Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On “Not My Father’s Religion”

Doug Muder has expanded his sermon on classism within the UUA that first appeared in his blog some months back, (I commented on it here ), into an essay that now appears in the latest UU World . It is an excellent read, and has expanded my thoughts on the subject as well, but I think he is still missing the mark. Let me try to put it together by pieces, as he did.

Piece one: Doug uses the analogy of a maze, with the working class having more barriers and twists and turns to negotiate to reach the prize- but he never actually says what the prize is. It can’t be wealth, because he speaks of the professionals who seek wealth in negative terms- “There’s also a dark way out, for those professionals who are driven by fear and greed rather than pulled by love. They sell their time and energy for a lot more money than factory workers—and a lot more than many idealistic professionals—but they can get just as alienated.” No the prize is happiness- “following your bliss”.

Piece two: Doug says that the professional class does what they want to do, and the working class does what they have to do. He is wrong. As Jamie points out , the working class is driven by job satisfaction just as much as the professional class; they (we) too take “war stories” home, reminisce, look forward to the next day- doctors and lawyers have no exclusive claim to enjoying what they do. Nor do they have immunity from unhappiness. My father was a professional, lived and breathed his job, wrote articles for trade journals about it, and kept dabbling after retirement... and was bitterly unhappy for most of the time I knew him; many of my earliest memories are of my parents fighting- the kind that damages body, property, and psyche.

Piece three: Doug says, “We sometimes describe conservative churches as otherworldly because they talk about supernatural realms. Their harsh theology, we worry, can justify harshness in this world. But the connection between harsh theology and a harsh world goes both ways. If you live in a harsh world, a church with a harsh theology is talking about your life. The church with the easy theology is the otherworldly one.” He is absolutely right except for one thing: we all live in a harsh world. The working class, living somewhat closer to the edge, knows this without forcing fate to prove it to them; the professional classes, with more creature comforts at their disposal, can often fool themselves about the nature of this world for a long time- but as they say, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” History shows that education and money alone cannot protect you from addiction, despair, domestic abuse, or any other human failing. Which leads us to...

Piece four: “In the working class, the road to success is self-control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.” He makes the same mistake here that I pointed out above; this is true for everyone. Don’t ask me, ask Michael Vick, or Lindsay Lohan, or Brittney Spears, or...

When I put these pieces together, I get this picture: The “working class” seeker knows that what he needs comes to individuals, not “classes”. Spiritual happiness- whether you mean capitol “S” spirit, salvation of the soul, or lower case, contentment in your life- comes only retail, not wholesale; anyone saying different is selling snake oil. Doug seeks “To understand why people might choose not to be with us even though we’re trying to be for them,...” Easy enough- because we talk like politicians, not theologians. Because instead of talking to people, we say things like “But we also have a problem with the working class, particularly the ones suffering from what Marx called alienation.” The working class seeker doesn’t need a church to ask “Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”- he has politicians to ask- and answer- those questions. Why would he want to join a church so that part of his pledge can be sent to Boston to hire someone to fax his congressman when he can do it himself?

Doug asks, “Can we speak in words that make sense everywhere, from the high place to the darkest, trickiest passages of the maze? Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self-control?” No, I don’t believe we can. To teach the life lessons that those we want to reach need, and are asking for, would involve things like making judgments, talking about right and wrong, and addressing spirituality. I’ll quote Doug one more time: “That almost sounds like a theology. But not a UU theology.”

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