Guest Blogger Maria Greene asks, Why is Humanism So Scary for the UUA?

Guest Blogger Maria Greene asks, Why is Humanism So Scary for the UUA? July 16, 2015

In the late 1960s—like so many other liberal movements—Humanism lost its way. Understandably, many Universalist and Unitarian congregations held onto Humanism long after the philosophy had grown moribund. The cultural currents shifted toward an eclectic mix of Christian liturgy, Buddhist practice, yoga and “spiritual but not religious.” Humanism did not adapt. Many of us held onto its tenants; younger people even joined the cause. But the discourse of Humanism did not change much for about thirty years.

This has resulted in the oddity that even ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers have no idea how a Sunday morning service could be conducted without using the god symbol. The Humanist response is fairly simple: all Sunday morning services are conducted without “God,” because there isn’t one. Or not at least the sort of god that can reasonably and adequately be grappled with in a Sunday service. This is the sort of humility that Humanists long for.

This week’s guest blogger is Maria Greene. As a younger voice in Unitarian Universalism and a committed Humanist—she is Executive Director of the UU Humanist Association—we do well to listen to Maria. Our response determines the future of Unitarian Universalism.

The Scream: National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, by Steve Evans
The Scream: National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, by Steve Evans

Why is Humanism So Scary for the UUA?
By Maria Greene

Someone told me recently that, in their opinion, the Unitarian Universalist leadership was afraid of Humanists and that’s why there isn’t much attention paid to Humanism in the pages of UU World, the official organ of the UUA, or at the UUA General Assembly. That took me aback since I think of Humanists as, almost by definition, generally harmless, but it did make me think about whether there could be any truth to the idea. I can think of three major reasons why Humanism might be threatening to the UU leadership: challenging their convictions about metaphysics, challenging their authority, and challenging their definition of inclusivity.

The first reason, differences in metaphysics, seems pretty obvious as a source of discomfort. Someone who has done the same work as you but who has come to a different conclusion about the usefulness of the God concept is challenging. Rather than being ignorant about “sophisticated” metaphysics like Whitehead’s process theology since we didn’t go to seminary, many of us autodidactically-inclined Humanists have studied it and found it unpersuasive. (Some have even decided this while in seminary!) We most often have not studied it to the depth that many UU ministers have, but that is because we feel the energy would be better spent elsewhere once the basic arguments fail to convince. Panentheism, the dominant theology espoused by UU clergy and studied at UU seminaries, is an attractive theology because it is substantially rational, but leaves room for the mystical. The mystical is something that many crave — particularly those who are drawn to ministry. But, boring and unpoetic though it may be, there is still no evidence for something that lives outside or transcends nature. For Humanists, nature is wonderous enough and it is more satisfying to focus on love, justice, and compassion for love, justice, and compassion’s sake.

I have been told that this attitude is arrogant and shows my privilege – that when I have been tested by the slings and arrows of life, that I will come to a different conclusion. Perhaps, but isn’t it arrogant to assume I have never been challenged or that those who have been can’t still hold on to these convictions, especially if they are supported by a loving community? I’ve been told that voicing this opinion is impolite because it is divisive and doesn’t respect the other’s right to hold a different belief. Since when is “encouragement to spiritual growth” incompatible with “acceptance of one another”? I can love you and want to be in community with you without having to think like you. Just as I call out any Humanist who tries to make Humanism the only acceptable belief system within Unitarian Universalism or who treats people with disrespect because of their theistic beliefs, I expect all UUs to do the same.

On the topic of the differences between those drawn to ministry and those who are not, I was recently quoted by someone in an essay about Humanist community. Last year, in an email discussion group, I said:

My intuition is that the authority-figure role of the minister is a major thing that is keeping younger and more secular-inclined people away from UU. We are not only anti-clerical as a group, we are anti-authoritarian. I think professional leadership is vital to the growth of Humanist communities, but I think we need to look to the secular organization model and train executive directors, not ministers. We need to employ the trained services of celebrants and counselors (and not call them chaplains or pastors), and we need fundraisers, program directors, educators, etc., but we shouldn’t expect one person to be all those things like we expect ministers to be. Celebrants can wear stoles, if that’s their thing, to add ceremony to the special occasion they are celebrating, but the idea of a ministerial class sets my teeth on edge, especially the titles and trappings.

I had forgotten I had written those words, but they still ring true to me and I can see why the UUA leadership, almost exclusively ministers, would be uncomfortable with that. My UU minister proudly wears his academic robe and stole in the pulpit as evidence of his hard-earned (and no doubt expensive) Master of Divinity degree from Harvard. I would expect him to be proud of the title that came along with that effort, and have a hard time begrudging the privilege that comes with it knowing, as I do, about the motivation behind the career change from lawyer to Reverend and the energy he puts into social justice work. And yet I can’t help but react negatively to the “titles and the trappings”. Sermonizing still has a negative association for me and I distrust hierarchies, even liberal, fairly feminist-friendly hierarchies.

After reading about the Unitarian Fellowship Movement of the 1950s and 60s, I can see why the powers-that-be would consider it a failure, with its mostly lay-led, humanist members who weren’t necessarily interested in becoming a “church”. Many of those members were anti-clerical and anti-authoritarian and I can see how that can make clergy nervous. And yet our UU movement has always been about questioning received wisdom. Given the trend in American society away from trusting institutions, this seems to me to be a model that should be encouraged and intentionally cultivated again. Humanists are not a threat, we are growth potential. Perhaps the new Covenenting Community designation and Multisite emphasis can be flexible enough to welcome new communities, even if they may lean Humanist.

Lastly, there is the challenge we Humanists make about inclusivity. Many UU theists have pointed out how Humanists have made them feel unwelcome in their congregations, and that is indeed a bad thing. Now the Humanists tell me the same stories. We would not be UUs, we UU Humanists, and UU Pagans, and UU Christians, and UU Buddhists… if we did not value diversity and freedom of individual conscience. We would also not be human, say the sociologists, if we didn’t value in-groupishness.

Just because UU Humanists object to theism of any sort being presented as the consensus opinion of the Association by its staff and congregational ministers, doesn’t mean we are a threat. We welcome all UUs, clergy or lay, to stand up and say, “This I believe.” Many people respond to my question, “Do you identify as a UU Humanist?” with obvious discomfort, often followed by a statement like, “I don’t believe in labels. I’d rather not be committed to a position.” But being a creedless organization does not require us to be creedless as individuals; it just requires us to be accepting. Still working on the questions is one thing, but when this response comes from seminarians, ministers or other professionals, it is often comes with an “off the record” admission that they have been advised or sense that identifying with a particular theology would be “career-limiting”. How sad that we expect our leaders to sacrifice their integrity for their job.

Some UUs who have a particular creed would prefer to have it dominate the movement – who would not want to avoid challenge? Some also argue that our wishy-washy theology is a barrier to growth and they are probably right, but I’m not ready to give it up. I, personally, do not want to eliminate the diversity in Unitarian Universalism because I see our diversity on matters of belief as minor compared to our unanimity on matters of ethics. We love alike and we love really, really well. So, UUA leaders, don’t be afraid of us Humanists. Engage with us and find out what you can do to show that we, too, are a valued part of the movement.

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