Wednesday, March 31, 2010

List #33: Grading my 25 Predictions from my NCAA Bracket

In my previous list, I made 25 predictions concerning the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament. How did I do? Take a look...

Prediction #1: All higher seeds in the Midwest bracket would win in the first round.
In reality: 5 out of the 8 higher seeds won. Georgetown, Oklahoma State, and UNLV all lost.
Record: 0-1

Prediction #2: Seventh seed Oklahoma State would beat tenth seed Georgia Tech.
In reality: Georgia Tech won.
Record: 0-2

Prediction #3: Michigan State would beat Maryland in the second round.
In reality: They did.
Record: 1-2

Prediction #4: Georgetown would beat Ohio State in the third round.
In reality: Georgetown didn't make it out of the first round.
Record: 1-3

Prediction #5: Minnesota would beat Xavier in the first round.
In reality: They did not.
Record: 1-4

Prediction #6: UTEP would beat Butler in the first round.
In reality: Butler won their region and will play in the Final Four.
Record: 1-5

Prediction #7: Syracuse beats Pittsburgh to make the Final Four
In reality: Syracuse got knocked off earlier and didn't make the Elite 8.
Record: 1-6

Prediction #8: Pittsburgh beats Kansas State to make it to the Elite 8.
In reality: K-State beat Xavier to make it to the Elite 8.
Record: 1-7

Prediction #9: All the higher seeded teams would win their first round game in the East region.
In reality: The top four seeds all won in the first round, but Temple, Marquette, Clemson, and Texas all lost.
Record: 1-8

Prediction #10: Texas loses to Kentucky in the second round.
In reality: Wake Forest lost to Kentucky in the second round.
Record: 1-8-1

Prediction #11: Cornell would lose to Temple.
In reality: Cornell defeated Temple.
Record: 1-9-1

Prediction #12: Temple would lose to Wisconsin.
In reality: Cornell also defeated Wisconsin.
Record: 1-10-1

Prediction #13: Missouri loses in the opening round.
In reality: They won their first game.
Record: 1-11-1

Prediction #14: Marquette will defeat New Mexico to reach the Sweet 16.
In reality: Marquette lost in the first round.
Record: 1-12-1

Prediction #15: West Virginia would defeat Marquette in the Sweet 16.
In reality: West Virginia defeated Washington.
Record: 1-12-2

Prediction #16: Kentucky reaches the Final Four.
In reality: Kentucky lost to West Virginia.
Record: 1-13-2

Prediction #17 and #18: Louisville wins in the first round and then defeats Duke in the second round.
In reality: Louisville lost in the first round.
Record: 1-15-2

Prediction #19: Purdue beats Siena in the first round.
In reality: They did.
Record: 2-15-2

Prediction #20: Texas A&M beats Purdue in the second round.
In reality: They failed to do so.
Record: 2-16-2

Prediction #21 and #22: Villanova reaches the Final Four.
In reality: They lost to upstart St. Mary's in the second round.
Record: 2-18-2

Prediction #23: Six teams from the Big East make it to the Elite 8.
In reality: Only one team (West Virginia) did.
Record: 2-19-2

Prediction #24: Kansas wins the National Championship.
In reality: Kansas was done after the first weekend.
Record: 2-20-2

Prediction #25: Notre Dame gives Baylor a tough game in the second round.
In reality: Notre Dame gave Old Dominion a tough game, but lost, in the first round.
Record: 2-21-2

Lesson learned: Don't quit my day job.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

List #32: 25 Picks from my NCAA Bracket

March Madness is less than 12 hours away as the opening round games of the NCAA Basketball tournament kick off at around 11:30 Central time tomorrow. My bracket is all filled out. Let me share my hoops wisdom with you. (For the purposes of this blog entry, wisdom = blind guessing.)

Let’s start with the Midwest region. From the perspective of a fan of the KU Jayhawks, this bracket is fairly stacked. It has Ohio State (the team with arguably the best player in college basketball, Evan Turner), tremendously talented Georgetown, Michigan State (the team that knocked out KU last year), the only two teams to beat KU this year (Tennessee and Oklahoma State, and a #9 seed mid-major team in the University of Northern Iowa that has only lost four games this year.

