Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Humanists, or "Vague Buddhists?"

I have a controversial idea.

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.



Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

Really interesting....provocative....but I am not convinced.

The humanism of that is the common denominator is revealed in the surveys, the UUs in search of a minister check "ethical religion" which is defined as a religion about how we live our lives in this world, how we treat each other,

there is a parallel question on the surveys which is Ethical Christian....following the teachings of Jesus to love neighbor etc.etc.

That more these two are more commonly checked that atheist, agnostic or rationalist, indicates that UUs do not mean by humanism a non theistic religion, so much as a religion that is about living here on earth more than being with God.

The Buddhist "all is suffering, and the cause of suffering is attachment" is not what I experience as a motivation for spiritual seeking for a majority of UUs.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

(((The Buddhist "all is suffering, and the cause of suffering is attachment" is not what I experience as a motivation for spiritual seeking for a majority of UUs. )))

The UU Blog Awards should have an "Understatement of the Year Award."


Blogger PeaceBang said...

Clyde, I agree that UUs consider humanism as being about how we live our lives in this world and how we treat each other. What I am wondering is (which I don't think I articulated very well), who do we think are the teachers of that path? Whose books do we have on our bedside tables to help us live that path? Is that -- "how we live our lives and how we treat each other is our religion" -- our defining statement? (It could be a lot worse!) If so, why not make that the one and only principle? (I think I'd vote for that)

Are we just choosing willy nilly between everything from theologians to self-help tomes to philosophers to scientists to mystics to help us define and create our humanistic religion? And in our worship, are we essentially using a wide variety of religious and secular texts, ignoring their specificity (such as Buddhist emphasis on suffering) and extracting from them all a generic humanist message?

Should I adjust my thinking to embrace that, rather than to regard it with suspicion and disappointment?

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

I would never consel adjustment to banality -

our people are seeking a theology that speaks to their engaged in the world despite its not being a fixable a la the optimism of the old Humanists.

and we draw our wisdom from the whole world of wisdom is a value for most of them....that doesn't mean they don't want depth but would rather wallow in ecclecticism

when most of our ministers do their Buddhist thing the laity hears "be aware" and one can nurture awareness....but I think the Desert Fathers wouldn't disagree with that!

Blogger UUEnforcer said...

Humanism is the glue that holds us together, I'll agree, but I think most UUs don't understand it, I think most UUs conflate/ confuse Humanism with atheism.

We're attracted to Buddhism because we don't know that much about it, it's exotic and the Dali Lama is cool. If most UUs knew what the Buddah said about women and how he treated women they would never come near Buddhism. The same is true with reguard to how reincarnation works, (a baby died, well must have lead a rotten previous life.)

However, I do think someone should do a paper on reincarnation and Universalism. We're all saved to be born again...

Blogger ogre said...

PB, Clyde...

I think that we're in a place of discomfort, and that we ought to take the wisdom offered by William Bridges when he talks about making transitions. We hate letting go of the past, but even more than that, we hate living with the indeterminate period of transition to something that's new, solid and pretty crystalline.

He points out that such periods are often loathed, and people try to hurry though them... sadly missing the fact that such periods are vastly creative and offer all kinds of opportunity.

Make haste slowly is pretty old wisdom.

I don't think that UUs are becoming vague Buddhists, although I can easily see how that thought seems like a reasonable approximation. There's a segment of Buddhist thought that many of us are finding consonant with what it is that we, as a movement, seem to be about. While I don't think that we'll buy the idea that all life is suffering, I think we will buy into the undertaking to personally seek to diminish the suffering of all beings. Similarly, I think we buy into love thy neighbor as theyself--without buying all that it's attached to, traditionally.

The fear, the concern, is that we're being nothing more than religious magpies, collecting anything that's shiny and attracts our eye.

I think that's erroneous. I think that while it may yet be difficult to articulate the central thread(s) that we string our faith on, we can tell--sense, feel, know (I have faith...)--that there is a consistency there.

I've argued at my blog that our faith is fundamentally about how we are as a community, how we treat--and treat with--each other and the larger communities. I suggest that we're about practice, not belief, and that while it's nice to say "love your neighbor as yourself," to a UU that's just hot air; what counts is living it.

Posturing is a sin. Show me.

Those teachings of all faiths and philosophies that are resonant with that core understanding -- that how we live together, how we treat each other and all humanity, and how we treat the world -- really, really, really matters. It matters more than anything else.

It takes Hillel's simple articulation of the teachings of the whole Torah... and says live it. It takes the Buddhist vow to diminish the suffering of all beings and says do it. It takes the Pagan an it harm none and says fulfill it.

By their fruits ye shall know them, neh?

