Union Theological Seminary Needs a Humanist Studies Program


Just a week or so ago it was announced that Episcopal Divinity School is moving to the Union campus and will be leasing office space in the new building, offering an Anglican Studies program in cooperation with UTS, allowing the former institution to continue its mission, and the latter to expand its course offerings and hopefully draw in more new students. Now UTS is going a step further with Master of Divinity tracks, two of which appear to be oriented towards those preparing for non-Christian ministry. The new tracks are:

  • Ministerial Leadership
  • Islam, Social Justice, and Interreligious Engagement
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism and Interreligious Engagement.

To begin, what is ‘Ministerial Leadership?’ It has a nice ring to it, but isn’t the MDiv itself already the standard degree for ministerial preparation? That’s historically been the key purpose of an MDiv…to prepare clergy leadership. The description of this new track doesn’t provide much help either:

The Master of Divinity Oriented Toward Ministerial Leadership, the most flexible of the pathways, offers different options in required courses and numerous concentrations. Persons interested in preparing for Christian ordination or other credentialed ministry within a church or a vocation of service will find the requisite courses for those vocations. Those interested in preparing for non-credentialed ministry, non-profit leadership, or vocations in contexts outside of or beyond a church will find alternative courses that will prepare them for their own calling.

That description is so generic as to be useless, and the pdf purporting to provide more details is no better.

The other two degree tracks make more sense to me, as they both appear clearly oriented towards preparing people for leadership roles in Muslim and Buddhist circles, respectively. The oddity here is that Bible and church history are among the courses that remain mandatory. Perhaps this is necessary for Union Theological Seminary to maintain membership in the Association of Theological Schools, though I’m not aware of any such requirement on the part of ATS. It is also possible that either these courses are needed to fill out the program, or else it’s a requirement of the seminary’s charter or board.

The part that puzzles me about all this isn’t an overly general course track (befuddling though it may be) or that arrangements are being made to train Buddhist and Muslim leadership (I’m in favor of it). What I would like to know is why UTS has not yet caught on to the fact that the ‘nones’ are growing fast as a demographic, and that Humanist communities are beginning to be established in many and varied locations throughout the US.

If Union Theological Seminary wants to get ahead of the curve, or at least catch up, it needs to move quickly and decisively to begin offering a Humanist Studies program. It couldn’t be too difficult to do, I imagine, given that the Humanist Institute is already in operation and could likely be persuaded to take part. Humanism needs more organizers, community leaders, chaplains, and celebrants. Union needs more students, and it’s certainly progressive enough to handle such an endeavor.

Union, it’s time.

Tell Me The Old, Old Story

Christianity, the only religion about which I can speak with any authority, has some things figured out. Some branches of Christianity are indeed ancient, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Coptic faith. The various reform branches of this religion have rejected this or that about the older forms of the faith, but the successful ones have retained what is useful to keep them going. One tool in the Christian church’s toolkit is narrative, and it’s one that secular groups such as Ethical Culture, Sunday Assembly, and Oasis (as well as Humanist-leaning Unitarian Universalist congregations) would do well to learn.

When I say ‘narrative’ I don’t mean merely telling a story. Rather, Christianity is good at placing people within the story. As a Roman Catholic until the age of 17 I recited creeds at Mass, and those were more than short doctrinal statements. The Apostle’s Creed in particular tells the story of God, Jesus, and salvation in a very succinct form:

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary
Under Pontius Pilate He was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

The Apostle’s Creed alone is only a dogma-laden summary of a larger story. There is more to this in Roman Catholicism, though. In the Mass, the varied details of this narrative are retold in the readings and celebrated in the Eucharist. Around the church building on the walls are the stations of the cross, telling visually in stages the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. In the Sacraments, Catholics mark various milestones of their lives making a connection to the story of Roman Catholic Christianity. In personal devotion, the rosary provides a tangible connection to faith in Jesus and his mother. All of this draws in the believing Catholic, helping them to feel as though they themselves are participating in the story of their religion…as indeed they are, albeit in a largely perfunctory manner.

