A UU Odyssey
I came to Unitarian Universalism in the autumn of 1969 in Burlington, while a graduate student in history at the University of Vermont. The UUA, representing the coming together of the historic Universalist Church of America and the historic American Unitarian Association, was a mere eight years old. It was still seeking to give substance to its merged identity. The Unitarian way/style prevailed over Universalism, a once thriving denomination that surely had pushed Protestantism toward the notion of a loving God, but which had experienced both an identity crisis and decline in the first half of the 20th century, as mainstream Protestantism generally accepted its theological centering principle that “God is Love.”
Fortunate for me, I did my internship in 1976-77 at one of the more historically important Universalist churches, First Universalist Society in Syracuse, New York. (It was in Syracuse in 1960, at a meeting known within the friendly confines of UUism as the Battle of Syracuse, that merger was hammered out and agreed upon). Interestingly, the venerable minister of First Universalist Society Syracuse had opposed merger.) When I arrived in 1976, First Universalist Society had a liberal Christian bent, with a controversy roiling a little beneath the surface about serving communion in the worship service; it had only recently been cut back from a bylaws mandated eight times a year to once a year, and not on a Sunday, but on Maundy Thursday. When I finished that yearlong internship, I had a good sense, through firsthand experience, of the Universalist tradition.
My first church was First Unitarian in Youngstown, Ohio, a congregation once noted for training ministers before they left for larger congregations and livelier cities. A minister from the early 1950s, then president of the UUA, Paul Carnes returned to Youngstown to preach my ordination sermon in 1977. Though Youngstown had become a remnant congregation in the wake of the unrest of the 1960s, the downturn of the steel industry, and a tragic murder/suicide of the most recent minister and his wife, it had three distinct layers (though thin) of members drawn by the appeal of different ministers from Carnes era of the 1950s and after—a rational/humanist, a vaguely theistic/Christian, and a poetic/mystical strata.
In 1983, I came here to the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, a congregation established in 1886 that had an ethical-basis, world religion, and humanist history, consistent with the radical Unitarian legacy of the Western Unitarian Conference, specifically Chicago. The Western Unitarian Conference had initiated the World Parliament of Religion and became the center of Religious Humanism. Since the 1920s, UCH’s identity has been definitely and at times defiantly humanist.
About Religious Humanism: there was a Great Disillusion following the War of 1914-1918, including disillusion with traditional religion. Religious humanism had its beginning in the post WWI era, summarized in the famous “A Humanist Manifesto” of 1933 that spoke of a new natural religion that denied the authority of all supernatural religions and looked to human meaning for its values. Several Unitarian and Universalist ministers were among the prominent 34 endorsers, including Walter Mondale’s half brother Lester, who was at the time minister of the Evanston Unitarian Church. The most famous endorser was the philosopher/educator John Dewey.
Religious humanism gained a stronghold in 20th century Unitarianism. And by mid-century, during a post-war period of vigor and growth Unitarianism had a predominant humanist identity, including this congregation. In 1983, before I arrived, I was advised that Hinsdale Unitarians do not sing hymns with God in them,
I had found a great deal of inspiration in Unitarian humanism while I prepared for the ministry in the early 1970s. I was especially fond of poetic-like writings of a host of ministers, but in particular Ken Patton a mystical naturalist humanist. (In the late 1940s, he had helped inveigle Frank Lloyd Wright, a quasi-member of the Madison WI congregation Patton led, to design the famous prow front Madison church. Patton left Madison in 1949 for the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston to create a church and program for a syncretic “Religion for One World.” Patton later headed up the commission that prepared the UUA’s first hymnal in 1964, Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Some of his hymns and readings have survived in our current hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, published in 1993, though rewritten to conform to a gender-neutral standard. (For example, "Man is the Earth Upright and Proud" became "We Are the Earth Upright and Proud.")
One of the handiest ways to measure the course of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is to compare the content of the two hymnals. The 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life represents the high tide of humanism, while the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition reflects the influences of feminism (note the degenderizing of 1964 hymns), a return toward theism, and a new spirituality. The signature hymn in the more recent collection is a paean to the new spirituality, aptly titled, "Spirit of Life."
So, in the course of my forty-one years of involvement with UUism, thirty-three as a UU minister, I’ve lived through an era when religious humanism peaked and began a gradual decline within UU’ism. Humanists have even begun to feel marginalized.
