Theology is Words, Words Matter

When people first visit First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a very common first response to walking into what we call our Upper Assembly Hall is, “Wow! Beautiful sanctuary!” To which, as a minister of the place, I am duty bound to respond, “We call it our “Upper Assembly Hall.”

By insisting for sixty-five years that we have an Assembly Hall, not a sanctuary, the people of First Unitarian Society have followed the Seventh point of the first Humanist Manifesto: “The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.”

The word sanctuary is based on the Latin word sanctus, meaning “holy.” The word sacred is based in the Latin word sacre, meaning “consecrate.” Holy is based in the Old English word halig, meaning “whole.”

The Upper Assembly Hall at the Society is not a “sanctuary” because it is no more holy or sacred than anywhere else. Sure, it’s certainly a storied room. And most importantly its a space where generations of human beings have gotten married, named their children, brought their problems, stood up for truth and social justice, and memorialized their dead.

All those things make the space important for a lot of people, and it will remain so for some time to come. But it’s not a sanctuary, because it’s not sacred. It’s a beautiful space that human beings built, and that human beings have maintained. It’s a human space for human beings. The human spirit lives there, and that’s more than enough spirits for Humanists.

“But it LOOKS like a sanctuary!” people say.

Well, I advise, get yourself some new eyes. All those so-called sanctuaries—from Egyptian temples for Isis to medieval cathedrals to store-fronts in strip malls—all are spaces just like the Upper Assembly Hall—made by human hands and maintained by human hands.

Sure, we human beings have a tendency to fetishize things—a pair of grandma’s reading glasses or great-great-great grandpa’s walking stick, for example. But these things are important, they aren’t magic.

For sixty-five years the Upper Assembly Hall has continued to insist: “The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained . . .”

That doesn’t mean spaces can’t be important. It’s just that Humanists realize how so-called sacred spaces are created and what they contain . . . the products of our own minds.

What we call a particular space—how we regard it—is very deeply about theology. We Humanists are saying that . . .despite what the patriarchy and the kings and the priests and the popes and the senators and the preachers and an ever-growing list of oppressors . . . despite what they all claimed—WE KNOW that human beings MAKE the sacred.

So, we say to oppressors, just back off and keep your lies about your legitimacy to yourself. In our Assembly Hall, we are free people. IMG_3804

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