The Road to The Gadfly Papers and Beyond
By Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof
November 17, 2019
Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint when my controversial book The Gadfly Papers began. In some ways, I think it goes back to the first time one person tried to forcefully prevent someone else from honestly expressing themselves. It surely goes back to the first self-proclaimed gadfly, Socrates, who made a life out of asking challenging questions, which eventually got him killed by the authorities.
It most certainly goes back to 1553 when Unitarianism’s founder, Michael Servetus was burned alive for questioning established church doctrine, his own heretical writings used to fuel the flames that took his life. It also goes back to 1568, when Hungarian King John Sigismund passed the Edict of Torda, humanity’s first religious toleration law, the first freedom of the pulpit law, guaranteeing…
…no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone… and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching.
The Gadfly Papers also began in 1887, when the Spokane Unitarian Society was founded, adopting bylaws explicitly stating, “The authority of its belief is reason, the method of finding its beliefs is scientific. Its aim is to crush superstition and establish facts of religion,” and its, “First principle is freedom of opinion and is subject to no censure for heresy.” It began when this church called its first minister, Rev. Edwin Wheelock, who came with a bounty on his head, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” by the State of Virginia for preaching favorably of abolition.
It began each time a heretical minister was welcomed into this pulpit, like John H. Dietrich, the father of religious humanism, who, in 1911, became our minister immediately after being convicted of heresy by the Dutch Reform Church. It began when his successor, M.M. Mangasarian, stepped into our pulpit, author of the controversial book, The Truth about Jesus, declaring him but a myth. A few years earlier, in 1900, Mangasarian, founder of the Rationalist movement, started the Independent Religious Society of Chicago, which had so much in common with Unitarianism that it joined the Western Unitarian Conference in 1922. That’s right, American rationalism merged with American Unitarianism 41 years before the Unitarians merged with the Universalists.
My own heretical book had another starting point each time our congregation has upheld its founding principle of inviting rationalist, humanistic, heretical ministers to occupy its pulpit, like humanist Rudy Gilbert, our minister from the late ’50s to early ’70s, who once said:
Freedom is, in theory and practice, basic to all other beliefs held by Unitarians, individually or in groups… A society, Church, state, or political party, may get a progressive idea or plan for the moment, but unless it incorporates the basic principle of freedom, it will sooner or later become an instrument of reaction….
It also began when another of our humanist ministers, Rev. William H. Houff, immediately following in Gilbert’s footsteps, dared to take on the Federal Government to prove the Hanford Nuclear Reactor was leaking radiation. In a 1998 sermon, Rev. Houff pointed out that when the American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, “the great majority of Unitarians… generally accepted that reason, not emotion or sentiment, would be used to test all religious beliefs and practices.” (I appreciate the spirits of Rudy and Bill serendipitously butting in this week while preparing my sermon.)
The Gadfly Papers began in 1980 through the decade that followed, as I watched my former religious organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, go through what the Unitarian Universalist Association is going through today, the takeover of its institutions by authoritarianism and extremism. Just this week I received a communication from another UU minister who was a Southern Baptist during the takeover:
Given our backgrounds, I think we can appreciate more than many UUs the dangerous road we are headed down. It feels all too familiar… It feels like the Twilight Zone… I find myself in agreement with much of the content of our current anti-racism talk, but the harsh, condemning, blaming, calling-out tone of the White Supremacy Culture feels like I’m back in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Most importantly, it began when I became an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister in 1999, and in 2011 when I was called to be your minister, which partly means upholding and protecting our liberal religious tradition by promoting reason, freedom of conscience, and humanistic ethics, no matter who disapproves of it. So, as far as I’m concerned, in so boldly standing up for our faith and the future of our church, writing and distributing The Gadfly Papers was part of my responsibility as your minister.
Indeed, I’ve been expressing my growing alarm over the abandonment of our traditional Unitarian values ever since I came here, like in 2013 when I said:
…at some point during the past 50 years we’ve come to define Unitarian Universalism mostly by its inclusivity, while often forgetting that we are primarily heretics and that our openness and inclusivity is born of our heresy…
In this sermon, entitled A Tale of Two Heresies: 50 Years of Learning to Keep Our Opinions to Ourselves, or Not, I went on to say:
And in the confusion of our identity with a muddled, diluted, preposterous concoction of all faiths, our tolerant religion seems more an idolatrous religion of Tolerance. Too often we sacrifice reason and honesty upon the altar of this peculiar fetish in the holy name of not offending others. For tolerance, in our age of political correctness, has been spun on its head to mean we mustn’t say anything others might disagree with. Although ours is no longer a theocracy that outlaws and burns heretics, too many treat those they disagree with as if they are disagreeable. They blame those they don’t wish to tolerate as if they are intolerant.
