God is Not One

On Friday a couple days ago, one of our congregation’s members posted on the Facebook “CUUC Forum” a helpful bit of information (HERE). He wrote, “How many times have we all been in the situation where the answer to this question just doesn't flow off the tips of our tongues?” The question at issue, in large letters at the top of the graphic he posted was: “Where does the word Unitarian come from?” Of course, you can’t trust anything you read in a Facebook graphic (starting with the fact that they are called "memes" when, in fact, they are graphics, not memes.) But this one got it right. It says:
“Its roots lie in the Reformation of 16th-century Europe, when Protestant Christians read and interpreted the Bible for themselves. Some of them found that the Bible spoke of one God. This did not square with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which says that God consists of three ‘persons’. Because these people believed God to be a ‘unity’ rather than a ‘trinity’ they became known as ‘Unitarians'."
And there you have it. God is one, not three, as the Trinitarians say. That’s what makes us Unitarian.

The first Unitarian churches formed in what is now central Romania, and was then Transylvania, around which curved the Carpathian mountains. Transylvania’s King John Sigismund, who reigned for about 10 years until his death in 1571 is history’s only Unitarian king. There are a number of Unitarian churches today in central Romania that have been Unitarian churches for 450 years.

In the back of our gray hymnal is reading number 566. The words are adapted from Francis David, who was King John Sigismund’s Court Theologian in Transylvania. Francis David is a foundational figure in the emergence of Unitarianism. David sounded, as you see in this reading, a number of themes that have always been important for Unitarians. Acceptance of differing viewpoints has, from our beginnings, been a hallmark of us Unitarians. Reading 566 begins by affirming:
“In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation.”
David urged toleration. The second line is the most well-known:
“We need not think alike to love alike.”
Our Unitarian tradition emphasized reason. The fourth line in the reading:
“Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.”
The sense that revelation is continuous, that we are always learning is also there. The sixth line:
“If they offer something better, I will gladly learn.”
The Unitarianism that comes down to us through Francis David also emphasized this world over some future afterlife. The ninth line:
“We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on Earth.”
That, too, is a Unitarian idea from our beginnings. But the idea that we get our name from – is in the last lines of this compilation reading:
“God is indivisible. Egy Az Isten. God is one.”
Over the doors of many of those original Unitarian churches in Transylvania are painted those words in Hungarian: Egy Az Isten, meaning God is one.

I tell you all that because I want to be clear with you about the situation I have put myself in. If a Unitarian minister of a fine Sunday morning steps into his pulpit to deliver a sermon titled “God is not one,” well, he’s got some ‘splaining to do. So let me explain.

I am referencing a book by religion scholar Stephen Prothero titled God is Not One. Prothero’s aim is not to defend trinitarianism against the perfidies of Unitarian heresy. Rather, he wants to say religions are really different. It has been a temptation of various European thinkers since the 18th-century to assert that religions are all the same. "All religions are one," argued William Blake in 1788. In the 60s it became fashionable to hold that all religions are beautiful, and all are true.

Another religion scholar, Huston Smith, expounded on the popular metaphor that the great religions are different paths up the same mountain. Wrote Smith:
“It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge. At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”
It’s true that the Golden Rule is found in Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. But some shared ethical precepts don't mean they are all "essentially" the same. There are the obvious differences.

Christians don’t go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims don’t baptize. Hinduism tells of many Gods, Judaism of one God, and Buddhism makes a case for no gods. Unitarians, the old joke goes, believe in, at most one God. Mormons say God has a body. Muslims say God doesn’t. Hindus say humans have souls. Buddhists say we don’t.

The issue of whether all religions are basically the same depends on what we take to be basic. Are the differences non-essential, while the essentials are shared? Or are the differences essential? But things don't have essences in and of themselves -- what we pick out to call "essential" depends on our purposes. As Prothero says,
"The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics, but they matter to ordinary religious people. Muslims do not think that the pilgrimage to Mecca they call the hajj is inessential. Catholics do not think that baptism is inessential."
The impulse to say that the essence of religions is in what they share is well-intentioned. There has been such conflict and fighting – often violent – over religions. If the combatants would only see that their faiths are basically the same – just different paths up toward the same peak – then they wouldn’t hate each other. When there’s polarization – each side demonizing all other sides – then a strategy of minimization – that is, seeking to minimize differences – is indeed an important and positive step.

But minimization brings problems of its own. Truly respecting another religion or another culture requires respecting and appreciating its uniqueness, just as respecting a person entails honoring what is unique and different about that person. Papering over differences and insisting that what’s more important is the sameness is a deliberate blindness to some of the things that the other person, other culture, or other religion regards as crucially important about themselves. It’s putting them in a box of our definition of sameness instead of letting them define themselves and what’s important to them. Stephen Prothero says,
“the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and has not made the world a safer place.”
The minimization impulse, he notes, is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.”

