Tag Archives: Anthony Pinn

Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist. Continue reading

Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons. Continue reading

How to do emergent theology

while there are still those people who want to do systematic theology, those people typically live in the world of academia, or wish they were living in the world of academia. Systematic theology has become theology for other theologians and scholars. From where I stand, it is theology that has lost its connection with the reality of my world.

So where do I stand?

  • In the Buzzard’s Bay watershed in southeastern Massachusetts. (Systematic theology ignores watersheds and bioregions because it grows out of assumptions that theology applies in the same way to every watershed.) We are a postindustrial landscape where parts of the landscape contain intense concentrations of toxic wastes. We are in a postagricultural landscape where sprawl eats up farms and cranberry bogs. All this shapes the theological tasks of healing and redemption.
  • In a diverse community of human beings who don’t always fit neatly into the binary American categories of race. (American systematic theology, when it recognizes race at all, has a tendency to divide human beings into black and white binaries.) The Native and African American communities blend together. The Cape Verdean community may be Black, or it may be Portuguese, depending on who’s doing the looking and the talking. A White person could be an Anglophone or a Lusophone or a “Hispanophone.” All this shapes practical theological anthropology in ways seemingly foreign to the academic theologians.
  • In a place where religious discourse is divided between by conservative Catholic rhetoric on the one hand, and conservative atheist rhetoric on the other hand. (Systematic theology never seems to touch on the realities of the religious discourse in which we engage in the workplace and the wider community.) Our few liberal religious groups have silenced themselves by morphing into social groups who do not talk about religion. All this shapes theological discourse — talking openly about liberal religion is a radical act because doing so is a refusal to accept the generally accepted rules of religious discourse.

So how do you do theology when you’re so far away from systematic theology? A few academic theologians give us ways to do theology that matters. I have found Anthony Pinn particularly useful. Pinn writes as an African American humanist theologian who sees through the usual stereotype that “all African American religion is Christian.” In his essay “Rethinking the nature and tasks of African American theology: A pragmatic perspective ” (American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, May, 1998) Pinn writes:

…[M]y effort [is] to move beyond a strictly polemical discussion of Black Theology toward a more constructive and pragmatic posture that is based on three pragmatic moves. The first movement entails my rethinking conceptions of religious experience in ways that recognize the multiplicity of religious experiences. Thus, theology is done with a knowledge of and acquaintance with the variety of religious expressions. In this regard, the reader will recognize the intellectual shadow of both William James and Charles Long within this first move. The second move seeks to think through theology as empirical and historical discipline. Understood in this way, theology becomes a way of seeing, interpreting, and taking hold of African American experience. This thesis is expressed through an examination of theology’s objective and goals, using in large part Victor Anderson’s notion of “cultural fulfillment.” The third move entails reflections on methodology within African American theology. I argue for a critical, pragmatic commitment that gives priority to experience (and the objective of fulfillment) over “tradition.” William R. Jones and Gordon Kaufman provide the framework for this third movement in my pragmatic critique of African American theology.

Recognize multiplicity of religious experience: know how religion is actually done in the world around you. Understand theology as empirical and historical: observe, then interpret, before you theorize. Give priority to experience: leave the academy behind and get out into the world.

I think all this feeds into “UU Emergence,” that is, getting religious communities to deal directly with postmodern realities. There is no grand narrative any more. Instead of timeless systematic theology, tell stories about who and where you are now. There is no one religious movement that will take over the whole world. Instead of universal religious forms, let locality shape liturgy. There is no single genius who can speak for all humanity. Instead of trying to find a top-down authority that knows all and sees all, observe and feel and describe and build networks of mutuality with others. There is no one book of theology that will solve everyone’s theological problems. Instead of trying to write universal systematic theology, write ephemeral blogs.

Maybe it all comes down to getting out and walking around the place you live (I do mean walk, and not drive). I think I’ll do just that, right now.

What is theology, anyway?

Harvey Cox’s book on pentecostalism, Fire From Heaven, is his usual mix of scholarship, journalism, and diary. But partway through, he comes up with an interesting definition of theology.

You see, from the point of view of professional theologians, pentecostals don’t have any real theology, because they don’t have any professors of theology writing treatises on pentecostal theology. So many people say that there is no such thing as pentecostal theology. Cox writes:

There are, of course, theologians who take exception to the phrase ‘pentecostal theology’ as a kind of oxymoron. But I disagree. By its ‘theology,’ I mean the symbolic cosmos of the pentecostal movement, which is articulated not through formal treatises but in the songs and prayers, the sermons and testimonies. This is where the most fundamental revolution is going on … [p. 201]

Hmmm… The same thing might be said about Unitarian Universalism. The few professional theologians we have these days hold little interest for me — to be honest, I have no interest in doing systematic theology, nor am I interested in reading dead German theologians who write badly, nor do I want to base theology on psychotherapy.

But there are theologians whom I believe are doing really interesting work. Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist who has sometimes aligned himself with Unitarian Universalism, has done a number of books where he goes out into the African American community and simply describes the theologies he finds. Pinn contends that most other African American theologians claim that African American theology is entirely Christian — but Pinn finds a wide range of theologies out in the African American community (see his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience). I think of this as doing “descriptive theology,” whereas most academic theologians do systematic theology [yawn] or “prescriptive theology,” where they tell us what we should believe.

If we started doing descriptive theology of Unitarian Universalism, it might get pretty interesting. It might be fun looking at UU sermons, UU pamphlets, UU songs, and so on. Yes, this means the current hymnal should be studied as a theological work — as should the songs Susan C. is writing for our children’s choir — as should….

In any case, Harvey Cox has gotten me thinking that maybe there’s a better way to do theology. Maybe theology should consist of a mixture of scholarship, diary, and journalism. Maybe we’d be surprised if we started doing Unitarian Universalist theology that way — maybe we’d find out that we really do have a theology that has little to do with the “seven principles” and more to do with the way we lead our lives.