Celebrating a Lifetime of Non-Theistic Service…and Looking Forward To Many More!
interview by Susan M. Corbett
As we reported last month, UnitedCoR took part in the Heartland Humanist Conference, co-sponsored by the Omaha Coalition of Reason. While we were there, we met one of the conference speakers, Ron Knapp, who has provided over sixty years of life-long ministry to a variety of groups. Ron is currently Minister Emeritus of First Unitarian Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Michigan University, a Master of Divinity from Central Michigan University, a Master of Divinity degree from Drew University and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree from Dartmouth. He and is wonderful wife, Anne, have been married for 62 years. They have five children and what Ron describes as their own “population explosion” of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Ron is the author of three books: Of Life Immense: The Prophetic Vision of Walt Whitman, That’s All Right If He’s Really Saved: Sermons From A Liberal Religious Pulpit, and Moments: In a Life—A Memoir. Though retired, Ron is having a lot of fun leading monthly workshops titled “Exploring Humanistic Perspectives in Literature.”
Susan M. Corbett: At the conference, you described yourself as a “naturalistic Humanist.” What does that mean, and how do you believe that this description has an impact on how non-theists should view our relationship with our natural world?
Ron Knapp: Perhaps I should begin answering this question by saying that decades ago I adopted as my own personal “mantra” a sentence from John Locke: “One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proof it is built upon will warrant.” For me, knowledge and belief have become two sides of the same coin. What one believes should be predicated on what one knows about the nature of the world, and about the nature of the universe. I find that there is very little evidence that supports many traditional religious doctrines such as the existence of a God, or that of an afterlife. More and more they appear to be simply wishful thinking or delusions.
We do know a lot more, especially as we are now moving through the twenty-first century, about the nature of Earth and the nature of the universe. We no know, for example, that all living things, including human beings, are part of a single biological evolutionary process that has taken place, and continues to take place, on Earth. We now know that everything in the cosmos, animate or inanimate, is part of a single cosmic evolutionary process. We now know that the very elements that make up our bodies were created in the center of giant stars and were released into the universe as a result of supernovas. Where once one could affirm, without knowledge, that human beings are the children of God, we can now affirm, with knowledge, that we are the children of the Earth, children of the universe.
I see myself as a naturalistic Humanist. I tend to see myself as a Humanist primarily because I am a human being and I celebrate the human way of being in the world. But I think that Humanism, in the twenty-first century, needs to be embedded in a much larger naturalism. We know that human beings are only one species, among thousands, perhaps millions, of species, all of which are the products of the same biological evolution and cosmic evolution processes. Human beings can no longer, with intellectual honesty, see themselves as being something special in creation. Human beings can no longer, with intellectual honesty, see themselves as the top of some evolutionary heap. Human beings, with intellectual honesty, can no longer see themselves as anything other than part and parcel of the natural world.
SMC: You’ve been a caregiver and leader for many people for over 60 years. What would you say have been the greatest challenges of your work?
RK: I expect that most of the challenges I have faced in the ministry—or at least many of them—have to do with my personality. For example, I do not “suffer fools gladly” and love to argue. The challenge has been to know when to “bite my tongue” so as to maintain relationship. Another example: I like people, but I also love ideas. The challenge has been to do what I can with ideas but also to let people know that I accept them. A third example: ministers can be divided, in some ways, between preachers and pastors. Preaching and teaching have always been primary for me—they’re what I love to do—and pastoral work has always been secondary: it was always “work.” I suppose the challenge has been to make sure that the pastoral work gets done, that people know that I care. I think that I have handled these challenges, over the years, pretty well.
The most difficult experiences I had in my ministry were during the Vietnam War era and the “War on Poverty.” To be true to my conscience, I had to speak out against the war, for civil rights, and in defense of the poor. I was involved in anti-war demonstrations and also participated in welfare sit-ins. Whenever I would act in response to my conscience, however, the church I loved would lose membership. One Sunday I gave a sermon titled “Memo to a Revolution from a Reluctant Revolutionary.” There was an old man in the congregation who was a member of the New Hampshire Legislature. He was also very hard of hearing. He did not hear very much of my sermon. Perhaps the only word he heard was “revolution.” Following the church service he met me, blocking the door, and said, “I want you to know that when that revolution comes you are talking about, I am going to be at the other end of a gun aiming it at you.” Those were difficult days for me…I wouldn’t want to live through them again.