Instead of seeing the world’s religions as starting out from different places around the base of a mountain, and all trying to make their way up to the same peak, we should see it the other way around. The world’s religions begin from the same place, and then head off in different directions. Prothero says,
“What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. They begin with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.”
Something’s wrong. What is it?

For Christianity, what’s wrong is sin. So Christianity heads out to climb the mountain to salvation, salvation from sin.

For Buddhism, what’s wrong is suffering. So Buddhism heads out to climb the mountain to nirvana, extinguishment, release from the cycle of rebirth into suffering.

For Islam, what’s wrong is arrogance -- “the hubris of acting as if you can get along without God.” So Islam heads out to climb the mountain to humility and obedience.

For Judaism, the problem is exile (“distance from God”). So Judaism heads out to climb the mountain of following the law to return to God.

These are not different paths up the same mountain. They are headed up different mountains.

Prothero doesn’t discuss Unitarian Universalism. I think we could say that for us, what’s wrong is disconnection – human isolation and alienation from one another. So we Unitarian Universalists conceive of the religious project as one of connecting, of understanding and remembering our, and everyone’s, inherent belonging. The “unity” in Unitarian began as a reference to the unity or oneness of God, but even very early on, our emphasis has been on this life and this world. The unity that better captures what we're all about is the unity – the connection and belongingness – of all beings of the Earth.

When we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every being, we’re saying no one is of such nature as to warrant exclusion from the family of things. When we affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence, we’re saying that we are all placed in a network of mutuality. What’s wrong with the world is that we ourselves sometimes feel disconnected and sometimes treat others as if they didn’t belong. The challenge for us is to understand that we all belong -- not because of a shared basic sameness, but, in fact, because of our profound difference.

Minimization – that is, the orientation toward minimizing differences among cultures and religions – is a helpful path out of polarization. But minimization introduces distortions of its own. We haven’t truly accepted Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists AS Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists if we keep smoothing over their differences, keep seeing them only through the lens of what they all share.

Interestingly, what helps a person move beyond minimization to acceptance of real difference is attention to their own uniqueness. Only, this time around, we aren’t saying we’re different because we’re better, we’re just saying we’re different because we’re us. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because that’s who I am. It’s not because there’s something wrong with being some other religion, or no religion.

Nor is it because it doesn’t make any difference. It makes a huge difference – it’s a very different way of life, way of community, way of fellowship, and way of being from the exclusively Christian way, exclusively Muslim way, or exclusively Buddhist way. You notice that word “exclusively.” One of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism different is that we’re explicit about honoring that UUs can be Christian UUs, Jewish UUs, Buddhist UUs, Hindu UUs, Muslim UUs, humanist UUs, or pagan UUs. So I can’t talk about how being UU is different from being Christian because some of us are both at the same time. But I can talk about how being UU is different from being exclusively Christian.

To be exclusively Christian, typically and usually, though not always, entails more emphasis on sin. The typical devoted Christian sees the world through the lens of an inner corruption in the human soul. The morning newspaper’s stories of scandal, crime, violence, conflict, sexual misconduct, and drug abuse rates is all seen as reflective of basic human sinfulness. Unitarian Universalists read the same news but through a different lens. For us, it’s reflective of basic human disconnection. We see a drive for meaning and belonging that, when not met, can turn desperate, can lead to strategies of dominance – to abuse of others to prove to ourselves that we matter, or to abuse of ourselves with drugs to ease the pain of loneliness.

We got our name, Unitarian, because we rejected the Trinitarian conception of God. We got our other name, Universalist, because we believed in Universal salvation – that there is no hell and we are all bound for heaven. But the specific content of our early doctrines is less important than the motivation and methods that led our forebears to embrace those doctrines.

Our forebears got to Unitarianism through reason. They read the Bible carefully and thoughtfully. They studied church history, and noticed that the Trinitarian doctrines arose among theologians centuries after Jesus, and in response to particular needs of the time. Trinitarianism is not in the Bible and runs contrary to reason, we said – so they called us "Unitarian." But the more vital characterization of what we’re about is that we trusted the authority of reason over the authority of tradition. We trusted in the capacity of individual minds to see for themselves.

We Unitarian Universalists have seven principles, and they form an arch. The first principle and the seventh principle are the two pillars holding up the arch. The first principle affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person or every being. The seventh principle affirms respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Those are the pillars of our faith.

But the middle principle, the fourth principle – that’s the keystone of the arch. If you know about arch construction, you know that what makes the arch strong is the way all the stones press in on that central keystone at the top of the arch. For us, that crucial keystone, the middle principle, is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. On one side of the arch are the second and third principles: justice, equity, and compassion in our relations, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. These speak to our individual, face-to-face relationships of connection. On the other side are the fifth and sixth principles: the use of democratic process that respects rights of conscience, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. These speak to the political and social systems for connection and belonging. And they all lean in against that keystone: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

On the downside, we Unitarian Universalists tend to struggle with humility. A faith that puts such trust in reason runs the risk of arrogance. We think we can figure it all out ourselves and sometimes fail to appreciate the hard-won prudence of the ages. Sometimes tradition has more going for it than our reason can grasp. The upside that makes this risk worth it is our conviction that our commitment to peace and justice matters – that our hopes for a fuller realization of belonging for all are not defeated before they begin by inherent sinfulness.

On our Universalist side, again, the particular doctrine – in this case, a doctrine about the afterlife -- is less important than why our forebears felt moved to adopt that doctrine. The early Universalists said that a loving God would not condemn creatures of his own making to eternal torture. In other words: they felt the universe as a loving presence – a presence that loves all of us, a presence in which all of us are accepted and belong.

Through the centuries those doctrines have faded into insignificance. Today we Unitarian Universalists have little concern with "the errors of the Trinity," or with arguing that we all go to heaven. But what originally motivated those doctrines – the trust in our consciences and reason in a world in which all of us are accepted and inherently belong – that is with us still. This is who we are. Whether we are also Buddhists or Pagans or Jews or Christians – this makes us UUs different from those who are exclusively Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish, or Christian.

This is our path, and belongingness is both its means and its destination. We can respect other traditions, we can learn from them, we can even incorporate some of their teachings and practices. In a UU context they become something different. What those teachings and practices mean and how they function in a UU context is different from the meaning and function they have in their original context.

Clarity about who we are and integrity to our tradition is the ground from which true respect of other traditions can grow – with acceptance rather than minimization of our real differences. May it be so.


What Is "White Culture"?

When Martin Luther King Jr called for a world in which people were not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he didn’t mean that we wouldn’t see the color of their skin – or that we’d pretend not to. I’m not sure he knew all the details of how it would work, but I don’t think he’d have wanted people’s identities erased, who they are rendered invisible.

His primary task up until he died 50 years ago last April was addressing overt racism. Today we know we must also address subtle cultural matters. It may once have counted as progress to treat minority cultures the same. But we must do more than that. We must respect and honor and stand ready to adapt to the ways cultures are different. And for those of us in the dominant white culture, that means recognizing our own culture, recognizing that it, too, has its place in the family of things – alongside, not arching over, all other cultures.

* * *
The four heroes of the TV show the good place are a multicultural lot. Eleanor is a white woman from a dysfunctional lower-class family in Arizona. Tahani is an Asian British woman from a dysfunctional upper-class family. Chidi is a native-French-speaking black man, born in Nigeria, raised in Senegal, who became a moral philosophy professor in Australia. Jason is a Hispanic young man from the youth, drug, petty-crime, and dance culture of Jacksonville, Florida.

A few episodes ago on “The Good Place,” our four heroes find themselves in a place called Janet’s void, one of the features of which is that they all find themselves in identical Janet bodies – all played by the actress D’arcy Carden.
Chidi-Janet: "This is nuts. We’re in a void, in the body of a white lady."
[The other characters remind him that Janet is not a lady. Janet appears female – and the pronoun “she” is used for her, but she is actually an unsexed humanoid machine.]
Jason-Janet: "But we are white, though. Let’s all say white people things. Billy Joel. I found it on etsy. There was nowhere to park. Did you refill the Brita?"
I mention this because sometimes, for those of us who are white, our white culture is invisible to us. We notice other people’s culture, but we tend to think of ourselves as not having one. Other people are shaped in one way or another by their culture, while WE are left free to live our lives by pure common sense.

We also think of ourselves as not speaking with an accent. For instance, if someone sounds to your ear as if American English is their first language, and they tell you that English is their second language, you might be tempted say, “Your English is great. You have no accent.” I could have very easily said that 15 years ago – and maybe I did. But I’ve since learned that there’s no such thing as having no accent. If I felt a need to comment on it at all, it would be better to say, “Your accent sounds to me just like mine.”

There is no unaccented English. You could train yourself in another accent, but you would not so much be “dropping your accent” as trading one accent for a different one. We all have an accent. We notice other people’s accents, but we don’t notice our own.

It’s the same with culture. Noticing and remembering our own culture is a crucial step in recognizing just how deep culture goes for all humans. It’s especially hard for white people to see their white culture because white is the dominant culture. Nonhispanic whites are currently 61% of the US population – a clear majority. Moreover, for much of the last century or so, the nonhispanic white population has been much more dominant. From 1900 until 1950, the percent of the US population that was nonhispanic whites stayed level at 87%.

Whiteness remains the majority, and we have a long history of it being an even higher majority – and that history as well as the current majority ensconces whiteness as the US norm. So white folk see themselves not as a culture, but simply as “normal.”

The very fact that we call ourselves “white” – as in blank, without color – reinforces the impression. Colorlessness implicitly connotes culturelessness. But, of course, whiteness is not cultureless.

