New Effective Altruism guide to download

I mentioned the concept of Effective Altruism in the last post. I think it’s a helpful framework for making life decisions about charitable work and giving. Maybe because I’m an American, I tend to see it as useful through the lens of pragmatism, to be held gently and carefully like one would hold a baby bird. Some actions aren’t worth funding, not only for their inefficiency, but because the outcomes are untested or the same outcome would have happened anyway.

But I won’t try to explain it, or even suggest the 2015 book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill (which I just finished) when you can get the same concepts free of charge in a PDF or e-reader formats from the Effective Altruism site.  This is a new, second edition and while I’ve not finished it, it looks like it would take you from initial concepts to intermediate action.

It may be unrelated, but I also find Effective Altruism sites to be well-designed and easy to use, for those who care about that kind of thing. Animal Charity Evaluators, for instance. And note how they report on their past mistakes. That’s worth emulating alone.

Thoughts about the UUA #8, Money

I’ll wrap up this series tighter than I like so I can move on.

I don’t like how the Unitarian Universalist Association spends money, and the common “that’s scarcity thinking” line reads as self-serving. I’ve been reading and thinking about the Effective Altruism movement, which advocates making change though the most effective and tested means. It’s not sentimental, nor should it be, if wasted time, money, patience and effort risks the lives of the world’s most poor. Even wasted on the merely good, when we can support the exceptionally good.

It’s as much an accident of the tax code as anything that lumps churches in with these charities, but since so much of American charitable giving goes into our churches and denominations, their work must be scrutinized. Not so far as saying no money for churches before the end of extreme global poverty, but that equation remains in the background. At least, is the money well spent? Does it set out to fulfill the church’s mission? How do you know? These are questions for each church, too, but the answers would be too variable to make judgments here. (I also avoid meddling in the internal matters of churches.)

The problem with the Unitarian Universalist Association is that so much of its work today is focused on itself. As if the UUA is its own problem — and cure. The old liberal slogans are gone, the ones that pressed us to “the vital issues of the day”; the ones about religious liberty, international peace, even spiritual growth. So much of the external good work would happen without us, if ever so slightly smaller. If you read the board of trustee’s minutes and packets, you end up feeling like the UUA is itself a special and profound seat of sin. Why, then, give it money?

But my beef is the services that are gone. It will be fascinating to see if the five regions can do what the many districts once did, or were supposed to have done. Church planting was relegated to the districts and the pipeline of new churches has dried up. There has been no new church join the UUA in two years despite it being one of the primary purposes (as in Principles and Purposes) of the UUA. (See below.) No extension ministry program. No new hymnal in horizon. No national youth and young adult program.

Lacking competition and having the donors, the UUA has lost its way as a service provider. Unless it finds its way back, it can do without our money. Money and effort that can be applied to find an alternative.

From the UUA Bylaws, Section C-2-2 “The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.”

Thoughts about the UUA #7, tl;dr

If you’re not familiar, the notation tl;dr means “too long; didn’t read”. That doesn’t apply specifically to the UUA — liberals can’t seem to make a brief statement anywhere — but does include it. A long written thought could be deep and generous, but they’re usually crowded and undisciplined. The caveat kills, the editor giveth life.

I wouldn’t expect you to slog through a long work of mine, either. That’s why if items in this series seem short — well, that’s on purpose.


Thoughts about the UUA #6, Honesty

I’m laying in bed scuffed and sore after taking a bad spill on concrete earlier today. It’s nothing I would want to repeat, and I didn’t lose consciousness, break bones or chip teeth. It could have been a lot worse. Repeating the tale to some friends, also Unitarian Universalist Christians, I expressed my gratitude in terms of providence. Clearly (to me) God was watching out.

I’m not as bashful about this kind of expressed piety as I once was. And it reminded me of one unexpected upside to Unitarian Universalism: nobody’s going to reward you for your conventional expressions of theology. You might even get an earful.

For the record, I think of myself as orthodox as anyone in the mainline. I can (and do) recite the Nicene Creed without mental reservation, understanding that it’s not an evasion to have a complex approach to some issues. Indeed, I may be notably conservative for some liberal Christians. So be it. (Universalism is not a heresy but that — and why some Universalists would want to make hay claiming it is — is a discussion for another time.)

