the right to free speech) is allowed to go.

In the Oct. 4th issue of the Christian Science Monitor, the article “Free Speech, How Free Should it Be?” covered this very topic.  Using many recent examples, among them the US Supreme Court case now underway examining whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, went too far when they staged a protest at a fallen marine’s funeral in Maryland.  The demonstrators hoisted signs proclaiming: “You are going to hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.  Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro church, has made a career out of using blunt and offensive statements to try to shock Americans into joining his crusade against gay rights.  His followers show up at military funerals and announce that God is killing American soldiers for the sins of the country.  Funeral goers are urged to repent…or else.

In Maryland, it was too much for the grieving father, Albert Snyder, to endure.  He sued. The case pits Mr. Snyder’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a church to mourn his son’s passing against the Westboro protesters’ right to chant  harsh slogans and display shocking signs in their campaign for so-called moral salvation for the nation.

The Monitor adds: “The essence of free speech in America is not that you can say whatever you want.  There is no constitutional right to libel someone, or to use ‘fighting words’ that are sure to provoke fisitcuffs…there is no constitutional right to falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  Government regulation of that speech is appropriate because of the predictable outcome of panic.”

Yet we are also a country that can paint a Hitler mustache on the president’s likeness without fear of the government’s wrath (something I personally find utterly deplorable nonetheless), while a poem critical of the King in Jordan can land its writer in jail.

So what is the yardstick?  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis provided a sage response in a 1927 case: “To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.  If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In other words, “It is the principle that the best way to counter a stupid idea, a hateful idea, a dangerous idea, is through the expression of better ideas.” 

Sound advice.  We have been hearing from the rabble rousers, the stirrers of the pot, and the haters for months now.  We must use our first amendment to speak up and out against those who will not let a family bury their dead in peace.  We must vote for those who represent us in the forum of public civil discourse, that will be, well, civil. It is not in yelling back, but in providing thoughtful responses that seek consensus and equanimity that the wonder of our first amendment stands.  If we do not use our first amendment right to counter the “stupid, hateful or dangerous ideas, we have no one to blame but ourselves, and oh yeah, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would say, “the media”!


Paranoia, Fear, Prejudice…what are they?  They are very simply, negative EMOTIONAL states.  The rational mind is frozen, led by the nose by the “instinctive run or be eaten” part of our primal brain that our very distant ancestors needed for survival. 

For a moment, for years, or for a lifetime, it can rack the minds of its owner and worst yet, collectively, a whole population (ie., the mob mentality).  The ‘us vs. them’ mindset is the perfect atmosphere for charlatans and ego-centric politicians to whip up supporters, with sound bytes as rallying cries.  I’ve already talked about the tea partiers in another post, so we won’t go there.  But this mind pollution has tentacles.

In Arizona, they’re pulling people over who look Hispanic, just in case they might be illegal immigrants  (which is absolutely nuts as there is an overwhelming population of Hispanic Americans residing in that state).  The same people who are screaming about our taxes are now cheering as we pay law enforcement big bucks to play “Big Brother” to fight against the illegal “aliens”.  And they don’t find this shoveling “you know what” against the tide? Us vs. them will not work.   

Osama Bin Laden must be gleeful.  The politicians and other pundits have gotten us riled about over the Islamic Center in Manhattan.  He planted the seeds of terror and we ourselves are watering them.  He doesn’t even have to tend the horrifically evil garden he planted.

It was our founding fathers’ explicit wish and was thoughtfully constructed in our Constitution, by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, that our nation would be a place where everyone (Christians, Jews, and Muhammadans (as John Adams refered to them) could have houses of worship and practice as their conscience dictates (never mind community centers).  Us vs. them will not work.

We moderates better be careful.   When we sat by and thought the lunatic temperance movement would pass, we got Prohibition (There would have been no wine for Nun Tuck) . Over the years, paranoia has gotten us McCarthyism, interned Japanese Americans, racism, classicism, sexism and every other ism. 

I’d like to close this frustrated rant with two excerpts from a RATIONAL editorial by John Buchanan in the Christian Century (Sept. 21) :

“In his New York Times column (August 22), Nicholas Kristof wrote about the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan: “For much of American history, demagogues have manipulated irrational fears toward people of minority religious beliefs, particularly Catholics and Jews…Today’s crusaders against the Islamic Community Center are promoting a similar paranoid intolerance, and one day we will be ashamed of it.”…”The most tragic dimension of that irrational fear is the way it is exploited by politicians.  I cannot comprehend how otherwise sane and thoughtful people can conclude that an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate-not to mention dangerous.  It’s not a mosque and it’s not on the site of the World Trade Center twin towers, but even if it were, the right of all Americans to pray and worship how and who and where they choose is one of the most important rights and values of our nation.  It is not negotiable.”    

