Archives for August 2017

September Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

As summer begins to wind down, I begin my 15th year as the Unitarian Universalist Society: East’s minister. If I have my facts correct, I am now the congregation’s longest-serving minister in its 48-year history!

This congregational year will be different than usual in that I will be taking a long overdue sabbatical from October 2nd to February 3rd. During my sabbatical, I will be working on a novel that I started on my first sabbatical in 2007. My goal is to complete this novel, though writing fiction is so different from writing sermons, that I have no idea whether achieving this goal will actually be possible. I am very much looking forward to this project, and I cannot express enough my gratitude to the Policy Board and to the congregation for granting me this time.

Ministerial sabbaticals can be anxiety-producing for members and friends who rely on the minister’s presence, especially on Sunday mornings. Please know that the Sunday Services Committee is working with me to plan compelling, life-affirming worship services during my time away. Local UU ministers will be filling the pulpit on many Sundays. The Sunday Services Committee is a talented group of people, many of whom were on the committee during my last sabbatical. They know what to do! They will provide excellent services in my absence.

For pastoral crises that require ministerial presence, we will have a list of local UU (and possibly other) clergy who are available. In the event of a pending death or an actual death, I will certainly come away from my sabbatical to provide care and to conduct a memorial service. All the other regular caring activities performed by our Pastoral Friends Committee will continue without interruption during my sabbaticals.

If you have any questions or concerns about what happens at UUS:E when the minister is on sabbatical, please do not hesitate to contact me. I like to think we are taking care of every important detail, but you may have a question or concern we have not yet thought of. And whether or not we’ve thought of everything, UUS:E has strong leaders and a strong staff who function wonderfully whether I am present or not!

Despite my absence this fall, UUS:E is brimming over with activity and there are many exciting ventures, including our Youth Group “Experilearn” project, our congregational growth initiatives, work on our new congregational vision statement, and our discernment around what it means to be a “Sanctuary Congregation.” All of this is over and above our long-standing programs such as children’s religious education, adult religious education, music, sustainable living, membership, social justice, the holiday fair and much, much more.

When I return in February, I am looking forward to teaching courses on UU Humanism and UU Paganism, updating UUS:E’s Safe Congregation policy in light of new “best practices,” finalizing UUS:E’s vision statement, and hopefully adding a part-time Membership Coordinator to our staff.

As always, there is much more that lies ahead. For now, our annual season of Homecoming is here. Though our spiritual community never officially stops, we do say “welcome home” in September. So, WELCOME HOME friends! I hope you have a wonderful year at UUS:E.

With love,

–Rev. Josh

What Do We Really Know?

First Reading.  This from former Senator, scholar, and public intellectual, Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.  The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” (March 2003)

Second Reading.

From financier, philanthropist, and statesman Bernard Baruch, writing in June 1950:

“Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”

And this from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, at a February 2002, press conference on the lack of evidence linking Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

I know I swore at the television when I heard Donald Trump enthuse about his love for the “poorly educated” after his primary win in Nevada last year. Among the countless cringe-worthy comments made by candidate Trump, this one really got to me.  It was one more sign of the shrinking respect for learning in our society. We are witnessing in our public life, the continued, and too often deliberate, corrosion of our commitment to rational inquiry, deep learning, and the institutions that sustain them.

My fear is this: If we Surrender to Stupid, we, as a liberal democracy and religious community, will forfeit any claim we have to the values that define us. We cannot be complicit in allowing trust in the promise and ideal of learning to crumble.

At the core of this threat is a personal and collective hubris, an extreme and unjustified claim to superior knowledge, an overblown sense of self-assurance, an excess of arrogance, and an inflated sense of competence. If we talked about sin here – which we don’t— I’ve talked to Josh about it –intellectual hubris, or more properly, the hubris of ignorance, would rank right up there.  As an open invitation to bad choices, it’s not a good basis for trying to build the free, fair, just, and compassionate society to which we aspire.

