Spiritual But Not Religious

Dear SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) person,

Lillian Daniel, the minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has gotten some attention for waxing somewhat snarky about you. Have you seen her remarks? Her briefer, snider piece is here, and the longer piece is here. Give them a look and see what you think.

I, too, sometimes meet you, and you tell me you are "spiritual but not religious." One difference between Rev. Daniel and me is that she runs into you on airplanes -- which, for me, seems to be the place for running into Baptist assistant pastors, Presbyterian organists, and Methodist youth directors. I run into you more often in church. It doesn't occur to me, as it does to Daniel, to suppose that you think you are sharing "some kind of daring insight . . . bold in its rebellion." I think you know that you're part of a hefty crowd. Daniel is encountering SBNRs who, apparently, don't go to church (or synagogue, temple, mosque, sangha, etc.), whereas my SBNRs are often in church. When you've told me you were "spiritual but not religious," you might have meant to convey to me any of a number of highly variable possibilities: (a) "You might have noticed I don't attend that often. Don't expect me to." or (b) "I disagreed with something in your sermon." -- or, sometimes, most perplexingly, (c) "I just love being a Unitarian Universalist; I'm so glad to be a part of this thing that isn't a religion."

Also like Rev. Daniel, I hear regularly from folks who say they see God in sunsets, or experience the divine in the woods, or on a beach. I think that's great. In fact, ecospirituality is central to my spirituality, and I offer a service of Ecospiritual Practice -- usually outdoors in a wooded setting -- once a month (check it out: click here.) I have to tell you, though, I think Daniel is right to point out that we need to have a community of accountability if we're going to learn, grow, and deepen our spirituality.

At the same time, I also think you're right to be wary of the kind of religious institution that demands uncritical acceptance of authority, where "faith" means "just believe what the authority figure tells you to believe, and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray." This sort of religious institution is nothing like my church -- and it's nothing like Lillian Daniel's church. (I've heard her preach, and she described something of her congregation -- plus, I went to a UCC seminary myself where we were taught that the function of authority is to guide critical engagement, not demand uncritical allegiance. Indeed, the joke I heard from a UCC fellow seminarian was that UCC stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ." Of course, I wouldn't tell Daniel this joke lest I become the subject of a sarcastic column about how tired and bored she is of UU ministers who tell that joke thinking they're saying something devastatingly witty.) Indeed, fewer and fewer churches match the picture of a church that you seem to carry around in your mind.

You're right to recognize that truth is within us. You're right to reject anything that would turn over the authority of your individual conscience to an external source.

But that's only half the story. The truth is within you all right. It's in all of us. And so is a lot of self-deceived ego.

We don't need authoritarian, ask-no-questions, do-as-I-say church. We do need communities of accountability for sharpening and deepening our religious insights, for calling us on our stuff, for holding up the mirror so we can see ourselves when we hit those places -- as we inevitably do on the spiritual path -- where we can't tell the difference between genuine wisdom and the ego's love for deluding itself with a story about how wise we are. As Daniel put it:
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
If I'm serious about spiritual depth, I need the humility to place myself in a relation of accountability to a long and rich tradition -- a tradition of many people who have wrestled with what I'm wrestling with, who have, like me, been fooled into thinking they "got it" and "had arrived" and "were as holy or enlightened as it's possible to be," but who eventually came, through connection with a community of fellow spiritual travelers, to see through that delusion to a deeper wisdom.

In the longer piece, Daniel tells about a man who tells her:
"I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious."
Number one: If being in the woods is a spiritual experience for you, then please do make sure you get out in the woods a lot. Maybe you do. But I have met people who say the "great outdoors" is their religion, and when I ask them when was the last time they were out in it, they have to think, and then they say something like, "about six months ago." Ecospirituality is wonderful, vital, and important. But like every spirituality, you've got to practice it. Daily, in some form. Weekly, in a more extensive and immersive form.

Number two: If nature is your grounding, where are you going/growing from that grounding? As Daniel asks:
"God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too."
Daniel doesn't mention what her own theology of cancer is. But if you're using spirituality to turn your back on pain and suffering, or numb it with the aesthetic bliss of sunsets, then not only are you not religious, but you're only half spiritual. The spiritual path calls for facing and embracing the cancer too. If you find beauty, wonder, and divinity in the woods, that's a wonderful starting place. Now use that grounding to move toward seeing beauty and wonder in people, buildings, kitchen appliances, traffic jams, toxic waste dumps -- and cancer. Spirituality is about working out our peace with all of life, not just the pretty nature scenes. For that, you need the resources of a community that embodies a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning.

So, dear SBNRs: Let me say that you are off to a wonderful start. I'm delighted with the spiritual satisfactions that you are finding. I suspect you'll find that your "S" won't be very deep, won't extend very well beyond its immediate stimulus, and won't equip you so well for the hard times of grief and loss and stress, without some "R." I hope you're on a path that will eventually lead from "SBNR" to "S and R," whether the "R" is Christianity, Hinduism, or Religious Humanism. You're off to a great start. Whenever you're ready to think about a little more depth and critical engagement in your "S," come talk to me. I can help. In fact, come talk to me anyway. I like hearing about how great it felt to be on that beach watching that sunset. I know that a number of religious leaders, like Rev. Daniel, are bored and irritated with you. Sorry about that.

I have to warn you that, whatever religious community you may hook up with, it's going to spend a lot of its time not being at its best. That's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts. It's worth it. For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- they'll help you see yours. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

Yours faithfully,



“I’ve decided to be happy because it is good for my health.”
- Voltaire

What sort of “decision” is this? And if it’s just a matter of deciding, why hasn’t everyone decided to be happy?

June’s theme is happiness/joy – which fits with this season of graduation speeches. Such speeches often say what a great thing it is to “dream,” “dream big,” and “follow your dreams.” Well, OK. Sure, there’s a place for goal-setting. Let’s just not forget: the way to have everything you want is to want what you have.

In order to make “what you have” and “what you want” match, there are two strategies. Strategy A is to make a list of all the things that you want, and then set about doing whatever it takes to acquire everything on that list. You work to bring the “have” bar up until it meets the “want” bar. Strategy B is to lower the “want” bar until it meets the “have” bar. Which strategy will work best?

Strategy A is doomed to failure. You'll never have enough. Long before you ever acquire every item on your list, you will have added more things to your list. The “want” bar will always keep rising, staying ahead of the “have” bar. Strategy B, at first, may not look so hot either. How does one decide not to want stuff? Even if one has come to believe that wanting only what one has, letting go of desires for more, does conduce to happiness, can one simply decide to stop wanting?