Who are we REALLY…as a people, as a nation?


You know, with all the ranting and raving that runs the airways these days, the predictably controversial talking heads of radio along with their shouting and outright rude counterparts on television “news” (and I do use the word lightly) programs, one would think we have become a nation of adamant nonsense. What I hear sounds more like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland and less like the lofty ideals imagined by our Forefathers (and Mothers) . The Red Queen ordered shrilly, for any provocation or for none at all, the command “Off with their heads!”… before finding out whose head or why. It was and is a little scary. 

So please let us not confuse our diverse nation with its 50 states and about 310 million individuals and their variant needs and goals with the so-called Patriots, continuing to foam at the mouth, who either:

A. Stir up the pot using self aggrandizing slander of anyone or anything that SEEMS to oppose their fanatically held sound bite views, with the nuance, subtlety, and thoughtfulness of a brick through a plate-glass window. I will not mention any of these personalities by name as I do not want to give them any more free press than they already get.

 B. This group is similar to those of the above, except for instead of making millions by being media pushers, they are politicians.  Sure, money and fame are two of their goals, but their drug of choice is power and staying in it, no matter the cost or without care to their constituency, that has  them shouting, “Foul!” to any idea that “appears” to come from the other side of the aisle.  I say “appears”, because as the non-contrarian media continues to do its job, we find many of these ideas were first proposed by them!! 

C.  Which leads us to the last, and most unfortunate of all of the screaming mimis, more than a few (although not all)  Tea Party members.  When our Boston revolutionaries threw that tea into the harbor, they too were as mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.  Luckily for them, they didn’t have groups A and B using them as pawns and puppets for their own selfish ends.  Many of the members of the Tea Party have legitimate concerns and articulate them, if not convincingly, at least soundly. 

But too many have joined a movement, fiery and passionate, that perhaps gives them a sense of purpose and connection, but it is more like a “loud gong signifying nothing.”  They are being used by those feeding them alarming bits of information WITHOUT CONTEXT. The somewhat sly and charismatic rabble rousers, rich and powerful, know that it is Fear and not Fact that motivates a mob.  

Mark Twain cleverly defined a Patriot as “The person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” How true, wise words from our favorite American humorist. Let’s heed them.  Except for the unavoidable and universal childhood stage that we all must go through and that hopefully passes with age (not dubbed “the terrible twos” for nothing), NO should be something more than a knee jerk reaction to any new idea. Might it be more patriotic, never mind more helpful, to learn to curb our childish impulses to respond to anything, reasonable or not, with NO? 

We may very well be a nation of natural-born contrarians. I love that we can argue about things that matter, in private and in public.  It’s sometimes fun to argue just for argument’s sake to pass the time with friends and family. (Although it’s annoying to be with those who seem to take the opposite opinion in every discussion).  Just the same, we are blessedly free.  With that comes the responsibility to think, to openly weigh both sides of an argument, to be willing to change our opinions. 

So, let’s go to our tea parties and leave the mad hatters with Alice; they may be exciting but they are too damn exhausting.


This past week I was listening to a woman being interviewed on NPR.  She has been volunteering for some weeks now cleaning the thick oil off the pelicans in Louisiana.   Her voice faltered several times as she described the heartache of watching several of them die or struggle with wings to laden to lift.  I hear the weary gratitude when her scrubbing efforts with simple dish soap and water restore a number of these birds towards health.

The photos of oil slicked birds display in Technicolor detail what havoc we humans can wreak on the rest of the animal kingdom in our insatiable need for more. Even if you are the unusual “bird” who doesn’t get too emotional about animals or feel a kinship with nature, amongst the gazillion other lessons we can glean from this disaster, one is the absolute necessity to put our environment before the profits and desires of big business.

We are discovering the hard way that this paradigm of short term gain is actually putting the “people on Main Street” out of their small businesses and livelihoods that have been a family’s source of pride for generations.  We all have become accustomed to being an active consumer in a consumer society (myself included).  So, to a degree, we are all complicit in the continuing crisis.       

