Friday, August 31, 2007

A Response to Muder from the Mailman's Daughter

So I finally received my UUWorld in the mail today, and sat down to read the dreaded Doug Muder article, "Not My Father's Religion: Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class". (Dread because I have class issues...will go into more detail later) You can read the full article here:

So what did I think? I think that Muder only scratches the surface of this complex issue in his article. One cannot explore all facets of class in 5 pages. I think that alone is difficult, and it ends up creating too many generalizations about people. These observations may be relative to Muder's person's experience, but they miss the boat with mine. But--in all fairness--I'm glad he opened this Pandora's box. If I sound critical, it is only that I have found my own experience a bit more complex, and the article oversimplifies the matter.


TO begin with, I have issues with the very paradigm on which his argument stands--the metaphor of the maze, and the goal of that success which lies at the end of it. My husband and I left that maze long ago--not because we made it financially, but because we turned our noses up at the prize. We just weren't interested in "making it" according to the American Dream.

SO what class are we in? I can joke that we're post-class, and one can dream of a post-class society. But perhaps it is this very act of "thinking outside the box" which places us outside the maze, in the position of professionals, even if we are not earning professional incomes. or living consumptive lives.

I am unclear on Muder's class definitions. Are we really all either working class, professional, or impoverished? Where do those who have chosen a path of voluntary simplicity fall? My husband and I make so little money that we qualified for medicaid this past year, yet we both have master's degrees. We sustain ourselves by working--for little money (teaching, real estate) or none (motherhood, writing, volunteering)--at our vocations and buying nothing. We wear second-hand clothing, grow our own food, borrow books from the library, and enjoy nature and friends for recreation. Right now we are sharing a hand-me-down car. The working class, according to Muder, "sells their time for money". But I think what we are trying to do--and Lord, it is DAMN hard--is to give away our money for time. But don't get me wrong--I am NOT complaining. This is the life we have chosen, and while it's hard now, we feel it is the life worth living.

I think from what I'm getting from Muder is that he would put my husband and I in the professional class, since we have professional degrees and have CHOSEN our paths. Also, the amount that my husband makes "per hour" as an adjunct professor places him in the professional class. Yet demographics based on income would probably put us in the lower-middle class. Our education has given us the perception that we have a choice, and opportunities to pursue those choices--or not.

I am also unclear as to what Muder means by working class. My husband and I both consider ourselves from working class families. His dad was a farmer turned truck driver turned auto mechanic shop owner---turned real estate professional and county legislator. He was blue-collar, struggling to make ends meet turned--in the past 7 years-- triple-figure white collar. So I guess he doesn't count, since he was in the maze, but through hard work and cunning (only a highschool education) found his way out. Religiously, hell and judgment mean little to him. He is a non-practicing Catholic who got kicked out of catholic school for asking too many questions! He found the UU dedication of our child interesting, but is not a UU because he's not into church going and besides--in his words--"it's not really a religion". His worldview is pretty cutthroat--but that comes from being a businessman in Orange County, NY--where there are A LOT of sharks and I can honestly say, it doesn't pay to be nice!

My father was also a blue-collar worker. But again--he defies Muder's model. He had a college degree in sociology, but CHOSE to work as a mailman for 29 years. It was tough work, but it was stable, offered good benefits, and paid a better wage than he could get as a social worker. More than this, he found meaning within his job. He came home everyday smelling of sweat, and worked many hours of overtime. But he was also one of the most positive, kindest people anyone could have met, and when I asked him about his job he rarely complained. He said he would have hated a "stuffed shirt" office job. He preferred manual labor, and being outside. Rather than become a robotic worker, he transcended his role by living it to the fullest, and finding meaning within it--by serving his customers, and--as a union steward--his co-workers. But there were days of following orders and striving to make the bosses' deadlines that nearly broke him. And to this day, we wonder if it did, as he died of a heart attack on the job at the age of 54.

SO what class was my father in? My father's best friend, Mike, was a professional, a physical therapist and Catholic deacon. My father's other best friend, Carl, was a hard-edged cranky postal worker who cursed, smoked and drank. My dad was at home in both worlds.

Religion meant everything to my father. He was a devout LIBERAL catholic. He was a pacifist, and an anti-racist, anti-classist in the way he lived his life and treated others. He demonstrated his faith through service. My dad could have been a UU--he believed that God transcended religious boundaries, and found wisdom in Native American spirituality and Buddhist meditation. Yet he also felt a deep personal connection to Jesus, and at home in his own religious community. He joked that UUism was the religion that "didn't believe in anything". Faith in God, to my father, was everything, and being with others in common ritual gave meaning to his life.

It is true that both of our fathers valued self-discipline and hard work. They also valued thinking outside the box--and moved in different ways between classes. It was perhaps this type of thinking that my husband and I inherited which brought us to UUism.

Muder's article seems to assume too much, and creates too many easy divisons. Rarely are people so easily categorized. Rarely do personal theologies fall into only one of two categories.

But he does bring up an important issue: Classism DOES exist in UU Circles.(More on MY take on this in future blogs...) He makes an EXCELLENT point when he distinguishes between being for people, versus being with them. (Wish he'd gone more into that, but since he didn't-- I Will later...) And he does ask some great questions in the end.

As I read Muder's questions: "Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self control?" I couldn't help thinking-- sounds like my dad, the things he taught me. Prayer, patience, and perseverance he told me. (Of course, I'm a heretic and in response, invented my own: Compassion, creativity, and courage. )

I have always had a tough time with the second half of Muder's questions. But as I type now, I look down at my hands stained with dirt from pulling weeds at a community farm, and look around at a room of dusty, second-hand furniture, I think that maybe I am learning, in my own heretical way--

how to burn down the maze, and grow a garden in its place.

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