COMMENT ON Used to Be UU: The Systemic Attack on UU Liberalism: What You Need to Know, What You Need to Do
by Frank Casper and Jay Kiskel, 2021
Posted on Amazon 2021 July 28

     I quit the UUMA after learning about the way Todd Eklof (whom I have never met) was treated, but with earlier encounters with the self-righteous group-think apparently in UU leadership these days. Still, my personal experience with the UUMA, problematic as it has been, is comparatively slight, though is consistent with the outrageous behavior of UUMA officials reported in this book.
     But I wonder if the fancy arguments about Critical Race Theory and Postmodernism are basically a subtext (or supertext) for power struggles arising from the tendency, so evident from the 1967 General Assembly onward, to turn the denomination away from its focus on supporting local congregations to a political agenda, varying over the years in hue and tint.
     I am sorry that the authors of this book present such a cramped and misleading view of Postmodernism, citing writers of no particular academic distinction in the field, though I cannot dispute that some noxious variants of "Postmodernism" may be used in UU theological education. (Richard Rorty, for example, a moral and political philosopher worthy of admiration, is often classified as a Postmodernist in the tradition of Pragmatist John Dewey.) The idea that valuing reason is an Enlightenment gift ignores much of world history, and specifically the long Western tradition from the ancient Greeks though Aquinas forward. The Enlightenment in many ways distorted religion and corrupted society (as William Blake saw so well so early), and the very first of the Six Sources, by specifying "transcending mystery" corrects and supplements one of the many defects of the Enlightenment project. Similarly, the implication that the idea of democracy originates from the Enlightenment is quite arguable.
     All this is unnecessary to the main point the authors seem to be making, and which needs to be made. I wish the writers had minimized the philosophical arguments and focused even more on the power struggle. Those who wish to recover some integrity for the UUA need not respond so much to the way the authoritarians use Critical Race Theory to define the argument. Why let the authoritarians establish the grounds on which the contest takes place?
     Nonetheless, this book is an extraordinary exploration of the crises affecting Unitarian Universalism. Most people have some sense of fairness, and the manifest unfairness the authoritarians have exhibited, and the unfair control they seek, would be the grounds on which the contest might be most easily transparent, whatever the outcome. Invoking Martin Luther King Jr's understanding of, and vision for, America, may be a better platform for discussion than distortions of Critical Race Theory.
     As a retired UU minister who worships as a layman in a more friendly denomination (integrated in all ways without the power struggles the UUs have perpetuated), it cost me little to quit the UUMA, though I cherish friendships among colleagues. I worry for those who have been slandered and abused by the authoritarians. This book is of great value to inform and arouse those who wish a moral and effective denominational order in keeping with the Fifth Principle, to embrace the living tradition of the liberal faith.
     The liberal tradition seems a better path to the "Beloved Community" than the road the self-important critics of honest discussion who want to use their power to suppress questions and the democratic method. The danger for those who shut down honest exchange the disaster that follows from playing in the Karpman Drama Triangle where the victim (or the rescuer) becomes the oppressor. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the Karpman Drama Triangle.) The danger for the rest of us is finding ways to avoid entanglement in the game while seeking to transmit a heritage of great value to the future.
     The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn
     minister emeritus, Center for Religious Experience and Study


There are no points for reading my notes, so skip this email without guilt if you like.


2021/Jul/28 --
 Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera)  -- Idomeneo


One of my favorite tenors, Michael Polenzani (an American!) is singing the title role in Mozart's opera seria "Idomeneo" in a free German production. He has fantastic breath control and can sing both robustly and tenderly, in both classical and romantic styles. So I "tuned in" this morning after Ben and I got back from our walk and I put aside some of the stuff on my desk that can wait a while. So far I think the production is stupid and annoying, the camera work distracting, etc. The singing (and music) is utterly glorious, and the clash of emotions begins this opera. (Several characters so far are in conflict with themselves, one, for example,  Ilia, a Trojan princess who is in love with Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, the Greek (Crete) king, and feels that loving him is a betrayal of her love of her country and father.)  Idamante, a prince of upright and generous character, is told that his father, whom he loves but has not seen for years because of the war, has just been ship-wrecked and is dead. Throughout the opera the various gods, particularly Neptune, are cursed and praised. As it turns out Idomeneo vows to Neptune that if Neptune will save him, he will sacrifice the first person he sees when he arrives home. Idamante now is on the shore, lamenting his dear father's death, when his father, Idomeneo, appears, hears his son's lament and love for him and realizes he is bound to kill his own beloved son. When they both recognize each other, Idomeneo will have nothing to do with his son and does not explain his vow, and Idamante's joy at finding his father alive turns to confusion and perplexity about being rejected. This, just 38 minutes into the 3-hour opera, is where I had to stop because the emotion was so overwhelming (even though it is expressed is such a stylized fashion), I needed a breather. I love this opera, and through twists and turns, it has a happy ending for all but one character.


Finished the opera. Absolutely silly and distracting staging, with the singing and the orchestra superb anyhow. I was hardly thrilled to see Idomeneo given a sandwich and a can of beer. And Elettra's death scene: was that suicide by grease or chocolate or what? The Met's production, when she collapsed from her own jealously, was so superior to this gimmick. Earlier the lights flashing on the audience made no sense. So much extraneous activity on the stage throughout much of the performance. Are opera lovers in Munich just distract-able tic-tok kids? Staging and choreography (not to mention the stupid costumes, if you can call overalls costumes) should support and even enhance the acting and the music, instead of pulling our attention away from the moving drama with magnificent acting. The execution scene was well-staged, and again I had to get a grip on myself to continue.Polenzani's performance was well-applauded, but I have to say that the entire cast was excellent as was the conducting, though I did find the use of a modern piano in one place distracting, almost to say <See, this is like a Mozart piano concerto>. I'm not absolutely sure, but I recall this was an area, not a recitativo secco.


