Tag Archives: Harvey Cox

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


Mr. Crankypants is baaa-ack. Today, he will be ranting about theology. No fluffy lightweight stuff today, campers — theology.

Other UU bloggers have been taking a quiz that purports to tell you which theologian you most resemble. You can find it at http://quizfarm.com/test.php?q_id=44116 — but really, don’t waste your time, the quiz simply ignores all of Mr. Crankypants’s favorite cranky theologians.

First of all, you know a theology quiz is suspect when they use the term “man” instead of “humanity” — that automatically means that they are not considering cranky feminist theologians like Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Reuther, or Rebecca Parker. (Actually, Rebecca Parker is too nice to be called cranky, but she is righteous.)

But it gets worse. The quiz has lots of talk about “Christ,” but very little about “Jesus” — so you can be pretty sure that you’re not going to be compared to Howard Thurman, who tended to use Jesus’ name, not the title later applied to him. The quiz goes on and on about retribution, with nothing about universal salvation, so you know cranky ol’ Hosea Ballou wasn’t considered. No mention of racism or oppression, so you can forget the cranky theolgians who fight oppression like James Cone, Anthony Pinn, or Gustavo Guttierrez.

Not even anything about the struggle between the secular and the religious, so rule out Harvey Cox (who’s not cranky), or Stanley Hauerwas (who has described himself as “the turd in the punchbowl,” and is definitely cranky).

Before Mr. Crankypants was even done with the quiz, he knew the quizmakers hadn’t even considered any of his favorite theolgians — that they were going to try to say Mr. Crankypants was like some dead male German. Sure enough — they said Mr. Crankypants was a 33% match for Jurgen Moltmann. John Calvin was a close second, and Jonathan Edwards was in there somewhere.

Mr. Crankypants can tolerate Edwards (who, although wrong, was plenty cranky, and could write reasonably well besides). But this was one online quiz that was so badly designed.

Now that you know you can skip the quiz, take that time to go and read some good, cranky, paradigm-shattering theology. But not Moltmann….for gosh’s sakes….

((Moltmann. Moltmann?! Grrr. Bet those idots haven’t even read A Black Theology of Liberation.))

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.