In the Midwest region I have all the higher ranked teams winning(1) in the first round (KU, UNLV, Michigan State, Maryland, Tennessee, Georgetown, Oklahoma State, and Ohio State.) The only pick here that I sweated over was my choice of Oklahoma State over Georgia Tech(2). GT had a great run in the ACC Tournament but I tend to be suspicious of fluky teams entering the tournament with a seemingly hot hand. Tech has already had their run. In the Sweet Sixteen, I do think the Michigan State beats Maryland(3) and Georgetown beats Ohio State(4).

In the West region I did predict two upsets in the first round. My bracket has Minnesota (a fluky team entering the tournament with a seemingly hot hand—doh!) beating Xavier(5) and UTEP knocking off Butler(6). I predict the South region Elite 8 matchup will feature Syracuse defeating Pittsburgh(7). This is somewhat of a risky pick as ‘Cuse’s big man Arinze Onuaku is injured. However, I think that ‘Cuse has enough firepower to get past Vermont, Gonzaga, and Vanderbilt and that even if Onuaku is still out ten days from now, they still have enough depth to beat Pitt. By the way, I do have Pitt knocking off Kansas State(8) in the Sweet 16.

In the East region I have all the higher ranked teams winning(9) in the first round. (Kentucky, Texas, Temple, Wisconsin, Marquette, New Mexico, Clemson, and West Virginia.) A few of these choices were not easy. Texas against Wake Forest is a battle between two underachievers. I should mention that in my alternate bracket on espn.com I have Texas salvaging their season and advancing to the Elite 8. But not in this bracket. Texas loses to Kentucky in the second round(10). Cornell over Temple is a sexy pick, and even though I saw KU nearly get defeated by Cornell only a few days after they had obliterated Temple back in early January, I think Temple’s guards are too good to lose to Cornell(11). But that won’t save Temple from losing to Wisconsin(12) in the second round. Wisconsin's secret strength? Their coach can do the Soulja Boy dance? Likewise, the Clemson matchup against Mizzou is a tough choice because both teams are going in the wrong direction. I don’t want to pick either team. But, I think that Mizzou’s injury woes have them making a first round exit(13). In the Sweet 16 I think Marquette will upset #3 seed New Mexico(14) and then lose to West Virginia(15). Kentucky makes the Final Four(16).

In the South region things get a little funky. Inspired by Louisville twice defeating Syracuse, I think Louisville knocks off Duke in the second round(17). Many people don’t think Louisville escapes the first round, but I just learned that California suspended one of their starting players, so my pick of Louisville in the first round(18) is looking better and better. No team in the country is dropping faster than Purdue and several people are picking them to lose in the first round to Siena. Not me(19). One writer has said that Purdue is not a #4 seed who has lost one of their best players, Robbie Hummel, to a torn ACL. They are a #1 seed who has lost one of their best players. I still think they lose to Texas A&M in the second round(20). In the Sweet Sixteen I think that Villanova beats upstart Baylor and then crushes Louisville in the Elite 8(21 and 22).

Looking at my bracket, I just realized that I predict six teams from the Big East (Georgetown, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville, and Villanova) will go to the Elite 8(23). But, I have Kentucky losing to the KU Jayhawks(24) in the Championship game. Rock Chalk Jayhawk.

Are you looking to pick against the grain? Even though I didn’t pick it in my bracket, I gave serious consideration to the idea that Notre Dame knocks off Baylor in the second round. You heard it here first; that game will be closer than most people think(25).

Sermon: "Happy Birthday Margaret Fuller!" (Delivered 3-14-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

Invocation
[These words are modeled on a spoken word piece I heard delivered by the poet and activist Sonia Sanchez. They are meant to be read live.]

Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Lydia Maria Child
Louise May Alcott
Judith Sargeant Murray
Julia Ward Howe
…cuz if you’re Unitarian you need three names

Olympia Brown, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Angelina Grimke, Sarah Grimke, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Dorothy Day

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Thandeka and Rebecca Parker and Sharon Welch and Rita Nakashima Brock

Sarah AND Hagar
Eve AND Lilith
Mary AND Mary Magdalene
Mary AND Martha
Ruth, Esther, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X

Phoebe… and I’m not talkin' 'bout Friends.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe.” (Romans 16:1) Just like:

I commend to you Khadijah;
I commend to you Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir;
I commend to you Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Shirley Chisholm;
I commend to you Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and Andrea Dworkin.