In Unitarian Universalist and Ethical Culture circles I’m seeing a greater and greater focus on ‘social justice’ than ever before. This makes sense, as indeed there is a great deal of injustice and it has been brought to the fore by events such police violence against people of color being filmed and shared on social media, and by the rise of Trumpism. The crying need for progressive voices in protest as well as constructive work for peace and justice is clear, and yet I’m concerned that it may also drown out the ability of Humanism and UUism to tell the story that must be told. 

In a recent episode of American Gods, Laura Moon is depicted telling her husband, Shadow, about her loss of faith:

I mean, my parents believed in everything.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost, spirit-filled and full of the light of God.
They taught me all of it, chapter and verse.
I went to bed every night in a world full of magic where anything was possible.
And then one day you find out that Santa’s not real, and then the Tooth Fairy isn’t real.
And there’s no farm upstate for old dogs.
Then I started reading history books, and Jesus isn’t real.
And it’s like everything that made the world anything more than what it is is just– is just stories.
Just snake oil, but worse because snakes are real.
[snickering] I wanted to get that magic back so bad, but one day I just accepted the fact that I couldn’t because life is just not that interesting.

The experience described struck me as so far different from my own and that of many others who have transitioned from supernatural beliefs to an evidence-based outlook. While I can totally understand how someone should feel as Laura describes, it is sad and unnecessary. The fictions I had told myself to believe (and to which I had sincerely clung) vanished in the final days of 2013, as I moved to Brazil to rejoin my family who had already relocated months before. Once the shock I felt passed, I then felt a great deal of awe. I looked at the full moon hanging low over the horizon and caught a glimpse of our place in the universe. I saw trees in full bloom and marveled at how they and the species that depend upon them had evolved over millions of years.

Although I had understood evolution, the fundamentals of astronomy, and the history of the universe for many years, removing divine intervention (aka ‘magic’) from the mix gave me an altogether richer appreciation of the vastness of time and space, as well as the chaos and order that makes it all so interesting. Beyond the fear I felt at not having a paternal deity to carry me through hard times I found courage in the knowledge that I had in fact survived and overcome on my own. 

Humanism, in order to be compelling, cannot only call people constantly to fight against oppression and hate. It must also tell ‘the old, old story.’ Not one about a world created and judged by an all-powerful being, but rather the one we are discovering as research pushes out the boundaries of what we know. Ours is the story of a universe that exploded into being, of gases and energy burning and coalescing into stars, galaxies, and planets. This is grand narrative of the origin of species on Earth and the ascent of homo sapiens sapiens to the position of dominance on this planet. With this great story, seeing in broad strokes and fine details where we have come from, we can ask where we want to go.

Fundamentalist Christians and their counterparts in other faiths are awaiting apocalypse and judgement. Religious liberals tend to envision a brighter future of peace and harmony, though the details are a little fuzzy. 

Humanists, for their part, can admit that the picture is neither all good nor all bad. Instead, our future is what we make it to be. We can follow the visionary declarations of Carl Sagan into the stars, becoming – as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and others propose – an interplanetary species. Individually seek to better understand our world, and together we can work to make this one life we know we have better for each other and especially for those who come after us.

We don’t have prayer books, infallible scriptures, or fossilized creeds to guide and engage us. Our participation in this grand narrative is to be lived out in the streets with protests, in the laboratory and the observatory with discoveries, and in the national congresses and international conventions where we pass laws and make treaties securing human rights and protecting our environment.

The Contraction of Mainline Theological Schools…And A Way Forward

The collapse of mainline Protestant theological education continues. Despite how it might seem, and without any malice, I think this is generally a good thing. However, there are lessons yet to be learned by the seminaries and mainline Protestant denominations.

 About a year ago Andover Newton Theological School – itself the result of the merger of two seminaries in 1965 (Andover Theological Seminary and

Newton Theological Institution) – announced an affiliation with Yale Divinity School following years of declining enrollment. Just this past week official word came that Episcopal Divinity School will be affiliating with Union Theological Seminary in New York City. As was the case with ANTS, EDS was also the result of the merger of two older institutions, namely Philadelphia Divinity School and Episcopal Theological School. This same process of mergers and affiliations has been happening for some time among seminaries across the United States, and it will only continue for years to come.

