“Opium of the people” or just the buzz we need?

Solitary Fairy Flower Blue“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point of honor, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843)


My post title phrase “opium of the people” is one of  Marx’s  most misleadingly misunderstood metaphors. Often used as an example of  a “false consciousness” that keeps people from understanding their own interests.  This far to mechanical and determinist understanding yields easily, with the addition of  a few sentences, to a vastly more subtle sympathetic rendering of our social world, the struggles, and the desires that constitute it.

Bolded phrases are not simply word play but powerful examples of the dialectical thinking that characterizes so much of the broad canon, the continent of knowledge, opened by Marx’s inquiries in the middle 19th century.

“Faith, Actually”

Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
President’s Column, December 2015
Bob Reutenauer

  Like many in our congregation I get most from those Sunday services that provoke me to examine my own thinking and assumptions about our complicated world and our place in it.  For some time I have wondered what it really means to understand the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden as a “faith community.”  Mostly I just considered it a semantic handle— just a vocabulary— “worship” is another — that go along with the territory.

The saving grace of an Almighty God and the literal truth of the Bible are elemental examples of faith, right?  A swift and easy rejection of these religious “truths” is held in common by most if not all in our congregation. Maybe we are really a community of doubt? So, what are we talking about when we say we are a community of faith?

Think about our  UU Principles.  Are they so obviously true, so beyond doubt, so self evident, and certain that faith need not be a factor in our adherence to them?

Do you really believe in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”? Every person? Make a list. A rogues gallery is pretty easy to assemble. Or as Dylan sings “dignity is the first to leave.”

Does the “use of the democratic process” reliably yield the virtuous result? How unsettling have the choices in some elections made you?  Do unchecked majorities become tyrannical?

The interdependent web of all existence is manifestly certain to us as we enjoy sensuous nature and study ecology or when we experience the pain of our bodies fight with disease and study the cell. Reduce our experiences and studies to the quantum level of reality and the language of certainty becomes positively poetic as we endeavor to understand “indeterminacy” of matter.  We label particles not only with “angle” and “spin” but from observed displays of “sympathy” we suggest they may have “moods.” All is connected? Yes, I believe, Schrodinger’s cat, and all that— somehow.

Dignity, democracy, interdependence— why do we try to live by these principles?  Because they are true?  Or because we have faith that they are true?  How many of our deepest convictions are held so tightly because the evidence for them runs even deeper— is unseen? The   philosopher Richard Rorty defined a faith moment as the point when “non-circular argumentative recourse” is no longer available as justification.  “I believe Christ is my savior because I believe Christ is my savior” or “I believe in equality for all because I believe in equality all” won’t win debate points but believers will hold firm.

UMass Professor of Literature Nicholas Bromell writing recently in the humanities journal Raritan on “faith based politics” challenged secular progressives/religious liberals not to confuse the  separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics. The narrow faith and exclusive politics of fundamentalist conservatives have come to dominate “where liberals fear to tread,” he observed.

This was not always so. Bromell’s essay explores how African American leaders like Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Pauli Murray, and Malcolm X held and promoted their faiths on terms not even close to certainty. Their faith, born out of suffering— unjust suffering— was “shot through with doubt”  as they endeavored to both find meaning in and an end to enslavement and racism.

With religious faith as an anchor in struggle these heroic figures came to understand and to change the world. Bromell offers that we may not be as far from this kind of faith experience as we presume.  Is our casual approach to faith “rooted in the illusion … that we are more or less in control of our daily lives.”? He thinks so. Then asks hard questions: What is wrong with our public schools? What do banks actually do and why don’t we trust them to do it?  Where will our children find employment? Will there be war? We don’t know do we? His fine essay concludes by wondering if this “fantasy of control is the veil that rises between us and the realization that what we actually have is faith?”

“Mind the Gap”: Uncertainty and Questioning as a Form of Religious Travel

Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
May 2016
I left religion, and any concern about religion, in the course of being socialized as a teenaged Catholic, confirmed sacramentally, and now practically free to do so at age 14. Many of us in the congregation have a story of how our lives of religious practice and non-practice, finds us here, in a church again, with varying degrees of certainty, claiming a religious faith. I continue to ask myself how and why?