The instant that it takes to say, “I now hereby decide to be happy” probably isn’t enough. It takes a little bit longer to psyche oneself into a good mood -- and even then, the effects tend to fade away in a few hours, even under good conditions. What's a body to do? Happiness eludes us when we aim at it, and it often sneaks up on us with big, warm hug when we’re paying attention to something else.

Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can undertake to orient ourselves toward happiness without thinking of it as a thing that we want. It’s the difference between opening to what’s there and acquisitively pursuing something that isn’t. So deciding to be happy is a matter of noticing that you are. In this psychic version of quantum mechanics, it comes into existence only when observed. Realizing (noticing) is realizing (making real).

Still, a single act of decision – to notice the enjoyability of the things in your life – is only a beginning. Yes, we can, in principle, with Voltaire, decide to be happy, but we simply won’t consistently make that decision unless we make another decision: to commit ourselves to a discipline of cultivating the habit of deciding to be happy. Such discipline is called “spiritual discipline.” What’s yours?



In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Antonio offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. When the loan is not repaid, and Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia intervenes to tells Shylock he must be merciful.

Shylock retorts, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”

Portia replies,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“Not strained” means we cannot be constrained to be merciful. Mercy can’t be compelled. If it’s compelled, it isn’t mercy. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. And when it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

In this way, mercy is related to grace. “Grace” is a name for the fact that much of what is good in life is “free” – that we are rich in blessings not earned, deserved, or expected. If a blessing comes to you when you didn’t deserve it, that’s grace. If a punishment is lifted or consequence averted from you that you did deserve, that’s mercy. We all deserve worse than we get, as Portia goes on to say:
“in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”
Mercy reminds us that justice and fairness – as important and necessary as they are – are not enough. Love and forgiveness take the name mercy when, as they sometimes must, they countermand the dictates of justice.

There are times when it is better not to save others from the consequences of their actions. Overprotectiveness is a misapplication of mercy. As Shakespeare tells us in a different play (Timon of Athens):
“nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy.”
It takes wisdom to choose well when to let justice prevail and when, and how much, to temper justice with mercy. There are formulas for retributive justice and better formulas and methods for restorative justice, but no algorithm for the wise application of mercy. Indeed, that’s what makes an act merciful: it goes beyond formula or right. Still, we can learn from good examples. When apartheid ended in South Africa, their Truth and Reconciliation Commission wisely chose mercy over justice alone. The Commission granted amnesty to perpetrators who committed violence and crime during apartheid if those people shared the truth about what they had done. Mercy and truth, in that situation, was more important than justice to their country.

In the Middle East, so many wrongs have been committed by so many people, that there’s no way to punish all who have acted violently. If justice is a prerequisite for peace, we may never have peace in that region. Peace will require some justice – and a lot of mercy.

Questions: What role has mercy played in your life? When have you most memorably received it? When have you given it? When have you wished you’d given more of it?


On the Side of the Dance: Feminist Theology, 4

“An extra year of school for girls increases their lifetime income by 15%. Children of women who have completed primary school are less likely to die before age 5 than children of mothers with no schooling. Women invest more of their income in their families than men do. . . . When girls are educated, healthy and informed, they pull themselves, their children and their communities out of poverty. The most vulnerable are potentially the most powerful.” (becauseiamagirl.ca)
In developed countries like the US, the more progress we make toward equality, the more unjustified and unnatural the gender inequalities in the rest of the world will seem.

Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined notes that empowerment of women correlates powerfully with reductions in violence in a society. Correlation doesn't tell us which is cause and which is effect. Does women’s empowerment cause violence to decline, or does declining violence cause (create the conditions that allow) women’s empowerment? Plausibly, each contributes to the other, in a virtuous cycle.

Whatever the causal details may be, working either for reduced violence or for women's empowerment would seem to go hand-in-hand with working for the other. Conditions of equally-shared power not only change the overall decision-making body, but produce changes in the men within that body. Men in an all-male context act more from their aggressive, Y-chromosome side. Men in a mixed-gender context think in a more balanced way.

For instance, studies of judge's rulings and rationales discern no difference between the legal reasoning patterns of women judges and men judges. What studies have discovered, however, is that, at the appellate level, where judges sit on 3-, 5-, 7-, or 9-judge panels, the men's decisions measurably shift when at least at least one woman is on the panel compared to being on an all-male panel. The men, become, roughly, more sympathetic to women's points of view.

I don’t suppose there is any grand unified theory. My life, so far, with feminism continues to be a mish-mash of not entirely coherent yearnings – rather like the stacks of magazines on my parents’ coffee table. That there is no grand unified theory is also a point feminist writers have made. Once we have a theory, it tends to function like a Procrustean bed, and we force experience into the the terms of the theory. Instead, let us approach each situation with an openness to possibilities our pet theory might not expect. Our theories For all that, it’s a story, I hope, of slowly learning how to be, moment by moment, on the side of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons -- on the side of the forces that create and uphold life -- on the side of the ongoing dance for peace and justice.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Previous: Part 3: Never Liberated, Always Liberating
Beginning: Part 1: I Was a Teenage Feminist
Photo by Meredith Garmon


Never Liberated, Always Liberating: Feminist Theology, 3

Feminist theologians have made it a key point that words do fail us. The Western religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are religions “of the book.” That is, they are based on particular texts. In these traditions, authority derives from certain words, and ultimately from two underlying ideas:
  1. There is a fixed canon. Certain texts have the authority of scripture, and all other writings are permanently excluded.
  2. There are correct and incorrect interpretations of these authoritative texts.
A crucial point of feminist theology has been that the very expectation that words will stay put in their meaning, and that words won’t fail us, has been a problem for us. Authority must be de-centered, they say. No finite text can save us. Liberation of both women and men depends upon opening up creative possibilities of meaning.

We must make the sources of authority open ended. Let us bring in new texts from other world traditions, write new stories, and make new interpretations of the old ones. Let the language which speaks to us, which has power for us, which is our scripture, be infinite and not closed off. For the same words that once liberated can come to oppress.

What matters is context, intent, purpose – and tone of voice. There is no grand narrative that will always give everyone her due. Any story becomes oppressive if it becomes fixed and canonical.

The feminist project, then, is not to replace one “master narrative” with another, but to encourage the proliferation of diverse stories undermining the possibility of any “master narrative.” Any canonized set of words will always fail us, so feminist theologians remind us to look beyond the words to the context.

