Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Genesis According to Science and ChatGPT

 ChatGPT provided me with the following two paragraphs from two separate requests I made. One was for a scientific version of the creation story, in biblical format, and the other was the same but for the origins of human life. It actually isn't too bad. Go forth and spread the word!

Scientific Genesis Chapter 1

  1. In the beginning, the universe underwent a rapid expansion event known as the Big Bang, which led to the formation of the universe, including the creation of the earth
  2. The early earth was a molten ball of rock, which gradually cooled and solidified over time. The oceans formed from water vapor in the atmosphere, and the first life likely emerged in the oceans around 3.8 billion years ago.
  3. The early sun provided the energy needed to kickstart photosynthesis in early life forms, leading to the first appearance of light on earth.
  4. As the atmosphere changed, photosynthetic organisms produced oxygen, leading to the development of the ozone layer and protecting the earth from harmful UV radiation.
  5. The rotation of the earth and its position relative to the sun created the cycle of day and night.
  6. Over time, the earth's crust cooled and solidified, forming a solid layer, and the oceans began to form on the surface.
  7. The movement of tectonic plates and volcanic activity shaped the earth's surface, including the formation of mountains and continents.
  8. The atmosphere and the formation of the ozone layer created the conditions necessary for life to thrive on land, leading to the evolution of plants and animals.
  9. The movement of tectonic plates and changes in sea level continue to shape the earth's surface today.
  10. The evolution of plants and animals led to the development of complex ecosystems, including the appearance of humans.
  11. The emergence of photosynthetic plants led to the development of terrestrial vegetation, eventually leading to the appearance of grasses, herbs, and fruit trees.
  12. The evolution of plants led to the emergence of a variety of plant species, including those that produce seeds and fruit.
  13. The development of plant life on land continued, leading to the evolution of more complex ecosystems.
  14. The appearance of the sun, moon, and stars in the sky was a result of the formation of the solar system, including the earth.
  15. The rotation of the earth and the position of the sun created the cycle of day and night, and the movement of the earth around the sun led to the creation of the seasons.
  16. The sun is responsible for the light and heat that sustains life on earth.
  17. The sun, moon, and stars provide light and guidance for navigation and timekeeping
  18. The position of the sun and the rotation of the earth create the cycle of day and night, allowing for the regulation of sleep and activity.
  19. The emergence of marine life, including fish and whales, occurred over millions of years through a process of evolution.
  20. The oceans are home to a vast array of marine life, including fish, whales, and other creatures.
  21. The evolution of marine life, including fish and whales, occurred over millions of years through a process of evolution.
  22. The diversity of life in the oceans and on land continues to evolve and adapt to changing environmental conditions.
  23. The evolution of life on earth continues, leading to the development of new species and ecosystems.
  24. The evolution of land animals, including mammals, occurred over millions of years through a process of evolution.
  25. The diversity of life on land, was good. Over time, the diversity of life on land continued to increase as species evolved and adapted to their environments. These adaptations were driven by natural selection

Scientific Genesis Chapter 2

  1. In the beginning, there was only the earth, and it was barren and void of life. But then, over millions of years, a great transformation occurred. The earth brought forth living creatures, each according to its kind, and among them were the primates.
  2. And among the primates, a remarkable development took place. One group of primates, known as hominins, began to evolve in a unique way. Their brains grew larger, their hands became more dexterous, and their bodies became more upright, allowing them to walk on two legs.
  3. As they continued to evolve, the hominins spread across the earth, adapting to a wide variety of environments. Some of them, such as Homo habilis, learned to use tools, while others, such as Homo erectus, became skilled hunters.
  4. But the greatest transformation of all came with the emergence of Homo sapiens. These early humans possessed a remarkable capacity for language, art, and culture. They created tools and weapons of unprecedented sophistication, and they built communities that spanned the globe.
  5. As they continued to evolve, the early humans encountered many challenges. They faced harsh environments, dangerous predators, and competing groups of humans. But through their ingenuity, their cooperation, and their determination, they persisted and flourished.
  6. Today, the descendants of these early humans continue to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. They explore the mysteries of the universe, they create new technologies, and they build societies that reflect their deepest values.
  7. So let us remember the long journey of human evolution, and let us continue to embrace the wonder and possibility of our existence. For in our quest for knowledge, for meaning, and for connection, we fulfill the potential that was placed within us at the dawn of time.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Further Thoughts on the Independent Sacramental Movement (And a Parish Directory)

In recent months, out of pure curiosity, I've been looking into the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM). It's a topic I've already blogged about. Here I'd like to share my thoughts on two aspects of this movement that really stand out for me.

First, the Independent Sacramental Movement seems to be rife with imposter syndrome. Frequently on sites I see not only explanations of how, really, their sacraments are valid, but even entire pages documenting their lines of apostolic succession. I suppose that to some extent this is necessary to persuade Roman Catholics and others who might be on the fence about joining. Having been raised Roman Catholic I can say that I grew up knowing very well the boundaries of the church and less well the contents of the Bible. So it's not out of the question that the average lay Catholic would want some assurance that they were getting themselves into something 'valid.' 

At the same time, I've listened to enough ISM podcasts to know that their clergy do often feel as though they have to prove something. The sense I get is that they consciously or unconsciously uphold the Roman Catholic Church as a sort of standard by which they will be judged. I don't think they should do that.

ISM jurisdictions should be able to stand on their own merits. If they believe that their documented lines of succession are valid, they can certainly share them, but they should also avoid trying to justify them. If the belief is that once a bishop, always a bishop, then run with that. Set that as fundamental and only revisit it to restate it, not to justify it. 

Second, the ISM is extremely decentralized. There are multiple jurisdictions as well as countless one-off parishes making a go of it. there have been and continue to be attempts to pull some of them together, but the results are mixed. This could be seen as a real weakness, but then why don't we judge the Protestant denominations by the same metric? There are thousands of Protestant denominations and who knows how many independent congregations. There are even "undenominations" like the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ that refuse to organize beyond Bible Colleges and Christian Service Camps. Some denominations are in cooperative arrangments and others are far from it. Such is organized religion in a secular democracy. Accountability is raised as a point of concern in this context, but again I'd have to point back at the Protestants and say that they have the same issues. This isn't unique to the ISM. 

