Saturday, September 15, 2012

On Covenant and Creed: A Response

Even though I disagree with his diagnosis, I have to thank Thomas in On Covenant and Creed for getting me fired up and crystallizing some thoughts I've had for a long time.  We had this interchange, extracted from the longer thread:

So, I seek a covenant ... between each UU and their home congregation. ... Thus, we all covenant together with a single set of principles... Yes, this definition will exclude some, maybe even some who currently attend UU services or pay dues. This is the price I think we must pay to establish an identity that UUs can take pride in. We need a sense of communal identity and meaning.
I joined a UU congregation years ago. I give money to two congregations. I did not, do not, and would not “pledge to Affirm and Promote the Seven Principles.” So I guess you’re telling me that I’m not a UU. [Not in the original - I was married in a UU church, I've buried friends in a UU church.]
I am interested to know what you have problems with in the Principles.
I have not stated that I think the 7 Principles should be the final covenant, but they are what we have, and thus they are where we would have to work from to get where we are going.
My response is such that it should stand alone as its own posting.

So what's my problem?  My answer has three parts:  Pledge and Covenant; Principles and Creed; and a counter-proposal.

"Pledge" and Covenant

Thomas asks "what have problems [I] have with in the Principles."  While I do have issues with the Principles, addressed in the next section, my statement was not that "I have problems" with them.  I said "I [do not] pledge to Affirm and Promote" them.  This is important.  Really important.  Fundamental to what defines the Free Church since Francis David.

Why should we be covenanting to affirm etc. the Principles?  To know who is in or not?  A good person or not?  Saved or not?  I am serious here - what difference in deeds should it make that I have, or know you that you have, taken such a pledge?  If it doesn't make a difference in deeds, then what is the point?  If it does make a difference how you and I act toward one another - that's really a problem.  We have invented a boundary to know who is in and who is out.  That was my point in citing Jesus in the original post/reply thread:  everyone is supposed to be my neighbor.  "Covenant" then brings to mind one of its bad historical word associations - "restrictive."

Next, suppose that we did such a covenant on some set of really cool Principles.  These Principles are now a bludgeon.  Sally says to Joe, "I don't like what you're doing - it violates the Third Principle."  So Joe shuts up.  This is not theoretical.  I have been in the room more than once where this happened.

So not pledging to some words is not just "the way we've always done it."  It is one of the foundational choices that defines this religious tradition.  There are no magic words, none, that I have to say that someone can later say "you are violating those."

As Scott Wells said in a Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent:
If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn’t come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.
Or drawing from Buddhism:  "If you fnd the True Principles on the shelf - burn them."  They would be used wrongly.

We do not want words that let us define who is in and who is out.  Otherwise we are in the position that Jesus criticized - do not even the pagans do that?

The Principles

So my primary reason for saying "I do not pledge ... Principles" is the pledge part.  Now let's take up the Principles.  I do in fact have problems with the Principles.  For those who find the Principles comforting, you can choose to skip to the next section. I have no desire to take them from you.

The Principles are timid, vague, incoherent, and lack poetry.  Davidson Loehr wrote:
Using logic to show the incoherence of the Seven Banalities feels kind of rude, like throwing melons at a little dancing bear. ... It’s important to understand how and why the Banalities are not only simplistic but also incoherent.
Timid and vague  You probably could get almost every member of the Democratic party to sign up to the Principles.  As Loehr notes, they pretty much correspond to modern American cultural liberalism.  There are no commandments, no hard work, no demands.

Incoherent  They are a grab bag of Good Things.  Some quasi-religious things - the search for truth and meaning, spiritual growth; and some procedural goals - "world community" (whatever that is) and "the use of the democratic process."  This is like the committee coming up with the Principles of
  1. Motherhood
  2. Apple pie
  3. Robert's Rules of Order
  4. Recycling
They lack poetry  This matters.  Principles are words, and words matter - it seems especially to Unitarian Universalists.  There is nothing in the Principles to compare with lines like these:
  • But let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident - that all men are created equal ...
  • The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven...
  • I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...
These are the kinds of words that inspire.  They have active verbs.  The propose a vision.  They get people marching.  The UU principles - they are something to be revised every twenty years or so.

