Sunday, May 02, 2010

Heart of the Beast

What's in store for today's May Day parade and festival in Minneapolis? I'm looking forward to finding out. While the "theme" is known (it is dealing with the Census), it's a matter of how it will be presented. And I love the way that the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre goes all out and really puts together a fantastic production year after year. This year's theme delves into questions that are not asked on the census such as "What if all the trees, beetles, fishes, the waters, worms and raccoons were counted?" and "What if we asked each other questions toward our wellbeing?"

The days events start with a parade through the streets of Minneapolis leading up to Powderhorn Park. Next will be the Tree of Life Ceremony and the Festival.

Will you be in Powerhorn Park this afternoon? Do you have another May Day Festival that you will be at?

Saturday, January 02, 2010


Don't even think of saying something that could be blasphemous in Ireland unless you intend to defend your statement to show that it has value. It could cost you a €25,000-($35,800) fine.

Ireland has passed a law, which took effect yesterday, making it illegal to make a statement, spoken or published, that is "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."

Sorry, but you no matter what you say and how you say it and what care you take to make sure you offend the least amount of people possible, you will offend people. Statements of personal opinions on matters as richly debated as religion have a high rate of causing offense.

And how are they to determine which statements to deem as blasphemous enough to be considered breaking this law? Will it be determined by the number of people it offends or will it be just a choice few officials who make the decision? How many people is a "substantial number" and who determines this as well? And how will they find out how many people it offends; by taking a poll? Come on.

I love that the Irish Atheists have published 25 blasphemous quotes from people such as Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI, Bjork, and Mark Twain thus breaking the new law.

What is the reasoning behind the law? Apparently, it is because of the influx of immigrants from all different backgrounds that has brought many beliefs and religions to Ireland. According to an article in the Guardian, a previous law only allowed protection to the Christian religion.

This law was supposed to add rights, then?

To say that you will be fined if you make blasphemous statements about any religion to protect a variety of beliefs seems a little twisted to me. Why not just say that all religions have the same protections and rights? Then, rights are being added rather then taken away.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

There is something that is so beautifully different about a lunar eclipse that draws people out to view it. Even on a bitterly cold night in Minnesota.

Watching the moon go from fully illuminated in all it's glory to glowing bright red and back to fully lit is a quite a spectacular event to witness.

Last night, a group of us met up for dinner and then drove a ways out to get away from the light pollution of the Cities. In between taking shots of the moon, we would jump back into the car to warm up. It was -5°F (-21°C) and we weren't going to take any chances of having our equipment (or our toes) freezing.

As we sat in the car between bouts of viewing and photography, we talked about the symbology of the moon. What the moon symbolizes, the utter confusion and chaos lunar eclipses caused in the past because of not knowing what was really happening, the religious significance that has been placed on the moon by many cultures and how some of the mystery of the moon has been lost due to modern science.

But, in the end, no matter how much we philosophized, nothing could take away the fact that last night, the moon was beautiful in all the stages of the eclipse.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Meaningful Religious Vocabulary In UU

Can Unitarian Universalists have a meaningful, common religious vocabulary as they have historically had difficulty with the various uses of religious language (Barker, 2004)? In the last few years, this question has brought on much discussion regarding different aspects of religious language and vocabulary within the Unitarian Universalist community (Barker, 2004; Muir, 2003; Arnink, 2003). This discussion has included issues such as what words are not acceptable to most Unitarian Universalists (Barker, 2004; Buechren & Church, 1998), words that are proposed for use within the Unitarian Universalist tradition (Arnink, 2003), problems implementing changes in language use (Latchkeys, 1974; Donovan, 1976), as well as what would constitute as being considered meaningful and how to emphasis that common meaning (Arnink, 2003; Barker, 2004).

One of the reasons why Unitarian Universalists are finding the subject of religious language an important one to talk about is that they are worried about retaining their members and attracting new ones (Barker, 2004). A common speculation regarding this issue has Unitarian Universalists wondering whether having a common language or talking about religion in a different way would help the religious movement to grow (Barker, 2004). As there has traditionally been tolerance for many religious viewpoints within the Unitarian Universalist faith, people fear that implementing a new vocabulary might have the effect of excluding their own personal beliefs (Barker, 2004).

Another reason that Unitarian Universalists seem to be longing for a common vocabulary could be due to the idea that religion would otherwise be a rather private experience without a common language (Donovan, 1976; Maslow, 1970). As most of our religious and spiritual experiences are experienced individually, humans have long had the need to create a language to express the emotions and the meanings behind those experiences (Maslow, 1970). If we cannot understand what someone is trying to explain regarding their personal religious experience, it makes it difficult for others to understand and relate to that person on a religious level. Binkley & Hicks (1962) mention that putting a meaning to our personal, spiritual experiences by the use of common words goes along with the reasoning that religious language helps people to understand religion itself.