Religion that has obsessed about what the exact, correct, orthodox teaching is so that it can pass it on unmarred... seems to have failed. The world is full of people who believe they know the Truth--and are willing to commit abominations in pursuit of adulating it.

I think we're at the cusp of grasping something different, swiping part of the Hippocratic Oath, saying First, do no harm, and moving on to an understanding of religion where we fulfill the commandments and directives of many faiths regarding how to live in peace and harmony, and in committing no abominations, find our ways to grasping and knowing that elusive, quicksilver thing we know as Truth.

We live with means, not ends, and so we, as UUs, understand that we have to focus on ensuring that our means are good, righteous, appropriate, kind, just and respectful... in the faith that in so doing, the ends we steer for will not be polluted by our actions in achieving them.

Blogger Errantfrogs said...

It's not "all is suffering," but rather -- simply -- that "suffering exists." This is closer to what the Buddhist said, according to the earliest Pali texts. Basically, then, the four Noble Truths are: suffering exists, suffering is caused by clinging to desire, there's a way to not suffer, the way is the Eight-Fold Path.

The Buddha also asked his followers: Is there anyone here who hasn't suffered? Is there anyone who isn't suffering in some way now? Wouldn't you like a way out of it?

Whenever I've preached on the subject, the energy in the room usually increases and people perk up their ears. Suffering is something that is universal, and not suffering has universal appeal.

Also (and this was really the point I was going to make), there's something that Buddhists and Humanists share: non-theism. This is how I got away with a lot of traditional worship language in my internship congregation. They identify me as a Buddhist and therefore I get away with a lot more than my theist or Christian colleagues, I think. They trust I don't have a hidden agenda and so relax a little.

The deeper I travel along the path taught by the Buddha, the more I realize how deeply rooted in common sense it is. I don't go much for the rituals (which is more Zen and Tibetan) or the reincarnation stuff (which is more Hindu leftovers than anything) -- but the core teachings as found in the early Pali scriptures. Wow. What resonances with my own experience, as well as parallel with my Christian upbringing.

Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

I think that because I am not a Buddhist, vague or otherwise, it became clear to me that UU was not for me. I used this blog entry as the starting point for an entry in my own blog, at

Blogger Jaume said...

What you call "vague Buddhism" is a variety of this kind of "Lite Buddhism" that has been fashionable in the West for several decades now. It is really only about meditation and peace of mind, more aesthetic than ascetic, and totally ignorant of the implications of reincarnation (it is a doom not a blessing, you are only "saved" when you are not reborn) or the discussion on the nature (or rather non-nature) of the self in Buddhism as opposed to the philosophy of the Upanishads or even Vedanta (Shankara's tirades against Buddhism are famous).

And of course, "UU Neo-Buddhism" is rarely devotional. The most common form of Buddhism in Asia is not Zen or even Vajrayana (which is limited to Tibet, some areas in China and Mongolia), but Pure Land, the one that says that only praying to the Buddha Amida will allow you to reach beyond and all your personal efforts are useless...

As usual, any UU attempt at importing a foreign tradition ends up in a total distortion of the original wisdom of that tradition and a complete decontextualization of it.

Blogger Jaume said...

(Note: A fuller, wider response -not limited to UUism- is coming up in my own blog.)

Blogger ogre said...


I'm not a fan of suffering. I don't look forward to it.

That said, I really don't think it's something that I want to avoid completely.

Painful as it's been, I trace much of my own insight and understanding and personal growth to experiences that have been suffering.

I don't want to eradicate it. I want to diminish it. There are levels of suffering that are hideous and I can't fathom a value to them.

Just as an example, the real anguish I've suffered over the pain and illness of others has really opened my eyes to how connected I feel--and am--to others. I don't think I'd ever have grasped it in any clear and meaningful way without the pain.

Suffering? Ick. But this too shall pass.

Blogger SC Universalist said...

yeah, one thing is for sure, that most of the UUs in this thread don't know much about Buddhists at all! Yow!
E. Frogs is pretty accurate from what I see though. I think one of the problems is that eveyone (including me) is seeing the Buddha through their own needs and desires -- we see what we want to see. Once we get outside some of the "teachings", then even Buddhists disagree - much like Christians - on what is the true meaning of those teachings. And what group is real and which isnt (although usually the Buddhists don't physically fight over it).
So when we say "Buddhists" we have to also ask: which ones?
and then of course, this is nothing new "How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America" (1981) mentions that Henry David Thoreau was the first person to translate any of the Lotus Sutra into English (for the DIAL).
More recently Marcus Borg did a cute (ie: not theologicaly heavy) book on the similiar sayings of the Buddha and the Christ.
Jack Kerouac is probably the patron saint of the fuzzy Buddhists (or to use an older term: Beat Zenists)and would no doubt be a suitable UU saint as well, right? ;-)

steven r

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Jaume has spoken most directly to what I am trying to get my finger on specifically, as has the Enforcer. I would like to have Ogre's optimism but I don't see the evidence to support it; specifically, I don't think that our emphasis on "show me" religion is much different than any muscular version of Judaism or Christianity, or any other engaged faith tradition.
Furthermore, if we truly believed in the religion of treating people well, our congregations would provide evidence for that, and they don't.

