A Conversation on Hope: David Breeden

February 18, 2018
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rev. David Breeden

Psalm 71:1-9; Romans 8:22-28

Hart-Andersen: We’ve entered the season of Lent, those forty days we Christians set aside each year to prepare for Holy Week which seem like a long way off at the moment. It seems after the recent events of our land that Lent is the right place to be.

Each year recently in Lent Westminster has engaged in a series of dialogues around a particular theme. This year the theme is hope…again appropriately enough. And each Sunday we will engage in a conversation with someone from another tradition to help us sharpen our own understanding of hope in the Christian tradition. When we engage in dialogue, genuine dialogue, which is as much about listening as it is about speaking, we will find ourselves coming to understand who we are and what we hold true in an even more defined and refined way. So I encourage us as we move into this season to come prepared to think about hope in your lives.

Any Christian conversation about our faith ends up eventually at hope. Hope is really part of what we hold to be true as Christians. We think of Jesus as hope in the flesh. Paul tells us that hope saves us, so we come to this conversation ready to engage in dialogue on this important topic to us. I’m very pleased to welcome the Reverend Dr. David Breeden, the senior minister at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

David, hope is an essential part of Christian faith. Does it play a central role in Unitarian tradition?

Breeden:  I must start by saying that there are many strands in Unitarian Universalism—some theistic, some not. As a non-creedal faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists range from the beliefs of traditional Christianity, to very liberal Christianity, to various forms of theism, to agnosticism and atheism and humanists such as me. Most people don’t know that humanism, as we understand it, as it is defined today, was invented right here in good old Minneapolis at the First Unitarian Society by one of my predecessors, Dr. John Dietrich. So I am speaking on a humanist perspective and we’ve been doing that for 101 years in Minneapolis.

Humanism is an outgrowth of Protestantism, but I like to say that we are the most protesting of Protestants. We say no to just about everything, as a matter of fact. We do still have a Protestant service on Sunday, even though we call it an “assembly.” We have tried to remove all religious language entirely from what we do.

The Nicene Creed says that “God the Father, the Almighty” made “all that is seen and unseen.” Humanists insist that speculation on and belief in observable reality is the best bet for figuring out how this universe operates.

We believe in the “natural,” the material, but not the “supernatural,” super meaning “above” or “beyond.”

We believe that the universe is meaningless and purposeless in and of itself—the result of the Big Bang or whatever it was that started our universe moving. We think that the cosmos has no consciousness or will.

We believe that only human beings need meaning and purpose, and therefore we human beings must create our own meaning and purpose.

We believe that all religions and their scriptures are products of the beautiful, creative human mind.  But that’s it.

We humans create meaning and purpose because we are the only creatures that need it.

This sounds daunting, creating your own meaning and purpose, but in practice it is liberating. As far as we Humanists are concerned, it has led to great poetry, literature, music, and scriptures.

Hart-Andersen: I hasten to point out that Christianity and other religions have produced some pretty good literature, music, and art, as well. David, I’m amused to hear you describe yourself as “non-creedal” and then offer a series of sentences that begin with, “We believe…we believe…we believe…” I’m not sure you can have it both ways. We believe, as well!

The Apostle Paul famously said, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” For most of us, hope is a close second; in fact hope is nearly synonymous with faith. The three are interwoven – and none of them is visible. They’re all unseen. None of them is quantifiable, and yet we understand what they are in our lives and in our world.

Paul says, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Frankly, it’s difficult for me to understand how someone could be a person who hopes – that is, who trusts in things unseen – and not be a person of faith.

Emily Dickinson wrote,

“Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Faith, as well as hope and love, they all deal in the invisibles of life. Those without imagination, who cannot see beyond this life and time, will have trouble developing hope and coming to faith. People of faith, most of us in this room, I think, cling to the unseen, trusting that there is something beyond, something larger, than ourselves.

David, you describe yourself as a Humanist. Does something as unseen as hope or something as ambiguous as “this thing with feathers perching in the soul,” does something like that have meaning for a Humanist?

Breeden: First, I think we have to unpack the word “unseen.” So, let’s think about this, China is unseen by any of us in this room right now.  So we could buy a ticket, and we could fly there, but right now China is “unseen.”

