The Next Direct Access

If George Huntston Williams were alive today, he would be trying to turn the Radical Reformation into a single or multiplayer computer game. George drove book publishers crazy by demanding that every character be remembered, every picture be printed, every document be quoted. And pictures of the towns, please, so readers — he always believed there would be readers — could visualize these individuals walking through these streets, assembling in this buildings, fleeing into these forests.

I had the privilege — and agony — of spending two years in search of these pictures. Creaky elevators lowered me into sections of Widener Library where I’d starve to death if those escape tubes ever gave out. Huge carts of books stood outside his door, by special permission with the Librarian, with bookmarks bristling out of them like flycatchers or bottle brushes. And always there came the mail, the dreaded mail, with publishers pleading for George to set priorities, consider the expense of inserting plates, the trouble of all those copyrights.

Even at the academic level occupied by Harvard and its like, famous scholars whispered about George’s brilliant mind. Who else could command so many details, call them up so instantaneously, weave them together so extensively? Perhaps we should just say he was born into the wrong species: his mind, to the admiring, was a computer.

It took no time at all with George to see that he was no computer; this fevered man was a complicated, highly articulate mystic. And therein lies the value of turning his work into a game. His was a Reformation heart, forever  stuck in these Ember Days of Advent, believing, preaching, worshiping, a God who would soon stand before us, dwell within us, work among us. What got George out of bed every morning was a passionate commitment to the truth which drove the Reformations, Radical, Ecclessial, Magisterial (well, maybe not Magisterial): I was born to open an ossified world to a God who is dying to get back into it, to liberate hearts made into wombs from which God is shouting, “Let me out! I want you to see me, hold me, receive all this love I have for you.”

In 2011 the best way to communicate God’s urgency to these long-ago people,is a computer game. What once were bursting hearts are now restless fingers, itchy to click. What once were ravenous readers, seekers, writers are now eyes widening over graphic options, scanning the toolbar for links, dropping the history bar to catch one’s breath. In this age of endless pre-trial hearings, of bails and appeals that last for years, only a computer game can replicate a culture of soldiers snatching prophets into custody without warning or warrant, moving them into quick trials and deaths, usually horrible, within days, weeks, months, seldom years.

The Reformation era sparkled with the passion that animated George ‘s soul: an insistence on God’s right to show each person directly that God has inhabited their own neighborhood, sits at their table daily, will come again, year after year, no matter that each of us dies, no matter that time erases our stories in a parade of offspring who cannot know us, and whom we cannot know.

This is the message of the Ember Days: we will die,our children will come, generation after generation, trampling most of our details into obscurity. But this is the core of our being, an essence which will not change: each new face is a new face of God, each heart a new-made messenger of God’s love.

Nicholson’s Principles of Bohemianism

It’s ten days before Christmas, which means lots of UUs have been complaining about the holiday shopping season for more than a month now. But are we really opposed to consumerism,or do we just value other purchases? It’s a fundamental test to our indignation at all the malls and mall Santas we’ve been dealing with since October.

Here are Virginia Nicholson’s criteria for home decorating, which I would describe as the real definition of “anti-consumerism” among UUs today:

“I do not value what money can buy.

If I choose decorations and colours, it is for their beauty, not because they flatter my social status.

My environment reflects the life I’ve led, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve loved.

I’m not afraid of being thought tasteless, because I make my own taste.”  (Nicholson, Virginia,AMong the Boehmians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939, New York: William Morrow, 2002 , p. 103)

What this list lays bare is that Bohemianism is not anti-consumerism, but a different kind of shopping, which can be seen in her chapter topics.  When Bohemians get money, they buy tools for art or writing. Or they buy art and books. They travel and bring back locally-authentic souvenirs. They commission shoes or hats that keep them comfortable, and which they then wear to the point of disintegration.

There is a point of intersection on this list, which is, “My environment reflects the life I’ve led, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve loved.”  Everyone’s story is authentic to them, especially in what they choose to display at home or wear in public.