A Proposal

I will step back to what I think is a shared point of view between Thomas and me:
  • There is a message of value in Unitarian Universalism.
  • UUism is ineffective in bringing this message to life.
If you, dear Reader, think the largest part of "ineffective" is "we ought to have a larger voice in social justice issues," then we are not on the same page and there may not be much for me to say.  Simply having a more powerful voice sounds like something more effectively done in a political party.  But if you think "ineffective" means "there is an important religious role for UUism and it's not happening," then I agree with you.

I suggest that the solution is not any of the following:
  • Better governance of whatever flavor
  • A stronger role at the UUA or GA to make sure the congregations do X.
  • A better statement of the Principles.
I would throw away the Principles in a heartbeat.  The important stuff is in the Sources.  Move them back into first place, with this understanding:
  • Being human is hard.  We often don't do it very well.
  • Some people have had flashes of insight and wisdom, and they or others wrote it down.
  • None of them had a monopoly.  (This is the liberal religion twist.)
  • We have this accumulated wisdom as a gift.
  • We have to work to claim this gift.
Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, let's do what Theodore Parker proposed, writ large:  separate the permanent from the transient in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and other wisdom literature.

Rather than beliefs, and creeds, and Principles, which we in the West picked up from the Greeks, perhaps we should return simply to commandments on the right way to act.  For example, Micah 6:8:
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Slightly revising for UU sensibilities this could be
Act justly
Love mercy
And walk humbly on the earth.
That pretty much covers it.  Three commandments, no Principles, work hard at the Sources, and no covenant or creed.


Davidson Loehr, "Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying", Journal of Liberal Religion.

A post-script on Pledges

When pressed in a discussion with my wife, there are pledges I would be willing to give. I choose not to say the Pledge of Allegiance (there go my chances for elected office), because I find it inane to pledge to a flag, of all things, and offensive that it's "under God", and I am not sure what "pledging allegiance" is supposed to entail - it sound awfully obedient to me.  On the other hand, I would be willing to swear to uphold the Constitution. It starts with poetry and knows exactly what it's about.  I also made a pledge when my wife and I were married (although like good UUs, we wrote our own vows.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just Asking...

About the story in the UU World about "Fair Share" giving [1].

Part of the article discusses a "unified ask" - all the congregational money going directly to the UUA instead of UUA and Disticts. The discussion mentions "congregational and district leaders," but in support of the argument, Teresa Cooley references "a poll conducted by the UU Ministers Association [where] 70 percent of ministers said they wanted to move toward a unified ask."

For the most part, congregations have no knowledge of the changes happening in the UUA.  I think "congregational leaders" are being conflated with "the ministers." I think that currently all the District Executives (who, following the cite of ministers, might be the "district leaders" being mentioned) are also ministers.

The ministers are not the ones who pay the bills.

Kind of like taking a survey of the teenagers to see how much and who the family should pay for cable and phone.

[1] UU World, Board of Trustees hears report on ‘fair share’ giving.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Velveteen Association

John Buehrens has a little ice-breaker story that he likes to tell near the start of a talk. [1]
When I was running for President of the UUA, one of the things my friends and family had to put up with was hearing me called “the evangelical rabbi of liberal religion.” Which provoked my daughter to send me this card she’d found, with a drawing of guy my age, with a beard, glasses, hair somehow all loved off on top, wearing a well-traveled robe, a prayer shawl, and a yarmulke – under the caption, “The Velveteen Rabbi,” with him asking the question: “When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”
It's a good story - it gets a laugh, it loosens up the audience.

Let's back up for a second and ask "why is it funny?"  Psychologists have several theories of humor, but one one them, proposed by no less than Immanual Kant, is "incongruity theory" - "humor arising from discrepancies between what is expected and what is observed."[2]  The audience is hearing a story about a rabbi, from a speaker who bears a physical resemblance to one sterotype of a rabbi, so our minds are thinking about Jewish teachers.  But then in the punch line we get a play on words between rabbit and rabbi, referencing the well-known story of the Velveteen Rabbit, who wants to be a real rabbit.  It's funny because we had to do a mental shift.  Rabbis aren't rabbits; Buehrens isn't Jewish; and he's being self-deprecating (which also playes into the sterotype of a lot of old Jewish stand-up comedy.)

