Posts Tagged hope

Open Doors to Many Rooms

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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Social Incarnation

“There’s no such thing as a good individual in isolation; rather there is a good individual in relationship: the decisive forms of virtue are socially incarnated.”  Here’s my reflection on hope in dismal times.

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

“… and so we light the Candle of Hope.  May its flame remind us of the eternal hope of the human spirit: that each person may grow for themselves a life of meaning; that this congregation may be a beloved community for all who seek it; and that our world may both celebrate our common humanity and embrace our human differences.”

Candle of Hope lit on an Advent WreathIf you’re familiar with our tradition of the Advent Wreath, you’ll know that we lit the first candle, the Candle of Hope, on Sunday morning.  This Sunday we’ll relight it and also light the Candle of Faith.  The Sunday after that, along with the first two, we’ll light the third candle, the rose-colored Candle of Joy.  And the Sunday after that, once all of the others have been relit, we’ll light the Candle of Love.  So by Christmas all…

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Lighting the Windows of Our Lives

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.

Christmas Eve photograph by Rosalee Pfister

There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all…

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Seeking a Song of Love

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

A hand that’s warm in friendship strong,
that lifts us up when things go wrong
and builds a church where — more than creeds —
we count our blessings in good deeds:
our hands can offer hope’s embrace
to make the world a better place.
— additional fifth verse to hymn 300, “With Heart and Mind”

While in Denver for my seminary studies at the Iliff School of Theology, I also worked for the Mountain Desert District, first as Youth Chaplain and then as interim Youth Ministry Coordinator.  Working with teenagers and their UU congregations from New Mexico to Wyoming, from Texas to Utah, I witnessed their youthful struggles with matters of personal and religious identity, with questions of morality and justice, and with attempts to put their hopes and aspirations into words.  In other words, exactly the same…

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Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yahad!
How rare it is, how lovely, this fellowship of those who meet together!
— Psalm 133

The house was alive with activity, from elders catching up on their news to children chasing one another through the doorways.  Those not assisting in the preparations would be shooed out of the kitchen, where the cooks were in a state of frenzy getting everything ready.  There were bowls of appetizers everywhere, to try to delay some of the impatience of hunger; olives were particularly popular.  And in what was otherwise the living room, every table and chair in the house had been gathered to make a long dining table with enough space for the whole family to sit down together.  It was Passover at my grandmother-in-law’s house in Philadelphia.

Soon after Allison and I…

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One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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Harry Potter and the Standardized Test

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 7th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

During the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the Ministry of Magic tries to take over the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.  Some of this is driven by the supporters of the evil Lord Voldemort who work at the Ministry of Magic; they create a smear campaign to discredit Harry, who personally witnessed Voldemort’s rebirth, as well as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Some of it is driven by the personal paranoia of the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and is instead convinced that Dumbledore is raising a secret army to make himself the new Minister of Magic.

The agent of interference at Hogwarts is Fudge’s Senior Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, whose pinkly saccharine manner belies a cruel and vindictive soul.  At first she is on the staff as a teacher, but then becomes acting headmaster when Dumbledore is removed.  Through an ever-growing number of Educational Decrees issued by the Ministry of Magic, which are framed and hung on the wall outside the Great Hall, Umbridge imposes her draconian rule over the students, the teachers and all other aspects of school life.

In the end, though, it is the students themselves who fight back, with Harry secretly training the others in the defensive spells that Umbridge refuses to teach them, and the Weasley twins Fred and George generating mayhem where appropriate.

In this scene from the movie, things come to a head during an “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exam that Harry and the other fifth-years are taking under Umbridge’s watchful eye.

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Standardized Test”

Some of you may not know this, but I actually went to school at Hogwarts.

