Reports from Some of the EUT 2019 Tours and Workshops
VISITS TO A LIBERAL MOSQUE AND A SYNAGOGUE
by Beth O’Connell
(photos by Caitlin McGinn)
Up three flights of stairs in an old Protestant church in a leafy neighborhood of Berlin, the mosque is housed in an airy room with high ceilings and light pouring in from big arch-shaped windows. At one end of the room is a wooden sculpture that sort of looks like half of a paddle wheel, which points in the direction of Mecca. At the other end is a white shelf with cubicles where we leave our shoes that we took off at the door.
The mosque member who speaks to us explains how its very name reflects its mission:
Ibn Rushd Goethe Mosque refers to a 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba in Spain, also known as Averroes, who argued for reason in Islam and all faiths, and the famous German author who admired Islamic mysticism, philosophy and theology and read the Koran. Living a “progressive and inclusive Islam”, the doors are literally open to all — its founder and imam a woman reflecting equality of the sexes, welcoming people of all faiths (or no faith), ethnicity or sexual orientation.
UUs will recognize some words on its website from Rumi “Come! Come! Whoever you are! No matter if you are an idolater or a fire worshiper. Come back! This is the door of hope, not of hopelessness. Even if you reneged on your promise for a thousand times. Come! Come back!” (www.ibn-rushd-goethe-moschee.de/en/)
It was a Friday evening, the start of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest and worship in Judaism that runs until sunset on Saturday. We went to Shabbat services in Hebrew and German at the liberal Synagogue Pestalozzistraße, tucked away in the courtyard of a residential building. We were told that the Nazis had set it on fire, but the local fire brigade put it out, as the neighbors were afraid the flames would spread to their apartments.
The red brick building was rebuilt after the war, and it almost has the feel of a church inside, lined with pews and even an organ and choir in the balcony. The congregants respond to the prayers of the cantor; many seem to know the words by heart. Sitting there, it is not lost on you that this is a synagogue in Berlin, and it’s emotional seeing Jews once again coming together in community and prayer in Germany.
Still, there are signs of concern over rising antisemitism and far-right politics: a policeman guards the entrance to the synagogue, you pass through a metal detector before entering the courtyard. The district’s mayor, a Protestant, arrives wearing a kippah to show solidarity with his Jewish constituents, joining other Germans in a protest, countering a German government official who recently was forced to retract his advice to Jews to not wear a kippah in some parts of the country.
But we affirm peace; as the service nears the end, all join in singing: “Shabbat, Shalom”.
Shabbat – Hebrew word for Sabbath
Kippah is the special head-covering worn by Jews. Some men wear them all the time, others only during prayer. In many liberal synagogues, they are also worn by women.
Here is a photo of several kippot (plural of kippah) from Wikipedia.
Impact of Media on Relationship
by Vernon Chandler
The impact of music, film, TV, literature, and the internet on relationships and information, and the resultant changing behavior as it speeds ahead of the mores, values and belief systems of society was how the EUT Welcome Packet described the workshop. For those of us who attended Phil Campbell’s workshop, we were treated to much more.
Often reflecting from his over 50 years of experience teaching sociology courses at the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Maryland University College, Phil freely shared from his personal life the impact of media via small town newspaper, literature, film, television, music, and internet. Media has always been biased and censorship varies in different cultures. Change is constant and stability are rare moments between changes. Life tends to move in circles and various media impacts the circles of life. History has always reflected, to some degree, the opinions and values of the historian.
Phil shared memories of growing up as a member of a dysfunctional family in rural Michigan during the Great Depression. There was some discussion regarding the relatively recent introduction of romantic love in our choices of mates. There are differences in romantic love and the love found in family relationships. Romantic novels, film, radio, television, and our social network have all contributed to the spread of romantic love as the norm in the United States. Along with promoting romantic love, our larger media has influenced our post capitalistic society that is mostly based upon greed and the accumulation of stuff. We have become hostages to our media.
