The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Community Church Unitarian Universalist/New
IT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
Although we like to think and talk as if we are equally influenced by the truths in all the world’s religions and philosophies, the fact is that there are and have been, throughout the history of both Unitarianism and Universalism, only three primary strains of thought, all of which are based on some form of critical thinking, and all of which have been present in some form from the beginning. And all of which, when they became significant enough to attract attention, became the source of contention and a crisis of identity. That is the basic Unitarian Universalist, as old as the movement, and as old as each of the various elements it contains: What do we stand for? What are the boundaries that identify us and give meaning and purpose to our existence? This is the third and last of my sermons examining the history and continuing tradition of those three strains: Christianity, Transcendentalism and now Humanism.
At the present time a majority of Unitarian Universalists still identify themselves as humanist, and yet people I respect and admire tell me that humanism is dead in our movement. On occasion when humanists are mentioned in Unitarian Universalist gatherings — particularly gatherings of ministers — there are groans and hisses. Something weird is going on here. We frame our contemporary argument about identity in terms of inclusiveness (an inappropriate frame, I think, since it allows us to deny what it is we’re actually talking about), and yet many of our leaders would love, it seems, to be able to exclude the majority of our members. So let’s look at the history of humanism in Unitarian Universalism and see if we can discover what is going on today.
Humanism was not invented by the signers of the Humanist Manifesto. In the 5th century BC Protagoras said, (The human) is the measure of all things. Christianity, with its emphasis on the irredeemable sinfulness of humankind, or redeemable only through the direct action of God, suppressed the humanistic spirit of the classical age, although it continued to resurface now and then, but it was reborn in the Renaissance with the ideas of human beauty of the mind and spirit as well as the body. The possibility of human moral and intellectual achievement without supernatural assistance started to look like a reasonable idea. To a humanist a human being is no longer a wretch or a worm, but truly a being who is made in the image of God. Or at least (if you don’t like that language) one who is the center and focus of our human life’s meaning. Universal education to help human beings realize their holy purpose of progress toward the
The rational Christianity of Channing was essentially humanistic in its teaching that human reason can interpret the Bible in the light of its context and authors and the ways in which it should be applied. Emerson’s Transcendentalism was humanistic in its understanding of the direct human experience of the holy, human integrity and human self-reliance. Humanism was always a part of Unitarianism.
At the time of the second Unitarian controversy and the founding of the Free Religious Association, Transcendentalism was only one of the modes of thought that traditional Unitarianism, Unitarian Christianity, attempted to purge from its ranks. The other was scientific humanism. There is no one leader to whom we can point, no single person such as Channing who spoke for rational Christianity or Emerson who defined transcendentalism, who articulated the tenets of scientific humanism. It seemed to be a natural and spontaneous growth within the movement, widespread from its inception. It was the notion that questions of fact are answered through scientific investigation and supersede any beliefs that religion —any religion —teaches about the physical universe. Its ethical and moral values tended to be the same as its more traditional co-religionists, but began to be based on pragmatic logic rather than divine fiat, and declared that the desired end was the progress of humankind. Theodore Parker, himself, shunned for his transcendentalism, can be said to have fired the first shot in the battle of anti-supernaturalistic humanism when he preached his most famous sermon, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he argued that the miracles of Jesus were probably not true, and if true, irrelevant.
This kind of humanism was very widespread in the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association. This did not include
Part of what caused that was Darwin and The Origin of Species. It’s hard to believe it now, when the San Antonio church could make money selling a bumper sticker to fellow Unitarian Universalists that says “Honk if you love Darwin,” but his findings were almost as shocking to the Unitarians and Universalists of his day as they were to more traditional Christians. Well, how would you feel if you’d spent your whole life believing that the human race had been specially created by God to fulfill a divine purpose, even if he then went off, as the deists believed, to let us work out our own destiny, and all of a sudden a previously somewhat obscure biologist informed you that you had evolved from an ancestor shared with all the other primates? Gorillas and monkeys! Chimpanzees and baboons! Well, maybe orangutans, but that’s as far as I’d go, if succeeding scientists had not shown pretty conclusively that he was right.
However, the groundwork for the acceptance of the findings of scientific research had been laid long ago, and at last it had to be accepted. With the findings of the theory of evolution, many felt that they no longer needed any supernatural explanation of the origins of the physical universe or the existence of humankind. Even their more traditional brothers and sisters had, to be intellectually consistent, eventually to accept the findings of
They did, after all, all believe in progress, whatever their particular theology. It was the late nineteenth century when everybody believed in progress. A saying blossomed on the walls of Unitarian churches from
The nontheists were in the ascendant and their ascendancy culminated in the publishing of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Humanism was a good word, a word which showed respect for human beings, and the recognition of whatever might be transcendent in the universe through human action and creativity and evolution. Those who rejected the supernatural adopted the name humanist to mean that ideas of anything transcending human possibility were unnecessary to religious belief and action. All Unitarians and Universalists were humanists as we are today, but the ones who took the name of Humanism with a capital letter and formed the Association of Religious Humanists did so on the basis of the rejection of the supernatural. It became a synonym for atheist, and it became arrogant, suggesting that anyone who had any inkling of the possibility of something outside of the material were simply self-deluded and perhaps not wholly evolved. They weren’t “real” Unitarian Universalists. Shades of the 19th Century Rational Christians! At least they never suggested a formal purge. That is why calling oneself a humanist is no longer fashionable among some of our members.
That is only one strain of humanism, however. Humanism is far broader than either the first, or even the second Humanist Manifesto. There are only two things that I believe are required to claim the name of humanism. One is that we accept the scientific world-view and the use of human reason and the other is that we do not expect divine intervention in our lives, that we understand that we ourselves are responsible for the moral outcomes that we desire. Our Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws list of sources states that humanist men and women have warned us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. One of my colleagues asked me if I thought that was really true. I said I did, so long as they didn’t fall into the idolatry of anti-religion, which is the tendency of our more atheistic humanists. True humanists in our movement focus the concern for the purest truth, unbiased by tradition or desire. They carry the critical thinking which is, and has always been, our essential process, to its greatest heights.