In the pattern of the 12-steppers who say, “never recovered, always recovering,” we might say, “never liberated, always liberating” – meaning that liberation is not a particular state of being, but an ongoing process that always requires going the next step. Every story has its particular and limited point of view, so all we can do is keep telling more stories, compensating the limited perspective of one with diverse other, albeit also in their own way limited, perspectives. The instant that process stops, the instant we canonize a finite text, in that moment we give up on further liberation – and liberation ceases.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to religion is a feminist theology in this most basic way: it avoids any closed canon. As James Luther Adams said:
“Liberal religion depends first upon the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”
We say religion isn’t about what we believe – and therefore it is not about the words that we might feel like asserting. Religion is about experience, and about how we live, and about relationship. In this way, Unitarian Universalist theology is feminist theology.

Perhaps, then, my embrace of the label “Unitarian Universalist” has, over the years, slowly made it seem less urgent for me to also proclaim myself “feminist.” I’m as feminist as ever, even if I don’t say so as often – because, for me, saying I’m Unitarian Universalist is saying I’m feminist.

We want, ultimately, a world of peace, prosperity, and justice. And how do we get there?
  • Pay equity for women,
  • Gender balance in positions of power,
  • Reducing domestic battering of girlfriends and wives, and
  • Ensuring reproductive choice
These, I think, are requirements of justice in their own right -- and also would be particularly instrumental toward realizing a world of peace overall.

The “Because I Am a Girl” website reports that:
“70% of the one billion people living in extreme poverty are women and girls. Girls are 3 times more likely to be malnourished than boys. Globally, 65 million girls do not attend primary or secondary school. Girls and women in the world's poorest countries are the most vulnerable members of society, denied the same rights and opportunities as their brothers."
Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, observed,
"research is also clear that when girls reach their full potential, through improved status, better health care, and education, it is the most effective development tool for society as a whole. As a country's primary enrolment rate for girls increases, so too does its gross domestic product per capita."
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This is part 3 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 4: On the Side of the Dance
Previous: Part 2: Words Fail Us
Beginning: Part 1: I Was a Teenage Feminist
Photo courtesy of "Because I Am a Girl", becauseiamagirl.ca


Words Fail Us: Feminist Theology, 2

Feminism has been a large and meaningful part of my life. Lately, though, it doesn't seem as central to my identity as it once did.

The issues are still there, of course. We still haven’t passed an equal rights amendment. Discrimination and pay inequity and sexual harassment in the workplace are still going on. The ranks of the most powerful – the CEOs and our Congressional representatives – continue to be overwhelmingly male.
  • Women currently hold 98 of the 535 seats in the US Congress. That’s 18 percent. It’s an incremental improvement over the last congress (16.6 percent), and certainly a very big difference from 1972 (2.8 percent).
  • In state legislatures, women are up to 24 percent. Progress, yes, but still a long way from 50-50.
  • Only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women.
Rights to reproductive choice are under assault and rolling back. Last year, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, a Time magazine cover noted:
“Forty years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.” (2013 Jan 14)
Violence against women continues: two to four million women are battered by intimates every year in this country. Every day, four times a day, 1,400 times a year, a woman dies in this country as a result of domestic violence.

It’s still more the rule than the exception that girls in our culture grow up learning to measure their worth from their sexual attractiveness to males – while boys grow up learning to measure their worth from what they do.

Yet I find, looking at myself, that the label “feminist” has gradually come to seem less important. It seems less clear than it did 20 or 40 years ago what this label ‘feminist’ means. So many claims and practices have gone under the name of feminism, that it is hard to say just what it is all about.

Words fail us. And this itself is a point some feminists have made: we have to stay attentive to experience, we can't rely on words, on an articulation of moral principles alone. The same words that help and empower might also disempower.

Perhaps this is a case of, as many wives have said to many husbands – probably for centuries -- “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.” This has -- probably for centuries -- baffled husbands who can't quite grasp that the same words that disempower might, in a different context with a different tone, empower.

Consider, for example, that in that same year of Ms. Magazine’s inauguration, 1972, Pope Paul VI said:
“true women’s liberation” does not lie in “formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in the recognition of that specific thing in the feminine personality – the vocation of a woman to become a mother.”
“Boo, hiss to the Pope,” my 13-year-old self said.

Feminism as I understood it in the 70s was indeed precisely about formalistic and materialistic equality and the rejection of the idea that there was any such “specific thing in the feminine personality” or “vocation of a woman to become a mother.” Then, in the 80s and 90s, I began noticing women writers who sought to value the feminine by recognizing a special connection to creation through motherhood – through an innate psychology, they said, that comes with the capacity for pregnancy and childbirth, even if they aren’t actual mothers. The ecofeminists, for instance, connected patriarchy with environmental degradation, and called upon a woman-centered view, because of its connection to nurturing and motherhood, to save the planet.

I was confused. I so wanted to be on the side of assertive and articulate women, but I was confused. What exactly was the difference between what these feminists were now saying and what the deplorable Pope was saying back in ’72? Aren’t they both calling for recognition of the special qualities of the feminine personality, especially mothering?

The words fail us – because the same words that the Pope was using to undermine women’s empowerment were being used by these feminists to advance women’s empowerment. Words that glorify the feminine might be nostalgic for imposed limitations, hearkening back to times when women were kept in the background, out of positions of leadership. Or those words might be part of making the case that women’s experience, or even women's biology, do offer a grounding for a particular wisdom -- a wisdom needed not just within a circumscribed role for women, but in the public sphere.

Words fail us because the same words that help and empower can also be used to disempower. Feminist theologians have, in fact, made it a key point that words -- without attention to context and tone -- do fail us.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 3: Never Liberated, Always Liberating
Previous: Part 1: I Was a Teenage Feminist
Cover Credit: Photograph by Jamie Chung for TIME


I Was a Teenage Feminist: Feminist Theology, 1

“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
-First source of the living tradition Unitarian Universalists share
When I was 13-years-old, there was for me no more transcendent mystery or wonder than females. Frankly, males were a mystery, too, for that matter. Two mysteries, in fact. I was a mystery to myself, and other males were a completely different mystery. These mysteries, however, lacked the transcendence of the holy wholly other: girls and women.

It was 1972, the year I was 13, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine was published. My mother was a charter subscriber, and the issues arrived monthly, and there they were, lying on the living room coffee table, along with the Time magazine, and Atlantic, and Scientific American, and . . . Playboy, which, interestingly, also arrived in our mailbox with my mother’s name on the address sticker on the plain brown wrapper. To the best of my ability to tell, she liked the articles.

That year, 1972, my parents gave me a booklet about how reproduction works, and then left me alone to wrestle with the transcending mystery and wonder. Moved as I was to “an openness to the forces that create...life,” I was an regular reader of both Ms. and Playboy.

