“A Humanist Talks God-Talk” by Jolie Olivetti – February 28, 2016
Opening Words from Saadi
The world is not a courtroom,
there is no judge, no jury, no plaintiff.
This is a caravan,
filled with eccentric beings
telling wondrous stories about God.
Reading by Bill Schulz from Making the Manifesto
In all my conversations with the signers of the Manifesto, none of them, except the Rev. Lester Mondale, ever talked about religion in terms of experience; they talked exclusively in terms of beliefs. But religion is also about longing and lament, laughter and light. As George Santayana put it, ‘Religion is the love of life in the consciousness of its impotence.’ Moreover, it requires a resource suitable to the plight of Winnie the Pooh who, when stuck in the doorway of Rabbit’s house, made a simple request: “Would you be so kind as to read a Sustaining Book such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in a Great Tightness?” In large measure, humanism lacked such a “book.” It could explain Pooh’s plight—maybe even tell him how to extract himself from it. But humanism fell mute on those occasions when Pooh was good and truly stuck, in the face of evil and heartache and death, when the only response worthy of the occasion was to curse the human plight and be determined to dance nonetheless. While humanism gave a nod to art, it lacked an aesthetic sense; its language was crisp, but its rhythm was flat. It had little, if anything, to offer to those who brooked consternation before chaos or treasured awe before vastness.
Most religious explorers today would want to go further, use richer language, and wrestle with deeper questions. And therein lies another reason the humanist-theist controversy is behind us: The religious world—and not just the Unitarian Universalist religious world—has largely said to such explorers, “Go to it.”
That sanction includes a willingness to employ a wider lexicon of traditional religious language than that with which the early religious humanists would have been comfortable. Thomas Carlyle said, “Life is one long quarrel with God but we make up in the end.” My life has followed that trajectory as well, although in a far different vein than Carlyle intended. It is not particularly important to me anymore whether I or anyone else uses “God talk.” What is of supreme importance is that I live my life in a posture of gratitude—that I recognize my existence and, indeed, Being itself, as an unaccountable blessing, a gift of grace. Sometimes, it is helpful to call the source or fact of that grace God and sometimes not. But what is always helpful and absolutely necessary is to look kindly on the world, to be bold in pursuit of its repair, and to be comfortable in the embrace of its splendor. I know no better term for what I seek than an encounter with the Holy.
“A Humanist Talks God-Talk” by Jolie Olivetti
When I was a kid, I was afraid to say the word God.
At Brownie meetings, I would silently mouth that part of the Girl Scout Promise:
“On my honor I will try
To serve *** and my country
To help people at all times
And to live by the Girl Scout Law”
I did the same thing with the Pledge of Allegiance.
I’d be the one going
“One nation, under *** … .”
But more than being wary of making public declarations about God,
I was also uncomfortable with other people’s expressions of faith in God. I had – and still have – some ardently Christian cousins. When we stayed with them, part of the bedtime routine was saying prayers. I remember – I think I must have been like 8 or 9 – lying in bed next to my cousin, glad the light was off to hide my embarrassment as she said her prayers. Looking back on it, this seems strange! What could be sweeter than my beloved cousin, expressing her deepest hopes and wishes into the sacred night? But I didn’t see it that way at the time.
As a young agnostic, I think I was worried that believing in God was somehow contagious. I needed to figure it out for myself and was anxious that I’d just accidentally start believing in God if I got too close to God-stuff.
There was little room for other people’s certainty in my own uncertainty.
Given this childhood God-allergy, perhaps it’s remarkable that I’ve managed to almost complete a Master of Divinity degree at the BU School of Theology. If all goes according to plan, I’ll graduate in May from this institution, which is decidedly Christian.
Far from “catching” theism as if it were a cold, worshipping and learning alongside my Christian colleagues at BU has allowed me to deepen my beliefs. It is now clear to me that I am a nontheistic humanist – all my spiritual strivings remain entirely in the human and earthly realms, and of course I lift a wondering eye toward the cosmos with help from Neal DeGrasse Tyson.