Mainline Protestantism is dying. Although there are some shining examples of lively, larger progressive congregations doing well, they are the exception rather than the rule. With Protestant parishes dwindling and the cost of higher education escalating, it’s to be expected that theological schools will be either closing down or seeking some means to survive.

Seminaries proliferated in the days when the ‘church business’ was booming, with new schools established from time to time to serve a particular theological outlook or new denomination. As the mainline Protestant churches let go of their dogma they lost members to evangelical churches as well as to irreligion. It turns out that explaining that the core document of a religion isn’t historically or scientifically reliable leaves people considering it irrelevant. Although you won’t likely hear much higher criticism from the pulpits of such churches these days, the social justice gospel that’s now being preached won’t be enough to save them. 

Theological schools need to close when they aren’t serving their purpose, which is to prepare women and men to minister to others, build up communities of shared values, and lead in the effort to promote human flourishing. Yes, they wrap that in religious garb and symbolism, but at the core this is what they all seek after one fashion or the other. Mainline Protestant seminaries have for decades been training future ministers for the wrong scenario. It is often the case in mainline parishes that the ministers are more theologically (and frequently politically) liberal than their parishioners. Such ministers either rock the boat and lose people, or else they keep their mouths shut and hold back more than they should for the sake of keeping their jobs.

Conservative (relatively speaking) congregations are one thing, and the wider society is quite another. More and more people are leaving church behind because traditional dogma doesn’t sync with science and a reasoned approach, and because the churches haven’t provided a compelling alternative narrative. The ‘fall of man’ and redemption through the cross, with all that came before and after, doesn’t speak to the contemporary world as it did in ages past. What inspires us now is scientific discoveries, and what motivates us the the dream of making a better world.

Against the cynicism of the age, churches should be affirming the goodness of life, the great potential – and very real weaknesses – of our species, and the hope for a brighter future. Antiquated terminology should be cast aside, old images reimagined in ways that are compelling to a wider range of people, and a new story should be told.

Seminaries should be leading the way in this effort, not jumping on every bandwagon and hoping something sticks.There needs to be a fresh narrative in light of current knowledge, beginning with the big bang and going into the distant future of humanity on other worlds. Tell us where we’ve really been, and help us dream of where we really could go, while helping us to live out this vision in our congregations and our personal lives.

If Union Theological Seminary can take in Episcopal Divinity School, why can’t it also invest in its future with, at the very least, a Humanist clergy track? I’m fairly certain that the Humanist Institute would participate in crafting such a pathway to ministry, and if it proves compelling enough it could draw in people to prepare for service in the 21st century and beyond. As Yale Humanist Community, Harvard’s Humanist Hub, Sunday Assembly, and Oasis have shown us, if you tell the right story, build a truly welcoming community, and offer up evidence-based truth in an upbeat environment, people will want to be part of it.

Unitarian Universalist Christianity

Early in my ministerial studies in the mid-1990s I created a folder on Unitarian Universalism. I contacted the Unitarian Universalist Association the old fashioned way, by postal mail, and also found information online to print out and bind in the folder. Along the way, I also discovered the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and received information from them. At the time I was evangelical, and looking back I think that I was yearning to be able to have a ‘free faith’ like what these two groups described. I felt bound, however, by the ‘reality’ of the resurrection of Jesus and also by the fear of Hell. Now, as a Unitarian Universalist Humanist who continues to enjoy studying the history and texts of the Abrahamic tradition, the role and place of Christianity in Unitarian Universalism is on my mind from time to time.

Lately there’s been some excitement among UU Humanists about Skinner House Book having published ‘Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism.’ This is part of a series that has already touched on ChristianJewish, and Buddhist perspectives in UUism. The other day I got curious about the contributors to the Christian book in the series, and so I looked a few of them up. It was initially something of a surprise to me to discover that Rachel Nguyen, the person who contributed the first essay in the book, entitled ‘A Bible-Thumping, Trinitarian, Charismatic, Born-Again Jesus Freak,’ has since converted to Roman Catholicism. Then again, it really shouldn’t have been all that unexpected.