The magazines offered clues -- as well as a number of red herrings. Still, by the time I was 15, I was reasonably well-informed for my age about women. Of course, I hadn’t the foggiest notion how to actually talk to one. Such expertise as I had was purely theoretical. And the product of a mish-mash of incoherent yearnings.

I have identified myself as feminist since I was 13. I wore often my “Yes ERA” t-shirt – a gift from my mother -- until, after some years, it fell apart (along with the amendment it supported, alas). I was raised to believe in justice and equality. That really is a key part of the story. I imbibed and took to heart the views of writers like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Mary Daly. I read their articles in Ms. Magazine and later read their books. All those words!

At the same time, I was a teenage boy with a teenage boy’s hormones, and as I reflect back I think also a part of the story was a desperate hope that if I could only sufficiently display that I was on women’s side, then one of them might be willing to be on my side.

My quest was for a grand unified theory that would make sense of my own burgeoning sexuality while also aligning me with high ideals of justice.

My teen-age feminism set the stage for my young adult feminism. When I was in graduate school and my own kids were in elementary school, I was not only a checkbook supporter of the National Organization for Women, but an active member of the local University of Virginia chapter, going to meetings and marches in between my classes and studies.

Then, as an assistant professor of philosophy at Fisk University, I chaired the task force that designed and brought to implementation that University’s first women’s studies program. Feminism has been a large and meaningful part of my life.

Where has it taken me? Where does it take us?

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 2: Words Fail Us
Covers: Ms. Magazine, Jan 1972; Playboy, May 1972.


Presence: Mercy v Justice, 4

When it comes to mercy or justice, we are asking: what’s more important in this particular situation? Is the aspect of this situation that’s likely to recur the most important aspect? If so, then we want the constraints of fair procedure. If there’s already an established procedure, fine, if not, we need to think about establishing one.

Or is the aspect of this situation that’s unique the most important aspect? Your teenager wants an advance on her allowance. She knows to steer attention away from what may be recurrent about this situation:
“But Mom, it’s this special thing! I’ll never have this chance again!”
The wise parent, balancing mercy and justice, will assess the good of consistent procedure and balance that against potential goods unique to the situation. That’s skill number one when it comes to the virtues of mercy and justice. Bring attention to that question: What are the likely recurrable features of this situation? What are the probably-not-going-to-be-repeated features? Which features are the most important here? Is your response going to function as a precedent, either for yourself or for others? Or probably not? If not, there’s no reason not to be as kind, compassionate, giving, and forgiving as you can be. The first skill is being intentional and explicit about looking at that question.

The second skill is presence. This is a spiritual skill – bringing and offering our whole selves to each situation.

The rules of justice can be a retreat from presence. We cite the rule – an eye for an eye – or whatever procedure it might be – and emotionally check out, withdraw, disengage.

Mercy itself can also be a retreat from presence. It's possible to be "dismissively merciful." I might say, for instance, "Fine, you’re forgiven, never mind the consequence." Or, "Fine, here’s some money – go take care of your need, just go." In those cases, I would be using mercy to avoid thinking more about the situation.

With our fuller presence, an openness to put all needs, all desires, on the table, creative possibilities emerge.

Mercy and justice can appear to be at odds, but with creative engagement there’s often a way to satisfy both. Attend particularly to the needs of understanding. What do you need to better understand? What can you help others better understand?

Remember that monkey screeching and spitefully hurling the cucumber bit back at the human? With a little more training, he might learn, “Oh, we’ve got a new rule here. Whereas previously all the chits were the same, we now have a system where the red chit gets cucumber and the blue chit gets a grape.” When we see how we can make things work for us, those feelings of unfairness ebb away.

What nuances might we explore and understand that would help us make our peace with what seemed to be unfair? How can we creatively make the system work for everyone? Who needs to be understood, and who needs to understand something better?

Zen Master Bankei showed mercy to the student who was stealing food. Bankei understood that, in that particular case mercy taught the lesson better that enforcing the rules would. This didn’t mean the monastery could get along without rules. Bankei gave his full presence to the situation and saw a way forward that otherwise would have been missed.

Presence. Attention. So round, round it takes in everything. So sharp, sharp it penetrates to the essence.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Mercy v Justice"
Previous: Part 3: The Unique and the Recurrent
Beginning: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo (c) by Meredith Garmon


The Unique and the Recurrent: Mercy v. Justice, 3

Suppose you and another person are paired up. I then give twenty one-dollar bills to the other person. It’s entirely up to the other person whether to hand over to you any of it, and if so, how much. You can’t do anything about that. You do, however, have the option to nix the whole thing. You can say “no deal,” and then I’ll take all $20 back, and neither of you will get anything. Your two choices are: (a) take whatever is offered, or (b) get nothing (in which case the other person also gets nothing).

So suppose the other person offers you $1. Would you take it, or would you say, "no deal"? They get 19 and you get 1. Is that fair? On the other hand, it is one more dollar than you had before.

Most people, upon being offered $1 will say “no deal.” They’d rather have nothing – and punish the other person for being so “selfish.”

On the other hand, most people don’t insist on a perfectly equitable 10-10 split. They understand that they have no claim to a fully equal share under these circumstances.

Would you accept one dollar? How about two? Three? Five? Nothing less than eight?

People are variable, but on average, six dollars will do it. For some people, five is enough, and for others it takes at least 7, but on average, a 6-14 split is regarded as fair, and will be accepted. Less than six dollars, and the chances are good you’ll say “no deal,” and both of you will go home empty-handed.

Is this rational? If you know this is a one-shot opportunity, wouldn’t it be more rational to take the $1? That would be better than nothing.

But our brains aren’t built to think that way. It’s really hard to convince our brains that anything is truly a one-shot opportunity. We are built to be social animals, and our strong predisposition is to treat everything as recurrable. Whatever people I’m dealing with today, I’ll probably be dealing with tomorrow. Throughout our evolutionary history, that was true. So the reason most people won't accept a one dollar offer is that their brains are wired to avoid getting a reputation as a patsy. Under early human conditions, it was rational for me to go home with nothing this time so that I can establish I’m a person to be reckoned with. If I show that I'm prepared to spitefully deny you $19 without any gain to myself, then next time you'll probably offer me more.

No matter how much the experimenter tells me that there isn’t going to be a next time, my brain is just not built to believe it. It won’t think that way.

Sometimes, however, my brain might try to make someone else think that way. Or, at least, some people's brains might. A few years ago I happened to catch some reality TV depicting a couple at an all-you-can-eat buffet. They gorged themselves. Three piled-high plates. Then they went back and piled high fourth plates. They made only a small dent in their fourth plates and asked the restaurant staff for to-go boxes. They were, of course, told, "No, you don’t get a to-go box at an all-you-can-eat buffet."

“But you’re just going to have to throw this food away,” the couple argued. “Why not let us have it?”

The manager was called. She came over and stood firm. No to-go box. She knew this is not a one-shot scenario. She was willing to let the food go to waste this time so that a precedent would not be established that would encourage people to take a lot more food without paying any more money.

This photo is unique. At the same time, there are a number
of types of photo it fits into: nature, smiling person, single
person in nature, hiking, Appalachian Trail, springtime,
New York, amateur snapshot, digital, color, etc.
At the same time, life does present us with unique, not-to-be-repeated situations. And that’s where the balance of justice and mercy comes in.

Insofar as a situation presents recurrent features, we can come up with procedures for how we’re going to handle that. And that’s the meaning of justice: that like cases are handled alike. Ideally, everyone knows the procedure, it is universally followed, and expectations are always met. That would be an ideal of justice.

We recognize the reality that types of situations recur – and so we have justice. We also recognize the reality that no two situations are ever exactly alike – and so we have mercy. Types of situations recur; specific situations, in their full multiplicity of detail, do not.

The question we confront, in each situation, is: what’s more important here? Every situation we face simultaneously:
(a) is unique and never to be repeated, and
(b) belongs to a number of various types of situation which may recur.

Sometimes it's the unrepeatable uniqueness that's most important. Sometimes it's the recurrent type that's more important.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Mercy v Justice"
Next: Part 4: Presence
Previous: Part 2: Cucumbers and Grapes
Beginning: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo by Meredith Garmon


Cucumbers and Grapes: Mercy v. Justice, 2

Mercy is something bestowed by someone in a position of power – whether divine or human:
  • The criminal court judge pronouncing sentence upon the convicted might be said to exercise mercy.
  • A soldier victorious in battle might or might not show mercy to the vanquished.
  • A person of wealth who controls resources that can make or break another’s livelihood may choose to be merciful.
Another way of saying uncompelled and unconstrained is to say the option of mercy arises from being in a position of power in relation to someone else.
Each of us finds ourselves in various positions where we can exercise what power we have to "demand our due" -- or, mercifully, let it go.

Mercy belongs to a constellation of related concepts: Mercy, compassion, forgiveness, grace. Mercy:
  • is a kind of compassion because it extends a kindness and flows out of a sense of shared pain.
  • takes the form of forgiveness when it involves forgiving a wrong rather than demanding painful restitution.
  • is a kind of grace because it is unearned and undeserved.
If something nice comes to you when you didn’t deserve it, that’s grace. If something unpleasant is lifted when you did deserve it, that’s mercy.

Mercy and justice are yin and yang, requiring balance. Too much mercy and there’s no enforcement of justice. If contracts are never enforced, no one will enter into contracts – including ultimately, the social contract – and society falls apart. If our children – or we ourselves -- were always spared any unpleasant consequences of their actions, they won’t learn – or we won’t maintain -- the skills and habits of responsibility. “Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy,” said Shakespeare in a different play.

Our impulse for fairness, though, can sometimes get a little strange.

Our ideas of fairness are rooted in being a social animal. Our brains are built to pay careful attention to the social scene. When distribution of desirable things is under social control, it behooves us to pay sharp attention to who gets what and to exert energies to get what we think of as “our share.” This has deep roots in our evolutionary past.

In one study, two monkeys were in adjacent plexiglass containers. They could see each other. They’d been trained in using a supply of little chits to buy food.

They reach through a hole, hand the human a chit, and the human will take it, and hand them back a bit of food. Sometimes they might get a bit of cucumber. Cucumber is OK. The monkeys will take the cucumber and eat it. Sometimes they get a grape. Grapes are great. The monkeys like the grapes a lot better than the cucumber. The cucumber is acceptable, but the grape is mwah!

But remember, the monkeys can see each other. If monkey A sees monkey B get a grape in exchange for a chit, and monkey A hands over a chit and only gets a bit of cucumber, there’s going to be some protest about that. They don't speak English, but it's clear what the content of the protest is: "That’s not fair! He got a grape! Where’s my grape?" The slighted monkey will become agitated and howl. I saw some video of this experiment. The monkey takes that bit of cucumber and throws it back at the human. The cucumber which a minute before had been perfectly acceptable is now despised.

The need to be treated fairly is a deep need. We can calmly accept deprivation if others are, too.

In another study, two chimps are in adjacent cages. One of them – only one -- can reach a table of food and can choose to share that food with the other chimp or not. The other chimp can’t reach the food and can’t compel sharing, but does have access to a rope attached to a table leg, and can collapse the whole table. If the first chimp doesn’t share with the second chimp, the second chimp will jump and scream and about half the time will upset the table so that neither of them get any of the food. (See: "The Bright Side of Spite Revealed")

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Mercy v. Justice"
Next: Part 3: The Unique and the Recurrent
Previous: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo credit: Keith Jensen, et al.


In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious: Mercy v. Justice, 1

"The leaves of the lotus are round, round, rounder than a mirror.
The edge of the water-nut is sharp, sharp, sharper than an awl."
This Zen koan came to mind as I was thinking about my 10th-grade English class. Our teacher, Mr. Entrekin, was the most nearly spherical man I have ever known. He was round, round -- and he was also sharp, sharp.

Mr. Entrekin was a man of presence. When I was genuine, I was seen. When I was putting up a false front, I was seen through.

I think somewhere I still have a theme I wrote in his class. It came back to me with his encouragement that I expand my toolbox of words. He wrote:
"You are possibly approaching an interesting point. The vocabulary, however, resembles that of my friend the retarded rhinoceros."
(Come to think of it, a rhinoceros would also be both round and sharp.)

I'm remembering that English class because Mr. Entrekin had us read Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice." If you remember the play (or even if you don't), Antonio offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. When the loan is not repaid, Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia then tells Shylock he must be merciful. Shylock retorts,
“On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”
Portia famously replies,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“Not strained” means we cannot be constrained to be merciful. Mercy can’t be compelled. If it’s compelled, it isn’t mercy. Shylock asks, “on what compulsion must I be merciful?” The answer is there's no compulsion. It's not about compulsion.

Justice is about compulsion: there are principles of fairness that rightfully do constrain our behavior, but mercy doesn’t work that way. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. And when it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

A few lines later, Portia makes the point:
“in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”
Mr. Entrekin skillfully guided our exploration of this tension between justice and mercy: the hook on which justice puts us, and mercy, which sometimes lets us off the hook. I’d never seen it that way!

As a tenth-grader, this struck me as a powerful “gotcha” point to use against my theist classmates. Mercy is what we call it when we are spared from what we deserve. That means God is either merciful or just – either spares us from what we deserve or doesn’t. God can’t do both. For the next year or so I was frequently obnoxious with the question: Is this God of yours merciful or just? Can’t be both. Even a little bit of mercy is a deviation from strict justice.

Then I would complete the one-two punch by following-up with,
“And if God is all-powerful can he make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?”
Boom, boom!

After a while, even a teenager tires of throwing hard questions at other people and turns to wrestle with his own hard questions. What shall mercy mean to me? How do I cultivate this virtue in my life?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Mercy v. Justice"
Photo by Diane Wilkes of painting by Cynthia von Buhler
Next: Part 2: Cucumbers and Grapes


True Stories: The Meadow For Metaphor, 5

The part of you that you long for, the part you thought was dead, is not there in that place where dead things lie. You cannot take my word for this. You cannot know it until you go and look for yourself.

Be still and quiet and look. Easter morning and every morning, take some time to be still and quiet and look. Notice every part of who you are: scared parts, controlling parts, playful parts, vulnerable parts, trusting parts, skeptical parts, creative parts. They’re all still there, still alive. Start each day with the first-hand experience that the tomb is empty. The wholeness that you long for is with you, no part of you sealed off from yourself.

Four gospels, four stories -- four variations on the winding path toward arising.

In the Mark story, you encounter your fear. The powers that be are coming after you. If you try to reconnect with the part of you that feels separated, you fear you will be punished for it.
You simply run. You tell no one. Yes, that’s a true story; that’s one way the story truly does unfold.

In the John story, you go in solitude to see the empty tomb – and no frightening or reassuring guy in white or angel is there. You return from the tomb and speak to some trusted others. You speak with a confidant, a teacher, a spiritual guide, who goes with you back to the tomb, and then leaves you there alone again, crying. Then you turn around, and there it is. Right there in front you – the wholeness that is your birthright. Even then, you mistake it for the gardener. But it calls your name. The banished part of you calls your name, claims its place, and in that moment you realize yourself. That's a true story.

The Easter story is that the part of you that you thought was dead, isn’t.

In the Matthew story, you encounter enemies that discredit that story. They tell you that there is no new life for you to discover. They have been bribed by their own needs for the comfort of the familiar status quo to say, “There is no transformation. There is no greater wholeness. Those parts of who you are were carried away in the night and will remain dead and gone from you.” But you know better. You looked in that tomb and saw it was empty. You saw a new life that they cannot imagine. That’s a true story.

In the Luke story, it’s not your enemies but your friends. You go to speak to them about the discovery – this frightening yet promising new reality you have discovered. And they don’t believe you. Liberation? Wholeness? It is an idle tale, they think. And it’s OK that they think that. They have to see for themselves, as you have to see for yourself. You can’t take anybody’s word for it. That, too, is a true story.

You stand in the meadow, between the Golgotha of crucifixion and the cave of the tomb. You stand in that open field of transition, on the verge of discovery that the tomb of what you thought was dead in you is empty. What’s that meadow for? What’s the metaphor? The meadow -- and the metaphor -- is that open space from which you can step toward new life and new wholeness.

Happy Easter. You are risen.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Meadow For Metaphor"
See also
Part 1: Four Easter Stories
Part 2: Who Have You Buried?
Part 3: Matt & Luke
Part 4: You are Mary


You Are Mary: The Meadow For Metaphor, 4

In "The Gospel According to John," Mary Magdalene comes alone and in the pre-dawn darkness. As in Mark and Luke (but contrary to Matthew), she arrives to find the stone already rolled away. The tomb is empty. This time there’s no guy in white, or two guys in white, or an angel. Nobody. And no body. Mary goes back and reports to Simon Peter and another disciple:
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20: 2)
Mary and the two disciples go back to the tomb and see nothing but
“the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . rolled up in a place by itself.” (20: 6)
Then Simon Peter and the other disciple leave.
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.” (20: 11-12)
The angels ask, “Why are you weeping?”

Mary answers that “They have taken my Lord, I don’t know where.”

Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him:
“’Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father.”’” (20: 15-17)
The John story has a surreal, dreamlike quality quite different from the other three. In the surreal logic of John, bodies reanimate, yet wounds remain unhealed. It is a dreamlike realm, unconcerned with persecution from worldly powers.

* * *
The resurrection is about you. You are Mary Magdalene. Jesus is also you: he’s the part of you that you thought was dead, the part of you "the authorities" thought needed to be exterminated.

What part of you seemingly has died and is laid in a tomb?

You go in the dawn to find your own missing part, to finalize its interment – only to discover it is not dead after all.

Are you stuck in a deadening job? Does it seem that the part of you that yearns for creative, rewarding contribution to the world lies dead? Are you stuck in a dysfunctional relationship? The part of you that would dance in celebration of love and connection and intimate play seems like a cold and motionless corpse?

What part of you has been persecuted, battered, shamed, humiliated? What part of you with its dying words asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” Arise on the morning of a new day, and go and look.

Of course, you will think, “my god, there’s no way I can roll back that stone.”


Go by yourself in the predawn dark. Go with a single friend. Go with two friends. Go with a group of supportive presences as the day dawns and the sunlight begins.

When you get there, you will see the stone obstacle you feared is rolled back. So look inside. Peer into the darkness of your interior. It’s empty. The part of you that you long for, the part you thought was dead, is not there in that place where dead things lie.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "The Meadow For Metaphor."
See also
Part 1: Four Easter Stories
Part 2: Who Have You Buried?
Part 3: Matt & Luke
Part 5: True Stories


Matt & Luke: The Meadow For Metaphor, 3

In "The Gospel According to Matthew," two women rather than three venture to the tomb.
“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said’ . . . So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matt 28:1-6, 8)
With fear and great joy. In Mark, the women were simply scared. This time they have a mix of fear and joy.

A key point here is that in Matthew, there are guards. Mary and Mary can see that the guards are scared stiff. If the Roman guards are scared, then this white-clad guy is evidently not, himself, a Roman agent. So the political repression fear that was predominant in Mark is mitigated in Matthew.

Just as the two Marys are leaving the tomb, they encounter Jesus, and he speaks to them briefly:
“Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to then, 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." (28: 9-10)
Some of Jerusalem's rulers catch wind of the news that Jesus' body has gone missing. They concoct a story, which they bribe the guards to affirm, that some of Jesus' followers came in the middle of the night and took the body away. Only in Matthew do we get this strange little story about bribing the guards to say,
“His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” (28:13)
Maybe that’s exactly what did happen, and the Matthew storyteller is trying to discredit that by attributing it to the lies of bribed guards. Still, overall, Matthew’s fundamental optimism is much clearer than in Mark.