I’ve repeated this concern many times over the years, including in my 2017 sermon, It’s Not the Thought that Counts, in which I said:
…the culture of Political Correctness, a philosophy of some social progressives who think nobody should get away with saying things they find offensive… [is] a philosophy akin to that of people like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, who seem to think they have a right not to have to listen to opinions they disagree with, that they have every right to publicly demonize, humiliate, and silence anyone who says something they don’t like.
And in my 2018 sermon, Protest and the Measure of All Things, I said:
I disagree that it’s okay to silence or drown out the speech of my adversaries, a tactic deployed alike by rightwing pundits on Fox News and progressive protesters on our streets and college campuses… To me, banishing one from my community, saying they don’t belong, that they have no right to be seen or heard, is to protest their very existence, their right to live and be, which violates the law of love in every way.
Some may recall the sermon I gave just prior to the 2017 General Assembly, entitled, Chilled: PC, Misappropriation, Microaggressions, and Other Forms of Neo-Fascism, during which I broke down trying to explain, “Tomorrow I will be heading to New Orleans to attend the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Annual Meeting, and I leave with a heavy heart.” This was so, I said, because I had been part of the Assembly’s Worship Arts Team, an endeavor that ended up being one of the most soulless and stifling experiences of my life. The hymns I wanted to use in the service I was responsible for were forbidden, like, “One More Step,” because it’s considered ableist by some, or, “We’ll Build a Land,” because it might be offensive to Native Americans, even though it’s based upon the Hebrew scripture, “Come build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”
That’s when I also learned white males aren’t allowed to discuss social justice issues on UUA stages because it’s not possible for them to relate to injustice. But the most heartbreaking experience of all was when, even after assigning the participants I had been instructed to include, I was still told, “Your service is the whitest of them all. What can we do about that?” I was dumbfounded and began listing the different ethnicities of my seven participants, only one of whom was a white male. Upon doing so, I explained:
I found myself becoming sick to my stomach, for I am not accustomed to speaking of human beings in these terms, as numbers and colors, yet realized, by making sure I had three African American participants and a Latino teenager, that I had let this process cause me to tokenize others based on their race.
I allowed myself to go along to get along, demeaning the personhoods of others in the process. That’s also when Let’s Be Reasonable was born, the third essay in my controversial book, though the first written. The idea came against the backdrop of a hiring decision that resulted in widespread accusations Unitarian Universalism is a white supremacist organization, which the UUA leadership then took for granted, and is, for all practical purposes, all the Assembly focused on, even though it was occurring only a few months past Trump’s election, and many of us had additional concerns, like global warming, we wished were also addressed.
I reasoned — because Unitarian Universalists claim, as is written in our sssociational bylaws, since reason is one of our major sources of inspiration, to help us avoid, “idolatries of the mind and spirit” — that by modeling its use in response to this difficult issue, we might use it to be more honest, understanding, and compassionate with each other.
Boy did I ever get that wrong! You can imagine my shock when less than 24 hours after giving my book away a letter signed by over 300 of my colleagues condemned it, stating, “zealous commitment to ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ over all forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture,” and when, two months later, the UU Ministers Association’s censured me, similarly claiming, “we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.”
Although I don’t fully disagree and would encourage you to read Ibram X. Kendi’s remarkable 500-year history of white supremacy, Stamped from the Beginning, for solid examples of how logic, as well as science and philosophy, have been used to uphold racist beliefs, the UUMA’s letter of censure gave no examples of how my use of logic has done so. I suppose, having no commitment to using reason at all, its emotionally reactive members don’t recognize the most common fallacy in their thinking, affirming the consequent. It’s like saying all rainbows contain the color purple. The bouquet contains the color purple. Therefore, the bouquet is a rainbow. Using logic isn’t necessarily racist any more than using ships or roadways is racist, though both were used in the slave trade.
What’s not to be missed, however, more so than the unsoundness of this surprising claim that any use of logic is a form of racism, is that we now have two historic documents in existence, one signed by hundreds of UU ministers, and the other a letter of censure from the UU Ministers Association, both explicitly renouncing the use of reason, that which our associational bylaws still lists as a source of our spiritual growth, and that the founders of our own congregation established as the “Authority of its belief.”
The essay, placed first in my book, The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind, was inspired by the 2018 book, of similar title, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, critiquing safetyism, the belief ideas can be harmful and are, therefore, dangerous, and it’s our moral obligation to protect others from hearing things they disagree with, sometimes violently, but always by sacrificing free speech. No wonder the ministers’ letter also makes the astonishing claim that freedom of speech is itself a form of oppression.
When I read Coddling, I realized what it described happening on college campuses these days, in the name of protecting students from harmful ideas, is precisely what I’ve seen going on in the UUA. I won’t go into my essay’s content now, but I will mention some of the questions I hope its content provokes.
