When does a call to Humanism sound like an invitation to Jesus?
On September 28 & 29, 1997 I was in Cincinnati, Ohio. I went there with a United Methodist pastor to participate in the second annual conference of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church. I was not then nor have ever been a member of the United Methodist Church, although my maternal grandfather was a lifelong member of that denomination. What took me to that conference was a desire to help out this pastor friend who wanted to make the trip but didn’t feel safe driving that far alone, and also out of simple curiosity. I was a ministry student, and this sort of thing was right up my alley at the time. As it turns out, I witnessed a little piece of history. On the 28th a surprise motion from one of those in attendance called for a formal organization with central office and staff to be brought into existence. This was supported and then carried forward.
Prior to this and afterward I had experience with renewal movements within mainline denominations. During my brief time with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I joined Disciple Heritage Fellowship. I left when racism reared its ugly head on a discussion forum for this group and the moderator, a leader with the organization, moved to silence objections. I also had occasion in 2004 to visit the headquarters of Biblical Witness Fellowship, where I was warmly received on a cold December evening during a Christmas event.
What I’m getting at here is that I know my way around renewal movements. What is interesting to me is the tone of an article from last July by American Humanist Association President Roy Speckhardt. In “Welcoming Unitarian Universalists Home to Humanism” Speckhardt describes the decline of Humanism in UUA congregations in recent decades, in favor of a “radical tolerance.” The way he talks about the decline of adherence to “reason” sounds like the way evangelicals in mainline Christian denominations talk about theological slippage in their fellowships.
But what has been happening over the past 10-20 years to the UUA is a failure to maintain reason as a guiding principle. Instead, the often laudable effort to be “all-inclusive” has become so dominant that in some congregations Unitarian Universalist identity has become so vague as to be insubstantial. This is due somewhat to late 20th century postmodernism that Unitarian Universalists (and many others) found so attractive. But the Everyone-Creates-Their-Own-Truth idea that is the core of postmodernism has failed, and by hanging on to it many UUA leaders and congregations are failing too.
Although I’m an outsider to the UUA, I’ve observed this trend in their communications and branding efforts. In the late 1990’s I was intrigued to learn that “Earth-Based Spirituality” in the forms of Wicca, Druidry and other rituals were finding a home in some UUA congregations. I’m not sure if this has continued. The only two congregations I ever visited, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia and the Unitarian Church in Summit, both seemed pretty “tame” and generally Humanist. I don’t remember any “god-talk” at either. What I hear from the organization as a whole, however, is that they are a home for virtually any spiritual path.
Speckhardt really drives his point home with the following paragraph:
Unitarian Universalism needs to come home to humanism, and I think there is a better-than-average possibility that a large number of UUs agree with me. But they’ve not been asked. This anti-humanist sentiment is coming from UUA leaders, not the laity. And not being an organization that has a nationalistic view of itself, many individuals and local congregations may be largely unaware of the problem or think it’s a minor or isolated issue.
This, to me, sounds an awful lot like what the Christian renewal groups in mainline denominations say, except that they put “Jesus” where Mr. Speckhardt says “humanism.”
There are clearly at least two sides to this issue. On the one hand, it seems arrogant to insist that everyone in the denomination needs to fall in line with a single lifestance, especially if that is not part of the group’s ongoing culture. If the tide is going to turn in favor of Humanism once more within the UUA, this is going to have to come about through consensus. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that no brand, whether commercial or otherwise, can advance or even survive with a vague or unclear reputation and message. Religious groups in particular do better when they have a strong, consistent theme that is clearly communicated and understood. This being the case, the UUA needs to pick something.
I’d like to close by saying that I have a lot of respect for Roy Speckhardt and don’t really disagree with his views as expressed in the article cited above. I think they need to be mulled over and perhaps tempered. Mr. Speckhardt initially won my respect with an article entitled “An End to Arrogant Atheism,” and I’ve continued to appreciate the irenic (for a Humanist!) style he brings to his role. We could use more Humanist leaders like him in the world.