The Past We Inherit
Religious Humanism is something old. It is as old as Greek philosopher Protagoras who said: "As for the gods, I do not know whether they exist or not. Life is too short for such difficult enquiries . . . . Man [human] is the measure of all things, determining what does and what does not exist." It is as old as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, all non-theistic faiths of the first millennium BCE. It was the age of Confucius and Lao-tzu of China, the Upanishads of ancient India, of Buddha the Enlightened One, Zoroaster religious prophet of Persia, and the Hebrew prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It was Isaiah who exhorted " bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, open the prison to them that are bound."
Religious Humanism is as old as Jesus. According to Mark, Jesus went through the cornfields on a Sabbath day, and he and his friends began to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees, who were always ready to criticize on the basis of any legalism, saw the friends and asserted that it was not lawful to pick corn on the Sabbath. Jesus used an example from King David to support his cause, and said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." That was a humanistic statement which means: "The temple was made for man, not man for the temple," or "The church was made for humans, not humans for the church." All institutions were created to serve people, not the people to serve the institutions. This is the humanistic approach to life. To me Jesus was a great humanist! His teachings were about people; his ministry was to people.
Religious Humanism is as old the Reformation and Renaissance in 15th and 16th century Europe. Dutchman Erasmus was an influential personality behind the Renaissance in all of Europe. He revived classical learning and re-translated the New Testament in the Greek to show where the Church had erred. He did not leave the Catholic Church, but he was an independent critic both of Catholicism and of the Reformation. He considered reason to be the best guide of life, and the supreme arbiter of all questions, in politics and religion. But he did more than just return to the original sources of earlier days, he had a positive theology. For him ritual and ecclesiastical authority meant little. Christianity to Erasmus was the fullest expression of a universal, essentially ethical religion and quoted the pre-Christian prophets and philosophers often. His Christianity was not sacramental, but rather people-centered. He pioneered a new way of thinking with a daring confidence in people and in human progress. He had a strong faith in God; but his devotion was to knowledge, to love, to social justice, to world government--which made him a leading humanist.
It is no coincidence that the organized Unitarian movement came into existence more than four centuries ago at the same time as the flowering of the European Renaissance and the beginning of modern science. Faustus Socinus participated in all three of these movements. He set his stamp upon 16th century Unitarianism to such an extent that it was long popularly called Socinianism after him. He was an outstanding humanist who pictured God as creating man and saying to him:I have set you at the center of the world, so that from there you may survey whatever is in the world. We have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, more freely and more honorably the molder and maker of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever form you shall prefer.
Fundamental in the teaching of Socinians was the moral ability of man [humans]. Socinians published the Racovian Catechism which was the earliest organized expression of the humanistic spirit in religion and later became the "Magna Carta" of religious liberals in Europe.
The Enlightenment of 18th century Europe has become known as "the golden age of humanism," generated in a large part to the English-speaking world by the philosopher John Locke and the scientist Isaac Newton. Characteristics of the outlook of that age have been summarized by historian Carl Becker:
(1) man is not natively depraved;
Prominent among the Unitarian humanists of the 18th century are Joseph Priestley and William Ellery Channing. Priestley's belief in the possibilities of human progress was to be accomplished by human thinking and human efforts. It was the Unitarian affirmation that the free exercise of reason was the way to reach a true understanding of things. William Ellery Channing, beloved minister of Federal Street Church in Boston, declared, "I ought not to sacrifice to any religion that reason which lifts me above the brute and constitutes me a man." Channing had an unquestioning and unfailing faith in God, but it was his obsession with the dignity of human nature that made him an ardent humanist. He wanted religion to be relevant to human needs, both personal and social needs. The moral quality of religion was for him more important than the liturgical. For Channing and numerous Unitarian humanists, their focus was on humanity and their faith was in a liberal intellect and in moral rectitude. American Unitarianism was born as a religion for this world and to solve this world's problems.