One problem that does come from the decentralized state of the ISM is that it can be very hard for an adherent to find a new parish when they move. If, for instance, someone with an Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC) parish in Arkansas were to move to Connecticut (for some reason), they would find that there is no ECC parish for them. Fortunately, there is now a list of ISM parishes that is in development that could help them out, showing that there is in fact a parish of the American National Catholic Church in Connecticut. This would be compatible with their faith and practice just as well, I would think, as an ECC parish.

Independent Catholic Eucharistic Communities is a useful directory of ISM parishes around the world, including the United States. Keep in mind that, as I've already said, it's a work in progress.

My sense is that the ISM is maturing, to some degree. I'll be interested to see if that really is the case, and what comes of it in years ahead. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Return of Manx Gaelic

That the Isle of Man had its own form of Gaelic was news to me, along with the fact that it very nearly died out. In fact, it seems it did cease to be spoken for a time, but now is making a comeback. It's quite a story, one that gives me hope for other endangered and even 'dead' languages around the world. While the value of a global language of trade and diplomacy is certainly hugely beneficial, language also encodes culture. Losing a language signifies a dramatic loss for a people group. 

See Also:

Monday, February 20, 2023

UU Lent 2023

Lent begins this week, and I intend to participate in UULent. On Instagram and Mastodon I'll post an image and perhaps a thought centered on a word of the day. This is a very Unitarian Universalist Lenten practice, one that I haven't engaged in for a year or more.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

On Faith and Knowledge

Knowledge is not faith, and faith is not knowledge. Knowledge can't bring you to faith, and faith should not serve as the basis of knowledge.

Many of the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God appear to hinge on a person already believing that such a God exists. Nowhere is this more apparent in my mind than with Thomas Aquinas, who frequently wrote, in varying words, that ‘everyone understands that this is God.’ He was living in a Christian culture where the presuppositions were on his side. No doubt most if not all of the people in his life agreed together on the general nature of a supreme being who created the universe, even if they may have differed on some particulars. He might have been shocked, as I was, when I started meeting atheists who had been atheists since childhood, having always thought the stories about God to be silly or at least improbable. It could also have troubled him to have encountered people from cultures where the nature of the divine was either not considered of great import, or not understood as a personal deity to be known. A lot of assumptions go into the reasonings about proving God’s existence.

Anselm of Canterbury famously describe God as "that than which a greater cannot be thought." In recent years I've learned that he wrote his ontological argument in a work of meditation, not of logical reasoning. In other words, no ‘argument’ was intended at all, and it appears he was self-aware in writing from his perspective as a believer in God. Already believing, he found this way of thinking to be faith-affirming. That being the case, it seems uncharitable to take him to task for such a weak argument.

Someone could assert that an Invisible Pink Unicorn is the creator of all things, having swept the cosmos into being with a tilt of her glitter-laced horn. How can she be both invisible and pink? Why, that’s a divine mystery to be contemplated. After all, she is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Maybe that’s quibbling over details though. Assuming that there is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is a different question from the nature of that being, whether an Invisible Pink Unicorn, a Trinity, or something else.

It seems to me that such reasons ‘proofs’ for the existence of God can only ever serve as encouragement to those who have already taken a leap of faith, or are on the verge of doing so. They cannot possible provide the conclusive evidence that would be required to become considered knowledge. In the end, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). If it were knowledge, it would not be faith. And if faith is not required, then why does the New Testament repeatedly call for it?

To be clear, faith is not a moral virtue. When believing in something without or against evidence is held up as a moral triumph, a door is opened to embracing virtually anything that someone thinks 'makes sense' to them. This is, in my opinion, a large part of what is sickening and debilitating the United States, and those parts of the world where we still hold cultural influence. What we need is a revival of reason, and renewal of virtue ethics at the center of our society. This is not to say that faith is evil, by any means. It sustains the lives of many through dark times. What I am arguing is that when it comes to making clear-eyed decisions that impact other people, knowledge is of far greater value than faith, on a par I would say with empathy. These two together can change the world.

Monday, January 30, 2023

An AI Story of Food-Adjacent Superheroes

What follows was entirely generated by AI. The text comes to us from ChatGPT, and the image courtesy Midjourney AI. It's a tale about Colonel Sanders and Orville Redenbacher as superheroes, and I'm sharing it to provide a sample of the present state of AI. Is it good? Not really. I do expect AI to be far advanced from this in just a few years time.
Once upon a time, in the bustling city of Detroit, a new threat emerged in the form of Krampus, a nefarious supervillain determined to wreak havoc on the city's inhabitants.

But fear not, for the city had two unlikely heroes on their side: Orville Redenbacher and Colonel Sanders.

Orville, the popcorn king, was able to use his powers of popping corn to blind and distract Krampus, while Colonel Sanders used his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices to weaken the villain's defenses.

Together, they fought valiantly against Krampus, using their unique abilities to protect the citizens of Detroit. They battled through the streets, dodging Krampus's deadly coal-based attacks and returning fire with their own popcorn and fried chicken based powers.

As the battle raged on, it seemed that Krampus was gaining the upper hand. But just when all hope seemed lost, Orville and Colonel Sanders had a stroke of genius. They combined their powers and created the ultimate weapon: a popcorn chicken bomb.

With one mighty throw, they launched the bomb at Krampus, and it exploded in a burst of delicious popcorn and crispy chicken. The villain was defeated, and the city was saved.

The citizens of Detroit hailed Orville and Colonel Sanders as their heroes, and the two unlikely friends went on to have many more adventures together, always ready to defend their city from any threat that may arise.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Happy Consolidation of Humanist Organizations

Something that I'm really enjoying is seeing how the Humanist movement is reorganizing and, to some extent, consolidating. For years there were separate organizations doing their own thing to promote Humanism in the United States. Sometimes there was coordination, and sometimes not. In recent decades this has started to change. Here's an overview of the history behind Humanist Society and the Humanist Institute, which both have come into the fold of the American Humanist Association after running independently for years.

