Heed the Guidance
It is said that Unitarian Universalism has a different feel depending on what part of the country you are in. Each congregation of course has its own unique identity, but some have noted there to be distinct cultural differences in the religion itself depending on location.
East coast vs. west coast vs. the south vs. the Midwest. I happen to agree. Enter a Unitarian Universalist church on the West coast on any given Sunday and you will more often find services with liturgical dance, ministers in flowing white garments reminiscient of new age spiritual leaders from the 70s, chants to the goddess, and a flavor to it that is very counter cultural.
Enter a church in New England, however, and you will find people in their Sunday best, with organ music, often times scripture readings, the Lord’s Prayer, and communion! And then there’s the Midwest, the birthplace of religious humanism and naturalism in our movement – the liturgical styles are different but the content is almost always lite on God talk.
And the South. I’m still figuring that one out, but to be there is a definite flavor of Universalism – that itinerant tradition of which we are a part that sought to extinguish the fires of hell. I wonder, where do we fall in this?
Kentucky being what it is…the red headed step child of the Midwest or the gateway to Appalachia or true part of the Old South. Maybe all three. The divisions of Unitarian Universalism are, of course, not set in stone – there is great diversity.
Most of these stereotypes of regional differences rest with ministers. But there is some truth to the notion that the farther away from New England Unitarianism you get, the more our congregations become Jesus-optional, counter cultural, resistant to authority, and low church.
Most people that are not within our tradition do not know this about us – that we are a religious tradition that adapts readily to the surrounding culture. And still, even my relatives, will ask me questions that assume I fit into a mold of standard American Protestantism.
I remember way back, one Sunday a carful of wild and wooly theology students, with me at the helm, made our way to the Unitarian church my family was an on-and-off again participant of. You see, theology students would get their thrills in college by the time honored tradition of church hopping – visiting any and all churches.
Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds. We go our thrills in other ways, too. But I was thrilled we were going to my home church. I loved that church. I still do. My minister had not yet retired after 30 years of service, so I knew that he would provide a sermon and a service that was rich in poetry and steeped in a tradition that was classic and traditional.
My childhood minister is part of a dying breed of Unitarian clergy: the classic humanist minister. He rarely wore a robe – in fact, I am wearing the robe he bought over 30 years ago as he began his career as a minister. I doubt he ever owned a stole, he certainly didn’t sport a collar that so many UU ministers are sporting these days.
What’s up with those new fashions anyway? Unitarian ministers in collars, who would’ve thought? I’m sure if he had ever sported this robe, it would have had an academic hood attached to it and nothing more.
And so we went. The service was wonderful. The sermon was meaningful and thought-provoking, the readings were touching, the hymns were traditional, and the music was reflective and classical. After the service, we were driving back and the car was a little quieter than usual.
Finally, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Brian. I’m pretty sure your minister is an atheist.” I responded, “Well. Yeah.” To which she asked, “Well, how does that work?”
The remainder of that car ride became what felt like an awkward defense of Unitarian Universalism and our theological openness and diversity. It also became one of many many conversations that I have had before and since that moment – about what exactly a Humanist is and what on earth are they doing in a church.
I’m sure many humanists here have had similar questions asked of their religious community of choice here at UUCL. I’m sure the questions have also questioned being a part of a community…that is religious…somehow.
You mean you have a church. You sing hymns. There is a Reverend that preaches a sermon and, oh god, sometimes prays! Prays to what exactly?! And what’s with that chalice thing you light?
I often wonder if our dear humanist members in our congregations are seen as magical and peculiar creatures by other types of religious people. Atheists. That attend church. And sometimes, they’re also the ministers! Lord have mercy.
For those of you here unfamiliar with the words humanist or naturalist – today we are talking about our fifth source of faith in Unitarian Universalism: 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.
For humanists and naturalists, it is just that, their sources of wisdom are rooted in the factual, the evidential, the here and now. God almost always does not play a part, and should the word ever be used, it is purely symbolic.
For humanists, prime importance is placed on humanity instead of the divine. For naturalists, prime importance is placed on nature as a whole instead of the divine. The differences between the two can sometimes feel subtle, though they are distinct in their emphasis.
Here at UUCL and in any Unitarian Universalist church in this country, you will find a large number of members that hold a humanist or naturalist worldview. Often after people accuse of being the witch church, the gay church, the liberal church, the politically correct church, and so on and so forth, more often than not this accusation will rear its head: the atheist church.
As with all things Unitarian Universalist, that is sometimes true and sometimes not. But the fact remains, one of the largest subsections of our churches are those who do not hold any supernatural beliefs. Or at least that’s the box they check on any survey our association does.
The rise of humanism in Unitarianism and, now, Unitarian Universalism, is a long and fascinating history. It’s a history that resulted in the signing and publishing of the first Humanist Manifesto, it is a history that saw radical Unitarians literally fleeing to the Midwest to found churches built on the principles of reason and freethought, and it is a history that gave way to greater hopes for racial equality, women in ministry, and our current ways of being in community together.