I remember when my father would greet his friends, typically by a “Hey,what do you know?”, or, more accurately, “Whaddya know?”  The response was almost always, “not much”, sometimes,  “nothing”, “how about you?”

Researchers have continued to increase understanding of how we think and how we come to know things. It’s no big surprise that my Dad’s generation was not far off. In computer terms, one researcher calculated that, give or take, we each store about 1 gigabyte of information. I don’t know whether that’s a lot or a little, but I can tell you we just bought an SD card smaller than a fingernail that holds 64 gigabytes of memory.  The real issue, however, is not how much information we store, but how we use it to think, to anticipate how to act based on information and experience, make some inferences about cause and effect, and with that, hopefully, make good choices.

It’s a behavior that expects and accepts complexity and rejects simplism.  This really is a word. I looked it up. It does not have the virtuous connotation of “it’s a gift to be simple,” or the concession that a complex issue is being introduced in a simplistic manner.  Rather, it suggests a much more pervasive set of perceptions and behaviors, much like those captured in terms like sexism, ageism, or racism. The first time I heard Donald Rumsfeld’s tongue twister about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown knowns, I thought it was just more babble from the Bush people. That reflexive reaction, grounded deeply in my distaste for President Bush, his men, and his policies, was a great example of doing what I’m criticizing here, namely, responding emotionally and mindlessly to words that made no sense to me at the time. In hindsight, it turns out to be a pretty good framework for untangling complex issues. It’s the difference between the problem-solver and the know-it-all. I probably don’t need to tell you that these are folks whose natural habitat seems to be everywhere. They speak with convincing certainty and will beat you up verbally until you agree that they’re right. These folks, I’m sure, inspired the term, “knows just enough to be dangerous.” You don’t want to talk politics or religion with them.

Cognitive researchers have confirmed what people have suspected for thousands of years, namely, that we think we know more than we do, and that individually, our smarts don’t take us very far.  It is true that we sit at the top of the food chain, and we’re smarter than all the other plants and animals. At least as far as we know.  But can you describe how a toilet works, how an ATM gives you money, how a zipper works, how the best ice cream is made? Or why the snorer can’t hear the snore? Could you fix any of them? Could you write a 10 page essay on the life of Martin Luther King based on what you know right now?

Here’s the reality. First, except for the very few things that we’re especially skilled at, we know just enough to get by. With few exceptions, our knowledge of the world around us and how things work, is shallow and superficial.  The typical analogies are “just the tip of the ice-berg”, or “a mile wide and an inch deep”.  Perhaps a better image is of a tree, which we see above ground, but know that there is a deep and complex root system that has nourished, shaped, and secured the small part we can actually see above ground. We are limited by time, energy, and memory in our ability to fully understand the complex ecological, mechanical, and technological systems that engulf us. So, we learn enough to function reasonably well in our daily lives, despite our personal limitations.

Second, what enables big things to happen in society is not any one individual, but many people with distinct, specialized skills working in some kind of collaborative fashion. Because we just can’t know everything we need to know to survive and thrive, we must trust in community to divvy up and share the mental and physical labor that keeps us going. The concept is as simple as it sounds. Different people in the community have different gifts and graces from which all may gain or lose.

Let me give a quick example.  The day after I met Judi, who is now my wife, I took her to lunch at my favorite restaurant. Once we had worked around the splinters in the picnic table bench, I asked her what she liked to do (I was a pretty smooth talker back then).  She said she liked to cook. I said I liked to eat. That sealed it.  Details continue to be refined, of course, but it began as an excellent and satisfying division of labor. Now just imagine the range of specialized knowledge and social interactions required to a build our cars, planes, cellphones, and computer networks.

Here’s where the Hubris of Ignorance gets to be dangerous. If citizens have an exaggerated and unjustified view of their intelligence, they’re not likely to do the hard work of learning about complex systems. They’re way more likely to embrace simplism than acknowledge complexity.