Obviously, that sort of “unseen” is not what Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about a whole other unseen existence. A hidden order to reality. That’s one way of “seeing” reality.

Another way—the Humanist way—is to start from the assumption that what we can experience and measure is exactly what is there—human history, for us, is episodic chaos – no plan. Natural disasters kill people for absolutely no reason; suffering is not redemptive; and …when you’re dead …you’re dead.

Two ways of seeing reality: there’s something behind it all; or what you see is what you get.

Since you’ve quoted my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, I have to share another of her poems because she wrestles a lot with belief in her work.

Hart-Andersen:  So this is now dueling Dickinsons.

Breeden: Most people don’t know that she refused to stand up at college when they said, ‘Who is saved?” She was the only one who didn’t stand up. She was immediately expelled. At 18 she went home, and that is how she became a recluse. She almost never left home afterward. So she dealt with this quite a bit. She said,

“Faith” is a fine invention

For Gentlemen who see!

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency!

Her point is subtle here, but has a lot to do with how we Humanists think:

“Faith” is a fine invention

For Gentlemen who see!

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency!

Both “faith” and “belief” are involuntary—you feel them or you don’t—or, as Emily would have it—you “see” with your heart or soul, or you don’t.

Humanists don’t.

People have wrestled with unbelief or the loss of faith down through the ages. As the most protesting of Protestants, we Humanists have thrown in the towel on faith and belief and hope in things that are unseen. We give up.

It’s an emergency, and we’ve picked up a microscope and gotten down to work. We have “faith” in the human project—our potential to save ourselves, if we’re going to be saved. . And that’s our hope too.

Hart-Andersen: David, in the last year, as you know, I’ve gone through two knee replacements and I’m grateful for people looking through microscopes. I’m grateful and thankful, and certainly trust in the skills of medical science. I don’t think any of us would reject the microscope when we come to an emergency.

I find myself struggling with what you call our “potential to save ourselves.” As if the human project in and of itself has some potential to redeem all of us. I find myself, frankly, struggling with hope after last Wednesday in that Florida high school. It’s hard to hold on to hope in the face of what seems to be a political environment that puts access to weapons above the safety of children. I notice that in our prayer of confession this morning we confess to having abandoned hope. I find myself almost to the point of abandoning hope or giving in to cynicism about the prospect for change. If all we have to depend on is our human potential for that, I’m not very hopeful. My motivation comes beyond from just what we have as human beings.

Someone sent me an email that was called, “A Pessimist’s Guide to 2028” It is interesting because it takes all the possible scenarios we can think of now in our world and pulls them a decade ahead and makes a worst case scenario. That is one way of looking at things in the world, but it is not our way. Our way would look at things in the world and from a posture of deep hope in something beyond what we can see, pull a thread forward that relies on more than we have, more than we can bring to the world to move from a place of shadows to more light.

Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” I want to quarrel with Paul, here. I think it is time, especially around the issue of gun violence, time to start hoping with impatience, and demanding change. How must longer must we wait, in hope, to see a decline in gun violence in our land? Christians are people of hope, that is, they place their trust in things beyond what we can see. But relying on hope doesn’t mean we don’t act.

Hope and the practice of faith, the pursuit of justice, go hand-in-hand. I appreciate the psalmist who says, “For you, O Lord, are my hope.” That is beyond just the human project. We have more at our disposal; you, Lord, are my hope. For the Hebrew poet, God is hope, and God never gives up. Neither should we. Neither should we for working for change – motivated by our hope.

David, how does a humanist define hope?

Breeden: When Humanism was developing in the early twentieth century, my predecessor came to Minneapolis in 1916, that’s when we became a Humanist congregation. In the early 21st century it looked like science would make the human future so much better.

In some ways, it has. Think about penicillin, for instance, and the fact that medicine actually worked. It appeared that science was going to fix it. It doesn’t look quite so good these days. In other ways, not. We have outpaced our social structures in our technology. We live in an epoch now that is being called the Anthropocene, a geological epoch formed by human hands. And it’s dangerous. Yes, when our Constitution was written, an expert could get off two rounds in a minute with a rifle. Now, an amateur can get off 400 rounds a minute with a rifle and an expert can get off more than 600 rounds a minute with an AR-15. So our Constitution and our social structures have not kept up with our technology.