A Decline of Religious Humanism
The most recent edition of the UU World has a lead article about the generational shifts taking place in UUism that speaks humanism’s decline in our midst:
The generation that is now in young adulthood has grown up with an expectation—or maybe just a hope—that would have been foreign to me as a boy: Somewhere, someone ought to have a wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to.
As that generation shows up on the doorsteps of UU churches (with their toddlers in tow) what kind of Unitarian Universalism will they be looking for?
Nowhere in the Unitarian Universalist movement is the generational issue more serious and central than among the Humanists. The generation that remembers the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and founded institutions like the American Humanist Association is dying off. They started or led many congregations during an era when Unitarianism (and then Unitarian Universalism) was almost synonymous with Humanism. But they lived long enough to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s energy (first the energy of young ministers and later of UUA leadership) focused elsewhere—promoting spirituality and reclaiming a language of reverence that many Humanists found meaningless or perhaps even sinister. Now UU Humanists of all ages worry that Humanist history is not taught in our churches and the Humanist legacy is in danger. (Doug Muder, “Reclaiming Krypton”)
I have been a religious humanist throughout my ministry, often employing the phrase “The Church of the Human Spirit.” But religious humanism is no longer a primary identity. A larger understanding has subsumed it. As I’ve cobbled together my own religious/spiritual outlook, I’ve increasingly placed myself in the larger context of Natural Religion and use the phrase The Religion of Nature and Human Nature in describing my orientation.
Humanistic Religious Naturalism
William Murray, a well-seasoned, humanist colleague who also served as a recent president of one of our two UU seminaries shares my mature point of view. A few years ago, he wrote, “A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists, a religious humanism informed by cultural developments and recent discoveries in the natural and human sciences and grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism, a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.”
I’m going to continue with Bill Murray’s seasoned and evolved sense of what he calls a new humanism. It coincides with my own sense of religious naturalism and my notion of a Religion True to Nature and Human Nature. Murray has written, in a UU World article "Reason and Reverence:"
I believe a viable religion of the twenty-first century, [a religious humanism…grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism] must include the following five characteristics:
First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.
The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.
Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.
Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. …
[Fifth and] finally, the religion of the future must affirm those values that help to make our lives more fully human. … Becoming more fully human involves the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole and to a deep commitment to the human and natural worlds. It is about the transformation from a shallow life of fear, greed, hedonism, and materialism to a meaningful life of love and caring, gratitude and generosity, fairness and equity, joy and hope, and a profound respect for others.
Humanistic religious naturalism promotes an ethical life in which one thinks and acts from a larger perspective than one’s own egoistic interests, a life that affirms the worth and dignity of each person, a life filled with wonder and reverence for the extraordinary magnificence of the natural world and human creations. It includes gratitude for the gift of life itself and the capacity to enjoy it.
To be fully human is to develop and use our minds but not neglect our emotions and intuitions. … A fully human person has both an open mind and a warm heart as well as a social conscience. …
The grounding of religious humanism in religious naturalism makes it possible to affirm a perspective that includes these five characteristics and thus qualifies as a religion for the twenty-first century. As the late Carl Sagan wrote, “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” Humanistic religious naturalism is just such a religion. I believe it is emerging among us today.
A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature
My own point of view coincides with the point of view of colleague Bill Murray, what he calls humanistic natural religion, though I find that phrasing a little awkward. These days I’m content with the descriptive Natural Religion; and if, I’m pressed I add "A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature.”
We’re at a threshold regarding the future of religion thanks to relatively new sciences, especially Neuroscience and Evolutionary Biology/Psychology. The religious humanists proclaimed it in the 1933 “A Humanist Manifesto,” that there is one reality: Nature. We human beings are one with Nature. We have a religious and ethical instinct, a desire to discover meaning and a drive to fulfill purpose, one, significant descriptive of Human Nature—timeless and universal.
I believe the great task of a relevant religion in these days is to create compelling, coherent new, scientifically sound stories that tease out meaning and purpose—stories that appeal to our reason and evoke our emotions, true to ever and rapidly advancing science and redolent with what we have come to call religious experience. Human Nature thrives with the meaning and purpose Religion provides.
I agree wholeheartedly with Bill Murray: the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.
That future is now!