In her essay, Ms. Nguyen talks about having been raised UU, then later wanting to pursue the Christian path. She asked a UU minister, ‘Can a UU be a Christian,’ to which he replied, ‘It can be a challenge.’ To many Humanists in UU circles this can seem downright laughable, given the push in recent years towards adopting ‘the language of reverence.’ This is judged by some to be a thinly-veiled attempt to move us closer to mainline Protestantism. While I do see theism being favored, and some overt hatred expressed towards Humanists, it doesn’t seem to be Christianity in particular that’s being promoted. Sure, the services are called ‘worship’ and look mostly like what the Protestants do, but I haven’t heard of many congregations outside of those with a long Christian tradition worshiping Jesus or following the lectionary. Outright Christianity, while definitely not persecuted, is also not entirely accepted throughout Unitarian Universalism.

Given the above scenario, it’s only natural that UU Christians can feel unsupported in their congregations and in the larger life of the denomination. They are included and encouraged, but UU congregations don’t typically have the usual accoutrements of devotion and practice offered in Christian churches. There’s no eucharist (again, except in the historically Christian UU congregations), no stations of the cross, no devotionals or prayer beads. These are all things that individual UU Christians can find on their own, and in the process they can start to ask themselves why they don’t simply join a different church.

The United Church of Christ offers an extremely progressive approach to Christianity, and for those looking for smells and bells the Episcopalians can be an inviting option. Ms. Nguyen looked beyond these and into Roman Catholicism, finding there what she had been missing not only in communal ritual and personal devotional practice, but also in terms of theological reflection. Although she and I are traveling in opposite directions, I respect her desire to find a satisfying spirituality. She sought out the place she felt most likely to fulfill her longing.

What can Unitarian Universalism offer in the way of a unique Christian experience, such that some would find it compelling enough to stay, or even for non-UU Christians to seek it out? Within UUism it is possible for alternative approaches to Christianity to arise, including post-theistic Christianity. 

In the first few centuries of Christianity there was no official canon of Scripture. That is to say, while the Hebrew Scriptures were often respected, the texts the churches had were various gospels and letters that were copied and circulated. We’re accustomed nowadays to the 27 books of the New Testament being the go-to resource on normative Christianity, but there were in fact many texts around from a variety of theological viewpoints. What became considered ‘orthodox’ was only one of these early Christianities, and even within those churches there was long disagreement over what texts should be considered canonical. The matter was only settled for the Eastern (Orthodox) Church in the Second Council of Trullan of 692, and for the Western (Catholic) Church at the Council of Trent of 1546.

While some level of heterodoxy or ‘heresy’ can easily be tolerated among progressive mainline Protestant churches, they still only go so far. People who identify with the person and work of Jesus but doubt the existence of any gods can’t easily sing along in worshipping god the father or Jesus Christ. Petitionary prayer can also be an awkward experience for such people. 

The majority, it seems, of Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to create a welcoming, inclusive experience in their services. In such a setting, the kind of Christians I’ve described above can feel at ease and even engaged. For uniquely Christian support, however, more is needed. Small groups that meet for prayer and Bible study can be scheduled. Monthly, quarterly, or annual Christian services could be scheduled, perhaps at a different time from the main service, and all depending on the level of interest and participation from the community. At times, progressive Bible scholars, historians, and theologians can be brought in for special events. All this won’t happen on its own, though. It has to be organized by parishioners with the active support of congregational leadership. 

Although I am most definitely a Humanist, I could totally see myself delivering a message from the Bible and related texts, from a non-theistic and ethical perspective. To support my UU Christian friends I don’t have to be ‘one of them.’ There is a place for Christians in Unitarian Universalism, just as there is for Humanists, Buddhists, Pagans, and others. This does not have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We all can have a part in living out the vision of human flourishing in beloved community.

Over the decades, Universalists had won the theological struggle with mainline Christianity. Few of those churches now preached the partialist doctrines of hell-fire and damnation. This development served to make them unclear about the distinction between Universalism and the larger Christian community.

