My Theology

ExPluribusUnum, or "one from many", is the Shortest Way to Describe My Theology.

I believe that we are all mere human beings trying to make sense of our existence; so we should keep that in mind when we interact with one another. We are one people, composed of many persons. "God" is found in the love we share. The only way to get to that holy place is to practice more love!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Should all Unitarian Universalists embrace a neutral humanism?

This morning I received a message from a friend who recently joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation for the first time a little under a year ago. The message asked for my take on an article posted on the Huffington Post titled "Welcoming Unitarian Universalists Home to Humanism", by the executive director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt. At the time, I thought that the article was freshly written and posted - I now see that it was originally posted on that site in 2013. Nevertheless, I enjoy receiving such queries from friends and gave my friend a rather wordy response, essentially stating that I disagree with much of the author's premise, and explained why using just the first sentence of the article. I will respond to the content of the rest of the article in as many posts as necessary, and I hope to continue the many great conversations I have been having with UUs and others about the past, current, and future state of affairs among Unitarian Universalist worldviews.
And now that I've piqued your curiosity and you've read the article (seriously, read that first), what follows is a version of the response I sent to the friend who asked my opinion. I invite your opinions in the comments. I welcome constructive criticism and debate. I do not tolerate abusive language or mean-spirited diatribe. Here we go!
Note: There has been discussion over the appropriate use of the word "humanism", and the differences between various forms it takes, such as religious humanism, secular humanism, etc. What I understood from the word's use in the article and the meaning that I ascribe to it below is probably more accurately termed "nontheism", or "antitheism", as the case may be.

What an interesting article! Thank you for sharing it with me. My take on it, for the most part, is that I disagree with him almost in entirety. Starting with the first sentence, which reads in part that a humanist approach has been viewed as "the appropriate neutral philosophical place for all UUs to convene". Full disclosure - I am a theist, not a humanist, but I will try to be as unbiased as I can in my response. By and large, I don't believe that UUs should be neutral in our outlook, philosophy, faith, or other positions, whenever a strong opinion is preferable to neutrality. I also oppose the insinuation that "all UUs" must have the same position on the nontheist-theist continuum. That misses the larger point of Unitarian Universalism altogether.

From among our Six Sources (listed here with our Seven Principles), the one drawn from humanism itself reads:

"Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;"

One of the major influences humanism has had on Unitarian Universalist thought is that we cannot and ought not allow any one "idolatry" overtake us. Note, too, that it says "of the mind and spirit". We should no more idolize the supremacy of reason than we should allow theism to be the only valid stand that a Unitarian Universalist may choose. Sure, humanism has held a high position of power and influence in the UU world for decades now, but it certainly should not be the place where we all "convene". Rather, I believe that we each forge our paths, along with others on similar paths, and we convene together with our differences and learn one from another. "God talk" may be uncomfortable from time to time for those who don't find such language useful, or even believe it to be harmful. The lack of such "spiritual" language is distressing for those of us who are not humanists. Church should be a place where we work through our discomforts, together, not a place where everyone toes the same line.

All that from just the first sentence! 

Humanism is a vital and necessary part of Unitarian Universalism...but it is only a part, not the whole.

I now ask self-identified humanists who read this article: What is your take on it? Do you feel threatened by shifts in language or tone in your congregation? Would an increase in "god talk" in your congregation, if not to the exclusion of more "neutral" language, be a deal-breaker for you? My observation is that this same argument — that one or the other group within the broad tent of Unitarian Universalism is falling victim to some position ostensibly hostile toward it — is being made from all sides. Many UU Christians and other theists have written similarly about how humanism threatens the historical dominance of theistic thinking in our earlier history. This is not a new conversation, but the tide seems indeed to have swung some, which is what I imagine spawned this article. I hope we can find our way to a place where people feel validated, secure in their views, and unthreatened by those who don't share their theological/philosophical stances. 

Bet you weren't expecting an essay! But there you have it, my take. Or the beginning of it, anyway.

To be continued...


Kim Cooper said...

