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The Neighborhood of Boston

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A very old discussion in Unitarian circles has been the question of whether or not the movement could go beyond “the neighborhood of Boston,” as the old saying went. This is still a question; perhaps the question for Unitarian Universalism, because “the neighborhood of Boston” is more than a geographical location. It’s a mental location. It’s a mental location created by a very Boston set of rules for the game. A very New England set of rules for the game. 

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplas

Sure, nowadays, Boston is a multicultural city, but the Boston that created Unitarianism was not. 

The rules of that Boston Unitarianism set a high standard for education; for professional achievement; for public service; for etiquette; for disinterested debate; for intellectualized discussion; for self-confident individuality; for what once were called “refinements” of taste and aesthetics—code for very Euro-American . . . very white. WASP.

Humanism has unfortunately now taken on many of these trappings and assumptions—many of the rules of the Unitarian and Universalist game. But we do need to remind ourselves that Humanism did not start out that way. Humanism was a midwestern phenomenon, not a product of the neighborhood of Boston. 

Actually, Humanism was immediately and viciously opposed by the East Coast Unitarian elite. What at the time was known as “the humanist controversy” wasn’t a controversy for the Humanists—it was a controversy because theists made it one.

What were a couple of midwesterners—John Dietrich and Curtis Reese—doing wading into liberal theology, which everyone in the neighborhood of Boston knew was the purview of Harvard graduates? Both Reese and Dietrich had started out as ministers in decidedly outré religious traditions. Dietrich’s Minneapolis and Reese’s Des Moines were places that new immigrants—Scandinavians and Germans—lived. Not at all the WASP blue-blooded Brahmans of Boston’s Beacon Hill, where the Unitarian denominational headquarters sat. 

Questioning the Christian tradition and the Protestant god was against the rules. Saying that pedestrian, plodding, workmanlike science explained more than high-soaring theology and philosophy was breaking the rules. 

Roasting sacred cows is not an activity for the well-bred. I think Humanists do well to remember our roots. I for one would never have become a Unitarian Universalist if it hadn’t been for Humanism. The Boston god doesn’t make any more sense to me than did the Ohio River god I was brought up to believe in. 

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