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On Becoming Humanist — A Personal Journey

Dr. Anthony Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He serves as a trustee of Meadville Lombard Theological School. This article is abridged, with permission, from one published in Religious Humanism (Winter-Spring 1998). It can be read in full on the HUUmanists website (Association of Unitarian Universalist Humanists).

. . . My formative years were spent within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, a part of the Black church tradition. At an early age, lay activity was no longer enough; I felt a "call" to Christian ministry, a need to serve the Church through ministerial leadership. I started preaching at the age of fourteen and the AME Church ordained me a deacon after my first year in college.

While in school, I ministered as a youth pastor in various AME churches and saw firsthand the efforts of Black Christians to make sense of their daily struggles in light of Christian theology and doctrinal structures. Such experiences raised queries for me concerning the tension between lived reality and Christian "truths." Hard questions became unavoidable: Does the Christian message say anything liberating to a suffering humanity? Do Christian explanations of human suffering make a "material" and concrete difference? . . .

[The] response to the problem of evil begins with slavery, where the religious question of human suffering first emerges for Black Americans. Brought here as chattel, African Americans have faced dehumanization through the destruction of culture, the ripping apart of family units, rape, beatings, and any other avenue that linked the control of Black bodies with the increase of plantation profits. All this, Africans Americans were told was rightly done in the name of God. Some slaves accepted their lot in life. Others questioned the religious doctrine given to them, and searched for an explanation of their plight beyond the plantation minister's rhetoric. The effort to understand God amid contradictory messages of existential hardship and the Christian gospel continued during the movement from "hush harbors," or secret meetings, to early Black churches, and into the late 20th century. Continued oppression made this questioning inescapable.

Spirituals and church leaders, in many instances, developed a[n] . . . approach centered on the notion of redemptive or fruitful suffering. . . . God manipulates this moral evil and fosters good consequences . . .

Moving forward in time, one senses this understanding of suffering, for example, in a 1959 speech to the Montgomery Improvement Association by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.:

As we continue the struggle for our freedom we will be persecuted, abused, and called bad names. But we must go on with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive, and love is the most durable power in all the world.

This understanding of human suffering troubled me. I could not accept the idea that the collective suffering of those I saw on a daily basis had any value at all. I needed to explore an alternate response that uncompromisingly affirms—at all costs, including even the rejection of Christian concepts such as God—the demonic nature of collective suffering because human liberation is more important than the maintenance of any religious symbol, sign, cannon, or icon.

. . . I could see nothing in history pointing toward the presence of something in the world beyond visible realities. . . .

After taking a deep breath, I spoke a new word: God does not exist. Even with this confession made, I was still committed to doing theology, but without reliance on notions of God. I would do theology as a humanist. . . . I continued my work with this commitment: Religious questions can surely be posed without the assumption of God. . . .

Until recently, I thought I did a fairly good job of explaining my position as a theologian. I said there is no God with conviction, yet sensitivity, and thought about other ways of holding humans in moral/ethical "check": do not hurt others because they deserve respect and proper care. I thought my professional life and academic writings made this clear, clear for both those in and outside the academy. . . . I was proud of myself for having been so straightforward—making private life and public confessions respectfully consistent.

This was the case until . . . a reporter . . . kept asking questions that I believed I had convincingly responded to: Who is Tony Pinn? Why is it you do what you do? And, why do you label your work using such academic language?

Some did not understand . . . the connections between my professional life and my private life, complete with its religious dimensions. I think this stems from a lack of knowledge . . . concerning the historical roots of humanism in Black communities, as well as my lack of institutional affiliation. I would like to briefly address both of these points in turn.

. . . [The] question of liberation, which is a primary consideration, stimulated humanist responses very early in the life of African American communities . . . it seems fairly clear that the early presence and rationale for humanism within African American communities revolve around the inadequacy of Christianity for responding to moral evil. Humanism, in turn, gives more attention to humanity's responsibility for evil in the world, hence humanity's responsibility for re-orienting human destiny and fostering equality.

. . . humanism continued to grow in Black communities; think of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, and W. E. B. DuBois among other notables. One can say that humanism reaches its zenith with respect to open declarations and expression during the two periods of what has been labeled the Harlem Renaissance.

The [20th-century] Civil Rights Movement's ideological underpinnings are further clarified through attention to humanist principles. I, for one, cannot help but believe that the movement away from the Christian-based Civil Rights Movement sparked by SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the thundering call for Black Power pointed to deep theological differences. It is more than likely that the theistic motivations and explanations did not adequately address the concerns and ideas of some of the more "radical" elements of the movement. . . . Gone were its integrationist goals [of] the Civil Rights Movement; gone was its reliance upon Christian doctrine and paradigms for action. SNCC decided that social transformation would only occur when African Americans took control of their destiny and worked toward change. . . .