Religious Humanism is as new as 19th and 20th century America. It is as new as the Transcendentalists and the Free Religious Association; it's as new as John Dietrich, Curtis Reese, and Anna Garlin Spencer. Dietrich, for many years minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, was a powerful preacher, theologian, and social radical. He proclaimed a new religious humanism, that evolved within our own denomination, although it was not confined to our denomination. He was highly iconoclastic and antitheistic. For him theism itself, or belief in God, was one of the idols that had to be shattered. He proclaimed a natural religion as over against the supernatural. In his classic statement on humanism, he said:Humanism in religion is the shifting of emphasis from God to man [human], making the enrichment of human life the object of our allegiance and consecration .Man [human] must by his [her] own effort carve out his [her] own destiny.
If we live in a great impersonal universe it matters tremendously how we conduct ourselves, for we are actually the makers of human destiny. We are not simply individuals who have a beginning in life and an ending. We are links in the endless chain of life. To us has been committed all that life has won from chaos in all the ages past. Only through us can that trust from the past be transmitted to the future.
The religious humanist's quest for truth, value, and meaning could well be summarized as The Great Conversation. No one of us knows enough about living and dying and how to do either. Socrates could be our patron saint! Socrates, a stonecutter's son-become-philosopher, was a watershed in human history. Before him, human existence was viewed as impersonal; human destiny was ruled by fate through the gods. After him, responsibility centered on the individual. The life of dialogue was the way to truth. Clarity of thinking was the key. He engaged in dialogue not to win by beating an opponent, but to use the encounter for exposing error and seeking truth, which is best discovered in public discussion. The purpose of life was tending to one's soul and building one's character. To him we are indebted for familiar phrases now deep in our humanist consciousness: "Give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward (person) be at one." "Know thyself." "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Religious Humanism is as new as Sophia Lyon Fahs. Our pioneer religious educator wrote a book in 1965 with an arresting title: Worshipping Together With Questioning Minds. Fahs sought to demonstrate the "essential interdependence of mind and heart, of reverence and inquiry." Questioning is a religious activity. Conversation with another about the great life questions is a religious activity. Her method of truthseeking is at the heart of the liberal religious faith and religious education.
She told a story about one of her church school classes in which a boy brought a wasp's nest. All of the children crowded around him, alert and keen with their questions. Interest was at its height when the question was asked: "Who taught the wasp how to make a nest?" a rather profound and searching question. At once a child answered, "God, of course." To the teacher's surprise, the children's interest in the wasp's nest from that moment began to wane. One by one they left the nest alone on the window sill. The naming of God had solved the mystery for the children and stifled their further curiosity.
Sophia Fahs and Socrates were true educators. Education derives from the Latin educare--literally "to draw out." Education at any age is not a matter of pouring knowledge from one container to another. It is more a function of drawing out what one already knows. Of course, there is new information to process, new insights from others to consider, new experiences to examine. But the task of the teacher, and the religious educator, is not to teach but to help people learn. Fahs insisted on calling our churches religious communities and our educational programs schools of religion. We come together, she reasoned, to worship and to learn--because we do not know the answers to the "questions that never wear out." We come together because we wish to confess our ultimate ignorance before the cosmic mysteries and to share what insights we do have. Basically, it is a planned effort to enable people to probe what they already know and feel and value in the deepest recesses of their being and lead them out into the light of day. The goal is to make explicit what is implicit. It is part of the Great Conversation that is at the heart of liberal religion and religious humanism.
For me the essence of Religious Humanism is summed up in a revised title of an old curriculum: We are the Meaning Makers. We are homines religioses--creatures who must have meaning. For others that meaning is inherent in the cosmos, built into the structures of being by God. The human task is to discover it. For religious humanists, meaning is not so much discovered as created out of the raw stuff of our own experience the interplay of self with others, history and nature. To us divine revelation is but human knowledge projected on a cosmic screen; the will of God is the projection of human needs on a divine backdrop.