The American Humanist Association was founded in 1941, but its story began before that.
In 1927, an organization called the "Humanist Fellowship" began at a gathering in Chicago. In 1928, the Fellowship started publishing the New Humanist magazine with H.G. Creel as first editor. The New Humanist was published from 1928 to 1936. The first Humanist Manifesto was issued by a conference held at the University of Chicago in 1933. Signatories included John Dewey, but the majority were ministers (chiefly Unitarian) and theologians. They identified humanism as an ideology that espouses reason, ethics, and social and economic justice.

A group calling itself the Humanist Fellowship began gathering in Chicago, and the following year it started publishing New Humanist magazine. It ran from then until 1936, and during this time the first Humanist Manifesto was issued, in 1933. The majority of signatories were Unitarian ministers. The main features of Humanism to them were commitments to reason, ethics, and social justice. In 1935 the Humanist Fellowship became the Humanist Press Association (HPA). In 1941 the HPA was reorganized to become the American Humanist Association (AHA), and in 1952 it became a founding member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Independently, a group of Quakers took inspiration from the Humanist Manifesto, and so in 1939 they started the Humanist Society of Friends. It was a religious nonprofit organization created to train and ordain ministers and issue charters. It has been the source for most Humanist celebrants through the years. In 1991 it officially became part of the American Humanist Association, operating separately but in service to the AHA and thus to the Humanist community at large. 

Meanwhile, in 1976 Rev. Paul Beattie, a Unitarian Universalist minister, had conceived the idea of an organization to promote training and education for Humanists. In 1982 the Rabbi Sherwin Wine organized a gathering of Humanist leaders at the University of Chicago, where the North American Committee for Humanist was formed. This group, under the leadership of Rabbi Wine as president, voted to establish the Humanist Institute. 

It was two years later, in 1984, when The Humanist Institute was officially launched. As I indicated above,  its purpose was to train leaders for the Humanist movement, from organizers to advocates and for every organizational setting. Through the years it has continued to offer educational services in defense of Humanism, and just five years ago, in 2018, it officially became part of the American Humanist Association. Here's how a recent article in The Humanist described it:

It’s been five years since The Humanist Institute joined the American Humanist Association (AHA) ranks, forming the Center for Education (CfE). Over that time, CfE has changed and grown from a small independent organization focused on a graduate-level certificate program, online self-guided studies, and open lecture series to a robust center with diverse educational opportunities for all ages—supporting AHA members, local groups and the Humanist Society endorsees (celebrants, chaplains, and lay leaders).

Much to my delight, last year (2022) the AHA Center for Education entered into a partnership with the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities to offer a Humanist Studies track for both the Master of Divinity and Master of Arts programs. Students can sign up and receive credit for Humanist Studies courses that are offered by the CfE through the seminary. The potential for Humanist leadership development across organizations is truly great. 

With the Center for Education, training of Humanist leadership is provided, and through the Humanist Society leaders are endorsed, be they Celebrants, Chaplains, or otherwise. The American Humanist Association brings them and other groups together for a common cause, while advocating for separation of religion and state as well as freedom and social justice. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

Instead of Church as Usual

Midjourney AI

Christianity is in decline in the United States. This has been the case for some time with mainline denominations, like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is now true as well of evangelical churches, including even the Southern Baptist Convention. The evangelicals have long asserted that it's the theological liberalism of the mainline denominations that have lead to their diminishing numbers, and that could well be true. 

It seems to me, however, that a lot of the evangelical growth over the decades of the 20th century was from people who were leaving those mainline churches, and not genuine converts to Christianity. Now that evangelicalism's star is also fading, those churches are finding themselves in the same situation as their mainline counterparts. For more progressive denominations I do think that there's a way forward, but it certainly won't be business as usual. Here are my suggestions for how such churches could proceed in ministry, while casting off what doesn't advance their mission.

First, I don't think this is the end of in-person congregations. Certainly many have closed and will yet close, but more than likely some small ones will carry on, while some larger ones will be able to remain robust with less competition. Local churches provide a forum for people to connect with one another, to sing, hear some encouragement and/or reflections on what matters in life, and socialize. This will always have value. At the same time, we should have learned something from the pandemic about the value of the internet in ministry.

That brings me to my second point, being that virtual church needs to be embraced and promoted, and not as just a transfer of what already exists onto the internet. It's fine to stream services, but is that really what people want? I rarely have the patience to sit through an online service, but if it's recorded I skip ahead to the sermon. If we're going to do virtual church, it needs to be new wine in new wineskins. Denominations could build their own social networks, complete with videos, collaborative games centered around shared values, and the means to socialize online in a safe, moderated environment. Ministers could be trained in moderation and online conflict management, and work with their local manifestation of the denomination or church network. 

To get to this point, though, a mindset of online church as second-rate needs to be pitched. "Virtual first" should be the mindset, with in-person gatherings being inspired by online interactions and activities. From the church groups online, and with the sponsorship of the denomination, on the national, regional, or local level, real-life meetups could take place. There would certainly be self-organizing involved, and members could form meetups for whatever purpose, but some groups would be intentionally organized by church leadership to foster spiritual growth, activism, and so forth. 

Third, beyond meetups there should be regular retreats and camps that are organized by the denomination on some level. I've observed that in denominations like Community of Christ that there is a phenomenon of some people never showing up to church on Sunday, but always attending church retreats or camps. My own son, a Unitarian Universalist like me, stopped attending church when he graduated from high school. And yet he eagerly attends UU young adult retreats and camps, and is part of the planning committee for regional UU young adults. Since we're progressive, we don't see any reason to insist on weekly attendance, and that works great for people like my son.

The fourth item for consideration is how the 'unchurched' population no longer depends on the church to provide a minister to officiate weddings or other ceremonies. The Universal Life Church and a number of other organizations offer ordination to whoever seeks it, meaning that a friend or family member can easily apply for and receive ordination through the internet, and legally officiate weddings. I myself am a Humanist Celebrant, endorsed by The Humanist Society, and last year I officiated my daughter's wedding. We could have obtained a minister, but it was so much more meaningful that I could officiate, with the added benefit that I could do so in the native language of bride and groom, Portuguese. 