One of the sources of healing, that can change our thinking and shift the collective perspective is the wisdom of Celtic spirituality.  Theirs is a language that can guide us to a new or remembered perspective about the creatures (on land and sea) and the landscape we inhabit. As John O’Donohue relates in his book Anam Cara- A Book of Celtic Wisdom, we are the newcomers here: 

“The animals are more ancient than us.  They were here for millenia before humans surfaced on the earth…Animals live outside in the wind, in the waters, in the mountains, and in the clay… (They) know nothing of Freud, Jesus, Buddha, Wall Street, the Pentagon, or the Vatican.  They live the politics of human intention…The Celtic mind recognized the ancient belonging and knowing of the animal world.  The dignity, beauty, and wisdom of the animal world by any false hierarchy or human arrogance.”

Instead, Celtic spirituality was a reservoir of stories that told of the union between animals and humans.  These tales fastened us to the wild landscape, grounding ourselves as a part of the circle of life, not as apart.  

My friend Kim has a saying she often uses for when her deepest intuition guides her to make a difficult decision or leads her to a clear perspective.  She says, “I know it in my knowings.”  That’s what Celtic spirituality calls us to.  Not to heed the heated and divisive mob mentality, but to listen in stillness to a saner, less selfish approach. 

Instead of “drill baby drill”, what we have gotten is “spill baby spill”.  This too shall pass (with a heavy toll for years to come), but LET’S LEARN THE LESSON IT IS TRYING TO TEACH US.


I know, I usually end the post with a book and quote of the day, but today I’m switching things up a bit.  I’m beginning with them.  This one’s from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being:

“Does God stick a finger in, if only now and then?  Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help?  Is heaven pliable?  Or is praying eudamonistically (praying for thing and events, for rain and healing) delusional?…Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power (mechanism unknown) to tilt the balance.  Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia…I don’t know.  I don’t know  beans about God.”  

This passage struck me as particularly pertinent to a conversation I was having with a friend today.  We were discussing those that believe in fate and those who label the same events as coincidences, and how they both describe very different ways of seeing and interpreting what happens in the world (on both a public and personal level). While, in the end, we were decidedly fatalists (thinking that some Higher Power has a divine, mysterious, and overarching plan) for the oftentimes messy but nonetheless exquisite Tapestry of Life. Yet we were also in a quandary. 

My Dad had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) about 10 years ago, an ugly tyrant of a disease. He was willing to be a guinea pig of sorts at the teaching hospitals in the Boston area.  He had faith that either someone would make a discovery that would help him suffer less, or maybe even cure him. If not, it would eventually help someone else.  That’s the kind of person he was, a lover of humanity.  He died, not as gruesomely as some, but still a beautiful soul imprisoned by his very own  body. 

My father was one of the most spiritual people I have ever had the blessing to know in a deep and meaningful way. I say this, not just as his daughter, but as an admirer among many. The faith he has gifted to me can be summed up as this: “S…t happens”, we are ultimately not in charge, and while God is not the Candyman handing out treats and granting wishes, we can be assured that some Good will be created from any and all tragedy. 

I guess you could say that some people are just born optimists, they were genetically predisposed to see the glass as half full.  One could argue that it is simply the more pragmatic of personality types that logically bend towards a philosophy of coincidence.  Both would be missing the larger point: the notion of CHOICE.  Against all odds, we humans can choose to find meaning.  To look at desparate circumstances, and still find a reason to go on, to smile, to grow, that is part of our legacy of being human.  In fact, whether “God sticks a finger in” or not, this paradigm empowers us to do amazing things.

Most Americans say that God helps with them with personal decisions.  In the March issue of The Sociology of Religion, a national survey found that 82% depend on God for help and guidance in making life choices.  Seventy-one percent believe that when good or bad things happen, these occurrences are simply part of God’s plan for them.  In addition, participants with more education and higher income were less likely to report beliefs in divine intervention.  But among the well-educated and higher earners, those who were more involved in religious rituals reported similar levels of beliefs about divine intervention as their less-educated and less financially well-off peers.

We may be given good news about an ailing relative’s healing or we may get a phone call that one we have loved has passed away.  Either way, I believe God, or Higher Power, or  He/She/It, or Whatever is greater than yourself is present, providing strength and comfort.  As to any definitives,  I don’t know.  I don’t know beans about God, either.

