Monday, June 27, 2011

Sermon - "Humanism: A Matter of Perspective"

Humanism: A Matter of Perspective

This morning we are talking about Humanism as one of the sources of Unitarian Universalism. The word Humanism used to be used a lot more than it is today. That may be in part because we’re not sure exactly what it means. Some of us know that it’s sort of like atheism, but it’s not really the same thing. Other than that, for the most part we aren’t very sure. But humanism has had, and continues to have a huge impact on us as a religious tradition. In fact, next to Christianity, humanism probably influences Unitarian Universalism more than any other source. We just don’t know it, because we take many of it’s ideas for granted.

When you talk about humanism outside of religious circles, people usually think about the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century. Before that time the vast majority of art had been religious. It was either funded by the church, or depicted sacred subjects. But, in 14th Century Italy artists and intellectuals began to look elsewhere for inspiration. Rather than turning to Christianity, writers and artists turned to the Classical themes of Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was a re-birth of Classical thought. More than a new artistic expression, this shift away from the church inspired a tremendous intellectual advance that embraced all of life’s experiences, not just the religious.
Along with the transformation in art, scholars began to downplayed the importance of religious doctrine. They encouraged the use of reason in understanding the Bible. They understood the ethical teachings of Jesus to be more important than the miracles surrounding his story. And they became focused less on the rewards of an afterlife and more on making the best of this life. It’s pretty UU stuff, I’d say. That historical moment of 14th Century Italy was the root of humanism.

But Humanism as we use the word within Unitarian Universalist circles came to its full force in the 20th Century. There was a defining moment in 1933. After the conclusion of World War I a sense of human possibility was in the air. Between scholars and theologians, the humanist ideals of equality, scientific achievement, and human dignity were at an all-time high. Eventually a group came together and to try and summarize what it was that these modern day Humanists were getting at. So in 1933 they published the Humanist Manifest. Sixty-five prominent thinkers were asked to sign the document. Over half of them were Unitarians, and half of the Unitarians were clergy. From that moment to this moment, Humanism has been a strong and clear movement within Unitarianism.
That manifesto was the foundation for Humanism as we know it today. It’s a pretty lengthy document including aspirations for human relationship, and of war and inequality, statements about religion and science. What I want to talk about today are the three major ways that Humanism came to shape Unitarian Universalism of today.

Perhaps more than anything, humanists believe in the ability of science to describe the world around us. Both hard sciences and social sciences have supplied humanity with unprecedented understanding of the Universe. No longer are humans beholden to mythical explanations for natural events. No longer do we derive our ethics from theological speculation. Through reason and experimentation we have the means to search for the answers ourselves.
Humanists believed, we believe that it is irresponsible to dismiss the findings of science in our religious lives. What is true in a house of worship must reflect the truth of the classroom and the laboratory. What is true of your faith must also be true of your mind. Humanists believe, and we believe that science and reason cannot be ignored in church. In fact, they can be embraced and they can deepen our sense of meaning.

While the Humanists of 1933 pushed new limits, saying that science essentially trumped theology, they came to that understanding as a natural outgrowth of the Unitarian tradition. Remember Unitarians didn’t become a separate tradition in America primarily because they rejected the Trinity. They became a new religion because they insisted on using reason to understand ethics and history to understand the Bible.

William Ellery Channing and the early Unitarians said, hold up. We humans have something special, a special ability to use our intellect and our compassion to become better people. And becoming better people should be the focus of religious life. Religious liberals risked everything to argue that we use reason in our religion. We were intelligent beings, not robots. We are called to use our minds to come up with the best understanding of our world.
Then, as now, much of this debate revolved around the Bible. While Channing and other early Unitarians began to see the book as a text created in a certain historical context, with meaning for that context, the Christian orthodoxy would have no part of it. To them the Bible stood on its own merits, apart from history or science. It was the word of God.
I want to read to you a brief quote of what Channing had to say about the Bible in 1819. “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible… its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.”

As he shaped Unitarianism as a new American religion, it was clear to Channing that we must use reason to interpret religion. What he started was carried deeper by the humanists of the 20th century and today.

Because humanists are so invested in science, it should surprise is that they take issue with those aspects of religion that seem to happen outside of the laws of nature, the “Supernatural.” Humanists oppose supernatural expressions of religion. They reject the idea of miracles happening outside of the laws of nature and science. That is the second major contribution of Humanists then and now.