The denominations should promote the services of their ministers, at least those who wish to make themselves available, as officiants for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and so forth. Sure, there are those who argue that baptism should be a church event, but for Christians that doesn't make sense to me, given that the baptisms in the New Testament were public but not in a church context. For Unitarian Universalists, who generally practice infant dedication and coming of age ceremonies, these could easily and meaningfully take place within the context of a gathering of friends and families rather than in a church. 

Fifthly, the denominations need to reconsider what kind of ministry for which they are forming new ministers. As I said above, online skills and a proficiency for officiating ceremonies are two areas of value. On a larger scale, though, there are specific roles for which ministers are also going to be in demand or able to add value. One is chaplaincy, which is growing in the United States. Hospitals, hospice services, the military, and other institutions need qualified chaplains. The seminaries should all be investing in training for this work. Also, non-profit leadership formation is also needed. Seminaries are in a good position to offer degree programs tailored to the work of social change makers.

Finally, denominations should move away from an agency model to encouraging social enterprises. As offerings diminish it's going to become more important than ever that efforts to help people and communities be sustainable. By both promoting training for social entrepreneurs and carefully investing in efforts that show great promise, the denominations can extend their reach and make a positive impact for what overall will be hopefully less than their bureaucracy has cost them up to now. 

Denominations of the future are going to need to be lean, agile, tech savvy, and ecumenical. Anything less is a recipe for irrelevance and collapse.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Short-Sightedness of Today's Leaders: Why We Need to Think Long-Term

Midjourney AI
We dream of a better world, and barely plan for tomorrow. Thinking decades ahead seems lost on this present age. 

It's no secret that many of today's leaders tend to focus on the short-term. Politicians have to worry about getting elected every few years, so they tend to focus on policies that will please the electorate in the immediate future. They have strong incentives to really exaggerate and polarize the electorate, to the serious harm of the nation, in order to expand and firm up their support base. Corporations, meanwhile, are under pressure to deliver consistent quarter-by-quarter growth in order to please shareholders. Recently we've seen this with the massive layoffs in the tech industry, which are driven not by real necessity, as I see it, but out of a need to show the shareholders that they'll do anything to maximize profit. And for some religious groups, the belief that we're living in the end times can lead to a sense of apathy about the future. 

That last point is one that I want to expand on a little before proceeding. I can imagine someone reading that and say 'not all religions,' despite the fact I clearly wrote 'some religious groups.' The fact is that it's even worse than that with evangelicals and Pentecostals. Within the religious right in the US there is a strong anti-intellectual streak derived from a Bible that condemns the wise, which, when combined with ridiculously detailed end times beliefs, leads them beyond apathy to antipathy towards efforts to make the world better. 

This short-sightedness is a problem, because climate change and other global challenges are issues that require long-term thinking to solve. We can't keep kicking the can down the road and expecting future generations to deal with the consequences.

Imagine a world where politicians think at least 100 years into the future when they make policy decisions. Imagine if corporations focused on sustainable growth, rather than short-term gains. And imagine if religious groups put more emphasis on stewardship and care for the earth, rather than just waiting for the end times to arrive.

We need to elect politicians who have a long-term vision, and hold corporations accountable for their impact on the environment and society. And as individuals, we need to start thinking about the long-term consequences of our actions. I, for one, want to be a good ancestor. This doesn't mean we ignore the problems of today or let injustice slide. It means look to the far future and act in the present accordingly.

Only by thinking long-term can we hope to create a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Dyeus: The Indo-European Sky Father

This is a fascinating explanation of where we are in understanding the origin of Indo-European by way of tracing back the identity of the "Sky Father." The description from YouTube is below the video.
In this video, we explore the Proto-Indo-European Sky Father. A deity revered by many cultures throughout history. From the Greek Zeus to the Roman Jupiter, the Sky Father god represented the celestial day-lit sky. Hosted by Dr. Andrew M. Henry. 

David Anthony, "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language," 2007. 
Ranko Matasovic, "A Reader in Comparative Indo-European Religion," 2018. 
Mallory and Adams, "The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World," 2006. 
West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford Press, 2007. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

An Interview with Rev. Andre Hensley

The video below was filmed in 2008, so before smartphones. Perhaps that's why it sort of like a hidden cam video. A couple interviews Rev. Andre Hensley, president of the Universal Life Church, and so far as I can tell, the interview was on the up-and-up. Given that Rev. Andre looked at the camera at least once, I'm figuring it must be okay. In any case, it provides some interesting insights from his perspective on the Universal Life Church, at least up to that time. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Will the Real Universal Life Church Please Stand Up?

Midjourney AI
Over the past several months I've blogged a few times about the schism taking place in the United Methodist Church. Really, this isn't anything new for Protestantism. We didn't get to the point of having thousands of Protestant denominations by everyone getting along! Did you know, though, that there have been splits in the oldest denomination offering ordination to anyone for life and for free? The Universal Life tradition currently has two major divisions, and possibly a handful of smaller spin-off groups.

It's hard to say how many smaller organizations claim the Universal Life Church name without being affiliated with the headquarters in Modesto, California. Some may have started out as chartered congregations and then decided to do their own thing. Internet searches turn up little branches of the church, but it's hard to quantify them, as it's unclear how many are still active, and there's currently no centralized list with which I'm familiar. There is, however, a very strong competitor in the space, and that's the ULC Monastery. 

In 1995 a ULC minister named Dan Zimmerman started a website for his congregation, which was called Universal Life Church/ULC Monastery, Inc. It was based out of Tucson Arizona. Rev. Zimmerman requested to be authorized to accept and forward to the ULC HQ any ordination requests received on his site, so that people could be ordained by our church through that method. Authorization was granted, and it's my understanding that at that time the ULC HQ didn't have a site of its own, so it made sense to open up that channel. Besides, Rev. Kirby Hensely always emphasized that one of the most important duties of ULC ministers was to ordain others on their request. 

