UU Humanists At The Holidays

Oh, this seems like such a throwback.

We have this conversation every year, it seems. In fact, as a colleague wearily pointed out, the president of the UU Humanist Association wrote pretty much this same column two years ago. I didn’t look it up, though, because I’m lazy and tired and going out of town in the morning.  I’m taking a very quick two-night jaunt to New York City not only to see family but to fill my eyes and ears and nose and mind with the fabulousness of Manhattan at the magical Rockettes time of year.  There is nothing like window shopping along the Upper West Side to fill me with the joy of God’s wonder and the coming of the Christ child.

I kid, of course, but did you happen to know that I am perishing of liberal religious over-earnestness just about now? You, too? Lord almighty, we’re a creatively impoverished lot. I’ve been whingeing about this lately (and what could bring PeaceBang back to her main blog but a good UU rant?), but it seems that the mad, bloody crisis of the human and the planetary condition has made us even primmer and more comically unself-aware than we usually are. If I read one more kitchen sink prayer full of cliched pieties, I won’t be able to leave my bedchamber. My kingdom for an original voice or thought!

And so it was with a sense of exhaustion and deja-vu Dr. Gleb Tsipursky’s column on the Call And Response blog, informing us that Humanists find it very hard to tolerate the irrationalities of the religious seasonal observances, saving special digs for “nativity” references. He specifically mentions only Christmas and Hanukah.

Let me switch to sarcasm font and say, who WOULD support the re-telling of a myth that is centered around a persecuted ethnic minority in a military superpower empire? Why would that be relevant to today? Who would find it worthy to tell a story of a refugee family in peril, endangered in one place and finding no welcome in another?

So silly. So irrational. One could never follow that story and manage to simultaneously appreciate the “scientific” winter solstice!

(I admit that I loved that line. I imagined a group of earnest UUs leading a Sunday morning service on the astronomical event, complete with readings about solar longitudes.)

I have been a Unitarian Universalist for fifty years — a minister for almost twenty — and I have rarely known a congregation that did not heartily celebrate the symbolic and planetary significance of the solstice. It’s not a creative stretch. It’s not an either-or proposition, either.  What Dr. Tsipursky suggests as a new, creative alternative (Secular Solstice), is actually an fairly exact description of dozens of solstice services I have led or participated in for years in UU congregations. What is new here is the subtle threat that if UUs do not create this kind of programming, “Humanists will leave the congregation …also makes humanists less inclined to support congregational programs, projects, and priorities.”

This is institutional blackmail, however mildly expressed as a “concern.” Many Humanist Unitarian Universalists I know would be insulted to be implicated in this kind of veiled fear-mongering among a small religious group already anxious about its survival, let alone growth.  I feel that Unitarian Universalists who refuse to support the congregation’s mission or leave the congregation over holiday program are not in the right community to begin with.  Unitarian Universalists aim to transform souls harmed by the narcissistic consumers culture into covenanted community, with all its attendant demands and expectations to “move beyond our littleness,” as A. Powell Davies so beautifully put it.

As far as Christmas itself goes, I am bone weary of explaining to so-called secular humanists* that even Christian Unitarian Universalists are well aware of the amazing coincidence between the Jesus Christ sacred mythos and that of the sun god, Mithras, whose birthday he shares. I am tired of being embarrassed by the irrationality of “rationalist” rejection of the poetic, the mystical and the metaphorical.

(*Humanists who worship in congregations are not secular humanists. They are by virtue of their involvement with congregational life and religious community, religious humanists. For those who want to argue that Unitarian Universalism is not a religion, I suggest that you start paying taxes to your local and federal government. Feel free.)

Unitarian Universalism is changing, thank the good Lord. It is transforming from a collection of “I better get mine” individuals to a community of people who yearn for unity amid diversity and who actually want to grow spiritually. We are pulling down the circus tent and creating meaningful bonds across theological orientations.

Growing spiritually means that we learn about — and learn to actually appreciate — perspectives that are not our own.  Growing spiritually means taking responsibility for our emotions and not using them as a way to hijack or divert resources from programming in the name of inclusivity.

The high expectations of the winter holiday season crush everyone,  Gleb.  Every minister knows that ’tis the season for a lot of pastoral counseling, as the darkness, the cold (in many regions), the manic consumerism and social forced gaiety, the horrible traffic, the suddenly visible gnarled roots of family trees, the strained bank accounts, fragile new sobrieties and &%*$ tangled lights wear patience, nerves and relationships.

I do understand the pain of feeling estranged from religious holidays, which is why I launched a program at my own congregation called A Peaceful Place, which is an open sanctuary for quiet meditation and supportive conversation during three Sundays in December. But I am a full time minister who has a very supportive professional staff. I am willing to spend my Sunday afternoons in December offering this alternative to traditional holiday observances because my Communications Director was able to design and distribute a flier, we were able to purchase a little Facebook boost, we have a Sexton who will help set up anything that the sanctuary needs, a Music Director who has offered to do some music if we want to, and a full time Director of Faith Development who is on board through the season to carry a share of the burden of ministry.

Most congregations do not have these resources. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect them to develop multiple programs at what is already a demanding time of year. Why not rather create an online resource that Humanists can access and lead themselves in their congregations?

