Monday, March 30, 2009

Humanism and Licking Cockroaches

The Worship Committee at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church does this fantastic program once each year. We started it four years ago. It is called the "Annual UU Distinguished Guest Minister Weekend."

The basic idea is that the Worship Committee selects a distinguished minister in our movement and invites that person to spend a weekend with us. The distinguished minister leads a Saturday workshop for the church, is taken out for a fancy dinner during which we invite her or him to offer thoughts on the subject of worship to the committee, and then preaches on Sunday morning. The first three Annual UU Distinguished Guest Ministers were Barbara Pescan, Suzanne Meyer, and Ken Sawyer.

This year our 4th Annual UU Distinguished Guest Minister was the Reverend Dr. William Murry, a retired minister who served as the President of the Meadville-Lombard Theological School and also, for 17 years, as the Senior Minister at the River Road Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

Rev. Dr. Murry lectured and preached about his most recent book, Reason and Reverence. A work of accessible theology, the project Murry attempts in this book is to blend humanism with non-theistic religious naturalism. In merging the two, each defends the other from the criticisms that each often face. Murry argues that non-theistic religious naturalism gives humanism a compelling (and true!) story about its origins. This story is cosmic and biological evolution. Further, the awe and wonder that religious naturalism causes one to feel provides humanism with a spiritual practice. Also, Murry claims that religious naturalism leads to a sense of reverence that provides humanists with a sense of humility.

Before Murry arrived to lecture on Saturday 3/28 and preach on 3/29 I was generally familiar with his project. I wondered how to turn his theological arguments into a children's story. Here is what I did:

When the time came for the story for the children I invited the children to come up and sit at the front of the church. I asked them to think and to imagine the world, the planet Earth on which we live. I then asked them if they thought the world was amazing and beautiful or scary and creepy. Most thought it was the former.

Then I pulled out a box and told them that I had brought something from the world to show to them. I told them that it was an animal from Africa. I asked the children if they knew of any animals from Africa. They mentioned elephants, giraffes, and zebras. Obviously, I told them, I couldn't fit any of these animals in a box. Next, a child guessed that it might be a hyena. I told them that I doubted I could fit a hyena in a box. I told them the animal was from Madagascar. This prompted a chorus of children shouting, "Lemurs!" I guess there is a Disney movie that features lemurs in Madagascar.

I opened up my box, took out my terrarium, and reached in and picked up a three-inch long Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. The children were paying attention now! With their gazes fixated on the cockroach that walked around on my hand I told them all about it:

I told them how they eat moldy fruit, vegetable waste, and cat food. I told them how in Madagascar they live on the forest floor and eat dead vegetation and help plant matter to decompose. I told them how this is the only insect that has the ability to hiss and the cockroach complied by hissing for all of us. I told them that cockroaches like to live close to each other and that they spend a lot of time snuggled together. I also told them that while some people think they are gross, they are actually very clean. It was at this point that I spontaneously decided to touch the cockroach with my tongue! I gave him a pretty good lick.

Before we sang the children off to their classes I asked them whether they thought the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach was amazing and beautiful or scary and creepy. The children's votes were split. That is okay though. The natural world has the power to make us feel all sorts of things: awe and wonder, humility and reverence, excitement and chills, love and fear, revulsion and disgust. I thought this was a pretty good lesson in non-theistic religious naturalism.