The Mathematics of the Soul

In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner published The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The gist of it is in the title: Math is weirdly good at describing the physical world, good enough to seem unreasonable.

At the end, Wigner says:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. (emphasis added)

I could’ve cut that off after the first sentence, but that phrase: to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement. I’ve had that feeling with math, when something click click clicked into place and made the most wonderful, most unexpected kind of sense.

What, then, is the mathematics of the soul?

It can’t be mathematics, because the soul

  1. isn’t physical, and
  2. doesn’t exist.

So let’s ask the question this way: What is unreasonably effective at expressing, communicating, shaping, and preserving the fruits of the human heart? What carries those precious things through time and space and past the death of the individual?

Beauty. Art. But most especially song and story, story and song.

Song and story intersect at rhythm and narrative. Song has harmony and melody; story has plot and character. Song slices through reason like a sharp knife through the butterlike-brain; story marinates and soaks and dissolves and precipitates thought from reverie.

Song and story are unreasonably effective in transmitting and preserving culture, persevering when written word and graven image do not. What’s sung and said is the most Permanent Record. Erasing that takes genocide, and even that doesn’t always work.

I could not accept a theory of humanity, a theology or a philosophy of life, without song and story as one of its foundations. Along with human solidarity and grateful wonder at the world, it is one foundation of mine.

A Different State Cluster Meeting

My state’s congregations have dropped our twice-yearly cluster meeting to once a year in the hopes of increasing participation.

A typical Cluster Meeting

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Opening Talk
    • Activity
    • Closing
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening
    • Business discussions
    • Session on Church Operations
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Session on Church Operations continues
    • Business Discussions and Announcements
    • Closing
  • Sunday morning
    • Do whatever the local congregation does

There’s nothing wrong with a meeting like that. It’s functional and useful. It’s also not going to appeal to people whose primary interest in church isn’t running the church.

Here’s a proposed variant event schedule. It was inspired by my personal observations and by this Call for a UU General Conference. It’s short and well worth your time. One recommendation from that report is “that the Unitarian Universalist Association schedule general conferences on a regular basis, perhaps in biennial rotation with General Assembly business sessions.” I think our twice-yearly schedule would be supportable if one of the two meetings was primarily a general conference and the other primarily a business meeting.

An ideal Cluster General Conference

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Announcements
    • Opening worship
    • Covenant
      • Build at first meeting
      • Review and maintain thereafter
    • Closing
    • Activity
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening worship
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
    • Announcements
    • Closing worship
    • Dinner
  • Saturday evening
    • Activity
  • Sunday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Do whatever the local congregation does
  • Sunday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Work sessions for specific goals

That’s the ideal schedule. There’s one type of big variation that’s easy and likely. The Sunday afternoon work sessions could be done in parallel with discernment and professional development on Saturday. There’s overlap between the work sessions and the professional development–I’m thinking of that almost exclusively for church administrators, since ministers, religious educators, and music directors already have significant opportunities for professional development–so that’s doable. Those sessions are specialized and specific and task-oriented. Most folks neither want nor need to attend them. Professional development-type things could move to Sunday as well.

There’s another variation that’s a little more difficult and might be best stirred into a cluster business meeting: A local service project. This could be outwardly-directed toward the community, or inwardly-directed toward the hosting congregation. It’s hard to say how to make it work without having an outline of the service project in mind.

Design points

  • If necessary, hire a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing.
  • One broad topic.
  • Facilitated, not directed, conversations. People can tell when they’re being led.
  • Parallel work tracks to
    1. Take fullest advantage of the meeting preparations,
    2. Provide something useful for church administrators, who are not necessarily Unitarian Universalists, and
    3. Give people uninterested in or who already have “Answers to the question: “What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”” something to do.
  • Use the full Friday evening for covenant building, especially the first time around, to set both a pattern and an example.
  • Many short worship services of varied styles. Give people a taste of what they don’t often see or experience.
  • Make the trip worth it. If people are willing to stay the whole weekend, or must arrive late or leave early, give them something for their time and effort.
  • Fund it via congregational support rather than individual admissions. Don’t make people ask for support.
  • Use home hospitality and sleeping in the church as the primary lodging option.
  • Over-prepare food with the expectation of giving leftovers away to the homeless.
  • Did I mention getting a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing? Maybe two of them, just to make sure.

Why?