Unlike Elon Musk with his Teslas in space and trips to Mars, I’m not all that hopeful about a human future on another planet. I think we need to solve our problems right here.

But I do have hope. For example, I look at our Downtown Clergy group—rabbis and imams and all flavors of Christianity. And you even let an old agnostic like me have breakfast with the group.

Hart-Andersen: It is the least we could do for you, David.

Breeden: And here we are at Westminster Presbyterian, looking around this place, it is absolutely beautiful and it is the anchor and core for the downtown. That is a very important statement that you’re making.

I was here one morning last week, and saw your members helping homeless folks get warm .That is where I find hope.

And when we made that Super Bowl video. there was a young imam I got to know. He had never touched an American football before. But there he was, throwing it around and having a good time. He came here as a child from Pakistan. His family escaped with their lives to this country.

That young man understands the need for religious tolerance and the need for the separation of church and state viscerally. You and I, we know it intellectually as a public good. But that young imam knows it in his gut. He will live that way all of his life. He feels it. That’s our future. That’s my hope.

We know that the Greek language distinguished between types of love—“faith, hope, and love.” Paul used the word agape, the highest form of love. The highest form because it is altruistic: agape is all about the other, not the self. It is selfless love.

Faith, hope, and selfless love among human beings.

Humanists agree: there are indeed three things that stay with us —

belief in something;

hope for something;

and love of others.

Hart-Andersen: David, were you just casting St. Paul as a Humanist?

Breeden: Absolutely. I will co-opt him to some extent. Except for that Nicene part. We also co-opt Jesus.

Hart-Andersen: Don’t mess with Jesus.

Breeden: He turns out to be a good Humanist as well. Turning that warrior God…

Hart-Andersen: I thought he was a Jew.

Breeden: Turning that warrior God, from Hebrew scripture, into Daddy. That is a very Humanist move.

Where is the self in all this? Well, that’s the point. The self believes. The self hopes. But that’s mere preparation for the self to ultimately disappear into love for others. So in that way, Paul points us toward being Humanist.

Paul, and the church at Corinth, and generations of Christians since (including my departed parents) died in the hope of eternal life.

We Humanists also have perfect confidence in our future when we die: we are being recycled into the cosmos, rejoining the other elements that all took part in the Big Bang. We are joining in that huge, beautiful cosmic dance.

I don’t believe that I will be rejoining my parents or grandparents or loved ones in an eternal heaven, but will become part of all the carbon that was created at the Big Bang, of all the carbon-based creatures across the millennia, I have a brief, shining moment on this planet, and I have been blessed to have faith, hope, and love, and I am blessed to be able to talk with kind and loving people like you, Rev. Tim. And this congregation.

And if Christian tradition is right, we will all meet again. I would enjoy that.

And if Humanism is right and there isn’t a heaven, we can at least count on always being part of the awe-inspiring cosmos as it flies apart at an ever-accelerating speed.

Either way, it’s awe-inspiring and beautiful.

Hart-Andersen: David, when we were preparing for this conversation, you jokingly referred to it as a sermon debate. And there is a certain quality of debate about our positions here. But listening to you, and my own heart, and this congregation’s theology, I think we are pretty close on a few things. I like your concept of love as a self-offering where you disappear into love…something unseen. I think that is close to what we’re getting at when we talk about hope, faith, and love…as something not seen. Those unseen things are what motivate us to be people of hope. I gather you are a person of hope but not motivated by the things unseen but by things seen. We could argue about that all day but I think the importance here is to know that we’re both people of hope. We both sense that the world needs people of hope to work towards change. To make this world more reflective of this selfless love, the justice that you refer to.

Let’s give the last word to the Apostle Paul, who says in his letter to the church in Corinth that we are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Hope is one of those mysteries. Let’s cling to it, not only for our sake, but for the sake of the world, and all of us together.

Thanks be to God.


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