The fact is I got here theologically entirely in my time as a Unitarian Universalist. This process took years, and a lot of soul searching. Previously, I was a low christology Unitarian Christian and before that (as a teenager) would have caucused with the Humanists. I’m not a hold-over or an entryist, but very much a part of the Unitarian Universalist narrative.

My theological orthodoxy doesn’t provide me any benefit among Unitarian Universalists, which also means I’m not penalized for believing the wrong thing. There’s no reward for lying about believing something I don’t believe in. It’s a lot easier to be honest as a Unitarian Universalist, and that’s something I highly treasure, even if it means I’m in a small minority.

Which is why I find the idea of a political orthodoxy so repellent. Not meaning political parties per se, but having to adhere to a particular theory and vision of human relations, including the present form of anti-oppression work. The imputed value and rightness of the work does not justify the intrusion, the mental evasion needed to survive, and above all the dishonesty such an orthodoxy necessarily demands.

Thoughts about the UUA #5, Not today

I could write about the problems of the UUA. But the weather is nice today, and the winter was long.

There’s no point going out of my way to think about if it missing out on the fleetingly pleasant parts of life.

Though I would hope it would be its own source of joy.

Thoughts about the UUA, #4: The lost church and its covenant

Today, the idea of covenant is current and constant among Unitarian Universalists leaders, but they’re always codes of conduct, lacking the divine referent Puritan covenants had — and so not really a part of the tradition that’s being appealed to.  They’re also lacking in grace. Covenants, perhaps, but in the sense of making sure Jews don’t move into your postwar housing development.  (Update. A reader emailed me and thought others may not be familiar with the secular use of the term, in this case a restrictive covenant.) Their appeal surely lies in providing substance after the old Unitarian and Universalist categories were burned to the ground, and for ending argument and reinforcing its appeal to the like-minded. The second I see one of these later-day covenants, I look for the door. (I know there are good people trying to return to a rich theology of the covenant and I wish them well.)

The solemn covenant binds the gathered church apart from the world, though within it. Its role is mainly spiritual, and in our tradition the church in this sense is conventionally tied to the parish or society. (We use the term congregation too, if somewhat improperly, as an alternative to the word church, which itself has at least three meanings: the institution, the spiritual bond and the building. Anyone who claims to be a member of a meeting house had better be a piece of clapboard.) In fact, the parish or society is dominant in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and has been for generations.  (Do will still teach about the Dedham Decision?) It’s that public service — both in the sense of Sunday worship and the social manifestation of morality — that distinguishes us. The parish or society is practical and social, too. It won’t survey the inner workings of your soul — which we interpret as freedom — but it does care the bills are paid. Which is why we have quaint customs like trying to make the collection sacred. And why we invest so much in changing things, especially in society. And why it’s hard to look at our history and find a rich traditon of common spiritual practices. Those would belong to the gathered church, which even a century ago may or may not have existed in a particular locale. (This vexed Universalist leaders at the turn of the last century.)  Indeed, those member congregations (to use a neutral term) of the UUA that are or were until recently Christian had the marks of that inner church: an annual or oftener communion service, and that most typical of church officers, deacons.

It’s been my experience that it’s OK for a Unitarian Universalist to have a deep spiritual practice, so long as you were cool about it and didn’t come off as a big weirdo. That’s parish thinking, and that’s fine by me, as long as I can find a place to “go deep” and be that big weirdo.  That’s the church, in the more narrow sense.

With rentable space and social service nonprofits taking up much of what the parish had to pick up generations ago, I’m prone to go in the other direction: have the church without the parish. Which, in parallel form and different language, is what I suspect a number of neo-Pagan groups are doing. (Let me put a pin in that for reflection, and I’d welcome feedback from members of such groups.)

Thoughts about the UUA, #3: The underlying problem

The underlying problem with the UUA was probably found in its cradle. It is certainly present in its mature middle-age. Who are we, at last? What makes us distinct, so as to identify boundaries, however generous? That’s never been clear. While that should be a hallmark of tolerance and acceptance, it’s been my experience that it breeds suspicion and resentment. Why are those Christians still here?  It also creates confusion as to our mission. That’s a description, not a judgment.