Most of it is in the Call for a UU General Conference, which is short and which you should read. Here for emphasis (and not to save you the effort of reading that short article) is the most relevant part:

The ecclesiastical body is an intentional community of delegates who come together for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment. The ecclesiastical body is responsible for discerning the religious movement’s ultimate and broad purpose. Ultimately, the ecclesiastical body asks and discerns answers to the question: “what is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”…Every effort should be made to make these conferences affordable, so that attendees are not limited to older people of means. Further, so that these conferences can build for the future of our movement, we should actively engage youth, young adults, UUs of color, and other historically under-represented groups…

Comment: This proposal is built in part to address our inability to “engage youth [and] young adults”, both those in our congregations and the many more who’ve left them.

We also strong urge the systemic reexamination of the roles and responsibilities enshrined in our current bylaws as we know this organization to have been derived from explicitly racist, sexist, and classist principles. The standard non-profit organization structure, first evolved in the early 19th century, was itself a copy of the business corporation, and specifically, a small New England business corporation that saw virtue in consolidating power to a limited number of patrons. The 1825 establishment of the AUA was very much a part of this milieu (see The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England by Conrad Edick Wright), and while there have been many changes since that time some core patterns of distributing power remain the same. Indeed, in many ways the UUA maintains much of the structure given it by Samuel Atkins Eliot (American Unitarian Association President, 1900-1927; some even call the UUA the “House that Sam built”). Eliot did work to deliberately match the AUA organization with that of business models, especially in terms of disempowering the Board, along the lines of successful “banks, insurance companies, and mills.” Of course, in doing so, he was also bringing the AUA even more in line with how wealthy New England families were accustomed to running New England charities. Eliot brought this same lens to his work as a Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner, where his stump speech was “From the Scalping Knife to the Can Opener,” a statement about how only assimilation to white culture would save Native Americans from their own “barbarism.”

Comment: I have seen the equivalent of violence done to people by treating a church like a business. That’s why I put this whole paragraph in. I hope it will shock you. There is corruption in the current model all the way down to its base and all the way out into the often genocidal society our forebears helped build.

The Task Force was charged changing the culture of the UUA from one of a member services administration to one of mutual covenanting. After over a year and a half of deep discussions, we have realized that this culture of covenant was precisely what was created by the conferences and conventions of our past, as they were designed for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment (emphasis added)…The nature of business meetings, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, is fundamentally adversarial rather than covenantal.

Here we reach the heart of the matter:

  1. Mutual strengthening of the congregations
  2. Creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability
  3. Theological discernment

I would suggest those are in reverse order. To strengthen each other, we must first know each other; to know each other, we must first know ourselves. So we begin with discernment.

There should also be an end in mind. The Arkansas UU Cluster can have a purpose, just as the UUA does. Currently that purpose is poorly-defined. That figures, because we haven’t talked among ourselves about what we want and why. I would suggest there are many things the Cluster could take as a goal. We could involve ourselves more directly in the Justice ministry which spun off from the Cluster. We could work together to plant a congregation in a likely spot–Russellville, Fort Smith, Joplin, Arkadelphia, or Pine Bluff. Somewhere with a concentration of people and at least half an hour from the nearest UU congregation. We could buy a piece of land and build a camp.

But before we know what, we have to know why. So we begin with discernment.

What’s left out?

I intentionally left out families and child care. My kid is in high school, nearly old enough to join the church, and attends adult activities. My concerns aren’t those of younger parents. The way to proceed with them is to ask every one of them in our congregations what would make a gathering worthwhile for them and then do that thing. The best way to proceed would be for congregations to allocate money to do this and ask their youth and young adults to plan it, to make the decisions about it, and depend on the rest of us to help faithfully implement their ideas. I’m not sure we’re mature enough to do that yet, but we’d best get there. As Marcus Aurelius said via Jim Whitehead:

The time is near at hand for forgetting all; near too,
the time for all forgetting you.

What’s next?

You tell me.

Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

Everyone knows this one, right?

Rev. Meg Barnhouse‘s lovely variation on the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and the first woman known to have written a book in English.

This is one of the songs, and links to a song, I keep in my back pocket for troubles, my own and others. It helps me. When I think I know when it will help a friend, I apply it to them gently. It seems to work; I don’t think it harms. It heals by virtue of being beautiful, in many different ways.

When I first encountered the next song, I’d passed through my first period of fascination with mystics and visionaries–Smart, Blake, Sor Juana, and St. John mostly*–so I didn’t see Julian of Norwich in it. Probably the authors didn’t either; I find the ways of the Spirit are even more mysterious to us atheists than to any believer. I was also far too hip to like anything Big On The Radio, and this whole record was big! Big! BIG!! It took my great and wasted friend Orlis to make me actually listen to the damned thing–on a cassette, no less, in a house stuffed with vinyl records–and discover it was really good. It took listening since him to see how it was great. Continue reading Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

“the Muller investigation just paid for itself” Is Ferguson, Missouri Justice

You’ve probably seen this tweet:

@Pappiness: As part of Paul Manafort’s plea deal, he’ll forfeit bank accounts and properties worth about $46 million dollars. Someone should let Trump know that the Muller investigation just paid for itself.