     I recently did some reading of and about the “Frankfurt School” of intellectuals and artists who emerged in Europe between the World Wars and in America during the Cold War aftermath.  Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin,  Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm were early pioneers. Hannah Arendt earned her place among these men later and Jurgen Habermas still walks among us.

     They struggled to make sense of most destructive and deadly war ever experienced on Hegel’s “slaughter bench of history.” Frankfurt scholars probed into the depths, the kernel, of the question:  how did our embrace of unqualified modern world positives— science and rationality, mass industry and mass democracy, produce such irrational and inhuman conditions of life for so many people?  Answers from them, and by us, remain elusive but a style of questioning is evident. “Critical theory” is a broad term that has come to be associated with inquiries of this sort.  How can we usefully pay attention to the difference between what a society claims to be and how the society actually is?  In this antagonism—this gap—between who we say we are and how we are lies pain and suffering. In the gap, the contradiction, also exists the possibility and potential for change.

     Kant and Hegel as much as Marx and Freud helped guide this new brand of critical  social theory. Greek poets and philosophers, Jewish mysticism, the creation myths of surviving “primitives”, and the dream notes scribbled down by analysts in Vienna also shaped their often obtuse, always difficult conclusions.  And so did, for these mostly Jewish writers, the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John! 

     The “critical theory” of religion is interested in how the various world religions seek, above all and in differing ways, happiness and redemption. Our human potential to bring about justice, equality, truth, and peace— our secular values as citizens are the heirs of Judaism’s ethic of justice and Christianity’s ethic of love.  Habermas puts it plainly: “Can religious myths, language, concepts, and symbols be translated through the social process and contribute as a partner for a reconciled and rational future society?”

     There is urgency—there is a gap. Are business and finance elites, whose control of natural resources and of governments increases inequality and spoils our planet, the best representatives of the secular, the “not religious”? Is the reactionary and retaliatory religious fundamentalism, increasingly attractive as a safe space for the growing millions of marginalized and dispossessed, the best representative of what is “religious?”  Alternatives are difficult to envision- what fills this gap?  Practice loving community, advance justice, nurture spiritual growth, our new congregational mission statement offers a starting line.

“Clarity of mission and identity”

March 2016
“The best explanation for congregational health is clarity of mission and identity,” writes the Rev. Ken Beldon.  All of a congregation’s activities are expressions and reflections of the mission.  The goals and objectives, timing and budgeting, indeed the congregation’s governance model itself should be chosen so as to fulfill the mission.  Congregational consultant Dan Hotchkiss urges that fidelity to churches mission is necessary “to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called.”

It is with this kind of conventional wisdom in mind that the Trustees and the Governance Task Force have led the process of creating a new mission statement over the past year. Thanks to all of you who attended the discussion meetings and lent your opinions on some of the proposals we have put out.

Another bit of conventional wisdom is that that a churches leaders and it’s ministries must be accountable to “the mission” not to the “mission statement.”  This is, in part, a recognition that a mission statement needs to be reviewed and updated to be kept meaningful in a changing world.

First order of business was to look at our current mission statement. Here it is:

Mission Statement of UUCM

  • Inspire a thirst for justice and partner with others who share our commitment to loving community
  • Challenge our assumptions about the world and ourselves
  • Be a place of renewal and exploration
  • Minister with hope and inspiration
  • Create a sanctuary for freedom of thought and expression
  • Support personal growth and develop leaders through education and example

Familiar to you? Probably not. It is quite well written and expressive of much that we hold dear to in our hearts, minds, and for many our souls.  At over fifty words, it is certainly not memorable! A more concise statement, possibly even short and clear enough to be easily called to mind was a goal.  Read it again. Is this statement reflective of our identity as a spiritual community?  I don’t think it is and many agree.

At our February Board of Trustees meeting we finalized a simple eight word, possibly memorable, maybe even inspirational statement for the congregation to consider adopting.

Proposed Mission Statement

Practicing Loving Community, Advancing Justice, Nurturing Spiritual Growth

What do you think?  Stay tuned for information on the process of discussion and decision on this critical, exciting, initiative.