But still and all, rabbits aren't rabbis, or vice versa.  This brings me around to today's observation.  In a recent UU World article [3] on "fair share" giving, there's a subtext about changing the nature of the UUA.  This includes
  • Moving toward a "single ask" (money from the congregations only going to the UUA instead of the UUA and Districts."
  • Wanting people to feel a "greater sense of identity, .... a greater sense of mutual accountability.  We want people to ask 'what is my accountability?'"
These aren't the first examples that indicate that there are those who want to make the UUA more like a real denomination.  It has been a recurring between-the-lines theme for several years.  But the UUA is an association of congregations, not persons.  No individual is a member of the UUA.  They are members of their individual congregations.  And the goal of the UUA is to serve the congregations.  That's what it is supposed to be - an organization providing shared services.  From the UUA bylaws [4],
The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.
It is human nature to want more power at the center to be able to direct things.  And to have more status because you are "speaking" for the "denomination."  But the UUA isn't that kind of rabbit.

[1] The Velveteen Rabbi:
[2] Theories of Humor:
[3] UU World, "Fair Share Giving":
[4] UUA Bylaws, Section C-2.2

P.S. And by the way, how's that "organize new congregations" part going?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Be Careful What Lesson You Learn

Many of us are watching transfixed with horror at the ongoing mess in Europe.  It's the low-grade horror of a large slow-motion disaster movie.  I want to talk about the reasons for the disaster, and how it could be (or could have been) different.

One of the major reasons for the disaster is the design of the European Central Bank (ECB.)  The ECB is and is not like our Federal Reserve.  An important difference is that the ECB cannot buy government debt.  This means that in times of economic crisis, the ECB cannot step in and act as a "lender of last resort", one of the historical roles of a central bank.

Why this limitation?  Because the Germans, as a condition for creating the Euro, required that the sole role of the ECB was price stability.  This is because the Germans have a visceral fear of hyperinflation.  You can understand their reasoning.  Hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s led to an unstable political environment.  That environment helped the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  Not wanting a repeat - let's make sure we never have hyperinflation.

But what if the Germans learned the wrong lesson?  In 1919, after the Peace of Versailles, John Maynard Keynes wrote a book called The Economic Consequences of the Peace.  Three important facts about the post-war (WW I) world are:
  1. The world went back on to fixed exchange rates (the gold standard.)
  2. The fixed exchange rates were  at the wrong level, causing persistent outflows from Germany
  3. Huge wartime reparations were imposed on Germany, which it was in no position to repay.
So with this setting:  what was Germany to do?  The government financed itself by simply printing money, leading to the hyperinflation and the rest.  But was the hyperinflation the source "cause" of the subsequent problems, or just an intermediate symptom?  Instead of blaming hyperinflation, the lesson should be the underlying forces that led to the hyperinflation.

Consider the parallels with today.
  1. The Euro-zone countries are locked into a fixed exchange rate, similar to the gold standard.
  2. Some countries in the Euro-zone are not currently competitive, using the exchange rate under which they entered the Euro.  Instead of printing money, as in the 1920s, the Euro-zone countries or their banks ran up high levels of debt, which everyone else pretended (for a long time) were repayable.
  3. Huge repayment plans are being imposed on some countries, which they will not be able to repay for decades, if ever.
So what is going to happen?  The austerity programs being imposed on the debtor countries are politically unsustainable.  Radical parties of the right and the left are on the rise.  The Germans think the solution is even more austerity and putting them in charge.

Without a different mindset, this won't end well.  The lesson to be drawn from the 1920s is not "avoid hyperinflation at all costs."  Instead, the lessons should be
  • Avoid impossible fixed exchange rates between differing economies, and
  • Don't impose impossible debt payment plans.
If you don't learn these two lessons, then as Keynes noted, there will be consequences.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Diversity on my doorstep (literally)

The middle of the street outside our flat has been sinking for several years.  (The western half of San Francisco was sand dunes up until the 1920s; underneath it's still just sand.)  SF public works shows up periodically, dumps another load of asphalt over it, which also proceeeds to sink.  This week, we must have finally made the construction schedule.  There's a crew and a flotilla of large equipment, performing construction archeology on layers of asphalt, concrete, brick, then sand.

