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Thanksgiving Thoughts

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People have given thanks for the harvest since long before any major religions were formulated.  This giving of thanks always has something of a religious quality.  The relation of religion to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has long been tangential at best, however.  Those paper pilgrim hats and feather headdresses from grade school weren’t about religion; they were about making us citizens with a common heritage, a shared history, incomplete though it was.

94933_CoverFrontThe role of religion in the Thanksgiving holiday made it a subject that liberal preacher John Emerson Roberts spoke on almost every year; the hypocrisy of talking about religious services and preferring feasting and games was an obvious target.  Here, from the biography, is a summary of his thoughts on the subject in 1895:

At this time, the day still had to be set by the annual proclamation from the president (The proclamations are still made, even though Congress fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in the mid-twentieth century.) These proclamations have religious overtones that go back to the Puritans. Grover Cleveland’s 1895 proclamation called for giving thanks “in our accustomed places of worship,” and for prayer that God would continue to show mercy to and guide the nation. Roberts applauds the people of the country for being ahead of the platitudes of the proclamation: they use the day for feasting, fun, and football games. He notes that even the newspapers, supposedly holding up the pious conventions, give far more space to reporting sports than to church services. The people know what they need and they act accordingly.

When the Kansas City Star published an editorial objecting to what Roberts had said. he used the papers themselves as evidence to support his argument. In the four daily papers published in Kansas City on the day after thanksgiving, he counted 568 lines covering religious events for the day and 6,480 on football alone. “These figures prove nothing,” Roberts admitted, but they showed what the editors judged to be “what the public was interested in on Thanksgiving day.”

What would Dr. Roberts say today about Black Friday and the way it has recently leaked into Thanksgiving Day?  Would he assert that “the people know what they need and they act accordingly?”  Or would he perceive a pressure of corporate capitalism throwing society out of balance, as I do?  My perspective is affected by the fact that I have what I need, and when I make a big purchase it is usually because something has broken and I want to replace it.  When something does break, I’m not likely to wait for sales or the crowds that go with them. I give thanks that I can avoid Black Friday.

An additional note on Thanksgiving:

I recently heard an ad for some worthy cause in which the speaker said, “People remember the thanks but they don’t always remember the giving.”  Another blow to language: giving thanks is not a two-part action.

Comments Roberts made on other Thanksgivings, and his comments on many other subjects are reported in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.

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John Emerson Roberts: His Significance in Freethought History

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The Council for Secular Humanism has published on their website an article I wrote describing John Emerson Roberts’s pivotal position in the development of freethought from liberalism to radicalism.  You can find it at:

https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/356994933_CoverFront

If the article makes you interested in more background, consider ordering my biography, which gives much attention to the context in which Roberts worked and what made him successful.  You can get a new, signed copy from me via Amazon, through ERYBooks, at:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aag/main/ref=olp_merch_name_9?ie=UTF8&asin=1462876919&isAmazonFulfilled=0&seller=AW0M3U1KS6UKI

J. E. Roberts in later life with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

J. E. Roberts with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

Thinking About “Stuff”

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I have been reading posts from Jubilee Economics and Simple Living Works, so I decided to try listening to their podcasts (See http://www.jubilee-economics.org/podcast/tag/common-cause).  I recently listened to Number 28, which focused on “Stuff” and reducing our stuff.

I was disappointed.  Gerald Iverson’s main example of reducing stuff involved moving to a retirement home.  He and his wife did very well to reduce their “stuff” down to 30 percent of what they had.

But downsizing for retirement, or moving into a care community is as much pressure from conditions as it is a choice.  It’s part of the life cycle, and seems almost to justify a cycle that goes: acquire, acquire, acquire, then divest, divest.

When my husband and I moved to a smaller retirement home, we calculate that we reduced our “stuff” by about 50 percent.  A few years ago I began to wonder how to do more.  This is partly due to the expectation that I will eventually have to move to a continuing care facility apartment, and to the feeling, “I don’t want to leave this for the kids to deal with.”  But I also wonder what justice really calls for.

The question of justice arises from Lee Van Ham’s “One Earth Project,” which demonstrates that while we claim to understand that there is only one earth, our society operates as if there were five.  Check the link in my blogroll, on the right of the page.

Three years ago I decided to try getting rid of one thing for each day in Lent.  Including Sundays that means 49 items, rounded up to 50.  It turned out to be easy.  I was way over the number before Holy Week arrived.  So the next year I tried again.  It was a little more work, but I had a bookshelf I could turn into a display area, and my storage was much less crowded.

This past Lent I tried again.  It was getting more difficult.  I decided to count folders of old records I discarded (in the category of the things the children won’t have to deal with that’s good, but it doesn’t help anyone else, as gifts to thrift shops and worthy-cause rummage sales do.)  I realized, afterward, that I had hit a psychological snag.  What was the point of giving away things that would leave a gap on the shelf, or an empty space in the china cupboard?  Since I can’t assume that someone will find these items to be just what they want and buy used instead of new, why not let them sit?

I need to do some thinking about this and I was hoping the Common Good Podcast would give me some new insights.  Maybe they’ll take this up again.

Another Anniversary

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Today is the 116th anniversary of John Emerson Roberts’s departure from the Unitarian Church.  This move to leave the denomination and create his own “Church of this World” is what makes his an interesting story.  Without that move he would have been one of many successful liberal preachers in the denomination, hardly noticed in the world beyond.

