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Archive for March, 2011

If you think technology should not be controlled by large companies alone, but should be used to empower its users, do read my Document Freedom Day post on my technology blog:

Today being Document Freedom Day, I’m taking stock of how unencumbered my digital lifestyle is — both on the consumption as well as on the production side. I’ll try and explore alternatives for each category. But before that, one must first explore why proprietary and patent-encumbered formats are bad,

Update: see also fellow UUpdates-syndicated Scott Wells’ post on the subject

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From Howard Friedman’s Religious Clause blog:

In a major policy shift, the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday unanimously adopted a Resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief (full text) which omits any reference to the concept of “defamation of religion” and instead focuses on the individual’s right to freedom of belief.  Reuters and the Washington Post both quote the U.S.-based Human Rights First campaign that called the resolution “a huge achievement because…it focuses on the protection of individuals rather than religions.” For many years, the Organization of the Islamic Conference had pressed to create a concept of “defamation of religion” that has been widely criticized in the United States and by a number of other Western countries. (See prior posting.) Muslim countries set aside that 12-year campaign and joined in approving yesterday’s resolution.

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If I were a US citizen, I’d find it hard to vote Republican right now, given its capture in recent decades by big business and social conservatives. If only the electoral system allows more than two parties to flourish! But reading FrumForum always gives me reason for hope — there *are* rational voices on the center-right, though alas they are a minority in their own party. Which is a shame for all of us, regardless of party affiliations or political convictions.

The recent post by Michael P. Stafford on capital punishment is a good example:


Today, the criminal most likely to be executed is a poor minority, represented by a public defender, convicted of killing a Caucasian in the South. It is impossible to separate this fact from the implications inherent in its historic context. In the words of David Gushee, “the death penalty is a public policy that fails the most basic standards of justice.”

Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, has written that “…the death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.”

There is evidence that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory and arbitrary fashion within the United States today. There is an unacceptable risk that innocent persons will be executed. And even the very worst criminals among us never cease to be human beings.

An eye for an eye is already against the faith imperative to be charitable; there is a difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge. It makes it worse that some eyes are more equal than others…

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Starting this Lent, I’m committing myself [stickK] to start attending Old Catholic mass. Now, you might wonder what this “Old Catholic” is about; it’s a long story, so let’s talk about anti-charities first.

I first heard about it from Scott Aaronsson, made an experimental short-term commitment to exercise regularly, and proceeded to forget about the site afterwards. Until Radiolab’s episode on cutting deals with yourself, which discusses drastic measures people take to force themselves to stop smoking, finish a long-overdue book, etc. Then started a frantic effort to jog my memory to find the commitment site I used before — I could have saved the trouble by just checking the comment thread for that podcast, but where’s the fun in that? — which has the side-effect of rediscovering Scott’s blog, since I used to read it before “The Great Google Reader / Feedly Unification”, and it mysteriously disappeared during the transition. A friend of mine is getting interested in quantum computation, and Scott being a quantum complexity theorist, it’s a timely rediscovery.

Unlike the featured Radiolab personalities, who cut deals with themselves, with stickK you basically have an escrow — nominate who gets your money if you fail (a charity you like, a charity you dislike — i.e. anti-charity, a friend, etc.), how many instalments, and how much money is at stake at each. You can nominate a referee (but can’t change it without appealing to the site admins), presumably when you’re still full of optimism at the beginning and thus won’t think twice about nominate someone who won’t be swayed to cover for you; if either you or the nominee reported failure, or if you failed to report, the money for that particular instalment gets sent. Like Scott, I thank Dubya for so far being successfully committed!

… and now, on to the Old Catholics

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Peccantem me quotidie          Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553)

Peccantem me quotidie, et non me paenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me:
Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.

While I am sinning every day, and yet do not repent, the fear of death overwhelms me. For in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy on me, God, and save me.

Matins Responsory for the Office of the Dead [nationalcathedral.org]

Sin is a concept that Christians and post-Christians grapple with at all time, but especially during the Lenten season. As UU minister Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis wrote in Why Religious Liberals Need Lent,

The season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is an invitation to be honest with ourselves about the ways in which our lives, as lived, do not align with the love and compassion and wholeness of which we are all capable. It is an invitation to look at hard truths, to name our mistakes, and make a commitment to real, measurable change. And it’s an invitation to do this not just for a few guilt-inducing moments, but over a significant period of time–a period of time which is culturally mythologized as being long enough to make real progress toward changing something.

The various denominations rooted in the Christian faith have a diverse attitude towards sin — Catholics and conservative evangelicals emphasize personal sin, while differing not only in what are considered sinful, but also how one can be redeemed. Liberals — from Episcopalian all the way to UU — tend to put more emphasis on societal sins. From another Unitarian minister, Rev. Daniel Harper, in Reluctantly reexamining personal sin:

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

It is understandable that a lot of liberals have an allergic reaction to the word “sin”. UUism is rooted, among others, in New England Puritanism; and Episcopalians often defined themselves as “we don’t do Catholic guilt” — the hair-splitting of mortal sin vs venial sin. Yet we need to claim this language. Rev. Harper quoted his liberal friend arguing for the existence of personal sin; Rev. Ellen quoted from James Luther Adams (see linked post) on the hubris that occured when religious liberals ignore the concept of sin, a quotation that reminds me of the naïvité of Voltaire’s Candide.

I’d invite each of us to, instead of the pessimism of puritans and futurist eschatologist, and the unbounded optimism of early 20th century liberals, to adopt, to borrow another homage to Voltaire, pessoptimism (cf. Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist). We are sinful creatures, often putting ourselves before others. Society is broken, in that its rules are often rigged to serve the powerful rather than the dispossessed. But we have to believe, to have faith, in our capacity to better ourselves. To strive towards bringing aspects of the ideal Kingdom to fruition, here on earth. With Christ as our guide — given our limited, imperfect understanding of him, whether as a historical figure, or as the metaphorical embodiment of the transcendent.

Going back to the communion anthem, Peccantem me quotidie, isn’t it the case that, whether there is an afterlife or not, we do care about our legacy — how we are remembered, how we raise our offsprings, what kind of world they inherit from us? Faith does not equate certainty (far from it!), and atheism does not equate nihilism either. There is too much that is sinful and broken; these problems ought to unite us, regardless of creedal differences. You don’t need (to believe in (the same)) God to be good — or to acknowledge that sin exists and to aspire to not be ruled by it..

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