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Presented April 7, 1991, by Rev. Lynn S. Smith-Roberts
Three passions have governed my life: The longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind
Love brings ecstasy and relieves lonliness. In the union of love I have seen in a mystic miniature the prefiguring vision of the heavens the saints and poets have imagined.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine.
Love and knowledge led upwards to the heavens, But always pity brought me back to earth; Cries of pain reverberated in my heart Of children in famine, of victims tortured And of old people left helpless.
I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, And I too suffer.
This has been my life; I have found it worth living.
"But you can't have a religion without God!" The Freshman girl's face displayed total shock and amazement. "Yes, you can," the older woman said. "One of the world's great religions has no god." "Which one is that?" the girl asked, skeptically. "Buddhism." "Oh." But the girl continued to relay both shock and skepticism as I - yes, the older woman was I - continued by describing a Western religious stance that also does not posit a god. The class was an Introduction to Religion class I was auditing at the university campus where I worked. (I was practicing being a student again after twelve years so I could be good at it when I went to seminary.) The conversation had broken out after the professor had asked the class to define religion. All of the others had said religion was a belief in, or worship of, a god. I said religion was "response to life," an answer which comes directly out of the philosophical stance which I proceeded to describe to my young friend and the rest of the class: Humanism.
Humanism is often defined by the ancient one-liner: "Man [by which Protagoras meant "human beings"] is the measure of all things." This has proved to be both clear and unclear in its sparseness, and has gotten humanists into trouble. Basically, Protagoras was abandoning all supernatural standards and freeing people from dependence on the gods. Let me use the words of prominent humanist Corliss Lamont to provide amplification of this definition:
Humanism is a philosophy or religion or way of life, with a supreme committment to the welfare and happiness of all humankind, utilizing the methods of reason and science, love and democracy, and holding out as its watchword compassionate concern for our fellow humans.
While there are different kinds of humanism implicit in this definition, including Christian Humanism, which focusses on modernist thinking and human means of comprehending reality, all within the framework of Christian orthodoxy, in UU circles the word is usually used to posit an atheistic or non theistic worldview.
Humanism is not a religion, say its detractors, for it does not have the rituals or the belief system of most religions. Some proponents of humanism would agree, saying that religion is outdated superstition and has nothing to do with a humanistic outlook. Others, however, disagree, and there is a branch of humanism which calls itself "religious humanism." Many of its spokespeople are UU's, like the late Paul Beattie, who once preached that it's possible to have a religion without god, but difficult to have life without religion. These religious humanists would assert that setting humanism up against religion is to create two opposing absolutes which are not necessarily opposed to each other.
If religion is indeed a deep response to what life hands you, as I defined it for my class, then humanism is a way to be religious. If religion is inspired dedication to the highest moral ideals. If the cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of spiritual aspiration, then humanism is indeed a way to be religious. Humanism is a way to be religious in the world of here and now, rather than aspiring to some heavenly hereafter. The starting place for humanists is different from that of most traditional religion: they begin with the evidence of what is seen, not what is not seen: humans, not god, nature, not deity. For them, tradiitional religions are obstacles to human progress, for they tend to encourage dependence rather than independence or interdependence. Institutions, creeds, and rituals may inhibit people from helping themselves and experiencing their full potential, or from reaching out to serve others. Certainly, concern with the supernatural distracts humans from present concerns. Humanism asserts that the underlying realities and fundamentals of life in the universe are not altered when one rules out reliance on the supernatural. The evidence of science, as well as that of human experience, shows the total personality, the organism which we call ourselves, transacts in a social and cultural environment. What happens about us must be important to us. Whether or not there is a "cosmic companion" (as Max Otto put it) there is always humanity as our constant companions. We are not alone, for we constantly walk with the women and men of history, the women and men of the present-day. We may learn much from our fellow persons, as we may learn from the world around us. To those who say there is no mystery in the humanist's universe, we laugh. You don't need god to have mystery - mystery persists in all: a stone, a flower, thoughts, bravery, hope, and the orderly cosmos itself.
Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. The goal must be an enrichment of life for all of us. thus, humanism has an ethical basis. However, it is not a static basis, for that can ossify and work to inhibit growth of societies and the individuals within them. Rather, ethics must come out of a living context, growing out of human need and the application of reason and intelligence, tempered by a sense of compassion, to the solving of human problems. They should be based on the principle that humans themselves can determine the criteria of virtue and sin and not an authority transcending the human sphere. Arbitrary ethics, based on an absolute system, can only exist in an ideal world, and we know that that world is not ours. This may imply hard choices sometimes, but human beings can handle them.
The preciousness and intrinsic worth of the individual person is a central humanist value. The human being is the end-product of the more than 17 billion years of the cosmos and the 4.5 billion years of evolution of our solar system and our earth. It is the highest lifeform the evolutionary process has developed, unique on our planet, and perhaps, in the entire cosmos. The human being counts for something. A person is able to cope with his or her problems by depending on his or her own human resources, that is, his or her own natural powers as a human being. Such a person must help build a good home in this world. Individual autonomy should be maximized by the fullest freedom of choice in all matters. Each must be able to think for his-or her-self - to explore, challenge, question, doubt, agree and disagree, and make reasoned decisions. However, because we must live in community, this autonomy must be balanced with social responsibility, so that all beings may be maximized. Humans, therefore, can both decide their own immediate behavior and take part in their own destinies. When people can think for themselves, using reason as their guide, they are best capable of developing their full humanity. The humanist is always involved in the world, as opposed to set apart from it.
A humanistic society must be guided by principles of tolerance, mutual respect, and honesty. Humanism promotes a faith in humanity, where human beings help one another. Wellbeing, and the higest quality of life possible for all the members of a society, must be promoted by the safeguarding of civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, religion and association, and freedom for artistic, intellectual, and scientific pursuits, participatory democracy, equitable economics, universal education, and the elimination of all discrimination based on religion, age, sex or sexual orientation, class distinction, race or national origin. As new knowledge is gained and new insights arrived at, policies must change. No truly humanistic society would die, for it would grow and change with its people and their needs, as well as the needs of their environment.
A humanistic world would appreciate pluralism and diversity. It would move towards a world community united in the peaceful pursuit of solutions to problems rather than the reliance upon war and the showing of force to win disputes. Co-operation would mark activities in the world: for economic grtowth and development on a world-wide scale, for technological and cultural advancement, and to curb exploitation of natural resources by pollution and waste. We have no proof of an afterlife, so the humanist counsels the living of this life a sthough it is the only one we've got by making it the best, most beautiful, most significant life we can. Our values are derived from communal living, developed out of a rich past and with a respect for the future, Those things which are deemed good are those which improve the human condition and those which are deemed evil are those which deter such improvement or hinder any responsible individual's ability to achieve actualization. By having concern for all we see around us, all may prosper. This is what commitment to humanity means for a humanist.
This is a tall order for a human being. It says we each have a part to play in the progress of our species. It's a scary proposition, but, as Helen Keller put it, "Life is either an adventure - or nothing." The humanist is drawn to the adventure, knowing that uncertainty is the existential human condition.
Humanist Jacob Bronowski hosted a television series (and wrote a book based on it) entitled The Ascent of Man (by which he wasl talking about our human history). It ends with this story, which is Bronowski's answer to the challenge of humanism. Bronowski says: "I began this series in the Valley of the Omo in East Africa, and I have come back because something that happened has remained in my mind ever since. On the morning of the day that we were to 'take' the first sentences of the first programme, a light plane took off from our airstrip with the cameraman and the sound recordist on board, and crashed within seconds of taking off. By some miracle, the pilot and the two men crawled out unhurt." After describing the grave impact on himself and his colleagues, Bronowski recalls: "I said to the cameraman . . . that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air. He said, I've thought of that. I'm going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I'm going to do the filming. It's what I have to do." Reflecting on the incident, Bronowski observes: "We are all afraid - for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man [sic], every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man [soic] to his [sic] skill, the intellectual commitment anbd the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man."