The essence of humanism is succinctly summarized by Albert Camus:I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is humanity, because we are the only creatures to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of humanity, and our task is to provide its justification against fate itself . . . .If, after all, people cannot always make history have a meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one.
As Protagoras said: We are the measure of all things. We are not the controlling agents of history or nature, but we are ultimately the ones to measure them. To illustrate, take the biblical saga of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham hears a voice: "Slay thy son." And he is immediately forced to decide whose voice it is. Is it Yahweh, lord of the universe, testing Abraham's faith? Or is it Moloch, the deity who demands human sacrifice, seeking his mid-morning snack? Or is it Moloch masquerading as Yahweh or vice-versa? Here we have a situation of objective uncertainty. There is no infallible test to answer those questions. Abraham must choose, there is no other choice. In our time, it is we who must choose to which voices of authority we will listen. As Jean Paul Sartre wrote: "Even if I think it is God that I obey, it is I who decided it was God who spoke to me." Religious Humanism begins and ends in human experience.
Our human finitude forces us not only to make human determinations about right and wrong, but also to measure what is immeasurable--to "measure" that transcendent reality that created us. That is intimidating to say the least. The religious humanist believes that while we cannot do very much about the Ultimate, we can do something about how we respond to it, how we live our lives in the proximate. We are forced back on ourselves for whatever meaning there is in existence. Finding that life is cosmically absurd is not the end of religion, but the beginning of the creation of human meaning.
Religious Humanism, as it comes to us today, from Jesus and Erasmus, Socinus and Channing, Dietrich and Fahs, is part of our heritage. Its legacy is the concern for human well-being, the affirmation that we are free to act for what we believe in and to change the situation in which we find ourselves through these efforts, the defense of reason, the acceptance of responsibility. The power of Religious Humanism is in "minds that are open to change, hearts that are open to each other." We live in a situation of "objective uncertainty" about the nature of humanity, cosmos, virtue. There is no way to be absolutely sure. In this situation, no one of us knows enough. We seek answers to such questions, not only in solitary searching, but also in a social setting, where we can learn from one another. We are then co-equal centers of freedom, value and authority. Our ideal is a community of seekers, partners engaged in dialogue, enjoying the Great Conversation. Our mutual mission is to share what little we have found in the hope that something larger will be created, learned, discovered, experienced.
The Future We Create
The future we create depends on the self-reflection of our heritage, the honest dialogue in relationship with our religious humanist companions, and the questioning way which critiques our truths and commitments. Let me begin my critique of Religious Humanism with a story that has haunted me. Philosopher Karl Jaspers was once asked about the significance of Liberalism in Nazi Germany. Jaspers, a Liberal himself, said it had none--it had not been able to stand up to Hitler. He recommended choosing a more orthodox form of faith, for only those with that deep-rooted conviction could withstand the onslaught of the evils of modern warfare and the holocaust. I do not know if Religious Humanism, as an open-minded, creatively&emdash; evolving, anthropocentric faith, has the kind of spiritual stamina to resist evil for the long haul of the 21st century. The alleged arrogance of Humanism, its easy historical optimism, its calm confidence in the inherent virtue of human nature is no more. While I cannot affirm the absolute certainty of God with my theistic friends, I acknowledge the power of such a belief for living courageously.
One of the foundational truths of humanism is the centrality of human-being-ism. I think we need to strive to gain a perspective beyond a focus on the human. True enough, the universe radiates out for us from the point at which we stand, and in that sense we are at the center of it. But we need to take the Copernican revolution seriously and acknowledge, that there is also a sense in which we stand at the very margin of incalculable vastnesses in which our place is infinitesimal. I want to see myself as part of a greater whole, an interconnected web that is not centered on the human. I want the whales to survive whether or not they can be demonstrated to be of use or interest to us humans, but simply because they are there. I take seriously the reminder from Rabindranath Tagore that Western humanism was born within the walled cities of Greece, cut off from its place within the world of nature, and that that alienation still exists, to our own spiritual and physical peril.