In 2005 Zimmerman asked one of his members to assist with operating part of the site from Seattle Washington. In 2006 they had an internal management dispute, so Brother Dan did the responsible thing and closed his site on 08/01/06. At that time the ULC HQ authorization for them them to take ordination requests online was revoked. after that, the Seattle people carried out a sort of  hostile takeover of the Monastery website and changed it to be themonastery.org. They proceeded to call themselves the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, Inc. This church continues to this day, and seems to be operating under the name "Universal Life Church Ministries," although you'll still see the Monastery name in use. They are a separate organization that is not affiliated with the original Universal Life Church with headquarters in Modesto, California. 

If you were ordained by the Universal Life Church prior to 2006 and contact the Monastery, they will tell you that due to a database change they don't have access to ordinations prior to that year. However, they will issue you a replacement credential with the date you provide, and it includes a notation at the bottom with a date that the ordination was allegedly 'renewed.' In legal terms, that's the actual ordination date for the Universal Life Church Ministries, as they did not have the Modesto-ordained minister on record prior to that date. Anyone familiar with the Universal Life Church as Rev. Kirby J. Hensley presented it would know that ordination is 'for life,' and therefore no 'renewal' is needed. 

Technically, I suppose there was a database change in 2006. It was a brand new database for a new organization not affiliated with the original Universal Life Church. However, it seems deceitful to me for the ULCM not to be transparent about what's going on. Further, the Monastery when on a buying spree over the intervening years and has obtained and put to use numerous domains bearing the Universal Life Church name in some form, as well as domains like 'getordained.com.' Some of those domains are attached to stand-alone websites that communicate on the backend with the Monastery but look a little different up front, while others simply redirect to one of the ULCM sites. Meanwhile, the only domain connected directly with the ULC HQ is ulchq.com.

Now, to be clear, the ordinations offered through the Universal Life Church Ministries/Universal Life Church Monastery are perfectly valid for officiating legally-recognized weddings. If you were ordained through that denomination of Universal Life, you are still ordained...just not by the Universal Life Church that Rev. Kirby J. Hensley founded. In practice this shouldn't ever matter to to you. However, it might be worth asking whether you want to support such an organization. That's entirely up to you.

The Universal Life Church international headquarters is definitely lost in the online shuffle, and not only because the Monastery owns and uses so many domains, dominating search results. So far as I have seen, the Universal Life Church in Modesto doesn't do any online advertising. Further, the official website is badly outdated and broken. The store shows items out of

stock which are not, and there's no new information about current happenings listed. The page navigator at the top also behaves very oddly, making it necessary to use the page links in the footer to get around the site. 

There is a page at ULC.net which was previously authorized to carry official ULC courses, but that is no longer the case. There are other materials available through that website, but unfortunately these are reportedly not being fulfilled. The ULC HQ has been receiving calls from people who have ordered through that site and never received their orders, even after months of waiting. Since it's a separate site and the store is not connected to ULC HQ, there's really nothing they can do.   

So there you have it. Religious division takes place even among the mail order ministry/online ordination denominations. As is often the case, in my experience, it's less about doctrine and beliefs, and more about personalities and control. More's the pity. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Split Among the Arkansas United Methodists

Valley Grove by McGhiever (CC BY-SA 3.0)
There's trouble among the United Methodists of Arkansas, and it's no surprise.

If you've looked over some of my recent posts here you'll know that the current split happening the United Methodist Church holds a certain fascination for me. It was the denomination of my maternal grandfather, and when I was growing up Catholic it was one of only a few Protestant denominations that I'd heard of in northeast Missouri. Locally the two best known churches were Southern Baptist and United Methodist, although we did have a tiny Church of the Nazarene congregation as well as one or two Assemblies of God. Beyond my background, it's intriguing to me as an observer of human sociology. What people believe, how they behave toward one another, and what holds them together or pushes them apart is to me the core of human religious social dynamics. 

Having finished college at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas (way back in 1999), it caught my eye recently when I saw Cabot and Searcy mentioned in connection with some United Methodist difficulties. It seems that this past November the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church refused to ratify disaffiliation agreements for three churches in which there was a super-majority in favor of leaving. The churches in question are located in Jonesboro, Cabot, and Searcy. I don't know if I ever went to Jonesboro, but I doubt it. Searcy I got to know quite well, living there for two years. As for Cabot, I drove through there on my way to either Jacksonville to visit a church or to Little Rock to do some shopping. 

The Jonesboro and Searcy United Methodist parishioners have opted to sue for their freedom, since the conference wouldn't give it to them. The Cabot UMC took a path I find much more interesting. The majority, who wanted to go the independent, conservative route, simply left. The final Sunday as a single congregation was on Christmas, and the very next week 320 now-former members gathered at a local school for worship separately. They left behind only 130 people at Cabot United Methodist Church, and evidently only one of their pastors stayed on. 5 choir members were left, which was not enough for them to continue. Even the organist was gone. 

On the brighter side, some wealthy individual stepped up anonymously to pay off the mortgage on the UMC building, giving them some security as they sort themselves out. There was evidently even enough left over to help with some expenses in the meantime, giving the church some runway. Additionally, a university student was found to play the piano for worship, and 16 people have expressed interest in joining the choir. With fewer people, some of the more timid are perhaps finding the courage to step up and take a more active role. 

What I find darkly amusing, on the other hand, is the optimistic view about church growth that the pastors of the two groups are expressing to the press. The lead minister of the split-off group cited "research" that he believes indicates that "new churches reach new people." In reality, new churches tend to attract people who are already believers and looking for a new church. Similarly, the minister of the UMC parish that remains was quoted as saying that "[b]iblically, churches split and more people come to know Christ [as a result]. So that's not a bad thing." I'm not sure where the 'biblically' part comes in, unless he's talking about the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over Mark, which resulted in each going his own way in preaching the Gospel. That feels like a little bit of a stretch in terms of application in this case.

The general reality for Christianity in America today is that it is in decline. As evangelicals continue to oppose human rights in favor of a puritanical view of morality. take a hateful stance against those who differ from their vision of the world, and attempt through Christian nationalism to regain coercive power over others, their mask is off and more people are seeing the ugly truth. While I believe that both of these specific churches may well find a way to grow again along their own paths, the demographic trend away from their beliefs, whether mainline or evangelical, will only continue to decline.

