The Cosmopolis: A Positive Humanist Vision

A sermon presented by Doug Muder at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, Vermont on 22 January 2006


From The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was one of the great revolutionaries of the 18th century. His pamphlet Common Sense helped instigate the American Revolution, and afterward, he went to France to play a role in the French Revolution. At first he was optimistic about the new France, but during the Reign of Terror Paine lost favor and was imprisoned. Expecting to go to the guillotine any day, he wrote one of the classics of Humanism, The Age of Reason .

This reading, from The Rights of Man , was written while Paine was still a delegate to French National Assembly. It is one of the earliest visions of religious pluralism as a value and politics as a spiritual path.

If we suppose a large family of children, who, on [some] particular day … made it a custom to present to their parents some token of their affection and gratitude, each of them would make a different offering, and most probably in a different manner. Some would pay their congratulations in themes of verse and prose, some by little devices, as their genius dictated, or according to what they thought would please; and, perhaps, the least of all, not able to do any of those things, would ramble into the garden, or the field, and gather what it thought the prettiest flower it could find, though, perhaps, it might be but a simple weed. The parent would be more gratified by such a variety, than if the whole of them had acted on a concerted plan, and each had made exactly the same offering. This would have the cold appearance of contrivance, or the harsh one of control. But of all unwelcome things, nothing could more afflict the parent than to know, that the whole of them had afterwards gotten together by the ears, boys and girls, fighting, scratching, reviling, and abusing each other about which was the best or the worst present.

Why may we not suppose, that the great Father of all is pleased with variety of devotion; and that the greatest offence we can act, is that by which we seek to torment and render each other miserable? For my own part, I am fully satisfied that what I am now doing, with an endeavour to conciliate mankind, to render their condition happy, to unite nations that have hitherto been enemies, and to extirpate the horrid practice of war, and break the chains of slavery and oppression is acceptable in his sight, and being the best service I can perform, I act it cheerfully.

From Unitarianism and Humanism by John Dietrich

John Dietrich was the leading Unitarian Humanist of the 1920s. It is hard to do a John Dietrich reading justice, because by our standards he was almost a rabble rouser. He did not aim his sermons only at the educated elite, and wasn’t shy about trying to provoke an enthusiastic response. He saws Humanism as a revolution in religion, one that would preserve religion’s passion, but channel that energy into the service of humanity rather than God.

People responded. Dietrich’s sermons had to be moved to a local theater, because he could draw a thousand people or more. I offer this excerpt to you with a question: Why don’t Humanist sermons sound like this today?

After describing at length the fundamental principles of Humanism, and the perfect society he believed it could establish, Dietrich brings it home like this:

… this is indeed a faith that should put fire into the bones of every man who loves his kind. … This faith will give volume and power to our Unitarian movement, and it is this faith that will conquer the world if only we carry it to the world in such form as to make men despise things as they are and passionately long for things as they should be.

… this grand faith … the popular religion has not given us and apparently has no aim of giving us. Its dream of a perfect social order has its accomplishment somewhere else and has no relation whatever to this actual order in which we now live. … Therefore must come with passion and with enthusiasm our humanistic religion – not preaching acquiescence and submission to the present order, but holding up in contrast to what we see about us an era in which reigns perfect peace, perfect justice, and perfect good will – and declaring unto men that in this idea alone is there any sacredness and authority … This is the faith that the world needs today. It does not need … more priests and prayers and holy books, it does not need literary essays on academic subjects; but it does need the never-ending voice of the prophet going up and down the land, crying, not as of old, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” but “Prepare ye the way of mankind, and make its way straight.”

from Theological-Political Treatise by Baruch Spinoza:

Wherever justice and charity have the force of law and ordinance, there is the kingdom of God.


By the time I became a Unitarian Universalist in the late 1980s, I had already been on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning for some time. The fact that UU’s valued such a search enough to include it in their principles was a big reason why I thought I might fit in.

I was raised as a fairly conservative Christian, revolted against that in my teens, and then after a lot of searching, became a Pagan. I was attracted to paganism because it valued experience and encouraged experimentation. If you meditate, what happens? If you chant and drum, what happens? If you visualize a god or goddess in a particular form and talk to him or her in prayer, how does that experience change you?

