Thursday, April 09, 2009


My minister in Portland -- the old-fashioned male one who was not afraid to thunder from the pulpit -- used to ruefully note that there was a man in the congregation who said he didn’t know what position to take on an issue until he heard what the minister said -- then he knew he was convinced of the opposite. There are movie reviewers like that, too, valuable because they are so dependably opposite. When kids take that attitude they are said to have “oppositional defiance disorder.” But the Unitarian Universalist denomination formed in oppositional defiance to Calvinism. The Unitarians thought the Trinity was a nonsensical doctrine and the Universalists thought predestination to hell made no sense. In those days denominations formed based on doctrine. The two separate movements found common cause and merged in 1961 for more practical reasons -- like money.

Anyway, it is perfectly obvious that most denominations and religions (“denomination” is a word invented to describe subsets within the Christian context) are mostly social affinity groups based more on class, education, ethnicity, and similar forces. But the UUA advertises itself as a denomination that can absorb people of many different kinds and styles, that protects doctrinal heresy.

The very fact that the boundaries are weak and porous makes the institutional maintenance of the denomination pretty problematic. That is, the practical matters of hiring, creating materials, supplying managerial needs, encouraging growth, and all the other business of any corporation are based on defining the edge. Usually it comes down to money and membership numbers: if a congregation has enough people willing to sign up and pay dues, and if they forward their obligation to the “association,” then they’re in. It’s a very loose, rather fragile, and hard to explain sort of thing, usually dodged by going back to the doctrinal statement, which in the UUA is so inclusive as to be meaningless or at least interpretable.

This make Robin Edgar very angry indeed. He has mounted an attack through blogging:

“The Emerson Avenger is a "memory hole" free blog where censorship is scorned. This blog will "guard the right to know" about any injustices and abuses that corrupt Unitarian Universalism. Posters may speak and argue freely, according to conscience, about any injustices and abuses, or indeed hypocrisy, that they may know about so that the Avenger, in the form of justice and redress, may come surely and swiftly. . . "Slowly, slowly the Avenger comes, but comes surely." - Ralph Waldo Emerson”

Robin’s quote is from THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW lecture read in the tabernacle, New York City, March 7, 1854. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 11 (Miscellanies) [1909]

Robin Edgar says: “In 1992 I underwent a profound revelatory experience of God which revealed that the total solar eclipse "Eye of God" is a "Sign in the Heavens" that symbolizes God's divine omniscience. This revelatory religious experience inspired me to propose an inter-religious celebration of Creation that would take place whenever a total solar eclipse took place over our planet.” [Robin was labeled a cult leader.] I am now an excommunicated Unitarian whose "alternative spiritual practice" includes publicly exposing and denouncing Unitarian*Universalist injustices, abuses, and hypocrisy.”

So Robin wants “in” to the denomination and the denomination wants Robin “out.” Or at least his opinions and denunciations. They call him a madman, he calls them corrupt. I am familiar with this dynamic, having stepped out of the UU ministry, a context which provided me with lots of stories of injustice, abuse and hypocrisy -- to say nothing of prosecutable offenses. They are present in any defined institution one is able to identify. The schools, the government, the military, the village -- all being assembled of human beings, all include faulty and wicked people. The institution, of course, tries to define critics as the problem and to throw them out. (Kill the messenger.)

Robin has the idea that the UUA is based on monotheism and once upon a time it was. Since the 19th century, it has become a haven for atheists and with atheism has come a streak of defiance of all laws that used to be enforced by the Great Papa God. “You can’t tell me what to do” linked with “you don’t exist anyway!” It’s a way of defining oneself against limits that no longer exist. What is passionately effective against an old-fashioned Russian Orthodox priest with beard and mitre, one of those powerful men who make and break history, is completely ineffective against a nice, well-educated, sympathetic, young, suburban, female UU minister. (This seems to be the new pattern.) Not that some UU ministers, male and female, don’t persist in thinking they are old-fashioned Russian Orthodox priests, which goes to one of the sources of corruption.

What is to be done? Why do anything? What would be the goal? So long as Robin doesn’t enter the public assemblies of UU people and disrupt their proceedings, what’s wrong with him blogging and emailing as much as he wants? Isn’t that exactly what Emerson was doing when he delivered lectures against the Fugitive Slave Law ?

When I was doing my hospital chaplaincy on the neurology ward, I ran athwart a brain surgery formerly a Jesuit monk. He wanted me prevented from talking to a man who had a brain tumor. The man said that a “ball of light” came to him in the night and told him he would be healed. The brain surgeon was afraid I would tell him he was a nut case and that his epiphany was just brain damage. He assumed I would take a scientifically-based and rather brutal approach because I was a UU.

I was never clear about whether this surgeon didn’t want me to upset his patient or really was quietly leaving room for the possibility that the “ball of light” was real and the epiphany was valid, if possibly misinterpreted, though he had to know from his own explorations that the reality was brutally fatal. We didn’t talk.

But I did, in defiant opposition, sneak in to talk to the patient. He told me, his face glowing, about his vision. I told him he was fortunate indeed to have such a precious and merciful gift.

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