Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wrong Question

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race creates the hypercomputer "Deep Thought" to figure out the Answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, the Universe, and Everything. After 7.5 million years of computation, Deep Thought provides the answer, which it affirms has been carefully checked for accuracy. The answer is 42.

It turns out that Deep Thought was asked for the answer, but no one ever determined what the question really was. It seems that Earth was then created as a vastly more powerful computer, run by mice, to figure out what the question was--or should have been. Earth, alas, was destroyed--in order to build a hyperspace bypass--five minutes before the question would have been figured out.

It has been said that we Unitarian Universalists are less concerned with having the right answer than we are with asking the right question. There's a legitimate explanation for this--it's because the answer can be no better and no more illuminating than the question that is being answered. And, as Douglas Adams' work points out, the answer is often meaningless if you don't even know what the question was.

Unitarian Universalists practice a religion that puzzles many outside it. Their questions show their confusion. They ask things like "What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?" and "Do you believe in God?" or "Do you believe in the Bible?" The answers we give are good answers, in the sense that they are accurate and that we offer them intending to be helpful. Our answers generally sound something like this "Well, some of us believe this, and others believe that, but still others believe differently still." Or we tell them "Some of us do, and some of us don't. But you'll very often hear us read passages from it or quote it during our services, either way." And we tell them that "Some of us believe in God, while others believe in a different sort of God, and some of us believe in several or many gods, and some of us are quite certain that there isn't any god at all."

Not surprisingly, our earnest questioners are puzzled, and frustrated. They feel they've been told the answer is 42.

The problem is that we're being asked the wrong question. Unitarian Universalism is not about what we believe. We are not a creedal faith.

The question that should be asked of us is "How have you agreed to be?" (meaning together, and in the larger world) , because we are a covenantal religion, based in what we have agreed and committed ourselves to.

What I believe, and what you believe, may be very interesting. We actually spend quite a bit of time and effort helping each other figure out what we--individually--believe. But we accept that our beliefs are, and can be, quite diverse, because as long as those beliefs permit and encourage us to be, in the ways that we are committed to, they're all equally acceptable to us.

This leads me to two points. I'm going to simply affirm the first, because I've made it before, in a slightly different context. When someone asks you what we believe, or any of those other questions, don't tell them that the answer is 42. Tell them that they're asking the wrong question. Tell them what the right question is, and what the answer to that question is.

Here's my version of that;
We are a covenantal religion. We are bound together because we affirm and commit ourselves to certain principles, in our worship, within our community, and in our dealings with the larger community. We firmly believe that we have an obligation to ourselves, to each other, and to all the world to work for peace, for justice, and for the improvement of life here and everywhere, for all people and all the earth.
The second point needs more attention from us.

Reading the Bible, one notices a pattern regarding covenants. There are covenants that are made--and broken--and which are renewed and restored, or which are replaced by new covenants which seek to recreate the covenantal relationship, having essentially renegotiated it.

So it is within our faith's history. One can trace covenantal relations back at least as far as the Mayflower Compact, made by and among the Pilgrims. It does not matter that we no longer have the same covenant as our distant--or more recent--religious ancestors did. Those covenants have been renegotiated and the fundamental relationships within our congregations have remained.

Lacking creeds, a lack we celebrate, we must carefully tend our covenantal relationship. This is true at the level of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as a result, we review the principles which we affirm and promote, and we consider changes and amendments to them on a regular basis, so that we can refresh our relationship among our congregations and reaffirm it. It is equally true that we need to review our covenants within our individual congregations, to ensure that the covenant remains meaningful and to ensure that the nature of our relationship with each other remains fresh in our minds.

This is not a social club, although there is a healthy and vibrant social community here, and that is a good thing. This is more than that. This is a community brought together by vision, common need and common goals and bound together by our commitment to that vision, and to each other.

That is something which is worthy of frequent renewal and reaffirmation.

I've met only a few Unitarian Universalists who expect that we will achieve some great shared answer--at least not to the common sorts of questions that are asked about religion, the kinds of trivial concerns people have about what our creed is. But I believe that we know a significant part of the big answer, and that it's embedded in the principles we have and continue to revise and improve. We value reason and experience. We value wisdom. We value each other and the whole of the universe we are part of. We value how we make decisions. Those are key things, and while we may improve them, it's hard to imagine them being abandoned in any future version of our faith. Answers, good answers, lead to insight and action. We're getting there.

But do we know what our question is? It's important to ask the right one, remember?

I'll just close with this, a theory--a joke, perhaps--from a later work in which Douglas Adams carried on the story begun in his Hitchhiker's Guide.
There is a theory that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will disappear and be replaced by something more bizarrely inexplicable.
There is a corollary to that theory which states that this has already happened.
The power of the right answer and the right question may indeed be nothing more--or less--than the existence of the universe. But even so, the right answer means nothing without the right question.

