Humanism, Boundaries and Accommodation

Commentator KJR writes in response to a previous post...

I think a worldview that doesn't have any muscular boundaries can't effectively work for justice -- nor is it really a theology. There is a faddishness that comes from having no true core. Ironically, I find that even as the culture moves in our direction it does us little good if we are not really standing up for something at our core. I think our problem may not lie so much in the recent period of conservatism as in the period before that when the Fellowship Movement and increasingly secular Humanism stripped much of our movement of any theological grounding, followed by the "do whatever" aspect of the 60's culture that made boundaries of any kind suspect.
KJR presents a view that I have often among UU ministers.   Our lack of "theological grounding" is why our social justice work is faddish.  And "theological grounding," is authority given  explicitly to our lineage within liberal Protestantism.  And so, the diagnosis of our ills go back to the 20th century turn toward Humanism among us, and then the "anything goes" of the 1960's.

I have been deeply sympathetic to this analysis and spoken up for it myself often.  But, now, I want to think about it some more.

I am less upset about the 20th century turn to Humanism as I used to be.  I think it was a sincere, well-reasoned, and in some sense, inevitable, turn toward theological realism.  I think, in fact, that Humanism is the final product of Christian philosophy which said that it was describing the actual, factual reality of the Universe.  Really it's hard to argue against atheism, if you're going to argue on the basis of concrete, provable facts.

Theism and Christianity, of course, go on, by making another sort of claim to ultimate truths.

The Fellowship movement was a evangelical strategy of "church" planting, by forming lay-led, autonomous worshipping communities.  It was wildly successful.  Most of what was planted, however, was never going to change beyond what they started out as, and would thus, have a natural lifespan. Because of the time they were formed, they would be inevitably humanist.

The Fellowships often had tight theological boundaries: they actively resisted any deviation from Humanist theology, especially if it came cloaked in ministerial robing.  And the Fellowships were not politically quiescent.

I don't have the history of the Fellowship movement at hand, but I would be interested in knowing how many were formed between WW2 and 1954, and how many between 1954 and 1968.

My sense, and I would be interested in hearing from other witnesses on this, is that Humanist vs. Theists debates were the theological content of UUism during the earliest period of UU history -- the period of cultural liberal ascendency from 1961 to 1968.   UU's, both humanist and theists, were moving in synch with a much larger movement in the society as a whole.

The "anything goes" and the weakening of our boundaries seems to me, to be coming from that period of 1969 to 1980 -- the 70's.  I think of those cartoon characters who run off the cliff and keep going even though the ground beneath them is gone. This is a very complex period for us, when in some ways we were moving defiantly out of the cultural mainstream (feminism, glbt rights, sexuality education, youth empowerment, open marriages, spouse-swapping, unconventional ways of knowing etc.)  Of course, we were not alone in this -- the entire cultural left was in the same place.  Some of it was prophetic; some of it pathetic.

And all this led, in the nation, to a cultural backlash, an intensifying struggle between liberals and conservative worldviews and the eventual triumph of conservatism, of which Reagan's election was the sign.

I think some of concern about the boundaries of UUism comes as a internalization of the conservative critiques of liberalism's excesses.  It's liberal self-hatred, and it is one of the strategies that grew up in response to the conservative hegemony of the times.  They got in our heads more than we acknowledge.

Most of UU history is the story of the tensions between strategies of defiance and strategies of accommodation to the cultural hegemony of the Right in US culture.



  1. A side comment, about the number of congregations founded in each decade. Last year I compiled this infographic and article about the age of UUA congregations by decade: 37 of the congregations founded in the 1940s are still active; 202 founded in the 1950s are; and 105 founded in the 1960s are. Not all of the congregations established in the '50s were fellowships, of course.

    This chart, however, which I put together to accompany UU World's article about the fellowship movement when Holley Ulbrich's history of the movement was published, does give some more detail about the comparative number of fellowships and other congregations founded between 1947 and 1968.

  2. Thank you for this post. I just finished reading Reason and Reverence by Murry, which I appreciated greatly. While I have been very critical of the humanist orthodoxy of our tradition for years, I found myself deeply moved by the inevitability of humanism in our tradition, and moreover the sincerity, and truth in the pages of that book. Of course my parents became humanists in the 1970s! It was the reasonable thing for them to do, with the most integrity. I'm grateful for having been brought up UU humanist...I think it paved the way for me to be a more fulfilled, critical, tested and appropriately skeptical Christian UU. Most importantly, it paved the way to a God far beyond an anthropomorphic God, which is a gift. I never had to break the symbols of my childhood, just build them. This is a rare privilege, to construct without having to first deconstruct. Thanks again for your optimism, Tom.

  3. First, I'm very glad that you acknowledge that humanism has a theology. I think that it is somewhat strange to argue that UU humanism doesn't have a "deep theology" when what is really meant is that it doesn't have a liberal Christian theology that embraces theism. And sometimes humanists also embrace the notion that humanism is not a theology. If theology is interpreted broadly as a set of principles for approaching the world, it does NOT require theism.

    Second, I think the conflict between UU humanists and UU theists of various stripes is only irreconcilable if we believe that what is really crucial about our religion is what it says about the nature of transcendental reality -- why the universe exists, etc. But it seems to me that this transcendental focus is somewhat against the spirit of the UU tradition, which has been focused on this world even when almost all UUs considered themselves to be Christians. If we are satisfied with agreeing with principles about how to live in right relations in THIS world, then the conflict between UU humanists and UU theists is much reduced or even eliminated. I think James Ford's sermon a few months ago where he said that in this sense all UUs were really humanists in spirit captured that notion, although perhaps not in terms that might be embraced by UU theists. Maybe someone can find more neutral terms.

    Third, I think that in practice these religious conflicts are frequently easier to work through at the local level than they are on the internet.

    So, Rev. Schade, I think that I agree with you that the liberal religious mission of UUs must focus on vigorously promoting liberal UU principles on how to live best in right relations with this world. Where I disagree with you is when this approach gets too programmatic, e.g., today's sermon being on why all UUs should vote Yes on the school millage next week. I think that is problematic, even though in my case I have always voted Yes on all school millages.

  4. Tim,
    I think you impute to me a much more extreme position than I am taking.

  5. Fair enough response, and I'm glad that you don't take so extreme a position. . However, I'm still not sure where you draw the line. As I said in a comment on a previous post, I think it would be helpful in fully understanding your perspective to have some more examples spelling out where you think UUism should get political and where it wouldn't. You have mostly given examples of the former.

  6. Tim, the last thing I want to do is to draw some lines in the sand in advance. Only makes me look like an idiot later. I will say that I can imagine many a situation where it might well be appropriate for a UU minister to speak in favor of a local school tax.

  7. My memory of the 1950s among LRYers and teh 1960s among students and young adults in the new UUA was that the Humanist / Theist thing was a topic of conversation but not the center of concern. Tillich, Buber, Kaufman and Fromm were more interesting, and the new feminism was more challenging. I attended a UU Church with a Biblical Humanist Preacher in LRY and enjoyed Gerry Krick's Fellowship for Reconciliation radical phrase as a student, attended a UU fellowship which later called Mark Belletini who had a different "communion" every month.

    Buddhism and existentialism were growing among the young UUs, but Religious Humanism was a world view that undergirded those of us who liked Bible study and those who like to meditate. Secular Humanism was somewhere else. Religious Humanism can chat up James Luther Adams and quantum physics and take the first Source seriously.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Reflection on Merger (Dialectical Theology Part 8 of many)

What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)