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Posted by on Jan 12, 2015 in Uncategorized | 6 comments

Talking past each other

TalkingPastEachOtherOur minister gave a well-crafted sermon about the role of God and religious language in UU today. Let the creative interchange begin.

He included poignant and formative experiences that shaped his position:

1. He mocked his youthful certainty that belief in God was unreasonable and morally fraught. He said that we should be humble about speculative ideas, implying that no one knows anything for sure about God.

2. He noted how his mother’s faith was interwoven with her character, which included charity work and generally being a good person.

3. He questioned a teacher about the story of Abraham and Isaac. He said, “Would you sacrifice your son if God told you to?” Later, he learned that she had lost a son and he felt like crap.

4. When he was a hospital chaplain, it was neither the time nor the place to question people’s beliefs, so he didn’t. He met each person where they were, out of compassion.

5. These experiences led him to notice that questioning religious stances has social consequences.

6. He said that he preferred translating religious language to rejecting it.


1. We know a lot about particular conceptions of God, especially the most common ones. God the Creator loves suffering (he ordained the food chain). God the omnipotent could alleviate more suffering than he does. It is not arrogant to admit we know things like these, it is loving and responsible. It is condescending to pretend we don’t know them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

2. If his mom was a good person, she would have been a good person in almost any culture she grew up in. It is a failure of UU that it hasn’t provided humanist substitutes for more people, leading them to default to troubling beliefs like Christianity. This is a version of the Little People argument, that some people, like his mom, need their faith. It’s condescending and a false choice. His mom could have thrived in a humanist tradition if there had been one to nurture her when she was growing up. And she was not too old to change. I think she could handle anything her teenage son might say.  And appreciate the honesty.  The loving thing to do would be to honestly engage her about her beliefs, as long as she was willing.

3. His parable of ‘The Teacher and Abraham and Isaac’ is not a reason to be quiet about religious claims. His teacher started that conversation, and plain old morality required him to ask what he asked. By being quiet, he would have been saying that avoiding hurting feelings was more important than the topic at hand. And again, it’s a false choice, and condescending toward the teacher, to say that she couldn’t discuss Abraham and Isaac because her son had died. She presumably raised the subject because she thought it was worthy of consideration. Being quiet would have cheated her and the subject.

4. Chaplains are hired to do a job, and it’s not for everyone. And of course there are better and worse ways, more loving and less loving ways, to discuss religious beliefs. He went along to get along, to be compassionate, and to make a living. It’s fine to choose your battles, but that doesn’t mean that the people he was consoling held good beliefs. Do we comfort an unrepentant killer on his deathbed? That’s a tough one.

5. Not questioning beliefs has consequences, too, which we read about in the news every day. I want UU to be a place where worthy substitutes for worn-out religious positions are found. Nodding and smiling at religious belief is condescending and cheats us out of the very creative interchange our minister is trying to cultivate.

6. Well, he doesn’t mean ‘translate’. Translators try to preserve meaning. He means ‘redefine’, the exact opposite.  One is using different words for the same meaning, the other is using the same word for different meanings.

My one-word review for this sermon would be ‘slick’. I say that because he’s doing the usual liberal sleight of hand with language, but it’s well-concealed, especially if the listener mainly wants to be comforted. The sleight of hand is this:

He said we should abide various meanings of God to respect each person’s journey. I’ve labored this point before:  if we respect everything, then respect means nothing.  And if we respect things that oppose our values, then it means nothing to say we hold that value.

UUS love people.  They greet you with a hug, but empty your beliefs behind your back.  They love you, but don’t take your beliefs seriously.  They do this because they don’t think it’s possible to do both, but they should:  they’re mostly well-educated.  The best of higher education tries to create a culture where it is safe and loving to really engage ideas, and participants are expected to defend their positions.  But get these people together in the human-whispering mist of religion, and they set their sights much lower.  They must feel good all the time, a standard suitable for getting intoxicated, not for having authentic connections.

The worry is this:  that when our minister says ‘God’ to a conventional Christian, they’re talking past each other.  They feel good, but only because they haven’t turned any earth.  This bogus unity thus undercuts the whole enterprise.  Ersatz creative interchange.

He wants things both ways, but of course the cost is merely offstage.  This is the really slick part: it seems he’s fooling himself, too:  The believer doesn’t notice that he has butchered the word ‘God’, and he doesn’t realize that, by coddling his listener, creative interchange is out the window. Everyone is fooled.

This is worse than red-meat religion in some ways. In mainstream religion, bad ideas are put forth as the best ideas available, but at least everyone is on the same page, which is necessary for informed consent. At our church this morning, our minister was conjuring a sleepy fog in a big tent.  This is liberal religion at its worst, settling for the illusion of connection, rather than doing the politically riskier work of making real ones.

But at least no one was fighting. They were asleep.

In closing, our minister came perilously close to condemning Charlie Hebdo, Bill Maher and others who criticize religion.  He said that ridiculing religious beliefs the way they do is ‘dangerous’.  Please notice his choice of words, 5 days since the events in Paris.  I expect something like this from Bill Donohue, but not in our UU church.  Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are not inherently dangerous, but firing guns at people is.

Permit me to say that again:  Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are not dangerous, firing guns at people is.

In a modern, secular, free society we strive to settle things with words, not guns.  Curtailing criticism of religion is thus exactly the wrong thing to do.  Free, vulgar, impious, disrespectful speech is our way of not shooting each other.  Or losing contact with each other.