Friday, July 20, 2007

And Then There Were Three... (work in progress)

Having mulled over criticism from Fausto (many thanks!), and after a discussion with a philosopher friend, I've attempted another pass at UU principles. In the process... I've tried to get it down to three. Or maybe that's four... if it was five before.

I probably need to go back and look at my initial objectives, to be sure that I haven't lost sight of something. But it's a work in progress, so I'm showing my work. Criticism is of course, sought.

Affirming our faith's rejection of creed, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to uphold these religious principles:

We shall responsibly love and care for the Earth and all living things; treating all beings and each other with justice and dignity, guided by knowledge tempered with love and compassion; understanding that we are a part of nature, not apart from it.

We remain religious seekers; we are finite beings with limited understanding, we must therefore remain open and responsive to the insights of others.

We shall promote openness, liberty, and honesty in all interactions, depending on love, reason, and responsibility in governing our religious communities; offering an example to the world by resisting authoritarianism and living out the highest democratic principles.

We affirm that ongoing revelation offers new insights to humanity. We acknowledge the beauty and wisdom present in all the world's religious traditions and in science; we recognize our roots in the Western religious traditions and the rich inspiration we find in other faiths, as well as in the human struggle for knowledge. We affirm the value and need for mystery, wonder and reason, and we recognize our responsibility to re-interpret religious traditions in light of the present.

As free and interdependent congregations we enter into this covenant; we promise to one another our mutual trust and support; should we break this covenant, we shall listen, accept guidance and appropriate discipline by other congregations within this covenanted association. This is our bond of union.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Interdependent Web--of which we are a part

I was struck, reading iMinister, just how inconsistent our practice is with our principle.

That's not intended to flog the insufficiently faithful, the incorrect, or those with another view. It's simply an observation.

What does it mean to affirm and acknowledge that we are inextricably part of all this, and to stay indoors most of our lives, blinds drawn (or not), eating foods grown under circumstances and in conditions we barely even consider, much less examine, most of the time? What faith we put in some box of fruit or slice of meat displayed to appeal to our senses as we flit through the grocery store.

But what else do we lose, ignore, and abandon when we don't have the pleasure and joy--and work--involved in the eggs from chickens you know personally, or the nectarine or orange the scent of which you caught in the sun before you picked it?

We know there's a disconnect that happens when we humans are dissociated from things that are real and intimate; the experience with the dying and death of loved ones, with the birth of to-be-loved ones. There's a cost. What's the cost of being disconnected from the food and water that literally sustains us?

I can't help but suspect that the price is very high.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Are We Capable of Enlightened Self-Interest, Still?

Paul Krugman quotes FDR, and observes...

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” So declared F.D.R. in 1937, in words that apply perfectly to health care today. This isn’t one of those cases where we face painful tradeoffs — here, doing the right thing is also cost-efficient. Universal health care would save thousands of American lives each year, while actually saving money.

So this is a test. The only things standing in the way of universal health care are the fear-mongering and influence-buying of interest groups. If we can’t overcome those forces here, there’s not much hope for America’s future.

So the question is, are we as a people still capable of enlightened self-interest?

I watched Sicko finally, last night. The last week had been too much a frenzy to find the time. It's not that a great deal of what Moore had to tell was news to me. I'd heard the number of Americans uninsured. I knew--from personal experience--how obscenely expensive basic health insurance is, even for those of us whose health is good enough to get the cheapest rates. I also have seen the absurdity; my younger son was denied coverage--completely denied, not merely 'uprated' (charged more for being higher risk) because he'd sprained the hell out of his foot a year ago... and been treated to minimize the discomfort and to speed the healing. In the process, a transient diagnosis of the condition (completely cleared up) made him uninsurable. He's in superb health, hasn't been to a medical facility since his birth other than for the common injuries of boyhood, and is active. But uninsurable. And so on....

But still, the movie hit me like a kick in the gut. It wasn't the failures of our system. It wasn't the criminal malfeasance of those running the for-profit system we're caught in. It wasn't even that other nations--most other non-Third World nations--have managed to do vastly better. It was the brutal dichotomy, the comparison of the basic humaneness of the societies that provide decent health care... with the home of land of the once-free and the home of the depraved.

Those are hard, hard, hard words to write. I spent my teens living abroad; I came home eyes wide-open, aware of America's failings, flaws and history... and yet very much a patriot. At least then, it seemed that all in all... this was the finest nation on earth. Today, I don't feel I can say that--our leaders violate the Constitution and the law, arrange for torture and condone it, make war without justification, and the country just seems to tolerate it. Grumble... and go back to shopping, or watching TV.