SMC: I remember that you mentioned you started off your ministry as a United Methodist and then became connected with Unitarian Universalism. What were some of your personal, philosophical struggles that you dealt with to leave an evangelical ministry to becoming more progressing and all-encompassing?
RK: To understand who I am and my life as a minister, one must begin with North Prairie Methodist Church. North Prairie was a small open country church that I became involved with as a young teenager. I fell in love with the church. I fell in love with the minister. North Prairie became the most important place in my life and the Methodist Youth Fellowship became the most important experience in my life. It was there that I made life-long friends. It was there that I learned that I could be a leader. It was there that I learned that I could be a public speaker. I still think of North Prairie as being the foundation home of my life. In your question you used the word, “evangelical.” That never was a word that described me. North Prairie, and her ministers, were always somewhat liberal. I was a Christian but I was never a fundamentalist. As a Methodist minister I was always involved in social justice issues. Very early in my ministry—while I was still only nineteen years old—I got into theological trouble with my congregation This ultimately ended in my being fired! I became very interested in the New Testament book of James. It’s written in James that, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, be warmed and filled without giving them the things needful for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Using James’ words as a text, I gave a sermon titled “Cart Before the Horse Religion.” In retrospect, I think of that sermon as being my first Unitarian sermon. In that sermon I said that deeds were more important than beliefs. Fundamentalists in my congregation were furious and complained to my superior. I was fortunate. He thought I had some potential and appointed me to another church, one that was more liberal. I had what preachers call a “honeymoon” in that church.
Unlike many of my fellow Unitarians, I did not leave Methodism in anger. It was a sad day for me when I decided that I could no longer be a Methodist and had to leave the church I loved and felt at home in. There were two seminal events that lead to that decision. The first was a funeral service for a young man who had died of cancer. He had one sibling, a brother, who had shot off half of his face in a gun accident when he was a boy. He was drunk at this brother’s funeral. As I was reading from the ritual—“In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also”—the drunken young man jumped up and shouted at me, “How in the hell do you know?” and stalked out of the funeral home. The question remained with me. I couldn’t shake it because I realized that I did not know. His remark ended up changing my life. A few months later I went to a ministers meeting where we spent a couple of hours discussing the question, “Does one become a member of the church of Christ when one becomes a member of a local church.” Is there, that is, some sacramental context to church membership? It seemed to me that the question was asinine; something like the older question about how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. On my drive home that day, I made the decision to leave the Methodist ministry and Christianity, and into Unitarianism, and Humanism. I have never regretted that decision.
SMC: What skills do you have in your “caregiver’s toolkit” that you feel helps you work with a wider variety of people than others who describe themselves as “theistic”?
RK: I always find questions like this difficult to answer. I expect that is because I have always played my ministerial life “by ear.” I don’t know if I have anything that resembles a “care giver’s toolkit.” As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I deal with a congregation that has both theists and non-theists as members of the church. One of the things that I have going for me in such situations is that appropriate touch can be healing: I touch people, I hug people, and let them know that I care. My lovely wife, Anne, thinks that the fact that I came from a working class family, and grew up poor—I was the first person in my family to graduate from college—made me sensitive to the concerns of all kinds of people. One of the most important things for me to remember, as a pastor, whether I am dealing with non-theists or theists, is to deal with them in terms of their world view and not mine. When people confront crises, such as death, that is not the time to deal with religious or philosophical differences; that is a time to provide support, comfort and hope. One thing that helps me in this regard is my love of, my knowledge of and my use of poetry. Poetry can often bridge the gap between the theists and the non-theists.
SMC: After all these years of helping people along life’s way, what has been the greatest joy you’ve received from your service to others?
RK: Another difficult question. Fundamentally, I am a “thinker” and not a “feeler.” It might be helpful to know that in the feeling-thinking section of the Myers-Briggs type indicator, I am almost “off the charts” on the thinking side. For me, emotions are, fundamentally, thoughts. When I think about “joy” it is my family and excursions into nature that come to mind. I think that “satisfaction” may be a better word for me. I get satisfaction out of preaching a good sermon, or conducting a memorial service that helps people cope with death, or when I know that I have helped someone through a difficult period in their life, or when I have seen someone change their mind because of careful thought.
SMC: We thank Ron for taking time out of his schedule to talk with us about his journey and his ongoing work in Omaha. It was a real pleasure to meet you last month, and we hope to hear many great things in the future!