The other challenge to recognizing our white culture is that it really is pretty amorphous. Attempts to identify white culture often point to features that are, indeed, more common among whites than among nonwhites – but that fail to characterize even a majority of whites. For instance, the Jason character mentioned Billy Joel, etsy, and Britas. Most of the fans at a Billy Joel concert, perhaps, are white – (I guess, I haven’t been to one) but most whites have never been to one. Users of etsy and Britas may be mostly white, but most whites don’t use etsy, and most don’t use Britas.

White people eat more vegetables and dairy. US Department of Agriculture data indicates that white Americans eat 16 pounds more vegetables at home per year than nonwhite Americans, and that for every pound of dairy consumed by the average black American at home, White Americans eat 1.75 pounds.

Whites are higher on alcohol consumption. Almost a third of nonhispanic whites had a heavy-drinking day in the last year. Only 24% of Hispanics did, and only 16% of black Americans did.

There are still lots of whites who don’t eat very many vegetables, and two-thirds of whites did not have a heavy-drinking day in the last year.

According to the American Time Use Survey, white people average over 3.5 hours per year attending museums or the performing arts – well above non-white averages. A report from the National Endowment of the Arts found that white Americans were twice as likely as black or Hispanic Americans to have done at least one arts activity in the past year – including “jazz, classical music, opera, musical and non-musical plays, ballet, and visits to an art museum or gallery.” So if you go to a Pat Matheny concert, that’s an arts activity, because that’s jazz. But if you go to a Tina Turner concert – or, for that matter, a Billy Joel concert -- that’s not within the NEA definition of an arts activity.

So, these are things that nonhispanic whites do more than blacks or Asians or Hispanics – but even so they tend to characterize less than half of white people. Most whites haven’t been to the opera, or had a heavy drinking day in the last year, or regularly consume kale. A disproportionate percentage of golfers are white, but most white people haven’t been out on the links in the last year.
To make the point at the extreme, it turns out that the whitest surname in the US is Yoder. 98.1 percent of all people named Yoder are white. Though the overwhelming majority of Yoders (over 98 percent!) are white  – the overwhelming majority of whites (well over 98 percent) are not Yoders. So identifying things that are more common among whites than nonwhites doesn’t tell us about white culture generally.

If our own culture seems invisible to us, this is partly because whiteness is the majority, we have a long history of it being a greater majority, it’s dominant, and because humans are built to notice other people’s accents and cultures while overlooking our own. But it’s also because white culture really is amorphous. One of the side effects of the amorphousness of white culture is what we might call the Rachel Dolezal effect. Having a more clear and definite culture to identify with can start to look attractive. Rachel Dolezal a few years ago became famous for her attempts to pass as black. Back in the 1930s, jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow declared himself a voluntary negro after marrying a black woman and selling marijuana. What Rachel Dolezal did was unusual because of her age and professional and leadership status. It’s fairly normal for white adolescents to “take on what they perceived to be the characteristics of another race while exploring their identities.” Anita Thomas, professor of counseling psychology, says,
“For white [American] youth, who are disconnected from European heritage or legacy, it often feels like whiteness as a concept is empty.”
I can see that.

Last summer I sent away a saliva sample for DNA testing. I was not surprised with the results that my ancestry is almost entirely British and Swiss-German – but, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I know that’s kinda laughable – this spectacle of middle-aged white guys hoping they have some portion of nonwhite ethnicity in their DNA – and being so proud of it if they do. There’s a part of us that wants to belong, and white isn’t just invisible because it’s dominant, and the majority, and because we aren’t self-aware – it’s also invisible because it is amorphous. Amorphousness is weak on belonging.

Rachel Dolezal and Mezz Mezzrow represent one response to the urge to belong to a more definite cultural identity. At the opposite extreme are the white nationalists, trying to make whiteness a more definite thing, worthy of defending and promoting against perceived and largely fabricated threats.

Mona Chalabi writes, “If the 'somethingness' of white culture is never quite pinned down, it remains both 'nothing, really' and 'well, everything'.”

Psychologist Mikhail Lyubansky suggests that “this wish – to be rid of whiteness – is at the very core of white culture.” People with a strong cultural identity will typically be happy to talk about it at the slightest encouragement. However, Lyubansky notes, “White people don’t want to talk about their whiteness.”

In some ways there are certainly multiple white cultures – just as there are multiple black cultures and multiple Asian cultures and multiple Hispanic cultures and multiple indigenous cultures. If you cut it particularly fine, in some sense, each of us is a culture of one. So it would be tempting to abandon the idea of trying to say anything about white culture at all.

But we can learn something from the ways that our institutional cultures have been frustrating to people of minority cultures. Consider these cultural differences in the way businesses and governments and organizations at all levels function, make decisions, and allocate and protect power. On each of the 13 spectra below, the left end of the spectrum represents "white culture" -- not because all whites prefer those cultural practices but because (a) the left-end cultural practices tend to sustain the power of powerful groups; (b) members of powerful groups learn to be good at these cultural practices that sustain their power; and (c) in particular, historically, the left sides of the spectra have preserved the power, control, and privilege of people of European descent.