Mother’s Day Wasn’t Always Hearts and Flowers

Today we celebrated Mother’s Day.  In our culture, like many other occasions and events, it is a holiday that has become a commercial windfall.  Cards, flowers, chocolates, clothing, and jewelry sales all get a boost.  It is the busiest day of the year for restaurants. 

But it’s beginnings come from the suffering of the working poor (in the grit of post-war Southern lives)  and the grief of mothers, wives, and sisters of men who came home from the Civil War on both sides,  broken, maimed, vacant…or who didn’t come home at all. 

Some credit the original Anna Jarvis, a working class woman of West Virginia who was disheartened by the sanitary conditions and the mortality rates of the area in which she lived and toiled.  Out of her 13 children, only 4 of Javris’ survived.  She called for a Mother’s Day in 1858, establishing women’s work clubs to reform and improve the lives of women and children.      

Two years after her death, in the year 1907, her daughter, also Anna Jarvis, began to hold a memorial for her mother and began a campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized commemoration, which it finally became in 1914.   

Another woman instrumental in the movement to forming a national holiday for mothers (to empower women in a meaningful way) was Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910).  A  social activist  and abolitionist, Howe rallied for a Mother’s Day for Peace in 1870, where women all across the country could come out and gather in peaceful demonstrations against war in all its forms.  Ironically, Howe is best known as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Rebublic (a popular Union “fight” song), yet felt compelled to imagine and create forums for peace as the realities of war came home to her in the devastation of returning soldiers, widowed and orphaned families.  She dedicated the rest of her life to the causes of pacifism and suffrage.

Both Howe and Jarvis were outraged in their lifetimes by any commercial gain from a recognition of a Mother’s Day.  It was a day to pray and join together for peace, to remember mothers (living and deceased), to honor and support the work of mothers everywhere.  The printed greeting cards and chocolates were banal substitutes for real affection and social justice.

And while I, today, was the happy and grateful recipient of gifts, heart felt cards, and a wonderful restaurant meal from my own brood, it also good for me to be present with all of the women who came before me to make my day (of equality, freedom, and relative ease) possible.  It is also important for me to remain in solidarity with all the women of the world for whom those gifts of liberty have not yet been given.  Complacency is an insidious and  lethal anesthetic. 

I will hold my joys and  sorrows as a mother together with the joys and sorrows of those past and present with my whole heart.

Hymn of the Day: The Battle Hymn of the Rebuplic by Julia Ward Howe  (not imagery for the meek or mild, but rather a call to action) 

Quote from the Hymn of the Day: “He is coming like the morning on the glory of the wave/He is wisdom to the mighty/He is honor to the brave/His Truth is marching on….”

*An historical side note: (Julia’s husband, Samuel Howe, was the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA and her maternal grandfather, Willilam Greene, was the governor of Rhode Island).  Religiously, she was both a Unitarian and member of the Society of Friends.


I ended yesterday’s post with a thought from Forrest Church, who in his full life of serving as the senior minister for All Souls Church in NYC, as the author of a host of spiritual books, and as a committed and articulate champion of  Unitarian Universalism, was also able to say yes to Jesus without acquiescing to any of the supernatural implications, creeds, or dogmas.   

Like the liberal theological stock that came before him , Church was able to bring forth his ideas, using the light of reason.  His voice, along with others in American Unitarian Christianity (and Universalism), emerge from a common historical prism and context.  While today there is a great variance of beliefs amongst congregations and congregants (this is an understatement!), they each evolved from the Age of Enlightenment. Yet…

All of this was seated in an era which began in Western Europe with theories of philosophical and scientific luminaries the likes of (DesCartes, 1633 and Issac Newton, 1688, respectively),who  gave the human mind preeminent status over the rest of the body.  This glorification of human reason,which would in hindsight have its own set of limitations, allowed for fresh breezes to blow through the unyielding and sometimes suffocating interpretation of scripture and tradition. 

While hotly contested, many theologians and parishioners began to believe that the meaning in Christianity should be focused more on this life and less on the here after.  It is what Jesus said and did that were paramount, not who he was or wasn’t.  These faithful did not consider themselves to be blasphemers or even heretics.  They simply felt that this was the natural and logical progression of Christian faith, whose seeds of dissent were planted at the time of the Reformation (1517) and were borne from the much rockier soil of turbulent Jerusalem.    