For instance, are all the white males in our congregations, and all over the world for that matter, really the embodiment of white supremacy and patriarchy, as the UUA now seems to believe? If so, were they destined to be so before conception? The moment of conception? At birth? In kindergarten when they began being enculturated? What is the age of accountability for this new form of original sin? Are their mere images really so offensive that we are not to even allow their pictures to appear in our publications and promotional materials anymore? Is it true they can’t empathize with others or understand injustice?
And what of the use of language as metaphor? If we can no longer use “stand,” or “blinded,” what of words like see, and hear, and walk? Is “Let it be a Dance We Do,” now on our banned list of hymns? What’s next? Who decides? Who will let us know?
I heard of one greeter at the General Assembly here in Spokane, an older volunteer who was “called out” simply for using the word “welcome,” accused of implying those she greeted needed her welcome because they weren’t welcome to begin with. Must we now be afraid to speak to each other for fear of “harming” someone with the smallest unintentional slight? Must we fear even saying, “welcome?”
Has the use of reason, once fundamental to Unitarianism, really become anathema in our association? Is truth really culturally relative? Is there nothing objective about it? Is truth private and personal? Does tolerance mean not saying things others disagree with, or does it still mean having the ability to hear things we disagree with? I can tell you, if the new definition safety means never hearing things we disagree with, then nobody is safe in this church as long as I’m its minister, nor safe anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The second chapter of my book, I Want a Divorce: A Case for Splitting the Unitarian Universalist Association, speaks of the identity crisis I believe has plagued us since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961. As I point out earlier in the book, humanism, like reason and freedom, has always been foundational to the Unitarian side of our tradition, beginning with the earliest Unitarians who, though still theists, held a humanistic Christology, the belief Jesus was only human.
Just five years after the 1961 merger, the new association surveyed its members to identify their typical profile. Of the 12,000 members surveyed, from 800 congregations, less than 3 percent claimed to believe in a “supernatural being,” 28 percent considered God “an irrelevant concept,” 57 percent did not consider theirs a “Christian” religion, and 52 percent preferred “a distinctive humanistic religion.”
When a similar study was conducted more recently, in 2005, UUA members no longer had a clue what our religion is about. One claimed, “It’s the support network.” Another saw “the UU movement as an interreligious dialogue,” Another said it’s comprised of “people who didn’t fit in,” while others complained its members share little in common. “This is where the UUA falls down,” one said, “and why you have CUUPS and the Buddhists and the Christians and all these little subgroups — because we offer the hope of a spiritual journey, and we offer no tools to do it with.” The report on the survey concluded, “Despite consensus within the church that the liberal message of Unitarian Universalism is important in this troubled world, we find it difficult to articulate that message clearly.”
This identity crisis in our religion, I argue, is the result of unresolved tensions between Unitarianism and Universalism. In his previously mentioned 1998 sermon, The Struggle for the Soul of our Movement, Rev. Bill Houff said we can view this “as a power struggle for dominance. Or we can view it as an opportunity to come up with a new and more creative synthesis.” I hope so, but he also warned that we…
…never forget that humanism’s emphasis on human experience and rationality is essential to living in a sane world. Emotional experience and religious enthusiasm are essential to a moral and rich world, but divorced from reason, they easily run amok, leading to error and even barbarism.
This, in my opinion, is what’s happening now, the complete abandonment of our traditional Unitarian principles — reason, freedom, and humanism. Consider this, during a 2012 UU ministerial conference, keynote speaker Rev. Frederic Muir referred to the “trinity of errors” he believes is stymying our religion: “a persistent, pervasive, disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism… Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism that is often insulting to others and undermines our good news… [and] our allergy to authority and power.”
Muir goes on to say we need to establish “something that has eluded Unitarian Universalism: a doctrine of church,” that, “We cannot do both covenant and individualism,” that we must move beyond the concept of an “iChurch,” that the four pillars of the new church doctrine must be, “Multiculturalism, environmental justice, sexual and family values, right relationships,” and that Unitarianism’s humanistic turn has “arrested” our “theological creativity.”
In a 2019 UU World article entitled The Power of We, just prior to the recent General Assembly, our association’s current president cited Muir’s trinity of errors — individualism, exceptionalism, and our allergy to authority — repeating his blueprint forward, that we need to move from an iChurch to a beloved community, from individualism to interdependence. Most recently, in October, a Pacific Northwest UU Region newsletter was sent out with an article further promoting the shift in our congregations from “I” to “We.”
I think all three articles make some good points and are well-meaning, but they also create a false dichotomy, that there’s either “I” or “we,” either the “individual” or the “community,” when both must exist for humans and societies to be healthy. Without the strong commitment to individuality, we easily succumb to the kind of groupthink and fascism overtaking our entire nation today, which is why UU leaders disparaging exceptionalism and antiauthoritarianism trouble me.
