Senior Minister, Jefferson Unitarian Church
February 26, 2005
My own religious religious journey, especially as a teenager and young adult, is typical of people in my generation who
became humanists. One of the humbling realizations of growing older (and of growing up, for that matter), is discovering that
we are not nearly as unique as we we would like to think. We find that tens of thousands of others struggle with the same
issues in their relationships. They have the same religious questions. They have the same struggles with their kids and with
So, while I did not know it at the time, the nagging doubts I felt in high school and college were shared by millions of others—including, I know, by many of you.
I grew up in an extremely conservative church. I was a true believer. I believed in miracles. I believed in the afterlife. I believed the death of Jesus saved me from hell. I could recite the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. I believed that during communion the wine and bread were miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. I believed all of it.
Then I doubted parts of it. I began to be a bit less literal in my beliefs. I came to doubt more and more. Then, in a story that is repeated millions of times, I just couldn’t believe it any more. I could not believe that the earth was a few thousand years old; I could not believe that tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia were going to hell because they had not accepted Jesus. I could not believe that unbaptized infants who died were going to hell. Eventually I couldn’t even believe there was a hell.
I flirted briefly with a more modern philosophical theism. To an eighteen year old the vague theism of academic theologians seemed like mushy double talk. (Truth to tell, much of it still does.) This was the time of the “Death of God” theology. I remember commenting that perhaps what we needed was the death of some theologians. To a kid who had grown up with a God I prayed to every day, a God who was keeping score, a God who would forgive me if I was really, really sorry even though my sinful nature was disgusting, a God who could intervene in daily events—to such a kid the ideas of God as “the ground of being” or “an eternally concrescing actual entity who lures us into creative possibility” (I am not making this up—this is Paul Tillich and Alfred North Whitehead’s “process theology”) or a “God beyond theism” (I am not making this up, either) was just too weird. To me the difference between a God who is a wispy philosophical notion who does nothing and no God at all was a distinction without a difference. All this new theism struck me as theism-lite. My reaction was, “Either believe in God or don’t believe in God; don’t redefine God to mean something completely different.”
So, like millions of others, and like many of you here today, I became a kind of humanist by default. I didn’t so much embrace humanism as I backed into it. Humanism, especially secular scientific humanism, was what was left after the beliefs of my youth melted away.
So what is this humanism?
This morning’s reading was taken from the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Thirty-four people signed it, including the famous American philosopher John Dewey and a number of Unitarian ministers including Lester Mondale (the father of Vice President Walter Mondale), Curtis Reese, and John Dietrich.
We only heard the introduction. The Manifesto itself goes on to list fifteen points. Among these are the belief that the universe was not created by some divine being, that man is part of nature (this was long before there was any awareness of sexist language), that the dualism between mind and body should be rejected. The Manifesto asserted “the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now,” and that “the time has passed for theism and deism.”
The essence of humanism is the sense that we human beings must rely upon our selves and that our lives on this earth are what matter. Humanism is a rejection of the old view that our lives on earth are mere preparation for an eternal afterlife. Likewise, humanism rejects the notion that we can rely on a supernatural power to intervene in life. Also, the humanists rejected the view that all truth has been revealed in ancient scriptures. Humanists believe we have to rely on our own ability to determine truth—and that the most effective way we have of determining the truth are the methods of observation and testing that find their highest expression in the natural sciences.
We have to remember that this humanism occurred at a specific time in history. Just as the original American Unitarians and Universalists must be understood as a reaction against the dominant hell-fire Calvinism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so too humanism must be understood in historical context. This was the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was a time when leading progressive religious thinkers were increasingly uncomfortable with miracles and accepted dogma. Progressive people firmly believed that a new and wonderful world could be created if we were to follow reason and science. And, just as importantly, they believed that traditional religion that focused on the next life was preventing people from creating a better world here on earth.
Just like the early Unitarians and the early Universalists rebelled against the stifling dogma of Calvinistic predestination, the early humanists were willing to leave behind a stifling theism to focus our attention on what we humans are capable of doing on our own, right here and right now.
So much of this sounds old hat, of course. It is old hat because humanism has so thoroughly permeated the progressive and liberal world view—even if we do not call ourselves humanists. Most of us have come to accept the importance of this life as opposed to hoping for a better life in the hereafter. Most of us do not expect supernatural intervention. Most of us accept the major findings of science that tell us the universe is almost fourteen billion years old and that life on earth developed as the result of billions of years of evolution. Humanism is a natural part of who we are today. It is an essential and central part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage and of our present reality.
In order to understand our selves, you and I need to understand humanism. In order for us to move forward together, we must take a fresh and critical look at the humanism that lives within and among us.
What was once radical so easily becomes a kind of rigid orthodoxy. What was once liberating can easily become limiting. The revolutionary and egalitarian thrust of early Christianity became co-opted into the rigid hierarchy of the medieval church that legitimized oppression rather than challenge power.
