Support for renaming Unitarian Universalism

-This is just an individual view, and only a tentative one-

For the past few years, I have belonged to a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in the DC suburbs of Maryland. My level of participation has been quite low, almost non-existent, for the past year. If anyone were to ask me my religion, I’d probably answer ‘running!’

First off, let me say that Unitarian Universalism in its current form is a great thing: non-dogmatic, a place to build and serve community, and a place to find fellowship and higher purpose regardless of background religion.

So here’s my argument for renaming the movement: the name contains nothing but dogma and archaic religious background.

The word Unitarian means belief in one God rather than the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. On this issue, I say: I don’t know! But perhaps we can at least extend to most Christians a form of Pascal’s wager and give them the benefit of the doubt (which is how UUs treat most religious traditions).

In fact, I’m quite fond of many aspects of the Christian tradition. That’s why the name kind of rankles me.

Univeralism refers to the notion of universal salvation (or, put negatively, the non-existence of damnation). Again, I say, I don’t know! Yet there are certain US public figures today who add merit to the idea of damnation.

Philosopher James Park has written a clear and thoughtful outline of why and how the name might be changed. Perhaps it makes sense that an existentialist philosopher (who happens to also be a UU) wrote this outline. Words are meaningful. When the words are entirely besides the point, or even counterproductive, clearer and more meaningful words should be used.

Why hold on to old heresies? Well, I understand the argument that its important to honor your ancestors. The original Unitarian heresy of not believing in the Trinity is an off-shoot of the larger Protestant revolution. It’s similar to Martin Luther’s heresy against the church in which he was a priest. Universalism is a similar iteration of an evolving faith. Thus the name is a compact history lesson that refers to the UU movement’s original basis.

To a degree, most religions face similar issues when it comes to issues of dogma. But the thing that is good about UU is that it isn’t very dogmatic. It revolves around seven principles with which I think most thoughtful people (including religious people) can agree.

Thus I think that simpler, clearer words make more sense. My suggestion is to call it “liberal religion.” I realize this name has its own historical baggage (in some places liberal means left-winger and in others it means capitalist) and opens itself to cultural mockery, but I am just learning that mockery is a great test of whether something is true. The English philosopher Shaftesbury argued for the positive aspects of ridicule/comedy as a means of discovering what’s true since what is true stands up quite well to mockery. What do contemporary UUs stand for? To me liberal region is closer to the mark.

To me the name “Unitarian Universalist” just doesn’t ring true, but that’s just one man’s perspective. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop going to my UU congregation. I rather think this piece is in the spirit of the place. If anything, the name still means a capacity for creative skepticism and freedom of belief, so I can live with it even if I would change the name were I king.

Pushing ahead in an era of distraction

As 2017 comes to a close, I realize that this blog has seriously fallen by the wayside. Chief among the reasons is undoubtedly distraction. I’ve never discussed politics much on this blog before, and this may be as poor a time to start as any, but I have to say it:America is going downhill fast under Donald Trump. I could go on about all the many flaws of our current Commander in Chief, but it’s not worth it. More gripes would just add to the problem. The modus operandi for celebrities is “any press is good press,” and the Trump presidency is an extreme manifestation of this.

The man just needs to trounced in election after election — first in the 2018 mid-terms, and then in the 2020 presidential election. I seriously hope decency in America can resurface in America to the extent that we one day discuss “the Trump era,” the way that folks in my parents’ generation (the boomers) discuss “the McCarthy era” or “the Watergate era.”

Meanwhile, thoughtful people who believe in civility and the possibility of reasonable policy-making just need to push forward.  Rather than being intimidated or distracted by the latest shiny object dropped into the news-cycle, Americans need to rebuild our crumbling society brick by brick. I may get into what that might entail in future posts — now that this blog has taken up what’s honestly on my mind.

 

Trails: the Washington, DC, area’s secret strength

Washington, DC,  and its environs may be known for prestige and politics, but these are among my least favorite aspects of this region I call home.

What is the best aspect?

The trails.

The trails frame the region’s abundant natural beauty. They flow through the traffic-clogged landscape, offering a secret source of strength and tranquility for anyone to discover.

The mighty Potomac river with its whitewater and rocky cliffs at Great Falls is flanked by one of America’s best dirt trails (the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Trail).

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The C&O Canal Trail (image:Wikimedia)

The C&O Canal Trail offers a superior walking, running, or biking experience. You can also fish in the canal or the Potomac. Parts can be crowded, such as the area around the Great Falls Overlook, but for the most part its a simple rustic wonderland. The views are excellent. You’ll also find 19th century ruins along the path.