If we see equality as meaning that we must all think, and speak, and act alike, without exception, without freedom, we end up like the former USSR, where everyone is equally miserable. And it is only by eliminating individualism, without exception, as the UUA is now suggesting, that authoritarianism can thrive. If this is what Unitarian Universalism now means, I can’t be a part of it, because I consider individualism, exceptionalism, and our aversion to authority our strengths, not our errors.
Last year, prior to my book, another UU minister wrote a Facebook post stating, in part:
I have reservations about current UU racial-justice ideology, and would like to find a place to discuss them with colleagues (of all races). I can’t imagine that our moderators would allow such a discussion here. Can anyone suggest a place?
For this, he too was censured by the UU Ministers Association, accusing him of violating our Covenant and Code of Conduct. I knew, because of the “cancel culture” now amok in the UUA, there was no way I could openly talk about my concerns either, or get “permission” to give my book away, not that I needed it. So here I am now, the hero of a story to some and its villain to others. I hope it’s worth it when the story ends.
As I see it, our turmoiled religion now has three options:
- We can continue down the course we’re on, watching our traditional Unitarian values evaporate into oblivion.
- We can split, as I say in my book may be inevitable if we’re not allowed to talk about our concerns.
- Or we can have genuine, respectful, open dialogue about what’s going on and figure out a way to move forward together, maintaining our common values and shared goals, including the goals of ending racism and other forms of oppression everywhere.
I’ll end this longer than usual sermon as Bill Houff ended his 1998 sermon about this mounting conflict,:
Maybe this time around, we can have a continuing and creative dialogue instead of a divisive and destructive struggle for dominance. But we need to keep the dialogue open and civil! And we need to get started pronto!
Copyright 2019 © Todd Eklof
In order for three to happen, both sides must want to discuss. The letters and censures and cancel culture show that the ARAOMC types do not want to talk. That leaves one and two. Frankly, I am willing to join and pay dues to any new UU organization that forms. I will not continue on supporting the UUA however. Either way I’m still a Unitarian Universalist – just not approved by the UUA 🙂 So as a heretic or apostate I guess, historically, I’m in good company.
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Thank you, again, Rev. Todd. I will never forget the tremendous sense of relief I felt on my second night at GA 2019. As a lifelong Unitarian (then UU) I found GA to be a nightmare, which I could not understand. I was grateful to have been given a copy of your book – it explained what I had been dumbfounded by. This essay, again, contains so much wisdom. I have stopped attending my local UU congregation (which congregation I had been president of), because I find all this new political correctness and ethnic silliness beyond anything I can tolerate. Edith Fletcher
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Particularly liked: “…at some point during the past 50 years we’ve come to define Unitarian Universalism mostly by its inclusivity, while often forgetting that we are primarily heretics and that our openness and inclusivity is born of our heresy…”
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This kind of jumped out at me: “Just five years after the 1961 merger, the new association surveyed its members to identify their typical profile. Of the 12,000 members surveyed, from 800 congregations, less than 3 percent claimed to believe in a “supernatural being,” 28 percent considered God “an irrelevant concept,” 57 percent did not consider theirs a “Christian” religion, and 52 percent preferred “a distinctive humanistic religion.”
Seems like WordPress likes to use carriage return to enter a comment – hard to insert a line break. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back and delete or edit a comment. So… To finish my last comment:
This jumped out at me: ‘Just five years after the 1961 merger, the new association surveyed its members to identify their typical profile. Of the 12,000 members surveyed, from 800 congregations, less than 3 percent claimed to believe in a “supernatural being,” 28 percent considered God “an irrelevant concept,” 57 percent did not consider theirs a “Christian” religion, and 52 percent preferred “a distinctive humanistic religion.”
Is this really true? What about all the Buddhists, stoned hippie freaks (me), and others who have a more spiritual/mystical bent? Cosmic Consciousness. Higher power. Nature. Interdependent Web of all existence. I seem to run into a lot of folks who aren’t stark rationalists. If we’re really such a stodgy group, I think I might have been in the wrong place for the last 30 years. I kind of thought that we were a, you know, religion.
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“I found myself becoming sick to my stomach, for I am not accustomed to speaking of human beings in these terms, as numbers and colors, yet realized, by making sure I had three African American participants and a Latino teenager, that I had let this process cause me to tokenize others based on their race.”
Yeah. I’ve had that particular nausea. Not because I “made sure” to have people of color in my work/world (I don’t have that much control over who appears in my life or ministry!) but because I’ve found myself angrily totting up the friends, family members, colleagues and mentors of color …
Perhaps “you’re a white supremacist no matter what you do” crowd would say that failing to think of my cousin as my Cousin-Of-Color was racism. Or maybe the UU has made me a racist by insisting that I “center” her because her skin is black?