1. Perfectionism------------------------Appreciation

  • little appreciation expressed for the work that others are doing;
  • appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate -- or to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them;
  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them;
  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
  • little time, energy, or money is put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice -- little or no learning from mistakes;
  • tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what’s right
  • taking time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;
  • expecting that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;
  • recognizing that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;
  • separating the person from the mistake;
  • speaking to the things that went well before offering criticism;
  • asking people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism
2. Greater Urgency------------------------Less Urgency

Greater Urgency
  • chronic sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, think long-term, or consider consequences;
  • sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results – often sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community);
  • funding proposals promise, and funders who expect, too much work for too little money;
Less Urgency
  • realistic workplans;
  • leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects;
  • discussion and planning for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time;
  • learn from past experience how long things take;
  • write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames;
  • clarity about identifying and responding to pressures of urgency when they arise
3. Defensiveness------------------------Nondefensiveness

  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it
  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)
  • people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas
  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that people’s feelings aren’t getting hurt or working around defensive people
  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture
  • understanding that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse;
  • understanding the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege);
  • naming defensiveness as a problem when it is one;
  • giving people credit for being able to handle more than one thought;
  • discussing ways defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission
4. Quantity Over Quality------------------------Quality over Quantity

  • all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals
  • things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot: numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict;
  • little or no value is attached to process; if it can't be measured, it has no value
  • there is discomfort with emotion and feeling;
  • there is no understanding that when there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (people’s need to be heard or engaged), process will prevail – otherwise, the decisions made at the meeting will be undermined and/or disregarded.
  • process or quality goals are included in planning;
  • the organization has a values statement expressing its valuation of diverse work styles;
  • the values statement is used and referenced in day-to-day work;
  • ways to measure process goals (such as inclusivity) are sought;
  • there is recognition of times when one needs to get off the agenda in order to address concerns of process or feelings.
5. Fixation on Written Word------------------------Less Dependence on Written Word

Fixation on Written Word
  • if it’s not in a memo, it doesn't exist;
  • the organization does not value other ways information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission
  • Unwillingness to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information or to reflect carefully on which things truly need to be written down
  • the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it – and if they don’t, there is something wrong with them
Less Dependence on Written Word
  • work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization – such as the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission
  • accept that there are many ways to get to the same goal;
  • work on developing the ability to notice when people do things differently and how those different ways might improve your approach;
  • look for the tendency for a group or a person to keep pushing the same point over and over out of a belief that there is only one right way and then name it;
  • when working with communities from a different culture than yours or your organization’s, be clear that you have some learning to do about the community; never assume that you or your organization know what’s best for the community in isolation from meaningful relationships with that community
6. Paternalism------------------------Inclusion

  • decision-making is unclear to those without power – though they know well the impact of those decisions;
  • those with power make decisions for and in the interests of those without power -- often without steps to understand their viewpoint or experience;
  • everyone knows and understands who makes what decisions in the organization;
  • everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility and authority in the organization;
  • people who are affected by decisions are included in the decision-making
7. Either/Or Thinking------------------------Both/And Thinking

  • things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us;
  • closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict
  • complex realities are oversimplified (e.g., “Poverty is simply a result of poor education”)
  • time and encouragement to consider alternatives is denied -- particularly alternatives that may require more time or resources
  • notice when people use “either/or” language and push to come up with more than two alternatives;
  • notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made;
  • slow it down and encourage people to deeper analysis;
  • when people are faced with an urgent decision, take a break and give people some breathing room to think creatively;
  • avoid making decisions under extreme pressure.
8. Power Hoarding------------------------Power Sharing

Power Hoarding
  • little, if any, value around sharing power;
  • power seen as limited: only so much to go around;
  • those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done in the organization, feel suggestions for change are a reflection on their leadership;
  • those with power don't see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened
  • those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced
Power Sharing
  • include power sharing in your organization’s values statement;
  • discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops the power and skills of others;
  • understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive;
  • make sure the organization is focused on the mission
9. Conflict Fear------------------------Conflict Appreciation

Fear of Conflict
  • people in power fear conflict and try to ignore it or run from it;
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue;
  • emphasis on being polite; equation of raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line
Appreciation of Conflict
  • role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens;
  • distinguish between being impolite and raising hard issues;
  • don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in “acceptable ways,” especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised;
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently
10. Individualism------------------------Collaboration

  • little experience or comfort working as part of a team;
  • people in organization believe they are responsible for solving problems alone;
  • accountability, if any, goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to clients/customers.
  • desire for individual recognition and credit leads to isolation;
  • little time or resources devoted to developing cooperation skills;
  • valuation on getting things done on one’s own leads to lack of accountability;
  • little or no ability to delegate work to others
  • Values statement affirms value of teamwork;
  • the organization works toward shared goals and people understand that working together improves performance;
  • evaluations emphasize ability to work in a team, and delegate to others;
  • credit is given to all those who participate in an effort, not just the leaders;
  • groups rather than individuals are held accountable;
  • create a culture where people bring problems to the group;
  • use staff meetings as a place to solve problems, not just a place to report activities.
11. Goals blinkered and short-term------------------------Goals include process and long-term