This trail alone is consolation enough for the Beltway and Congress.

Want to take in the city’s architectural splendor from afar, check out the Mount Vernon Trail that stretches between the Key Bridge (across the Potomac River from Georgetown) and Alexandria, Va. This is a great way to see the Tidal Basin and the city’s low-profile skyline from the riverside trail.

Another gem is the Rock Creek Trail, which descends to Georgetown through Rock Creek Park from Lake Needwood near where I live in Rockville.

These are just three (admittedly my top three) in a region stacked with gems. Other favorites include the W&OD Trail and the Sligo Creek Trail. A bit north of the city is the epic Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, which is long enough for a trail ultra-marathon. These trails are likely a big reason why the DC often tops lists for America’s fittest city (this year it gave up the #1 spot to the Twin Cities, another place with awesome trails).

But you don’t need to be an endurance athlete to appreciate the DC area’s secret strength.  As Lao Tzu may once have said: a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

Krishnamurti – A surprisingly secular wise man

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J. Krishnamurti as a young man

Total Freedom, the Essential Krishnamurti is an excellent introduction to the profound thought and lucid writings of J. Krishnamurti (1895-1986). It begins with his renouncement of the Theosophical Society’s Order of the Star—an occult group which had groomed him to be their “world teacher”—in a blunt yet eloquent speech to the order’s followers. In this speech, which opens the book,  Krishnamurti, rejects any kind of cult. In words that launched his subsequent six-decade career as a philosopher, he makes a case against any one tradition:

I Maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to it absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people, along any particular path.

Wow. That must have taken some courage. This rebellious stance surprised and impressed me. Looking over the book’s dust jacket with accolades from the Dalai Lama and other spiritual luminaries, I was not expecting anything so ardently secular.  This brings a refreshing (to me) non-dogmatic approach to the many themes he subsequently covers.

In his early writings, which comprise the first 100 pages or so in this collection, Krishnamurti presents creative intelligence as a master key to the good life and an antidote to otherwise endless suffering. This intelligence is honed by facing suffering directly. He writes “Through your own awakening intelligence, through your own suffering you will discover the manner of true fulfillment.”

In subsequent pages, Krishnamurti describes this “manner of true fulfillment” in various ways, most convincingly (to me) as the understanding of suffering’s sources and increasing the capacity for attention, awareness that can guide people to avoiding predictable traps in life. I perceive clear echoes of the Buddha, and also of ancient Greek thinkers such as the Stoics and Aristotle.

I think Krishnamurti’s philosophical essays are quite valuable to readers today. He is a tremendous idea synthesizer who nonetheless rejects the role of fixed ideas. He is a champion of dynamic discovery, and I can see why his writings remain popular. Just as Montaigne remains a vital and creative link between the ancient world and modern times, I think Krishnamurti is a valuable voice that deepens the secular experience.

Swensen’s plain and effective advice for individual investors gets lost in the guru mystique

The New York Times recent feature story about David Swensen, “The money management gospel of Yale’s endowment guru,” paints a picture of one of the hardest-working and most ethical institutional investors on the planet.

The article, however, fails to point out that the type of investing depicted in the article, with a palette of  hedge fund managers selected by a committee of astute market analysts, isn’t what Swensen would recommend for individual investors. For us, Swensen’s advice is far simpler.

Swensen’s book for everyday investors, Unconventional Success—not mentioned in the article, but covered by the Times back in 2005—is a cornerstone for understanding how to assemble a reasonable and low cost investment strategy.

Bogleheads has a good one-page summary of this strategy, which is one of the so-called “lazy” portfolios, since the investor can set it up and then tune-out market news. Once or twice a year, funds can be re-balanced by buying and selling holdings to their strategic allocation.

The allocation, in a nutshell, per Bogleheads, is:

  • US equity:  30%
  • Foreign developed equity: 15%
  • Emerging market equity: 5%
  • US REITS: 20%
  • US Treasury bonds: 15%
  • US TIPS: 15%

I follow this allocation for all of my investments, with one slight tweak. Since the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund contains a proportional amount of the word’s emerging market stocks, I invest 20% in that fund, which makes my investing that much simpler.

You can learn to put together this portfolio without reading the book, but the advantage of reading Swensen is the strategy begins to make sense. Each of the elements is there for a reason, and in concert these elements work together nicely (except perhaps in a market free-fall, where everything is losing value, but the only words that matter in that situation are ‘stay the course’). Since the allocation makes sense, it’s easier to stick to it.