I praise Mary Daly and Mary Daly’s axe.

I praise Angela Davis.
I praise Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman?”)
I praise Maya Angelou (“I know why the caged bird sings.”)
I praise Ntozake Shange (“I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.”)
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.

Alice Walker helped us to find (and) love.
Toni Morrison helped us to find (and) love.
Zora Neale Hurston helped us to find (and) love.
Nikki Giovanni helped us to find (and) love.
Sonia Sanchez, Sandra Cisneros, and Elisabeth Alexander helped us to find (and) love.

Sappho, Cassandra, Cleopatra
Queen Nefertiti
Queen Latifah
The Queen Aretha Franklin
Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Tina Turner, Missy Elliot, Melissa Etheridge.

Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Mother Teresa, Pema Chodron, Starhawk, Margot Adler… Margaret Fuller. Let us worship.


Sermon
In 1998 I attended my first Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. That year it was held in Rochester, New York and the time and the place held great significance. 150 years earlier, almost to the day, in nearby Seneca Falls, New York, a group of the leading advocates for women’s equality had gathered. Led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention at Seneca Falls helped to launch the quest for women’s equality in the United States.

The Seneca Falls convention concerned itself not only with equality and advancement for women, but with human rights and social change writ large. Frederick Douglass participated in the convention at Seneca Falls. Gerrit Smith, a New York millionaire and, a decade later, one of John Brown’s secret funders, paid close attention to the proceedings. In a subsequent run for President of the United States on a small party ticket some of his supporters pushed for him to name Lucretia Mott as the Vice-Presidential candidate on his ticket.

But here is the point I want to make. If you asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott to who they looked to for inspiration for their reform efforts one of the first names they would have spoken would have been the name Margaret Fuller.

This morning, on this middle Sunday in March, in the middle of Women’s History Month, I want to speak to you about part of our Unitarian Universalist tradition and heritage. I want to tell you about the life of Margaret Fuller. My guess is that many of you have never heard about her. Or maybe you have heard about her but don’t know why she was a big deal. Well, all around Unitarian Universalism this Spring, congregations are making a big deal out of Margaret Fuller. This May will be her 200th Birthday. I suppose I ought to provide you the briefest sketches of her life.

Margaret Fuller was born in Massachusetts in 1810. Her father was elected to the Congress of the United States during her early childhood. At a very early age, her intellectual gifts became apparent. And, I mean at an early age. She taught herself to read when she was three and by the age of five she was translating Virgil from the Latin. (Which kind of puts the “My child is an honor student” bumper sticker to shame, doesn’t it?) As a teen, she attended a selective school for women but she also pursued a life of the mind independently. During her teens she taught herself a handful of foreign languages and also engaged in an independent study of the classics. By the time she was in her early thirties, she had gained the reputation as the most well-read person, man or woman, in all of New England.

Recognizing the limited opportunities provided within society for women to grow as intellectuals, Fuller began to host salons for young women to improve themselves intellectually. Through her twenties Fuller taught at several schools. Intermittently, she worked on writing a biography of Goethe. Her intellectual reputation reached Ralph Waldo Emerson who invited her to join the Transcendental Club which included Boston’s leading Unitarian and Transcendentalist thinkers. He did more than invite her to the table. He provided her with a seat at the head of the table. Fuller, at age 29, became the editor of The Dial, the journal of Transcendentalist thought.

Fuller was unfulfilled. In 1944 Fuller moved to New York and was hired as a writer and reporter for Unitarian Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Tribune. She started as the Tribune’s book critic, the first person ever employed as a full-time book critic for a newspaper in the United States. Two years later she was promoted to editor, another first. Two years after that she accepted a position as foreign correspondent, also the first woman to do that. While working in Italy she took a lover and had a child. Scholars debate whether she ever actually married though Fuller herself advocated for women to remain single for life. Parts of her life and her thought remain mysteries because of a shipwreck off the coast of New York in 1850 in which she, her child, and the father of her child all perished. Margaret Fuller was forty years old when she died.

