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I've been going to the Universalist church for the past few weeks here in DC. This morning, while I was chatting with some people during coffee hour after the service, I got into an interesting conversation with a guy who had been coming to that church off and on for 10 years. I'll call him Paul, because I can't at the moment recall his real name.

Paul was telling me why he had never officially joined the church. He said he had never really found a religious institution that suited his beliefs and practices. The Universalists were the closest he'd encountered, but they were still a fair way off. The thing that attracted him to this church was its lack of a creed -- they have no requirements as to what you are supposed to believe in order to be a member, the way most churches do. But being in the church teaches you to learn to be tolerant and be able to see value in other people's beliefs. This was all well and good, and it's what attracted me to the church in the first place.

But then he pointed out that he had known a lot of people who had grown up in Unitarian and Universalist churches who left the church later. They were looking for something that had more structure, more grounding in something real instead of a "whatever you want to believe is OK" philosophy. Which was the opposite trajectory of Paul's religious history and mine. He said it seemed like Unitarian and Universalist churches filled a certain niche in the religious world, a second pole to oscillate to and from, complementing religions that are more confident in asserting a claim to a universal and absolute truth.

I've been thinking about this conversation a lot since this morning because it seems to fit with a lot of what I've been thinking about how people and societies work. It seems to me that there's never a perfect philosophy, or a perfect economic system, or a perfect government, or a perfect fashion or musical style or anything. Societies thrive on pluralism, when varying perspectives alternate and coexist, making up for each other's shortcomings. Any system, if left too long, will begin to break down through an accumulation of its own faults. So it needs to shift to some other form for a while, until that form is also ready to break, when it can return to the first form or seek a new one. One of the best books of anthropology I've read was by three authors building on the work of Mary Douglas, a structural anthropologist. They proposed four types of philosophies about the environment -- "nature benevolent," "nature ephemeral," "nature manageable," and "nature capricious." They proposed that none of these philosophies had the whole truth, and none could exist on its own. Rather, each depended on the others to balance its weaknesses and to define itself against. Throughout history, the balance of power shifts back and forth between the four philosophies.

My conversation with Paul began when he pointed out that high heels originated as a men's fashion, and then suggested that every hundred years or so clothing styles reverse genders. It's an awfully simplistic and inaccurate observation, but it kind of pointed out where we were going.


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