And we live in a society that strives to simplify complexity.  This is certainly true for our technologies.  We used to have to go to the bank, the hardware store, or the pharmacy. My grandmother told us stories of using the crank phone to call the operator. I grew up in a house where you put your finger in a dial and spun it until you had all your numbers. Now we just press, swipe and tap.  To buy, we open a keyboard, link to Amazon, search, enter, tap, and open the box one or two days later.

These efforts to simplify our lives gives us what we need to help make our way in an society disrupted by rapid social change. Just think about the term, ‘user friendly.”  The danger here is when we begin to feel that our mastery of a few basic keystrokes, or mere mention of a president’s name is the same as understanding how a smartphone, computer, or presidential administration actually works.

There’s no evidence that Americans are any less smart than they were 50 or even 100 years ago. The problem is that at least some people think they’re bright when they’re not. It’s even got a name, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, after the psychologists who described it in 1999. What they found is that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you are not actually dumb.  Although they refer to these folks in correct terms as “unskilled” or “incompetent”, their key finding is the same: “Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” (Death of Expertise, p. 41) We should be careful, however,  not to imagine an ‘us’ and ‘them’, when these traits are likely spread throughout the population.

That said, their vote counts the same as yours.

Now to be fair, we all overestimate what we know. Once we see that we don’t do so well on a task, however, we scale back our self-assessment. The difference is that the “unskilled” or “incompetents” do not have the ability or self-awareness to know when they’re not very good at something, by stepping back, looking at what they’re done, and recognize that they’ve done it wrong.

Moreover, there is simply no way to educate or inform these folks, who, when in doubt, will make things up. For example, in one cluster of surveys, the researchers asked if their subjects knew about certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography.  Most said they were familiar with genuine terms like centripetal force and photon. But they also claimed they were familiar with plates of parallax, ultra-lipid, and cholarine. These are all made up terms. In another study, nearly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the 9 fake concepts in their survey. (Death of Expertise, pp 45-46)

Let me share one more example.  In 2015, a survey asked Democrats and Republicans if they would support bombing Agrabah.  If you’ve watched survey reports, you know how dramatically these two tribes differ in their responses to policy and opinion questions. Nearly one third of the Republicans expressed support for such action; 13 percent opposed it.  Only 19 percent of Democrats supported bombing, while 36 percent opposed.

Does anyone know about Agrabah?  It’s the setting for the Disney feature, Aladdin. And before you dismiss this as a gotcha’ moment, grasp the reality here: 43 percent of the Republicans and 55 percent of the Democrats took a clear position on bombing a fictional place in a cartoon.

Now, let’s give a little boost to the Hubris of Ignorance, by stirring in our natural inclination to seek opinion and information that reinforces our prejudices and preferences, and emboldens us to disparage and dismiss contradictory information. This is the now famous Confirmation Bias. We all do it.  If we don’t like what we read or hear we dismiss it and look somewhere else. That’s what Google’s for. For me, Fox is hard to watch, but for many others, it’s the information and attitude source of choice.

Consider how you feel about fossil fuels, immigration, vaccination, tax reform, gun control, opioids, white supremacists, or anything to do with the production or consumption of food.  Now think about why you feel that way and where you get your information. Finally, ask whether you could conduct a balanced three- hour workshop on one of these without doing any further research.  These are rhetorical questions, so we don’t need to have a show of hands.

This human tendency to exaggerate what we know, to be unaware of the limits of our own knowledge, and to select for reinforcement of our deeply held values, may be annoying or distracting at a personal level. Put this together with a cultural tradition of anti-intellectualism, extreme egalitarianism (“I’m as good as you and the next guy”.”); aggressive substitution of personal opinion for factual reality (“I’ve been in the real world, and I know just as much as the nerds with the white coats.”); a sense of grievance, victimhood, and unfair treatment (“They don’t work, and the government still sends them a check.”); a preference for force to resolve conflict (“I like that he doesn’t back down to anyone, he just pushes right back.”); a strong inclination toward simple rather than complex realities; and a lack of respect for expertise, and you’ve got a volatile, unstable mix. You don’t have to look any further than Charlottesville last week.