Oh, and there is more. Margaret Fuller also wrote the first book in America advocating for women’s equality, published hundreds of newspaper articles as well as poems, essays, and other writings. For a piece she was researching on northern Native American tribes, she became the first woman ever to conduct research inside Harvard’s libraries. Fuller was an incredible and remarkable Unitarian, an incredible and remarkable person. Of course, there are plenty of things that I haven’t even mentioned: Nathaniel Hawthorne is said to have modeled two characters on her: Hester Pryne in The Scarlet Letter and the vivacious, outspoken, and intelligent character Zenobia in Hawthorne’s novel, The Blithedale Romance.

So, just one more thing about her before I leave all the biography stuff aside and turn to the sermonic stuff. Not only was Margaret Fuller regarded as the most well-read human being in all of New England, but she regarded herself that way as well. While sitting at a table with Ralph Waldo Emerson she once remarked, coolly, “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” If you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it.

Intellectual, trailblazer, groundbreaking feminist, woman of American letters: I want to switch, if I can do so, from history lecture to sermon. Edgar Allan Poe once said that “Humanity is divided into men, women, and Margaret Fuller.” When Poe said this, he was referring to something very specific. During the time when Margaret Fuller lived, upper and middle class women tended to embrace a pattern of thought and behavior that historians now call “The Cult of Domesticity” or “The Cult of True Womanhood.” In fact, the ethos of the 1830s and 1840s was really quite similar to the ethos of white suburbia in the 1950s.

In this societal model, the house was the women’s sphere and housekeeping and child-raising was regarded as more than just women’s work. The activities were considered to be the very expression of the true nature of womankind. Traits that were valued in women included purity, passivity, delicacy, nurturing, faithfulness, and love. Women were regarded as more spiritually inclined than men, and therefore, more virtuous. Women were influential to the extent that they could model virtue; their example could offer moral persuasion. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the character of Little Eva represents the personification of the Cult of Domesticity: extremely childlike, virtuous, and pious. It is telling that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s model woman is an angelic bed-ridden child.

Under this idea of the Cult of True Womanhood, women were also responsible for making the home ordered, moral, and safe. The world was considered to be chaotic, immoral, and indifferent. The virtues of home life, it was argued, would help men be moral agents within the cold and harsh world outside the home.

Needless to say, Margaret Fuller’s ideas and actions clashed with this culture. They were unmixy things. When Edgar Allan Poe said that all of humanity can be divided into men, women, and Margaret Fuller, it was because she defied categorization according to the gender boxes of her day.

When we read, as we did earlier, Margaret Fuller’s proclamation about the “New Manifestation” [responsive reading #575 in the hymnal] I suspect that many of us chafed at the line, “What Woman needs is not as woman to act or rule.” Who else had trouble with that line? That line does not make sense today. We live in a world where both men and women can and should and do rule, although equality has not yet been reached. That line by Fuller doesn’t make sense to us modern folk today in the age a woman Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, and two Supreme Court justices.

Fuller was speaking to her own day and was saying that the Cult of Domesticity was harmful to both the sexes. “A New Manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come. Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.... We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down… every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.”

In Fuller’s most famous work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she talks about the sexes not just squabbling over concretized categories of being, but of tearing the categories down:
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

History jeers at the attempts of physiologists to bind great original laws by the forms which flow from them. They make a rule; they say from observation what can and cannot be. In vain! Nature provides exceptions to every rule. She sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother.
A lot of what she is saying doesn’t sound all that shocking today. But she said it in 1840. She was once asked what roles women should have and quipped back that women should be able to do any job, including sea captain. So, just let me name something. Some people in this room were raised with the message that women could do any job. Others in this room were raised at a time when this message had not yet become prevalent. But Margaret Fuller was writing it more than 170 years ago, and in writing and saying it she inspired women like Susan B. Anthony and the struggle for gender equality and women’s suffrage.

So, Happy Birthday Margaret Fuller! We are honored by your angelic ministry.


Benediction
[Before the benediction I mentioned what a fine writer Margaret Fuller was and added that one of the joys of reading her was reading her literary love letters. This following comes from one of her love letters.]
We will worship by impromptu symbols, till the religion is framed for all Humanity. The beauty grows around us daily, the trees are now all in blossom and some of the vines; there is a Crown Imperial just in perfection, to which I paid my evening worship by the light of the fire, which reached to us, and there are flashes of lightening too. But I do not like the lightening so well as once, having been in too great danger. Yet just now a noble flash falls upon my paper, it ought to have noble thoughts to illumine, instead of these little nothings, but indeed to-night I write only to say: thou dear, dear friend, and we must must meet soon.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

List #31: Some Numbers on My Mind

Here is a list of some numbers that have been on my mind lately:

100 – It has now been 100 days since I’ve returned from my sabbatical in September, October, and November. (Actually, it was 100 days about three days ago.) I have no idea why this number is important. It probably feels important because my sabbatical was 100 days long so that means I have been back at church for as long as I was on sabbatical.