It doesn’t matter if the Unitarian Univeralism is (or tried to be) “America’s third religion” or “America’s real religion” or “the religion of the future” (early slogans) or “the religion that puts it’s faith in you” (more recent) or any number of identifiers used by leading preachers or a Boston publicity office in the last six decades. Each of these ways of identifying our religious fellowship have been majority identifiers, without mandate or power to rule out those who happen to be in the minority at the moment. Which has helped me; I’ve never been in the Unitarian Universalist theological majority. Even now, Ken Patton’s multireligious experiments just make me roll my eyes. But that doesn’t mean I’m less a part of the community, at least not formally.

By definition, most of my readers will be satisfied with how Unitarian Universalism is today. Or if you don’t like who’s ascendant, just wait a while: you may live long enough to see the majority opinion wither away. The Christians gave up hope for a majority decades, and the once-jubilant Humanists are feeling the pinch now.

So in practice, it means that we have maintained a breadth of expression that is hard to distinguish from society at large, or in recent years the Left side of it? And that means being doomed to follow culture rather than leading it. Perversely, were there two, three or four smaller related liberal denominations, each could be a bit more distinct and have its own genius or charism. At least it could have its own voice.

But that’s not what we have, and that’s the problem we have to manage.


Thoughts about the UUA, #2: Hymn

I’ve had a hymn stuck in my head for days: “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” It’s got a catchy tune (if sung to Solid Rock, which I do) and refrain, which is handy since I’m recalling it from memory.

Sometimes a good hymn helps.

The text is a reference to the parable of the man who built his house on a rock, in Matthew 7. Hosea Ballou commented on verses 24 and 25 in his Notes on the Parables: “By house I understand the hope or confidence in which the mind rests. By rock, I understand Christ; which application is too evident to need proof. And what can compare with that wisdom which teaches us to put our trust in Christ, and build all our hopes of salvation on that rock of ages, that chief corner stone which foolish builders refuse?”

A foundation of rock sounds pretty good to me, and hardly too much to ask for.

Thoughts about the UUA, #1: The end

This has been a hell of a year. I keep up with some ministers; the tension is strong. Will the UUA last, and will it matter if it doesn’t?  Will we give up on our claims of liberal religion? Is our only appetite for political reaction? There’s a lot of fear, too. A fear of being ganged-up-on and denounced by amateur revolutionaries if your politics aren’t right.

Rather than making one big post, I’ll get my thoughts out in managable pieces. I ask your indulgence if the flow is a bit uneven.

The UUA Board of Trustees is having a meeting now, and so was looking at the packet. Within it is “draft|proposal” charge to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. (PDF)

One line stands out, following a rehearsal of the anti-oppression language we all have heard so much of for years. “The MFC shall ask relevant constituencies for recommendations and direction on how the MFC should be restructured, rebuilt, or disbanded.”

Disbanded?  When did that become an option?

Looking at that, in the context of all the other worrying signs, another minister asked me “do you have plans to leave?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

“I do.”

Working up a communion set

A couple of blog posts ago I described communion cups used centuries ago and British Unitarian churches. Some were decidedly not of a typical chalice shape. I think the tumbler (beaker) shape deserves consideration.

Flexibility has benefits. A Christian minister might have to bring his or her own communion wear. But the affordable pieces are often shabby and a good stuff is extraordinary really expensive. The unreasonable choices a minister might make have led me to an unexpected suggestion.

  1. Communion ware should be affordable (though not necessarily cheap) and easy to maintain.
  2. Congruent in form with established practice.

I think I have something: a Japanese titanium tumbler. This one is from Horie.

You’ll excuse that it’s marketed for beer. It’s attractive, easy to keep clean, doesn’t have a metallic smell and is not commonly seen in the United States, so easy to distinguish for sacred service. It weighs next to nothing and is terribly strong; you don’t get both (or sometimes either) with pewter, which was formerly my favorite material for communion ware. It’s not tiny — a problem with “chapel sized” communion chalices — and you could even go a size down.

Downsides: they’re hard to get, and there’s no plate or basin to go with it. A rectangular wooden tray, perhaps of laminated wood, might do the trick.

I considered this question with individual cups several years ago.