In our own movement, the revolutionary impulse of early humanism slowly became a kind of orthodoxy. Religious humanism began as radical insistence that we face life head on, without reliance on supernatural help, without pinning our hopes on beliefs our minds had trouble swallowing.
However, in practice humanism developed some bad habits. Almost any virtue taken to an extreme becomes a vice. Humanism’s healthy reliance on reason sometimes became cold and cranky debate. There is an old joke that given a choice between going to heaven and attending a forum about heaven, a UU would choose the forum. There is a little too much truth in that. Our insistence on reason too often led to ignoring our affective nature. We too often became averse to ritual, to the arts, to expressing emotion. In practice humanism often became a way of hiding from our own humanity.
I spoke a few weeks ago about how each of us needs to face our past—not just our personal past but the history of our families, our religious roots and the cultures from which we come. We have to choose what to keep and what to leave behind. I believe we need to do the same thing with our common inheritance of humanism. What do we keep? What do we leave behind? And perhaps most important, what do we add?
I want to keep the religious essence of humanism. For me that essence is a focus on this life I am living and the life you are living. I want to keep the idea that you and I need to take responsibility for our lives and not look to some deity to atone for our mistakes and to intervene with a miracle. A faith in human agency is at the core of humanism. I want to keep the humanist insistence that we remain open to human learning. And I want to retain the humanist teaching that we should use our heads and strive to reason together. And I certainly want to keep the humanist conviction that we are all in this together and should join together to create our common future. I think we need to keep all of this.
What do we leave behind? First, I think we need to drop humanism’s bad habits. We have too often confused reasoning together with debating things to death. (I think today’s congregational meeting might be a nice place to start kicking the “debating it to death” habit.) We humanists need to let go of the idea that religion is about being right. It isn’t. It never has been. Religion is about living right and doing right and loving passionately and reaching beyond our petty selves. Religion is about being faithful to our highest ideals and strongest loves. Being right has very little to do with it. Trying to be right all the time is a bad habit. Trying to button hole people in order to deliver a harangue that will convince those who disagree with us of the error of their ways is an even worse habit. Let’s drop it.
Mostly, though, I want to add to humanism. As a child of religious humanism, I want a new religious humanism that is more religious and more human. More religious and more human. What do I mean by that?
What might a more religious humanism look like? For one thing, it would learn to appreciate the power of ritual. Many of you have been here for a Día de los muertos service. In this service, which we hold every autumn, we take time to remember and honor those who have died. We bring mementos, photographs and flowers and place them on a simple altar as quiet music plays. This is a powerful, moving ritual. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is a ritual that helps make us whole by letting us remember. It reminds us that we have all suffered loss from death; it is part of the human condition. A candle light service on Christmas Eve, complete with familiar carols, is a ritual which connects many of us to our religious traditions. We need not believe in the virgin birth or angels in order to be touched by singing “Silent Night” as we pass a flame from our chalice to hundreds of candles.
A religious humanism needs to be more open to the wisdom in other traditions. There is nothing in a meditation practice adapted from Eastern religions that is at odds with humanism. Certainly the Christian emphasis on compassion, caring for one another, and working for justice are religious values completely consistent with humanism. The more enlightened earth centered religious practices, practices that remind us that we are creatures of this earth and connected to its rhythms, are completely compatible with religious humanism.
And I want our religious humanism to be more human. I want a humanism that knows how to laugh and how to cry. I want a humanism that understands the obvious, scientific, empirical fact that much of the time we are not rational creatures. We have desires. We have worries. We have strong emotions. We have the capacity for violence and evil deep within our natures. Any humanism worth the name needs to appreciate all of that. I want a humanism that understands that we need to touch people’s emotions and touch their spirits. I want a humanism that loves to sing (and, heck, maybe even dance—although I know that is pushing it). I want a humanism that wants to know how I feel today before it asks me what I think. I want a humanism that comprehends tragedy. Too much of traditional humanism is cold. I want to raise the temperature twenty or thirty degrees. I want a humanism that is warm most of the time and hot now and then. I’m getting to be an old humanist. I guess deep down I want a religious humanism that has grown up at least as much as I have.
Whether any one of us identifies as a humanist is not important. What is important is that humanism is central to who we are as a religious movement. Just as we have to decide for our selves where we stand with respect to Christian tradition from which we came and Christian culture that surrounds us, so too we must consider where we stand with respect to our tradition of religious humanism.
My dream is that we keep what is precious from humanism. Let us bring into our common future humanism’s love of learning, love of humanity, and passion to build a better life for everyone.
But that is not enough. It isn’t nearly enough. It is far more important that you and I be religious humans than religious humanists. Let us create a religious home where reason and emotion are equally welcome, a religious home where music exists in harmony with intellectual rigor, where our generosity of spirit matters more than being correct, where we are as open to new spiritual practices as we are to new scientific studies. This would be a religious humanism worthy of the name and worthy of the legacy of the heroic people who signed that first Manifesto.
My prayer is that together we will create a religious community where love, reason, service, joy, fellowship, compassion and justice all flower together. May it be so.