Humanism for Such a Time As This

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Church, Unitarian, of Athol, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2003 Daniel Harper.


First reading from By These Hands, compiled by Anthony Pinn

Responsive reading — “Our social selves”

In our society we resolve the conflict between altruism and selfishness, the good of others being our good, the social good our self-realization.

The selfish destroy themselves, for our fortunes are fused with the welfare of the group.

We work, not simply for the good of ourselves or of others, but for the good of society of which each of us is a part.

Society, the rest of humanity, is our completeness. It is the farther meaning of existence; and as self-importance fades, the concern for self-survival diminishes, and we become concerned for the survival of others.

Building ourselves into the lives of others, living on in them when we die, we are insured against utter defeat and tragedy.

If we love but a few, when they die we die; but if we love humanity, we have others for whom to live.

Personal failure or tragedy does not overwhelm, for others share our defeats, and we are never wholly defeated when society moves on.

Death is softened; content to have had our part, we give others that share of earth on which we walked, the air and the sunlight that were ours, the zest we knew.

We are sad that we will no longer share the daily circles, but we have sufficient immortality in knowing life starts anew, fresh and fair.

Only our lesser parts die, for we leave ourselves behind, living on in children and in their children, in lovers and friends, as long as people occupy the earth.

— Kenneth L. Patton

SERMON — “Humanism for such a time as this”

Before we start, I want to ask you a question: How many of us here this morning are humanists? — if you’re a humanist, could you raise your hand? Now, how many of us here believe in God, or some kind of divinity, or something of that nature — could you raise your hands, please? Finally, how many of us here want to answer either “none of the above” or “all of the above” — can you raise your hands, please? Thank you.

You’ll notice that I raised my hand on that last choice. I tend to think of the debate between the humanists and the God-believers as belonging to a previous generation, which of course isn’t true at all. A case in point: William Sinkford, the current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was preaching in the UU congregation in Fort Worth, Texas. He was interviewed by a reporter from the local paper, someone who clearly didn’t have any idea what Unitarian Universalism is all about.

In his sermon that morning, which the reporter heard, Sinkford said this:

…”religious language” doesn’t have to mean “God talk.” And I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language. But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms-the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance….

From my point of view, this is a pretty normal kind of thing to say. I feel that these days we Unitarian Universalists, no matter what our personal theology may be, are really wrestling with the problem of appropriate religious language as we emerge as a post-Christian faith community.

In any case, after Sinkford’s sermon the reporter interviewed him, and Sinkford said that it’s probably time for us to review the wording of our principles and purposes — in fact, the UUA bylaws require us to review said wording at least every fifteen years, and that time is fast approaching. Again, this seems pretty straightforwrd to me — we have a long history of periodically reviewing and revising our statements of faith, and the current principles grew out of the need to remove gender-specific language from the old principles.

Well, what the reporter heard was something quite different. Here’s how the reporter’s lead sentence read:

A former atheist who is now president of the Unitarian Universalist Association will push to put the word ‘God’ into a new statement of principles.

As you can see, the reporter got it all wrong!

I can understand how the reporter got this all mixed up. It’s never easy to get the details of someone else’s religion correct, especially when it’s quite different from your own. And when I first heard about this, my immediate response was, oh the reporter got that all mixed up. I was surprised to find out that when this article was published, it managed to upset some Unitarian Universalist humanists. I was surprised because for me, it’s perfectly clear that humanism humanism, a religious approach that doesn’t see the need for god, has greatly enriched the religious life of Unitarian Universalism and is now integral to who we are as a religious people.

But: When I stopped to think about this, I could see how some people could miss the obvious. I miss the obvious at least once a day. I remember once I hunted everywhere for my glasses when I was, in fact, wearing them. The same, I suspect, is true with Unitarian Universalism and humanism — we look at the world through humanist glasses, and we may forget that they’re there. Even if we say “God,” it’s not the same God as a fundamentalist.

And when I stopped to think about this, I realized how central humanism is to my own personal religious outlook. I may call myself a Transcendentalist, and I may acknowledge the probably existence of the divine or transcendant, but when it comes to some really basic religious attitudes, I am a humanist.

Take the story that we heard in the reading this morning. In the story, James Hays, a slave, is having a hard time keeping up his work in the fields. He keeps falling behind in his work, and the overseer beats him for it — an instance of intolerable oppression if ever there was one!

Another slave, Aunt Sally, a woman who was a devout Christian, tells James Hays to put his trust in God, for God will surely help him. What Aunt Sally probably meant was something like this: trust in God in your time of suffering and affliction, God will help you bear your punishment, and if you put your trust in God, you can know that when you die (and with the horrendous beatings James Hays was getting, death was an ever-present possibility) — when you die, you will go to heaven to be with God.

If you think about it, Aunt Sally’s God offers an odd kind of help. James Hays interpreted what she said quite differently: God is going to help him? OK, he’ll give God a chance to help him. He must have been feeling weak and ill after his beating, so let God help him out by doing some of the work. James Hays is, in fact, applying scientific method to the notion of God: let’s try this, and see what works.

Needless to say, God does not do any field work for James Hays, and Hays receives an even worse beating. What more convincing does Hays need? — he decides God is not a concept that he wants to put any trust in, and he remains an unbeliever — a humanist, if you will.

When you are being oppressed, you can blame God, or you can stop blaming god and just drop the whole notion of God. As theologian William Jones points out, dropping the whole notion of God might be the easier option. Because if you believe in a God that allows white people to enslave and oppress black people, that implies that God is in fact a white racist.

On the other hand, once you stop blaming God, you realize that if humans cause oppression then it’s up to humans to deal with human-generated oppression. And as Dr. Jones points out, people who believe in God can take a similar approach: you can keep the concept of God, but once you stop blaming God, you acknowledge that stopping oppression is up to us humans. In my experience, whether you believe in God or whether you’re humanist, if you’re a Unitarian Universalist you take a humanist stance insofar as you don’t blame God for human oppression.

But oppression is fairly abstract. What also moves me in this story is how James Hays responds to circumstances that are out of his control. James Hays was in large part powerless. If the overseer wanted to beat him, there wasn’t much Hays could do about it. Now Hays had (at least) two choices: he could seek solace in the kind of Christian faith espoused by Aunt Sally; or he could eschew such a faith and face his real situation no matter how terrible and absurd that situation was.

Hays chose the second option: he faced up to the horrible reality of his life, looking at his life honestly and without the evasion of saying “It’s God’s will, and it’ll all be better in the sweet hereafter.” I imagine that for him, Aunt Sally’s faith appeared false, and a false faith would be small comfort indeed.

We can’t really know what was going through Hays’s mind, of course. But let me give you a lesser example. A few years ago, my mother was slowly dying from a form of Parakinson’s disease known as supra-nuclear palsy. Supra-nuclear palsy kills you in five to eight years, a slow, inexorable, and not particularly pleasant way to die. At one point about three years before she died, my mother was in the hospital.

I was having a hard time understanding and accepting what was going on, accepting that she was dying. I had learned the so-called Lord’s prayer in my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, and I thought I’d give prayer a try. So I started praying. I didn’t pray for my mother to get better, I just prayed for a little comfort. As it happened, I got absolutely no comfort out of my praying, and I stopped. Instead of praying, I found it much more comforting to simply face up to the reality of my mother’s situation; and then to turn to other people for comfort.

My exposure to humanism allowed me to ask: When faced with this personal disaster that is out of my control, where does God come in? I tried to pray, it didn’t work. But I didn’t have to blame God, or get angry at God — I just stopped praying. For me, humanism offered an alternative: in accepting reality, I didn’t have to take it personally. Furthermore, I discovered that I don’t need a personal response from a personal god to justify the existence of the divine, the transcendant. I still experience the divine, the transcendant, but humanism has helped me to understand that I don’t have to restrict my relationship with the divine to old-fashioned Christian notions of God. For me, this is a great relief; and a great comfort.

Kenneth Patton’s “Our Social Selves,” which we read together responsively this morning, gives another perspective on a humanistic approach to death and personal tragedy. Patton specifically addresses death in this reading. What happens when we die? As a humanist, Patton does not believe in any kind of afterlife. When you die, you just die. Yet while we will one day die, we can leave a legacy behind that will keep us alive in a sense and so gain “sufficient immortality”: “Only our lesser parts die, for we leave ourselves behind, living on in children.” Our immortality is a legacy we leave behind when we have done something good for the rest of humanity.

John Lennon said the same kind of thing in his famous song, “Imagine.” Lennon wrote (and don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sing for you):

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine all the people, living for today….
No need for greed or hunger, nor folk with empty hands.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world….

(By the way, as I heard the story, the people who put together our present hymnal tried to include the song “Imagine,” but couldn’t get permission.)

As humanists, both John Lennon and Kennth Patton remind us there’s more to our lives than acheiving personal salvation; personal salvation is not enough. It’s not enough to save your own soul, because each of us also must also work for the greater good of humanity.

Let’s take that a step farther. John Lennon points out that we can find common ground with other human beings. Many religious stances do not believe that we can find common ground with others. Do I need to remind you of the Crusades, where Christians decided to kill off Muslims rather than trying to find common ground? Mulsims today still have a tendency to refer to people of European descent as “Crusaders.” Do I need to remind you of Muslim extremists today who kill off people from other religions — a violation of Islamic teachings from what I understand — rather than trying to find some common ground?

This, say the humanists, is one of the problems with religions with an afterlife — if you think you’re going to get to heaven after you die, there’s not quite as much incentive to make this present world a better place. I bet just about every Unitarian Universalist would agree. And I be lieve that just about every Unitarian Universalist would agree with the humanists that it’s more important for us to find common ground with other human beings than it is to get to “heaven,” whatever heaven might be.

Which brings us right back to where we started, to the humanistic response to oppression and other evils created by humankind. Don’t we all agree with humanism? — Let’s not wait until after we die for the good times to start. Sure, we can’t fix everything, and maybe good times won’t ever really come, but we can do a great deal here and now.

William Sinkford, president of the UUA, makes it quite clear: we are not ever going to go back to traditional Christian language. Over the last hundred years, humanism has moved Unitarian Universalism to a new, and I believe, better place. Humanism has pushed us beyond the point where some kind of heaven after death is enough; we know we can work for a better life here and now.

Humanism serves as one of our great strengths. We live in a time of great uncertainty and serious problems. We are faced each day with the realities of oppression, the possibility of warfare, we are daily witnesses to greed and personal tragedy. In times like these, humanism can give us strength. For we know that when human beings cause problems, human beings have it in their power to remedy those problems. And we know, too, that when we are faced with things beyond our control, we can, with the help of other people, face up to our problems, and turn to other people for help and support.

So may it be.