Let me give you an example of how hard people work to find information they like, and reject that which they don’t. White supremacists have been quick to adopt the easy to use genetic testing services to prove their racial identity, then discuss the results on on-line forums. Craig Cobb, described as a “gun-toting white supremacist” went on daytime TV for a reality moment that went bad when the host read results that showed he was only 86 percent European, and 14 percent Sub-Saharan African. Cobb, like many other white supremacists, found that their ancestry was not as ‘white” as they had hoped.  Their response was to urge one another to rethink the validity of the genetic test, and then, get retested by another service.

I suspect that the exaggerated sense of personal knowledge, hubris, confirmation bias, and a preference for simplism over complexity, has also inspired a new vocabulary, likely unknown to the Founding Fathers, terms like alternative facts, post-truth, post-factual, or false amplifiers. In 2004, President George Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove invoked the phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community”, he told a reporter, “believe that [the] solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality…. That’s  not the way the world really works anymore.”

And this from Stephen Colbert, in his persona of the right wing populist pundit, introducing the Word for the night, Truthiness: “Now I’m sure some of the ’word police’, the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.  They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true.  Or what did or didn’t happen.  Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books – they’re all fact, no heart…Face it, folks, we are a divided nation…divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart…Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

Colbert does what the best political satire does: focus with laser precision on a wonky corner of our politics.  This celebration of instinct (the “gut”) and rejection of reason (expertise and learning) explains much about the fractures in our society. Rove clearly recognizes the traditional expectation that policies will have some basis in “discernible reality”, but then cynically recognizes the new reality of unreality. Politicians, predominantly those on the right, have been vocal in their attacks of science, especially the environmental (they don’t like climate research) and social sciences.

You see it clearly in their budgets. One of the best examples is the congressional ban (engineered in collaboration with the National Rifle Association) on the Centers for Disease Control from spending money to research the effects of gun violence.

This mix of shallow knowledge, willful ignorance, sustained and fueled by the hubris of shamefully wealthy patrons, is a toxic recipe for undermining a representative democracy.

Why does this matter to us?  Because we are called,  in the spirit of prophetic witness, to raise our voices whenever, wherever, and in whatever ways, freedom and human dignity are under attack. To promote– with malice of forethought– the corruption of reason and knowledge in a democracy is such an assault. It is a moral affront to both our civic and religious society. If we are blind to these assaults on reason, we give up a core piece of who we are. Lest we underestimate how much we cherish these values — dignity, freedom, justice, equity, compassion, democracy, peace, and harmony with the earth–just remember how you felt after the 2016 election when it seemed that these had been stomped and crushed.

We will not reverse this slide on our own. We’re limited in time, numbers, and resources. We also have our own blinders.  There are some things we just don’t talk about. (Because we don’t talk about them I won’t say what they are.) But our most important asset for pushing back against Willful Ignorance is to support and nurture this place not just as a spiritual home, but as a place of learning.  Here, through sermons, lectures, workshops, art, literature and film, and the unique knowledge of friends and members, we can learn things that matter, and re-learn the enduring truths of love, compassion, justice, and care for the stranger. We can support one another as we write, call out deceitful politicians, and, dare I say, speak with the confidence of an educated elite — in the appropriately humble manner, of course.

Finally, we need to nurture, sustain, and protect a still, quiet place, a sanctuary that provides respite from the unsettling changes, social turbulence, and coarseness that swirls around us.  Even as we engage these challenges to freedom and equity, we still need our bridge over troubled water.  We need a place that welcomes and accepts simple mysteries on their own terms. They are just what they are. I don’t need to know about the atmospheric physics or chemistry that turns the sky pink and blue-gray at dusk to get great pleasure from it.  And I know from hearing your stories that you find great joy in such simple mysteries as well.

There is no way I could express this idea any better than Mary Oliver does in her poem,

“Nothing is Too Small To Be Wondered About”*

The cricket doesn’t wonder

            If there’s a heaven

Or, if there is, if there’s room for him.