This is an understandable but unprincipled way to view a criminal investigation. It’s fighting the battle on Trump’s chosen terms. He’s good at getting people to do that. Stop playing his game.

Criminal investigation isn’t about making money. It’s a service, a public good, that is paid for by taxes. Money it generates should go into general revenue.

What it costs to investigate a crime is often well out of proportion with the monetary cost of that crime, and that can be a just expenditure of money. We recognize the injustice of measuring the value of justice by its cost…in principle–even as we tolerate it in practice! The murder of a rich woman should not get a bigger, better investigation than that of a poor man. There isn’t any just way to say one death is worth more than another. Wealthy neighborhoods get better police protection and investigation than others. These practices have to change.

We’ve seen what happens when money from investigations is given to the investigating unit. It often leads to fraud, both outright criminal fraud leading to convictions and casual fraud of the everyday sort. For instance: Seizing a muscle car and letting that unit keep the car for use in “investigations”. That’s legal but not legit.

We all know of towns that fund themselves with speed traps. We all know of rich people walking away from DUIs in ways that poor people can’t.

You know who else walks away from big-ass felonies by forfeiting money? The finance industry. Look at the number of charges which get dropped because the company involved agreed not to fight and to forfeit a lot of cash. Do the responsible individuals get punished? Sure. They feel it in their reduced bonuses or golden parachutes. Does it hold down financial crime? Does it deter or incapacitate the perpetrators, provide retribution or restoration? Does it do any of that? Or does it make getting caught at financial crime against ordinary citizens just a routine risk of business to be figured into ever-increasing interest rates and noted in a cheery stockholders’ report?

What it comes down to is that making revenue generation the goal of law enforcement–especially making the argument for a particular investigation by how it pays for itself, rather than how much truth and justice it delivers–is Ferguson, Missouri justice.

Ferguson discriminatorily squeezed some of its citizens under color of law to pay for a government the rest of its citizens wouldn’t pay enough in taxes to run. Whether it was pure racial oppression or simple class warfare–it’s harder to parse them apart than it is to separate salt from sugar–does not change our judgement that it is wrong.

That doesn’t mean seizing Manafort’s money wasn’t just. Getting money back from crooked financial institutions is just, even if it isn’t sufficiently just or perfectly just. If it’s a good start, I say live with that and improve later on.

“We got the money!” is a lousy justification for seeking criminal justice in the first place. Whether it’s profitable to investigate my murder shouldn’t determine whether my killer is found. Getting the money to fund government through prosecution is an unjust way of providing government. These are basic principles. Let’s respect them.

Are There Clean Dollars In A Dirty System? And If There Aren’t, What Then?

I don’t believe there are any clean dollars in a dirty system. If you buy sportswear–or almost anything not directly from the producer’s hands, and even then sometimes–someone is getting exploited. So Nike isn’t unique in exploiting working people. It’s not like the New Balance shoes I wear are morally any different. And good for Nike for putting some money in Colin Kaepernick’s pocket and some positive images of him into the world.

If there’s an active boycott going on–not a “moral disgust” boycott, but a “change your ways or we’ll do our best to put you out of business” boycott–that should be respected, as the Nike boycott was by so many back when it was in force.

And now it’s not, so go buy some, if you want to.

But there’s something very sick about a society that turns its ethics over to the market.

The market has a clear and unambiguous answer for every question of value. When it is asked, “What is the worth of a human life?” it has an answer, in the form of another question: “What am I bid?”

So if you don’t have a deep, deep pocket, you’d best watch your ass in the coming years, or overturn some tables now.

The Assistance

I hit peak McCain on reading this: John McCain’s Funeral Was the Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet.

Let’s call the roll of that gathering, shall we? From the article, in order: Meaghan McCain, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney–and at this point, let’s quote a paragraph:

For a moment, at least, they still lived in the America where Obama and Bush and Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney could all sit in the same pew, in the same church, and sing the same words to the patriotic hymns that made them all teary-eyed at the same time.

To continue the roll call: John Boehner, Elizabeth Warren, David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, Paul Ryan, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner–I understand no one slapped either of them, or threw a drink in either one’s face, but I suppose that’s to much to expect from a member of The Resistance–John Bolton, John Kelly–are you getting that warm, runny feeling yet?–and Jeff Flake.