What UUs have got to accept is that not everything bought in a mall or box store reflects a capitulation to advertising or peer pressure. Nowadays even at memorial services I see folks dressed in personally expressive outfits, often with a splash of color or even pure white. I love the vivid affirmation of individualism and of eternal joy, both hallmarks of our theologies. And I’ve had to get used to the Christmas Eve fancy dress outfits at the large mainline church near my parents’ home — although I draw the line at the woman who collected the offering in backless black velvet.  Still, these folks are dressed in their best to show that welcoming Jesus is the center of their faith life, and who can object to that? And what about those Easter outfits? I actually bought one a few years ago, and I’ve never really worn it anywhere else. Nor can I bring myself to overuse this sartorial gratitude for the Resurrection, even as I dislike folks who talk about it too much in settings that I don’t consider appropriate.

Consumerism, in my mind, isn’t what we buy or how much we spend.  It certainly isn’t the rational decision to take advantage of Black Friday sales on electronics, even though that reinforces the retail myth that tweaking Black Friday for the new century will cure the ongoing recession. Consumerism is an inner attitude that no one else can judge. No one else can even see it, even by looking at how we shop. It’s not what we buy or where we buy it –but whether we’re following principles once unique to la vie Boheme.


UU Culture Defined

At last we have a book explaining UU culture with clarity and historical value. Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 catalogs all the arts of self-expression and self-discovery (travel, clothing, sex, child-rearing, food, home decor) and explains the philosophy which unified the Bloomsbury set and the Moveable Feast Crowd. As the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister), Nicholson marries personal knowledge (which she only lets slip once) and scholarly heft. After viewing the paintings, reading the books, sojourning in the settings, eating at the tables, she can sum it up as a choice to reject Victorian middle class strictures in favor of more exotic world cultures. This is the first time I realized that the Roma and Russians I now take for granted as part of the Western European mosaic made an arrival at a particular date and we experienced for the first time, not just on the Continent, but in England. As Nicholson explains in her chapter on Bohemian fashion, Victoria’s decades of widow’s weeds had left English fashion ripe for revisioning.

The fun of the book is the way she reconsiders the early 20th century literary and arts crowd through the lens of 21st century scholarship, especially sensitivity to unequal opportunities for women and men. Nicholson doesn’t touch on earlier utopian movements, but rather traces this group’s ideas to a particular 19th century book Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Mugher (also the basis for Puccini’s opera, La Boheme). Nicholson lays out several other literary sources, and, amazingly, gets through the entire enterprise without once mentioning Gertude Stein but not omitting many of the folks who patronized her salons in Paris. Nicholson’s is a thoroughly English point of view.

But so is Unitarianism’s, and therein lie the questions for our religious community.

1) Nicholson is clear that most “Bohemians” had been raised middle class and were rebelling against its strictures. So what happens to a culture of rebellion when that which it rejects has passed away? The middle class is less and less economically stable or culturally dominant. There are starting to be questions about how to define it– always a bad sign for folks who see themselves as rebels. Is it the education? Is it the pattern of family activities? Is it the income level? If we don’t know what it means to be middle class anymore, how can we position ourselves in rebellion to it?

2) Nicholson is clear that although Bohemians made many choices for poverty, there were categories on which they did not scrimp. Neither simplicity nor asceticism appealed to them. Some employed cooks so the women could continue their art, some made special purchases of hats or shoes or such to accent a generally second-hand wardrobe, and many, when they had the money, gathered up friends for a night in a really good restaurant. They traveled to live in cheaper places, esp. France and Italy, but when they came home to England made every effort to keep up what had been cheap local cuisine and now was luxury.

3) Nicholson is clear that Bohemianism was a close cousin to what is known as “genteel poverty,” that is, a cultured lifestyle which struggles to maintain itself amidst economic distress. What kept these folks afloat was economic diversity. It was a tight group which had a few folks with enough money to buy meals, enough art patrons to occasionally fund a purchase and replenish the coffers.  When someone sold a painting or a poem, they were quick to pick up the bill, as had been done for them on other occasions. These were not year-to-year membership rolls, but long-term covenants that outlasted many of today’s marriages. And folks in these covenants had the courage to judge imitators harshly, looking for depth and sincerity before letting in newcomers. (This reminds me of the Mormons, who are extraordinarily generous with members, but set the membership bar high.)