During the workshop, Phil alluded to various writers whom he recommended we consider reading that included Andreas Cappallenus, Judge Learned Hand, David Riesman, Ayn Rand, Margaret Mead, Brené Brown, Esther Perel, Marianne Williamson, Anne Wilson Schaef, and Morris Massey.
The workshop concluded with the observation that the time we are living in is a time of change. Our social change is escalating, redefining the past, moving sideways and in all directions at once.
The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Robot
by Gail Rosecrance
Tony Zamparutti tempered the funny but anxiety-producing title of his workshop by asking us to think about how popular culture showcases robots and computers. His 20 or so attendees entered into a lively and far-ranging exchange on the influence of information technology on our lives. Our best-loved robots are depicted as intelligent, conscious, equipped with emotions, as moral beings. Such fun characters from the movies have their etymological origin in the Czech word “robota,” which means forced labor or a serf.
Apart from their entertainment value, we evoked other benefits such as nano robot cameras photographing the inside of the body or assisting in elder care. Programs analyze masses of medical data and, avoiding human blind-spots, have predicted who would be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Implants resolve traumatic health issues and facilitate paying for goods and services. Tasked with dangerous jobs such as defusing mines and firefighting, they have given good service. Put to musical composition, game-playing, and painting, their results attest to superior information-processing and imitation. There is little sign of creativity. But, then, what is creativity?
Obviously, robots and AI pose risks. We broached drones and unmanned weapons. NGOs are attempting to ban autonomous armament, supported by the EU and rejected by the US. Products such as Google’s Alexa or digital TV which is listening in on us try to meet our every need. Infantilism might be our reward for becoming data points for large AI corporations. The Bible’s Psalm 139 seems apt for AI’s aim: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways…”
Robert McNamee, an early and influential investor in Facebook, has testified that Facebook creates avatars of its users highlighting what they buy and what their interests are and sells them. 5G will add new risks as high broad band travels only short distances requiring more transmitters and antennae. All life will be touched.
Push-back is occurring, for example, in the European 2018 data protection rules, GDPR. But anyone who has tried to limit the collection of their data through toggling refusals on use has remarked that it is not easy and it is very time-consuming. A need has been identified for Europe to develop a search engine that protects its users. The Chaos Computer Club, a European hacker group, investigates how IT can enhance human rights.
We need all be concerned about how we are traded. Political regimes have different uses for our information. China’s use of facial recognition and social rating is chilling. The European Commission’s expert group on AI has devised a set of guidelines meant to build trustworthy AI. These rules build on the very first rules suggested by Issac Asimov as a means to secure human dominance over artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, how will we know if AI becomes conscious?
Finally, we concluded that if AI so far outstrips human intelligence, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be human. A UU sermon quoted Wendell Barry, “I knew a man in the age of chain saws, used a handsaw.”
A Brief and Incomplete Interactive History of UU in Europe
by Eva Kortekaas
History lessons… what do those two words bring to mind? Probably a teacher droning on about names and dates, possibly the kind of teacher who could tell all those marvelous stories and transport you straight into that world. Sara Zimmerman explored history with us in a third way in her workshop ‘A Brief and Incomplete Interactive History of UU in Europe’.
Through some improvisation and acting out of a short play of the same name, we met a few of the important names in the history of Unitarian Universalism like Michael Servetus, Laelius Socinus, Jadige Gnoinskiej, Katherine Weigel and Fautus Socinus. As we acted out the play we learned something about their history and beliefs, their contribution to the development of Unitarianism and the price they sometimes had to pay for this. Maybe we even managed to take a small step into their lives.
Afterwards, we briefly discussed the history itself, with Paul Rasor jumping in to give us some more background and context of the characters we had just played. I have to admit, this history is sometimes complicated and spread out over many places in Europe. It’s also sobering to realize the price that the people who laid the groundwork for our faith paid. Many lost their lives, for example, being burned alive at the stake.
We ended the workshop by replaying a few of the favorite parts of the play. It was a fun and good way to learn something more and a method of exploring history I will be sure to keep in mind for my own future use.