Religious Humanism has been marked by an arid rationalism; I have doubts that it has the capacity to sing and soar. If everything is to be filtered through the grid of scientific rationalism before we respond to it, then we are impoverishing our lives in the process. We need also, as Einstein said, a sense of wonder and mystery. We need imagination as well as reason, we need the insights that come from myth and poetry as well as those that come from science. And if we want to take a religious approach to the world, then we need space for spiritual exercises, for meditation, for rituals that complement but don't contradict the words and symbols through which we express the conclusions of reason.
Reason, while an indispensable part of our religious "meaning-making," is not omnicompetent. There are dimensions of the human predicament which it can not fully probe--suffering, evil, death. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for deep religion, which is rationality and feeling, will and spirit. Where is the humanist Ein' feste Burg to send us out of our seats and face the lions of living in the new millennium? Where is its 23rd Psalm to comfort the afflicted? Can religious humanism give hope when we encounter defeat, suffering, and death on life's road? Can religious humanism sustain us when we stand at the abyss of life and death? I know I am finite in the great scheme of things--I know it not only in my mind, but in the deep places in my spirit. As a religious humanist I must make room in my philosophy for tragedy.
There is a time for doubt. There is time for uncertainty. There is time for ambiguity. But preoccupation with them is not a very satisfying way to spend a life. There must also be a time for faith in the worthwhileness of life. There must be a time for decisive action even in the fact of uncertainty. There must be a time for empathic convictions even in the face of ambiguity. John Dietrich, that prophet of the humanist spirit, wrote in the later years of his life:I realize now how my utter reliance upon science and reason, and my contempt for any intuitive insights and tangible values which are the very essence of art and religion was a great mistake; and the way in which I cut mankind [humankind] off from all cosmic relationship, denying or ignoring every influence outside of humanity itself, was very short sighted and arrogant.
As a religious humanist who eschews theological orthodoxies and dogmatic certainties, I think we need a core of convictions that changes only very slowly in light of the most profoundly moving experiences. And at the same time as an ardent religious educator, I believe we need a growing edge to explore new passageways of the spirit. My personal theological task as well as our communal philosophical task is to enrich this faulted Religious Humanism. As a humbled humanist Unitarian Universalist, I will strive to correct past errors and to make meaning with present and future religious humanists by understanding that religion has more to do with convictions that lead to action than beliefs which do not, that doubt is not an end in itself but a means to a deeper and more intelligent faith, that religion must speak to the spirit as well as the mind, that it must sing and inspire, cherish and sustain.
The Religious Humanism that I encourage us to address as co-creators and companions in the Humanist Institute is not just the search for meaning and value. I don't deny the reality or importance of the Institute in addressing that need and fashioning its curriculum to fulfill that purpose. But I believe there is a more fundamental need upon which the meaning and the purpose of the Humanist Institute rests. It is the need which meaning is sought to satisfy--the need to belong, to feel at home in life and the universe. Without a sense of belonging, it is difficult to feel valuable/valued and to make meaning. When crises threaten our sense of meaning and purpose in life, then relationships that continue to provide some sense of belonging and human connection can sustain us until we have reshaped or recovered our sense of meaning.
Fundamentally, our Religious Humanism needs to be concerned with relationships: our relationship to each other, to the world we live in, to all of life, and to the universe in which we live and move and have our being. Religious Humanism needs to offer an experience of belonging and a sense of meaning and purpose to those who believe and participate in our communities and educational systems. The Humanist Institute can play a dynamic and essential role in understanding and building these vital relationships.
