Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

elegant failure

"If death is with me every breath I draw, if the grave is an endless ditch beside which I must walk, and its edge may crumble and let me in at any moment, still I must walk carelessly and breathe the air with a grand extravagance"--Kenneth Patton

Tonight we ate organic frozen pizza with cornmeal crust, after we learned that our favorite neighborhood Persian restaurant went out of business. We wish we had gotten the chance to say bon chance to the owners, a brother and sister who were respectively studying for their MBA and dentristry degrees. I admire pluck and shish kebab, so I'll miss their place.

I got in the mail an aquarium pump and filter I found for one dollar, suited to a tiny tank apparatus.
I watched this rich man fire this fellow from a game show after the contestant, a real estate guy, imagined that converting a four bedroom into a three and using one contractor for a three day major remodel was the brilliant way to manage business. Then I watched David Letterman interview the actress who plays on the television show Veronica Mars, still my favorite new show.

I began to read the books I got from Amazon. One, edited by Maryell Cleary, tells the story of
the failed experiment of the Charles Street Universalist House in Boston. In particular, the book relates the story of Kenneth Patton, a universalist minister who called for decency and liberation from superstition in a more conservative time.

Patton formulated these "fundamental principles":

1. Humanity that assumes the selfhood, worth, dignity and reality of persons.
2. The principle of life--that "we treasure life" and "we are guardians of life".
3. That there is a simplicity to wisdom "centering on a few principles--this life,
subject to splintering, knots into unison"
4. The principle of non-violence
5. The principle of self-possession--that "we possess ourselves and no creature has any rights over us".
6. The principle of nurture--that the "processes of nature will sustain us if we use them" correctly.

Kenneth Patton's a curious fellow in Unitarian Universalist history. A lot of the hymns and liturgy derive from his influence. He was one of a huge group of 20th Century figures who sought to move Unitarianism and Universalism (now a merged church) into a different place than being a kind of watered-down Christianity sans trinity.

Charles Street Universalist House was the church organized to bring Universalism to a broader presence in Boston and perhaps elsewhere. Clinton Lee Scott, head of the Massachusetts Universalist group,
hoped that Patton would install a truly "universal" universalist church, one which did not depend on the dogma of any one faith, including Christianity.

Kenneth Patton came well equipped to promote a faith based on a new, purer "universalism". Patton lacked the encumbrance of a belief in the traditional Christian God, the traditional Universalist church, or the need to be particularly clerical. Patton instead was a poet and speaker, who also enjoyed art.

When it came time to decorate the sanctuary, Patton painted not religious imagery as his subject, but instead the galaxy in Andromeda. His services involved preaching and singing about social justice and
service in this world, rather than the vestments and raiments of liberal Christian services.

Patton proved quite controversial. His sermon which uses prostitution as a metaphor for unitarian and universalist churches proved less than universally acclaimed. His radio address which had teh allusion to Jesus as a guy who would go around the corner to get beer for the group helped get the program thrown off the air. He appears to have had a singular gift for being brusque with contemporaries in pursuing his points.

But what Mr. Patton lacked in some settings with social skills he made up for in other settings with pure heart. He spoke in favor of the work of Bill Baird, who passed out birth control devices to students at Boston University when such actions were considered risky and probably illegal. We all forget, sometimes, how things were before we had liberties we take for granted today. The United States Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut did not overturn state bans on birth control (applied in some states, but not in others) until the 1960s. By contrast, Mr. Baird was asked to speak at the meeting house. The Meeting House sponsored an annual open air festival for young artists, and sponsored exhibitions by the American Museum of Negro History. Langston Hughes made his last public appearance there in April 1967 at a museum function at the meeting house.

Unitarian and Universalist churchs both have a tradition of using guest speakers to an exten unknown in traditional protestant churches. Among the Meeting House's speakers were Abraham Maslow, on "humanistic religious awareness". Patton's own talks explored fertile ground, such as a call for a children's bill of rights, and a call to appreciate the experience of all that is around us. Patton wrote:
"Every day we are surrounded by a thousand small majesties. If we notice them and fully appreciate them, our lives can never be mean or commonplace".

The Meeting House grew to between 100 and 200 members. It proved very controversial, as Patton's extreme
liberalism within his faith context sparked dissension from denomination members who could not understand why the state association would fund this curious experiment. It's a tribute, though, to the universalist church that it subsidized this radical minister who spent a fair bit of time pillorying
universalists themselves.

Patton's vision of a religion in which dross had been boiled down, and a pure thing remained, has deeply influenced the Unitarian Universalist church. Patton was one of many voices with this vision, but a persuasive one, a capable writer and hymn lyricist.

Yet ultimately, I find Patton's own message troubling. Patton's form of tolerance and inclusiveness tends to tolerate any belief, so long as that belief is acceptable to Patton's own skepticism.
This has been, in my view, a limiting phenomenon in the U/U movement generally--this idea of "you can believe anything you wish, so long as you do not believe some wild-eyed thing, for which I will seek to humiliate or belittle you". I have watched with bemusement "congregational participation" services in which the speakers worried that mentioning the word God in church might be exclusive. The result can be a theology of avoiding eggshells rather than the true theology of robust tolerance I consider desirable.
I chuckle, a little, though, when I think of the way that followers of earth religions (read: paganism)
cause a vague discomfort in the rationalist humanists who had become the "traditional" unitarians.

In this time, when millions die in Africa of AIDS for want of medicine, while people blow up children to "make a point" about political unrest, it's hard to criticize a fellow merely for saying he believes in little of what his neighbor believes, and that he believes we all live a little too rich and a little too complacently. But I like my prophets to be a bit more about compassion and conversion, and a bit less about Old Testament prophetic utterance. I do not see God as bathwater but as real but I think that a theological discourse can be had between believers and non-believers of good heart and will without the need to get hung up over derision or dogma.

I long for true tolerance, which I sometimes find lacking in "tolerant thinkers". But I'm intrigued that an institution could fund its own revolutionary upstart, and that a church in one city from 1946 through 1979, never wealthy, never filled with televangelists, can have made a difference today.

We all forget that the little things we do can matter. Perhaps that's the lesson which Patton teaches.

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