Humanism mandates that we engage in a struggle with the issues of life. It demands that we be subjects of our own lives. It asserts that we affirm life rather than deny it, seeking to affirm life rather than deny it, seeking to elicit possibilities from it rather than fleeing from them, and endeavoring to establish conditions for a satisfactory life for all, not merely a few. By stressing our responsibility for the world around us, we are reminded not to lose sight of how we participate in the evil of the world. We must be self-critical. But this also implies that we must do something about it. As Curtis Reese, one of the humanist pioneers of our denomination, said, we must have "conscious commital and loyalty to worthwhile causes and goals in order that free and positive personality may be developed, intelligently associated, and cosmically related." It is immoral to wait for a god to act for us, as traditional religion would have us do. We are compelled to get busy with the nitty gritty of making our world a better place in which to live.
The radical religious right and other theological conservatives do not see humanism as much of a religion because there is no emphasis on God or salvation or an afterlife, which are the earmarks of their faith. Indeed, they say that positing human being as the top of the evolutionary chain has made us arrogant. Just look at the ecological destruction around us. Look at the severe lapses in morality and the other ills of our society. This is what humanism has made of a world which was the creation of God, they yell at us.
Our first reaction to all of this is probably to say: "Oh, hogwash!" But their indictment does bear looking at. Some humanists may indeed be arrogant, chauvanistic human beings. Yes, if you make human beings the measure of all things, at the the expense of all of the other things, you may end up with the polluted world that we see around us. But so is to say that you can so what you want be cause God has given you dominion. I would say that our ecological disaster is more the fault of people who have set themselves up as the sole receivers of the Biblical story, and who have come adrift from the moorings which the Garden of Eden myth anchored them.
It is important for us as humanists to build bridges with our theistic brothers and sisters. Dialogue must happen for humanistic values to continue to survive in the world. New humanists are finding value in old myths for the building of these bridges. Whether you say there is an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, which has its basis in scientific fact, or you acknowledge that creation is a blessing, a gift from God, an answer anchored in theology, the imperative to work for ecological survival is the same. We are part of the natural world, not set above it. If you emphasize the need for developing quality of life for all members of the human family because we are all precious products of our evolutionary past, or because we are all children of God, or because we are all members of the body of Christ, or because each human being has worth, the imperative for justice, for right-relationship, for each person getting his needs met or opportunities opened to her, is the same. The humanist simply puts the emphasis in a different place, a more appropriate place: with humans acting in this world, where their actions can make a difference.
Humanist minster Curtis Reese said, in 1927: "[We are} capable of achieving things heretofore thought utterly impossible. [We are] capable of so ordering human relations that life shall be preserved, not destroyed; that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception. It remains for religion to place human responsibility at the heart of its gospel. When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision, and power. In this high concert of values, religion must be the servant and through service, the master of all."
By paying attention to all that is around us, in the natural world, in the world of people, in the world of ideas, and in our own interior world of feelings, thoughts, and experiences, we may become more fully human. We may learn to love life, not only for our own selves, but for those beings around us, and those being with whom we are related in the past and the future. Thus we may accept joy, freedom, and happiness. We must also be joyful, laughing and playing. It is part of our humanity, just as our cerebral side is. We must become integrated, whole persons. Thus, we rise to the human challenge, live up to human possibilities, and embrace all that embrace the human spirit.
In her 1979 James Luther Adams Lecture, UU Gwendolyn Thomas spoke of this integration of personality as the goal of our humanistic faith, in order to accomplish what she thought were our other goals. Here is what she said:
The medium for meaning must be love. Not a sentimental, emotional love, but love that, like love of knowledge or love of truth, derives from the intellect - a love of humankind based upon recognition of our common humanity, of the limitations and possibilities of human experience. The proper course, I believe, is to love each other, to help each other, and to live with our uncertainties while recognizing the complexity of the human personality and using its every aspect - knowing and understanding, the qualities of the mind, dominating and guiding, but never belittling or attempting to ignore the emotions, intuition, or spirituality. Today's humanists must lead the way toward the integrated personality, toward a society of total persons. If we succeed, we will have scientists who work for the good of humanity, who care about the uses to which their discoveries are put; politicians who really place human rights before political power; social workers and teachers who respect their clients and students; and individuals whose personal relationships are characterized by dignity and integrity. These must be our goals.
I say, may we have the courage so to live. So be it. Amen.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.