Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lecture #8: "Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity"

[This lecture is number 8 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Standing before approximately 50 students in a lecture hall at Beloit College I began by asking the assembled crowd to get honest. I asked the audience, “Besides Unitarian Universalism, which religious tradition do you draw from or identify with the most?” I then presented a series of options and asked that each person in attendance only raise his or her hand once. No double-majoring.

Of the 50 students and volunteer staff (approximately) who listened to the lecture:

• 23 claimed that they identified most with humanism, skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, free-thinking or the Brights. (A plurality though not quite a majority.)
• 7 claimed to identify with Christianity.
• 6 claimed to identify with Buddhism
• 6 claimed to identify with Native American spirituality, another indigenous tradition, or an earth-based religious practice.
• 5 claimed to identify with mysticism, New Age, or a general theism.
• 1 person claimed to identify with Judaism
• 1 person claimed to identify with neo-Paganism, Wicca, Goddess worship, or the polytheistic traditions of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Ireland, Germany, or Scandinavia
• 1 person claimed to identify most with Taoism
• Zero respondents claimed to identify most with Islam or Hinduism

In this lecture, I want to talk about the influence that Humanism has had on our Unitarian Universalist faith. I want to talk about a question that I do not know the precise answer to, which is how a religion that was avowedly Christian came to be understood widely as a non-Christian and non-theistic religion. For at least the first 100 years of Unitarian and Universalist history, our forebears considered themselves to be a part of Christianity, even if other Christian groups concluded that we were not. Then, in what seems to be a rather short period of time, the dominant theology of Unitarian Universalism became Humanism. How do we account for this rather sudden change? I don’t claim to have the absolute answers to this question, but I hope to suggest some answers in this lecture.

In 2003, UUA President Bill Sinkford delivered a sermon in Fort Worth, Texas where he challenged Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a “Language of Reverence.” When his sermon was picked up by the national media, his sermon attracted a firestorm of criticism. The primary criticism came from Humanists who felt that Sinkford was trying to insert “God-talk” into the Principles & Purposes and was attempting to force a change in the religion that they felt belonged to them. But, clearly it hadn’t always belonged to them. Were these critics unaware of the history behind the first six lectures in this series? It is impossible to read Channing or Ballou or even Emerson and not realize that their writings are full of Christian terminology, God talk, or, at the very bare minimum, non-specific theism.

When we invoke the word “Humanism” I think it important to realize that this term may refer to (at least) two major traditions.

The first of those two traditions we might call Classical Humanism. Classical Humanism reaches back at least to the days of Socrates and Ancient Greece. Classical Humanism was on full display during the Renaissance. And yet, these Classical Humanists did not, for the most part, think of themselves as non-Christians. A figure like Erasmus could be considered a leading humanist while at the same time serving as a Catholic theologian. During the Enlightenment, leading thinkers tended to elevate the use of reason and critique supernaturalism. The watchmaker God of deism remained extremely popular with many Enlightenment thinkers. However, far from abolishing God, the Enlightenment changed the way the idea of God was approached. (The rise of Romanticism in Europe was a reaction against the Enlightenment and claimed that the Enlightenment overemphasized reason.)

When one observes the rise of Humanism in Unitarianism and Universalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is important to pay attention to the social context in which Humanism arose. Paradoxically, the same social conditions that gave rise to Humanism also gave rise to Christian Fundamentalism. Both were responses to the industrial revolution and to advances in science. While strongly influenced by Enlightenment figures, Humanists at the turn of 20th century tended to be future-oriented and celebrated the tremendous scientific and technical advances that the industrial revolution produced. In inventions that harnessed the power of electricity and steam, Humanism’s faith in the power, agency, and capability of humankind was reinforced.

On the flip side, Christian fundamentalism was a movement that began in the industrial centers of England. In the United States, we tend to think of Christian fundamentalism as a movement that grew up out of rural regions. Such an understanding is supported by the fact that fundamentalism had its coming out party at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that was held in Dayton, Tennessee, wherever that is. Contrary to belief, Christian fundamentalism originated as an urban movement and as a response to the unsettling social changes caused by the industrial revolution. Factory work radically shifted patterns of work and family life. Fundamentalism offered promises of religious stability amidst the tides of great social instability and therefore helped to quell the great anxiety provoked by this period of great social change.

If we wish to track the rise of Humanism in Unitarian and Universalism we can look to the influence of both ministers and lay people. As we gather this week at Beloit College, the three districts represented at this leadership school—the Central Midwest District, the Heartland District, and the Prairie Star District—represent a central place in the development of Humanism within Unitarianism and Universalism. In 1933, 34 men signed a document known as the Humanist Manifesto. The Manifesto contained 15 articles, each between a sentence and a paragraph in length. You can read the entire Humanist Manifesto here, but let me provide a sampling of its claims.
FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

THIRD: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.

FIFTH: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

EIGHTH: Religious Humanism considers 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. This is the explanation of the humanist's social passion.

TWELFTH: Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life.
Of the 34 signers of the Humanist Manifesto, 11 were Unitarian ministers. The ministers served congregations in Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Evanston, and Peoria.

Looking back, one cannot help but note that the Humanist Manifesto was signed in the same year that Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany. One marvels that such a hopeful document that declares the positive potential of humankind can be signed between one war where all our great new chemical and mechanical technology would succeed in killing 16 million and wounding another 21 million and a second war that would take the lives of between 50 and 70 million soldiers and civilians around the globe as well as debut the creation of the atomic bomb, a weapon that would threaten the destruction of all life on Earth. Exactly how is all this faith in humanity possible?

