The Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, one of that rare breed known as Unitarian Universalist theologians, and the even rarer breed of African-American Unitarian Universalist theologians, died on Friday at age 79 (obituary here). From the time I encountered his work when I was in seminary, it gave me that mix of headiness and humility that we get when someone articulates our own most cherished ideas far better than we can.
For example, this passage from his 1975 article in The Christian Century, “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows”:
Abraham’s situation, when he is commanded to slay Isaac, represents the human situation. Forced to decide whether he is addressed by God or Moloch and given the impossibility of demonstrating whose voice he hears, Abraham must assume the mantle of ultimate valuator. He must decide the source of the command, and in the final analysis his judgment of the source determines the value of the command. If he concludes that the decree is from God, it is morally imperative. If, however, he decides that it is Moloch’s voice that he hears, the order must be rejected. But clearly, only Abraham can make this crucial decision.
Likewise with humankind: forced by virtue of our freedom and the existential situation of objective uncertainty, we cannot escape the necessity to be the measure of even that higher reality that created us. There is no way to escape this responsibility short of denaturing humanity, for it is a factor of the freedom that is our essence.
The same sense of uncertainty informs the humanist concept of history. The humanist acts “as if” history were open-ended and multivalued, as if human choices and actions were determinative for human destiny. But once history is afforded this character, it becomes problematical that the good is guaranteed. There does not appear to be an inevitable historical development, sponsored by ultimate reality, that ensures the liberation of the oppressed or a more humane society. Rather, oppression and liberation are equally probable. Nor is there a cosmic lifeguard to save humanity from its self-destructive choices. This is the meaning of the tragic sense of history in humanism — not that human efforts are doomed to defeat, but that the best-laid plans of one generation may be sabotaged by the actions of the next.
Thus, rather than fanatical advocates of absolute human freedom, religious humanists view themselves as faithful stewards of human finitude and creatureliness.
Amen, amen, and amen. Not to suggest that his work only recapitulated what I already believed; he has also challenged me, as good scholars and ministers do. I believe even this decades-old piece challenges humanists today, who sometimes act as if human beings are the pinnacle of creation (or, for that matter, gods) instead of finite and creaturely.
I wrote a few months ago about the promise and potential of black humanism, and what humanists and Unitarian Universalists of all backgrounds can learn from it. Bill Jones has done his part; the next steps will have to be taken by those of us he has inspired. Rest in peace and go with our gratitude.