The relationships we need to pursue are threefold: a relationship to the human family, to celebrate the multicultural diversity of the world's people and to lead in the direction of social justice and wholeness; a relationship to our precious planet Earth, to be environmental caregivers/caretakers and to lead in the direction of ecological justice and wholeness; a relationship to liberation humanism, to know our selves and to be at home with self, with life, with the universe and to lead in the direction of liberty and interdependence.
Relationship to the Human Family
Our first principle as humanists is faith in the inherent worth of every person and devotion to the interests and well-being of human beings. To attract, affirm, serve and lead a diverse membership whether in community, congregation, or education center, it requires that we as individuals, as Humanist Institute, as Association/organization/movement become fiercely intentional in our efforts to become truly diverse. One of the first steps in this process is acknowledging the endless array of labels (black, white, female, male, young, old, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, white-collar, blue-collar, disabled, and so on) that we can use to categorize and judge people. It is not the category, but thinking categorically, that is the problem. Moving beyond this tendency to categorical thinking calls us to be open to new insights, new challenges, new perceptions, and new language. Faithfulness to our religious humanism and ethical values can lead to the building of new communities--communities in which people of different racial, ethnic, cultural, and personal identities join together in transcending differences, prejudices, and other barriers, and find connectedness within the human family.
Once religious humanists set our sights on a vision of the way life can and should be, we join together, we share our resources, we learn what needs to be learned and we take action! If our vision is of an authentically anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and multicultural Humanism, our communities and congregations and education centers will be equitable, pro-active, spiritual-transforming forces for justice. A commitment to this vision is both mandatory and voluntary. It is mandatory if we wish to be true to the principles, values, and legacy of religious humanism. It is voluntary because communities make choices in facing this opportunity and in taking the risk of transformation and change to embrace this challenge. For all, this commitment holds the possibility for new religious authenticity and spiritual renewal. With fervent hope in building this relationship, I make three recommendations which I believe are the cornerstones of future success.
First, to affirm our commitment to this anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and multicultural vision, I recommend the passage of an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and multicultural resolution/vision/covenant/initiative in all the humanist organizations of NACH (North American Committee for Humanism) and to enter into reflection, study, and action based on our anti-bias values and education programs.
Second, to support and nurture this vision/initiative and to give it authority within NACH, I recommend the establishment of a NACH anti-oppressive, anti-racist transformation team with the charge to assess, monitor, and evaluate the implementation of this vision/initiative throughout our organizations.
Third, to prepare us for change and transformation, I recommend the creation of a team of anti-bias educators, who will work within our institutions and who will remain in dialogue with those doing this work in different contexts.
The Humanist Institute is called upon to be the leadership on this commitment to create an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, multicultural association/movement. To initiate policies and practices, to develop education programs and training, to encourage related publications and advocacy is recommended to lead us in the direction of social justice and wholeness. This anti-bias work is based on the belief that while each oppressed group has its own history and perspectives, some of the dynamics are at the core of all oppressions. All oppressions--sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism--are linked by the common coordinates of power and privilege and by common methods of limiting, controlling, and destroying lives. To understand the connection among these oppressions is to understand that all of us have suffered from the effects of an unjust society. And all of us are called to be gadflies, educators, advocates, and leaders in this anti-bias initiative.
Relationship to Planet Earth
Our commitment to "the interdependent web of all existence" challenges three long-held humanist assumptions about nature. Historically speaking, "man is the measure of all things" has meant that boundaries between man and nature are sharp and distinct and the value of nature was to be gauged in terms of its usefulness to men. In the classical Greek and Cartesian views of the universe, the world is atomistic, divisible, non-relativistic, and comprehensible only by the reductionistic approach. Nature is inert: trees are static, rocks are dead. Economic growth is unquestioned. Nature becomes an economic resource, susceptible to management. Growth, development, "progress" are the primary considerations.
