Heeding Science and Avoiding Idolatries

– The Fifth Source of Our Living Tradition –
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, March 10, 2019

This is the sixth in a series of eight sermons I am preaching this year on the sources of the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism. As we have discussed before, these are not, strictly speaking, historical sources. The six sources do not describe our theological or organizational lineage. And they cannot be reduced to a neat set of nouns, the way many assume. For example, in the previous sermon in this series, I argued that the real source of our living tradition pointed to in the fourth-listed source statement was not Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it was what we do through the inspiration we get from certain Jewish and Christian sources: specifically, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Our sources are not Direct Experience, Prophetic Words and Deeds, World Religions, Judaism and Christianity, Humanism, and Earth-Centered Spirituality. Rather, our sources are the things that we have learned to do, have been inspired to do that relate to specific teachings and experiences associated with those nouns. And so, today we take up our fifth-enumerated source that is written into the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association[1]:

The living tradition which we share draws from… Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.

There is a whole lot there to unpack. What are Humanism, Science, and Idolatry? We cannot assume that everyone understands them the same way. And yet, our delegates and other leaders crafted the wording of this source this way for our association’s bylaws.

A friend of mine, someone who was born into Unitarian Universalism, who grew up in international settings, now a minister in New Hampshire has said many time that every Unitarian Universalist is a humanist. No matter what other theological orientation they hold. Theist, atheist, agnostic. No matter how they might hyphenate their Unitarian Universalist identity. Everybody that is part of this movement believes that humans are the builders and interpreters of civilization and its institutions. We understand that humans are the actors in history and responsible for morality.

Humanism is not, despite its popular usage in many liberal circles, a synonym for atheism. Humanism is not about what one does not or cannot believe. The issue of God/no-God is not the issue that Humanism takes up. My own explanation, which is by no means authoritative, is that humanism is the understanding of human reality in which humanity creates its own values and institutions, narrates its own story, and creates its own array of meanings. Humanism includes the understanding that religion is a human endeavor just as much as science is. It holds humans responsible for what both religion and science promote and do in the world.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote many books and treatises about historical thinkers. According to him, in the fifth century BCE the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras taught, “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”[2] This is widely understood, together with other remembered teachings, to mean that Protagoras was a relativist, an agnostic who believed that the will of the gods could never be known, objectively. Western philosophy took its various historical turns, thought of God or gods and humanity differently at different moments. But there at its Greek root, before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, stood an early form of humanism. Through the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, humanism waxed and waned, sometimes flourishing in more and less Christian forms. In 1859, Charles Darwin, a Unitarian, published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, usually shortened to its first five words. If you read it rather than just reading about it, you will find that Darwin wrote in language steeped in religious and quasi-religious locutions and implications. His interpretations developed over his lifetime, and, by the time of his death in 1882, his writing had convinced the majority of the scientific community of the outlines of evolution. And parts of Western Christianity responded to what it saw as a threat to their grounding by sprouting varieties of fundamentalism that had not existed before the struggle with and against evolution.

It was in the 20th Century, though, that humanism truly flowered. The original, the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933. It was written primarily by Roy Wood Sellars and Raymond Bragg. Bragg was a Unitarian minister, and fifteen of the 34 signers of the manifesto were Unitarians. Universalists were also among the signers of this important document. It is a short document, but its fifteen principles require too much space to fairly address here. The principles are grounded on a 20th-century modern scientific understanding of life and the cosmos. The seventh principle is especially worth noting:

Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation–all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.[3]

I am reminded of the character Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, who says that nothing human disgusts her unless it is unkind or violent. Religious humanism embraces humanity in its totality as the focus of ethical systems.