And that's good for all of us. 

See Also:

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

How Evangelicalism Dominated the United States

Midjourney AI
You really should read through the article "More people have noticed Christianity’s decline in America" by Cassidy McGillicuddy. It seems as though I've been reading many of the same books and articles as her, though she's managed to synthesize all of it far more coherently than me. I just want to comment on a few parts of her excellent writing on the topic of the decline of Christianity in the United States.

In Nonverts, Bullivant points out that America may have lagged behind other secularizing countries because of how patriotism got indelibly linked with intense Christian faith. To be atheistic, to criticize Christians’ stranglehold on government and culture for any reason, was to implicitly declare oneself a traitor—and even the enemy of all that was good. In particular, Americans linked communism, which was their big enemy during the Cold War, to atheism.

That's exactly what happened. During that time, to not be attending a church was pretty much the same as declaring oneself an atheist and potentially a communist, both of which were considered anti-patriotic. In the post-WWII era, there was no room for dissent when it came to declaring America 'great.' This was so much the case than many atheists reportedly found a safe haven in Unitarian churches. It gave them the appearance of respectable church-going, without the dogma or even necessary affirmation of faith in God. 

One of the Christian leaders who came to prominence in those same days, Billy Graham, became a powerful voice for decades by asserting the imagined links between faith, American-style democracy, and patriotism. The high-level politicians he advised, like Dwight Eisenhower, came to “evoke faith as a weapon against communism, just as Graham had done.” 

A few months ago I read "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America" by Kevin M. Kruse and was shocked at a few points. One of the biggest learnings from this was the major role Billy Graham played in steering the United States into rampant patriotic evangelical Christianity. When he passed away in 2018 the media and some politicians kept referring to him as "America's pastor," and he became the first religious leader to lie in honor at the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. I thought it was strange that he'd be called the nation's 'pastor' since he was in practice more of an evangelist, and his sermons were always evangelistic but not pastoral. As his son Franklin Graham took the spotlight more and more, I took deep offense at what I thought was a contrasting, hateful viewpoint coming from him. He seemed in practice nothing to me like his father. Now I know how wrong I was.

Billy Graham used every bit of influence he could muster to promote conservative evangelical hegemony. He was in deep with Richard Nixon, and while he may have softened some later in life, he was certainly a lifelong believer in the Republican Party and the necessary tie between Christianity and American patriotism. He should receive the lion's share of the credit for laying the foundation of Christian nationalism in the United States today.

Very quickly, the internet connected people. It also gave them spaces to build communities of their own that entirely lacked Christian control and oversight. In those spaces, doubting Christians could network with other doubters and find answers. Often, these were not the hand-waving “Sunday School answers” that their church leaders gave—or approved. When these Christians deconverted, their online communities provided them with space to deconstruct their beliefs and discuss their frustrations.

This is something I've heard time and again from ex-Mormons in particular. Before the internet it could be quite difficult to find opposing views to the religious faith in which one was raised, especially if the person lived in an area dominated by a particular religion. This is especially true of Utah, where a little over 60% of the population holds membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This condition of being sheltered religiously holds true in other places as well though, such as the American South, where fully 76% identify as Christian. 34% of those are white evangelicals. In such places even the public libraries can be short on material that goes against the dominant local narrative. With the advent of the internet people have been able to find and share information, and critical thinkers with questions soon become doubters and, in many cases, unbelievers.

At the same time as McGillicuddy highlights, it isn't just about shared information. People have formed and found communities online that share their perspectives and identities. When I was in my early and mid-teens the consumer internet was still a few years away, so all my reading about other religious beliefs was very solitary. No one that I knew shared the same interest as me. Had the internet been available, I might have made a different decision than leaving the Roman Catholic Church for mainline  Protestantism and then evangelical Christianity, because in addition to information I could have found people to identify with and bounce ideas off of. This is vitally important now for the most vulnerable teens, such as LGBTQ+ youth who have religiously conservative parents. Conformity for them means fewer conflicts, while coming out while they are teens can lead to expulsion from the home or even being sent off to a Christian youth home in hopes of making them deconvert. The internet provides them access to support to keep it together, hopefully, until they are old enough to safely move away from home. 

When I was growing up I was taught that the United States was the "land of the free" and that we didn't have an established church. It was a point of pride. And yet, we had the next worst thing in a religio-political ideology that maintained coercive control over our lives. Most simply accepted it as the way things were. No more is this the case, and as far as I'm concerned, evangelical Christianity can't die out fast enough. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Friday, January 13, 2023

Projeto Querino (Podcast)

Podcast do projeto Querino. Em oito episódios, a série mostra como a História explica o Brasil de hoje. Uma história que talvez você ainda não tenha ouvido, lido ou visto. Idealizado e apresentado pelo jornalista Tiago Rogero, o podcast é uma produção da Rádio Novelo.

O projeto Querino é apoiado pelo Instituto Ibirapitanga.

Para conteúdos adicionais, acesse: http://projetoquerino.com.br/

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Highlighting the Saint Leo DBA Program with Dr. Dale Mancini, Current Students, & Alumni (Podcast)

Eventually, someday, I would like to obtain a Doctoral degree. I had thought for a long time that it would be a Doctor of Ministry, since my early ambitions in life were to be a minister. While that degree is still a possibility, the Doctor of Business Administration is, for me, a very attractive alternative. However, I wouldn't recommend anyone in my line of work obtain a DBA either early in mid-career. Ageism is real, and the last thing I need as I approach my 50s is something to justify being told that I'm 'too senior' for a role. No, for me a DBA is a captstone to a career, something that should lead to consulting work or, in my case, contribute to ministry capabilities. Specifically, since I'm planning to shift into non-profit work, with a view towards community development, the management and leadership expertise that comes with earning a DBA could be very worthwhile. 