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History

The Revival is Secular

If a philosophy, ideology, or theology becomes commonplace, it is no longer unique. When the questions have changed but an association continues offering answers to the old ones, no one will stick around to listen. If this seems obvious, then good. What should be equally obvious is that it makes no sense to turn back and embrace the dying paradigm and the antiquated answers. Apparently, it isn’t obvious enough.

It was a helluva thing. In the early days of the United States, the common religious message among churches was that there’s heaven and hell after this life, and where you end up depends on whether you had been saved by Jesus. In revival meetings, hell was often described in lurid detail, with the wrath of an almighty god looming over everyone who had not yet bowed the knee to Jesus. Complicating matters, Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination led earnest people to worry themselves sick over whether or not they were among the ‘elect.’ Often such people would go off by themselves or else respond to an altar call and plead for their god to give them a ‘testimony’ to assure them of their salvation. 

This was a far cry from the much milder, simpler pray-to-accept-jesus formula promoted at a later time by the likes of Billy Graham. Amidst such a grim religious milieu, Universalism stood out with a downright cheerful message of expansive divine grace. In later times, that gospel of universal salvation became nearly irrelevant, and when that happens to a religion’s key selling point, conversions cease and the faithful drift away. 

As I’ve already indicated, although evangelicalism has continued to preach heaven, hell, and salvation by faith, in the 20th century this message took on a kinder, gentler visage. As stated in the quote above, mainline churches for their part virtually ceased any talk of punishment for sin. Only fundamentalists have continued to hammer away at the old message. As we entered the 21st century we began to see a decline not within mainline Protestant ranks, but even among evangelicals. While people still desire community and purpose, science has informed them that many of the old answers were simply wrong, and the questions themselves have changed in the process.

Many Christians have thought that a new ‘revival’ was necessary to bring people back to the churches. They were right, though that new birth of congregations does not look like what they expected or desire.

In late 2012, some people got together in Houston, Texas and decided to organize what seemed sort of like a church, but which was entirely secular in outlook and message. This was the birth of Oasis. Just a few months later, in January 2013, Sunday Assembly was launched in London, complete with boisterous singalongs to pop songs and messages about understanding and celebrating the one life we know we have. While these movements have spread, with new chapters popping up around the world, other, similar groups have come into existence as well. The commonality among them all is a rejection of supernaturalism (without generally being too snotty about it) and an embrace of evidence-based thinking about life.

Along with these new movements have come efforts to provide secular summer camp alternatives for children (Camp Quest) and a means for atheists and agnostics to respond to the needs of the world (Foundation Beyond Belief). There are conferences, networks, and local volunteer groups. 

And so, with all that, it is something of a wonder to me that Unitarian Universalism appears to be leaning back into a mainline way of thinking and behaving. Oh sure, we’re dropping the name ‘church’ in favor of ‘congregation’ and making certain there are no crosses around our buildings, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think those ‘inclusive’ services we call ‘worship’ look like anything other than a watered-down Protestant church service. 

To be clear, this is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, meaning it has a congregational system in which local bodies decide for themselves how to order their services and conduct their affairs. This means that there are UU congregations that are historically Christian in identity and which have no desire (nor requirement) to be otherwise. These are just as ‘Unitarian Universalist’ as the congregations that position themselves as neutral, broad-minded, or even humanist in perspective. In no way am I attempting to deny the ‘UU-ness’ of anyone. I am, however, questioning the disdain for Humanism based on outdated stereotypes and the apparent disregard for the godless handwriting on the wall.

Polls who more an more that people in the United States are religiously unaffiliated. This is a mix of spiritual-but-not-religious people and athests/agostics that is popularly referred to as ‘the nones.’ So many of these ‘nones’ are going to college now that we actually have Humanist chaplains at a handful of universities. The ‘nones’ tend to be socially progressive, religiously skeptical, and more prone to listen to a scientist than a preacher. 

