Saturday, January 31, 2015


Rev. Alan Deale in the Curtis Room at Meadville after receiving his honorary doctorate, 
and myself -- disorganizer of the reception.

The Curtis Room -- I wonder what they'll call it now.

“Elderberries” is the newsletter of the retired Unitarian Universalist ministers.  I just got the latest issue.  These are the people who came into the movement right after WWII when the world was rebuilding with optimism, determination, and a certain amount of triumphalism after winning an impossible and unquestionably Evil war.  The newsletter honors partners as well as the ordained, knowing that the minister’s wife was in those days a full partner in the parish job, not separately employed.  The newsletter includes same-sex partners, some of whom have been quietly backing each other up for fifty years.

The “news” is always upbeat, though everyone is aging and some are ailing.  They were not socialized to be complainers.  A few have been a little iffy in the sexual context, meaning mostly changing partners in midstream.  Some of my favorite ministers have married four and five times. I know of few who were criminal -- some pot smokers among the younger ones but they’re not quite retired yet.  Only one pedophile that I know of and he was quickly pitched out.  

Delacroix:  "La Morte de Sardanapale"
(from the website of Neubauer Collegium)

The UU ministry has one dedicated critic who calls himself the “Emerson Avenger” and is intent on attacking sexual sins, though his real outrage is over a scornful minister who refused to accept the Avenger’s account of a mystical experience.  I just read an interesting excerpt from  “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War”  by James Bradley.  Bradley says that “Boston's John Murray Forbes's opium profits financed the career of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.”   I wonder what the Avenger thinks of that.  It was a copper baron who mostly paid for the Helena, MT, Unitarian church.  This intertwining of wicked profit with purported good happens all the time.

Though Elderberries has no category for the defrocked, I myself am a little iffy since I left the ministry after only a decade, but I was “honorably discharged.”  Anyway, I didn’t really matter that much.  The high prairie is mystical and scientific at once.  The Avenger would feel more at home here than back East, but maybe Emerson would not.  The secret truth is that I wanted the education offered by the U of Chicago Div School and I could only be admitted and pay the tuition through the UU door.  I felt that my circuit-riding exploit plus a few other years evened me up with the scholarship awarders.

In 1988 I walked off from the Saskatoon congregation.  Leaving was one of the best things I ever did for that congregation.  In fact, it seemed to be the only thing that really registered with them in spite of all the workshops, conferences, committees of advice to the minister, and so on.  At the time someone said to me (honestly), “Well, you’ve finally united us.  We’re ALL mad at you!”  They’ve done pretty well since then.  Newer and nicer ministers and same for the buildings.  I put in a reparative year in Browning as a Methodist, which is a switch on the joke about Unitarianism being a doorway between Methodism and the golf course.

East Glacier, Montana, golf course, built in 1927.

I like golf courses so long as there’s no need for a ball and a club.  I used to walk the course in East Glacier daily in the off-season, until a moose decided it was HER place to walk.  Never argue with a moose -- they are avengers.

The Elderberries, though undoubtedly sometimes wanting to make a run for it, never turned sour or embittered.  They’re quite middle-class, traveling around the country, boasting about the grandbabies, guarding their health.  One of the problems of being a retired minister is that most of them must move to another community in order to give the new minister a chance to occupy the pulpit without people sneaking around behind to contact the old minister they already know.  Parishioners can never properly sort out the lines between friends and ministers.  Nor is it easy for the minister to distinguish between what is personal and what is professional.  It’s human.

Also arriving today via email is a little publicity pitch about a beginning seminary student at Starr King, all stars and butterflies aside from being movie-star pretty.  She does not know about Mother Theresa’s Pit of Despond nor does she know that the jobs for UU ministers are shrinking and the ones that pay a living wage will go to charismatic men with families, just like always.  She doesn’t seem to know about the pitched battle at SK that’s not quite ended: a committee determined to be racially inclusive smashed headlong into individuals equally determined to have their choice anointed.  It was actually conflict between a socially admired marker of religion (racial inclusion) and the act of a social rebel convinced of righteousness as an individual.  Such irresolvable conflict doesn’t prompt people to write checks.  It creates avengers.
The main staircase at Meadville

“My” seminary, Meadville/Lombard sold out.  I mean literally sold the building and moved out.  Maybe it was a necessary transformation and maybe not, but it surely revealed to me that my attachment was not to the institution but to the building, which luckily was acquired by my “other” larger and more prestigious co-seminary, the U of Chicago Div School, which doesn’t have to be explained.  One could argue that my most real institutional attachment was to Seminary Co-op Bookstore.  In some ways, all this has made me very cross, but at least it was possible to take books with me and even order them by mail.  I did NOT like living in Chicago, not even Hyde Park, which they tell me is transformed beyond recognition now anyway.

It was in a basement among the pipes when I joined.

Growling to myself, I finally googled and found this good news:  “The future home of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society will be in the historic building at 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue near the Regenstein Library and the Quadrangles. Completed in 1933, the approximately 16,000-square-foot, Gothic-style building was purchased by the University of Chicago in 2011. The 5701 South Woodlawn building will undergo renovations to accommodate the Collegium’s collaborative research activities and visiting fellows.”

Here’s the philosophical study I like the sound of best so far.  I like tropes.

Cato -- I guess this is he.
(From the Neubauer Collegium website)

“Self-sacrifice, suicide, conversion, the exile, the founder, the internal enemy – these tropes and their ilk structure the social and political imaginary across the tradition. They change over time, but come back in surprisingly resilient forms. One of the great challenges in scholarship and pedagogy alike is to negotiate strategies for linking thought at the minute level of philology with the maximalist level of thinking about politics, culture, and the social bond across the history of ideas.” 

It strikes me that the projects at Neurbauer are a lot more interesting and relevant than the seminary curriculum was, and some of them are more appropriate for ministry, esp if you’re out of the mainstream, which I usually am.  The website was so reassuring that I sent an email to Jonathan Lear, the director, who answered within hours -- on a Friday night, mind you! -- and it turns out that he knows the Crow rez very well.  His book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation,” is about the Crow.  (Adrian Jawort had better read this book!)  Sometimes the world curls around and meets you.  I ordered the book.

Jonathan Lear
Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society

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