 

It’s fall.  Romance is over. Still, he sings.

If he can, he enters a house

            through the tiniest crack under the door.

Then the house grows colder.

 

He sings slower and slower.

            Then, nothing.

 

This must mean something, I don’t know what.

            But certainly it doesn’t mean

he hasn’t been an excellent cricket

            all his life.*

So, what should we really know?

 * From Mary Oliver, Felicity – Poems, (Penguin Press, New York), 2016

 

by Lauriston King, Unitarian-Universalist Society: East, August 27, 2017 (Revised August 28, 2017)

 

Sources and Additional Reading:

Curt Anderson, “How America Lost Its Mind”, The Atlantic, September 2017.

Al Gore, The Assault on Reason, (Penguin Press, 2007)

Jerome Groopnik, How Doctor’s Think, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007)

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise – The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion – Why We Never Think Alone, (Riverhead Books, New York, 2017)

Reclaiming Humanism

Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika addressing the 2017 UUA General Assembly

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Unitarian Universalism knew Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika[1] as Hayward Henry, chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), a Black Power organization within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Under his leadership BUUC advocated—initially successfully—for the UUA to dedicate one million dollars to a Black Affairs Council (BAC) to organize and fund projects for Black self-determination around the United States.[2] This funding was highly controversial. Almost as soon as the 1968 Cleveland General Assembly voted on a plan to disburse the money, the UUA’s board of trustees began backtracking on the commitment.[3] The controversy continued over the next few years, only a portion of the money was disbursed, and as many as 1500 Black Unitarian Universalists left the denomination, profoundly disappointed in the UUA’s inability to fulfill its promises. I had always understood this leave-taking was due primarily to the funding controversy. However, when Dr. Sanyika spoke at the 2017 New Orleans General Assembly, he offered a different interpretation. 

(The section I’m quoting begins at 15:00) “When we were within this denomination,” he said, “ we initiated a dialogue on something called Black Humanism…. When we left in 1969, that was not a walk out. It was an exodus. It was an exodus because we no longer felt we had a home. We no longer felt the love and care. We no longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed…. We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation. We said we can be theist and non-theist—I know some of you want to argue that point…. I don’t mind talking about it, because we were no longer talking about kindergarten theology with no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky…. We were criticizing the church, across the board. Not just UUism…. there can be no Humanism without discussing Black Humanism. It can’t be. Why? Because we are a part of the human family who has contributed to the discourse on what it means to be human. So we invite that conversation with everybody who claims to have some form of Humanism in their background. But you must remember you have a history of Christian Humanism in your background too. So, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and say there is nothing but humanity, because once you do that you reinforce White Supremacy without even knowing you’re doing it. So, the conversation about Black Humanism is really a conversation about salvation. But it’s about the salvation of all humanity…. Just like Black Lives Matter, Black Humanism matters. But so does all humanity, so does all other Humanism that seeks justice and transformation and peace.”[4]

Dr. Sanyika says the exodus happened not simply because the denomination was unwilling to fully fund BAC. Black people also left for explicitly theological reasons. The UUA, whose dominant theological identity was Humanist, would not make space for Black Humanism. At least some Black UU Humanists were theistic,[5] meaning they maintained belief in God—though clearly not God in any traditional sense—“no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky.” But the dominant form of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism was atheistic. Its theological assumption was, essentially, “there is nothing but humanity.” Black Humanism—at least the strand Dr. Sanyika represents—needed more. “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” Finding no room for such reconciliation in the UUA, they left.

I’d never heard this argument before. It shook me up—in a good way. It inspired me to take stock of my own UU Humanist identity and reclaim it. I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist, yet it has taken me a long time to speak those words with conviction. I have been ambivalent about my Humanism. But we live in uncertain times. We live with a variety of threats to our liberal faith, to democracy, to our health, to our social cohesion, to our planet. This is no time for spiritual ambivalence. I want to tell you about my journey into ambivalence and why Dr. Sanyika’s words have drawn me out of it.