This echoes Warren Buffet’s maxim not to invest in anything you cannot understand. Buffet, perhaps the word’s most successful investment manager, also unironically advises everyday investors to keep it simple by buying index funds.

Unconventional Success is also kind of fun to read if you can get past Swensen’s dry prose style and the formulaic (like class notes) way the chapters are structured. He is absolutely brilliant at skewering rip-off artists in the market, and he does so plainly with a certain vehemence I enjoy. You can see shades of this in the recent Times article when Swensen criticizes how the interplay of a hedge fund and a pharmaceutical company (Valeant) resulted in skyrocketing drug prices.

Although I wish the article contained a bit more education for the general reader, I welcomed its appearance nonetheless. Having read that Swensen’s been battling cancer for a few years, I wish him well. Our nation needs more wise teachers like him.

Sapiens

Sapiens changed my life. This book by Yuval Noah Harari offers the widest possible aperture on human history. It focuses on our species’ favorite subject: ourselves. It also points to the devastation we’ve wrought on other human species (now extinct) and every other species we plunder. I cannot recommend it more highly.

My favorite aspect of the book is how it contextualizes big ideologies that dominate human affairs (Christianity and capitalism, to take two big examples). Rather than take sides about their merits, he points to their function for our species. This macro-scaling, while stepping aside from petty dogmatic questions, allows for his arguments to be simultaneously sweeping and well-founded.

This is a book to be read and re-read.

Bridge of Dreams – A Review of The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris

 

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Screen depicting the Miotsukushi chapter of Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, which is the centerpiece of Ivan Morris’s World of the Shining Prince (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The World of the Shining Prince  synthesizes a vast amount of Japanese history, anthropology, and aesthetics through the prism of the world’s first novel—The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. From its sparkling prose to its lucidly conceived themes, this 1964 book by Ivan Morris must rank as one of the greatest achievements in liberal arts. Reading The Tale of Genji before reading The World of the Shining Prince is probably a good idea, and recommended, but not absolutely necessary. Morris’s book conveys most of the 1,000+ page novel’s plot—which spans 75 years around the turn of the 11th century and contains hundreds of characters—as well as its aesthetic flavor. The triumph of the book is that he adds so much more to the picture.

Morris writes that “The Tale of Genji gives a realistic and fairly complete picture of cultural life in the capital.” What his book adds is the context—historical, anthropological, political, artistic—that makes this picture more three dimensional. Reading The Tale of Genji is like being steeped in tea, soaking up dreamlike episodes linked by poems. Morris’s book is more clear-eyed, yet forms multiple bridges of understanding into the dream world.

The Shining Prince  in Morris’s title is none other than Prince Genji, the aristocratic ladies-man aesthete whose adventures are chronicled in the first two-thirds of The Tale of Genji. The author, Lady Muraski, was a noblewoman in the Heian-era court. Both main character and author are so absorbed in court life that a reader needs a guide like Morris to understand how unique, elite, and remote from other civilizations court life had become.

Genji’s era is known as the Heian, which lasted from 794 to 1185 and marked the rise of Chinese influence in Japan. The country became Buddhist during the preceding Nara period, and the borrowing of Chinese culture continued into the Heian. However, Morris makes an interesting point about the time period depicted by Muraski: that for 100 years the Japanese aristocracy had been purposefully distancing themselves from Chinese influence and retreating into a more insular and uniquely Japanese way of life.

This way of life could be extremely strange. Bureaucrats would often start their working day after nightfall and work into the pre-dawn hours, their dreary activities made more lively by drinking rice wine. Their lives were dominated by aesthetics such the turn of a poetic phrase that conjures meaning through allusion (Japanese are masters at speaking indirectly), the quality of a fabric, the thoughtfulness of an incense blend.

Why is this small cast of courtiers and their strange rituals worth studying? Because, Morris argues, they produced a unique and indelible flourishing of literature written by women (Murasaki and her contemporary Sei Shonagon being the most famous) that have not only stood the test of time but become increasingly renowned across the centuries. Only Shakespeare is trailed by more commentary.

The thing that really makes the book stand out to me—its heart, so to speak—is that Morris’s work builds upon Murasaki’s themes of dreamlike reality and impermanence. He writes toward the end:

Throughout the novel…Murasaki rings the changes on the image of dreams and thereby evokes one of her central themes—the nebulous, unreal quality of the world about us, and the idea that our life is a mere ‘bridge of dreams’ (the title of her final book), over which we cross from one state of existence to the next.

When I read this line, I thought that this theme is also a perfect metaphor for Morris’s own work.