A new relationship to planet Earth needs to move us beyond these assumptions and the consequences of this man-made environmental abuse and eco-suicide. Some of the social, political, and economic concepts associated with deep ecology need to be included in our humanist platform: a just and sustainable society; frugality; developing a sense of place; cultural and biological diversity; decentralization; renewable energy; and appropriate technology. The underlying assumptions of a commitment to the "interdependent web of existence" would be: (1) Human beings are just one species among others in the community of nature. All living beings are intrinsically equal. (2) Everything is connected and the interrelationships are constantly changing. The natural world is dynamic, fluid, and interdependent. (3) Economic development requires ecological sustainability and a long-term view.
In building this relationship, I call upon the Humanist Institute to be intentional in our curricular efforts as well as our training programs for ecological activism. All of our curricular endeavors need to include an ecological dimension. The earth is our only source of material sustenance, as well as a major source of our spiritual nurturance. Degradation and destruction of the earth are inherently violent and lead to increasing conflict and injustice. Religious Humanism requires a reverence for the earth and an understanding of human interdependence, both material and spiritual, with the rest of nature. Nature asks us to assist in this evolutionary experiment. Nature asks us to help her towards excellence. Our responsibility and role as Earth caregivers and caretakers challenges us to be co-creators with our planet Earth. To companion with others in ecological justice, to develop education programs and symposiums, to encourage related publications and advocacy is recommended to lead us in the direction of ecological justice and wholeness.
Relationship to Liberation Humanism
A fundamental question for all religions is Who Am I? To give structure to our humanist reality we look at the stories we grew up with--provided by our parents, our religion, our culture--which shaped our identity and our sense of meaning in the face of our own foreseen end. "Home is where one starts from " T. S. Eliot wrote. In the beginning, from the moment of conception, we are at home in life and the universe, but we are not conscious of it. Then separation begins, first physical and then psychological and spiritual separation as we become aware of our selves apart from others. That separation marks the beginning of exploration, the beginning of our spiritual journey. The end of all our exploring--our questioning and searching--will be to know, with heart and mind and soul, that we do belong, that we are at home, that we are an eternal part of all that is. Again T. S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
I have always loved these lines by Haunting House curriculum author, Rev. Barbara Hollerorth, that seem to touch this thought.it is sometimes said that we are born as strangers into the world, and that we leave it when we die. But in all probability, we do not come into this world at all. Rather, we come out of it, in the same way that a leaf comes out of a tree or a baby from its mother's body. We emerge from deep within its range of possibilities, and when we die, we do not so much stop living as our living takes on a different form. So the leaf does not fall out of the world when it leaves the tree. It has a different way and place to be in it.
The Humanist Institute is called upon to foster mentorships and plan tutorials for I believe our ultimate commitment is to human liberation. It is here that interchanges and interactions in the humanist community can allow us to know our selves and see humanity as cosmic energy come to consciousness. Here we can explore history as a radically open-ended process and human adventure as spiritual evolution. For Religious Humanism revelation is not sealed; the continuing revelation of truth comes from many sources--through reason, intuition, and the scientific method filtered through human experience. The Humanist Institute can provide opportunities to celebrate life and serve humanity at each of its gatherings and meetings.
Questions for the Future of the Humanist Institute
My faith in religious humanism and the viability of the Humanist Institute to serve the leadership needs within the various contexts of our organizations is a question of commitment and companionship. To create an exciting vision and strategy for the Humanist Institute, to live in harmony with the regenerative powers of humanist institutions, I think we must passionately pursue the following areas before, during, and after graduation.
1. Who or what holds and calls us to freedom, love, justice, and wholeness" How has the ultimate/sacred been revealed? Are we alive to the religious pulse of life?
The questioning way is our trademark! I look forward to being with humanists in ways that are direct, respectful, honest, kind, and caring. In our conversations may we be open to the insights and experiences of one another even as we struggle with our own answers. There is a power in our religious humanism--both to persuade and to be persuaded, both to act on and to be acted on, both to influence and to be influenced.
© 1998 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
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