Lunch time comes and they hit the Safeway across the street, so there's the all-Hispanic work crew down there sitting at the edge of the hole in the street.  Lunch consists of cokes, spicy chicken wings, and sushi, while conversing in Spanish.  They casually throw the chicken bones in the hole - it's going to be covered with concrete in an hour anyway.  The Chinese ancestry mailman walks up the street, asks "what you guys do to street?"  They answer back, he walks on.  Immigrants from former Soviet states walk down the street to the Muni stop.

Is this a great country or what?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Which Path? Saul of Tarsus and William of Iowa

Around the year 35, Saul of Tarsus travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus.  While on the road to Damascus he had a conversion experience.  The change was so radical that thereafter in the Bible he is not Saul, the Hebrew, but Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul's conversion epitomizes a strand of Christian tradition.  Another example is the Apostles, seven weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus.  During the Jewish festival of Pentecost they suddenly have a religious experience that makes them come out to the streets and begin preaching.  The Christian Pentecostal movement takes its name from this event.  Much of modern Protestant Christianity has a focus on a single, point-in-time, life-changing conversion.

In 1947, W. Edwards Deming made a different journey.  During the American Occupation, he travelled to Japan to assist with their 1951 census.  While there, he also lectured and trained Japanese engineers in quality control techniques.  He taught the value of continuous incremental improvements in industrial processes - not a search for great breakthroughs, just a steady focus on practices.  Deming's teachings were foundational to Japan's post-war industrial success in firms such as Toyota and Sony:  continuous improvement in quality, productivity, and empowerment of each worker.

I was reminded of Deming's legacy by an article in The Economist about Honeywell Corporation, until recently considered "one of America's most messed-up firms."  But over the last few years Honeywell performed a remarkable turnaround.  They did not do it by finding a magic silver bullet.  Instead, their new CEO had spent time at Toyota factories in the U.S. and decided to implement a process of continuous improvement at Honeywell.  Each morning, every worker takes part in a small group meeting, held standing up and no more than fifteen minutes long.  Each employee is expected to contribute two new ideas for improvement, however small, per month.

In Japan, Deming's teaching found fertile ground.  But until the 1980s, Deming was a prophet without honor in his homeland.

Did Deming's teaching find a better initial reception in Japan than in the U.S. because of a difference in religious roots?  Did it seem more natural to a Buddhist tradition than a Pauline tradition?  Much of Western culture emphasizes the radical conversion experience, as in Paul or Pentecost.  But Buddhist heritage emphasizes steady practice.  In sitting meditation you are attentive, notice, let go, and just focus on your breathing.  Some days it goes well, others not so well, but stay with the practice and you will get better at it.  Do you achieve enlightenment?  Who knows.  Do you become more attentive?  Probably.  Can you continue in improving your practice?  Yes.

Relate this to current Unitarian Universalism:  radical transformation is a buzzword in some UU circles.  But is this a piece of Christian baggage that we would be well rid of?  Radical change sometimes happens.  But like winning the lottery, it is of note exactly because it is so rare.

Buddhist teaching and the success of Deming's students argue that we are better served by attentive practice and incremental change.  It's not as sexy as winning the transformation lottery,  but many small enlightenments may take us where we want to go.  And if they don't - at least we'll be enlightened.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oil and Other Costs

As a former energy economist with a junk-brain full of trivia facts, I fell back asleep the other morning computing the cost of oil relative to the total economy, after hearing an NPR story with some presidential candidates blathering on about oil prices.  As I returned to sleep, I noticed the result was about the same magnitude as another number.

More precise than my mental calculations, here are some statistics in Harper's Index style.

U.S. Daily oil consumption, million barrels:  18

Yearly consumption, million barrels:  6,570

Round number price of a barrel of oil:  $100

Cost of U.S. oil consumption for on year:  $657 billion

U.S. Defense Department budget, 2010:  $663 billion

The last two numbers are surprisingly similar. Of course, that is pure coincidence based on the price of oil and current consumption.  But it makes you wonder how much we could reduce the last number if we reduced the first number.