As a child in the Unitarian Society of New Haven, most adults identified theologically as Humanists. I understood that to mean a few things. First and foremost, it meant placing human beings at the center of the religious life, specifically free and autonomous human beings. Humanism prioritized free thought, free inquiry, the free and the responsible search for truth and meaning. It embraced the results of science. It allowed and encouraged people to change their beliefs in response to new evidence. Humanism said the individual arrives at authentic, personal belief through the exercise of reason.

In our church most Humanists were atheists. Our Humanism removed God from the center of religion. The gods remained available to us as objects of study; but God was no longer the object of worship on Sunday morning, no longer integral to the spiritual life of the community. At its best this atheistic UU Humanism stood for human liberation. At its best it replaced the capricious whims of inscrutable deities and oppressive religious and secular hierarchies with individual human agency and creativity. At the heart of the world’s scriptures, it found poetry and wisdom rather than rigid doctrines and forever-sealed truths. It called for social and economic justice in this life on this earth, not in some future new life on some future new earth. It invited every human being to do their own thinking and feeling on spiritual matters rather than accept without question the pronouncements of religious authorities. At its best. I am forever grateful to this atheistic UU Humanism for imparting to me a strong religious identity, for nurturing me, loving me, instilling confidence in me, and sending me forth into the world with a hopeful, committed heart.

So where did my ambivalence come from? We weren’t always at our best. Our atheistic Humanist UU congregation developed a spiritual allergy to any God-talk that approached belief. It got nervous, even angry, around any God-talk that sought to bring God back to the center. We kept our spiritual distance from theism, and although I didn’t recognize it as a child, I learned to not take theism seriously, a message which runs counter to our third UU principles, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” People who believed in God, especially in a traditional God, were not as enlightened as we Humanists—not as rational, thoughtful, or discriminating in their understanding of ultimate things. We believed believers had been duped, deceived, misled, manipulated. How could they not see it? Their religion was outdated, anachronistic, an opiate, a crutch, a source of ‘pie in the sky,’ but not true spiritual freedom, not liberation. Their God was that spookistic white guy. Wouldn’t they be more happy not having all the answers?

We could be smug. Not always, and not everyone, but it was there. Nor was it unique to that church. Those of you who’ve been long-time members of this congregation report dynamics similar to waht I’m describing. Atheistic Humanism was the dominant spiritual identity in the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the late 60s and early 70s when my family first became involved—the same era when theistic Black Humanism was asking for a seat at the UU theological table. My understanding is that this ‘not-our-best’ dynamic was denomination-wide, and it likely had something to do with why Dr. Sanyika said “We non longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed.”

Nevertheless, as a child, and even as a college student, I didn’t recognize the distance between myself and traditional theists—or any theists for that matter. It wasn’t until I entered seminary in the 1990s that I began to question my atheistic Humanism. Seminary was the first time I had to defend my religious identity in a diverse, interfaith community where people with more traditional views of God were visible, vocal, progressive and intelligent. This was the first time I encountered theists who were thinking deeply about God, reasoning, arguing, weighing evidence, not accepting without question, even contemplating atheism. And their faith was flourishing. I began to understand that theism isn’t one thing, that God isn’t only the spookistic white guy up in the sky. In fact, I never meant anyone who believed in that guy. I loved the religious identity of my childhood, but I realized that clinging to it too tightly in the seminary environment might actually prevent me from engaging in the free thought and interplay of ideas I valued so highly. Slowly, I began to suspect that, along with humanity, there might be a place for God at the center.

Through the course of my seminary training and into the early years of my ministry, I discovered truths about the human experience which hadn’t been offered to me as a child, and which ultimately made my atheistic UU Humanism feel inadequate. There were moments wherein my rational mind just didn’t cut it. There were moments of heartbreak and pain, vulnerability and fear—my own and that of others—and there were no adequate words to say, no evidence to weigh, no inquiry to conduct. In such moments all I could do was trust—without any evidence—that I or they would eventually arrive at the other side of heartbreak and pain.

