Two January/February features drew half of the seventy-eight letters received over the last two months. Twenty-two commented on “The Fundamentalist Agenda,” and seventeen readers responded to “Jesus and the Modern Seeker”; Peter Rosko of Minneapolis, Minnesota, asks, “What's with UU World and Unitarian Universalists? I sense a trend back to full-blown Christianity.” Paula L. Craig of Falls Church, Virginia, thought the article “seemed to be trying to convince ex-Christian Unitarians to take a second look at Jesus, as a way of bringing greater meaning to life. That would be fine, of course, if it really worked. . . . [Christianity] makes plenty of promises about how great and meaningful life will be if you follow, but somehow has trouble delivering on those promises.”
Several readers responded to previous letters about Unitarian Universalist manners, hospitality, and/or open-mindedness by Kelly Kennedy and Sid Kaskey (January/February) and Dean Drake (September/October 2003). Knut W. Barde of Porterville, California, doesn't mince words: “Affirming the UU Principles necessarily means saying 'No!' to those who have embraced religious escapism, spiritual obscurantism, and obedience to systems of domination.” He singles out “Republicans, capitalists, and other apologists for existing hierarchies of domination” for exclusion.
On the other hand, Fred Gibson of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, writes, “Where did anybody get the idea that Unitarians don't like the majority of Americans? I thought loving and appreciating nuts, kooks, and idiots in spite of themselves was part of what we are all about.” Without pointing out any particular idiocy, Gibson lauds “how stimulating and exciting such diversity makes our forum discussion groups. Learning to accept and appreciate opposing points of view without sacrificing our own beliefs is an important part of our mission.”
I commend you for presenting the perspectives of three admirable souls (January/February): Erik Walker Wikstrom; who passionately returns to questing for a personal God in the Christian tradition (“Jesus and the Modern Seeker”); Davidson Loehr, who argues for God as cross-cultural concept (“The Fundamentalist Agenda”); and Tom Andrews, who quotes himself referencing God as “she” (“A Life Committed to Justice”). I suspect all three gentlemen are right.
I cheered after I read “Jesus and the Modern Seeker” and “The Fundamentalist Agenda.” Denying that Christianity is deeply embedded in Unitarianism and Universalism dishonors martyrs like Michael Servetus and Francis Davíd. Furthermore, when we denounce and deny our Christian roots we dishonor Unitarians and Universalists in parts of Europe who consider themselves Christian.
Rather than reject our Christian roots, we must reclaim that which the fundamentalists have stolen. Rather than eliminating religious language, we should use it as a powerful tool to support our cause against those who use religious language as a weapon to harm, control, or exploit others. Rather than censure religious, especially biblical, language, we need to preach it in the context in which it was meant to be preached: tolerance, universal love, peace, hope, and goodwill.
Esther C . Hurlburt
Jesus with Modern eyes
I wanted to thank Erik Walker Wikstrom for his wonderful article “Jesus and the Modern Seeker” (January/February). I have been a Unitarian for over thirty years, and Jesus has always been a part of my life. While I do not accept the dogma of the mainstream Christian denominations, the teachings of Jesus have always been a guide for me. Looking at society today, the teachings of Jesus, of compassion and forgiveness, of justice for the poor, are more important than ever.
At least fifty of us modern seekers gathered to hear a lecture on Jesus and Buddha at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis. The lecturer would only field intellectual questions, revealing nothing of her personal involvement with the Gospels. It was refreshing to read Wikstrom's honest appraisals of Jesus and his struggles to reckon with him.
As a progressive denomination, should we not be willing—even pushing—a personal progress that Wikstrom admits to? Why should he feel ashamed of his “fear and trembling” or of his searching the Christian scriptures? We UUs are tempted to give Jesus a shallow treatment, learning only about this tragic historical figure and not drawing strength from the wisdom in the accounts.
Thank you, Wikstrom, for revealing to us your seeking.
I was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, where my religious education consisted of strict indoctrination. In confirmation classes, we had to memorize large portions of Luther's Catechism, each of which began with a passage from the Bible, followed by “What does this mean?” and a quote from Luther. I attended a Lutheran university where the required theology classes continued this indoctrination. One class included a weekly assignment in which we would read a selection from the New Testament and write a one-page analysis of it. Whenever my analysis strayed from Luther's doctrine, my grade on the paper was lowered.
Therefore, as I read Wikstrom's passages from the New Testament—powerful sayings of Jesus, to be sure—these quotes did not inspire me. I'm afraid that the story of Jesus and his life is no longer something that can bring me to a greater understanding of the spiritual dimension. It is to me like something surrounded by a thicket of brambles—the stiff and unbending theology that was pounded into me as I was growing up. I can't get past that barrier.
This is why I turn to something fresh—Rumi's poems, the writings of Lao Tse, or the ideas of the Buddha—for inspiration. For me, there is a more immediate connection with the divine when I go to these sources.
What a pleasant surprise it was to see a very famous Bulgarian icon on the cover of the January-February issue. Having served as Peace Corps volunteers in Bulgaria, my wife and I were privileged to see this and many other artifacts dating from the ninth and tenth centuries, the Golden Age of Bulgarian culture.
I thought your readers might want to know more about the icon. It is of St. Theodore and was found in a 1909 excavation near the city of Veliki Preslav. It is one of the best surviving examples of Bulgarian ceramic art and an example of their skill in drawing upon and adapting visual traditions of the Byzantine Empire.
The SuperStock agency, source of the image, presented it on its Web site as depicting Jesus, which is why the editors selected it for the January/February cover story, “Seeing Jesus with Modern Eyes.” When asked about this, SuperStock checked its sources and now offers the image, correctly, as St. Theodore. We are grateful to Allen Goodman for setting the record straight, and we regret the error.
In “The Fundamentalist Agenda” (January/February), Davidson Loehr states that liberal movements are effective when “they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin.” I completely agree.
Liberal movements all too often fail because they try to use both feet to push the boundaries of social inclusion. Without a firm grounding in an evolving tradition or an acknowledgment of the responsibilities that go along with rights, they do not have a leg to stand on.
I read “The Fundamentalist Agenda” with considerable interest. It was a nicely written, informed piece, until Loehr tried to explain why fundamentalism occurs. He wrote:
His explanation is a form of biological reductionism that not only dismisses any serious consideration of fundamentalist and similar beliefs, but dresses it up in pseudo-scientific trappings. Humans are uniquely cultural animals; to understand any social phenomenon—and religious beliefs are quintessentially social—one must deal first and foremost with this dimension of our humanity.
In fact, our nearest relatives, the great apes and other primates, display a wide range of behaviors regarding territoriality, male dominance, and group cohesion. While sexual dimorphism in primates plays a role in the degree of male competition within groups (in relation to other males), it has no correlation with group cohesion and group territoriality.
Sociobiology, widely popular in the 1970s, was used to justify male dominance and, at its extremes, male sexual violence toward women. These crude attempts to reduce human social behavior to a biological substrate have been thoroughly discredited by anthropological and other research. I am, frankly, amazed to find them expressed so naively by as educated a person as Davidson Loehr, and to see them published uncritically in the pages of the leading liberal religious publication.
Davidson Loehr relates a basic biological imperative to current human behavior—biological drives that were once useful to our species's survival are now dysfunctional. He makes the point that “in-group and out-group” categorization often freezes our species in inflexible and fundamental points of view. As a former researcher in animal behavior, I have come to believe that other behaviors of primitive value are even less functional today than fundamentalism.
“In-group” recognition was vital in maintaining and protecting the gene pools of small, isolated communities where ensuring successful reproduction required recognizing ousiders and preventing them from diluting or eliminating one's progeny. I believe humans became so successful at the process of recognizing and supressing “others” that we not only eliminated all our cousin species but continue to look for “others” in many, sometimes inappropriate, situations. Worst of all, what is the easiest trait whereby “they” can be distinguished? It is by race and skin color. Racism is, thus, the most fundamental and insidious evocation of our biological heritage; it is characteristic but variable in all humankind. I believe that racism should be shown and taught to be a natural but inappropriate human characteristic, rather than an evil that somehow creeps into “bad” people.
Recognition of inherent traits helps us understand them, and we can then attempt to teach our children to avoid them as socially unacceptable, rather than philosophically or dogmatically evil. What better place to start than within Unitarian Universalism?
Derrell L. Chambers
“The Fundamentalist Agenda” blurs an important distinction between “conservative” and “fundamentalist.” While I generally agree with the characterization of “fundamentalist” presented in this interesting and insightful essay, “conservative” should not be used as a synonym. “Conservative” has multiple meanings, but one important usage is that which refers to a set of rationally defensible value preferences. These usually include an emphasis on personal freedom, distrust of governmental solutions to social problems, etc.
There are liberal as well as conservative fundamentalists. Conversely, there are both liberal and conservative thinkers who are curious, flexible, open to dialogue, and therefore open to other viewpoints and possibilities. This is in a sense the opposite of the fundamentalist mindset. So it is not even accurate to say that “conservative” is one stop short of “fundamentalist” on the liberal/fundamentalist continuum. It should also be noted that while all fundamentalists are essentially alike in the way that Loehr describes, the same is not true of all conservatives. For example libertarian conservatives hold views quite different from those of moralistic conservatives on some core issues.
Alan M. Windle
Judith Samuelson (“Business Ethics beyond the Classroom”) says that “for good or ill” it is now business's responsibility to “adjudicate the tensions and trade-offs among commerce . . . and healthy communities.”
To the extent government of the people has abdicated this responsibility—by force, sloth, or corruption—it is ill! We cannot surrender government of ourselves and our resources to the illegitimate corporate person and the profit motive. We need to learn and support what the UN has demonstrated, that what improves a society is investment in social policy not economic policy. A few partnerships and beefed-up ethics courses are not going to create that ethic.
While I agree with William Schulz's point that human rights violations serve to perpetuate terrorism (“Human rights and the evil of terrorism,” Reflections), I found his statement that “human rights take longer to work their magic than a missile does” somewhat startling. I have seen no evidence thus far that missiles have prevented or deterred the evil that is terrorism. Exactly what kind of magic do they work?
I was most perplexed, however, that Schulz said he agrees with President Bush's “instinct to avenge” the deaths of those Americans who perished on September 11, 2001. I too studied theology, but, in spite of earning an M.Div. degree, failed to become proficient in many of the Big Topics. One that seems to escape my understanding is vengeance. How does one avenge the deaths of thousands of people without perpetuating the cycle of violence, terrorism, and evil? It seems to my naïve observation that the drive to exact revenge is an enormous factor in preventing peace and diplomacy in places like Palestine and Northern Ireland.
The bloodthirsty vindictiveness of some of our politicians is to me one of the most disturbing residues of 9/11. I suppose there may be an instinctive reaction to seek revenge when we have been attacked, but do we have to honor it?
News in Action
We saw an article about congregations supporting Adopt-a-Minefield (“Churches clear Afghan minefield,” UU News, March/April 2003). That inspired our congregation to lead a citywide effort for people of all faiths and political persuasions in Corvallis, Oregon, to cooperate in good work to be a symbol and example for diffusing hostilities in the world.
The Corvallis Adopt-a-Minefield Program brought together a dozen organizations and many individuals to raise money through concerts, dinners, slide shows, a movie, a raffle for an Afghan rug, Christmas card inserts, and sales of jewelry. We met many wonderful people and will send more than $26,000 for landmine removal in Afghanistan.
Thank you UU World for publishing the article that inspired us.
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