But what my nontheistic humanism consists of is not the focus of today’s sermon.
Instead I’d like to share how I have grown from expressions of faith that are different from my own, and to think about how that relates to Unitarian Universalism more broadly.
Here’s an example of interfaith encounter that I cherished, from the internship I completed for school last year.
I worked at the Peace Institute, a center for healing, teaching, and learning for families and communities dealing with murder, trauma, grief, and loss. This is the organization that hosts the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace every year, which I know First Parish has had a strong showing at. The Peace Institute is a place where people are constantly talking about God. Tina, the founder and CEO, is often talking to God, while walking to the copier for example, she can be heard asking God why she has to send a certain email and then assuring God that she’ll do it even though she doesn’t want to.
We ate together every day as a staff: lunch and sometimes breakfast, too. Working at the Peace Institute was the first time in my life when I regularly said grace before eating. All those meals we shared were blessed, generally in Jesus’ name. My heart swelled each time we bowed our heads over our food, and I said “Amen” heartily. I gave thanks for my food, and asked a blessing for the hands that prepared it. Though we may have been praying to different things, we were praying together, and I was always moved by it. This practice opened me up to deeper gratitude for seemingly everyday things, like lunch.
It’s like what Bill Schulz says, in the reading I offered earlier:
“What is of supreme importance is that I live my life in a posture of gratitude—that I recognize my existence and, indeed, Being itself, as an unaccountable blessing, a gift of grace.” Witnessing other people’s faith has helped me catch glimpses of such gratitude.
Beyond my personal faith journey, what happens when people worship and pray across theological difference has profound implications for Unitarian Universalism. I’m taking a UU class with Mark this semester.
One of my classmates recently suggested that Unitarian Universalism offers us all pluralism, a bouquet of different ways to understand life’s big questions. On the one hand, is not a surprising revelation. A bunch of different ideas is just what happens when a bunch of different people seek truth and meaning without any central doctrine.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not just a firm grasp of the obvious to say that Unitarian Universalism is a pluralist religion.
What does it mean for us to not just have a plurality of beliefs present here but deeper than that, for each of us to bepluralists, people who hunger to learn from one another’s beliefs? How many different ideas do you imagine are in this room about the purpose of a human life, or about the nature of life’s greatest mysteries? How many different ideas about God or not-God?
What practices do we have to harness the power of this pluralism?
How do we grow in the glow of one another’s deepest convictions?
We struggle with this sometimes. In a way that reminds me of my childhood God allergy, us humanists aren’t always so keen to be in the same room as a whole lotta God Talk. Bill Schulz says “the humanist-theist controversy is largely behind us,” but it’s not entirely behind us.
Two years ago, I was a member of the “Faithify Street Team” at General Assembly in Providence. General Assembly, for anyone who may not know, is the massive annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists. “Faithify” is a new online fundraising platform for UU social justice projects and ministries – kind of like the Kickstarter of Unitarian Universalism. Being on the “Street Team” meant it was my job to get the word out about this new way to raise money for UU projects. I wore a bright blue T-shirt and passed out schwag like buttons and matchboxes, cheerfully asking if people had heard of Faithify, and wouldn’t they like to hear about Faithify?
Mostly people were glad to know there was a new way to get UU efforts off the ground. However, one person stands out because she was decidedly not happy to hear about Faithify, specifically because of the name “faithify.”
She stated flatly that she is a humanist, who believes in science and fact, and that she is not interested in matters of faith.
I was taken aback, being a humanist myself. It had never occurred to me that there is a conflict between faith and humanism. I have faith in humanity. Given the way we treat ourselves, the planet, and each other, my faith is tested every day. And I love science, and facts!