In 1906, when Dr. Roberts decided to take a break from “the Church of this World” after nine years, a reporter for the Kansas City Journal declared that Roberts had fallen away from religion “because his name was Emerson.”  The writer (perhaps it was the paper’s editor) claimed that Roberts was imbued with “Emersonian mysticism.”  He didn’t address the fact that it was Dr. Roberts’s good Baptist parents who gave him this middle name.  Mysticism was not what led Dr. Roberts away from the denominations.  On the contrary, even the Unitarians had too much mysticism for his rational mind.

94933_CoverFrontThis June is also the second anniversary of the publication of my biography of Roberts.  A year ago I was giving talks about the book, which I enjoyed doing very much.  I had to admit, however, that the return on the cost of traveling was not worth it.  Through internet connections I did sell a few books, so this past winter I used LinkedIn ads to draw attention to this site when I posted selections from the book.  I got a nice increase in “views” but no sales.

I was ready to say, “Okay, I’ve done what I could.”  I’d sold some books.  I’d placed them in a few appropriate bookstores.  I’d sent review copies here, there and everywhere.  It seemed like time to put the project behind me.  Then two things happened this spring: the book was given a very favorable review in the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Journal, and I was invited to write a short summary of Dr. Roberts’s success for Free Inquiry Magazine.  I wait to see what the 117th year since John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarian Church to create his “Church of this World” will bring.

Whose Bible?

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I have several large Bibles with commentaries but only two, one King James Version and one Revised Standard Version, which are small enough to carry around.  Both were gifts and both are wearing out at the bindings.  I decided to shop for a portable New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV).  It turned out this translation is out of favor.  The rows of Bibles at Barnes and Noble feature, along with KJV, NIT, NLT, ESV and a few other versions.  I scanned the shelves, closing in on those which were smaller, but none were NRSV.

One such smaller volume in the row turned out to be labeled “The American Patriot’s Bible.”  The WHAT?

This is a puzzling confusion of categories.  I wasn’t willing to pay the $12 to find out what gives this edition the claim to patriotism.  I pictured a focus on the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, in which the Israelites are trying to make themselves right with God by cleaning up their laws and purifying their blood lines.  Does anyone still give those stories much weight?

I’m proud to be an American, but I can’t figure out what in the Bible connects to that.  There are passages about welcoming the stranger and about caring for widows and orphans that suggest to me some good principles for responsible citizenship.  Is this what the editors have in mind?  When I say I suspect that it is not I reveal my own bias: those who wave the flag of patriotism often have another agenda.

Perhaps this “Patriot’s Bible” makes the claim that America is, or was, or should be a “Christian nation.”  Christian reformers have been a force for good in our history, but they are not the whole story.

I’ll stop at that and let the reader ponder what an “American Patriot’s Bible” might be, while I continue my search for a portable NRSV Bible for use when I travel.

A Treat for Both Sides of the Mind

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MoH&H_titleWilliam Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a work to delight both the poet and the freethinker.  It is a short book that combines language and art, serious ideas and comedy.

Most of us know Blake, if at all, for his short poems, like “The Tiger”:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night

or “The New Jerusalem”

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The latter is an introduction to a long work titled “Milton” though the Milton who appears in this tale is not the actual writer.  “Milton” is forty five pages of tiny script and complex images, telling an equally complex story.

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is shorter, easier to follow, and fascinating for both the ideas and the language.  Blake constructed these books by etching copper plates, printing and then hand coloring each page.  “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” consists of 27 such pages.  There are nine copies in existence; fortunately reproductions can be found in quite a variety of editions, some very inexpensive.  These editions usually print out the text as well, for those spots where Blake’s script is difficult to interpret.

Blake was a Nonconformist, which means that he was not a member of the Church of England.  He did not fully align with the other nonconformist traditions either.  His little book is partly a tirade against priests, of all times and places, and partly a celebration of creative energies.

What might be called Blake’s thesis statement is found on page 3:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.  Evil is the active springing from Energy.  Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell.

It will follow that in this dichotomy, hell is the more interesting place to be.  A few pages later, Blake comments:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Three pages are given over to “Proverbs of Hell,” a wide range of short statements.  Here are just a few:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

These proverbs, which send the mind going in many different ways are followed by three sections entitled “A Memorable Fancy” in which angels and devils and giants all appear and further commentary against such errors are trying to separate body and soul, or make peace between two classes of humans he calls the Prolific and the Devouring.  By the first he means the creators.  The second are those who only consume because they cannot create.

I have only picked out samples from the book.  To get the sense of the whole, you will need to go read it yourself.  After reading a copy from the library, I bought my own copy from Powell’s for $5.00.

Trust?

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Alamogordo, New Mexico, has gotten itself in the news by putting the motto, “In God We Trust” on its city hall.  The mayor has been shown on television saying, “It was affirmed as a national motto by Congress in 2011,” as if that standing was the only reason the city leaders chose to use it.

The atheists are offended, as of course they should be.  The posting of this motto in a public place implies that if you don’t trust in God (some God, any God) you are not one of the “we”―the “we” who are running the town, the “we” who “belong” in it.

Christians should also be offended.  Posting this motto in a City Hall (in spite of its traditional use in American society) cheapens the idea of trust in God.  Those who actually put their trust in God are likely to be found on the fringes: to be poor, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, or to be busy feeding the poor or working for environmental justice.  Or perhaps they are taking a big risk for some hope for themselves or their community.

People who are trusting in God are not trusting in politics, or a bank account.  Most people who succeed in those terms are like the rich young man in the Gospels: it is very hard to let go of dependence on what one has and turn one’s trust to God.  I know my strongest lessons in trust (call it God, or spirit, karma or the universe) have come when other things weren’t working out.  And then, somehow, they did, though often not as I expected.

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