As a boy I watched cartoons and read comic books, and my heroes were orphans.
Batman’s murdered parents lived on only as a portrait above the fireplace and a gravestone on which to swear vengeance. Spider-Man’s mother and father were also long dead, and even the uncle who raised him had to die to give him a proper superhero origin. But the most extreme case was my favorite hero, Superman: The whole planet of Krypton blew up behind his escaping rocket, and its shards became the deadly kryptonite.
Watch out for the past. It can kill you.
I was well into adulthood before I grew introspective about the orphan-hero fantasy and why it had been so attractive to me and my generation. For those growing up in the sixties, the wisdom of our elders was an oppression we longed to escape. They had survived the Depression and won the War, and we did not care. A brave new world was out there now. No one could tell us how to live in it.
And so, the fantasy: On a farm outside of some distant Smallville, the old couple who found your rocket and raised you may still be driving tractors and baking pies. But they are not your people, not really, and what can they possibly tell you about saving Metropolis? That’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own.
I was not consciously thinking about superheroes when I came to Unitarian Universalism in the late eighties. But looking back, I can see how the fantasies of my youth foreshadowed both the virtues and vices of my adult religion.
The Unitarian Universalist church I joined in my thirties was an ideal place for orphans whose birth-planets had exploded. Its three centuries of history were visible but ignorable, like a statue in the park whose plaque is never read. We might begin a service with a pithy quote from William Ellery Channing or Hosea Ballou, or bring the colonial silver out of its safe-deposit box once a year to reenact communion. But we never seriously engaged with the Christian worldviews of those Unitarian and Universalist giants or with the rituals they found meaningful.
Instead, we called ourselves heretics and reveled in our rebellion. We framed our history as a series of exploded birth-planets: UU Buddhists and Pagans had escaped from Humanism, Humanists from liberal Christianity, liberal Christians from Calvinism, Calvin and Luther from Catholicism, Catholics from Judaism, Jews from Paganism . . . it was rocket ships and sole survivors all the way back. And whatever planet you had come from, the shards of its explosion were deadly kryptonite now.
Unitarian Universalism appealed to me then not as a heritage I could carry forward into the future, but as a place to start over. Sheltered from the lethal radiation of the past, I could build my own theology from scratch and figure out for myself how to save Metropolis.
Unlike most in my generation, I kept paying attention to cartoons and comics as I got older. So I got to observe how the underlying mythology of superheroes changed as a new generation reached adolescence.
In the late Seventies, X-Men rose out of its previous obscurity to become the era-defining comic. Teams of superheroes were not new—I had grown up with Justice League, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four—but the X-Men had something different: Professor Xavier, a mentor.
That changed everything. X-Men’s ascendency ended the era of orphan heroes figuring it out on their own. Just about every successful superhero created after 1980 has had a mentor. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had Splinter, their sensei. The Power Rangers had Zordon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Giles. Some heroes had even more to live up to than the vision of a single mentor: Lineages of vampire slayers and Witchblade-wielders stretched back into the misty past. (The Tick, a spoof about a super-powered simpleton whose sidekick always has to save the day, is the unmentored exception that proves the rule.) The hero-mentor relationship might be stormy, and at times the hero might have to ignore the mentor’s advice and improvise. But the new generation’s heroes were never completely adrift. That wasn’t part of the fantasy anymore.
The older superhero myths adjusted to the trend. In each retelling, the once clueless or absent older generation played a larger role: Alfred, Aunt Mae, the Kents—they got stronger, wiser, and more supportive. Even geography changed to bring them closer to the action. In the current Smallville TV series, you can bop out to Metropolis for dinner and be home in time for bed.
When a next-generation Batman cartoon (Batman Beyond) was created in 1999, the advice-giving old man was Bruce Wayne himself. Even Batman was no longer a role you made up on your own; it had become a legacy to live up to.
The generation that is now in young adulthood has grown up with an expectation—or maybe just a hope—that would have been foreign to me as a boy: Somewhere, someone ought to have a wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to.
As that generation shows up on the doorsteps of UU churches (with their toddlers in tow) what kind of Unitarian Universalism will they be looking for?
Nowhere in the Unitarian Universalist movement is the generational issue more serious and central than among the Humanists. The generation that remembers the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and founded institutions like the American Humanist Association is dying off. They started or led many congregations during an era when Unitarianism (and then Unitarian Universalism) was almost synonymous with Humanism. But they lived long enough to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s energy (first the energy of young ministers and later of UUA leadership) focused elsewhere—promoting spirituality and reclaiming a language of reverence that many Humanists found meaningless or perhaps even sinister. Now UU Humanists of all ages worry that Humanist history is not taught in our churches and the Humanist legacy is in danger.
At the same time, the larger culture is seeing a surge of interest in areas related to Humanism. Polls show ever-increasing numbers of young people to be skeptical of traditional religion. Books by the so-called New Atheists have hit the bestseller list. Harvard’s Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein (author of the recent Good Without God and a speaker at last summer’s UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis) sees a rare opportunity: A revival of the Humanist tradition could channel this tide of anti-religion, anti-God energy into a more positive, humanity-affirming, society-changing movement.
But whether that revival will happen, and whether it will happen inside Unitarian Universalism, are still open questions. And so it is easy to imagine either that UU Humanism is on the verge of an upswing, or that it is about to become a seldom-read chapter of our history.
An ideal place to examine those questions was the Humanist Homecoming, an all-day celebration of Unitarian Universalist Humanism that I attended on the Saturday of General Assembly this past June. The Homecoming was held a twenty-minute walk away from the Convention Center, in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.