Goals Blinkered and Short-Term
  • conception of “progress” focused on expansion (more staff, larger budgets, more customers/clients)
  • focus on size rather than how well people are served – or whether the people served are the people that most need it
Goals Include Process and Long-Term
  • create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now;
  • cost/benefit analyses includes all the costs – including costs in morale, costs in credibility, costs in the use of resources;
  • planning should include process goals, goals about how one wants to work, not just what one wants to do.
12. Objectivity------------------------Shifting Consensus

  • the belief that there is such a thing as being objective, and that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process;
  • invalidating people who show emotion;
  • requiring people to think in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think in other ways;
  • impatience with any thinking that does not appear “logical” to those with power.
Shifting Consensus
  • realize that everybody has a world view that affects the way they understand things – including you;
  • push yourself to sit with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways not familiar to you;
  • assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand what that point is
13. Right to Comfort------------------------Appreciation of Discomfort

Right to Comfort
  • those with power assume a right to emotional and psychological comfort;
  • those who cause discomfort are scapegoated;
  • individual acts of unfairness against white people are equated with systemic racism which daily targets people of color
Appreciation of Discomfort
  • welcome discomfort as the root of all growth and learning; deepen political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture
  • don't take anything personally
Adapted from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, "Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups" (2001) -- HERE


Simplicity and Belonging

Simplicity, part 3

Simplicity Approach #3: Self-provisioning. Be a Do-It-Yourselfer. Have a garden that provides some of your food. Do your canning. Eat out less. Sew and knit – make your own clothes. Cut your own hair. Make your own bread. Hang clothes on a line instead of using the dryer. If you need a bookshelf, try making one (if the ones available at thrift shops -- often cheaper than the supplies for making your own -- are not the right size, shape, or style). This approach to simplicity is a helpful support for number two – reducing consumption. The more you make for yourself, the less you have to buy.

On the other hand, setting out to do more self-provisioning might increase your stress. If you take on Do-It-Yourself projects without making changes in number one – de-stressing and slowing down – then you’d only be adding more stress. More things to do! Now you’ve got to get that report out by Tuesday, get the kids to umpteen practices, games, rehearsals, and lessons, get the meals all prepared AND grow a garden, can the produce, hang the laundry out, bake bread, and sew yourself a new outfit – nothing too fancy!

Yet for many people, self-provisioning is a crucial part of life that feels simple, elegant, under control. Time spent knitting, or in the garden, or kneading dough can be the most relaxing, de-stressing part of the day. It goes to the issue Elgin called human scale: we see the effects of our labor because it’s right there in that garden in the back yard, those preserves in the freezer, or those clothes in the closet.

Self-provisioning is work that feels real. It's an antidote to the alienated labor that many feel in our jobs. Karl Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but when he talked about alienation of labor, I think he was on to something. He described workers alienated from the product of their labor, without a holistic connection to the production process and the use -- the human meaning -- of the product. It's dehumanizing to be a mechanistic middle part of some process both the source and destination of which is invisible. Marx called it estrangement from one's humanity.

Can you slow down and pare back on other aspects of a hectic life enough to create the time for the simple enjoyment of hands-on tasks that directly create a tangible usable product? Our souls need to see where and how our work matters, aside from the paycheck. Humans need visceral connection to making concrete and good things. Aside from reducing consumption, self-provisioning addresses the spiritual problem of alienation from our own labor and reconnects us with the humanizing satisfactions of work that's meaningful to ourselves, our families, our community.

Simplicity Approach #4: De-cluttering. All this stuff we get not only depletes the Earth to make it, but it clutters up our own life. Would neater and more spare surroundings at home and at work feel good? Of course, you can also clutter up the place with things you made yourself, so don’t go overboard with the self-provisioning. In fact, don’t go overboard with anything – that’s the ultimate lesson of simplicity.

Simplicity Approach #5: Paring away distractions. What distracts you from being present to life, from focusing on what’s most important? Our smart phones are a major distraction. The Amish are very good at thinking about technological conveniences and noticing exactly what it is that is made more convenient. If the gizmo is making it more convenient for you to be disconnected from your family, from your community, from the Earth, from what your best self really cares about, that’s not the convenience you want.

Stress, consumption, work that feels unmeaningful or alienated, clutter, and distraction. Which of those five problems apply to you – maybe just a little bit? As a first step -- before even thinking about which strategies you might try for tacking any of these, take 30 seconds to tell someone else which ones are issues for you: Stress? Consumption? Alienated work? Clutter? Distraction? And if none of those are issues for you, that’s wonderful. In that case, take half a minute to articulate that to someone. Either way, find another person and tell them.