Word Usage in Unitarian Universalism

Within Unitarian Universalism, the use (and non-use) of various religious words and phrases can be a blessing and a problem at the same time. So that everyone's beliefs can be acknowledged, many words that would commonly be used in various religions are rejected within the Unitarian Universalist community (Muir, 2003). For example, a word that is not commonly used within Unitarian Universalist language is the word "sin" (Buehren & Church, 1998). Buehren and Church (1998) go on to talk about the reason for this rejection regarding the Unitarian Universalist belief that people are born "good" and therefore they do not include the concept of original sin within their faith. It is also said that they typically chose not to use words like "sin" because of the associations of creed and dogma that usually come with the use of these types of words (Muir, 2003).

Another common word that is typically used in other traditions but is frowned upon within a Unitarian Universalist setting is the word "God." This can be demonstrated by the fact that the word "God" is not included in the Principles of Unitarian Universalism and people tend to get upset when there is any hint of people suggesting to include it into the Principles (Arnink, 2003). From my personal experience, the word "God" is not commonly used within church services; if the word is used, the speaker is often accused as being insensitive to the needs of those in the congregation who use other terms to describe their personal relationship with the divine (if they express their experience in such a way).

Instead of using words that are based in creed and dogma, Unitarian Universalists "dip into the language of science; [they] dip into the dictionary of psychology; sometimes [they] borrow words from politics, to describe what ordinarily the language of faith would be describing" (Muir, 2003, pg. 4). However, in recent years there has been a move towards a religious language that can be claimed by the Unitarian Universalist faith. An idea that has surfaced in the last few years is the idea of a language of reverence and it has become a hot topic in UU circles (Arnink, 2003). Arnink (2003) continues his discussion of a language of reverence by suggesting the word "mystery" for use in Unitarian Universalist language. Arnink (2003) talks about "mystery" as a way to describe personal experiences including those events that we have experienced in the past and those events that we could experience. At the same time, he suggests that we should not propose a particular "poetic image for this absolute Mystery" (Arnink, 2003, pg. 5).

Besides the offered suggestion of mystery, Arnink (2003) also suggests the use of metaphor for explaining our experiences to others. Arnink (2003) remarks that "when a metaphor 'grabs you' as somehow significant, meaningful, you can be assured that it is not speaking to you from the Great Beyond; it is speaking to you of some natural area of your experience" (pg. 9). In other words, metaphor is a useful tool to bring about and share the meaning behind our personal experiences. Arnink (2003) furthers this idea by mentioning that metaphors can be a way to confirm similar personal experiences as drawing associations between two perspectives which can be an effective tool in the understanding of someone else's experiences.

Implementing Change

While mystery and metaphor are only two of many examples of vocabulary changes that are proposed in the Unitarian Universalist language, there is also the issue of how to implement those changes. After all, each Unitarian Universalist church has a tendency to have a different feel to it in regards to congregational beliefs and the services lead by the minister of the church. With this in mind, it makes it difficult to create a language that is totally inclusive as what works for one group will not necessarily work for another. Therefore, any changes that are proposed to be included will bring about choruses of both yeas and nays.

Some problems with trying to create a religious language stem from the idea that we can not know exactly what other people mean as there can be many connotations and associations that go along with certain words. Rev. Victoria Safford (2007) mentioned this concept in a sermon when she said, "philosophers of language, linguists and theologians, argue a lot about the limits of what we actually can say to one another" (pg. 5). Unlike Maslow (1970), Safford suggests that it may be the language that comes before experience. She gives the example that "if you come from a tradition that has the word "forgiveness," then you are more likely to practice it or long for it" (Safford, 2007, pg. 5).

Along with the use of particular words, phrases, and abstract ideas, the use, and sometimes misuse, of religious language has sometimes been known as the "language game" (Raschke, 1974; Donovan, 1976). This term was used by some philosophers as a way to understand how we use religious language (Donovan, 1976). Donovan (1976) says "learning a religion and understanding the language is rather like learning to play a game," (pg. 88) where we learn the rules first and then learn to put those rules into action. To further our understanding of "the game," we need to put the knowledge of "the rules" into use as it brings on a whole different level of understanding (Raschke, 1974).

Meaningful Language

It is a common understanding and set of meanings that is ultimately what Unitarian Universalists are striving for (Muir, 2003). But what constitutes the idea of a meaningful religious language? Muir (2003) mentions three criteria for understanding the "relationship between our reality and the words we use to describe reality" (pg. 1): words that retain their integrity throughout many years, "understanding when our experiences exceed our vocabularies" (pg. 2), and that there are times when there are no words to describe our experiences. Even with these three guidelines, religious language is difficult as the words are often tied to dogma, especially Christian dogma (Muir, 2003). Because of Unitarian Universalism's rejection of dogma, there is a tendency towards using more secular (and scientific) language (Arnink, 2003; Muir, 2003).