Times have changed, and if the UUA really wants to continue to promote healthy communities concerned about human and civil rights, the denomination (yes I called it that) needs to rethink its extension efforts. There’s no need to jettison the chalice, the principles, or the sources of our Living Tradition. Rather, these need to be realigned to support a relevant gospel of human progress through science and social justice. Let’s be upbeat, let’s be honest, and let’s break out of the mainline mold as we hold fast to what is good and seek out what is better.

Movements Require Agility, While Community Requires Stability

The following are my own personal observations, backed up in no way by statistics or formal research. Before that gets you too riled up, take a deep breath and remember that this is just a blog post of some guy’s musings.

My thesis is this: 

Religious movements grow fastest when the barriers to leadership are lower, while congregations grow best when their leadership is formally and adequately prepared. 

Studying church history over the years I have observed that the fastest-growing religious movements were those with few prerequisites for leadership. It seems that most of the time personal charisma and a good imagination are all that’s needed. On the other hand, religious movements with higher standards for their professional leaders tend to grow more slowly, if at all. Note that I’m talking about movements as a whole, not particular religious communities. Congregations with better-prepared leadership in terms of both academics and pastoral care seem to have a better shot at sustainable growth than those that are either lay-led or otherwise guided by less-well-prepared leadership.

Consider, for example, the a cappella Churches of Christ. According to ChurchZip.com, there are currently 14,067 congregations of the non-instrumental Church of Christ variety in the United States. Having graduated from a university of that fellowship and spent some time among those churches as a missionary and minister, I assure you that most of those congregations are not served by someone with even an undergraduate degree in Bible or ministry. These churches spread the most in the 20th century not through the work of professional clergy, but rather through the efforts of individual believers to convert their family, friends, and neighbors. Yes, there were revival preachers (they call revivals ‘Gospel Meetings,’ but the basic concept is the same) and missionaries, but the bulk of the work of evangelism was accomplished through people starting congregations and inviting people to attend and to participate in Bible studies.

If were to randomly chose an a cappella Church of Christ to visit one Sunday, you’d most likely find a very small congregation of less than 50 people. There are big exceptions, of course, but the odds favor you finding your way to a small congregation, as these compose the bulk of the 14,067 Churches of Christ in the United States. If you do manage to find a congregation of 100 or more, take a close look at the minister’s qualifications. I suspect that what you’ll find is a person with at least a Bachelor’s degree in ministry. Generally speaking, the larger the congregation, the higher the level of the minister’s formal education.

Now, it could be argued that larger, more ‘successful’ congregations have better trained ministers because they can afford them. On the other hand, if you look at that church’s history I am pretty confident that you will find the periods of most growth happened under the leadership of trained professionals. That isn’t to say that the parishioners are irrelevant! As I observed above, Churches of Christ tended to sprout up most often for decades through the efforts of believers banding together and pulling in their circle of friends and family. At the same time, we tend to see these congregations hitting a wall once their immediate social network is exhausted. To get over this hump and growing again, someone needs to devote their time exclusively to providing pastoral care and planning events.

Simply put, movements require agility, while community requires stability. There is no guarantee that someone with an MDiv will do better working full-time with a congregation than someone with little or no formal training for ministry, chances are better with the former than the latter. A person who has been thoroughly vetted and who has spent a number of years studying and serving in internships is a safer bet than someone who simply feels inspired to get up and do something.

All that said, of course there are exceptions! I have some in mind myself, so please don’t bore me with the details of ones you could cite.

If what I’ve described above is in fact true (again, I admit that’s an ‘if’), then perhaps that could inform how we manage congregational extension.

In the mid-20th century there was a ‘Fellowship Movement’ within Unitarian Universalism that resulted in numerous lay-led congregations. These remained relatively small for the most part, with the exception of those that eventually found capable leadership. You can read the story of this movement here. I am of the opinion that this movement would have been more successful if it had been structured from the beginning to be lay-led but aiming for professional leadership. 

The bottom line of this rather meandering post is that if the UUA, Ethical Culture, or a similar group wants to see growth, people need to be given the tools and encouragement to start new groups, and then those groups need to be provided trained servant-leaders once they hit their first plateau. 

More on this in future posts.