The late Rev. William R. Murry, who taught my seminary class on religious humanism, tells that he once explained humanism to his neighbor like this:

Humanism refers to the affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person, a commitment to human betterment, and the necessity for human beings to take responsibility for themselves and the world.[4]

And because there is some distinction to be made between secular humanism and religious humanism, he continues with a description of religious humanism, which is the humanism best integrated within Unitarian Universalism:

Religious humanism is a life stance that exults in being alive in this unimaginably vast and breathtakingly beautiful universe and that finds joy and satisfaction in contributing to human betterment. Without a creed but with an emphasis on reason, compassion, community, nature, and social responsibility, it is a way of living that answers the religious and spiritual needs of people today.[5]

In looking at the fifth source statement, it is important also to reflect briefly on what science is. In the modern and contemporary setting it is primarily a method, not a body of knowledge arrived at through that method. Science progresses by showing the emerging inadequacy of previous interpretations of the data or of the methods and tools of collecting data. Newtonian physics, such a necessary step forward in its time, is generally understood now as inadequate. What we know is true in one generation is disproved in another. And this is not an upset within the scientific community but a cause for celebration of the strength of the method. When I was in school, Pluto was a planet. Every teacher taught it. Every child and every adult knew it. And, then, in 2006, it was no longer understood to be a planet.[6] Knowledge, interpretation of data, and application of the scientific method took us somewhere new. And science was strengthened, rather than diminished by the development. The “results of science” are in constant flux, but the method takes us from something once reliable within the capacity of its time to something more reliable in a different time.

And what is idolatry? It is such an antique religious concept. Its pejorative understanding comes from the developing monotheism of ancient Judaism. Jewish monotheism understood that what was Ultimate did not, ultimately, reside in artistic representations. Those who had come to this understanding saw worship that relies on representational art as deficient. Naturally, different traditions have their own understanding of what happens in worship of or before idols. Mostly, self-understandings are different than what outsiders think is going on. But from one outside perspective, the take away from ancient opposition to worshiping idols was that it is not right to worship what is partial as if it were the whole. What, then, might it mean to refer to “idolatries of the mind and spirit”?

It might mean taking the theological or philosophical statement of a particular group or a particular time as the final, the only word. It might mean taking Newtonian physics or the planetary status of Pluto, once received, as the best explanation, as right for all times and all stages of development. Idolatry sees bronze Confederates on horses in parks as representatives of honor and virtue. Idolatry sees the American flag as representing ultimate and true morality in the world. It could mean pointing a finger to the sky and saying that there is only one way to approach what is right and good. Or it could mean pointing a finger to the earth and saying that everyone who thinks about the nature of reality in poetic or spiritual rather than solely scientific ways is wrong and deluded and a danger to society. “Idolatry of mind or spirit” describes a kind of certainty, a type of judgment about the deficiencies of others’ world views. “Idolatry of mind or spirit” is based on ignoring the situatedness and limitations of one’s own outlook and using those situated limitations as the measure of all things. “Idolatry of mind or spirit” is hubris. Thinking of oneself more highly than one ought, realistically, to think.[7] And, according to our fifth source, it is something we Unitarian Universalists are called upon to avoid. It is not something we need to point out as the failing of others.

From living out the values inherent in Humanism, we learn both dignity and humility. And the enoughness of the moment in nature where we are right now.

Kendyl Gibbons’ words to the fifth movement of the Sources cantata on which she collaborated with Jason Shelton include these phrases[8]:

Create my salvation in earth’s endless wonder;
Everything nature provides;
Let me be honest, and wise in compassion;
Make reason and conscience my guides.

The time is now, the place is here;
The good we know, the earth we share;
This day we have, this love we give;
No other truth; no other joy;
No other life; no other world. [9]

We seek as humans. We understand as humans. We revise our thinking as humans. We worship as humans. We accept the tentativeness of everything human and everything natural. It is here where we make our meaning. And at our best, we appreciate the ephemeral without needing to worship it as eternal.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/uua_bylaws_2018.pdf

[2] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Protagoras

[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20111107221355/http://www.americanhumanist.org/who_we_are/about_humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_I

[4] https://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-emerging-religious-humanism

[5] https://www.uuworld.org/articles/the-emerging-religious-humanism

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto

[7] cf. Romans 12:3

[8] https://jasonsheltonmusic.com/sources-cantata

[9] https://jasonsheltonmusic.com/s/sources-program-080407-revised.doc

© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley