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Choosing to Wound: "A Chosen Faith" Chapters 11-12




(This post is the sixth section of Choosing to Wound: Why A Chosen Faith Harms Unitarian Universalism, my response to Forrest Church and John A. Buehrens’ best-selling “Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” To read my essay starting with the introduction, please click here. You may use either the internal “Previous section”/“Next section” links or the forward arrow/backward arrow LiveJournal buttons (above) to navigate the essay.)



Previous section (Chapters 9-10)


VI. “Earth-Centered Traditions” Source

11. For the Beauty of the Earth


Page
190-91 (Church)

Red flag

We may fairly describe our ancient [pagan] ancestors’ worship and fear of nature’s gods as primitive religion. One would think that an enlightenment tradition would celebrate having graduated from so-called superstition and never look back. For many years we did. Yet, in recent years many Unitarian Universalists have begun to discover that with each gain in scientific understanding, we must risk losing something even more important: an intimate experience of the power and mystery of the creation.

Most Unitarian Universalists are immune to the theological temptation toward irrationalism. Irrational beliefs are those that can be disproved by facts. But, tapping our Transcendentalist roots, we are beginning, once again, to acknowledge that much of our experience, and everything that lies beyond our experience, defies rational analysis. Most sacred clues, hints from dream journeys, lovemaking and stargazing, spring from deep within the transrational realm. Though we can in such ways experience a tiny portion of ultimate reality, this reality is neither fathomable nor imaginable. We cannot pin it down or mount it as a trophy on the wall of human knowledge. All we can do is return from our journeys with symbols, metaphors, and stories—the basic building blocks of religion.

If we exclude the transrational realm from our field of contemplation, we delude ourselves. We may begin to presume that we understand, even control, powers completely beyond our control and understanding. We then lose our sense of humility, taking the creation for granted, rather than receiving it, with fear and trembling, as an undeserved, unfathomable gift. Whenever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as are the gods we pride ourselves for disbelieving. Having dismissed the supernatural, we may miss discovering the super in the natural.


This passage makes clear that Church has a seriously emaciated view of what “reason” is, not to mention an extremely pessimistic view of humans’ ability to “fathom” (and even “imagine”!) things. To me, UUism more than any other tradition has historically been able to recognize and celebrate our species’ wonderful capacity to explore and understand the universe around us, so Church’s badmouthing is hard to take—especially, again, in the context of an introduction to UUism.

What are we to think, those of us who see no conflict at all between “gain[s] in scientific understanding” and “an intimate experience of the power and mystery of creation”? Who find very alarming the claim that “[w]henever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as” supernaturalism is? (Those two are the most rabidly anti-science sentences I’ve ever read from a UU.) Should a nonbelieving reader draw the conclusion that UUs are required to be opposed to science? She will!

But back to Church’s odd account of reason. “Irrational beliefs are those that can be disproved by facts” is simply incorrect. I contend that irrational beliefs are in fact those that fail the tests of reason: among other factors, a belief or theory is irrational if it is (1) unsupported by evidence; (2) unparsimonious (i.e., an unnecessarily complex explanation of the evidence); (3) non-falsifiable (i.e., no test, even in theory, could prove it false); and/or (4) internally logically contradictory. Church’s statement notwithstanding, an irrational belief isn’t even necessarily false; such a belief is just outside of our ability to determine responsibly whether or not it’s true.[12] Very, very few “irrational belief[s]” held by real people can actually be conclusively “disproved by facts”—and anyway the burden of proof is never on the doubter.

I flatly deny that “much of [human] experience, and everything that lies beyond our experience, defies rational analysis.” Any actual realm of human knowledge or ignorance can be analyzed rationally. The rational answer will almost always carry some degree of uncertainty (frequently it’s “we have no way to know”—that’s still analysis!), and for that reason, among others, the rational answer may be one that the questioner does not want to hear. But the fact that Church doesn’t like reason’s answer doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one.

Church is, as usual, entirely evasive when it comes to what this “transrational realm” really is. He informs us that “[m]ost sacred clues, hints from dream journeys, lovemaking and stargazing” are “transrational”—but what in the world does that mean? Let’s see: I have felt awe during lovemaking and stargazing, and it was wonderful, powerful and perhaps “sacred.” What does any of that have to do with reason or “the transrational”? There is nothing irrational about my experience in lovemaking and stargazing or in my conclusion (based entirely on subjective sensations that are self-evident to me) that they were awesome, wonderful and powerful. Is finding meaning, wonder or power in anything necessarily “transrational”? If so, Church is horribly defaming skeptics in passages like this.

“Dream journeys.” Okay: arguably the most famous “dream journey” in history was taken by chemist Friedrich Kekulé in the 1850s. Kekulé claimed that, after years of studying carbon bonding, benzene and related molecules, the solution to the benzene structure (it’s a ring) came to him in a dream of a snake eating its own tail. Subsequent experiments showed the ring hypothesis to be correct.

What does a thoroughgoing “transrationalist” take this to mean? That benzene would “transrationally” have had a ring structure even if the (scrupulously rational) subsequent experiments had indicated that Kekulé’s dream inspiration was wrong? That purely rational methods would have failed to find the structure of benzene? (No dice—we now know that another scientist had the idea before Kekulé, and he didn’t get it in a dream.) That Kekulé had some way of knowing about the universe that isn’t subject to reason? (Then how come he bothered to perform experiments?)

It seems to me that there are perfectly understandable rational explanations for all of this—for my experiences regarding lovemaking and stargazing, for Kekulé’s dream, and for all the rest of it. The fact that Church thinks these answers kill off one’s “imagination and sense of wonder” is, I think, a sad commentary on Church, not a real flaw in reason. The sun doesn’t go around the earth just because Church’s representative in the matter (Pope Urban VIII, the guy who imprisoned Galileo for the heresy of geocentrism) really, really wanted or needed that to be the case: no, the Pope’s “transrational” preference failed to change the actual objective state of the universe.

What does it really mean to “exclude the transrational realm from our field of contemplation”? To refuse to accept a belief about the objective world that comes entirely from somebody’s dream? I’m sorry, but I think swallowing every claim that every human being has ever (quite literally) dreamed up is totally impossible, not to mention enormously ill-advised. And “I find X inspiring” or “I find Y moving” or “Z really matters to me” are not, in fact, statements that violate reason, so a rationalist need not “exclude” those. (Indeed, I wonder how any human being could live without this kind of idea; real-life rationalists certainly don’t lack them.)

Once again, what’s most important here is that this passage serves as a big middle finger extended at people who value reason over the “transrational.” To anyone who dares to take that position (and there are many thousands of us, both within and without UUism, who do so), Church here declares that we are “pride” and “control” freaks, we have lost our “humility,”[13] our “imagination[14] and sense of wonder” and that we “miss discovering the super in the natural.” This is seriously offensive.


Page
193-94 (Church)

Yellow flag

[I]n many Unitarian Universalist congregations the theological compass will range from theist to humanist, from Christian to Jew to Buddhist to pagan, from cosmic pantheist to agnostic, even atheist.

It’s a sign of the pervasive animosity toward nonbelievers in A Chosen Faith that the above reference to “humanist”—look, Ma, no demeaning personal attack!—is surprising. There are spare few of these neutral references to skeptical perspectives in the entire book, and of course there are zero positive ones.

But then, any hope of this sentence making even half-hearted progress (“Oh, boy, it’s not an insult!”) toward a positive picture of nonbelievers is banished by the word “even.” It might interest Forrest Church to know that, in fact, a fairly large proportion of UUs are atheists. Church very likely holds a common misconception of what “atheism” means (it is not, as Church’s statement implies and the conventional wisdom holds, an extreme position on the same spectrum as “agnosticism”), but that’s hard to forgive in light of the man’s profession. And anyway, atheists, even as that term is conventionally misunderstood, are not particularly rare within Unitarian Universalism.

I’m an atheist, not a unicorn. The above sentence treats me as if I were both (“even”), and I resent that.


12. Returning to the Springs


Pages
199-200 (Buehrens)

Yellow flag

Like so many in our culture, I went through a period when I did not go to church. ...

[Describing his grandparents’ experience to that end:]

My grandmother had been orphaned in Eastern Europe before she was ten. ... [After immigrating to Chicago] she met and married another orphan. They had four children. But by the end of the influenza epidemic of 1919, she and my grandfather had buried all four babies. Soul get very empty indeed.

That was when my grandfather stopped going to church—when it seemed his wife was going to die as well, the priest wouldn’t come to the house to give her the last rites. ...

Every depiction in this book of someone who does not go to church is unfavorable. All of the reasons Buehrens and Church can imagine for failing to attend church are negative—“religious education based upon teachings from the Bible that inspired fear rather than love in [the apostates’] hearts”; secular parents who don’t bring their children to church; Buehrens’ grandfather, here, being disrespected by priests; etc.

The idea that any worthwhile person could have a reason for not attending church that deserves respect rather than derision or pity is entirely foreign to the authors of this book. That strikes me as serious bigotry.


Page
201 (Buehrens)

Yellow flag

My grandmother seemed to know intuitively what my chosen faith of Unitarian Universalism now helps me to proclaim explicitly: Faith is not ultimately about believing some proposition in spite of the evidence; it is more like living with courage, gratitude, and integrity in spite of life’s inevitable losses.

The final passage I quote from A Chosen Faith has the same problem as the very first one I quoted—though this one is marginally worse.

I question the right of any UU to claim that he “know[s]” what an idea like “faith” is “ultimately about.” That word means different things to different people, and UUs especially, so to claim that any person “kn[e]w intuitively” the One Right Answer to such a contentious issue is at least a bit pompous.

I strongly concur with Buehrens’ grandmother’s feeling that “living with courage, gratitude and integrity in spite of life’s inevitable losses” is extremely important. To me, though, that has nothing to do with “faith,” because I see that word differently than Buehrens and (apparently) his grandmother do. It seems to me that “proclaim[ing]” what such terms are “ultimately about” is precisely the kind of thing Unitarian Universalism, and its Fourth Principle specifically, are not supposed to aid.

I do not appreciate being told that my understanding of the word “faith” is “not ultimately” what the word means. I do not accept that Buehrens has the right to claim superior knowledge on this question. And, finally, I know quite well that this kind of arrogant pronouncement, which saturates A Chosen Faith, is extraordinarily off-putting to readers who dare to dissent from the authors’ allegedly superior conceptions.


Next section (Conclusion)




12: Along the lines of this essay, imagine two beliefs: “Julius Caesar had an even number of teeth in his mouth when he died” and “Julius Caesar had an odd number of teeth in his mouth when he died.” Presuming a couple of historical and mathematical facts that nobody I know of disputes, one of those two beliefs has to be true—and yet both of them are irrational, because we have no evidence to support either one. People who criticize reason and/or rationalism (Forrest Church is a shining example) routinely fail to understand what it is they’re attacking.


13: This is ridiculous. By far the most common rational answer in the history of human endeavor is “I don’t know,” which I submit is vastly humbler than any “transrational” hypothesis I’ve ever heard of.


14: Please note that it was Church, just one paragraph earlier, who was denigrating human imagination!
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