In “The Gospel According to Luke,” a whole group of women go to the tomb. Luke doesn’t say exactly how many. The group includes Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Joanna, and the rest of the women who were close followers of Jesus. As in Mark, there is mention of spices and ointments for preparing the body, but they can’t do that until Sunday, after the Sabbath. Also as in Mark, when they get to the tomb, it is already open.
“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” (Luke 24: 2-5)
The women are terrified, just as in Mark – and there’s no mention of that fear being mixed with joy as in Matthew.

Then the Luke story goes its own way. The women, perhaps because there are more of them and they are able to borrow courage from each other, rise above their fear.
“Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” (24: 8-9)
In Mark, the women never tell the disciples. In Matthew and John, the women tell the disciples and are instantly believed. But in Luke, we read:
“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (24: 10-11)
Only Peter believes the women. He checks it out himself, but apparently he says nothing to the other ten. The other
“men refused to believe the story until two of the men happened to be walking to another village, and suddenly there is Jesus walking along with them, except they don’t recognize him. They get into this long conversation with Jesus, and finally Jesus says, Hey guys, you idiots, it’s me. Finally, the men believe, and they go back and tell the other men, who finally believe what the women have told them.” (Dan Harper)
The Luke story has no sense of the ongoing repression that was so prominent in Mark and was, to a lesser extent, present in Matthew. It was politically dangerous to be a follower of Jesus, but you couldn’t tell that from Luke. What you can tell in Luke, is that the women understood, and the men were slow on the uptake.

Next: John . . . and you.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "The Meadow for Metaphor"
See also
Part 1: Four Easter Stories
Part 2: Who Have You Buried?
Part 4: You are Mary
Part 5: True Stories


Dan and Me

In this post I'm replying to my colleague (we're both "Philosophical Practitioners" certified by the American Philosophical Practioners Association) and friend, Dan Fincke. I quote parts of Dan's post below. To read the whole of his post, CLICK HERE.
Dan: "When I was a Christian my conception of religious belief was that it was either literally true or it was decisively false."
Yes, beliefs come in the "true," the "false," (and the "maybe," and the "depends") forms. And I know that you came from a tradition in which BELIEVING -- and thus TRUE BELIEVING -- were very important. In that regard, it seems to me, you still share a presumption of your past faith: that religion is about BELIEVING.

It was Paul's innovation to put BELIEVING at the center of the new Christian religion that he invented. Half a millenium later, Mohammed followed Paul's model, so Islam also puts BELIEVING at the center. None of the other world religions, however, are belief-centric.

For the two belief-centric religions, if you don't BELIEVE, then you're out. For most of the other world religions, if you have a hard time believing one of the teachings, they pretty much treat it the way that your math teacher would treat it if you said you didn't believe the Pythagorean theorem.

Suppose in math class, a student says, "I just can't believe that the square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. I acknowledge that it sometimes is, but always? Come on, that's too much!" What's the teacher going to do? She's going to try explaining the theorem in a variety of different ways. If the student remains intractable, at a certain point the teacher will say, "Why don't we just move on. We can return to this later."

For any big area of learning -- whether mathematics or spiritual practice (which I think of as a branch of emotional/psychological self-awareness and regulation) -- there are many doors in. If, for some reason, one door seems temporarily blocked for a given student, the teacher moves to another door. Often, eventually, as the student deepens into the field, the blocked door gets unblocked. Maybe, sometimes, it never does.

The approach that the math teacher would follow is pretty much the approach that a Jewish rabbi, Hindu guru, Daoist master, or Zen roshi would follow. Christian and Muslim leaders (of, at least, the more conservative forms) are a bit different because these traditions are belief-centric. For them, it's all about belief.

For most of the world -- and for all of the world before Paul came along -- religion is not so much about belief. What I teach is that religion is essentially about three things:

(1) It's about how you live. It's about the ethics and values that guide your life. Telling me how you live IS telling me your religion -- in some important ways. (Back when I was on the faculty of a "Religion and Philosophy" department, I was part of the interviewing team for a new hire of a religion teacher. I was fascinated to learn that, apparently, the distinction between academic study of religion and study of sociology is entirely arbitrary and basically nonexistent. How people live IS their religion.)

(2) It's about community. Who do you come together with to participate in congregational life together? With whom do you share in rituals that affirm and strengthen the sense of community connectedness?

(3) It's about experience. It's about those moments that feel "transcendent" (scare quotes because some people don't want to use that word, though they do experience the feeling that I'm referencing) -- those moments of awe, wonder, and beauty.

Congregational life aims to bring those three very different things together in such a way that each one of them reinforces the other two: so that "right living" can help deepen the relationships of community and "friends along the path" -- and both of these help open us up to more frequent and more profound experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder -- which, in turn, call for integration into how we live.

Some congregations -- mostly the Christian and Muslim ones -- make affirming certain beliefs a central part of their practice. But there are alternative ways a congregation can practice that have relatively little to do with asserting beliefs.
Dan: "Coming to terms with the literal falseness of Christianity made me not the least bit interested in even trying to have a religious attachment to things which might be only metaphorically accurate"
I can certainly see how that was a blow. After all, Christianity puts such a premium on "literal truth" that "literal falseness" is a real problem from within that paradigm. It's an unfortunate paradigm -- and, unfortunately, quite a lot of what I see going on in the atheist community retains the paradigm. The atheists have a different set of beliefs, but often (not always) retain the belief-centric paradigm. The alternative paradigm is to see that religion isn't about belief. From the cultural standpoint of a culture deeply in the shadow of Paul, this alternative paradigm is much more radical than atheism. From the standpoint of original Judaism (before it, too, was molded by reaction to Paul's influence) or Eastern religions, this alternative paradigm is not radical at all.

Suppose a centerfielder has a theory about how his brain processes the visual information of a fly ball and tells him where to run to catch it. Suppose his theory is false. Let us suppose that he's a good centerfielder, and he always gets a good jump on running to the spot where the ball will land, but his theory about how his brain does that just happens to be all wrong.