William Ellery Channing, educated in the Congregational spirit at Harvard, became the foremost Unitarian preacher in the U.S. during this time of widening and shifting viewpoints. Channing extolled the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.  Noting in his sermons, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Likeness to God”, we could choose to reject the notion of divine election put forth by the Calvinists or the idea of human nature coming from a state of total depravity, and instead believe in human goodness and human potential.

“We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity…to us, as to the Apostle and primitive Christians, there is one God, ever the Father.  With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God.  We are astonished that any man (person) can read the New Testament and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”

Today’s Unitarian Universalists form a wide swath of belief;  there are those who believe in a traditional God, another kind of God, no God, or Something Else. Like Channing and his fellow theologians, among them Henry Ware, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, UU’s bring to Reason their American sensibilities, namely, freedom and democracy. It has been this contagious spirit of liberty that has allowed God talk  to continue to evolve, in many ways unfettered, in the universities, the pulpit, and the pews.  Combined with the rapid and dramatic changes in the world in the past several centuries, in the areas of science, technology, business, and warfare (the first two World Wars taking place in the 20th century) the conversation continues, always rendering more questions.    

Book of the Day, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Essays, Kathleen Rolenz, “Unitarian Universalists need Jesus, too. First of all, we need to connect with our own history.  We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jesus.  We neglect our own history at our peril. We also must become more comfortable with traditional religious language.  We must be able to speak the language of another’s religious tradition without hesitation or fear.  we don’t want a marginalized faith on the world’s stage.  And finally, I believe we must genuinely embrace the religious diversity of our own church members-including the Christians among us.


The Unitarian and Universalist movements are quintessentially American in their ideals.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “Unitarianism, ere long, will be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt”. (Oops, Thomas.) In addition, during the late 17th and early 18th century, the Universalists were the 6th largest denomination in the U.S.  (Yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, neither of these faiths were focused on promoting their religion while many other denominations were primarily intent on building large numbers of  converts.)

Still, a great many important figures in American history were prominent members of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Before discussing them however, it is important to say a few words about what was  happening “across the pond” as a necessary preamble to placing the two movements (now one religion) into context.

The antitrinitarian Michael Servetus whose heretical ideas of the Unity of God was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.  In Transylvania, Francis David (a Catholic bishop) preached “Unitarian” ideals around 1560.  His words, “We need not think alike to love alike” are still spoken by Unitarians today. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and died there in 1579.  His contemporary, Faustus Socinus was an Italian scholar who developed a school of thought known as socinianism while in Poland and Transylvania. These ideas were the forerunners of  Unitarianism. 

 The English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, known for discovering the gas oxygen and inventing soda water (1733-1804)embraced socinian ideas, and developed a Unitarian congregation in England.  He was so persecuted for his beliefs, he left England for Pennsylvania, where he founded the first Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1793.    

The American Universalists were initially from England, but after settling in Pennsylvania (a mecca of religious liberty), they added to their ranks a combination of immigrant Anabaptists from Germany, Moravians from the area of Czechoslovakia, and the Quakers of England and Holland.  While these variant Protestant denominations differed in certain beliefs, they all agreed on the universal salvation of every person after death…no eternal damnation.  Their first official church was in Philadelphia by Elhanan Winchester, who also printed the first German bible in America.  

So, some were mainline Protestants, others were progressively liberals, and all took an optimists’ view of God.

While I will (in some future post) go into more detail on the deeper history of on Unitarianism and Universalism and their somewhat recent union, here is the promised (not exhaustive) list of UU contributors to our country:

John Adams (2nd president of the US) /  Abigail Adams (“Remember the women”) /  John Quincy Adams (6th president of the US)/    Millard Filmore (13th president of the US)  / Dorothea Dix (a social reformer, activist for the mentally ill, instrumental in creating the first hospitals for the mentally ill, also Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War)/ Susan B. Anthony (suffragette, allowing the women the vote) / Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer, minister, and philosopher)/Louisa May Alcott (writer, famous for Little Women) / Herman Melville (writer, famous for Moby Dick)/ Horace Mann (father of our public school education system) /  Thomas Jefferson (not officially, but in spirit) / William James (Father of American psychology)/  Nathaniel Hawthorne (writer, famous for The Scarlet Letter) / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (prolific poet and writer) / Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) /  PT Barnum (Circus Fame and benefactor of Tufts University) / Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone)/Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse Code) / Walt Whitman (writer and poet, famous for Leaves of Grass) /      Fannie Farmer (cook and cookbook writer)/George Pullman (inventor of the railroad sleeping car)/ Paul Revere (patriot and silversmith)/ Linus Pauling (Chemist, Peace activist, winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, considered the Father of Molecular Biology)/  Henry David Thoreau (naturalist, philosopher, writer of Walden Pond)/  William Ellery Channing (foremost early preacher of Unitarianism in the US, his approach was a gentle, loving relationship with God, grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence)

