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As so often happens in parent-child relationships, American-style Humanism got some very bad habits from Protestant Christianity and its myopic European focus. As the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

So much for the…


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Almost three thousand years ago the philosopher Heraclitus said,

This universal order, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or person, but it always has been, is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures.

Heraclitus doesn’t appear to have been correct in his assumption that time has always existed, but he nailed the part about change — to be is to be becoming.

Heraclitus saw that we cannot step into the same river twice because the river is never static and we ourselves are…


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As I see it, we human beings have a deep wish and a deep need for seeing the world though a structure of value. All of us want and need an answer to that very old philosophical question: “How might I live my life?”

For me, Humanism creates a structure of value: that human beings, living things, and the planet are my responsibility. I am a tribal animal, therefore pro-social behavior is my duty, but also my fulfillment as a human being.

But that’s not much of a story, is it? Which is one of the reasons, I think, that…


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Catch phrases often seem to come out of nowhere and catch on fast, leaving some of us scratching our heads all the while. A recent example is “lived experience.” As in, “Sorry, but that’s not my lived experience.”

For example, someone might say, “Time flies!” to which one response is “That’s not my lived experience of time.” The time flyer might respond, “Everyone knows that time flies!” To which the response goes, “That is your lived experience.”

And so on.

You may be one of those still left scratching your head: Isn’t all experience lived experience?

The answer is: yes…


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The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer justly gets credit for changing the conversation in post-World War II Protestantism. He began as a neo-orthodox wunderkind, but the Nazi rise to power and its consequences, including his own resistance and imprisonment, led him toward seeing a post-Christian Europe.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters speculating on what he termed a “Religionless Christianity:”

What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words — whether with theological or with pious words — is past, as is…


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Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota recently landed a $1.5 million grant that will be used to explore ways that church leaders can reshape and deepen congregational life — members connecting to a congregation, to one another, and to the world. As the nation fragments into smaller and smaller — and secular — sub-groups, this connection becomes more urgent.

I find it surprising — and brilliant — that Luther Seminary is spending a million and a half bucks studying how to connect to the rapidly-secularizing US population, at the same time that most liberal Christian congregations are exploring how to…


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When William Ellery Channing gave his famous Baltimore ordination sermon, nowadays titled “Unitarian Christianity,” Rev. Channing was fed up and wasn’t going to take it any more: Trinitarian Congregationalist ministers were calling the fledgling movement of which Channing was a member “Unitarians,” a term designed to be disparaging.

Channing decided to take the Trinitarians up on their offer of a term and in that sermon claimed “Unitarian” for the movement. Channing used as gospel text 1 Thessalonians verse 21: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Channing saw this…


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It’s easy to see the question of self as an abstract philosophical discussion. The question is easy to see that way . . . because the question of self is an abstract philosophical discussion. Except it’s not. Because each of us has a conception of a self and we live our lives based on that conception. That fiction. That conception might feel quite natural, as in naturally occurring. But it is not. Most likely, your conception of self, like mine, is socially conditioned. Thrust upon you.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas centered his critique of modern Western society in our…


Breaking down entrenched power with ideas is neither quick nor easy. But a young scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley, saw the power of Darwin’s dangerous idea immediately. On the 23rd of November 1859, only days after the publication of Origin of Species, Huxley wrote Darwin a letter. Here’s a bit of that letter:

As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite . . . I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you…


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In 1776 when the US Declaration of Independence appeared and in 1859 when Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared, the Christianity that held sway across Europe and the colonized Western Hemisphere and Africa was about hierarchy. It established humanity’s place in the Great Chain of Being and a person’s place in the social pyramid.

And it Othered: “beasts” were Other and could be tortured and killed with impunity; non-Christians were Other and could be displaced and killed with very little provocation and with no other excuse than that they were not Christians. Africans could be enslaved with impunity. Women could be…

David Breeden

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page amazon.com/author/davidbreeden

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