For most religions, it's the practice that matters. The misstep of Paul was to suppose that having the proper belief was central to being able to catch the ball (the "ball," in this case, being a life of wisdom, compassion, joy, connection, inner peace). That was Paul's mistake. Paul's corollary mistake is to imagine that no practice is necessary -- because you just gotta believe. In fact, it takes work to cultivate the habits a good centerfielder needs, and it takes work to develop the habits you need to maintain equanimity amidst the trials of life.
Dan: "So, I never made any stops in the halfway houses of religious liberalism on my way from evangelical literalist Christianity to out and out irreligious disbelieving anti-theism."
Of course, religious liberalism will seem like "halfway" between "evangelical literalist Christianity" and "out and out irreligious disbelieving anti-theism" only if one is still stuck in the belief-centric paradigm. If it's all about believing, then, indeed, either you believe it, or you don't, or you say you don't know, or you try for some sort-of, wishy-washy "halfway house." If it's all about believing, those are the options. But suppose it isn't about believing. Suppose it's about congregational life that seeks to facilitate those "three things that religion is all about" I listed above. Suppose it's about congregational life that employs understandings in that process but is explicitly prepared to let those understandings evolve with experience and evidence. That's not "halfway" -- it is, in fact, much further out from under Paul's shadow. It's not "watered-down belief" -- it's the de-throning of belief as central.
Dan: "I did read liberal and postmodern philosophers of religion once my faith was dead in an attempt to give as fair a hearing to them as I could for the entire winter break and summer after I deconverted. But they didn’t leave a dent on me."
Maybe because you were reading them for what they BELIEVED. Which is certainly natural. Text kinda works that way -- it invites assessment in terms of truth-claims. (So does the text I'm writing here.) When it comes to religious understanding, though, the books, while they do have a place, have a limited place. One has to put down the books and do the practice. Within the context of a regular practice, the books can be helpful in the process of integrating the insights of practice. But without doing the practice, books by themselves are useless for religion. It's like expecting you can become an excellent centerfielder just by reading about it.
Dan: "...the needs a tremendous amount of people obviously feel for an interconnection of philosophy, community, ritual, symbol, “spiritual” exercise, identity, tradition, ecstatic experience, and (most importantly) the moral education of children. We need to meet people’s psychosocial, moral, and philosophical needs for coherent, conscientious identity, values, beliefs, community, and rootedness or people will continue to judge it worth it to shutdown their brains or compromise their commitments to intellectual principle for the sake of these goods they feel as urgent."
Eloquently put, Dan! That's why I became a UU minister: to meet those needs without shutting down intellect.
Dan: "I admit I get irked when I describe my visions for self-consciously atheistic, philosophically robust alternative communities to religions and get told, “We already have the Unitarians.” This might be my ignorance and prejudice but my first response is to recoil and think that settling for Unitarianism is just unbelievably philosophically and spiritually lazy and apathetic about truth. As far as I understand the Unitarians they meet in the spirit of “everyone being essentially right” and they don’t overthrow the traditional symbols and rituals of the traditional religions. They may jettison literalism and water down their notions of gods to the most rationally acceptable deism or to a form of mystical abstraction that is functionally equivalent to nothingness, and they may be so open to freedom of intellectual conscience that they welcome even atheists with open arms, but in theory they have still always sounded to me like people who are trying to cling to the trappings of religions they don’t really believe."
RE: "trappings of religions they don’t really believe." I'd say we aren't trying to have a religion we believe -- since, for us, religion isn't about belief. We do kinda cling to some trappings of practice, though. Some of that is pretty useless to many of our folks, while being near and dear to the hearts of other of our folks. Religious community does mean that we have let go of our own egocentrism for a while, and let other people get their needs met in the way that works for them, while remaining in loving connection with them. The relevant "watering-down" is -- or should be -- diluting with love the ego's conviction that it knows the best way of doing things, including the best way to pursue truth. Bathed in that cleansing water, we become a little better able to open ourselves to new possibilities of meaning-making in the preferred metaphors of others.

RE: "Philosophically and spiritually lazy and apathetic about truth." Yeah, you got me on that one. In my experience of Unitarians, this is often true. We UUs do pride ourselves on intellect, we love to say, "you don't have to turn off your brain at the church door here," and UUs do tend to be fairly bright folks. On the other hand, a UU congregation is not a philosophy seminar. The members tend to have turned the focus of their intellects to nonphilosophical channels. In my earlier years as a minister, this was a source of frustration for me. "These people can't keep up with me," I whined (to myself.) What won out in me was the sense that it's really important to serve human need -- to meet people where they are. Maybe they can't keep up with the way I learned to like to run in philosophy graduate seminars, but perhaps there's a way not to run, but to fly -- and we can find a way to do that together. And, on good days, I help my congregation fly. Sometimes we still do a little jogging on the philosophical track. It's the poetry and narrative, though, that does more of the work of helping people see meaning in their lives.

If you really want a community that works hard at being rigorous about propositional truth, then, no, the Unitarians ain't it. Your best bet is the Academy for that. Congregations that try to put rigor about propositional truth in a central place fall apart when they don't all agree on the propositional truths.
Dan: "I really want atheists to have alternative communities and organizations that can make superstitious, authoritarian, patriarchal, irrationalistic religions obsolete—or which can at least prevent atheists from perversely feeling like those are the only games in town for giving their children roots and a moral education. I really want atheists to have rituals and values discussion that are rooted in sophisticated, critical, well-informed, and thought-provoking philosophy and not in the selective reading and decoding of the tired and idiosyncratic myths and sayings of ancient religions."
I want that, too. More often than not, I don't draw on ancient religious texts at all, and when I do, I aim to offer an interpretation of them that makes them fresh. (Yes, I am highly selective in my use of them.) More often, I draw from more recent findings in psychology, economics, physics -- whatever I can find that nurtures meaning-making, openness to wonder, and commitment to justice.
Dan: "I really want atheists to have groups that are not just dressing up like the traditional religions but which are built on foundations we can actually believe in and which are structured rationalistically from top to bottom."
RE: "Rationalistically from top to bottom." So . . . music? If you have music at your gatherings, you've opened the door for the nonrational. Heck, if the members even like each other (always an iffy proposition when it comes to congregational life), you're in the realm of the nonrational. Music and love aren't rational. The need for religious community is a need to make our peace with -- not simply struggle manfully to suppress -- the nonrationality of our natures.
Dan: "I don’t see the point of religious services that are a tribute to the history of religion rather than an attempt to get in touch with truths as understood using the contemporary state of knowledge in philosophy and science."
Me neither. You and I might (or maybe we wouldn't) disagree about the appropriate place of empathetic appreciation for the efforts of those who came before us -- efforts that constitute "the history of religion" -- but much more of my energy goes into getting "in touch with truths as understood using the contemporary state of knowledge in philosophy and science" -- and the insights of history, poetry, and fiction.