The Good News of Humanism
This sermon was delivered at a neutral pulpit and to the search committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY.
Our reading today is titled “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
As a child in suburban Chicago, my family came to Unitarian Universalism just as I was entering my teenage years. It was in a town about twenty miles outside of the city where we came upon the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale. This was after a good friend recommended it. The church itself was situated behind the town library and was surrounded by the large picturesque homes that were characteristic of the town. The building was quaint.
Beautiful stone with plenty of trees, a church sign that hadn’t been changed in over twenty years, and a distinct and charming look about the whole property. It looked like home and that was the point. In the 19th century, the minister of the congregation — William Channing Gannett — wrote an essay titled “The House Beautiful.” In this essay he suggested that a church home must, simply enough, feel like home. And he wasn’t just talking about the people.
The church must have a discernible family room — a place where the church family gathered. Our sanctuary was complete with a fireplace and mantle. It must have [a living room as well— much like the one here], and a place for fellowship, and so on and so forth. This essay would later be taken up by Frank Lloyd Wright as a guiding document for his own designs.
This sense of home, this sense of belonging was felt and seen the moment you walked up to the building. It is no wonder that as my family started to attend, I was taken in by that sense of home, that sense of welcome. It is no wonder that it inspired me to want to serve this faith. The minister always provided thought provoking sermons, the music was classical and inspiring, the religious education was enthusiastic, and all were welcome in this church of the human spirit — all were welcome except God.
In this iconic little Midwestern congregation, it had a history to be proud of. It was a bastion of the self-styled Unity Men — those rebel ministers whose ideas were far too radical for New England Unitarianism at the time. Not feeling welcome they took their ideas with them to the wild Midwest. The church also prided itself on being a holy site for the Swami Vivekananda society— having invited Vivekananda — a Hindu mystic — to preach from its pulpit during the worlds fair in Chicago.
The church eventually called a non-ordained Indian brahmin as its minister, had murals depicting world religions adorning its halls, and, in the modern day, had a disproportionate amount of particle physicists in the congregation. It was an odd and wonderful community.
With all of this openness, all of this intrigue and inquiry into world religions, all of this rich and radical history — the culture of that church only asked that you leave mystery and any sense of the divine at the door. It was a classic humanist homestead. And it had a reputation for being one of the most staunchly humanist congregations amongst ministers in our denomination.
I came to know as did so many others, that by attending church there that I would be inspired to reclaim my own sense of purpose, to reclaim the knowledge that I have it within my power to change the world, and I would be assured that there is nothing supernatural about this universe — this is what I understood humanism it to mean. We knew, just as the sun would rise and set each day, that there was nothing that defied the laws of science and reason. We had a certainty to our belief.
I was told multiple times, proudly, by a few elders in the congregation: “There is no God here. If people believe in God, they can go to that other church.” You see, that church, the God church, in that other town was originally Universalist. Ours was proudly Unitarian. And it was a common belief in the church of my youth that the two probably should have never mixed. We Unitarians valued reason. We valued sensible inquiry in our congregation. But those Universalists. They clapped to hymns, prayed to God, and were open with their emotions.
This was the humanism I grew up with. This was the faith I came to know as Unitarianism — minus the Universalism. The irony of those proud proclamations is that little did I know and little did they know — but years later not only would I find myself as the intern minister of the “God congregation” but I would be praying, I would be clapping, I would be using the G word.
I would be talking about mystery and wonder, salvation and grace, God and the divine, Jesus would make the occasional guest appearance, and all that I was taught as a child was being corrupted by those emotional Universalists. My humanism was in danger.
Humanism is a word we hear often in Unitarian Universalist circles. It’s one of those things, one of those elements of this religion that is widely known, often not defined, and will illicit a variety of responses — groaning, rolling eyes, enthusiasm, and inspiration. Somehow we are all taught what it means by example, by the legacies of those that carry it with them and share it in our communities of faith.
My time at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts has revealed its own connection with humanism — they have the Concord Area Humanists that regularly use of the building, they even have a group called the Ungodlies. Here at [CHURCH] we see [INCLUDE HUMANISM RELATED ACTIVITIES HERE]. Beyond those connections here in the present, we have the Transcendentalists to thank — Emerson, Thoreau, and many more. They were the inspiration for the ministers that settled the west. They were the ones who sought to redefine religion for our time. Humanism, then, is as much a part of Unitarian Universalism as Unitarian Universalism is a part of it. The two are linked together. They are inseparable. And this is both good and bad.
Those radical ministers that found a home in the Midwest, the Unity Men, and let’s not forget the equally radical and pioneering Women, too, and there were many — established a foundation of looking at matters of faith and questioning them, trimming them down to their essential components, and they paved the way for Humanism to find a home in Unitarianism.