Yes, our sitting here today, our singing hymns together, our having a reflection that feels like a prayer but is not quite a holy-roller Amen and Alleluia – it is all a part of a legacy given to us by the humanist movement within our denomination. It is clear they were high church humanists, they dared to sing hymns after all – but the words are their words.
But humanism has also given us our share of controversies. For those of you that have been around for a while in Unitarian Universalism, the humanist-theist debate is not a new thing to you.
It’s a decades old debate that was sparked by a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William Sinkford. Sinkford called on UUs to develop a language of reverence, a way of communicating with one another that was awe-struck, reverent, and strikingly similar to other religious traditions.
The humanists insisted Sinkford was pushing a theist agenda. The theists somehow figured this was a humanist plot to coopt their language. And all the while, the very humanist William Sinkford wondered why on earth he opened his mouth in the first place.
For those of you that have not been witness to the humanist-theist debate, I envy you. It is a waste of time. A waste of effort. I contend that most people that join our congregations today don’t really care if the person sitting next to them believes in God or not. Or if they do, what they call it.
I have no patience for the language debates. And I say this as someone that is a self-identified humanist. Though should using the words God, prayer, redemption, worship, or any other ever disqualify me from that, I will proudly give up my humanist card.
I say this knowing that it at once diminishes the real struggle faced by humanists in our very religious society. I say this knowing that words have been used to abuse people. That God is not a good word sometimes. That worship often means an unloving experience. I say this knowing that while Humanists are often a majority in our congregations, they are always a minority in our nation. At least for now.
The one part of our fifth source that often gets left out is the bit about “warning us about idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Every time we think the humanist theist debate is somehow useful, every time we parse words, every time we sit back and scoff at well meaning and, yes, good people that happen to believe in the supernatural, that is an idolatry of the mind.
And it takes away from the core teachings of humanism. Now, I don’t know about some of you here, but the humanism I know and love is one that doesn’t really care about your belief in a deity.
And it also is one that doesn’t care about the great distraction of debating language. But what it does care about is our actions. Humanism, at its very best, is a call to remember that this is it. It is up to us. We are responsible for changing the world for the better.
Rev. Kenneth Phifer once wrote, “Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do.
Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.” How true these words are today. How true they are for all people, no matter their religion.
As someone that calls himself a humanist, more accurately a religious naturalist, I am called to realize that our hands are the only hands that can fix this world. Our hearts are the only hearts that can have passion for a better tomorrow. Our minds are the only minds that can be creative in our endeavors.
Our beings, our selves, are the only selves that can make a difference. It is all of us, all of humanity, who carry the burden of having the courage to make this life kinder, gentler, and more humane.
To sit and wait for a prayer to stop a hurricane, cure diseases, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and ease suffering, will, more often than not, find us just sitting. Still waiting. To a humanist, the only prayers worth having are the actions of humanity – tangible, actual, measurable, and making a difference.
That is our great call. To not wait for the divine – should there be one – to fix it all for us. And this is the call of Unitarian Universalism as well. We use catchphrases like the kingdom of heaven on earth, life before death, deeds before creeds – but they are true.
Why wait for a kingdom when we can have a greater shred of peace here and now? Why wait for life once we are dead when the only assurance we have is here and now? Why speak hollow words that we do not believe when our actions can speak for themselves?
Some will contend that there is a change coming to our tradition. Some will even say that the humanists are losing the day! Now is the time for theism in Unitarian Universalism again!
While our tradition certainly looks different, it has always evolved in strange ways. And yes, while many of our ministers believe in a God, it sure as hell isn’t the kind of God that has been used to abuse and degrade people for eons.
But I do not believe that humanism is waning. It is simply taking a different form and approach – it is not getting hooked on the idolatries of mind that beg for words to be debated and theists to be rooted out of their fox holes. No, instead, I see a generous humanism that is working within and throughout and alongside the diversity of Unitarian Universalism.
So what if the minister wears a roman collar? Don’t worry, I won’t. Not happening. But so what – is good work being done in the world? Is humanity being empowered to change and help and grow beyond idolatries of the spirit – remember, it’s both mind and spirit in that source – are we moving beyond those spiritual idolatries that hold us back?
“If the world went Humanist it would simply mean that humankind had settled down to the job of living.” These words from Dietrich echo to us from a time long gone – they tell us to stop fretting and filling our brief moments with distractions that consume our minds. They tell us to be mindful. To be deliberate. To do what is good and right and stop waiting for some choir of angels to do it instead.
My hope for Unitarian Universalism is that it will still heed the guidance of humanist teachings, but also, that it will take seriously the call to avoid idolatries of the mind and spirit. The world gives us plenty of things to consume our minds on a daily basis – what good is it if this place is yet one more of those distractions and idolatries?
Humanism is a call to human unity, not a call to division along petty theologies. It is a call to do good work and to take seriously the wonder of science and the place of reason in religion. It is a call to today and not tomorrow. And it is an invitation to you all to turn prayers into actions, to stop waiting, to start living, to do it now…right now…don’t get distracted – it’ll be over before you know it.