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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Our Fifth Source: Science and Humanism

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration, With Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate, and the Choir

Our Fifth Source:  Humanism

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

May 5, 2013


The Worship Associate today, Jonathan Mawdsley, made reference in his Chalice Reflection to the “original Humanist Manifesto” and its concluding sentences are printed at the top of the Order of Service, so I will briefly tell about the “original” and subsequent versions.

The first manifesto, entitled simply A Humanist Manifesto, was written in 1933, primarily by Roy Wood Sellars and Raymond Bragg, both Unitarians. It was published with thirty-four signatories, including fifteen Unitarians. The first Manifesto referred to Humanism as a religious movement that was to transcend and replace religions that are based on allegations of supernatural revelation. Its fifteen theses rely instead on the science of evolution and express optimism about human potential.

The second Manifesto was written in 1973 by Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor, and Edwin H. Wilson, a Unitarian minister, and had many UU signers. It was intended to update and replace the previous Manifesto. It begins with a statement that the excesses of Nazism and “recent wars” had made the first seem "far too optimistic." Only somewhat less optimistic than the previous version, it is longer and addresses many more specific public policy and ethical issues. Notable lines include, "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves," and "We are responsible for what we are and for what we will be."

In 2003, the American Humanist Association published a Humanist Manifesto III with the subtitle “Humanism and Its Aspirations.” One Unitarian Universalist was among its five drafters, Edd Doerr, who was president of Americans for the Separation of Church and State, and has been associated with both Paint Branch and River Road UU Churches, and many there were many UU signers, including Rev. Kendyl Gibbons who wrote the words for Jason Shelton’s Cantata from which the choir sang today. The third Manifesto does not refer to Humanism as a religious movement as did the first Manifesto and is much shorter than the second, listing only six primary beliefs:

It defines “Humanism” as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” It states that “the lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully.”

One of my favorite stories in the humanist strain was told by Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz in the speech he gave accepting the 2000 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association. Bill, now President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, was then the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, a position he took after serving eight years as the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Some of us heard him speak last weekend at the fundraiser for the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland. Anyhow, in 2000, he told about Rev. Leon Birkhead, one of the original Manifesto signers, and minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City in the 1920’s. Rev. Birkhead joined a group of Christian colleagues for a prayer service planned to alleviate the terrible drought the Midwest was facing that year. He was the only minister to show up for the prayer service with an umbrella. “I take it,” Birkhead later told a reporter, “that I am the only member of the clergy [present] who has any faith.”

 So, eighty years have passed since the original Humanist Manifesto, forty since the second, and ten since the third.  Now, with so many Americans turning away from organized religion, Humanism doesn’t seem as radical as it did in 1933. But for a religion such as ours to hold Humanism as one of its primary sources… that still sets Unitarian Universalism apart from other religions.

(Not that our congregations are alone in welcoming humanists. I remember remarking favorably to a dear friend, a United Church of Christ pastor, about President Obama’s first inaugural address in which he mentioned “non-believers” (a first for inaugural addresses) as in "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers." And my friend said, “Yes, that thrilled the atheists in my congregation.” I looked at him surprised, saying, “Why are there atheists in your congregation?” “Because they like the sense of community,” he replied pointedly, knowing that I thought they belonged with us, not the UCC’s!)

Not only do we welcome humanists and atheists, humanism was, and may still be, the dominant theology among Unitarian Universalists. One gets a sense of that from the fact that these Manifestos were written and signed by so many.  (Although we should note that humanism was more prevalent among the Unitarians than the Universalists – in fact, before they merged in 1961, the Unitarians could be said to be “of the mind” and the Universalists “of the heart.” But that is a digression we don’t have time to pursue just now.)

I think that the kind of humanism that is dominant among us has shifted somewhat, from the Religious Humanism among Unitarians as expressed in the 1933 Manifesto to the Secular Humanism of the mid-twentieth century to what may be called Spiritual Humanism arising among UU’s since the mid-1980’s perhaps. I count myself in that rising. And I think it includes many of the theists among us and some of those who are into nature spirituality too. It makes us the perfect religion for the many Americans who say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”

I think of myself as a Spiritual Humanist in that I – like all humanists – believe that the “buck stops here” with us humans:  that there is no deity, no divine or evil force, that intervenes in my life or in human history to make it better or worse.  We are the ones who shape our lives and each other’s lives, and we impact the interconnected web of life.

However, in my experience, there is an aspect of life for which I lack an adequate word-  therefore I precede “humanist” with the word “spiritual,” as in non-material, but not meaning “supernatural.”

It is that aspect of life which - if I pay attention to it, tap into it, cultivate it and share it – that makes my life better, more meaningful, richer, more stable, less depressed, more hopeful and energetic. It’s most similar to love but isn’t just love. It’s what connects us, one with another – where the light of love in me connects with the light of love in you. It’s the “spirit of life” we sing about every Sunday, as do so many Unitarian Universalist congregations: “Spirit of life, come unto me” but “come unto us” is equally important.

This past week, I was on retreat with UU clergy colleagues, and one of the questions we were addressing is: what is it about Unitarian Universalist theology that will hold us back from - and what is it about our theology that will move us forward into - the challenging work of multicultural community?

Reflecting on our conversations to share about them with you today, I think that each of the six sources of Unitarian Universalism has the potential to move us forward toward our vision of a just and peaceful world, and of our congregation as a Beloved Community, but I want to suggest to you today that humanism may do so more than any of the other five, but at the same time it can do the opposite.

Humanism can potentially hold us back because it is so optimistic. It’s as if (in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was quoting 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker) the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” so we don’t have to DO anything to make it happen - it just will of its own accord, so we can sit back and enjoy the good life while it does, especially those of us who are comfortably well-off. Thus, we may have is no sense of urgency. And that’s not good! Also, for humanists without a supernatural belief in heaven and hell, there is no fear of damnation or hope for eternal life to impel us UU’s to work for “heaven on earth.”

On the positive side, we who are humanists must do our best for peace and justice because we don’t believe in a divine power that will save us or change the world – or if we believe in divine power, that’s not what it does! So, if change is going to happen, it’s up to us and each other.

Humanism also enables connections when other philosophies may divide. In the speech he gave accepting the 2000 Humanist of the Year Award, Bill Schulz said that the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948 by the United Nations at behest of Eleanor Roosevelt, is neither God nor Nature, but Humanism. “The fact is,” he said, “that the world community has never been able to agree upon either a divine basis for human rights or a basis derived from natural law. But there a third broad way to justify human rights which, while it doesn’t provide them the status of God’s endorsement or nature’s sanction, does ground them in the experience of the human community.  That third way goes by many names… but ultimately is nothing more than an expression of the humanist impulse. Whatever name you use, this third way appeals to that which is recognizable through the world:  the consequences of cruelty and the signals of suffering.”

Our humanism moves us forward to do the work of peace and justice because we can – in fact, we must – focus on the here and now, precisely because we don’t have to worry about the hereafter. As the choir sang, “The time is now.” For us, there is no life but this one, as far as we know. As the choir sang, “No other life; no other world.” So, we had best be about the business of making it a better life and better world for all! That is the humanist way.

Amen, may it be so.

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