One such radical — John Dietrich, a 20th century Unitarian minister, is widely credited as being the father of religious humanism. He writes: “By religion I mean the knowledge of humankind and our duties toward it. That is Humanism. It does not deny the right to believe in God…but it places faith in humankind, a knowledge of humanity, and our duties toward one another. In short, the task of Humanism is to unfold the personality of men and women…it conceives of religion as spiritual enthusiasm directed toward the enrichment of the individual life and the improvement of the social order.”
From the words of Dietrich and so many others, Humanism has been with Unitarianism and now, Unitarian Universalism, for quite some time. Our congregations, if asked, would show a majority of people nationwide that label themselves as such. We are, in essence, humanism as an establishment — humanism as a religion.
But given those words we just heard, there is an unfolding of possibility — a recognition that all human beings are welcomed in humanism — as long as they commit themselves to the improvement of our world. So, where do you find yourself amidst this diversity? Do you pray or meditate? Do you believe in a God, Gods, or no deities? Where, for you, is mystery and wonder in this peculiar adventure called life? However you answer — I contend that that was the original intent of humanism: to not judge people for their beliefs, but, to call them to a renewed hope in humanity.
It was a call to greater challenge and change — it was a call to inspire people to be the miracle in the world — it was a call to finding common ground amidst diverse beliefs. As we heard from Dietrich, it was a call to bring religion, in whatever form it might take, down from the heavens and to put it squarely in the hands of human beings once more.
How, then, I have to wonder, did the call to common ground amongst diverse people become a closed off and territorial way of believing? How did the promise of inspiring people to do good with or without God become so divisive that, as we learned from the congregation I grew up in, there were churches for the humanists, and then churches for everyone else? How did the good news, the gospel, that challenged people to serve the needs of all become a literalism that argued over what “religious” words were acceptable in church?
I don’t know about all of you, maybe this is the challenge of being in the pray trade, but I suspect these discussions are still frequent — I have been witness to one too many heated debates about whether or not we use the words church, God, spirit, sanctuary, grace, salvation, redemption, scripture, and so on and so forth.
There have been commentaries and even some entertaining songs produced by various congregations to highlight what many call the tension between Humanism and Theism. There have been controversies on the denominational level, and whole congregations consumed with the question of whether to call their place of gathering a church, a society, a fellowship, or a white clapboard building with a steeple that resembles a religious institution but isn’t quite that. This parsing of words, this grammatical fundamentalism has nearly drowned out the promise, the good news, of humanism.
Now, don’t mistake my critique for ignoring the reasons for some of these discussions. Many of us can claim a religious past that is rooted in pain, in fear, in even deeper ways of dividing people. This pain is not something that goes away completely. I imagine, for many, the word God represents and old man in the sky with a beard that passes judgement on the minutia of our daily lives.
I imagine that hearing the word church brings people back to places that were not safe, were not joyful, were not inspiring, and were not about building community. And for many folks that come from a Jewish background, church can be difficult to say. But herein rests the other great possibility of not only Humanism but of Unitarian Universalism as well. These words can be reclaimed. They can be redefined.
They can be given new life for a new generation, for a new world, and for people in need of comfort and inspiration. God no longer needs to be someone passing judgement but can, instead, describe the mystery and wonder we feel in being alive. Salvation need not refer to heaven and hell, but, instead to forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and leading more whole and happy lives. The list can go on and on.
And it is true that this pain can linger for a lifetime. But that is not the only option. There is more to our lives than our pain. If it is one thing Unitarian Universalism has taught me, it is that we bring all of who we are into our communities — we bring our pain, we bring our joy — and we look toward healing, toward celebrating, toward changing ourselves and others for the better.
Our faith, with all of the people in our pews that call themselves humanists, has a great possibility that goes beyond arguing over the dogma and creeds of other faiths. Our tradition has no use for dogma, so, why on earth do we consume ourselves with arguing the finer points of it?
Should we not, as those pioneering humanists who found a home in Unitarianism did, be taking our religion, calling it our own, and seeking out new and ever changing paths that inspire people, that empower people, that teach people that no matter what they hold in their hearts on matters such as God and the afterlife — that we all have it within ourselves to change the world? That was the good news of humanism when it was first taking shape and that is the good news that can still inspire us today.
That call to draw religion down from the heavens and to put it in the hearts of living and breathing human beings is something that needs to be shared with the world. It needs to be shared with the seekers joining us week after week who, I imagine, care little for parsing words and, instead, want to find a place that tells them: You are welcome, let this be your home, let this be a place of rest from your worries.
Whether or not you call yourself a Unitarian Universalist humanist, theist, pagan, mystic, buddhist, or any other variation — we all have an opportunity to share with the world a different way of being religious. We can let others know that there is more compassion, more wonder, more opportunities to change the world — often one life at a time — and more faith to be had in ourselves and each other.
We can recommit ourselves to love and joy and laughter and hope in all that we do. I pledge myself, as a humanist and a Unitarian Universalist, to live for that love and joy and laughter and hope — not division. How about you?