Oh, I don’t literally mean the magical castle with its animated paintings, fantastic creatures, shifting staircases and energetic ghosts.  But from the age of seven until I was eighteen I did attend British boarding schools, with big halls where we ate our meals and took our exams, dormitories where we slept, and even houses into which we were sorted, though instead of being named Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, they had names such as Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.  Such schools were, of course, the basis for J. K. Rowling’s creation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which in a 2008 survey was, in spite of its fictional status, voted one of the best schools in Scotland.

And, of course, the British educational system generally was part of Rowling’s inspiration.  When I was in school we had two sets of nationwide exams that students took at the ages of sixteen and eighteen respectively.  At sixteen we all took the Ordinary or O-Levels in just about every school subject, which Rowling turned into the “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exams.  How each of us did in those determined which three or perhaps four subjects we might study for the next couple of years before taking the Advanced or A-Levels at eighteen, to which Rowling’s equivalents are the “Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests” or NEWT exams.

Now when I was working my way through the O- and A-Level system, there were, of course, other end-of-year exams, designed within the school, to test us on what we were supposed to have learned during the course of each school year.

Few of those exams, I should note, involved questions with multiple-choice answers.  Other than the occasional essay question, most questions required long answers, where we students were expected to provide not only an answer but to demonstrate the reasoning that went into figuring out that answer.  In fact, it was possible to get partial credit even for an incorrect answer, if some of the reasoning that went into it was still valid; on some exam questions the reverse might even be true, that a correct answer all by itself with no demonstration of how it was obtained would not receive full credit.

In college, too, there were similar exams, the final results of which were considered in regard to admission to graduate programs in the UK and by many potential employers, too.  But when I started down the path of applying to graduate schools in the US, I was told that I needed to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE as part of the admission process.  The GRE, I discovered, was nothing but multiple-choice, with the answers marked by filling in these little circles on a computer-readable form using a number-two pencil.  Oh, and I’m guessing that part of the pretty high fee we had to pay to take the GRE went toward shipping those number-two pencils from the US because that’s not how pencils are categorized in the UK.

Now fifteen years after I went down to London one very cold October morning to take the GREs, I found myself teaching other college graduates how to prepare for the exams.

I worked for one of the big test preparation companies, which the legally binding agreement I signed to get that job prevents me from mentioning, and during my time with them I helped people prepare for a number of the standardized tests that are used to help determine admission to higher education in the US.  I got to revisit a lot of grade-school math and English, though I was disappointed to discover that essays had replaced the abstract reasoning section that had been part of the GRE when I had taken it.  More than that, though, I felt like I had become part of a privileged inner circle that had been given the secrets to unlocking these standardized tests.  And I guess that’s part of the reason why people who can afford to do so — or whose parents can afford to do so — pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to take such test preparation courses and why the content of them is proprietary.

Now that’s not to say that being comfortable with arithmetic, algebra and geometry and having a good vocabulary and a good grasp of grammar aren’t important in these exams.  They certainly are.  But for most of the multiple-choice questions created for such standardized tests, being proficiently literate and numerate is very nearly besides the point.

For instance, knowing how to do long-division is actually a handicap on questions that look like they need long-division to answer.  Now I learned how to do long-division when I was eight, and I was so proud after the class where our teacher taught it to us, that I went back to my teacher from the previous year and showed her.  (Obviously she didn’t already know how or she’d have taught it to us herself.)  I remember whole sets of questions we were given for homework that involved doing long-division, as well as a more general emphasis in all of my school science classes that precision was something to be valued.  I don’t remember ever being taught with equivalent dedication about how it’s sometimes okay to estimate the answers to some long-division problems as opposed to calculating them, that in some circumstances estimation provides an answer that is good enough in its imprecision — or, as an old colleague of mine used to say, “close enough for government work” — but will at least do so faster.

