I am very tired of the humanist/theist debate. It seems to me that there are so many bigger, more important things for us to wrestle with, especially since – at least in Unitarian Universalist circles – even our most divergent theologies support the principles where we all meet.
And I get that it’s harder to be a religious humanist in America than it is to be a liberal theist. I know that the process of exploration and discovery of a personal non-theistic theology means (as wrestling with our theologies always does) thinking about language, finding entry points, seeking new ways of capturing spiritual connection.
And… I’d like to think that most of our religious professionals take care to ensure there is something for everyone in a service, or over the span of a church year, certainly. Sure, a service about the ten commandments will be heavy on the god language, but a service on awe and wonder in scientific discovery will likely ignore god language entirely. And many social justice sermons are very humanist, because that’s what social justice is: concern and care for humans.
It seems to me we waste a lot of time arguing about whether there is a god or not, when that’s a personal theology anyway, and what matters is how we treat each other and how we answer the call of love.
This soapbox, by the way, is brought to you by the crown jewel of the debate – a poem by William Herbert Carruth, set to an old New England melody:
A firemist and a planet, a crystal and a cell,
a starfish and a saurian, and caves where ancients dwelt;
the sense of law and beauty, a face turned from the sod —
some call it evolution, and others call it God.
Haze on the far horizon, the infinite tender sky,
the ripe, rich tints of cornfields, and wild geese sailing high;
and over high and lowland, the charm of goldenrod —
some people call it autumn, and others call it God.
Like tides on crescent seabeach, when moon’s so new and thin,
into our hearts high yearnings come welling, surging in,
come from the mystic ocean whose rim no foot has trod —
some people call it longing, and others call it God.
A sentry lone and frozen, a mother starved for her brood,
and Socrates’ dread hemlock, and Jesus on the rood;
and millions, who, though nameless, the straight, hard pathway trod —
some call it consecration, and others call it God.
Carruth’s point – which often gets lost – is that we all have different ways of understanding the interdependent web of all existence, and our reactions to it. And none is better or worse – just different perspectives.
Now the truth is, I’m not fond of this hymn. I find it scans awkwardly and has some outmoded language. But it makes the point that Down the Ages We Have Trod also makes – that there are many paths, many theologies, many ways to understand Mystery, so get over it.
My calling myself a theist means that I use theistic language to describe what others would use non-theistic language to describe – in terms of mystery, wonder, connection, and sense of the expansive infinite All. But in all the ways that I understand this world and our call in it, I am most assuredly a humanist – as is probably every UU. So I really don’t see the need for the debate.
I will leave you with this beloved poem, “That Which Holds All” by the late Nancy Shaffer:
Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning
several names for the Holy:
Spirit , she said, Holy One, Mystery, God.
But then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
that which cannot fully be addressed, she added
Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God, and also Spirit of this Earth,
God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou.
And then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming
superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope –
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her
probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:
One who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew
technically a number of those present didn’t believe
the stars had been made by anyone or thing
but just luckily happened.
One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,
she said, and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
she said, and the room was silent.
Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names.
Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Someone said, Kuan Yin.
And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things
she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed, until someone said
Image courtesy of NASA.