I had gotten so far away from my original Christianity that if you had asked me if I believed in Jesus, I’d have said, “I don’t know, let’s tell his stories and perform his rituals and see what happens.”

Because Unitarian Universalism had no creed and no dogma, it seemed like a good place to continue my searching and experimenting. And for the most part, it was.

But I kept having run-ins with one particular kind of UU. They were mostly men, usually older than me. They called themselves Humanists, and as best I could tell their main spiritual practice was to ridicule other people’s spiritual practices. I couldn’t figure out what they believed or what they valued. If I challenged them to say something positive about Humanism, something that wasn’t just a criticism of somebody else, they had trouble grasping the question. The positive thing about Humanism, one of them told me, is that “you don’t have to believe a lot of mumbo-jumbo.”

Now, up to a point I could sympathize with that attitude. Back when I was rebelling against Christianity, the world had seemed to be full of people trying to make me believe something ridiculous, and I was just not going to. At that time I loved to hear somebody really smart tear into Christianity. Bertrand Russell wrote some essays that were incredibly snide and cruel, and I thought they were wonderful.

Because at that time, I had a negative religious identity: I was an anti-Christian, and I believed in an anti-creed.

Do you know what an anti-creed is? It’s where you list all your disbeliefs. Somebody asks you about your religion and out comes your list: “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in prayer. I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe in an afterlife.” You’re reciting an anti-creed.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’ll answer that question with this one: What ever happened to the anti-communists? Remember them? Not so long ago, a politician could make a whole career out of anti-communism. What happened? Did something go wrong with anti-communism?

No. Something went wrong with communism. And when one fell apart, so did the other.

You see, when your identity is based on an anti-creed, you are tied to your enemies. You depend on them. If you’re an anti-Christian or an anti-fundamentalist or an anti-theist, then you depend on the Christians, the fundamentalists, and the theists. If they become irrelevent, you become irrelevent.

Long-term, a healthy identity needs positive content. You need to affirm things, not just deny things.

Back to my story. So, other than those run-ins with Humanists, I was doing well as a UU. I joined committees, taught classes, and even preached a few sermons. Eventually I got email from an editor. He had read one of my sermons on the Internet and wanted to publish it in his journal. The name of his journal was Religious Humanism . This guy had read my sermon and thought I was preaching Humanism.

Imagine my surprise.

So now I’m curious, and I start reading about Humanism. You know how that goes: You read one book and it tells you to read five other books. I kept getting pulled back in time, reading older and older authors. That’s how I found the material in the readings. And I discovered something: The Humanist tradition has a lot of positive content. People like Dietrich, Paine, and Spinoza talked not just about the flaws in traditional religion, but about the world that could be built if the spiritual enthusiasm of humankind could be directed at human problems.

Humanism in their day was not an anti-creed. It had vision; it balanced its critical thinking with imagination. It was idealistic, forward-looking, inspiring.

Who knew? How was I able to be an active UU for a dozen years without hearing about this passionate, enthusiastic brand of Humanism?

And more important: What happened? Dietrich thought that Humanism was taking over the world. Why didn’t it? And how did we get here from there?

Let’s start with: What happened? The short answer is that the 20th century happened. It didn’t go quite the way the Humanists expected.

From our point of view, turn-of-the-century Humanists were naively optimistic. The Unitarian principles of that era affirmed “the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.” Robert Ingersoll, a popular 19th century lecturer known as “the Great Agnostic” – picture that; people used to turn out in droves to hear somebody called the Great Agnostic – he said, “The future will verify all grand and brave predictions.” Imagine how it would feel to believe that.

Instead, the future brought two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust. The Russian Revolution was particularly disappointing. From a distance it had looked so promising and it turned out so badly. By the middle of the century we had the H-bomb, the Cold War, and McCarthyism.

The second half of the 20th century saw its own cycle of idealism and disillusionment. I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about. Despite the Civil Rights movement, we still have racism. Despite the War on Poverty, we still have poverty. Fundamentalism did not fade away with the advance of science. Instead, eighty years later, we’re still refighting the Scopes Monkey Trial. And the United States, which Thomas Paine thought would lead the world into an enlightened new era of openness and human rights, is operating secret prisons and looking for loopholes in the Geneva Conventions.

It’s no wonder that the Humanism I ran into when I became a UU was so demoralized, and remains demoralized today. Embarrassed by the idealism of its youth, it too often retreats into criticism. It defends Reason, but shies away from Imagination. Imaginary things – that’s what other people believe in; we stick to the cold, hard facts.

And that’s a problem, I think. Because man does not live by facts alone. King Solomon had it right: “Without vision, the people perish.”

Too often, UU-Humanists have been fighting a rearguard action, not evangelizing a positive Humanist vision, but complaining that our churches and seminaries attract too many Pagans, too many Buddhists, too many New-Agers, too many people who want to talk about God and lead the congregation in prayer.

But why is that? Why aren’t the divinity schools filled with inspired young Humanists? Why aren’t new people coming through the door clamoring to hear the Humanist message? We can’t blame that on the Buddhists and the Pagans and the New Agers.

The answer is not to attack other religious traditions but to revitalize our own. Not to debunk the passion and enthusiasm of other people, but to reclaim ours. We need a rebirth of the Humanist imagination. The prophet Joel said, “I will pour out my spirit on all humanity. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old people shall dream dreams, and your young shall see visions.”

Dreams. Visions. That’s what we need. That’s where passion and enthusiasm come from.

Now you’re probably wondering: What kind of visions can Humanists have?

In the time remaining, I thought I’d remind you of one of the oldest and most important Humanist visions, one that goes back all the way to the beginning: the Cosmopolis, the World City.

Humanism didn’t have a founder like Jesus or Buddha, so it’s hard to pinpoint when and where it started. The way I tell the story, it started with the Greeks, shortly after the conquests of Alexander brought Greek culture to the wider world. If you were a Greek philosopher in those days, your potential audience suddenly included Persians and Jews and Hindus and Chaldeans and people from places you had never even heard of. You had to start wondering what was really universal. What did you have to say, not just to Greeks, but to humans , independent of where they came from?

Around this time one school of Greek philosophy, the Stoics, coined a new word: Cosmopolis , the World City. From that came cosmopolitan , citizen of the world. These words, you need to understand, did not correspond to any visible objects. There was no world government. Far from it – even Alexander’s empire had splintered. The Cosmopolis was a city of the imagination. Being a cosmopolitan meant that whenever you met someone, wherever they were from, you recognized a bond. They too were citizens of the World City. They might not know about their citizenship or recognize yours. They may never have imagined the World City themselves. But they were your fellow citizens all the same.

Centuries later, the vision of the Cosmopolis combined with Spinoza’s vision of an impersonal God. The result was Deism, the religion of people like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. “My country is the world,” Paine wrote, “and my religion is to do good.” Unlike the gods of other religions, the God of the Deists played no favorites. He was not closer to some people and more distant from others. All people were his creations, and had been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Your cosmopolitan citizenship now entitled you to claim freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.

But these rights, when they were first conceived, were as imaginary as the Cosmopolis itself. No government recognized them. No court enforced them. To practical people, people who only believed in cold hard facts, this was all nonsense. You might just as well tell sharks and wolves that you have a right not to be eaten.

The rights of the Cosmopolis became real – at least in some parts of the world – because people were willing to live for them and in some cases to die for them. Why did they do that? Because they had seen the vision. And they believed, not in some heavenly power, but in the beauty of the vision. They had faith that other people would see the Cosmopolis in their minds and fall in love with it, just as they had.

Today, the Cosmopolis is still only half real. And that’s why it is so important to keep visiting the half that is still imaginary. To see, for example, that everyone is respected in the Cosmopolis, that everyone has enough to eat and a chance to be educated. There is justice in the Cosmopolis, there are institutions for resolving conflicts peacefully, and so there is never any cause for war. And if that vision seems ridiculously naïve and impractical to you, you need to remember that not so long ago the whole city was imaginary.

Now, if you’re going to help bring this imaginary city more fully into reality, you need to know what you’re up against. You need to know what the rival visions are and how to recognize them. Because many people who sound like cosmopolitans, people who talk about rights and freedom and democracy, are really talking about a rival vision.

The Cosmopolis, as I see it, has two major competitors: the Tribe and the Empire. In the Tribal Vision, humanity can never be united, because your people and my people are just different. We may be able to get along, but we will always be separate. You can’t join me and I can’t join you. A black man in the Jim Crow South, for example, might be a good Christian, might be educated, and might even be rich – but he still can’t sit in the front of the bus. Because blacks and whites are just different. It’s a fact of life and there’s nothing to be done about it.

In the Imperial Vision, humans start out in separate tribes, but they can be unified by an Empire. You can join an Empire, because an Empire has some unifying principle that you can make your own. If you surrender to the Empire and adopt its unifying principle, you can be assimilated. The unifying principle can be almost anything – political, economic, religious, philosophical, cultural. Gauls became Romans by joining the legions. Germany and Japan joined Democracy by accepting a constitution and holding elections. China joined Global Capitalism by recognizing the international property system and submitting to the rules of the WTO. Surrender, convert, and be assimilated – that’s the Imperial pattern.

Like the Cosmopolis, the Empire is a unifying vision. But there is one important difference: In the Cosmopolitan Vision, the World is unified at this very moment . All people are my fellow citizens already, right now . In the Imperial Vision, on the other hand, people will become my fellow citizens when they submit to the Empire . Human unity, in the Imperial Vision, is millennial. When everyone accepts the Empire, the World will be one. When everyone converts to Christ or becomes capitalist or democratic or pro-American – then the millennium will have arrived and all people can live together in peace.

But not until then.

In the Cosmopolis, all people are citizens. But the Empire sees three kinds of people: citizens, outsiders yet to be converted, and enemies who have rejected the Empire and must be defeated.

Cosmopolitans and Imperialists view their enemies very differently. A cosmopolitan sees them as citizens with rights. Thomas Paine wrote, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Imperial logic is completely different. Rights exist only within the Empire. Those who reject the Empire are practically demons: They stand in the way of the millennial paradise that the Empire will bring someday. Whatever we need to do to defeat them is justified.

This conflict of visions is playing out very clearly in the current debate about terrorism. In the rhetoric of the Bush administration, our opponents – rejectionists is one of the names we call them – are demonic. They “hate freedom.” They are, in the President’s words, “fighting a war against humanity.” If you don’t belong to a nation that has signed the Geneva Conventions, its provisions don’t apply to you. If you behave in ways we consider barbaric, we can treat you barbarically. “Terrorists” can be held without charges and imprisoned indefinitely without trials. Rights belong only to the good guys. And if torturing the bad guys helps keep you safe, you should be happy.

But we’re not happy. Because we are citizens of the World, and so are our enemies. Our rights are not secure while their rights are threatened. In the Imperial Vision, though, that statement is gibberish. Imperialists can’t even make enough sense out of it to disagree properly; they just know that you said something ridiculous.

The Vision of the Cosmopolis has gotten so co-opted that many imperialists do not even know about it. When they use terms like freedom and democracy and human rights , they honestly believe that they are talking about the same things we are. They don’t know that another vision exists. They’ve never seen the World City.

There are many failures in America these days, but most of them stem from this failure of vision. The Cosmopolis is every bit as beautiful today as it was centuries ago, but if you’ve never seen it, you don’t know that. Those of us who have seen it should be spreading the vision, because that’s the first step in making this imaginary city more real.

I’ve been talking a long time now, so let me sum it up. Humanism and Unitarianism can’t survive on criticism alone. We can’t be an anti-creed. People will not flock to us to share our disbeliefs.

To be a vital religion, Humanism needs to balance critical thinking with imagination. We need vision.

But fortunately, vision is not foreign to us. It is our heritage; it is in our tradition. And the World, I believe, still needs the visions that we have to offer.

Read more sermons by Doug Muder