Meet an American Racist
by Natalie Jensen
The presenter, Jeff Hutton, shared some interesting reflections about his personal journey of learning about race, racism and white privilege. There were thought-provoking exercises and interesting discussions, both in pairs and in the group as a whole. It was a well-prepared program, with a good balance of lecture and discussion, and a few key points were emphasized, including noticing examples of more subtle forms of racism, learning to see white privilege, and examples of institutional bias. Of course this is a huge subject, but this was an effective presentation tailored to the time constraints.
Unitarian Academy Prague
by Margot Stevenson
This session provided an overview of the Unitarian Academy of Prague. Educating both laypeople and prospective ministers, the academy began in 2017 with a curriculum rooted in both Unitarianism and liberal religion generally. Czech society tends to be atheistic. During the communist era, organized religious life had been abandoned altogether. Thus, mainstream theological schools (of other European countries) are not suited to the unique spiritual needs of Czech Unitarians. The Academy is geared toward the needs of the Czech church, specifically; however, both faculty (as guest lecturers) and students are international. The curriculum is offered in 6 month modules and covers such topics as: leadership, the Unitarian ethos, meditation, theology, and pastoral care. The academy offers instruction primarily during two 5-day intensives per year (in October and March), which are held at different Czech sites, notable for their beauty and rich history. For the rest of the module, students receive instruction from tutors. Approximately 30-50 students may be enrolled per class. The pedagogy is non-competitive, and no prerequisites are required. Funding for the academy is provided by a combination of grants and student fees.
Workshop: Ways to Dialogue
by Beth O’Connell
This workshop, led by Sigrid Van Eepoel, looked at ways of dialoguing with people who think and feel differently from you, especially on topics that are very polarizing. We discussed how the way we think is influenced by our experiences, conditioning, education. And we made a list of tools we can use to reach across the divide: humor, agonism (self-awareness), listening to others, putting yourself in the other’s shoes, accepting conflict, being inclusive, demonstrating peace yourself, allowing time, allowing silence, seeking a moderator so as not to fuel the polarization.
Paul Rasor’s Liberal Theology in an Age of Declining Liberalism workshop
by Julio Torres
The topic of liberal theology in an age of decreasing liberalism appealed to all of the attendees. We listened to Paul Rasor and discussed in small groups as to what values are at the core of liberal theology. The workshop ended with the topic of how Unitarian Liberalism can still make a difference in the world with so many crises. We all gave our thanks at the end for a great workshop and could have gone on for hours, given the opportunity.
IARF and its European Chapter
by Rory Castle Jones
We had a very interesting workshop on the International Association for Religious Freedom and its European Chapter, led by Wolfgang Jantz. We heard the history of IARF from Wolfgang, followed by an overview from Gudrun Hann of recent IARF conferences, as well as information about the International Association of Liberal Religious Women (IALRW). Derek McAuley gave a report on the exciting and important work of IARF’s British chapter, including their ongoing work to become more truly interfaith and their support for the persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Justyna Borusinska gave a detailed report on the current situation in Poland, where religious freedom is threatened by an “alliance of throne and altar” – of the government and the Roman Catholic Church. She also explained about the Warsaw Unitarian’s developing connections with other liberal religious groups, including Quakers, Pagans and Muslims. The group also discussed the recent 2016 IARF conference and trip to Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, including their visit to the Bektashi headquarters, a liberal Sufi Muslim community.
Workshop improvisational theater
by Gerhard Puhlmann
Improvisational theater is created without directing and text templates, without costumes and props, from the inspiration and interaction of the players. Improvisational theater therefore means being open for the moment!
There was the opportunity to try it out in this short workshop. For this, Gerhard Puhlmann first revealed the crucial tips on how to create a scene with only one sentence and one reaction of the other player. This was followed by warm-ups to loosen up — and then two players already started on the stage. Unitarians can hardly be stopped there!
Shahan Islam’s Youth Exchange Program class
by Julio Torres
Shahan spoke about the ongoing youth exchange program and how it might even extend to adults. The success and lasting impact were also discussed by those who previously were a part of the program. This included participants from last year as well as one from the first exchange when it started. Each discussed how it impacted their experiences of Unitarianism around the world as well as life around the world.