Does that sound like The Resistance to you? It sounds to me like the people who got us into this mess in the first place. Which of those people has actually gotten in Trump’s way? Elizabeth Warren. The Obamas are taking a well-earned vacation, so they get a pass from me. The Clintons are out pimping their books. Leon Panetta and Al Gore are doing something, I suppose, even if it’s just shutting up because they don’t have anything useful to contribute. Madeleine Albright wrote a book that’s on topic but not going to motivate people to action, judging by the people I know who read it and recommend it, but she means well, bless her heart. And that’s the Democrats in the room!

And you know who else was at that memorial and gave a very moving speech? America’s Funniest War Criminal, Henry Kissinger! I shit you not: The very man who directed years of the criminal Vietnam War which John McCain got injured fighting. The only place we should see Kissinger hanging around is Nuremberg. But there he was, Resisting.

It’s possible to feel admiration for the personal virtues of a man like John McCain, who spent five years in a hellish prison and never finked on his comrades, and still despise the acts that put him in that prison in the first place. I realize that systematic mass murder of civilians is only a war crime these days if you don’t do it with a Very Expensive Weapon provided by one of the Major Powers, and that we’re supposed to pretend that strategic bombing isn’t terrorism. I myself figure anyone on any side of any fight who commits mass murder of civilians is a mass murderer. It’s awful hard to bomb a village in self-defense, but that doesn’t stop armies from trying, right?

The difference between McCain and Kissinger, then, is that one man had admirable personal virtues and the other did not. Kissinger’s virtues were turned exclusively to Evil purposes. It was his and Nixon’s policy to violently overthrow democratically elected governments they didn’t like. One can’t admire intelligence turned to that purpose.

So on reading that article, then hearing about Kissinger’s appearance, I realized there was a better word for that crowd: The Assistance.

The Assistance is the political creatures who thrived in a corrupt, self-serving political environment. They are the Ancien Règime of America, on an old road rapidly changing. And you know what? They don’t see any point in lending a hand, because it’s you who are in their way, as they ping little spitballs of tut-tuts at a man who exemplifies the system they are frantically trying to put back together. They are doing the absolute least they can do in defense of your interests–condemning in the strongest terms!–as they try to protect their own.

They are working to preserve the corruption that pays for their foundations and stuffs speaking fees strung with beads of zeroes on the end up their well-deserving buttholes. They get that money from the rich because it is the rich who they serve. When the rich yank the string on those speaking fees, you bet those political asses respond.

So don’t expect much from The Assistance. As always, we will have to save ourselves. And if you have to run one of The Assistance over in the process? It’s not like they weren’t warned:

Mysteries Revealed! A Simple Typo, Now Corrected, Makes It All Clear.

I finally figured out one of the Great Mysteries of TrumpWorld. It was a simple typo anyone, even the President Of This United States, could make, which I can now interpret. Here’s the original tweet, in full:

Despite the negative press covfefe,

Now here’s my corrected version:

Despite the negative press kayfabe,

He wrote covfefe when he meant kayfabe. It’s just that simple and it explains so much!

Respectable People Can’t Fight Trump Effectively. Who can? The Answer May Surprise You!

A dozen assorted National Security Officials issued a Stern Statement against Donald Trump this week. The text follows:

It’ll do nothing against him. What does work?

What works is people you, Gentle Respectable Reader, probably don’t approve of.

The first person to touch Trump as President and not come away soiled was national punching bag Kim Kardashian. She went in to negotiate the freedom of an unjustly imprisoned woman and won, and didn’t look like a fool or a thief afterwards.

The next person to touch Trump, and actually draw blood was porn star Stormy Daniels. She’s managed to make him look like the foolish old man he is. She’s also opened up a one of the few lines of criminal inquiry which is likely to score.

And now we have reality television figure Omarosa:

Reality-TV folks don’t build their brands on respectability—their freedom from conventional constraints like being predictable and well-liked is their power—but they can pull off One Big Pivot in their careers. Usually, it’s where they claim that, yes, they were part of the circus, but things have finally gone too far and gotten so bad that even they must shine a light on it! Only those who’ve been in the muck know what to fix.

This was the substance of Donald Trump’s own campaign message, and now Omarosa is using it against him.

That message isn’t available to Respectable People, and rightly so. The essence of being a Respectable Person is being a fake real person. That’s true of almost every major politician.  The Hillary Clinton of political appearance is a fake pretending to be real. You could see that most clearly after the election, when this funny, slightly sarcastic, human being went on television to plug her book. It was a Hillary Clinton I could have voted for willingly instead of at Trumppoint. She was visibly human, real real, not fake real.