292 – According to a staff member at the UUA Bookstore, that is the number of copies of my book, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, that have sold in the first two months since it was released in mid-January. You can order your own copy here.

$40,000 – That is the staggering amount of money that’s been pledged by a member of the Shawnee Mission UU Church as a challenge grant to provide incentive for us to reach our canvass pledge goal of $353,000 this year. Wow! Simply, Wow! You can find out more about the challenge grant here. You can find out about program plans for the coming year here. You can read member testimonials here. You can make a pledge here.

33%, 42%, and 80% - The last book I read was Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges. You can read my review of it here (scroll down to book #12). In the first chapter of Empire of Illusion Chris Hedges provides the following statistics:
33% of high school graduates in the United States never read another book.

42% of college graduates in the United States never read another book.

80% of American adults neither purchased nor read a book in 2007.
Hedges provides numerous citations but none of them are specific. Do these numbers seem believable to you?

65 – As I am writing this Mississippi State found a way to squander their lead against Kentucky in the championship game of the SEC tournament. In doing so, they cost themselves an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship tournament. Will their showing today be enough to get them into the tournament? The field of 65 teams gets announced later on this afternoon. It is March Madness which means I will spend the next three weeks hooked on college basketball. I will plan to blog my bracket later on this week. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!

6 – That is the number of Academy Awards won by The Hurt Locker at last Sunday’s Oscars. Congratulations! In a blog entry I wrote earlier I wrote that I was torn between choosing The Hurt Locker or Inglourious Basterds as my top film of the year. In the end, I gave the nod to Inglourious Basterds. That does remind me that I need to post my rationale for this decision on my blog.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sermon: "I Learned by Watching You" (Delivered 3-7-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

Reading
From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838:
Once [you] leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul's, or George Fox's, or Swedenborg's, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity...

Sermon
Back in the 1980s there was an anti-drug commercial on television. In the commercial a father approached his son after discovering evidence of drug use. “How did you get into this?” the parents ask. The child fires back, “I learned it from watching you.”

As a commentary on the complex issues of juvenile drug use and addiction, the commercial is simplistic, gimmicky, even insulting. However, if we take the slogan from this commercial and apply it to a different context, I believe that it provides us with a glimpse of insight into our lives as religious people and our lives as human beings.

The sermon this morning is about modeling. It is about those in our lives whom we look up to. It is about those people we would emulate or imitate, those who inspire us to alter our behavior in a certain way.

Discussions of athletes or celebrities as role models may be a little bit overdone. Those conversations have grown tired. But, the fact remains that most of us have people who we see as good examples. Some of these people may be world leaders, celebrities, experts, religious figures, or world-renowned humanitarians. But, more than likely, many are people who are not widely known. They have touched our lives more intimately. The orbits of their lives have passed through the orbits of our own lives and for a time they have touched us.

I invite you into a time of reflection. For each type of person I am about to mention, I invite you to take a few seconds to think of someone who you personally consider a model or a hero.
First, think back to your youth. Think of a hero you looked up to.

Next, think back to your time a student. Think of a teacher who you found inspiring.

If you have been married or have had an intimate relationship with another person, did you ever look to another couple as the example of the type of relationship you aspired to?

If you are a parent, did you ever look to someone else as the kind of parent that you hoped to be?

In your work, did you model your attitude, approach, work ethic, or another attribute on someone you hoped to be like?

If you play an instrument, which musicians are your inspirations? If you play a sport, which athletes? If you write or create art, who are your heroes?

In religion, in service to humankind, who have you found worthy of emulation?
So, obviously, part of being human is accepting and receiving influence from others. In our Unitarian Universalist statement of the sources that inform our faith, the first source is said to be our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. But, the next four sources all describe ways in which our own religious understandings are influenced by other people. We draw upon the words and deeds of prophetic women and men. We seek wisdom from the world’s religions and from Jewish and Christian teachings. Humanist teachings counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.