We are in covenanted community as UUs, as I said, and we are all also people who are capable of seeking ways to get our spiritual and emotional needs met outside of our mostly small and mostly very limited congregations. I will be attending sing-along “Messiahs,” concerts of sacred music, Advent services, and reading works of Christian spirituality that feed my soul. I’ll also be attending a reading of “A Christmas Carol,” watching all the Rankin-Bass specials about animatronic reindeer, haunting shopping malls in my guise as elf Winterwynd Scarlettgardenberri (it’s a yearly tradition), putting up a tree in my living room, and singing along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. On Christmas Day, I will be very tired from leading the Christmas Eve service and pastoring my community through the season. It may be a lonely and difficult day for me, too, as it always is, even though I am a Christian. It will be difficult because I will not be with family and want to be, but I work on Christmas Eve and they’re all far away. It will be tinged with sadness because I miss my father, who died decades ago.

Theological orientation is no guarantor of happiness at the holidays. It is the human condition, not a Humanist condition.

Very  likely, I will spend Christmas Day dinner with atheist friends who do not participate at all in religious community, but some of whom will have attended Christmas Eve services because they appreciate the beauty of the story, the person of Jesus, the music from their childhood, and the warmth of community. They understand that religion’s job is not to worship science, but to help human beings cultivate the necessary sense of reverence, awe, hope and meaning that permits us to not kill ourselves when we consider the profound evil of many of the systems in which we are mired and complicit.

Religion does not need to be science. Science is science.

Perhaps my sermon about “second naivetee” will be of some use to Humanists or anyone who feels put upon by Unitarian Universalist churches doing what Unitarian and Universalist churches have done for hundreds of years at the Christmas season.

As far as secular holidays go, there are a few that are generally given attention in our congregations. I have myself led worship services with New Year’s Day, Columbus (Indigenous People’s) Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Mother’s Day, and United Nations Day themes.

I’d like to thank everyone who sent me the article and asked me to respond. I hope that you, too, will respond in the comments.















8 Replies to “UU Humanists At The Holidays”

  1. Good stuff. Any serious academic argument includes a literature review, showing awareness of and positioning in the context of a larger conversation. I’m sorry when Humanist voices proceed as if nothing came before.

  2. Amen to this! As a Unitarian Universalist for (almost) 45 years and a minister for nearly 20 (and having served as a UU religious educator for 15 years before orderdination), and a Religious Humanist (probably the best label for me), I’ve been joyfully celebrating Christmas with abandon – it’s in my genes. And of course have had to offer “justification “in some congregational settings. That “Call and a Response” blog caused me much teeth grinding – are we not over this yet? Why must we UU’s keep gnawing these old bones? Yes, small thinking keeps us small in so many ways. Where is are expansive, creative, inclusive faith? Thanks, PB!

  3. Weary! Yes! We have so moved beyond the humanists and theists debates of yore, realizing that this is an issue of spiritual maturity, to recognize and honor the natural agnostic spectrum we all fall somewhere on, and that appreciating metaphor is a step in that spiritual maturity, as classically described so well by James Fowler.

    Weary, too, of the promotion of the faux war between religion and science, which, ye gods! was thoroughly debunked in 1908. (Those who would argue it, who take it as something everyone knows to be true, just like we know that the tongue has different areas corresponding to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, go read the wikipedia on “Conflict Thesis” before you begin sounding like the “other guest” on a Fox News, please.) The awe and wonder of the natural world are not at odds with religion, they are part of it.

    Oh, and that thing about the tongue is a lie, too. Actual research!

    Actual research also teaches us about our own religion, that it was not created 5 years ago as a safe place to hide from any language and ideas that make us uncomfortable or feeling that we are on the outside. Thank God, Goddess, and Darwin, but Unitarian Universalism is a religion about engaging with others, learning how to use our OWN Star Trek “Universal Translator” out in the cultural soup we live in. There are real battles to be fought, battles against racism, xenophobia, poverty, and destruction of our planet, and they mean that we need churches where we can learn to find common ground even among the forces that seek to pit us one against another.

  4. You are welcome, Susan. Thank you for your perspective as a religious educator. I have been hearing from a number of them that they, too, were surprised to see this tiring message get a signal boost from the UUA Call and Response blog.

  5. Spot on, Peacebang. After 34 years in ministry I have finally come to the conclusion that there are just some people incapable of understanding metaphor or poetry — a sort of color blindness of a sort. It wouldn’t be annoying if they recognized they are the ones with a disability, not everyone else. There is a great passage from the beginning of Dicken’s Hard Times that I have used to illustrate this.

  6. Thank you! Yes, all of this. This church is where I found Christianity. I don’t ask that others follow the same path, but I do ask that we stop being snarky and superior about science and reason, as if there were a dichotomy between science and religion. I do ask that we open ourselves up to the wonder and the mystery – even a little bit.

  7. This tiresome fellow evidently thinks that he speaks for most UU humanists. I think not, so I left the following comment there: “Well, this humanist, atheist, and Ph. D scientist celebrates the solstice at his church’s winter solstice service, and celebrates Christmas as a joyful member of the choir. Just as it’s not my place to dictate to you, it’s not yours to presume to speak for humanists.”

  8. Hi there! This is a bit of a late response, but I only just came across this excellent blog.

    I thought you might be interested in these thoughts from Zizek on the Mithra etc comparisons:

    “What interests me is how precisely to distinguish Christ’s death from this old boring topic—and all the old materialist critics of Christianity like to point this out: what’s the big news, don’t you have this sacrificial death of God in all pagan religions? Ah ah! You don’t. The structure is totally different if you read it closely: already at the most superficial level, after Christ’s death what you get is Holy Spirit, which is something totally different than in previous societies. All this about Isis, and so on, this rather boring circular myth, where basically god dies . . . you know, it’s like, people are disordered, things go bad, but then there is the phoenix, everything is good again—no wonder this version is so popular, like even in The Lion King, where you have a kind of Hamlet-version where king dies, son redeems, there is a new king and so on . . . Christianity precisely is not this.”

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