At first glance, this rejection of miracles is pretty simple. We UUs typically don’t buy into the miracle stories of the Bible, or of other religions sacred texts for that matter. Be they ancient stories of virgin births, or contemporary stories of faith healings, we are a bit skeptical. We don’t embrace the supernatural. The flip side of that is that we do embrace the natural. While we reject the supernatural miracles of religious myth, we embrace the miracles of the grandeur of nature, the miracle of human compassion, the miracle of life. You see the Humanist stance on supernaturalism isn’t just a rejection of fairytales. It’s also a deep and fulfilling embrace of an earthier spirituality.

My favorite passage on the way we understand miracles comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a sermon to a graduating class at Harvard Divinity School, where he had been a student, Emerson said, “the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” (Wright, Three Prophets, p. 97)
I am especially fond of the way that Emerson deals with miracles because he tells us why we should not accept them. Our lives are full of beauty every day, in nature and the compassion of people around us, the blowing clover and the falling rain. Why then, should we build a faith on the supposed miracles of generations past.
In one of his most famous pieces of writing, Nature, Emerson wrote, “Why shouldn’t we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why shouldn’t we have a poetry of insight and not of traditions, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” (Albanese, Spirituality, P. 46) For Emerson and the theologians that he inspired, life was full of sacred and holy moments. There was no reason to rely on mythical miracles of the past. In fact dwelling on those stories only degraded our own awareness of what is truly sacred.

The final, and most important contribution of humanism was a new perspective for role or religion within human life. Humanism brought new perspective to religious life, it brought new and much needed perspective to Unitarian Universalism.
I said earlier that Humanism is a bit like atheism. But they are not exactly the same thing. Atheists believe that there is no God, that science and the laws of physics are the only way of understanding our life experience. It’s a pretty clear and simple statement of belief.
Humanists, on the other hand believe that God is not necessary for a meaningful life. They don’t explicitly say that God does not exist. Humanists argue that we humans have enough going on with reason and ethics and artistic expression to have a rich and meaningful life, without speculating about supernatural beings. They don’t argue against the existence of God; they just don’t think God is necessary or all that helpful.

But the really fascinating twist is that Humanists embrace religion itself. They believe that religion with all of its ritual and culture is a tool that humans create to make meaning out of their lives. Religion builds community, it shares history, it builds an ethical atmosphere, it organizes to help care for those in need. We know this, it is the story of our Fellowship. Religion does a lot of wonderful things, all without God. Religion has a tremendous capacity to contribute meaning to people’s lives. And religion is a product of our innate moral values, the truths that we are able to discern through reason and emotional depth.
What humanism brings to liberal religion is a sense of perspective. People create religion to make meaning out of their lives. Often times that is good and helpful. But the key is that people create religion, not the other way around. Religion is helpful, meaningful, and true only to the extent that it enriches people’s lives. Religion exists for people. Not the other way around.

The easiest way to understand Humanism might be to understand humans at the center of things. Just like Copernicus discovered the heliocentric solar system. It was revolutionary when he realize that the sun was at the center, not the earth. It totally transformed the way we understood our place in the world.
Well in religious life, the humanist twist is just as revolutionary. Humanists believe that the worth and dignity of every person is of supreme importance. It should be the central concern when we gather in community, not speculation about God, or adherence to outdated myths.

I hope you can see a bit now why I said that Humanism influences Unitarian Universalism more than any other tradition, with the exception maybe of Christianity. It has demanded that we take science seriously as a religious tradition. Humanism guided us toward embracing the wonder of the natural world as a source of inspiration and spirituality. And humanism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of every person above religious speculation or traditions. It has deeply shaped who we are.

Unitarian Universalists hold a great variety of beliefs about God, and humanity. We are about as theologically diverse as a religious community can get. That diversity often leads to the assumption that you can believe whatever you want and be a Unitarian Universalist. But it’s not quite that simple.

You cannot believe whatever you want and be a Unitarian Universalist. Because, we expect you to have integrity with your beliefs. I don’t mean that you have to write a complete systematic theology. You don’t have to have it all figured out. What you do have to do is integrate your mind with your faith.

Sound theology, meaningful theology has only two criteria. It must make sense, and it must make a difference. You have heard me say this before. It wasn’t until this week until I realized how much that grows out of Humanism. That’s it, it must make sense, and it must make a difference.

You can’t leave reason and science in a totally separate compartment of your life. These two truths have to come together, to reconcile somehow in your heart and in your head. What you believe should make sense to you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should make sense.
And your belief should make a difference. Your belief should inspire you to be a better person in the world. Because this world, this life is the one we are certain of. This is the one that matters. Let your religion be a well to draw from, not a trap that ensnares in the past.


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