So, this is all easy right? Well, not exactly. I want to argue that there is a force in our lives and in our faith that leads us to learn from others and accept influence. But, there is another force that leads us to avoid and reject influence. I don’t claim that it is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault. However, he expressed this sentiment with tremendous elegance. “Go alone. Refuse the good models… The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”

In Unitarian Universalist churches we are often hesitant or reluctant to learn from other congregations. There is often an attitude of terminal uniqueness, the belief that our situation and our circumstances are so unique that we can’t really learn anything from anyone else. When we hear about a success story at one of our sister churches do we react dismissively? “Oh, that wouldn’t work here.” “Well, they are different.” Do we refuse the good models? Or do we embrace them?

Why are our congregations so hesitant to look to those who are innovative, those who have conquered obstacles and broken through barriers? What if congregations in our movement became more open-minded and less suspicious of one another?

[A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar led by Rev. Mark Stringer, the minister of our congregation in Des Moines, Iowa. In this webinar, he told the story of his congregation. I invite you to listen for yourself and to decide whether he proposes a good model worthy of emulation.]

Obviously, I spend a lot of time thinking about churchy things, probably far more time than most of you do. But, perhaps the sentiments I am describing sound familiar to you because they remind you of another part of your life. “My circumstances are special and that couldn’t possibly work for me.” “That is just not realistic.” I notice it in church life. Is there a place in your world where you notice that the good model is steadfastly refused?

One of the rules that I have for myself in ministry is the rule of zero hypocrisy. Well, at least that is what I aim for. Whether it is embracing a spiritual practice, or volunteering in the community, or tithing to the church, or working on myself in a certain way, I will never, ever ask you to do something that I don’t do. I will never ask you to try something that I am reluctant to try. That is a ministry of modeling. I like to think, on my better days, that it is a pretty good way of approaching ministry. And, to tell you the truth, sometimes I wonder how that model is perceived. Is it possible for you to point to anyone in your life and say, “I learned from watching you”? Is there someone in this community that you have been inspired to imitate or emulate?

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales was once asked to describe his approach to leadership. He spoke of leading by example, adding that we are all essentially apes and that apes learn from watching other apes. His ideas about leadership are far more nuanced, I assure you, but he points to modeling and learned behavior as a central principle in human behavior. Apes learn from watching other apes. I learned by watching you.

One of the adult religious education programs that our church has offered in the past and plans to offer again next year is called “Parents as Resident Theologians.” Part of the message of that class and other courses like it is that no matter how good the programs of a church are, children will still look to their parents as primary religious educators. We know from regular schools that parents who take an interest and active role in the education of their children tend to have children who have more success in school. By and large, parents who take their own commitments to church seriously and who regard their own spiritual path seriously and with something other than disdain and boredom will tend to have children who are likely to do the same themselves.

One thing that I hear a lot of times from parents, those who do bring their children here and those who do not, is that they what they aspire for their children is the ability to choose their own faith sometime down the line. A great fear is that they might indoctrinate their child into one belief system or another. We don’t want to limit their choices.

However, some public intellectuals have caused me to shift the way I regard this way of thinking. In his most recent book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, author Chris Hedges offers these provocative words. Hedges, who has never been known to pull a punch, writes,
The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt… It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. We [believe that we] have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything.
What is Chris Hedges actually talking about here? Hedges argues that concepts such as individualism and democratic equality have been tainted in a grotesque way by the culture in which we live. Do we act like individuals or do we surrender to a “cult of self” that has the power to do great harm to us?

I should probably explain just a little bit about where Chris Hedges is coming from. Hedges argues that when an empire is on its last legs it tends to turn towards spectacle and to lose a sense of perspective causing small things to be made into giant things. It embraces a position of hostility and distrust towards others. Hedges makes global what I am talking about locally. And, the evidence seems to say that Hedges is on to something. After all, there are countries with better public health than the United States. There are countries that do a better job of educating children. There are countries with better social services. There are countries where workers are treated with greater dignity. Do we embrace these models or do we refuse them? Hedges would say that the cult of self that dominates our society prevents us from turning to the good models. He would say that lying, fear, misinformation, and deception prop up this cult of self and create an empire of illusion to the detriment of our society and our very lives.

