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Reading some more about Emily Dickinson before giving today’s sermon on some of her poetry and its power, I came upon the description of her “earliest friend,” Benjamin Franklin Newton. He died young, but before he did, he had a great influence on her that she referred to throughout her life. Among other things, he introduced her to Emerson, whose poetry, she wrote in wonder, “has touched the secret Spring.” Hm, I thought. Wonder if he was a Unitarian. Sure enough, his minister was Edward Everett Hale.
In personal news, I did not keep to my Lenten practice of drawing at all. I drew on Monday mornings as usual, and besides that I did only a handful of drawings. I think I should just acknowledge that I’m at my limit for daily practices, between reading my Dickinson poem (today is #220, and next week’s sermon is on the journey so far) and exercising and following the various necessary family routines.
I’ve been putting my thoughts about linked ideas, images, and events in The Dispossessed into what the software, MindMeister, calls a “Mind Map,” here.
Whole sections haven’t been transcribed from my mind to the map, such as the multiple valences of possession, but it’s fun and helpful to get it into this form. What would you add?
Cross-posted to the UUCPA blog, which is where comments may be made.
Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.
Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,” and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:
“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”
That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.
Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.
You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?
If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.
I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.
Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.
She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.
Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog. “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.
Two more questions in advance of my class on The Dispossessed next week.
(1) As a teenager on Anarres, Shevek sees a film about Urras, the home planet that’s a lot like ours–multiple countries, all with governments, some of which are capitalist and some communist. The film juxtaposes a famine in the country of Thu where the bodies of starved children are being burned with the wealth and plenty only 700 km away in the nation of A-Io, noting that these exist “side by side” (pp 33-34 in the Avon paperback edition). Do you think this is a fair criticism? Can it be applied to our world? How would you defend us, or would you make the same criticism?
(2) If you suddenly discovered that Anarres existed and you could move there, would you trade the benefits of living in a society like ours for those of that society? For example, would you give up the various things you own, and the possibility of owning more, in exchange for life in a society where you have almost no private possessions and “no one eats while another starves”?
Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog, and I’ve disabled comments here so that all comments are in one place; please make them over there.
In preparation for our class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism scheduled for January 31 at UUCPA, Dan Harper and I are blogging about the topic online. With this post, I am less responding to Dan’s post than tossing my own thoughts into the mix, so I’ll use a new post instead of the comments.
The second question we posed to ourselves is “Do we need more theological unity in Unitarian Universalism?” and to that my answer is “No, we need less.”
What I mean by that is that our fear of diversity and difference among us keeps us from talking about our theology/ies.* And that dialogue is something we need more of. In fact, when I am afraid that Unitarian Universalism is withering and dying, it’s the lack of this dialogue that I suspect is the cause.
People sometimes address our decline in numbers with a call for increased theological unity, asserting that if we are to attract people, we need to know what we all believe and declare it. They usually seem to mean that everyone should rally behind their particular theology. While I agree that what we have to offer sometimes feels weak and half-hearted, what gives us such a tentative air isn’t the lack of a simple, unified statement. It is that we are dancing around the topic instead of digging in. We don’t have to agree about what we believe, but we do have to talk about it. And as long as we are afraid of disagreement, we won’t open our mouths.
Here I am getting into very personal territory. When I think about my own preaching and how it has changed–in my view, improved–over the past few years, I know that the weakness at the core was my fear of voicing my own theology. Too often, I was hedging. And hedging attracts no one. When I speak from my own theological center, not trying to speak for every UU but just for myself, I contribute to the conversation. The conversation, to me, is where we come alive.
By the way, our first question to ourselves was “Is theological unity necessary?” That word, “necessary,” always suggests another question, “necessary for what?” What is our purpose? When we know that, we may know the answer to whether we need unity. I have a lot of different ways of stating our purpose: “To transform ourselves, each other, and the world”; the benediction we say at the end of each service; the vision I once set out here. None of them, in my opinion, requires that we have a unified theology.
*”Unitarian Universalist Theologies” was the name of the core liberal theology course I took in seminary, taught at Andover-Newton Theological School by then-doctoral-student Paul Rasor. His book Faith Without Certainty would probably be very interesting to anyone who wanted to explore these questions beyond next week.
Cross-posted here at UUCPA’s blog. (I have turned off comments on this Sermons in Stones entry so that the conversation will take place there.)
Apparently, each year when December 1 rolls around and some Unitarian Universalists (UUs) begin celebrating Chalica, other UUs get all het up about it. I got into a discussion about it on Facebook and needed to go look up a couple of things. When I clicked on this site, to my surprise, it carried a link to a sermon of mine. Gosh, what did I say about Chalica? Turns out I had a lot of nice things to say about it. The fact that it completely slipped my mind that I’d even written this sermon, I attribute to the arrival of my daughter a few months later. My memory, not great to begin with, has never recovered.
There are a lot of things I like about this holiday. I like the fact that it was started by laypeople and took off as a grassroots phenomenon, with little nurture by the UUA or ministers. I like that it was originated by a young adult, a demographic we claim to want to attract but often chase away through our actions or inaction. I’ve heard that it spread largely through social media and I think that’s great: UUs using the technology of our day, as our 19th century ancestors used pamphleteering, to reach each other and newcomers.
I like that it is a home-based ritual. We have too few of those. I grew up Jewish, and religion saturated our home and family life, making a natural bridge between what we studied and prayed about in the synagogue and what we were trying to practice in our daily lives. In Unitarian Universalism, most of our practices take place in church, and it makes it harder to bridge the gap between Sunday and Monday. Chalica is a way to bring our principles home.
I admit to liking that it seems to tick off the establishment. I haven’t followed too many of the debates, but reliable reporters suggest that UUA staff and ministers are more likely to line up at the con microphone, so to speak, and that laypeople are more likely to line up at the pro mike. When a religion is alive and thriving, the people generate their own forms, spontaneously and often without the leadership, or even blessing, of their ordained or professional guides. This holiday makes me know that ours really is a living tradition.
I like that it is new. Like the chalice itself, it echoes ancient practices and symbols, but its specific form and use are very recent. The lighting of a chalice at the beginning of services was a rarity, if it happened at all, 70 years ago; it has since become all but universal. The Water Communion was first celebrated in 1980 and is widely celebrated, having gained layers of meaning and the kinds of nuances that come about only through lived experience. If Chalica meets a need, it may take the same course.
I like that it meets a need I feel myself: for my religion to have its own holiday at this holiday-rich time of year. I find Christmas meaningful (for that matter, I can find meaning and beauty in just about anything, hence the name of this blog) and I enjoy celebrating it with my congregation, but if it were up to me alone, I would not choose the birth of Jesus as a focal point for a family celebration. (It is not up to me alone; my wife, Joy, lobbied heavily for presents at Christmas and she won. I reluctantly–ha!–accept mine.) We celebrate Hanukah because we want the munchkin to know her heritage (Joy grew up Jewish too), but I can’t say the significance of the holiday speaks to me very much. We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa because we’re not African-American. Of all the winter holidays, solstice may be most meaningful to me personally, and I created a home ritual to celebrate the return of the light with my daughter, but it doesn’t feel any different than taking her outside to see a lunar eclipse, or showing her the constellations, or any of the other things we may do to mark the seasons and the rhythms of the earth. In other words, I’m not a Christian, a Jew (at least not theologically), an African-American, or a Pagan. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and although I don’t know if we will ever add Chalica to our busy December, I appreciate that it is a festival that celebrates what I hold dear.
I like that it provides an opportunity to delve into the principles, which are sometimes criticized as shallow but for my money, are ideals I strive to live up to (and never can quite attain). We’ll need to be flexible, as the principles are not written in stone and if they are not to take on the authority of a creed, we need to be able to revise them and let them go in time. Maybe that process could even be built into the holiday. How about an eighth night for a conversation about what other principles we might want to affirm and promote . . . ?
I like the suggestions about using the days of Chalica to act upon our principles, not just speak them. Kathy Klink-Zeitz suggests that for the fourth principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we might want to learn something new from someone else, give a book, or read a book. Jeff Liebmann, in the first of his 2012 Chalica videos, suggests that to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the first principle, we might make amends to someone to whom we’ve shown disrespect, or give thanks to someone who has helped us.
I apparently wasn’t bothered enough by my one serious objection to this holiday to mention it when I wrote that 2006 sermon, even parenthetically. Maybe along with my Parenthood-Induced Memory Loss Syndrome, I’ve gotten more persnickety. But it does bother me, and as long as I am in the good graces of the Chalica fans I will send forth this plea:
Please find a different name for it.
It can’t be coincidence that it sounds like Hanukah. So how can I put this? It is tacky to the point of offensiveness–no, past the point of offensiveness–to spin off the name of another religion’s sacred celebration. I know that Hanukah is a minor holiday, but it is still a sacred festival and it and Judaism deserve our respect. I have tried to think of the name as playful. Playfulness is a wonderful quality for a holiday to have, and I smile to imagine folks sitting around a table talking about a new UU holiday that bears some resemblance to Hanukah, and joking, “We could call it Chalica!” But when it goes public and takes hold, I stop hearing it as playful and start hearing it as trivializing instead. It trivializes both Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the celebrations, but the name grins behind the back of a hand and whispers, “This is really just a joke.” Even worse, it says that Hanukah is a joke. I know we wouldn’t adapt the day of atonement to Unitarian Universalism and call the result Yom KippUUr, so please. Let’s call it something else.
We’re a creative bunch and I’m sure if we put it out to fans of Chalica as a challenge–name that holiday!–they could come up with a name that honors the values that gave rise to the holiday to begin with. In fact, let’s do it right here. I’d love to read your ideas in the comments.
Two years ago I had a late-night brainstorm and stayed up completing a fun, entirely unsolicited project: a “hope calendar,” modeled on an advent calendar, on which each day between Thanksgiving and Christmas had a fact or question about the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). The idea was to use it during Guest at Your Table (GAYT), the several autumn weeks when we raise awareness of, and money for, the UUSC. It was especially geared toward families with kids from about age 8 to 14. I e-mailed it to our parents and teachers, made a bunch of copies of my calendar and put them out on the day of our GAYT kickoff, and had no idea whether anyone used it.
I also e-mailed it to the UUSC, which compiles ideas from congregations on how to promote Guest at Your Table. This fall, they asked if they could adapt my calendar, crediting me for the concept of course, and of course I said yes. Their very nifty version is here. I hope lots of families find it a useful way to learn about the work of this terrific organization.
Based on my own experiences, I accept it as a given that rich, lasting relationships can arise through online connections, via social media and the internet. On Sunday I’ll be talking about that and what it says about the nature of community, and asking how we might expand our sense of connection by using these technologies more as a congregation, just as many (almost all) of us are using them more in the rest of our lives.
How do you currently use social networking and the internet that would translate well to congregational life?
Last month we started ending our services with a benediction. We already had a benediction–different words each week–but it felt swallowed up in the chalice extinguishing, and then hemmed in on the other side by the postlude. Also, at Palo Alto people want to applaud the musicians, so when the postlude is the very last thing, the service ends with applause. This doesn’t always feel appropriate to the theme or mood of the service, and it tends to create the feeling that one has been at a performance.
I have visited other congregations where the very last words are a blessing, and I’ve loved the way it felt. It seemed right to have the postlude (followed by its applause) and then an element that would help us to leave with a sense of participation, mutual care, and a turning outwards. So what words of blessing? I knew I wanted them to be something we all said to each other and that we said each week, and I knew I wanted for us to make a physical connection.
I have a great affection for this passage from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and will probably give a sermon on it sometime (I could fill a book with thoughts just on the most perplexing line, “Argue not concerning God”), but it isn’t really right. It sounds like a command more than an invitation, albeit a command to do some terrific things.
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Dan Harper, who is our Associate Minister of Religious Education, and I both had stories relating to the benediction said in the Concord, Massachusetts, church, where he grew up and I have visited. Actually, it was the same story: of going to the home of someone who belonged to the congregation (they were not the same someones, but two separate families) and finding that they’d put the words of the benediction on their doors, where they would see them each time they left the house. They had become a blessing that they bestowed on themselves daily.
I knew them and liked them and wondered where they’d come from, so I poked around a little. First, here’s the Concord version:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.
The Rev. Dr. Brent Smith has this on his website–I’m not sure whether it was, and/or is still, a regular feature at All Souls in Tulsa, where he previously served:
Be of good courage.
Search all things, and hold fast to that which is good.
Render unto no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted.
Love all men. Love all women. Love all children.
Love all souls, serving the Most High;
And rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
I’m guessing that both have their origins in the Presbyterian Worship Book, because I found another site listing this, used by the Rev. Herb Swanson when he was interim pastor at St. John United Church, Columbia, Maryland, and described as “adapted from the Presbyterian Worship Book and the Bible”:
Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering. Honor every person that you meet. and Love and Serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I liked the Concord version, and pondered if anything essential to my theology was missing. There were two things: beauty and–to a lesser extent, since it was already implicit–love. I wrote two more lines and ended up with this:
Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.
We have been ending the service by taking hands and saying it–a feat that the people at UUCPA attempt with good humor, since it’s not easy to hold hands and hold a piece of paper at the same time–and I see a lot of smiles. Maybe we are feeling our very flesh become a great poem.