Monday, November 24, 2014

The Gospel of Humanism

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 23, 2014

         During this next several months, I’m speaking on the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, which form the foundation for our faith tradition and make us markedly different from most other religious traditions.
            Let’s read together the text at the top of your order of service.  This is the formal statement of our reliance on humanistic thought as one of the Sources of Unitarian Universalism.  I’ve chosen this Source for November because of Thanksgiving, which is a beloved American holiday not tied to religious doctrine or war.

        “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

          One of the most vivid memories of my youth is the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963, 51 years ago yesterday. I was 21, still unemployed after college graduation, sitting in front of the TV at noon watching the popular soap opera of that day, General Hospital, with my dad, who was home from his office at the church for lunch. We were in the midst of some medical emergency onscreen when the news that our President had been shot pre-empted every airwave.
            We sat in shock as the dreadful news unfolded, awaiting the latest developments in fear and trembling. I’ll bet most of you have your own tales to tell about some historic moment in your world experience and how your life was different from that moment on.
            We tend to remember the events that shape our lives; often the more radical the change, the more vivid the memory. I also remember a moment when I acknowledged the shift in my religious outlook and said to myself, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “Wow, I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.” 
            It was because of a song I was hearing on the radio, a song from a folk opera which was gaining recognition on Broadway: Allison, sing it for us, would you?  (Allison sings "It Ain't Necessarily So".)
            Hearing this song for the first time, I thought WHAT??? Someone dares to say this in a Broadway song? What would my conservative family think if they heard it? And what would they say if they knew I agreed?
            This was a huge moment of truth for me. I knew I didn’t believe all the stuff I’d learned in Sunday School; I didn’t approve of God’s handling of the Promised Land crisis, when he told the Hebrew children just to go and take it from the Canaanites; I had a lot of questions about the stories of water and wine and people being raised from the dead.
            But I hadn’t challenged my parents or my teachers on any of this. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answers I got. But here was a popular song which crooned my own heresies in an authoritative and melodious way, resonating in my young heart.
            My opinion-forming style is to listen, rather than argue, to use my internal morality gauge and reason to determine right from wrong, to think about consequences, and to allow others to form their own opinions in their own ways. I tend to look for ways we agree, rather than ways I disagree with someone.
            So I quietly acknowledged to myself, in my twenties, that I was more of a humanist, in my heart, than I was a traditional believer. At that point in history, humanism—particularly what was labeled as secular humanism--didn’t have a good reputation. It was getting a lot of criticism from the orthodox religious world as a philosophy which seemed to contend that humans were the be-all and end-all of the universe, the most powerful and highest of creation’s huge output, in fact, a sort of God and Master of the Universe.
            But I was still clearly a Christian in many ways and anyhow, I had more interesting things to think about for this was during the time I was working in the inner city of Denver as a Baptist Home Missionary.  Life in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood was full of opportunities to serve in humanitarian ways and nobody seemed to mind if I skipped the proselytizing and saving of souls in favor of handing out food to the hungry and providing after-school activities for the kids.
            Let’s look again at the statement at the top of our O/S this morning and unpack it a little bit before moving on.  There are some things about the language of this Source which make it different from the others, because it contains a warning, a warning which has been quite relevant over the years, a warning that we must not worship rationality and science to the extent that we get caught up in a kind of fundamentalist UUism, closed minded and unwilling to think about other points of view.
            Because when the Unitarians first merged with the Universalists, back in 1961, we were combining two very different but equally radical concepts:  the boots on the ground philosophy of humanism and the Jesus-centered liberation theology of Christian thought.
            Out of these two separate entities, we were hoping to create something new, a religion based in reason and open to the spirituality and urgency of faith.  A religion which sought empirical answers to our questions about the universe and also marveled at the mysteries which could not be answered by reason.  At least not yet.
            It has taken time for this to happen, but despite the smoke and heat thrown off by the combination of these two elements, our congregations mostly have settled into a respectful acceptance that even within the ranks of like minds, there are deep differences of experience and opinion.
            For many years, and still today occasionally, our human desire for our own way to be the right way, the one way, overpowers our also-human desire for beloved community. 
            The warning expressed in this source, about idolatries of the mind and spirit, means, I think, that we are each capable of judging different religious beliefs as wrong and taking our own judgment so seriously that we become as excluding and mean-spirited as te most conservative fundamentalist.
            Just as there are “flat-earth” conservatives, who deny evolution and other scientific discoveries like climate change, there are “flat-earth” humanists as well, who ridicule anything that smacks of nonrationality.  Those are idolatries of the mind and the spirit, I believe.
            St. Google offered up this definition of humanism:   humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities, particularly rationality.  It entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests.  It rejects the validity of supernatural events as a basis for morality and endorses a universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition.           
            Last summer, I had a conversation with my son about the idea of God, in which I found myself trying to impose my own views on him.  Our views were similar but just different enough that we could not come to an agreement at that time, but later, as I watched that wonderful series of COSMOS programs with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I realized that I had shifted once again and, if I was honest with myself, I would have to come to terms with that new idea, because it made better sense than my older view.
            That, I think, is one of the gifts of the philosophy of humanism---that it gives us permission to change our minds based on new insights and perspectives, and, in fact, demands that we do so, if our experience reveals something new.
            As my colleague Tom Owen-Towle has observed, “We come to our religious values experientially.  The beliefs we hold are not so much revealed to us as experienced by us.”
            When Arline and I were preparing this service, we talked a bit about our transitions from traditional religion to a more humanistic approach to religious faith.  After she had a chance to study the Bible as literature in college, she felt challenged to explore and in her search for a non-creedal faith, a faith which reflected her own truth, she found Unitarian Universalism here at PUUF.
            We acknowledged that we had both evolved in our thinking over our lifetimes, as all living beings are inclined to do.  Rigidity of thought or of ability to adapt to changing circumstances can thwart the natural process of evolution.
            Now, we all know that Arline is a locally renowned person, someone we know and support as Mayor of Astoria.  But who else is or has been a humanistic person?  Again, St. Google to the rescue.  Here’s a partial list of some other notable figures who have advocated humanism as a world view:
            Isaac Asimov, author; Margaret Atwood, author; Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor; Niels Bohr, scientist; Johannes Brahms, composer; Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist; Confucius, ancient Chinese scholar; Aaron Copland, composer; Ann Durham, President Obama’s mother; Albert Einstein, scientist; Buckminster Fuller, architect; Che Guevara, revolutionary; Katherine Hepburn, actress; Bill Nye the Science Guy; Ellen Page, actress; Gene Roddenberry, author and screenwriter; Carl Sagan, scientist; Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip; Dr. Benjamin Spock, pediatrician; Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, author; Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientist and TV star; Kurt Vonnegut, author; and, one of my personal favorites, Pete Wernick, Doctor Banjo of the bluegrass band Hot Rize.
            Several years ago, the editor of the humanist publication “Free Inquiry”, Paul Kurtz, wrote and published a statement of humanistic principles which are clearly reflected in our own UU values.  His list includes such affirmations as our preference for natural, rational explanations of the universe, rather than supernatural ones, our advocacy of the separation of church and state, the democratic process, justice and fairness in society, and the worth and dignity of all living beings.
            In addition, his list includes supporting the disadvantaged and disabled, transcending divisive loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or ethnicity, working together for the common good of humanity.
            I like his closing paragraph, at the end of a list of 21 affirmations:  “We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.  We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.”
            Each of our sources calls us to act on the wisdom of that Source.  Our belief in the value of direct personal experience, which we discussed last month, calls us to be mindful, considering the meaning of our personal experiences and how they shape our understandings of the universe.
            What does this Source, emphasizing the importance of human-centered philosophy, call us to do with our religion?   As we consider the list of notable personages who have espoused humanitarian values, we may notice that many of these men and women have made huge contributions to the fields of literature, music, science, social movements, and other creative endeavors.
            If we are to live out our connection to humanism, we must find ways to express our concern for humankind in concrete ways.  I think most of us are already doing this to some extent. 
            I know that many, perhaps most of us contribute financially and in hands-on ways, as individuals.  We also act in humanitarian ways when we repair the damage done by misguided human beings, as we work to heal the environment or care for abused animals and other living beings.  This congregation supports a local family during the holidays, buying gifts and food for their celebration.
            It’s been challenging to find an ongoing humanitarian project for us to get involved in because of our long, narrow parish, stretching from the Long Beach peninsula down through Tillamook County, a distance of about 100 miles.  That’s a long way to come to church or any other meeting, no matter how important!
            But it may be possible for our members who live in farflung locations to get involved deeply or start something that serves local needs in the communities where they live.
            And it seems definitely possible for those of us who live within a few miles of Astoria to find a project that will reflect our humanitarian values.
            As a congregation we support civil rights for sexual minorities, through our Welcoming Congregation affiliation and have had members personally involved in this struggle.  We have members who privately take part in addressing literacy, who give support for the arts and scientific research,  spend time in wildlife and animal protection work, who reach out to the mentally ill and homeless residents of our area, who spend time educating people about our local environment and repairing the damage done by past usages, who offer hospitality to strangers in our community, and who do so both individually and as volunteers with agencies.
            What are we doing now?  Where do you volunteer, either as an individual or as a member of a group?  (cong. resp)  What agencies or movements do you support that are devoted to improving human living conditions?  (cong resp)  What possibilities do you see for us to be more helpful than we currently are, as a congregation?  (write down)
            So though a lot of the things the Bible says “ain’t necessarily so”, the sacred literature of every religion, including religious humanism, urges us as people who try to live useful, productive, humanitarian lives, to spend our lives working to improve the lot of humanity, rather than just our own circumstances, to offer hospitality to the stranger and to teach better ways of living.
            As we move through the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving this coming week, saying thank you to the universe for its bounty and its beauty, expressing gratitude and appreciation to our family and friends who treat us with such kindness and generosity, and pouring out our own love on them in return, let us keep our eyes and hearts open for ways we can improve the lives of all living things----the hungry, the homeless, the injured, the despairing, the abused.
            For in so doing, we live out our humanitarian instincts and our religious mission, and make ourselves better persons in the process.
HYMN # 318, “We Would Be One”
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, considering the value of our humanitarian work and how we might extend ourselves in the larger community.  May we seize opportunities for kindness and mercy toward others and may we not fall into the trap of closing our minds to ideas which bother us, lest we miss an opportunity to grow.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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