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Paganism and Humanism: Can This Marriage be Saved?

General Assembly 1999 Event 505

Within the Unitarian Universalist family of theological perspectives, it is often thought that Humanism and Earth-Centered Spirituality have the least in common. The panel explored the perceptions surrounding this issue. Panelists included Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, Rev. Patrick Price, Rev. Stefan Jonasson, and Joan VanBecelaere. Phaedra Oorbeck served as moderator.

An overflow crowd attended the panel discussion which was moderated by Phaedra Oorbeck, who introduced the four panelists.

This forum featured two prominent Humanists, and two prominent Pagans.

Representing the Humanists were the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons of First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis, MN, and Rev. Stefan Jonasson, Large Church Consultant.

Representing the Pagan were the Rev. Patrick Price of Columbia, SC, and Joan VanBecelaere, President of Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS).

The session opened with short remarks from each participant.

  • Rev. Gibbons remarked that humanism and paganism are compatble within UUism.
  • Rev. Price noted that we talk of covenanting—a process—with each other rather than contracting—looking to an end—in this ongoing discussion.

The remainder of the session was devoted to lively questions from the audience.

Reported by Lynn Calvin.

Opening Remarks from Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Can this marriage be saved? I devoutly hope so, because I am a child of it, and if it cannot, I am likely to find myself the object of a most painful and unseemly custody battle!

Whether or not they knew it, when my Unitarian Universalist parents and Sunday School teachers in the 1950s and 60s structured my religious education around the principles enunciated by Sophia Fahs as interpreted through their own post-war optimistic rationalism, they were cultivating a generation of little pagans. Gone were the images of Jesus, either on the cross or with the lamb tucked under his arm. Only silly, childish people needed to believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or a fatherly God, so my parents said. Prayer was nothing but self-incantation; we were not watched over by any presence, either for judgment or care; and there was no appeal but to our own labor, intelligence and responsibility. It was a daunting world, stripped of ceremony or symbol. Two objects of reverence only were permitted to us. Year after year we poked bean seeds into waxed paper dixie cups half-filled with potting soil, and were given to understand that something special and inexplicable was happening in that short period between when the sprout lifted its two hopeful seed leaves into the light and when it subsequently perished from either under- or over-watering. And if any of us was lucky enough to find the carcass of a dead robin in the back yard, we were encouraged to contemplate the mysterious change that differentiated it from its living counterparts. Also, it was assumed that walking in the woods would necessarily induce in us a kind of atavistic, oceanic appreciation of Nature, with a capital N.

It baffles me that anyone could be surprised that such an educational program should produce a generation of Unitarian Universalists who find themselves hungry for the color and drama of ritual, and at home with the cross quarters of the year and the pre-Socratic philosophers. What in heaven's name did they expect?

The Christmas pageants we performed down-played the arrival of Baby Jesus, and lifted up the cross-cultural traditions of Yuletide. I don't think I was ever Mary, but I distinctly remember constituting one of a quartet of sheet-clad Druid maidens in a pantomime of gathering mistletoe.

When I began—to the consternation, I suspect, of the good rationalists who raised me—to take seriously the integrity of my own religious question instead of theirs, I found that the door to a traditional, self-conscious, male deity was closed to me by the long habit of disdain. But the path from the nature mysticism of the dead bird and the woods to a planetary environmentalism and the Gaia hypothesis to a projected female deity rediscovered in the pre-Christian pantheons had not been so preempted. The image of the goddess became a useful landmark in my spiritual reverse pilgrimage, as I groped to understand the meaning of the human experience and enterprise of faith.

Liberal neo-paganism as I was taught to understand it, proposed nothing that was not intellectually compatible with the rationalism of my childhood religious instruction. Its appreciation of mythology harked back to Fah's tales From Long Ago And Many Lands; interesting stories that invite us to consider the deeper analogical meanings of our experiences as human beings. If the new paganism took the folk dancing that we practiced as children in the dusty church attic, intended to teach us appreciation of other cultures, outdoors under the full moon, it was merely an enriching change in venue. The insistence upon taking responsibility for what one evoked in the world through behavior and thought connected to the ethical culture hymnal we used in Sunday School:

Think truly, and thy honest thought a hungry world shall feed. 
Speak truly, and each word of thine shall be a fruitful seed.
Live truly and thy life shall be a great and noble creed.

Nurtured as I was in this approach, I neither can nor wish to choose between my humanist and pagan parentage. Nor do I despise the Jewish and Christian monotheisms that are my beloved grandparents. I understand the tensions, but I maintain that they grow out of deliberately distorted caricatures, and I insist that all of us are better than that. I have no more use for a self-righteously exclusive and sentimentally dogmatic monotheism than I do for a willfully ignorant, superstitious and silly paganism, or for a rigid, deracinated, joyless and belligerent humanism. But none of these are the Unitarian Universalist clan whose beloved and loving child I have always been.

If this marriage is not saved, it will be the doing of fear, intolerance, and the failure of communication and good will, which were, I thought, the very habits of heart and mind against which all my religious teachers sought to warn me. Not only would that be a pity, it would constitute a betrayal of the best genius in each heritage.

Opening Remarks from Rev. Patrick Price

The minister of the first UU congregation I belonged to once related a story about an experience from his interview as an extension minister. A member of the board asked him, a young neo-transcendentalist, "How can you possibly minister to me, an older religious humanist?" After a moment of thought, the young minister replied, "I can minister to you, and you can minister to me, because we are both human beings, with all that is implied by that fact."

We choose the topic of covenant and the metaphor of marriage because we UUs are part of a covenantal tradition, and marriage is the most basic and fundamental of human covenant relationships. In covenant, in a marriage, we enter into a relationship which is based in process and the ways we are to be in relationship, rather than focused on the ends as one would be, for example, in a contract. In this, the covenantal approach to conflict is one of conversation in which we seek understanding and reconciliation rather than argument, in which one starts from a predetermined end and endeavors to "win", or to subdue the other into agreement. It is the difference between contest and cooperation; between independence and interdependence.

When contemporary pagans speak of the sacred marriage of the Goddess and God, this is the type of relationship which we understand to be present in the very fabric of the universe. It is therefore a religious act and an act of faith which we engage in.

For those who desire a rigorous process, one that stirs their blood, then all one has to do is to experience the strength and discipline it requires to stay at the table with someone we fundamentally disagree with. Our intention here is not to forge agreement or consensus about each others' faith positions, but to find points of understanding with each other, as UUs, relevant to how we can be together.