Another point that Muir (2003) mentions in regards to making religious language meaningful is that since Unitarian Universalists are such a small percentage of the world's population, they need to incorporate other faith dictionaries instead of rejecting language that is already know. It is this that will help to bring about understandings between faiths rather than creating barriers by creating a whole new vocabulary for faith communities to learn (Muir, 2003). In other words, we need to keep ways of communication open between all faiths to bring about understanding.


Even though this is a subject that is being discussed more often in recent years, there is still much to consider before Unitarian Universalists can create and implement a common religious language. Issues such as word usage (including what is acceptable and what is not), the meanings of the new vocabularies and how to use them, as well as how to bring about the discussed changes to the general populations of Unitarian Universalists will require much more discussion before they will feel comfortable with making any changes. In the end, it could be that the Unitarian Universalist Association will have to decide on changes that will not be approved by everybody involved within the tradition. As Safford (2007) said near the end of her sermon, "The dream of a common language is only that at best - a wispy ideal that cannot hold or celebrate complexity" (pg. 8).


  • Arnink, D. (2003). Religious language: The language of reverence. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Barker, L. (2004). Language of reverence. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Binkley, L.J. & Hick, J.H.; (1962). What characterizes religious language? Journal for the scientific study of religion. 2(1); 18-24.
  • Buehren, J.A. & Church, F. (1998). A chosen faith. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Donovan, P. (1976). Religious language. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc.
  • Maslow, A.H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. New York: Penguin Compass.
  • Muir, F. J. (2003). Watch your language. Retrieved 03/01/07 from
  • Raschke, C. (1974) Meaning and saying in religion: Beyond language games. The Harvard Theological Review. 67(2). 79-116.
  • Safford, V. (2007). Dreams of a common language. Retrieved from

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Night Sky

The last week or so, I've been watching the night sky. Even with the nights becoming crisp, I've been drawn outdoors for a couple of hours at a time. I've taken to grabbing a blanket and my backpacking mattress and driving a good distance from the light pollution cast off from the brightly lit Twin Cities.

What first drew me outside last week was a comet called 17P/Holmes. A friend and I had heard about the comet and decided to try to get pictures of it. We drove out to a spot that allowed us a good look at the sky, pulled over to the side of the road, and set up our cameras.

We were too late. As we were setting up our photo equipment, we noticed that the full moon was rising in the north-eastern sky right where the comet was. Although the comet was bright, it was quickly overpowered by the light of the moon.

Instead of taking pictures of the moon, I took a few minutes to lean up against the car and look at what else was in the sky as I waited for my friend to finish taking pictures. I saw the usual stars, satellites, and planes and my friend and I both saw a shooting star that streaked across the sky.

But the one thing that really caught my attention was the Big Dipper. No matter what I watched or where I looked in the sky, my gaze always went back to that constellation that has been acknowledged in many cultures throughout the ages. My thoughts continued to be centered on this famous constellation for the next few days as I found myself going outside to watch the night sky.

Tonight, as the air was very brisk (there were even some snow flurries today here in Minnesota), I decided to stay in and read tonight. A few days ago, I had picked up a used copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman on a recommend from Paul at Evoking the Goddess, and I decided that it was the night to start reading it.

Soon after starting it, I realized that can't get away from the Big Dipper even when indoors. Two of the characters in the book climbed up on the roof of a house, where the woman points out the Big Dipper and tells the man about how three cultures view it. The one that caught my attention was Odin's Wain.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Learning The Lore

I've spent a lot of time over the past 6 months or so reading the Lore that Heathenry bases it's beliefs. There are so many ideas and opinions on the translations and the interpretation of what has been written that I'm having a hard time sorting through everything. Unfortunately, there is not much out there that helps a person that is new to the information.

It's hard learning about a religion on your own. With no one to guide you, you have to figure things out on your own. Questions that come up are:

  • Where does one start?
  • What information should be learned first?
  • Which authors are good ones?
  • And in the case of Heathenry - what translation(s) of the do you use?
One of Ravencast's episodes, Asatru 101 - Lore, gave me a great idea: Start with one of the sagas, Eddas, etc and look up several different versions/translations of it. Learn the different versions and compare and contrast them. Form an understanding (and know your reasons behind that opinion) about that particular set of a saga or Edda that you have started to research.

With this in mind, it becomes more about thoroughly thinking about the meaning behind the passages rather than just reading and familiarizing yourself with the information. It's about forming your own opinion on their meaning rather then having that interpretation force fed to you. And it's about being able to defend your opinion using the sources as inspiration.

While I have a long way to go before I would feel comfortable with debating my ideas about the Lore with anybody, I think that that this approach laid out by Sandi and Dave at Ravencast is something that I will adopt for my own studies.