Perhaps only First Unitarian could get away with billing itself as a “home” Humanists could come back to. Sometimes referred to as the flagship congregation of Humanism in the UUA, First Unitarian’s ministry is a Humanist lineage stretching from the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons back to the Rev. John Dietrich, who served the congregation from 1916 to 1938 and whom historian Mason Olds has called “the father of religious humanism.”
Dietrich’s legacy, and what might or might not become of it in the future, was one of the Homecoming’s recurring themes.
It’s hard to imagine a figure like John Dietrich today. He preached a freshly written hour-long sermon every week, a career output that could fill more than 100 volumes. And in the era of Babe Ruth, when television was still a laboratory curiosity and fifteen-second commercials inconceivable, listeners flocked to hear him. His services regularly drew over a thousand people and had to be moved to a downtown theater. They were broadcast to the masses via the innovative high-tech media of the day: radio.
Today’s Humanists fight a stereotype of being arid and academic, but when I have read chunks of Dietrich’s 1925 sermon “Unitarianism and Humanism” out loud, they have fallen into rabble-rousing cadences. It is hard not to pound the pulpit and gesture with more animation than is typically my style. (After his Homecoming lecture on Dietrich, I asked Olds if that animation was historically accurate, and he said that it probably was.)
That sermon’s message is a still-innocent modernism—pre-Depression, pre-Holocaust, pre-Hiroshima—when the gulags were just rumors and the League of Nations seemed to foreshadow a world commonwealth of peace and justice. Old superstitions may have frozen humanity into unjust and counterproductive systems, but Dietrich could see a worldwide thaw starting to liberate human energy for the great work of creating the perfect society.
Today, that message sounds naïve, but it is also too inspiring to walk away from. Someone—maybe lots of us—should be shoring up its foundations and installing postmodern plumbing. Instead, Dietrich is in danger of being forgotten. Last year, I mentioned Dietrich to a newly minted young UU minister. The name did not ring a bell.
The Homecoming’s most challenging talk came from one of its youngest speakers. Daniel Schlorff, the director of religious education at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut, warned people my age and older not to expect his millennial generation to respond to the same messages that had appealed to us. He described today’s young adults as a generation “in rebellion against rebellion,” looking to reclaim and revitalize traditional forms rather than reject them. What is being rejected, he claimed, is the principle of “anything goes.”
I didn’t ask Schlorff which superheroes he grew up admiring. But to me he was describing the generation shaped by the X-Men and Buffy, a generation of Power Rangers looking to unite into a Megazord rather than face the monsters alone. Needing to figure out how to save Metropolis from scratch, with no received wisdom to build on, isn’t a fantasy anymore. It’s a nightmare.
The previous day, I had attended a very different event at General Assembly: a UU Christian Fellowship discussion about setting up Bible-study groups. Coincidentally, we read what might be the original carrying-forward-a-legacy story: II Kings, chapter 2, in which Elisha witnesses Elijah’s ascent to Heaven and then picks up his teacher’s fallen mantle to begin his own career as a prophet of Israel.
In the discussion that followed, I chose not to bring up Batman Beyond or to relate the prophet’s mantle to the hero’s cape and cowl. It is hard to make such comparisons without sounding disrespectful. But whether we grow up with stories from ancient scrolls or from video games, our unconscious expectations are shaped accordingly. Children in every generation want to become heroes, but each generation has its own vision of what a hero is.
In my generation, the Elisha story fell flat. How dare our elders style themselves as Elijah and give us a mantle to carry forward? We would find our own garments, thank you very much.
But today’s young adults may be reading that story differently. And if so, maybe my generation has stumbled into more good luck than we deserve. We see mantles falling to the ground unclaimed and legacies being forgotten. How fortunate it would be if Elishas were knocking at the door.
I believe they are.
But are the Elishas and the mantles going to find each other? Or will the rising generation wander through our churches, find no Elijahs here, and go on to look elsewhere?
That question challenges my generation in two very different ways. First, can we fill a mentor role that didn’t exist in our own generational mythology? Now that it’s getting too late to be Spider-Man, can we look inside ourselves and find a Professor Xavier?
But an even greater challenge is to heal our own relationship with the past, so that we have a deeper and richer legacy to offer our prospective successors. A history that begins with us—with our own precious rocket ships escaping the detonation of Krypton—will ring hollow to the rising generation. They are looking for more than that.
And we have more, if only we make peace with it. The places we come from, both individually and as a movement, gave us not just what we reject and rebel against, but also the potentials that we develop. It is time, I think, to reassemble all those exploded birth-planets into a living heritage.
Imagine a Unitarian Universalism in which Buddhists and Pagans celebrated the Humanist insights they have built upon. Picture John Dietrich not just as the father of religious humanism, but also as a son whose nontheistic message fulfilled potentials that had been growing in Unitarianism since before the days of Channing. Picture UU Christians honoring their orthodox inheritance . . . and back and back and back.
That mantle—the complete Unitarian Universalist mantle, with stitches going back to the beginning of humankind—is the one that Elisha is going to want.
see below for links to related resources. “Heroman in ‘The Young Heroes’” story and characters by Doug Muder; art by Pete McDonnell (Linda de Moreta Represents).
- Heroman in “The Young Heroes.” Comic book companion to this article, by Doug Muder and Pete McDonnell.
- John Hassler Dietrich. Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography entry by Alan Seaburg. (UU Historical Society)
- HUUmanists. Association of Unitarian Universalist Humanists. (huumanists.org)
- UU Christian Fellowship. Non-creedal followers of Jesus rooted in the history and tradition of Unitarian Universalism. (uuchristian.org)