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Here is the latest chapter of my book on Unitarian Universalist theologies.


The third of the major theological movements to emerge in Unitarianism and Universalism was humanism, which inspired debate in both movements beginning in the late 19th Century. Today, when Unitarian Universalists are asked to describe their theology in various surveys, there is no one theology which represents a majority of Unitarian Universalists. The largest plurality, however, identify as humanists.

What is humanism? It is a particular theological movement with its roots in ancient Greece, rather than ancient Palestine. Humanism was heavily influenced by the rapid scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The philosophy and theology of humanism has been most clearly expressed in the Humanist Manifestos of 1933, 1973 and 2003. Among the signers of one or the other of these documents is the philosopher John Dewey, whose ideas were pivotal in the developing Humanist ideas, the poet John Ciardi, Albert Ellis, the inventor of Rational Emotive therapy, Betty Friedan, the Feminist author and Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. The Humanist Manifesto III was signed by 21 Nobel laureates. Right wing politicians and commentators have used the ideas of the Manifestos to declare that U.S. culture is being taken over by a Secular Humanist conspiracy. There is no conspiracy. Membership in all Humanist organizations combined numbers less than a million. By far the greatest numbers of humanists are found within Unitarian Universalism.

Robert Edward Green has listed 5 assertions of religious humanism. The first is that the central concern of religion should be humanity. The second is that any concept of God has outworn its usefulness. Third is that truth will be found by a reliance on reason. Fourth is the assertion of the essential goodness of humanity. And finally, Green asserted that the primary concern of religion ought to be the conditions of humans and human society. These are assertions broadly shared among Unitarian Universalists. Perhaps the only one which would elicit much controversy is the assertion that any concept of a God has outworn its usefulness.

When I first entered theological school in 1975 I was a humanist. Humanist ideas, encountered in my first Unitarian Universalist congregation liberated a mind that was constrained and wounded by a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. What I soon learned in my graduate theological studies was that I had barely scratched the surface of Christian theology in my previous experience. My intellectual world was also broadened by a deeper encounter with world religions and with a fascination about the psychology of religion that grips me to this day. These discoveries spoke to me much more comprehensively than the humanism that was prevalent in the Unitarian Universalism of the 1970s. When I tried to discuss my emerging understandings with older colleagues I was made acutely aware of humanist intolerance. After attending a Fellowship Of Religious Humanists conference where I heard paper after paper denounce religion in a global sense, with great contempt, and with no nuance or scholarly objectivity, I began to sniff out a fundamentalism not unlike the one I had recently abandoned. A friend, who was initially very excited to be attending the conference, shared my disillusionment. “I think I’m still a humanist,” he said, “but can I be a non-subscribing Humanist?” We shared our concerns with a humanist professor. He pointed us to the writings of the early Unitarian and Universalist humanist ministers who were not asking to replace theism in our movement, but to take a place along side it. The anti-religious fundamentalism came with a post World War II generation that had had a belly full of oppressive religious ideas in early 20th Century Christian denominations and wanted to be free of them in their new found faith of Unitarian Universalism.

In 1975 humanism was by far the dominant theological position within Unitarian Universalism. As I write in 2011, this has changed dramatically. There are words spoken in most UU congregations that would never have been uttered in the pre-dominantly humanist congregations of the 1970s---words like ‘God’ and ‘spirituality’. This was to be expected, for the Baby Boom and future generations grew up in a completely different religious environment than the World War II generation. The rebellious phase of their lives had already happened in their youth and in seeking a new faith, they were looking not to rebel but to connect, and to work together with others of like mind and values. The question for me now is, “Can the skeptical yet tolerant humanism that so enlivened Unitarian Universalism in the 20th Century survive and continue to lend a vigorous voice in our theological conversation?” There are some good signs that it can and will.

At the 2000 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association Dr. William Murry presented a paper contrasting the old humanism of the first 70 years or so of the denomination’s humanist history with what he called a new humanism which has been developing in the last 15 years or so. This paper was well received as an accurate description of how religious humanism is evolving. The paper was published in the Spring 2000 issue of The Journal Of Liberal Religion as “Religious Humanism.” This paper becomes the springboard for my concluding thoughts about the humanist theological tradition within Unitarian Universalism.

The old Humanism was excessively focused on the single individual. The New Humanism sees the individual as fully human only within a community. The covenanted religious community takes an essential place in the new humanism.

The old humanism as exceedingly rational, even rationalistic. The new humanism recognizes the importance of non-rational elements of human experience, such as emotions and mystical experience. Reason and empirical thinking remain central to the discovery of truth. The new humanism recognizes, however, that not all reality has a rational explanation. There is mystery.

The old humanism was far too optimistic about human nature and human progress. The new humanism seeks to take seriously the tragic dimensions of life. Recent human history has shown that humans are capable of great evil and that great suffering has resulted from political as well as religious ideologies. Scientific knowledge and technologies have created great suffering as well as great progress. The new humanism maintains a belief in the ability of humanity to address these evils and to understand and manage our evil impulses.

The old humanism, says Murry, was closed to a sense of mystery and wonder or any form of transcendence. The new humanism does perceive wonder, mystery, and transcendence, but within a naturalistic rather than a super naturalistic framework. When former UUA President William Sinkford called for Unitarian Universalism to rediscover a “language of reverence” old line humanists denounced his statement, fearing an insistence on theistic language. Humanist theologian David Bumbaugh, however, argued that a language of reverence need not always be theistic. “It’s a vocabulary that talks about our place in this wonderful, awesome, dangerous, beautiful world….It is a language which affirms our inescapable limits [without giving up] our inescapable responsibility.”

Fifth, the new humanism can be tolerant of other perspectives. Too often the old implied that it is somehow irrational or inferior to have an experience or concept of God or the transcendent.

Sixth, the new humanism affirms the aesthetic dimension of human experience alongside the intellectual dimension. Truth AND beauty are honored.

Seventh, the old humanism deified human beings. The new humanism is an ecological humanism, expanding the boundaries of concern to include all life and the earth itself.

Eighth, Murry describes the social justice of the old humanism as paternalistic. The educated, upper-middle class intelligentsia knows best what is right for everyone. If other people who suffer from injustice and oppression were only more educated and rational and not so superstitious, progress could happen. The new humanism is working toward a bias toward the poor, disadvantaged and oppressed. Perhaps they know something about their plight that those in a more advantaged don’t understand.

Murry describes the new humanism like this:

“The goals of religious humanism is fully and truly human beings, people who are free of the fictions and illusions that diminish the self, and who are free and independent in the context of a loving and caring community working together to transform the world. The religious humanist believes that human beings must rely on our own minds and hearts to achieve these goals, but that together we can make progress toward them. The new religious humanism brings together the latest contemporary understandings of what it means to be human with the best values of our liberal religious tradition to achieve that goal”

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