Thanks to Patrick for directing me to free music now that the Met series has ended.

I can't figure out those Germans. German productions I have seen are gimmicky to distraction. Elucidate, Patrick.

I tickle to think what they will do to TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, as maybe this is the opera that could use some distraction.


    Constantinos Carydis
    Antú Romero Nunes
    Dustin Klein
Set Design
    Phyllida Barlow
Costume Design
    Victoria Behr
    Michael Bauer
Set Design Assistant
    Anna Schöttl
    Rainer Karlitschek
    Stellario Fagone

    Matthew Polenzani
    Emily D'Angelo
    Olga Kulchynska
    Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
    Martin Mitterrutzner
Oberpriester Poseidons
    Caspar Singh
Die Stimme (Orakel)
    Callum Thorpe
    Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
    Extrachor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Patrick sent this in response:


What a great piece of writing! This article confirms a number of complaints I had about the trashy Idomeneo production that I didn't mention in my rant. I was interested in the complaint that too many opera goers don't know music, don't know chamber music, etc. Do you think this is true in the US?

(Questions,quibbles about the piece: I don't know enough about Corelli's acting, but I have to say I think he was a fantastic singer. Also I don't know what third-rate Handel operas he might be thinking of. I love all the Handel I've seen.)

I cannot join you in what seems a wholesale condemnation of Peter Sellars. OK, much of his stuff is trash, but his direction of  Nixon in China for the Met was fine, and I would like to see his Idomeneo -- . (This review errs in saying Idomeneo is the only Mozart opera Sellars has done.) While I prefer a traditional Don Giovanni, as troubled as I am about the opera itself, his setting as a NY gang scene does illuminate some aspects of the work. Also I can't complain about his libretto of Dr Atomic.

Anyhow, the article you linked me to makes me appreciate the Met even more. It sometimes goes astray in its productions, but mostly does either traditional or justifiable Regietheatre,as for example Agrippina.

Thanks, thanks, thanks for sending me to this amazing article. It is comfort in my prejudiced old age.



Sorry, in my opinion, this article is a mass of ignorance, confusion, and distortion. The idea that "Panpsychism is gaining steam in science communities" is risible.

An outline of what I think:

1. Everything insofar as it interacts with other things, is "conscious" if by "consciousness" you mean the ability to respond. A salt suspended in water will tend to grow into a crystal. A ball hit by a bat will maybe deliver a home run. I think this is a rather trivial meaning of "consciousness," but I grant the point offered in the article's childish survey of ideas. Organelles like mitochondria and organisms like trees have a more sophisticated "consciousness" as they "relate" to others of their kind or to their environment, with what might even look like, to use anthropomorphic language, a sense of "community." A classic example, of course, is an ant colony. I do not think it is terribly useful to bring "science" into justifying the holy sense of awe humans may feel about such phenomena, as when some native Americans may, to movingly, talk about the "rock people."

2. Degrees of "consciousness" as we more ordinarily use the term can be asserted of creatures that have some sense of self, likely members of the Corvidae family, the Cephalopoda, certainly many mammals such as elephants, dogs, chimps, whales, and homo sapiens. A sense of self is possible when a creature not only has a model understanding of the world (such as up and down, what is good to eat, etc) but that model includes (recursively) oneself. Thus I have a picture, a model of the world which includes John, Patrick, Paul, Luke, and mountains, trigonometry, history, peaches, clocks, weather, and so forth -- and myself, which John, Patrick, Paul, Luke perceive differently, and in some respects may be more apt than my own model of myself.

3. The sense of self is always incomplete and fragmentary, and the notion of identity -- embedded in the idea of an eternal soul -- is misleading, of necessity because of its incompleteness. We even have expressions like, "I am of two minds about that."

4. Religious ideas like "soul" or "atman" can be both beautiful and destructive, just as identity politics can be both instructive and calamitous.

5. Myself (myselves, better) as I write prefer the ur-Buddhist analysis, which pretty much agrees with recent psycological studies, namely, a person is a complex of many consciousnesses (not to mention "body memory, etc), and at death all that falls apart, even as in life it is constantly shifting and changing. I like the metaphor I've offered before of the mind as a corporation with competing departments and shifting CEOs with changing attention.

6. Technically, I am anti-reductionist and I am much closer to the ancient Hebrew understanding of the person (there was no thought of individual survival after death: immortality was a group thing) than to the dualism afflicting us from Plato, Augustine, and Descartes. I am fond of Michael Polanyi's notion of tacit knowledge. In practice, I think it is more useful to think about character as Aristotle put it, what a person chooses and shuns. The soul this not a thing; the soul is a succession of activities. Instead of the distinction between body and soul, I am intrigued by polarities like substance and function.

7. Arguments of course most welcome.

Yours truly but so imperfectly,
Vern the Void

on July 21, 2021 at 10:39 pm | ReplyVERN BARNET
Agreed. And what about the MO Lottery? Isn’t there a similar dynamic of preying on those among the most vulnerable? It is one thing for “riverboat” private “enterprise” to promote gambling, bad enough; but I think it is wicked for governments to do so — even for a worthy purpose. The devil appears as an angel of light.

on July 22, 2021 at 8:18 am | Replyjimmycsays
I agree with you completely about the lottery, Vern. Once the “riverboat” wakes hit Missouri, it was only a matter of time before the state got its grubby hands into the action…How many times have you been behind some poor-looking people at QT and had to wait while the clerk rang up their cigarettes, six-pack and lottery tickets?