Relax, Studying Theology Doesn’t Make You Religious It may even enhance your humanism

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

Fall welcomes a new semester at Meadville Lombard Theological School (MLTS), where the American Humanist Association (AHA) Center for Education will be offering two of its four graduate-level courses in humanism. Earlier this month, criticism of the partnership with Meadville Lombard surfaced on social media when the opening of registration was announced. Comments called out the “irony” and “hypocrisy” of a nontheistic humanist organization associating with a theological seminary and implored the center to find a secular venue to create “separation of humanism and theism.”

I have to admit, the adverse reactions to associating with MLTS and specifically to the term “theology” surprised me. I know it should come as no revelation (if I may use that word) that humanists exist who harbor an extreme dislike for anything that smacks of religion. But honestly, I did not expect an uprising in this particular context. Theology, after all, is the study of the nature of God and religious belief.

I also assumed it was well-known that the Meadville Lombard Theological School has a long history as a diverse, inclusive, interfaith organization grounded in Unitarian Universalism. Indeed, it was the Unitarians who gave birth to American religious humanism (spreading the word in the early 1900s) and contributed to the first humanist manifesto. As William F. Schulz, Unitarian Universalist minister, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, and the 2000 Humanist of the Year, wrote in UU World in 2003,

Perhaps in no denomination but Unitarianism, with its aversion to creeds and dogmas, could such a frankly nontheistic movement as religious humanism have arisen without provoking a schism, and even Unitarianism found itself hard pressed to encompass the new thought. For more than a decade, from 1916—when Dietrich and another Unitarian colleague, the Rev. Curtis Reese, began preaching “humanism” to their congregations—through the 1920s, Unitarians debated the merits of a strictly human centered, scientifically minded, ethically focused religion. The “humanist-theist controversy” that exercised the American Unitarian Association had largely abated by 1933, when a group of philosophers, Unitarian ministers, and other religious liberals issued “A Humanist Manifesto” to articulate a coherent statement of humanist principles.

Having grown up in Dietrich’s humanist congregation (The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis) and being aware that Rev. Curtis Reese was a founder and president of the AHA, I naturally believed that forging a partnership with Meadville Lombard was equal to reuniting humanists with their origins. I never imagined, as some declared on social media, that studying humanism at a theological school was out of the question.

Sidestepping the school’s historical connection and deep roots with humanism, the social media clamor has narrowed in on the term “theology” as the primary offense, pointing towards Meadville Lombard’s signature course “Cultural Grounding and Theological Formation” as proof that the AHA Center for Education made a deal with the devil. Emphasizing that the AHA’s mission “…to advance humanism, an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” is not about theology, critics charged that any association with Meadville Lombard is “oxymoronic” for humanists—insinuating that theology strictly means studying divine deities and religious beliefs and therefore should be avoided at all costs.

I have a very different viewpoint on this matter, and as the director of the AHA Center for Education I now see how vitally important it is to make that viewpoint crystal clear. I don’t see the danger in studying theology, as I perceive it as acquiring a more in-depth knowledge of the nature of being and existence without a God verses with a God. I don’t specifically equate theology with confirming God’s reality or supporting the basic tenets of religion but rather view it as exploring our humanity in terms of our origins, experiences, and understandings.

As Dr. Anthony Pinn writes in his book The End of God-Talk;

Some have denounced theology as religions’ voice of un/reason—the effort to give systematic justification to the superstition that is religion. Others promote theological inquiry as a viable mode of human thinking on the most significant existential and ontological issues facing humans, in part because it works through the cultural wor(l)ds of human existence in ways the natural sciences cannot. What seems tacit within both of these perspectives is the assumption that atheists need not read theological texts, and, what is more, they should not (or, more forcefully, cannot) do theology. And this assumption is based on an often unchallenged and literal defining of theology as “god-talk.” No God, no theology.

While I belong in the camp of promoting theological study, I also seek to understand religion as a need or fundamental aspect in people’s lives. I believe humanists must examine and discern why some are committed to the existence of God(s) and a specific set of beliefs despite rational evidence proving otherwise. Not necessarily to eradicate religion, for that would draw too much attention and give it more power, but to comprehend it as a part of our orientation as humans on earth. The seventeenth-century Japanese swordsman, philosopher, strategist, and samurai Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his Book of Five Rings, “A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.” We can do theology even if, in the end, we conclude there is no God. Our theological focus can examine the human condition that made religion and God necessary in the first place.

I would argue that ignoring religion and people’s devotion to God(s), damning their existence, or refusing to acknowledge their impact negates an aspect of human experience. As humanists, we may have decided to leave religious beliefs and God(s) behind, but it still originates from us. Why not dive into theology for the very reason that it helps us grasp what it means to be fully human? As Pinn would indicate, “the end of God-talk is premised on an alternative definition of theology: Theology is a method for critically engaging, articulating, and discussing the deep existential and ontological issues endemic to human life.” If we dispose of God-talk, as Pinn suggests, then theology moves towards an analysis of human experience that exists in this world, not beyond it. And is that not what humanism is—existing, living, and being human unguided by the supernatural?

Studying humanism at Meadville Lombard Theological School is not an ironic contradiction that goes against our beliefs, values, or traditions. It is a partnership grounded in history and upholds what we embody. Meadville Lombard does not ask us to relent to gods or religious belief in its teaching of theology but to formulate more clearly and concisely our humanism that is diverse and inclusive of all human voices and experiences across time.