I would very much like to believe that UUs deeply and passionately embrace the ethic of incarnating Love above all (as Ogre says, it's a radical idea), but I don't think we are. Again, our level of in-fighting, congregational conflict and mediocre hospitality proves that this is not, in actuality, our religion. If this is the "new, solid and crystalline" ethic of our future, I'd like to see evidence of that somewhere.

The Dalai Lama said, "my religion is kindness." I think all UUs can respect and resonate with that. ALL of us. If that's true, I ask again, what are the spiritual practices & disciplines, devotional materials and worship resources and teachers that we agree would guide us there, since we so clearly have a long way to go?

Hence my question about "vague Buddhism." I suspect that we are, in fact, moving to a consensus that the religion of kindness and action is our raison d'etre, and away from worrying or caring how to articulate the theological foundations beneath that religion of kindness and Doing.

We move into "vague Buddhism" because we can't just get together on Sundays and read poems and talk about how good we're trying to be. Our rich heritage of Protestant worship is still too much with us to allow that (although some UU congregations probably do something close to that as their "worship").

We have a liturgical tradition, and since most of us have omitted prayers to God, Bible readings, confession of sin, and Communion from that liturgy, we seek to put something worthy and inspiring in their place. What I was wondering was whether or not we were mostly putting Buddhist teachings and readings and quasi-spiritual practices (like 30- second "meditation") where Christian instruction and ritual used to be.

I continue to wonder this, and am curious as to whether our congregants are getting a lot more Buddhism than classical Humanism in their worship services and ministry of spiritual formation.

It would be fascinating if all UU ministers and active laymen and women reading this would offer a brief comment reporting how much Buddhist teaching and spiritual guidance they are using in worship and Adult RE offerings.

I would also be interested in knowing how the prevalence of Buddhism (albeit watered-down Buddhism Lite, as Jaume warns we are probably propagating)compares to the prevalence of specifically Humanist sources.

(Don't ask me how to define "Humanist" sources. I don't think I want to tackle that. Maybe one of you would like to try.)

Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

Peacebang wrote:
"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."

This is being offered as a "point of information" for this very thought-provoking thread.

It may not be totally accurate to say that we voted ourselves totally non-theist with the 1985 principles and the subsequent 1995 revision.

Yes, the seven principles by themselves don't use the word "God." But the entire "Principles and Purposes" document does. Here's the language used in our fourth source in our living tradition:

"Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves

Also, I think one could also point to some of the other sources as examples of "divine reality beyond ourselves" as well.

Blogger Oversoul said...

I've rambled on about this at my blog, for anyone who can't guess my thoughts :)

Blogger anakashiko said...

Two points, to muddle the mix. First, I think the most faithful (to the earlier texts, at least) approach to suffering actually lies between what CC and Errant Frogs suggested. It is not "all is suffering" OR "suffering exists." As the Suttas and Agamas describe it, it is "all things are tinged by suffering." Not as depressing as CC's take, not as hopeful as Errant Frog's. The texts really are quite explicit that all things and activities in the human world are tinged by suffering in some definable way, without exception. This does not mean that everything is suffering. Pleasure is not suffering; but, pleasure is tinged by suffering because it carries the seeds of the inevitable ending of pleasure, which is experienced as a level of suffering. The Buddha really was a downer, and only comes off as not a downer when we try to spin doctor him from an optimistic Western (usually American) point of view.

Now, people have been spin doctoring the Buddha since day one and if countless Asians did it, surely some measly Americans can too. So many words have been put in his mouth through the ages that they literally cannot all be read in one lifetime (and these are just the surviving texts!). But since the spectre of the Pali texts was raised, I thought a note of clarification was needed.

Extra note: all of this applies only to the present, non-awakened life. If you achieve the level or arhat or Buddha, you can experience pleasure without suffering. The perfect detachment of a fully awakened person prevents the arising of the sorts of suffering that Buddhism is designed to handle. Indeed, many of the synonyms for nirvana are overtly pleasurable, often described in terms of bliss, etc.

OK, the second point. It was not Henry David Thoreau who translated the first sutra into English, as reported here. The citation is the problem: Rick fields, author of "How the Swans Came to Lake," was misinformed. The actual translator was Unitarian Transcendentalist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. That's right: Buddhism got its start in America with a woman.


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