Episode Description

In this episode of the Saint Leo 360 podcast, we feature a recording from a recent information session on the Saint Leo DBA program. The discussion features information on the program from Dr. Dale Mancini, director of this doctoral program, along with testimonials from current students and alumni of the program. They covered:

  • The benefits of earning a doctoral degree and how a terminal degree can greatly benefit graduates in the job market
  • Why the Saint Leo DBA program stands out
  • Admission requirements for those interested in applying
  • When students can start the Saint Leo DBA program at certain times throughout the year
  • Examples of courses and topics covered in the program
  • How supportive the faculty members are who teach in the program
  • Success stories from current students enrolled in the program and alumni who have completed it
Learn More about the Saint Leo DBA Program

Check out the Saint Leo DBA program page to learn more about this unique doctorate program offered by Saint Leo University.

Have additional questions about this program? Contact Dr. Dale Mancini, director of the Saint Leo DBA program, at (352) 588-7199 or at dale.mancini@saintleo.edu.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Chaplaincy on the Rise

Midjourney AI
As the United States becomes increasingly 'spiritual but not religious,' we're seeing a steep decline in church attendance, leading over time to church closures. It's quite possible that the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the process. Since humans are creatures of habit, once we get out of the habit of going to church we might lose it for good. Still, people aren't necessarily becoming atheists on their way out the church door. What turns us off is dogma and hypocrisy, but that doesn't leave us automatically believing that there is no spiritual reality. And, even people like me who no longer embrace supernatural beliefs find value in a form of secular spirituality. So while we're losing houses of worship, there is a type of ministry that continues on: chaplaincy. 

Dr. Anne Klaesyen is a Leader Emerita of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and she is also Humanist Chaplain at New York University (NYU) and Ethical Humanist Religious Life Adviser at Columbia University. I got to know her while I was an organizer and then board member for Sunday Assembly NYC, which for a time before it shut down met at the Ethical Culture building on Central Park West in New York. She is deeply knowledgeable and very personable, and so I was amused to read the following last year in an article:

When Anne Klaeysen first applied to be the humanist chaplain at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, in the mid-2000s, the deans interviewing her went straight to the point: “The other chaplains want to know,” they said, “if you’re a religion-hating atheist.” Klaeysen readily assured them that no, she didn’t hate religion, but wasn’t surprised by the assumption. 

While now in 2022 it's practically commonplace for Humanist chaplains to serve in universities and other settings (although the US military, dominated by evangelicals, continues to refuse to acknowledge them), but just over a decade ago it was considered highly unusual. In reality, the beliefs of the chaplain are not at the forefront (at least, they really shouldn't be) in an interaction with someone seeking their services. Whether a Humanist, United Methodist, Sikh, or whatever else, the chaplain is there to walk with the individual or family through a challenging time. The chaplain facilitates discernment within the scope of the worldview of the people they are serving. 

In interviews I conducted with chaplains in greater Boston, all said they work around end of life care, and almost all engage with people’s big-picture life questions – what one chaplain described to me as people’s peripheral vision, the questions hovering just out of sight until a crisis forces them into view. Rather than offering answers, chaplains offer a listening ear. Describing her work in a hospital, one explained her role as creating “a bit of a holding space” and to “validate what a person is feeling and give them some sense of hope or stability in the midst of chaotic times.”

According to our recent survey on demand for chaplains’ services, about half of people who connected with a chaplain did so in health care settings, including hospices. Respondents said that chaplains listened to them, prayed, offered spiritual or religious guidance, or comforted them in a time of need. “He was just so compassionate with my mom and I when we lost my grandfather, and it was a sudden loss,” one participant recalled of meeting with a chaplain. “I knew then God had sent him there to help me deal with the pain and loss.” Another said: “We talked for hours and he truly seemed to understand the path my life had been on. I will never forget his kindness!”

Others said chaplains helped them negotiate conflict, advocated on their behalf, or directed them to resources. Loss, mental and emotional health, death and dying, and dealing with change were frequent topics of conversation. Respondents described chaplains as compassionate, good listeners, knowledgeable, helpful and trustworthy. Those who were not religiously affiliated interacted with chaplains in similar ways as those who are not. (Wendy Cadge)

When I was in my early 20s the ministry training program I was in took a field trip of sorts to a hospital, where we learned about the chaplaincy program. I found it all very interesting, and gained a respect for the type of work they do. At the same time, I was certain it wasn't for me, because I wanted to be able to share my faith (at the time I was evangelical), and I was already committed to mission service in Brazil. Now, in my late 40s (and as a Humanist), it's no longer so far-fetched for me to imagine going into that line of ministerial work. It would be good to simply be there for people, using professional tools and techniques that have been proven to help. 

None of this is to say I'll be quitting my day job any time soon, nor that it's my ultimate career goal, but if I were a young person considering ministry now I'd definitely look more to chaplaincy that parish ministry. Parish openings are drying up with the decline of organized religion, while institutions will no doubt continue hiring chaplains to attend to the spiritual hurt of clients as part of their overall care.

See Also:

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The United Methodist Church Split (Video)

The following video explains quite well the current situation with the division in the United Methodist Church. As much as I thought I already knew, this brought even more to my attention. For example, I hadn't heard of the Methodist Collegiate Church as an alternative comparable to the Global Methodist Church. Personally, it looks to me like further confirmation of my belief that new denominations form instead of churches and ministers going to other existing denominations because of a need for control. 

Monday, January 9, 2023

Making a Ministry Through Online Ordination

Most of the time it seems that people apply for ordination online for one of two reasons. Either it's a joke to the people involved, or it's a practical matter of being able to officiate weddings. Really, in the United States the only ceremony that would legally require an ordained minister is marriage, since it has an impact on vital statistics and public records. Baptisms and other religious ceremonies need no government support, and so could be performed by anyone. I wonder how common it is for someone to seek ordination through the Universal Life Church or another, similar group to do so with the intention of actually starting a ministry. As I've already noted elsewhere, there is more prestige (though it's diminishing, in our secularizing society) in being traditionally ordained than through an online organization, and formal preparation tends to produce more effective or at least more enduring ministries. That said, here are some ways I think a person could make a go of valid ministry starting only with ULC ordination.