So, let’s bring it back to us. The truth is we live in a world in which we are both self-directed and influenced by others, a world in which we learn by watching others and a world in which we sometimes have to blaze our own path. We are both the apes that learn by watching other apes and the ape who is watched to see whether we are worthy of emulation.

I am going to refrain from having the last word this morning. I invite you [the congregation] to break up into groups of three or four people. [If you reading this on-line, you might take a moment to journal about these questions or find someone with whom to talk about these questions.] I invite you, in your groups, to each to take a moment to share a time in your life when you attempted to emulate or imitate someone who you believed to be a good model. I invite you, next, to share a time when you made a decision to resist a good model. Let us join together in sharing and reflection.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Book Review: I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges

A few notes about the author: Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and writes for numerous publications. For nearly two decades he was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times covering wars in Central America, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He studied under James Luther Adams at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of six books including two that I previously read: War is a Force that Gives us Meaning and What Every Person Should Know About War. In the spring of 2009 Hedges was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California.

The title of Hedges’ book is a little misleading. Chris Hedges does believe in atheists. What he does not believe in is the project of the so-called “New Atheists” as exemplified by a group of four authors: Sam Harris who wrote The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything, Daniel Dennett who wrote Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion. Hedges’ book is a much more powerful, intelligent, and insightful version of a sermon I preached in November, 2006 in which I strongly criticized Dawkins and Harris.

In May of 2007, Chris Hedges debated Sam Harris in Los Angeles and Christopher Hitchens in San Francisco. I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which has also been released under the title When Atheism Becomes Religion, is his fierce refutation of the projects of Harris, Dawkins, et al.

Hedges argues that Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett have a lot in common with the religious fundamentalists whom they mock and attack. He actually calls their thought a form of fundamentalism and accuses them of holding an arrogant certitude, of being anti-intellectual in the sense of not really being interested in other ways of thinking, of holding that their own worldview is true and the only one that matters and therefore being dismissive of other worldviews, and of being utopian thinkers.

Utopian thinkers believe that the world is heading towards a form of perfection. Utopian thinking is dangerous in that it can sanction all kinds of immoral behavior. The means are not important if they move us towards the ends. Hitler was a utopian thinker. So are Christian Fundamentalists who believe that the second coming of Christ is upon us. For Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, their utopian vision is a world dominated by reason and science and in which all superstition and religion is eliminated.

Hedges argues that the concept of moral progress is a myth. He takes a much more negative view of human nature. While I find Hedges a little too negative about human nature, I find that he makes some excellent points.

What I found most interesting about Hedges’ book is how he reveals and explains the reason that the likes of Hitchens and Harris enthusiastically support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture, and attempts at nation-building. Hedges quote Harris as advocating for pre-emptive nuclear war against Islamic states. “If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or [even] what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own… It may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Harris advocates for a strike even if the cost is tens of millions of lives in a single day.

Hedges also quotes Harris on the issue of torture, “Given what many of believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.” “The ethical divide that seems to be opening up here suggests that those who are willing to drop bombs might want to abduct the nearest and dearest of suspected terrorists – their wives, mothers, and daughters – and torture them as well, assuming anything profitable to our side might come of it.” Hedges also quotes Harris as recommending specific torture techniques, such as the strappado. These grossly immoral positions, Hedges argues, are the result of a kind of arrogant utopian thinking that is willing to welcome any means necessary to advance towards illogical ends.

In my sermon in November, 2006 I chided Dawkins for his willful ignorance of theology. Hedges makes exactly the same point when he writes, “Stepping out of the cartoonish and childish taunting of religion to a discussion of the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr is beyond the capacity of these [new] atheists. They haven’t read them and they don’t want to.”

While Hedges does not tip his own hand regarding his religious identity, in the book he comes across as a broad humanist, or even a humanist in the classical sense of the term. He draws not only from theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Luther Adams but also from authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad. In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning he turned time and time again to Shakespeare. In this text he draws from a broad array of cultural sources, from the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes to the Japanese dance form known as Buhto to the writing of Samuel Beckett, Willa Cather, and Marcel Proust.

Hedges’ writing is part writing and part voice crying out in the wilderness. I stand convinced that he is one of the most insightful and provocative thinkers of our time.

[Click here to see other books I've read in 2010.]