. . . [Dr.] William R. Jones of Florida State University . . . argues that the African American humanist project emerges not as a consequence of the Enlightenment but rather as a direct response to a unique set of circumstances facing African American communities in the United States . . . [and] that a variety of approaches must be utilized if liberation of African Americans is actually the central objective. Countering claims that the Black church is the source of liberation for Black Americans, Jones asserts that the Black churches have a "checkered" past with respect to liberative praxis.

Although African Americans have held humanist perspectives and operated accordingly for centuries, the phrase, Black humanism, is fairly recent. Because the Unitarian Universalist Association was already open, at least in part, to the label of humanism, it makes sense that one of the first references to Black humanism would take place within the UUA's struggles over race questions and the advancement of Black Power during the late 20th century. Mark Morrison Reed's Empowerment: One Denomination's Quest for Racial Justice, 1967-1982 provides information concerning the use of this term, linking its use with the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus created to respond to racial issues within the UUA. This religiosity brings into play the "unique" demands and existential context of African Americans; the value of their "blackness" was brought into human-centered thought and action. This is particularly important for me because of my initial confession: I am in search of a home, an institutional base.

Some have argued that the UUA provides an alternative that recognizes new possibilities, the value of thought and freedom. These are essential elements—you can imagine—for persons from a group that has been historically denied open expression of freedom and thought. . . .

Regardless of such potential, there are few African Americans in the UUA. Why? One thing is certain, old rationales for this gap are inappropriate and inaccurate. It is, I think, a mistake to assume that African Americans are not UU because of the this-worldly nature of humanist principles and underpinnings, nor is the location of said churches a major obstacle for car-owning African Americans who might be inclined to participate. . . .

It is possible that the issue revolves around the UUA's changing ideological framework and an ineffectual grasp of the nature and depth of America's race problem. . . .

The UUA has had its encounters with the African American surge toward freedom—Black power. Hard questions and perplexing moments like these are acknowledged but, it appears, glossed over. I have in mind, for example, Charles Gaines' words in a prior issue of Religious Humanism (Summer/Fall 1997). At times he mentions the problem, but always invokes an optimism that may not be warranted:

Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, have moved beyond just tolerance to positive feelings of inclusiveness. Therefore many personal freedom issues have not had to be fought with an intensity at the denominational level.

The author points out the UUA's record with respect to gays, lesbians, and white women, but he glosses over its struggle with respect to race, as well as the changing face of racism. In strong terms, William Jones, in an article "Towards a New Paradigm for Uncovering Neo-racism/Oppression in Unitarian Universalism," pulls no punches. Jones:

And when the grid is applied to Unitarian Universalism, a singular conclusion emerges. We too continue to perpetuate the virus of racism/oppression in our public and private lives because we act on misconceptions of what it is and how it operates. In particular we fail to recognize that racism has mutated into neo-racism and that this mutant virus, the racism/oppression of the 80s and 90s, is immune to the vaccine we developed in the 1960s.

Dr. Jones continues in an article "Power and Anti-Power" that the dilemma revolves around the failure of the UUA to recognize the "role, status, and value of power in human affairs." The UUA, he continues, does not "have a viable theology of power to undergird [its] social ethics, and this absence not only renders us ineffective, but often places us on the wrong side of ethical issues." Furthermore,

[the UUA has] advanced glowing and commendable resolutions on the pressing social issues of the day; [it does not] lack the sensitive eye and heart to see what needs to be done; but we often flounder when we reach the question of how: the question of strategy.

. . . For African Americans, such as myself, who wrestle through these tangled issues, hoping to find a new vision for a troubled world, the dilemma continues because they must enter a tradition that is itself seeking renewal and rethinking its identity. . . . The interaction between communities of "color" and the UUA is filled with promise and pitfalls. And our discussion of the historical interaction between these two must move beyond prescriptions and platforms developed earlier this century. Yet, I cannot offer resolutions to these problems; however, I believe it's important to begin discussing this and other questions openly and honestly. Perhaps struggling with hard questions in order to gain "hard" answers is the first step.

Finally, I have spent time here going over my own religious journey, and the pros and cons of membership in the UUA, in order to begin thinking through the questions that face us. From the writing of these remarks to the time of their publication, the process has been helpful for me, and I hope you have found this exercise somewhat useful. If nothing else I hope it will spark an ongoing conversation.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

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