First, someone in underserved areas can fill a niche. For example, in many rural areas it is common for there to only be ministers of a conservative evangelical profile available. If an engaged couple wants to get married without the baggage of that specific religious viewpoint, options can be few. The same goes especially for same sex couples in such area. A person with a valid ULC ordination could offer wedding services to suit the couple, without discrimination. Further, if the minister is established in the area, she can offer other services as well over time, such as christening, baptism, baby naming, child welcoming, funerals/memorials/celebrations of life, and more. Without necessarily having to organize a local church, such a minister could provide all the traditionally-available rites, perhaps with some major modifications to suit the people involved, and have a sustained ministry. This could be viewed as a business, or as an earnest ministry to the wider community. Or, both.

Second, as I have highlighted previously, if someone wishes to become a Board Certified Chaplain, there is a way to do that that includes the Universal Life Church. The original ULC, based out of Modesto, California, is able to endorse chaplains for this purpose. No other ULC body currently has this ability. So, if someone were to want to really make a career out of chaplaincy (outside of the US military, which still doesn't recognize any ULC ministers), this would begin with being ordained through ulchq.com. Then the future chaplain would need to enroll in an accredited MDiv program or similar as well as complete a few units of Clinical Pastoral Education. These are all outlined on the website of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Along the way the student chaplain will be making the connections needed to progress in the field, so that by the time they apply for certification with the APC, calling on the ULC for endorsement, they'll already be pretty well along in their new career. 

Third, a ULC minister could go the traditional route of starting a new congregation. It wouldn't have to be affiliated with the ULC formally. In reality, if someone already has enough people to legally incorporate, the ULC ordination shouldn't really be necessary. The church board can simply vote to ordain someone as a minister, if that's how the bylaws are written, and it will be a legal reality. 

There are ways to enter ministry without taking the long road through a traditional denomination, but to make it really work a great deal of effort will still be required. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Online Ordination No Threat to Traditional Ordained Ministry

Midjourney AI 2022
So-called 'online ordination' doesn't make a lot of traditionally trained and ordained ministers very happy. At least, that's what I've picked up on over the years online. I get it, to a certain extent. Ministers in mainline denominations (United Methodist, Presbyterian Church, Episcopal, etc) are generally required to complete a Master of Divinity degree at an accredited theological school, as well as complete internships and perhaps a unit or two of Clinical Pastoral Education. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to be ordained can just log onto the Universal Life Church website and submit a request for ordination in a minute or so. Submitting the request through that specific site means that the aspiring minister need not even pay. A certificate will arrive free of charge to the address provided. With free ordination, for life and without any real requirements, it's only natural that other ordained ministers would feel that their calling is being diminished. However, I don't see it that way, and here's why.

First, ordination through a more traditional route is far from a solitary venture. Where the person seeking ordination online or through the mail is having that experience alone, someone seeking to become a minister along more conventional lines is engaged throughout the process with other members of their faith. For example, when I was 17 or 18 I told the pastor of my Presbyterian Church (USA) parish that I sensed a calling to ministry. The first step for me was to meet with the session, which in that polity is the governing body of the local parish. I explained to them what I was thinking and feeling, and we discussed next steps. Had I continued along that path I would have been introduced further up the chain as time went on, as I pursued first a bachelor's degree, and then an MDiv. Though the exact procedure varies from denomination to denomination, in general there is always a social aspect to one's journey into ministry. 

Although I have thus far only witnessed two ordinations in my Unitarian Universalist tradition, in both cases there were people present giving testimony, in a manner of speaking, to the preparation the ordinand went through, and the good things they did along the way. In both cases, friends, family, and parishioners gathered to witness and celebrate the ordination. 

None of what I have described would apply in the case of ordinations through an online application. Ordination in every other setting is truly a communal experience.

Second, the ordained minister in a more established denomination has a network and resources available that is not present for ordained ministers with the Universal Life Church or the Church of the Latter Day Dude. Along the road to ordination the traditionally ordained minister will have formed a network in seminary and within the denomination upon which they can rely. Further, the denomination provides access to resources for ministry that can prove quite useful. Meanwhile, the best the ULC or others have to offer are unaccredited, honorary degrees and a smattering of books and materials. There is no real network of contacts, either. In times past these had online forums, and whatever they were worth, they're gone now. Once again, the online ordained minister is left disconnected from any larger body of believers and clergy.

Third, the higher requirements of the mainline denominations tend to produce better-prepared clergy. By that I don't mean that they are necessarily more evangelistic or effective at church growth, by any means. If that were the case, the mainline churches would have been dying for all these decades. What I do mean is that if I had to choose between seeking counsel with an Episcopal priest or a nondenominational Pentecostal preacher, I'd go with the former if I wanted some level of competence. That's not what a lot of people want, though. People want easy answers, and the easiest answers come from people who take the Bible literally (when it's convenient for them, of course) and never learned to think more deeply. But let's look at this from a less negative angle.

When I was in college, studying for Christian service, I had intended to go for a Master of Divinity. In fact, that was part of a personal commitment I made when I decided to 'answer the call' to do mission work in Brazil. I wanted to be thoroughly prepared, to know the Bible inside and out, and be equipped to serve in every way I could. I was encouraged in this decision by someone who, hearing about it, told me that historically the missionaries who lasted longest overseas through a particular sending agency were those with higher levels of ministry preparation. However, when I graduated with my Bachelor of Ministry degree in late 1999, I was tired of academia and anxious to get to 'the mission field.' So I packed up and headed off to Brazil, where I only remained a few years. I've always regretted not having spent the extra time to prepare, not just academically, but also socially and through experience ministering more in the United States. 

Ordained ministers of traditional denominations are not threatened by online ordination, unless of course they're concerned about officiating weddings and funerals as a supplementary revenue stream. So far as I can tell, the main practical reason anyone ever gets ordained through the internet is in order to legally officiate a wedding. They have no intention of starting a church, and they certainly couldn't compete with traditionally ordained ministers for pulpits. After all, denominations have their own search and call policies, and most local parishes aren't going to be interested in hiring someone with no preparation whatsoever.