I lift these questions for UUs concerned about knowing ourselves better, in order to maintain that which is good about who we are and to keep doing for this world that which it calls a benefit. Nicholson lays out the philosophy of this group with a clarity that hit me between the eyes. Yes, I said, yes yes yes.

Finally: A Happy Event for the Public Calendar

Just a head’s up that on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed and issued a statement called “The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”  If the Confederate states were still engaged in warfare against the Union on January 1, 1863, the slaves in those states would be immediately and forever freed.

Here in Burlington, Vermont– the first state in the nation to outlaw slavery in its state constitution  — we will be focusing on the Proclamation on September 23, just because January 1 is not often a Sunday for high attendance…

…although if there were ever going to be an exception to that, 1/1/13 would be the day.

Reconsidering the Immaculate Conception

Of all the Red Letter Days on the Roman Catholic calendar, none says less to me than the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What idiot believed we all ought to annually pause and marvel at a story that mixes bad science with complicated theology?

Yesterday I was that idiot. Some folks would say it was just a coincidence, some that it was syncronicity, but I’m a God person. I got called. And just to reassure me that it’s okay to say that, the call came on the telephone. The daytime caregiver for a 93 year old friend needed someone to sit in for a few hours so she could attend a family funeral. 

Since my friend and  used to enjoy Catholic religious programming on Eternal World Television Network, and since other daytime tv is such a wasteland, I decided to try EWTN. And there was the Pope himself (not my favorite religious figure, but still, a good liturgist) celebrating the miracle by which Mary, the mother of Jesus, entered the womb of her mother without the commission of sin. Thus was God born into the world via a perfectly clean vessel.

It’s bad science, but a universal archetype. Similar stories are told of the birth of Buddha, and Athena trumped them both by stepping full-grown from the forehead of her father, Zeus. Humankind dreams constantly that someone, somewhere, has escaped original sin. Original sin, that is, the propensity planted in us, from the first moment of conception, to commit sins (you might bring this up the next time someone starts telling you about the innocence of fetuses).

UUs claim to have risen above such legends, but in fact, our version came from Jean Jacques Rousseau by way of Bronson Alcott. Children are born innocent and will stay that way if allowed to live in a state of nature, uncorrupted by the world, especially urban culture. This is not the same as the original Universalisms, not even Death and Glory, in which we are all sinners and only saved through the death and atonement of Jesus/loving heart of God. The difference is easy to name: Birth and Glory vs Death and Glory.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a good time to remember the high cost of believing that everyone is born with a propensity to do good. It is no accident that the great appeaser in the 20th century, Neville Chamberlain, was a Unitarian, and firmly believed that all souls have self-limiting boundaries. We all have a conscience. Democracies will ultimately choose that government which will do the most good.

Science these days tells us otherwise. People may not be born evil, but not all flaws are equal. My roommate has a genetic defect known as Huntington’s Disease and it isn’t hurting anyone else. But other genetic defects do hurt others. Most damnable — that is, least worthy of being re-described with holy words and stories — is Will to Power. Not everyone will recognize their fair share, just as not everyone knows when they’ve had too much alcohol or not to inject heroin just because the marijuana “just doesn’t do it anymore.”

Insatiable exists. Drives. Hungers. Lusts. Call them what you will, and explain them how you may, they are out there. They come in all political persuasions, all sexual orientations, all races, all genders, all income groups.

Not everything we long for can be found or attained. There is no Immaculate Concepcion. Not for Mary and Jesus, whoever they may have been, not Gautama the Buddha nor Athena nor anyone else. We hope for it because we want someone to spare us the tough work of second-guessing our desire for someone who justifies our idealism and lets us succumb to their powers while delegating ours. The benevolent dictator. The Messiah.

Not coming, folks. Not in this life. Not in this election cycle. This is an equal opportunity disappointment. Not straight, not gay, not transgendered or gender free. Not rich. Not poor. Not bearing gifts and not miraculously recognizing yours.

So yes, I’m a Christian loving Advent and thankful for God’s generous living among us. But not as someone unimaginably pure. Rather, this year, as someone with the courage to acknowledge that amidst our common humanness, some folks are unacceptably dangerous to the others. We must watch for them as fully as for the Lord, and when we see them, restrain them with as much courage and energy as we spend in welcoming their opposites.