So one example of a standardized test question is to find the answer to some horrible-looking division problem, like 2,393 over 607.  (I don’t use math to illustrate my sermons too often, and I hope this doesn’t induce any traumatic flashbacks in anyone!)  Now this problem is specifically designed for the student who knows how to estimate: that student quickly rounds the top up and rounds the bottom down and concludes that the correct answer is a little less than four, which of course matches just one of the possible answers on the test.  The student who knows how to do long-division, on the other hand, ends up with a more precise answer of 3.94…, which of course also matches just one of the multiple-choice answers, but they spent so long doing the long-division that they’re now four questions behind the student who estimated.  There’s also a bigger chance of making a mistake in calculating than in estimating.

So what is such a question actually testing?

In most situations in real life where long-division is actually needed, chances are it won’t lend itself nicely to estimation.  Remember that a problem like this is intentionally designed to benefit the student who knows how to estimate.  It’s an artificial problem in another way, too. Real life problems do not come with a pre-determined set of possible answers, one of which is guaranteed to be correct.  So the question is not testing the student’s ability to solve such a problem in anything like a realistic situation.

In these and all other such questions where there are tricks and tools for taking shortcuts to the correct answers, and even for improving your odds of simply guessing if that’s all you can do, the questions aren’t really testing students on what they appear, at first, to be about.  Most of the questions, in fact, are testing how well the students have learned to use the tools and the tricks, which means that what standardized tests are really testing is how good the students are at taking standardized tests.

Now I maintain that it is important for schools to assess students on what they’re learning, and when students from all over the country, even all over the world, need to be evaluated on as level a playing field as possible, it’s clear that tests that influence college admission decisions, for example, need to be standardized.  But let’s not kid ourselves that what standardized tests are really testing is anything other than the ability to do standardized tests.

And as a tool for evaluating teachers, when there are so many other factors at play such as the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students, the amount of support and encouragement that they’re getting from their families, standardized tests simply do not yield the accountability that was promised of them.  It’s not surprising that people have taken to referring to “No Child Left Behind” by other names such as “No Teacher Left Unshamed”.

All too many public school teachers find themselves “teaching to the test”, because that’s what matters most when it comes to their continued employment as teachers or even when it comes to the continued existence of their school.  Some school districts report that their teachers spend as much as forty-five days, in other words a quarter of the school year, in preparing and administering tests, even at the same time that the curriculum is dumbed down to be more suitable for standardized testing, sending higher level reasoning and critical thinking into the trash can right along with art and music.

Now in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of success when it comes to either student improvement or teacher accountability, the US relies upon standardized testing far more than any other economically developed nation.

The Texas program that was the prototype for “No Child Left Behind”, for instance, only appeared to be successful at the time because districts were fudging their numbers, such as by under-reporting dropout rates.  What’s more, reducing both students to test scores and teachers to test score producers gives the students incentives to cheat and gives the schools incentives to dump hard-to-teach students.  The culture of testing, in fact, enables what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”, where once again students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families are disproportionately impacted.

So the fact that Virginia’s testing regime is known by the initials S.O.L. is little more than a cruel irony.

Now I could continue by talking about how much standardized testing costs school districts, which now pay over a billion dollars a year to for-profit companies for the creation and administration of tests.  I could talk about how such tests fail to be teaching tools because they provide no evaluative feedback that closes the didactic loop in order to reinforce the original learning and guide continued improvement.  I could talk about how, with my daughter’s first birthday less than two weeks away, I’m conflicted about sending her, as and when, to public schools, given the culture of testing, and yet I believe supporting public education is the most important way we can resist the systematic destruction of the middle class that’s been taking place during the last two decades.

But I want to change gears and talk about how we, as Unitarian Universalists, do children’s religious education.  Aside from the fact that, right now, we’re doing a Summer RE program specifically based on the content of the Harry Potter stories, how we do RE may have more in common with J. K. Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts than with what goes on in public schools, even if that’s the parallel we tend to draw.

For all that we’ve embedded what we do for children in the larger process that has been named “life-span faith development”, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do may be better termed religious exploration.  But there’s one aspect of the word “education” that still holds value, if only we can remember to hang onto it, and that’s because it comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to draw forth”.