And we even put up with our own people, here at home, being allowed to die, to boost profits.

I think Krugman's test is apt. If we can't do this, for ourselves...

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Not Merely Heresy...

One of the minor pleasures of being a Unitarian Universalist is getting be be a heretic... or actually, at least two kinds of heretic. And, from some perspectives, a heretic to heresy and an apostate as well.


from a Greek word signifying (1) a choice, (2) the opinion
chosen, and (3) the sect holding the opinion. In the Acts of the
Apostles (5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5) it denotes a sect, without
reference to its character.
What distinguishes UUism from the run of the mill heretics is that we abandoned the dogma of having to defend and protect our heresy. Most heretics find themselves intently denying what they've abandoned and defending their new position on Truth. Instead, we've institutionalized heresy, and dumped dogma.

No (good) UU will tell you what to believe. They might well be willing to debate what you believe, but it's not in an attempt to convert you--rather more an effort to test whether you've seriously thought through what you believe. But a UU will expect you to have some well-considered belief, or a well explained agnosticism. Believe what you will--what you must, not what you'd like to believe, but we expect you to believe what you believe... and we expect you to test it and challenge it. Upgrade your beliefs, perhaps, or even change them, that's fine. Laudable, even.

But we damned well expect you to be a heretic--even if you insist on holding firmly orthodox opinions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What Keith Olbermann said...

Is enough for me.

Neofeudal fantasies?

I remember being struck--in that way that almost feels like one has been physically struck--the first time I heard the phrase "wage-slave." I don't recall the context it was in any more, but the concept rang like a bell. Many of us, for one reason or another, feel or are wage-slaves. Actually, to be more precise, we're wage-serfs.
Slave One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.
Serf A person in a condition of servitude or modified slavery, distinguished from what is properly called ‘slavery’ in that the services due to the master, and his power of disposal of his ‘serf’, are more or less limited by law or custom.
Sometimes that condition of servitude is more explicit than normal; I know a couple who need to move upstate to be closer to elderly family, some of them suffering failing health. But they can't--they live in a trailer home which they owe money on, and are buying it on contract from his employer... under terms that require the payment of all money owing if/when his employment is terminated, for any reason. Coming up with several thousand dollars is a challenge for most people in this economy. They're wage-serfs. It's made even more egregious because he's actually being paid what are more or less entry-level wages although he's been at it long enough that he's a journeyman in his trade. More serfdom; he can't go find a new job where someone will pay him fairly, because he'd need several thousand dollars to buy himself free. Legally, he's not actually a serf; he'd only become homeless if he tried to change jobs.

It's actually more egregious; the trailer's on the boss's property, in violation of county codes. So even if he had the money, leaving would be hard; they'd have to find somewhere to move the trailer, immediately.

This sort of thing may be a more extreme case than most. But wage-serfdom is actually a feature of our society's way of being. Having severed the bonds of literal slavery and serf-bondage, most of us are economically un-free. We're not really able to up and do and be as we would freely choose.

And things aren't getting better.

The minimum wage hasn't kept up with inflation, not even close. It's about half, in terms of buying power, what it was 35 years ago. But that may exaggerate its buying power, really. The cost of living has been hit hard at the basic level in the last decade or so--the cost of housing, transportation, etc., those things that one must have... they've gone up sharply, while things like computers have actually come down in price.

Many of the egregious evils that great nobles could commit in the past, abusing their serfs, servants and slaves, today are committed by economic powers and principalities--primarily corporations, though far from entirely--and the courts protect and affirm their rights to do so. Or if not, the fines and punishments are trivial to the corporation, a pittance in the corporate bottom line, a mere parking ticket.

Looking around, I'd have to say that those wielding the reins like it that way.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Of course, we do have a better facade now. But economic justice, and freedom... those are tough challenges. Things like universal health care are critical elements of that freedom.

Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose--though that state can be astonishingly liberating. But it's not what our corporate masters (my, another one of those terms that folk have used for years, in a bitter, ironic, snarky underground way...) actually want. After all, were enough of us to find that liberty, things could get very scary.

I'd rather try another way. I'm too much of a historian; I know how poorly many--most--such spasms turn out; trading oppressors for new ones who can spin the lingo isn't really much of an improvement.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Synchronicity Danger Level: HIGH

Just popped by Making Chutney to see what was up. A lot, as it turned out.

And then I noticed what was currently at the top of the page (Chutney's tag rotates among some large number of things intended to... something); "I wasn't there and I don't know anything about it."

I am still laughing my fool head off over it. Chutney and I know why... and we're not telling. We have a pact.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Where I've been...

Just because it appears to be the distraction de jour.

(Updated, because... I was spacey...)

create your own visited states map

create your own visited countries map