And then ask them to tell you which one of these five is, for them, the biggest problem: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, or distraction.

In this month’s issue of On the Journey is a poem by Peter Gizzi called, “Lines Depicting Simple Happiness.” It’s a love poem. One of the lines says:
“With you nothing is simple, yet nothing is simpler.”
I was struck by that line. Relationships are complex – usually even more complicated than my relationship with simplicity. “With you nothing is simple,” says the poet to his beloved. And then adds, “yet nothing is simpler.”

I have been pondering this. How does the experience of simplicity emerge from the complexity of a relationship?

In my experience, it feels simple when we belong. When we belong, then we know who we are, and what is ours to do, and that it will matter, then it all feels simple. It's when we don’t belong, when we are out of place, that we get confused and feel overrun. Who are we? What are we supposed to be doing? What does it matter? It can all seem overwhelmingly complicated. But when we belong, we know our place and what to do. There’s no confusion. It’s simple.

All of the issues I mentioned: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, and distraction – contribute to the sense of not belonging in this world. The path of simplicity, then, is a path of belonging.

May 2019 for you be a path toward ever-clearer belonging. Then you, too, may have that feeling that, though nothing is simple, nothing could be simpler.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.


Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.

Simplicity, part 2

Since what we own also owns us, some care in selecting what to buy and own is warranted. Some helpful questions:
  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Do I buy and own things that serve no real need?
  • How tied am I to installment payments, credit card debt, product maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • What impact does my purchasing have on other people and on the earth?
  • Would the beauty and joy of living be greater if I had less, consumed less, and my life was based more on being and becoming and less on having?
Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity also looked at what he called human scale. Have our living and working environments and supportive institutions reached enormous scale and complexity? Can they be decentralized into more comprehensible and manageable entities? People need to know what they have contributed and need to have a sense of shared rewards and responsibility. That’s not possible when we are tiny cogs in an incomprehensibly vast and complex system.

Of course, Elgin didn’t invent the ethic of simplicity. Before him, Henry David Thoreau extolled living simply. He wrote:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify."
At about the same time, our Unitarian forebear William Henry Channing wrote:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
A number of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly in the school called the Stoics understood that a good life must curb excessive desire – whether for wealth, or just more “stuff.” Yes, excess of consumer products was an issue even in ancient times. Stoics wore simple clothes, ate plain food, slept on a simple straw mat. They sought in this way to develop equanimity in the face of the vicissitudes of fate. As had the Buddha in India not much earlier, Stoics recognized that attachment causes suffering, so they, too, sought to cultivate the simplicity of a nonattached way of life.

On the other hand, we like complexity. Complex things have a lot going on -- and that makes them interesting. Complexity is powerful and adaptive. We don’t want to de-evolve back to being single-celled organisms. Our complexity gives us adaptability, and creativity. The beautiful words poets require complex minds and souls. Here are a few lines from the Spanish poet Lorca:
“This weeping of blood that adorns
an unplucked lyre, the lusty torch,
this weight of the sea that pounds,
this scorpion that dwells in my breast
are all a garland of love, a sickbed
where I lie awake dreaming you are here
among the ruins of my downcast heart.
And though I try hard to be careful
your heart gives me a vale with hemlock spread
and the passion of bitterly knowing all.”
Those are not words that could come from a simpleton – nor could we be moved by them without a lot very complex stuff going on in our neurons.

And yet a life of simplicity – one that is more intentional, that is easier on the Earth and more joyous for ourselves – can seem very attractive. It will seem particularly attractive during times of stress. And that brings us to:

Simplicity Approach #1: Reduce stress. Life can be hectic, frenetic. Stress levels are high. The American Institute of Stress reports that
“Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.”
Do we have to work so much? Can we slow down, enjoy family and friends and our faith community more? That’s one approach to simplicity: relaxing, taking it easy. Not just on occasional vacations, but as a way of life. Don’t produce so much.

Simplicity Approach #2: Reduce consumption. This approach focuses particularly on the environment -- though accumulations of stuff can also contribute to stress. The more we spend, the more we are encouraging exploitation of labor, depletion of resources, pollution, and greenhouse gases causing climate change. Climate change is already despoiling the beauty of our planet and bringing new hardships to some areas. Much more catastrophic effects are not far away. Can we step lightly, reduce our footprint – live simply that others may simply live?

These first two approaches fit well together: make less money and spend less money. If we cut back our consumption, we can afford to cut back on working. The story is told of the two ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes and Aristippus. Diogenes lived in poverty, while Aristippus, having secured a position at court by flattering the king, lived a life of wealth. One day Aristippus stopped by to visit Diogenes, who was eating his dinner of bread and lentils. Aristippus said, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “If you would learn to live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to be subservient to the king.”

