While on vacation, I missed the death of Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, who died on July 17 at age 78; commenter Dan Gerson drew my attention to that fact today. Jones was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian of the past fifty years, one of the handful of truly important Unitarian Universalist theologians of any kind from the past half century, and arguably the best Unitarian Universalist thinker on anti-racism.
Jones is a major figure who deserves a full critical biography, which I am not competent to write. But here is an all-too-brief overview of his life and work:
Education and ministry
William Ronald Jones was born in 1933. He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Howard University. He earned his Master of Divinity at Harvard University in 1958, and was ordained and fellowshipped as a Unitarian Universalist minister in that year. He served from 1958-1960 at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Providence, Rhode Island. Mark Morrison-Reed states that Jones served at First Unitarian as assistant minister (Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, p. 139), but the UUA Web site states that he served at Church of the Mediator as “minister”; I’m inclined to believe Mark’s book, as the UUA listings of ministers are prone to error.
After a two-year stint as a minister, Jones went on to do doctoral work in religious studies at Brown University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was titled “On Sartre’s Critical Methodology,” which discussed “Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical anthropology” (Lewis R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy [Cambridge University, 2008], p. 171).
As you can see, Jones quickly moved from the parish to the academy. Of course he was well suited to the academy because of his intellectual abilities, but also there is little doubt that there were few doors open for African American ministers looking for Unitarian Universalist pulpits in the 1960s.
The years at Yale
After receiving his Ph.D., Jones was an assistant professor at Yale Divinity School from 1969 to 1977. It was while he was at Yale that he gained renown as a Black theologian with a unique take on the issue of theodicy. Continue reading “William R. Jones: a brief appreciation”
Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.
When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.
The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.
This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight. Continue reading “Moving away from the humanist-theist debate”
From the essay “It’s about Faith in Our Future: Star Trek Fandom as Cultural Religion” by Michael Jindra:
Most Americans think of “religion” as a system of private, conscious, and articulated beliefs, usually expressed in churches and formal creeds, and set off from the other “spheres” of life such as work, politics, or leisure. This view of religion, however, stems from the specifically Western process of societal “differentiation,” in which institutional religion was given a specific function. After the medieval era, when religious practice was intimately connected to everyday life, the practice of Christianity became “abstracted,” or disconnected from everyday life. As a result, we now tend to regard “religion” as something connected to institutions such as churches and denominations. Alternatively, we view it as something personal and private, a psychological aid that is only peripherally connected to a person’s life.
This view of religion severely limits our understanding of it….
Religion and Popular Culture in America, ed. Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, rev. ed. 2005), p. 161.
Using a more expansive definition of religion, Jindra goes on to demonstrate how Star Trek fandom can be understood as a kind of humanist religion. He supports this in part by citing an interview with Rodenberry published in the March/April, 1991, issue of American Humanist, in which Rodenberry said he saw Star Trek as based on a humanist philosophy wherein human beings take control of their own destiny.
…but not in U.S. Unitarian Universalist congregations. It turns out there are a fair number of atheist clergy in the Netherlands — like Rev. Klaas Hendrikse:
Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.
His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.
A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN [Protestant Church in the Netherlands] and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.
Full story on the BBC Web site: “Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world.”
Chris Schreiner, who is both brave and smart, has started a new blog on how to get theists and atheists to talk with one another sanely and productively. I say that Chris is brave because every time I have tried to start such a conversation, I find myself standing in the middle of two warring camps who are hurling things at each other. Chris is also really smart: he’s a minister, psychotherapist, and author of five books, including Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics; beyond that, when you sit and talk with him, you quickly discover that he is kind, perceptive, well-read, and articulate.
So what are you waiting for? — go read his new blog, Theists and Atheists, Communication and Common Ground.
Dad made an interesting suggestion this afternoon when I was talking with him. He suggested that calling oneself a humanist might tend to indicate that one assumes that human beings are at the center of existence. This might imply that those who are committed to environmental justice and ecological repair might prefer to call themselves naturalists (as in, a religious naturalist or theological naturalist).
Dad put it much better than that, but I think I’ve managed to communicate his basic idea. And I think he’s identified some of my discomfort with the term “humanism” — I don’t want to be associated with a theological label that puts humans at the center of the universe, because in my opinion a big part of the problem with Western culture is that it makes humans more important than any other kind of life form, an attitude that has gotten us into global climate change, denial of global climate change, release of toxics into the environment, etc.
What do you think? Does humanism put humans at the center of the universe? Is that a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d particularly love to hear from someone who strongly identifies with both humanism and deep ecology, mostly because from my point of view those two positions would be mutually exclusive.
In a recent comment on a post I wrote about Cornel West, Kim Hampton makes a statement that I quite agree with:
I agree that the biggest reason that West is not talked about [among Unitarian Universalists] is the fact that he speaks from a liberationist standpoint … but I think you may be downplaying the fact part of the reason he is such a liberationist is that he is a forthright Christian. And Unitarian Universalism is still trying to figure out its relationship to Christianity.
This raises another interesting issue for me. In the contemporary theological landscape, socialism is almost exclusively associated with either a Christian liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Cornel West), or a Neo-pagan liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Starhawk). Humanists, by contrast, tend to be associated with a more moderate political philosophy. So humanist William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International, sounds like pretty straightforward natural-law human rights advocate and political liberal; and humanist Sharon Welch, ethicist and theologian, sounds to me like a pretty straightforward second-wave feminist and political liberal. Of put it this way: while I can think of some prominent Christians and Neo-pagans whom I would call socialists or leftist councilists, all the prominent humanists I know of seem to accept late capitalism without making a serious challenge to it.
In addition, it seems to me that much of humanist dialogue in recent years — at least, among the humanists I know — has largely divorced theology and religion from social justice theories. This is not to say that humanists aren’t concerned with social justice; indeed, the opposite is true in my experience, as the humanists I know tend to be strongly committed to social justice and political action. But most of the humanists I know seem to remove ethics from religion, and their theology focuses on ontotheology almost exclusively. Sharon Welch is an excellent example of this: over the years, the trend she has followed has been to remove explicit religious concerns from her ethics, to the point where I would not longer call her a theologian and instead I’d call her simply an ethicist (without a qualifier).
Any thoughts on this from you, dear reader? I’m willing to hear counterexamples that disprove my hypothesis, but I’m far more interested in a broader analysis: are humanists tending to move to the political right of socialist Christians and Neo-pagans? and is there something inherent in the trend of humanist thought today that is moving humanism in that direction? and aside from William R. Jones, is there such a thing as a liberationist humanist thinker?