While secular education consists, at least in theory, of the imparting of the facts and skills deemed necessary for life in today’s world, religious education is a drawing forth of one’s inner being, building upon personal and shared experiences to grow a soul that is capable of shining life into today’s world.  It is, as poet William Butler Yeats noted, “not the filling of a [bucket], but the lighting of a fire.”  Or in the words of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, “The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”

It’s certainly important for religious education to include some didactic components — drawn, for example, from Unitarian Universalist history and theology as well as from the wisdom of the other faith traditions of the world — but they serve to support faith development in its largest sense, namely the formation of Unitarian Universalist identity at its best.  So within our Sunday school classes, we aim to give our children a basic understanding and appreciation of many different forms of spirituality and many different ways of approaching life, encouraging in them a respect for religious difference in general and for their own religious heritage in particular.

Religious education also needs to take place in age-appropriate ways and should take into account different learning styles.  I projected that long-division problem on the screen, for instance, because most of us are visual rather than auditory learners.  As Confucius is reputed to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember.”

Of course, Confucius completed that saying with “I do and I understand.”  We can’t just teach UU theory: we must teach UU practices, too.  Thus religious education extends beyond the congregation itself to the family setting as well.

I was actually stunned a few years ago when I realized that Sunday school alone only represents about forty hours of religious education each year.  That’s the equivalent of just one regular work week — fewer hours than were part of last week’s GoldMine youth leadership school — and yet we somehow think that that’s enough to teach our children about our faith and to help them grow up to be the sorts of adults we can only wish we were.  So no, the religious education of children and youth that takes place on Sunday morning should serve to support and enhance the religious education that they are receiving at home, rather than the other way around.  Parents are thus the primary religious educators of their own children and the congregation should provide them with the tools necessary to responsibly and successfully take on this role.  And, frankly, secular education should be viewed more like that, too.

Now I want to note that DRE Joanne does include activities for her RE classes that allow the lessons to be taken home and continued.  I’m pleased to know that many of you who are parents of children in RE here have used those activities at home and have given Joanne positive feedback on them.

A lot of how we do religious education ultimately comes back to the nature of Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition.  While most religions have a basis in creed, which is a particular statement of belief, Unitarian Universalism inherits from its religious forbears a basis in covenant, which is a particular standard of behavior.  As generally interpreted for the purposes of religious education, this means that the way of approaching belief is more important than the content of belief. In other words, while we have a vision of ourselves as a community that “offer[s] a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education”, we nevertheless strive to place the pursuit of truth within a context of respect, kindness, responsibility and fairness.  As Universalist minister and educator Angus MacLean put it, “The method is the message.”

Weirdly enough, that’s actually one of the philosophies of standardized test preparation.  One of the things we teachers tried to get our students to remember was that it wasn’t the content of the example problems we worked through with them that mattered.  Rather, it was the tricks and tools we used for tackling the problems that we wanted them to remember.  Any specific problem, after all, would probably never come up in a test in that exact way, so it was the general means of solving the problem that needed to be remembered.  We assumed that higher level of reasoning as part of preparing for test questions that didn’t require it!

And in the Harry Potter stories, what matters to Harry and Hermione and Ron throughout their seven years of battling Voldemort and his minions isn’t really the specifics of the spells and the potions that they learned at Hogwarts, though they certainly help.  What made a difference definitely wasn’t the narrow curriculum approved by the Ministry of Magic.  What did make a difference to them were the resources for courage and hope that they found within themselves and within one another, and the love that made them and their friends stronger together than they would have been alone.

And in the religious education we do here, what matters isn’t whether we know all the details of Unitarian Universalist history or can recite by rote the words of all Seven Principles and all Six Sources.  What matters are things that can’t possibly be evaluated by multiple-choice problems: that we bring a willing spirit; that we offer one another an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand; and that we engage together in this religious exploration by building upon our personal and shared experiences and dreams so that each of us may grow a soul that will shine life abundant into the world.

May it be so.

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