I have noticed the shift toward more spiritual talk, and I have noticed the discomfort of the humanists. My perception is that each group who is not the majority feels they are being put upon. And that no one is the majority.
Humans are not rational. They may be capable of rational thought, but mostly they make emotional decisions and then rationalize them. Humanists are not any more rational than the rest of humanity -- and they tend to me male chauvinists.

UUFreespirit said...

As seems to always be the case in liberal religion, I think it goes down to definitions, and ability to translate between differing ones.

The religious humanism that I embrace is a kind of process humanism, which emphasizes the methodology by which we sense the world...through human senses, human reasoning, the human heart. Secondly, all of this is imperfect and fallible, and in need of constant rethinking and further improvement. In other words, no supernatural, external, perfect hand is doing any of that for us.

Furthermore, I believe that the same applies not just to ourselves and our time, but to all selves and all times, even those that created the various religions. They were also subject to the same imperfections, illusions, pressures and vested interest as those which skew our understandings in our own time.

So, my humanism is more of a direction in religion rather than a theological statement (other than the supernatural part). It suggests a bottom-up rather than top-down way of understanding ourselves and the world around us. This is, I believe, the kind of humanism that is indeed a common thread that runs through the still-evolving tradition we call Unitarian Universalism, and has been at work since the beginning of our "discerning, radically protestant" direction or attitude in religion.

So, whatever theological or cosmological layers we may choose to add to that baseline, I think that humanistic, ethical, critically questioning, science-friendly, imagination-inclusive, interfaith-welcoming and democracy-affirming religious baseline is already there, and defines our liberal faith. So, for better or worse, it really is about definitions, seems to me.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I read the article referenced last year and blogged on it as well:

Though I'm a humanist, I'm not yet a UU. One of my long-range goals is to enter the UU ministry later in life. While humanist, I'd see my role as being one of community building across lines of belief. I'm not particularly impressed with "woo," but I don't think most religious liberals are either.

April said...

I recently read the article and it confirmed an unpleasant suspicion.

A recent change in our minister brought God front and center on Sundays. We had an entire sermon delivered telling us why we (UUs) should all be Christian. (Not only did it not sit well with the non-theists, but the Jews and Pagans weren't too pleased either) I wondered if it was just this minister, or if the UUA had shifted so much from our church. This article seems to indicate it's the larger movement.

I think an answer might be that what "should be believed" needs to be left to an individual and not preached from the pulpit.

ofadifferentmind said...

Kim, I'm curious about your last statement that humanists tend to be male chauvinists. That hasn't bern my experience within my own UU congregation, but that's the extent of my experience. Has humanists tending to be male chauvinists been your experience from just within your congregation, or from a broader base of experience?

Sara Metz said...

I am an atheist and, since my beliefs are in line with what constitutes a humanist, I suppose I am a humanist too. I am also a Unitarian Universalist. My husband, however, was born and raised a baptist and still identifies as a Christian. He rejects some of the beliefs of Christianity, however. What I have found so wonderful about UU is that both of us attend our local congregation and both feel equally like we belong. The sermons are mostly free of "God talk" but the ideas presented are those shared by most of the religions of the world anyway. So personally, I don't see why much "God talk" is necessary. My husband has said that the things taught in our congregation are mostly the same things he was taught while growing up Baptist. The only difference being the emphasis on worshipping God. I have always thought of our Sunday services as a reminder to those in our congregation to be good people and to be good to others. I don't think think of them as places where any God is worshipped. I honestly really like it that way. If there was more of an emphasis on worship in my congregation, I probably wouldn't attend. I actually don't think that my husband would want to either since he still retains some of that old-school Christian mindset he was taught and probably wouldn't want to worship God outside of a "true Christian church." It's not that he thinks it's "wrong" just that it would feel uncomfortable to him given his upbringing. Our UU congregation is a place where both of us feel like a part of the community, where we are both accepted, and where we find common ground with everyone else AND each other! I see no reason for our congregation to change. I really like it the way it is and after reading the article in question, I feel lucky that I have a congregation like mine nearby. Peace and love to all of you.

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