There were moments of decision, moments when I could no longer stay in whatever pattern I was in; moments in which I needed to change; moments in which, no matter how much I prepared, I was not ready. I could not reason my way to an answer, could not anticipate what the full impact of my decision would be. All I could do is surrender, let go and fall into something new.

There were moments of intense joy, hope, love and there were no words! Just energy flowing, spirit animating; the recognition that I was experiencing a reality vastly larger than me.

There were moments wherein I was arrogant, prideful, smug and I needed some power beyond me to sit me down and counsel me on the virtue of humility, to demand that I stop talking and start listening.

There were moments of awe in the presence of beauty, and the only possible response from me was reverent silence.

And there were moments when I thought I was carrying myself, but suddenly realized never in my life had I ever carried myself alone. Communities carried me. Ancestors carried me. The earth carried me. Flowing energy and animating spirit carried me. I realized my life is carried, held, fed, nurtured, challenged by countless realities larger than me. Humanity, I realized, isn’t alone at the center of religion. I became comfortable using the word God to name the totality of these larger realities. I became a theist. I didn’t jettison humanity from the center—that would be folly. I simply put God back.

Our childhood spiritual lessons run deep. For me, Humanism was atheistic. I thought I had to lay it aside. That has been the source of my ambivalence. Of course, my ambivalence isn’t rational. I’ve always known you could be a Humanist and a theist. The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association states clearly there is room for theism within Humanism.[6] I just haven’t used the Humanist label, perhaps out of respect for my atheistic Humanist UU elders. But my ambivalence hasn’t been serving me well in these uncertain times. It’s as if a part of me is missing, though I didn’t fully realize that until I heard Dr. Sanyika say “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” At that moment I knew I wanted my Humanism back.   

Of course, I cannot claim a home in Black Humanism. That’s not my journey. I am also mindful that some Black Humanists are atheists. And I also am not suggesting that atheist UU Humanists—or any atheists—ought to become theists. I continue to support atheists in this congregation and elsewhere, and I will continue to speak out against the marginalization of atheists in American public life.

But I know this about me: While I need humanity at the center of my religion, I also need clarity about what realities larger than me are carrying me—what communities, what ground, what land, what ancestors, what beauty, what spirit, what visions of the future carry me? Coming to such clarity and letting it guide my life is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but when pain, heartbreak, vulnerability and fear are ascendant, I also need realities larger than myself into which I can place my trust. When life-changing decisions must be made without knowing fully the consequences of those decisions, I need realties larger than myself to catch me as I surrender, let go, fall. Learning to trust such larger realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need sources of joy, hope and love larger than myself. Learning to draw on such sources is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to quiet me, center me, ground me, surround me with silence, beseech me to listen, and keep me humble. Bowing down to such realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to inspire and embolden me to take action for justice and liberation not only for my human siblings, but for the earth and all its creatures. Taking such action is a form of divine reconciliation.

I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist. I say this with no ambivalence. Knowing that we live in uncertain times and with news of white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, each of us needs every piece of ourselves to remain clear about what’s happening, courageous in our actions, and spiritually whole, so that we respond at our best.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] To learn more about Dr. Sanyika, I recommend this powerful, short 2015 film by Darius Clark Monroe entitled Two Cities: A Portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika at https://vimeo.com/137993474.

[2] One of the more well-known recipients of an early BAC grant was Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa.

[3] For a historical timeline of the controversy, see: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop15/178882.shtml.

[4] Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, address to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, June 23rd, 2017. See: http://smallscreen.uua.org/videos/ga2017-303-dr-sanyika-presentation.

[5] For a relatively recent article on Black Humanism, see Pinn, Anthony B, “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” Journal of the HUUmanists Association, vo. 31, #3, 1997. http://huumanists.org/publications/journal/anybody-there-reflections-african-american-humanism.

[6] See the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association website at http://huumanists.org/faq-page#n4639.