(Well, actually she’s dark brown, with a few zits that she’s fretful about, and she wants to get her unibrow waxed…whoops! I’m thinking about her as herself rather than as a Person of Color. Mea culpa. Maybe I need some sort of electric-shock therapy?)
It makes me very, very grateful to be a law enforcement chaplain. Not only is my world very diverse (in every way, including politically and religiously) but I get to focus on human universals (grief, death) and therefore on actual human beings.
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I don’t think the current UUA dogma believes or understands that a white heterosexual male can possibly be marginalized, when of course they can be and are. I noticed that a UUA list of marginalized groups (gender, race, etc.) for an education class didn’t include mentally ill and, considering the UUA’s current dogma, I had to seriously wonder if that group was explicitly excluded because that would thus include white heterosexual males.
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Wow, David. Your anecdote about the list of marginalized groups is stunning for three reasons: 1) that the mentally ill are excluded, 2) that your imagined explanation seems possible, and 3) that the UUA sees a need to determine which groups are entitled to the designation. A love-based faith would recognize that any of us may have ways in which we feel marginalized. No one should need a group-based membership card to be a member of the club.
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The irony (and some may say satire) in all this is that one of the main reasons throughout history that people have been marginalized and expelled from societies and persecuted, and in particular by religions, is for expressing views that don’t align with the required dogma.
I’m pretty sure that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Michael Servetus didn’t consider themselves “centered.”
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David Cycleback, the mentally ill would be included under people with disabilities, and in fact there has been plenty of discussion around the challenges of people with “invisible disabilities.” Mel Pine, feeling marginalized and being marginalized is not the same thing. The history of this country is what it is. The UUA didn’t invent racism, homophobia, etc. Regarding people with disabilities, I am truly surprised Rev. Eklof would suggest “One More Step” as a hymn for GA 2017, a year after a big blowup at Ministry Days 2016 over ableist language, where many of his colleagues with disabilities expressed how hurt and excluded they felt by the language used, including that hymn specifically. This was discussed in a 2016 letter from the UUMA Board that went out to all UUMA members. Was Rev. Eklof unaware of this? Was he asserting his right to not care about his colleagues? What did he think was going to be the response? Rev. Eklof saying he felt “stifled” by the need to consider the feelings and perspectives of people with different life experiences is one of the things people with privilege are being asked to examine in ourselves and rise above. Surely, for ministers this is a minimal ask. It is what we are supposed to do.
Rev Hinson-Rieger, it’s true that the UUA didn’t invent racism, homophobia, etc. It also didn’t invent anti-semitism, fat-shaming, classism, romantic and professional advantages for tall males, prejudice against tall women, and on and on. The UUA didn’t invent the trauma, addiction, and poverty that can afflict white people as well as POC. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that religion needs to address everyone pain.
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Also, you say “feeling marginalized and being marginalized is (sic) not the same.” That supposes that we do need someone to make the rules about who is in fact marginalized. So you’re willing to judge whether my sense of marginalization is valid, while I’m prevented from judging whether an officially marginalized person’s feeling of being hurt is valid. Kafka, where are you now that we need you?
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Mel, you wrote: “the UUA didn’t invent racism, homophobia, etc. It also didn’t invent anti-semitism, fat-shaming, classism, romantic and professional advantages for tall males, prejudice against tall women, and on and on. The UUA didn’t invent the trauma, addiction, and poverty that can afflict white people as well as POC.” Am I understanding you to be suggesting the UUA doesn’t talk about these things because these are problems white people might also have, and the UUA is not interested in the problems of white people? The UUA talks about anti-semitism, fat-shaming, classism, and the economic impact of gender stereotyping all the time. It’s all over the UUA Facebook page. Also the problems of trauma, addiction, and poverty.
I agree with you that religion needs to address everyone’s pain. Religion also needs to address institutional oppression and apply a power analysis to social problems. We need to do all these things. You can’t just say pain is pain is pain and stop there. I understand UU as calling us to work together to all get free together. But not everyone is unfree at the same time in the same way. Certainly, white heterosexual males can be marginalized for various reasons. At the same time, they are also privileged. Our institutions do not treat white people with drug addictions and black people with drug addictions the same way. Ditto mental illnesses and a million other things.
Mel Pine, I forgot to add, I am not a minister, but a candidate, so no “Rev” for me.
From what I can tell, “mentally ill” is not a marginalized group; members of that group are in charge of the UUA.
As someone who is bipolar (since I was a little kid) and open about it, I told someone who used a modern “politically correct” term that “mental illness” is a perfectly fine term with me and what I use, and that people using politically correct terms is what offends me.
Not speaking for all and someone is free to personally disagree, but I’m not into language that treats me or others as if they’re in still in kindergarten. That’s what offends me.
With some of what is going on with UUA adherents (“You difference of opinion harms me and cannot be spoken,” “My feelings must be accepted as fact even if I misheard what you said”), what I want to say in response is “What, are you people fricking five year olds?”
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I’m a politically moderate UU member, so, as tests, I told about the “Standing on the Side of Love” to “Siding With Love” change to two very liberal, feminist friends of mine. One’s response was “You’re kidding” and the other’s was “That’s really stupid.” The former, who is the most liberal person I know in liberal Seattle and I know supports many PC terms, said it is dangerous. She said she found it so over the top and needlessly changing a non-offensive term that it goes against the genuine cause of changing terms for legitimate purposes. She said the word standing in the original slogan obviously is figurative, and asked if UUs are not allowed to say “I see what you mean,” because some people are blind.
I told my liberal, Title IX-warrior mom that the Unitarian Universalist Association was changing their slogan “Standing on the Side of Love,” because they deemed it not inclusive of those who cannot physically stand. She said “No wonder the Republicans call us snowflakes.”
I don’t think the UUA realizes that with some of their new dogma, theory and rules (“Hearing a difference of opinion causes me fear,” “My personal feeling is truth and you cannot question it,” “Standing on the Side of Love is offensive,”), they are performing their own Saturday Night Live skit of themselves, and I don’t think they realize how stupid and embarrassing they look to outsiders (and many on the inside), including even to the above-quoted liberals in liberal Seattle.
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My parents experienced a church shunning for 10 years in their KY Disciples congregation before finally giving up and moving to another denomination. I discovered the Unitarian tradition in college in 1955 and treasured it because of both the rationality and the poetry I experienced. It was a welcomed contrast to the irrational segregated culture I had identified and struggled against. Maybe those of us from the southern part of the US are more tuned in to what has come to divide us and made us incapable of hearing the perspective of another person as anything but an attack. The good news for me on this day before Thanksgiving 2019, feeling alienated and discouraged is learning Todd Eklof is still thinking, writing and speaking out.
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I think the “evils of logic” line of reasoning of the UUA and UUMA is so laughable on its face that it should not even need to be addressed. However, as a professional philosopher, I will point out that, quite to the contrary, it is the lack of logic that is beyond historical racism and similar bigotry. The problem in this world and history has included the lack of the use of logic.
It’s also silly in that other cultures and races have used and use logic. I in part study the philosophy and history of mathematics (and thus mathematical logic and scientific logic), and the Persians, Indians, Mayans, Sumerians, Khmer and East-Asians were at the forefront of mathematics and logic long before it caught on in the West with folks like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. The fact that our (and Newton’s and Leibniz’s) numeration system is Hindu-Arabic (Hindu decimal system with Arabic symbols) speaks volumes. Further, Leibniz reintroduced the binary system, which he got from reading the I Ching (and binary systems also used earlier by the Egyptians and Indians).
Does logic have its limits and are there other worthwhile and ways of thinking and considering? Of course. But this “throw away logic” line of reasoning is an example of how the UUA is embarrassing itself. It’s grasping at straws.
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I would also note that the many remarkably similar mathematical logic systems, and that the concept and use of the logic of the zero symbols and concept, appeared independently of each other at a different times in history (a zero symbol were first independently used by the Mayans in Mexico and the Khmer in Cambodia who had no contact with each other, then further developed elsewhere by the Hindus in India) demonstrates that logic isn’t a particular invention of one culture or race (and certainly of the white West), but one of the universal ways humans cognitively think.
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It reminds me of a number of years ago when US News and World Report came up with a new sophisticated and carefully studied computer calculation to pick the best schools. The problem was the result of the calculations was the top school was Cal Tech. US News and World Report thought that Cal Tech was fine school, but they thought the top should be a Harvard, Princeton or MIT. So they scrapped that system and went back to the one the produced the schools they preferred.
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Jaimie Hinson-Rieger I am handicapped in a number of ways including difficulty standing up and pain when I stand too long. I have other disabilities as do most of my family members. None of us has ever been offended by any of the UU hymns. I am offended that people would trivialize our real concerns in this way. If the folks who are making a big deal about hymns don’t have any more important to complain about than metaphors in poetry, they are privileged indeed. I find it insulting that UU’s think most disabled people are concerned about things like that and that you have chosen to listen to a few fanatics over the overwhelming majority of us who would like to be able to get into every room in our church easily, have places to sit that are appropriate for us, doors we can open, refreshments we can access, great sound systems that are modern, training in speaking into microphones, access for those who don’t drive and parking for those who must drive, lighting strong enough for the visually impaired, speakers who enunciate and have vocal training, fall prevention measures, attention to background and ambient noise, attention to things from weeds on sidewalks to people in the aisle to storing things in turnaround spaces which block access for people in wheelchairs, with walkers, children running around in spaces where there are also frail adults who fall easily, website information for the handicapped so we know how to get into the building and what assistance we will find there. I remember visiting a UU congregation with no info on the website nor outside the building as to where the unlocked accessible entrance was (not near the sanctuary nor the door everyone else uses) and where best to park. After locating it on the third try — not so easy when you can’t walk — I went in the door but there were no signs or maps that told me how to get to the sanctuary or which floor to get off on the elevator. When, with the help of someone wandering around I found the sanctuary, the seating was not very accessible and I was not sure whether to sit in a flimsy chair with no armrests or to go home. So I was more than a little grumpy when the PC minister proudly announced that they had changed the words to a hymn tune to better welcome people like me. Also, no bar ($20) to help you get up from the toilet in the bathroom — perhaps there was one somewhere — but how would I know?