What the women who beat Trump have in common is that they are, like him, real fakes. They really are something very close to those images they project. When you see one of them, you don’t wonder, “Are they really like that?” You know, yes, they are.

Trump does poorly against women who don’t have much interest in pretending to be something they’re not.

This is why he’s able to steamroll Respectable People. He sees, as most of us who are Not Respectable see, the lying and faking and fronting and bullshitting that goes into being Respectable. And he makes it visible, which he can do, being Not Respectable.

Since hardly anyone can maintain both the sort of self-reflective ability that goes into seeing these things and the will to act effectively on them, very few Respectable People can see what those of us who are Not Respectable know by heart.

still the sweet darling mouse who can't quite see the cat coming

A Modest Proposal for Democratically Packing the Supreme Court in the Interest of Its Institutional Legitimacy

Bob Bauer, former counsel to Barack Obama, makes the standard case against packing the Supreme Court as well as it can be made in (what else?) Don’t Pack the Courts. It’s short–read it.

He is right on principle and correct about the pragmatics, which has blinded him to the correct solution. Assuming a Democratic Congress and President in 2020 (a stretch, I grant you, but roll with it), on their first day in office, the new President should send the Senate two nominations to the Supreme Court: Merrick Garland and H. Cusrog Lien–the Bizzaro World Neil Gorsuch, whose faithful duty will be to vote exactly the opposite from Neil Gorsuch on every occasion. The announcement should go something like this:

“My fellow Americans, we all know the truth of the matter, whether we admit it or not: The Republican Party stole a seat on the Supreme Court. They violated its integrity and turned the highest court in the land into a political body. This cannot stand. This must be reversed.

“We have a temporary advantage, during which we now have the power to act as ruthlessly and unethically as the Republican Party has acted. We have it in our means–and many of us have it in our hearts–to go beyond simply evening the scales. I feel that temptation myself, every time I think of one of the many, many people  damaged needlessly by arbitrary cruelties enabled by this corruptly-composed court.

“And yet, I will not be party to further degrading the Supreme Court. Enemies of rule of law depend on its defenders sinking to their level. As we do so, with sincere yet premature desperation, we degrade ourselves. We damage the justice of our cause. This we will not do.

“Instead, we will go forward to restore the Court’s integrity. We will not press our advantage. We will simply undo their corrupt act, and no more. We have proposals for reforming the Supreme Court, with which we hope to depoliticize the nomination process.

“In that spirit, I present to you tonight, not one, but two nominees for the Supreme Court:

“Merrick Garland, whose nomination was stolen from him by the Republican Party, and H. Cusrog Lien, who will make Neil Gorsuch’s stolen vote disappear. Until the the day Mister Gorsuch leaves the Supreme Court, Mister Lien will vote for whatever Mister Gorsuch is against, and against whatever Mister Gorsuch is for, even down to whether to call out for Chinese or barbecue during late-night conferences. Their votes will cancel each other’s out, and Justice Garland will be heard, as justice and democracy demand.

“I hope Mister Gorsuch likes anchovies on his pizza.

“Thank you, and good night.”

If you believe in the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court*, attacks on its legitimacy which follow the letter of the law and yet violate its spirit present a dilemma: Escalate and worsen the bind, or submit and invite further violation.

This proposal threads that needle. It nullifies a previous Bad Act. It does not submit to injustice. It reverses it. Yet it does not escalate. It doesn’t use temporary political advantage to pack the court full.  It offers a compromise.

So tell everyone you know: Garland and Lien/Supreme Court 2021! It’s perfect for some clever presidential campaign.

*Or any such institution. We are in a legitimacy crisis. Whether the Surpreme Court (for example) is still legitimate is being decided now.

Life During Wartime: A Video Soundtrack

Armagideon Time?

That Talking Heads song is about touring. It took me a long time to realize that. It’s still not just about touring for me, which I guess comes from Romantic childhood delusions not being properly corrected at an early age. But it’s worked out for me.

Anyway, I’ve been keeping track of song videos that have struck me as right for this moment in time for a year now. The first four:


20-JUN-2017: Who am I to disagree?

Oh, to be seventeen forever. Oh, to be thirty-four forever.


24-SEP-2018: You think they’re dumb, you think they’re so funny.

Just wait until they got you running to those…


20-MAY-2018: Johnnie wants to think of a joke.

Johnnie’s an American. Johnnie’s an American.


01-JUL-2018: If you want to teach ’em how to fight, you gotta treat ’em all alike.

I hate tear gas. Don’t you?


More to come!