The exact same questions that the realities of war and genocide caused to be asked of human nature were equally asked about God. Jewish theologians primarily, but also theologians of other faiths, began asking hard questions about how to account for the Holocaust and the atom bomb in light of ideas of an omnipotent or benevolent God. Some reached a conclusion that proclaimed the absence of God, or even the death of God. Questions of human nature needed to be asked alongside questions of the nature of the divine.

The Humanist Manifesto certainly accounts for some of the ascendancy of Humanism in Unitarianism and Universalism. Behind the eleven ministers who were signers, there were probably dozens of other ministers who would have signed, not to mention all of the people they would influence. However, there is a second important factor which contributed to the rise of Humanism.

Starting in 1948, Monroe Husbands and Lon Ray Call led the most successful Unitarian Universalist growth effort of all time. They were responsible for planting hundreds and hundreds of churches as part of what became known as the Fellowship Movement. Husbands and Call centered their growth plan on university and college towns throughout the country. Thanks to the G.I. Bill and a greater number of women seeking higher education, these towns experienced explosive growth after World War II. More and more professors with doctorate degrees were needed to meet the demands of a growing student body. However, while “gown” life was thriving during this period, many of these professors found themselves serving in relative isolation where “town” life offered them very little.

Husbands and Call advertised in local papers and then convened meetings of interested people in these university and college towns. They gave them instructions on how to organize a Fellowship and then moved on to help organize another one. Many of these seedling Fellowships failed and dissolved. A number thrived and grew considerably. A lot have struggled and continue even today to fight for their survival. Some called ministers; others continue as lay-led groups more than 50 years later.

Two dynamics of these Fellowships are worth mentioning. First, by appealing to academics who had already opted not to join the local Methodist or Baptist congregations, Husbands convened Fellowships where Humanism was likely to be the dominant theology. Second, by establishing groups that appealed to professors and other university employees, these congregations often took on the organizational dynamics of the universities from which their members came. Consider the following: the UU congregation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was founded in 1949; the congregation in Los Alamos, Mexico was founded in 1953; and the congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico was founded in 1954. Two of these towns were built for the development of nuclear science. The third was a leading site for astronomical research. Imagine the populations that these UU congregations attracted.

Frankly, there is a tension that has been experienced in many of our congregations between humanism and theism. At times, each side has stereotyped the other. The humanists have accused theists of being flaky, anti-intellectual, and superstitious. Theists occasionally type humanists as cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and crusty. Oftentimes, the humanists are stereotyped as the old guard. However, in my experience, theology is not generationally determined.

During his UUA presidency, Bill Sinkford challenged us in our use of religious language. Despite criticisms of his Fort Worth sermon, our movement has accepted his challenge. Consider an essay by David Bumbaugh that Sinkford quoted in his sermon. Bumbaugh’s essay was entitled, “Towards a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.” Recently, former Meadville-Lombard President Bill Murry published a fantastic book entitled Reason and Reverence in which he develops a theology that combines humanism and non-theistic religious naturalism. He claims that humanism give religious naturalism an ethical dimension while religious naturalism gives humanism a greater capacity to experience awe.

As I approach the end of this lecture I want to mention some things that may challenge us. First, I want to go back about a month in time to the most recent UUA Presidential election where Peter Morales won out over his opponent Laurel Hallman. Laurel used religious language very freely and she had written an intricate guide for a deeply involved spiritual practice called Living By Heart. I think these factors caused many people to assume something about her theology. In 2003 Laurel Hallman delivered a lecture called “Images for Our Lives.” It would be a challenge to find a piece of UU writing that used religious language more liberally. However, in the middle of this lecture she said something surprising:
I recently spoke to our Adult Sunday School Class in Dallas on the topic “Why I am not a Theist”. They packed the room to hear what I had to say, because of course they thought I was. Why did they think I was a Theist? Because I use the word God. Because I pray in the midst of the worship service. I was embarrassed a bit myself, to find that I had failed to make the distinction that the use of metaphors and poetry and scripture has to do with religious imagination, and not with one theological category or another. We had a lively and productive discussion that day, as I spoke, as I am today, about religious language, and how it communicates the depths of experience, and that it isn’t always what it seems.
If religious language is something that really challenges you at a deep level, I invite you to read the poem “Natural Resources” where Adrienne Rich writes,

There are words I cannot choose again:
humanism androgyny
In the context of this poem, Rich is writing from a feminist perspective and renouncing language that claims to speak for both male and female. As a feminist, she is claiming that such language fails to achieve its purposes. All this is really beside the point. Laurel Hallman is a non-theist who uses the word “God.” Adrienne Rich, presumably, is a humanist who is unable to say the word “humanist.” These statements imply significant questions.

Let me conclude with a few words of challenge. Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a lot like this room. If not a majority, we are at least a plurality humanist, atheist, agnostic, etc. But we are also Christian, Buddhist, theist, pagan, Jewish, and mystic. Rather than using the language of humanism to mean something that stands in opposition to the rest, maybe we should reclaim the word “humanism” in its classical sense, when Christian Humanism was not an oxymoron, when Jewish Humanism was not a logical fallacy, when deists were considered enlightened, and the goals of social justice, personal growth and fulfillment, and peace are shared despite the words we use to identify ourselves.

Reflection Questions
What is your reaction to the quote by Laurel Hallman that I included in this lecture?
After reading the short excerpt by Adrienne Rich, how would you feel if a word that you considered a part of your identity was labeled by someone else as a word "I cannot choose again"?
In your UU congregation do you experience a tension between theists and humanists?