I think we all need to serve something, but maybe the king you’ve been serving doesn’t represent the life you really want. Maybe you’re serving a kingdom that’s wrecking the environment, and maybe the lifestyle you are thus afforded is too. “Live content with small means” as William H. Channing said, and you may feel happier and more free as well as going easier on the Earth.

NEXT: Simplicity Approaches 3, 4, and 5.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also
Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging


Owning and Being Owned

Simplicity, part 1

The Amish Ordnung – their set of rules – prohibits or suing in a court of law or running for political office, though it generally allows voting. Public electricity is prohibited, though most groups generate their own from diesel generators or batteries – or, increasingly, solar panels -- for limited purposes that include home lighting and running the motorized washing machine, which almost all Amish allow.

Automobiles and radio and TV are prohibited, and the Ordnung requires a particular style of clothing, hairstyle, and carriage design. Most Amish allow chainsaws, pneumatic tools, and running water for the bathtub and inside flush toilets – though 30 percent of the Amish population live in church districts that forbid these. Half of the Amish live under an Ordnung that prohibits pickup hay-balers and half live under one that allows them. Each church district, comprising 20-40 families, has authority to modify its own Ordnung as it sees fit. Any church district that grows to more than 40 families splits into two; thus, as the Amish population has grown -- doubling approximately every 20 years since 1901, and exceeding 330,000 in 2018 -- so has the number of Ordnung. Making a change, though, requires unanimity of the membership, so, by design, change is slow.

In 1900, as the telephone was spreading across America, many Amish also installed phones in their homes. Within 10 years – by about 1910 – the Ordnung of most Amish church districts had banned telephones from their homes. Home telephones were determined to be too much convenience, to promote more connection to the outside world than was healthy, and, within the community, to promote gossip. Home telephones, as parents of teenagers have been noticing since long before there were cell phones, reduces shared family time, which the Amish are very intentional about preserving. Also, Amish maintain their Ordnung through the practice of church leaders paying a visit to urge a wayward church member to “put away” their jet ski, or whatever forbidden technology has been noticed. Home telephones would weaken the power of these visits. The Amish noticed that, even if church leaders always came by in person for such a visit, an in-person visit in a context where phoning each other is common takes on a different meaning from an in-person visit in a context where such visits are the only ways, other than church, that neighbors are in touch with each other.

I’m impressed by how carefully Amish communities think through these issues. We Englishers – the Amish term for nonAmish of any ethnicity – will often mention “unintended consequences” of some action or technology. The Amish show us that just because consequences may not have been intended doesn’t mean they were unforeseeable, if we had carefully and collectively slowed down to think through the implications.

For instance, on the telephone issue, the Amish saw that they needed telephones to conduct business. They also saw pro-family aspects of telephones, such as contact with relatives in other settlements. So Amish places of businesses often have a phone – just not in their home. And they might have a cell phone, but keep it in the barn. Or a church district will construct a phone shanty at the end of a lane where there may be several land-line telephones, each shared by several families. Every day or two somebody from the family strolls out to the phone shanty to check messages and return phone calls. What a contrast that is to the way I live! Even my most deliberated purchases are impulsive by Amish standards.

* * *

Our theme of the month for January is simplicity. My relationship with simplicity is complicated. Facebook gives you eleven options for indicating your relationship status: you can be single, in a relationship, engaged, married, separated, divorced, widowed, in a civil union, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, or it’s complicated. “It’s complicated” is a semi-official category of relationship. That's the relationship I have with simplicity.

Once upon a time, simplicity and I were “in a relationship.” I was a fan of Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple Inwardly Rich. Elgin described a way of life that
“embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential — both psychological and spiritual — in community with others.”
From Elgin I learned that one ought to be be careful about what one buys and owns. Everything you own also owns you.

Remember how when you were a kid you wanted a pony? Your parents probably said, “That’s a big responsibility.” But you didn’t care. (If you had someone in your life who you believed had the means to produce a pony, and were caring enough to give you guidance about responsibility, then you also knew you had someone who could bail you out if you turned out not to always be 100% up to the responsibilities.) But as you got older, and started to have and take more responsibility, you developed interests that you weren’t willing to give up to spend hours a day feeding, and grooming, and exercising a horse and cleaning and maintaining its stable. You realized all the things you’d be giving up – that the horse owns you as much as you own the horse. OR, maybe you grew up and DID get a horse, because you loved them so much you were happy to be owned the caretaking demands.

But what’s true for horse ownership also applies to everything we buy and own. Do I own my cell phone or does it own me? Well, both. For most of us, life is a matter of
  • owning and being owned by a cell phone;
  • owning and being owned by a car;
  • owning and being owned by a house;
  • owning and being owned by a set of living room furniture;
  • owning and being owned by all the equipment in your kitchen;
  • owning and being owned by each major and minor appliance in your house.
Do you want a life of being owned by all that? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s a question to investigate and explore – something to be intentional about instead of finding ourselves unwittingly arriving, step by step, at a life you wouldn’t have chosen all at once.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See next part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging