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Faith in America with Rabbi Harold Kushner

General Assembly 2003 Event 5026

Charging his audience to “be as good as your theology,” Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and other books, said “I feel very much at home here with you. The greatest strength and the greatest limitation of Unitarian Universalism is that you are the thinking person’s faith.”

His talk covered three topics: the resurgence of fundamentalism, turmoil over issues of sexuality, and the message of corporate scandals.

Kushner said one reason for the popularity of orthodox and fundamentalist religion is that “some people are uncomfortable with ambivalence. They want certitude.” He quoted former President Bill Clinton, who said, “Some people will follow someone who is confident but wrong rather than someone who is tentative but right.”

Another reason he cited is a “craving for the familiar, the recognizable in a world where everything else is changing.”

Finally, he said, is a “quest for community.” Her referred to the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and the concept of bridging and bonding communities.

“‘Bonding communities are inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities…they heighten distinctions between insiders and outsiders,’” Kushner quoted. “‘Bridging communities are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages.’” The trouble with bridging communities is that, while that accept everyone, people don’t stay.

“Those are the bad reasons,” he said. “Consider some healthier reasons” for the attraction of fundamentalism. Face it, Kushner said, “rational religion reaches only the top three inches of a person—speaks to the mind but neglects the heart, the gut, the emotions.”

Second, the appeal of fundamentalism may be a reaction to the vulgarity of American life. “Can you imagine a seriously religious person responding to our magazines, our music, our movies, our acceptance of promiscuity and children born out of wedlock?”

He urged liberal religion people to accept that “their moral differences with us may be rooted, not in fear or small-mindedness, but in moral seriousness.... My point is not that I want you to change, but we can’t dismiss those who differ with us as ignorant rednecks. Some are. Others root their positions in a view that is as morally grounded and as biblically grounded as our own.”

Our challenges are “to make thoughtful, liberal religion as emotionally inspiring as their religion: not to violate reason but to transcend it. And to provide that sense of belonging, of shared hopes and commitments, that bonding communities supply.”

On his second topic, Kushner asked, “Why are so many denominations caught up in issues of sexuality—pedophile priests, gay clergy, women clergy? Is it because everything is about sex? Is it because religion is in turmoil about a lot of things, but the papers only cover the sexy ones?

“The inescapable burden and the duty of religion is to traditional, to conserve the values of the past. Sometimes this is good, sometimes less so.” He cited slavery, women’s suffrage, and racial segregation as issues on which seriously religious people argued both sides. What happened?

“The right side won,” Kushner said. “I believe the right side will win on the rights of women and gays. Like Murphy’s Law that says ‘anything that can go wrong, will,’ I believe that anything that ought to be, will.”

On the issue of the impact of Wall Street scandals on faith communities, Kushner said, “There is an intimate connection between the economic climate and the religious climate.” After World War II, he said, Germany fell into real self-hatred. “As soon as Germans began to prosper, they began to think of themselves less as sinners than as people who can do good things.”

The fallout from Enron and the other scandals, he said, may be that we may stop making CEOs heroes. “After 9/11 we recognized the heroism of police and fire workers instead of someone who makes an eight-figure income.

“What madness drives a person to risk prison for more money than he’ll live to spend?” It’s the pressure to be a winner. “Our society celebrates winners and scorns losers,” and it’s a very narrow definition of winning. Every day on the ball field, he said, we see skill, talent, drive, beauty, glory but “because the Red Sox haven’t been Number One in 85 years, they’re losers.

“How do we teach people that failing does not make you a failure?” Throughout the Bible the heroes are seriously flawed. Moses spends his last days both looking at a Promised Land he would never reach and also realizing that his people were not yet ready. Central to Christianity is the story that Jesus died on a cross surrounded by criminals.

Kushner asserted that “it is also the duty of religion to teach that certain behaviors are wrong. We have the first generation that thinks the word ‘judgmental’ is wrong.”

Contributing to this culture of winners/losers is that “it has always been America’s promise that your children could be better-educated and more successful than you…But when America has worked this magic on the shoemaker’s son, what does the grandson do?” We must resign ourselves to be failures or redefine success in less materialistic terms.

Fortunately, Kushner concluded, “more young people today want to be teachers than lawyers, they don’t expect to live in houses as big as their dad’s. But they say they won’t bring work home on weekends or miss their daughter’s dance recital.”

Reported by Kathy Rawle; edited by Lisa Presley.