Humanists, or "Vague Buddhists?"
It occurred to me this morning that perhaps Unitarian Universalism is seguing into a vague Buddhism as its primary religious identity.
Think that sounds crazy and stupid?
Hear me out for a moment.
As of 1985, with the passage of the entirely non-theistic Principles, we became an officially godless religion. Although many of our members are theists or even agnostics, our public statement about ourselves fails to mention any divine reality beyond ourselves.
I have been insisting over the past few years that in creating a public identity that is bereft of any God/Transcendent Referent, Unitarian Universalism is the only mainstream religious movement I can think of, besides Buddhism, that retains the practices and intentions of religion yet denies that God is the ground and guide of that religion. Despite what we individually believe, our public materials intentionally avoid making any theistic claims whatsoever. Within the Protestant context whence we derive our foundations, it is certainly unheard of to meet in churches for worship services on Sunday mornings, to offer religious education, to be tax-exempt, to have ordained clergy, and to sit at the table of inter-religious dialogue without any communal statement of belief in God or broad theological consensus at all.
We generally believe that we're Humanists, and like to say that we are a humanistic movement. However, I would argue that Humanism is not a religious identity in and of itself, but has always been a qualifier throughout history to a majority theistic tradition. Even the Greek philosophers were writing within a context of polytheistic faith practices and mystery religions. From the medieval era to our own time, Humanist philosophers and writers wrote out of their own Jewish, Christian or Muslim contexts, creating a philosophy of mankind to counter vehemently transcendent theologies of their time.
(I know this is a gross simplification. This is a blog, remember. It's not a religion conference and I'm not a scholar of Humanism.)
Unitarian Univeralists today who claim to be Humanists mostly only know that a Humanist is someone who believes in the potential of humankind alone to redeem the world's errors. They are mostly unacquainted with the great tradition of Humanism and are as uneducated in Humanism as they are in Biblical traditions. They don't have time, they don't have a theological education or philosophy degrees , and probably no one in their church has thought to guide them in a study of the Humanist tradition.
Therefore, I cannot think that Humanism in any meaningful sense is the future of Unitarian Universalism, although I have no doubt whatsoever that individuals within the movement, and the movement as a public entity, will continue to define itself with just that term.
Let me move now to why I believe Unitarian Universalists are actually embracing what I call a "vague Buddhism" as their most common theological identity, however unconsciously.
Buddhism, though non-theistic in the strict sense, is concerned with spirituality and the inner life, which are subjects of tremendous interest to today's UUs, especially recent come-outers. UUs, who may shun the concept of prayer as uncomfortably theistic and supernatural, have no compunction whatsoever at being invited to "meditate" during their worship services.
I don't have statistics to back this up, but I am guessing that our clergy include readings or sayings of Buddha and Buddhists at least as frequently (if not more so) than they include Bible readings or other offerings from religious traditions.
When they look for spiritual guides and devotionals to study and reflect on at home, I am again guessing that Unitarian Universalists choose Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh at least as often as they choose Christian or Jewish sources, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rumi, or Mary Oliver. Why? Because they are looking for spiritual teachers and teachings, not just spiritual suggestions, and they find inspiration, healing and direction from popular Buddhist authors.
For the record, I myself turn frequently to Buddhist sources for devotional material and spiritual guidance. I have noted that as my own orientation turns from seeker to (Christian) disciple, I am more appreciative of spiritual masters who offer not just ideas, but instructions.
As for self-professed humanists, are they studying Humanism in any disciplined way? If so, what are they reading? How is Humanism specifically shaping their faith life and their ethical commitments? What do Humanist religious education offerings in our congregations look like? I am under the impression that such offerings are either rare or non-existent. I think Humanism as a topic for serious intellectual inquiry is limited to our clergy, and is otherwise a broad term used to describe a non-theist who has little or no use for Bible study, the classics of Christian spirituality, or conversations about the nature of God or Christ (or if they are interested in the latter, it is not for the purpose of developing a liberal theology, but mostly to gather ammunition against traditional notions).
I don't think the average Unitarian Universalist has been even elementarily acquainted with a deeper definition of religous humanism than can be defined in one sentence. At this point in our history, while we have bloodied ourselves battling over definitions of "God" and "Christian," we have not yet dared to deconstruct what the hell it is we mean when we say -- as a denomination- that we're a humanistic tradition. We have been content to land on that word as a safe zone and lie there panting with relief, rather than to pick ourselves up and go on to create a vibrant religious movement based on a clear, mutual understanding of humanism.
Until Unitarian Universalists develop inspiring and accessible religious education materials for a deep understanding of Humanism -- including working definitions of religious humanism that every Unitarian Universalist layperson can understand and clear and explicit applications of Humanism to our lives as Unitarian Univeralists -- we are simply using "Humanism" as a blanket term to lump together all the non-theists and non-theistic spiritualities in our movement.
If Unitarian Universalists really want to become a strong religous humanist tradition, they should have it out once and for all, agree together that this is their identity, ask the Christians and other adherents of specific religious paths (including the pagans) to either stop asking to have their own beliefs reflected in worship and religous education or find spiritual homes elsewhere, and set about teaching our people what it means to be a religious Humanist. There are some very talented and learned clergy and laypeople who could lead the movement in this direction, and if the UUA believes that it is best and most accurately defined as Humanist, those leaders should be recruited and put to work immediately.
I don't think this will ever happen. I believe that Unitarian Universalists use the term "Humanist" to describe an approach to religion that prefers spiritual seeking to finding, honors musing and debating over deciding, and that promotes browsing through the teachings of various masters over choosing one and following him or her. I think what we mean by "Humanist" is simply that while there may or may not be a god, the present and the future is entirely up to us.
I believe that Humanism has far more complex definition and application than this, and that Unitarian Universalists are uniquely poised to find it, but that they will not.
Meanwhile, I believe we drift toward vague Buddhism. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Whatever it is we are and whatever it is we do, we should know those things, and be willing to honestly assess their goodness and usefulness for both individual members of our association and for the whole.
Before you comment, I invite you -- as a spiritual exercise-- to spend at least as much time reading and thinking about what I've written as I did writing it.
I spent 40 minutes composing this entry.
If you have a significant opus to contribute, I hope you'll do so on your own blog and post the link here.