Friday, May 02, 2008


One of the famous fairy tale tasks was the sorting of various seeds, grains, lentils and the like. Sometimes it takes magic and sometimes it takes a lot of helpful ants to get all that small stuff into separate piles. The Transcendentalists went through a phase when they thought it was a “undemocratic” to plant the grains and lentils in segregated fields so one spring they threw them all out there on the same plot of ground. The problem, of course, came at harvest time when they matured, topped out, and sized variously -- too variously to be harvested except one by one. And the Unitarians, perhaps too vaguely remembering this experiment, have always had the fantasy that they could gather congregations of very different beliefs and religious styles.

In fact, at Leadership School we spent some time on the whole concept of “gathered” congregations as opposed to “parish” congregations. (Peter Raible always claimed UUism was a “franchise.”) The assumption during early Catholic times in Europe was that everyone “should” be religiously uniform, so a priest was assigned a parish, an area, and was meant to be responsible for the spiritual and moral welfare of everyone there. In Ireland this notion endured a long time, lining up with political dissent. Some ministers still intuitively watch over the whole community, with or without their church leaders.

In other times and places, there were enough dissenters and heretics to form alternative congregations, so that people came from various places but agreed to the terms of the same heresy or dissent, like “protestantism.” On the continent, this fueled the Thirty Years War. It was Elizabeth I who was smart enough to allow “gathered” congregations to exist peacefully with the “parish” assumption (which often got linked up with landed gentry and thereby corrupted).

Of course, when the heresies were exported to America, they often tried to reinstitute both parish and landed gentry -- except based on THEIR interpretations. Finally the solution was “many on the ground of oneness” -- that is, the idea that all were Christians, just different versions. (This wasn’t a very happy interpretation for the Catholics, who were demoted from being THE church to being just another denomination.) Now we’ve got to find the shared “oneness” among whole religious systems from entirely different countries, so we tend to talk about “your idea of God.” It hasn’t yet dawned on a lot of people that some religions have no idea of God at all. Then where do we find our oneness?

Coming at this from an entirely different angle, Bill Bishop, editor of the Daily Yonder, an online news source for rural communities, and author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, suggests that we’re returning to a parish system, voting by moving van, creating enclaves of like-minded people. BUT the people are not clustering by political conviction or religious preference or even class (in the traditional sense of money or education), though that has some influence, especially after they find the place the want to live and try to fit in. Evidently people are looking for other people with the same “lifestyle.” That is, not other Baptists but other jeans-wearers.

What IS lifestyle? Good question, I guess. But it seems to be people who eat the same foods, watch the same movies, live in sort of the same houses, drive about the same cars, and so on: a kind of media-driven choice. An image. This may be partly why so many are willing to go into debt in order to live beside the neighbors they want to be like. It seems a kind of junior high school drive to imitate one’s preferred cohort. But it’s not just trivial: consider Iraq where people are moving to be with the people like them because that seems safer. Consider our walled housing developments where you can’t live unless you’re like the people who already live there. And some people are worrying about what it’s doing to our political process, which is parish-based, but in tension with the “gathered” political parties.

More interesting to me is that I can sit here in a small town that’s really pretty homogeneous, since the founders came from the same area of Europe and haven’t mixed it up much since, and the contiguous population is on a reservation and therefore also has a long long long history -- though it has been splitting and blending ever since white contact. The “gathering” that makes a local misfit like me feel happy is the electronic one: the Internet. Not only can I keep track of like-minded people from my past (including the scattered and heterogenous members of my genetic family) but also I acquire new ones all the time.

Pre-internet this wouldn’t be possible anyplace else unless there was high population density. (We used to say one in 2,000 people was a UU, which is why those gathered congregations were in cities or on campuses.) The added attraction is that we are gathered on the basis of mind, personality, and style -- not lifestyle. Except that we all have computers. I could never “hang out” with some of these people I know because their environment is not for me. I would never live next door to them. I don’t vote the way they do. BUT we share some strong interests and explore them together.

All is not roses. There have been serious blunders, esp. when people who knew me decades ago assume we’ll still have a lot in common. Often they have stayed in their same enclave, unchanging, not understanding how much I HAVE changed, imagining that I’m quite a different person than I am. As I get older and deeper into writing, I have less tolerance because there’s less time.

Strangely, when people are ASSIGNED a group, as in school, they sometimes resent it and try to escape. That’s about assumed or forced sameness. But everyone seems to be crazy about travel, which means leaving one’s own “parish” and deliberately exposing oneself to difference. Or pretending to, since so many people stay in the same motel chain or on a big boat where everyone is the same.

Historically, the places where people were exposed to difference -- harbor towns, trade routes -- the result was flowering, increased sophistication, prosperity. People who sequestered themselves behind walls withered and grew damaged. Some worry whether “lifestyle” enclaves might have the same result. What would be the harvest? Pack animals with no loyalty to the whole? Bob Scriver made a sculpture he called “The Mighty and the Many,” which shows wolves taking down a moose that has broken through the ice. One wolf could never do it alone.

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