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krohde2014, I’m sorry you had that experience. As someone who leads worship it is my job to think about how the language of hymns impacts different people in the space. I don’t expect everyone to feel the same or for everyone to share the same concerns. I see the conversation about ableist language in worship as an entry point into a much deeper conversation about how we talk about and think about bodies and which bodies are valued in our culture, which is a profoundly religious conversation and central to our work in living out the 1st Principle. It’s not an easy conversation, but I’m grateful to be part of a religious community which is having it. At the same time, the conversation around ableism is spurring congregations and the denomination as a whole to examine all those issues around access you mentioned. There is now EqUUal Access to educate congregations on these issues, the UUMA has done a deep dive on this, and congregations are working to get accessibility certified in the same way they can become Welcoming Congregations and Green Sanctuaries. It’s not either or. The conversation around language and the work on physical accessibility are happening at the same time. I know we’re looking at all these concerns top to bottom in my own church and making real changes to our facilities and our processes, and that is a direct result of UUs who raised this issue so prominently in 2016, starting with questions about worship AND problems with accessibility at GA and similar events. The conversation has always been about both. But absolutely, I agree, no one should change a hymn lyric and think they’ve done the work. That’s not the point at all.
Sorry, clarification needed, EqUUal Access has been around since 2008. The AIM certification program is new (launched 2015.) And now I am going to bow out and go be with my family. Blessings to you all.
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No, Jamie, the conversation has not always been about both accessibility and language, and the conversation about accessibility started long before 2016. Each of the four congregations I’ve been part of since the mid-1980s struggled with access and would have been delighted to get some actual help from the UUA — like maybe some funding. Many things are not either/or, but unfortunately money is, and the UUA has not been as generous toward existing congregations struggling with growth and accessibility as it has toward newer special interest groups.
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Jamie, IS there a bona fide, back-and-forth conversation, when we see that people who promote “hurtful” ideas being censured under the authority of the governing body? The “conversation” is restricted to vetted ideas — i.e., no one who is part of a marginalized group has their feelings hurt. But I don’t see hurtfulness in sincere, respectfully presented ideas; I see speaking truth to power (though here “power” may be the UUA).
When there’s a predetermined “right answer,” how can there be a conversation? We’re trying to give status, power, and resources to historically oppressed people, but the way we’re doing it is to promote a one-way sensitivity culture: one set of people is encouraged to express feelings and reactions, and another set of people is expected to be meek and docile. I appreciate the former but stubbornly refuse to abide by the latter. (To be fair, I may express Woman and Childfree feelings and opinions, but not feelings and opinions that are informed by Higher Education or a Caucasian background.)
One writer in our most recent UU World suggests that I cannot claim to be a UU because I’m not following the specific action agenda that they believe is implied by the Seven Principles. To which I say, baloney, followed with a strong dose of Congregational Polity.
One of my congregants once spoke passionately against inviting the congregation to stand (“in body or in spirit”) for hymns during worship services, because she could stand only for very short periods of time. She couldn’t see over people, and she didn’t want to sit at the front. She wanted people to show sensitivity and inclusion by mimicking her limitations. She also objected to “Standing on the Side of Love” for similar reasons. (I object to the slogan because of it’s embedded self-righteousness and divisiveness, but that’s another story.)
Her vision of inclusivity [though to be uber-progressive, we shouldn’t use “vision” either] reminded me of the 1961 Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron,” set in 2081, when everyone has become equal through enforced limitations that equalize abilities and attributes.
You can read the story here: http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html
Like his great-grandfather Clemens, Vonnegut was a freethinker. He occasionally attended a Unitarian church, but with little consistency. In his autobiographical work Palm Sunday, Vonnegut says he is a “Christ-worshipping agnostic”; in a speech to the Unitarian Universalist Association, he called himself a “Christ-loving atheist.” However, he was keen to stress that he was not a Christian.
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And, Jamie, I just noticed your question to me about ignoring problems of white men. In the abstract, the UUA is not ignoring the problems, but it fails to understand the impact of it’s labeling.
I’m a 73-year-old while man who, yes, is likely to be treated better than a black counterpart in many situations. But I’ve experienced more than my share of traumas and disadvantages. In the privilege walk, I score minus four steps. Two of my friends (one black) from the 1960s are serving life terms without the possibility of parole and another served a shorter term for murder. One close friend (a black woman) was stabbed to death, and my aunt and uncle were shot to death. I lost two other aunts, two other uncles, and five first cousins in the holocaust before I was born. My son died in a skateboarding accident and my sister in an auto accident. I survived an FALN building bombing, and there’s lots more.
So when the UUA designates some groups as marginalized and tells me I need to shut up to listen to their painful stories because I’ve been hogging the “center,” I wonder why we can’t just listen to each other’s stories — why any group needs to be centered. And I don’t feel welcome (especially after my work was expunged from the Worship Web because I won’t apologize for being white, but that’s another story.
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Suffering is not a wall, it’s a bridge.
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Jaimie, I have been around for a long time, and I frankly think you are talking (as Mom politely put it) through your hat. Literally not one of my disabled family or friends are worried about language when it comes to our disability. We don’t even think about it and we find it insulting that the UUA is pushing this so hard. Most of the things I reference above, are free or low cost. I have never seen them mentioned. I think all this language stuff is virtue signalling and a substitute for sensitivity and dialogue. It reminds me of the time nearly forty years ago when the UUA was all on board with changing sexist language while lots of the folks pushing it were male ministers abusing the women in their congregations (and ministers who assault people are not considered as big an issue as not hurting certain select people’s feelings even today — see the UUMA payoff of a serial sexual abuser just a couple of years ago, and the opportunity just a couple of months ago for a sexual misconduct perpetrator to tell his side of the story through UUA channels without the primary or secondary victims heard from. A department of ministry action, wasn’t it?). As a disabled person, I am tired of the able bodied talking about what I need or letting a token disabled person talk about what “we” need. I have never been invited into that conversation. I don’t blame people for being ignorant, but I do blame people for assuming they know what is important without asking. Maybe try out going through work beginning at home for a week on crutches and another week in a wheel chair.
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Mel, most congregations don’t know this, but although elevators and door openers and the like may cost something (although I think they would more than make up for themselves in funds from increased participation and are easy to fund raise for — I’ve served in churches and one time expenses are pretty easy to fund), lots of the things needed are free or very cheap. If a congregation wants to welcome the disabled and our elders as we become more frail and less able, it is far more about the will, the labor, and the training than it is about the money.
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When we first bought our our old movie-theater building in 2004, it was built to be accessible, including ramps to the chancel for wheelchair access, for example.
The estimate for us to add a standard elevator is at $100,000 (one hundred thousand dollars). We also need a new capital campaign to develop our second floor (which contains the projection rooms).
I don’t see an elevator as an easy upgrade that pays for itself. We still expect to do it eventually, but it’s an expense that will be paid for from the endowment fund, and not from fundraisers.
While not meaning to take issue with Kate Rohde’s point about the will to do it, I still think that money helps, even if it’s just to raise awareness. Many of us who have worked on various problems in smaller churches learned quickly the UUA’s answer to requests to help congregations with funds for anything: “We don’t do that. No budget for it.” As one UU staffer told me when I asked for funding for an unexpected problem: “This is one instance when we actually do believe in congregational polity.” So when the UUA gave more that $300,000 to BLUU out of its general funds and earmarked $5 million from its endowment as a guarantee on fundraising, it came as a shock. If the UUA had ever done anything like that for other “marginalized” groups, like those with access problems, it might have made more sense to lay leaders.
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I’m familiar with many aspects of what you refer to as the rational / humanistic / heretic origins of traditional Unitarianism from my upbringing in New England UU congregations. But I disagree that those values are getting ousted, more that they are getting pulled into overdo and necessary balance with our other theological and historical roots (universalism, covenant, radical inclusivity, LOVE!) My experiences in the rational and intellectual debate-oriented corners of UU were cognitively stimulating, but not enough to sustain and nourish me as I grew older and experienced more hardship. It wasn’t enough to get me through my darkest times or to grapple seriously with the injustice outside my door. In my liberal city there are plenty of places I can express an opinion or reject traditional religious beliefs, like book clubs or a dinner party or the political campaign offices (this wasn’t true for our ancestors obviously). But I only know of one place where I can experience a beautiful community of diverse spiritual travelers trying to improve the world. If there wasn’t a UU congregation nearby, I would certainly try my best at another religious or spiritual setting, but the UU vision of covenant and wide circles feels really unique, as imperfectly and humanly as we enact this vision. Our source about heeding reason is only one source. When reason is balanced with the values of radical love and anti-oppression and a deep commitment to community covenant, we have the type of faith I could imagine my children finding a home in, whatever identities they might hold or hardships they might endure.