But this person wasn’t just frustrated with the word “faith.” She was also expressing her anxiety that Unitarian Universalism has been making space for faith in God, which has left her feeling edged out as a person who doesn’t believe in God. And unfortunately she was disgusted enough that we couldn’t really talk about it more than that.
This is not new in our religious tradition – an ambivalence about whether we can make room for both humanism and theism. John Dietrich, considered to be the founder of the 20th century UU religious humanist movement, wrote towards the end of his life:
“I realize now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake; and the way in which I cut humankind off from all cosmic relationship was very short-sighted and arrogant.”
The pendulum has swung back and forth between theism and humanism over the course of the last century, as we jockey with one another for position or stare at one another across the divide. I’m not interested in pushing us further in one direction or another but I am very interested in what we do to create a spiritual home for all of us, whether we believe in God or not.
Of course, for some of us, there are big problems with God-talk.
God has been invoked in the name of great harm
Some people’s experiences of God-worship have been dehumanizing, exclusionary, and violent.
So when we do point to God in our worship, we have to do so in ways that don’t reopen these painful wounds. And we have to do so in a way that is still meaningful to someone like me, a nontheistic humanist who is nevertheless here for some shared religious experience. Because of course it’s not just about saying the perfect all-encompassing combination of words but also – perhaps more so – it’s about what we do together that helps us feel like we all belong here.
In that same passage, Bill Schulz writes that the founding humanists never “talked about religion in terms of experience; they talked exclusively in terms of beliefs.” This is a shortcoming, because to him, religion ought to be a resource for help and comfort, something that Pooh could turn to when in a tight spot. Schulz says, “religion is about longing and lament, laughter and light,”
Perhaps the way Unitarian Universalism ignites longing, lament, laughter, and light for all of us – perhaps the way it can help and comfort all of us even given our plurality of religious beliefs – is through shared religious experiences.
At the same General Assembly in Providence, I attended an evening service that was unlike any UU worship I had ever been to. Worship leaders offered prayers of raw emotional power and a personal testimony. We held hands and embraced the people around us, and we sang a LOT. There was no sermon! – no cerebral musings on the meaning of life. I was sort of distracted by my overactive mind, feeling vulnerable and self-conscious while I was dancing and singing along. It was awkward for me, but despite my reservations I was also swept away at a few moments, like holding my neighbor’s hand while praying for our collective welfare and also while singing “How Sweet it is to be loved by you” Who was the You here? For some, it was God, and for others, it was each other. Did it matter that we had different You’s?
I came away with a gut feeling of what Unitarian Universalism could be about, in theistic and nontheistic terms. What did it mean to be about Love that night, publicly and unselfconsciously? It meant letting my guard down a little bit, and trusting that no one was judging me. It meant doing things during the worship service that helped me be truly present and open to my neighbors.
I have since heard that many people felt hurt and alienated after that same service, for various reasons. Our attempts will always be imperfect. I wonder if an experiential worship service could ever reach a crowd of thousands without leaving anyone out. Something like that needs a smaller scale, to speak to the specific needs of the community.
We have some beautiful practices here in Watertown that help us feel the love – our neighbors’ love and God’s love alike. We sing together, we share our joys and concerns, we take care of one another when we need help, we do good works in the community. In small group ministries, people hear directly from one another about our beliefs and doubts. What other things do we do to have shared religious experience? What more could we do?
Bill Schulz’s piece also says:
“Sometimes, it is helpful to call the source or fact of that grace God and sometimes not. But what is always helpful and absolutely necessary is to look kindly on the world, to be bold in pursuit of its repair, and to be comfortable in the embrace of its splendor. I know no better term for what I seek than an encounter with the Holy.”
Perhaps in the same way that I have deepened my humanism by learning and praying with Christians, Unitarian Universalists can truly embrace the plurality of beliefs found in our church buildings.
Let’s delight in our UU religious diversity, seeking shared religious experiences and learning from one another.
Let us encounter the holy together.
Closing Words from Mary Oliver’s “What Is There Beyond Knowing”
What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.