The common thread that ran through the lives of these writers, social reformers, politicians, scientists, ministers, inventors, business tycoons, and patriots, was the call to live out their convictions about justice, freedom, liberty, and love in action.  They did not just think about these lofty ideals, they used their talents and time in ways they made a difference.  Today’s Unitarian Universalists are called to the same task. 

Book of the Day, Lifecraft by Forrest Church

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I do my best to follow Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes (on my good days) I call myself a Christian, but given the manifold possibilities for discovering and creating meaning, I cannot embrace a dogmatic creed, even one established in Jesus’ name.”


Several months ago, I was casually listening to a piece on NPR when I was stirred, no, perhaps more accurately shaken, out of my decidedly complacent Unitarian Universalist perch.  A fellow on the airwaves had lost his religion and feeling very happy and free about it, wanted to share his experience with the rest of us, in the form of a book he had written.  Most of it was pretty standard fare-devout Christian background (Episcopalian I believe-but you could fill in the blanks here- I have heard Catholics and Southern Baptists relate similar tales), followed by feelings of disillusionment, first with their particular brand of religion, and then belief all together. 

Callers ranged from those wanting to cajole him back to some sort of faith, ones who wanted to argue, and a much smaller number calling to say, “Good for you.”  But when one caller asked if this gentleman had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church or considered the UU faith, he responded, “Unitarianism is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, what’s the point?”

I suppose if this were just one man’s opinion on a talk radio show, I would have just let it slide.  But it’s not.  Over the years, my mother has affirmed, “Unitarian Universalism, it’s not even a religion really; it’s more like a philosophy.” My friends ask if we ever even talk about God in our services, never mind Jesus. 

Mostly, I get condescending little chuckles at social events and the like, conveying a good-natured tolerance of my folly.  Sometimes it’s a small, woeful smile, an “Oh, you’re one of those.”  What they mean, of course, is that I am a member of a loosey goosey, Birkenstock wearing, noncommittal, not as legitimate as their faith, only “kind of” a  church.  And aside from having a liberal bent, I can attest to having none of these attributes.   

As a trained theologian who arrived at my faith by a long process which involved both head and heart, I feel compelled to respond to that off-handed comment.  To infer that there is no meaningful effect on one’s life and the community or no tangible compass by being a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith is simply wrong.  It continues to be perpetuated by the reticence of Unitarians to feel that they are trying to “sell” their faith to anyone combined with the fact that other religions in the U.S. have most successfully evangelized theirs. 

It’s a tenaciously held prejudice, a myth propelled by a shroud of misinformation, which I attempt here to dispel.  It has become abundantly clear to me that the time has come for someone to defend this little known, oft misunderstood faith.  So,  following in the tradition of the early Christian Apologists, remembering Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, defenders of their young faith amidst an onslaught of skeptics and persecutors, (while unlike them, without the fear of being martyred), I hereby humbly submit a Unitarian Universalist Apology to the mainstream Protestants, fundamentalist Christians, and all strata of Roman Catholics of these United States of America.

Theologically speaking, I am going to climb out on a limb here and state that Unitarianism has been around since the first groups of Christians were meeting to worship God and Jesus in their own physical locations and with their own unique emphasis.  This went on for several hundred years in a relatively non confrontational way (amongst the Christians themselves at least) until 320 or so, when the lack of uniformity posed a threat to the social and political order of Constantine I (the first Roman Catholic emperor). His desire was that these “divisions” be quelled.

Citizens were certainly having heated arguments over who exactly Jesus Christ was, what his relationship with God the Father was, and whether he was God or not.  There were a host of variant but equally passionate opinions; there were almost as many ideas about Jesus as there were people to convey them. These discussions were taking place in  local shops, at the bakery, the dinner table; it was the topic of the day.  

The debate took on an increasingly ferocious nature as Arius, a priest from Egypt, and his followers (Arians) believed that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father.  There was a time that Jesus was not.  God was the Eternal One, a Unity unto Himself.  The seeds of Unitarianism planted.  His opponent, Athanasius, a priest also from Alexandria, hostilely disagreed (an influential predecessor to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity).  Not only was Jesus cosubstantial with the Father, so was the Holy Spirit. They all had been around since the beginning of time.

When Constantine demanded coherence and orthodoxy as the Church became an accepted political force, 22 bishops descended upon Nicaea in 325CE to determine an official theology.  Athanasius’ theology won the day. Arius was labeled a heretic (318CE) (a sentiment libeled against Unitarians over the ages).  He was excommunicated, banished, and many say, finally poisoned.

Open and lively discussions were then funneled from a continuous stream of diverse dialogue to a (one size does not fill all) limit imposing creed.   The vague philosophical language being bandied about (substance, cosubstantial, coeternal) were conjured up by the closed circle of bishops and religious authorities. Political power and not spiritual presence was the real motivation for these councils and their formulas. 

Yet the conversation still continues, with heretics still having their say…tomorrow I will share some of the American voices that embraced the Oneness of God and the belief in universal salvation.

Book of the DayA House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker    

Quote from the Book of the Day-“Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” my grandmother once asked me.  “We aren’t saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.  People who believe that focus on hocus-pocus and avoid having to live out the teaching of Jesus.  We are saved by every person in every time and place that has stood up for what is true in spite of threat.  Like Socrates did.  Like Jesus did.  Like many others have done.”

A Brief Overview of the Shi’a Sects

Here is the final of three posts on a brief bird’s eye view of the sects within the Muslim faith.  For the Shi’a, it is important to recognize that they have always been somewhat of an underdog to the Sunnis.  That is why a Shi’a movement of considerable note was Isma’ilism, as it gave rise to the major dynasties of the medieval Islamic world , rivaling the Sunni kingdoms for a time.  When Ismai’ilism was overthrown by the famous Sunni leader Saladin, the sect was split into two groups.  Some became Musta’lian, following the caliph Mustansir (now called Bohra)  while others followed his brother Nizar. Today, most Ismail’ilis are Nizaris, whose Imam is known as the Aga Khan.   

An offshoot of the Nizaris became the radical order called Assassins. They were never considered mainstream Muslims in any way.  Instead, this militant extremist group of Ismaili’s (Imams of the Nizari line) radically opposed the Sunni majority (since the 11th c.) and their purpose was to overthrow Sunni leadership.  They would target a single victim and set out alone with only a dagger.  They were called assassin from the word hashishiyya as they were thought to either be under the influence of hasish or simply acting like hasish addicts with bizarre behavior.    

The Druze sect is more or less a secret religious sect located in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.  No one is permitted either to leave or to join their community. 

The Alawis are an extremist sect located mostly in Turkey and Syria.  They are deviant to most other Shi’a sects and all Sunnis.  They are an important minority however as the Asad family, the Syrian presidential “monarchy”, are Alawis.

The most influential of the Shi’a sects currently are the Shi’a Twelvers.  This sect began in 765 CE.  After a succession of 12 generations of Imams after Ali, the 12th Imam disappeared circa 814, leaving no successor. This 12th Imam is known as the “hidden Imam”, a Messianic figure who will return in God’s good time.

Shi’a Twelvers played a significant historical  role in the change in the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a all over the Middle East that remains today.  In the 16th century, (the Safavid dynasty, who were Twelvers) seized power back from the Sunnis and reunified Persia (Iran).  They then reconstituted the ancient empire and resumed the ancient title of Shah, used by the emperors of the pre-Islamic era.  They proclaimed Twelver Shiism to be the state religion of the Iranian realm.   This marked them off from their Sunni neighbors in the Ottoman lands to the west, India in the east, and central Asia in the north resulting in a struggle for control of the border province of Iraq-long contested.      

Since the beginning of Islamic rule, Iran and Iraq are the only countries with Shi’a majorities. Their sense of competition for supremacy in the Middle East, has created a different mind set for authority.  Emerging from the centuries old experience of Sunni dominance and the resulting Shi’a subordination are seen all the social and psychological consequences of this reality. For instance, the Shi’a of Iran in the late 19th century created a new title, the Ayatollah, the supreme guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a kind of Pope lite, thereby creating ultimate and sovereign power.

Yet the continuing economic strife in most of the Muslim states, along with the influence of the secular world, and access to a constant stream of information, makes the longevity of enforced religious law and ultimate human authority tenuous at best.      

Quote of the day, from the wisdom of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. / Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children./And look into space; outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain./You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.