Some Thoughts and Feelings on Humanism
By Reverend Tom Capo
Preached on 3/22/2015
A member of this church and of our Humanist Group, Jack Seacrest, sent me an email of President Barak Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’, a day when thousands marched in Selma, Alabama, for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. Many were hurt and two were killed. Here are some excerpts from Obama’s speech: “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment [is there] than this … the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals … ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ …These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action … a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence on the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny … [We are] on a mission to change America … the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America …Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations …it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals … that all men are created equal … [This is] a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence on the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny … This is work for all Americans, and not just some. All of us are called to possess their moral imagination …to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now… change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children.”
Jack felt that this speech spelled out a definition of religion. Religions around the world aspire to do many things. Religions try to teach people to be of good character by affirming certain moral values and high ideals. Religious people are encouraged to remake themselves and their world based on these values and ideals; they are told that these changes are urgently needed. Religions also teach that it is important that these values and ideals are passed on to the next generation.
For the next several minutes, let's agree that Obama's Selma speech does spell out a definition of religion. If so, then there are some insights in this definition of religion that we, here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, might reflect upon: What values and ideals do we affirm? Do we urgently bring them into our lives and out into the world? And what values and ideals are we passing on to our children? You might say “I know the answer to the first question—our seven Principles—valuing each person, the democratic process, spiritual growth, the search for meaning and purpose, the interdependent web of all existence, and working for justice, peace, and equality. How do we use our power to shape these values and ideals in the wider world? Do we do so with "fierce urgency?" What are the ways we show our children the importance our Unitarian Universalist values and ideals?
Before we go much further, we probably need some common definition of Humanism. Here is my shot at a definition. Humanism is living life in the here and now with no notion that deeds or misdeeds in this one life have any effect beyond the here and now; that is, there is no afterlife—"no hell below us, above us only sky." Humanism recognizes that we are part of a community of humanity and as members of that community we must work for the betterment and the health of all humans, as well as of this planet and its creatures. Humanism recognizes that humans must cooperate and collaborate to achieve the goal of a peaceful, just, and equitable world. In other words Humanism, at least as I understand it, embraces all of us, all the people on this planet, and focus on what we can do together to make this world livable and sustainable for every person.
I joined my first Unitarian Universalist congregation in 1979 and quickly affirmed that I was a Humanist. I felt I could be a member of a religious community that focused on the here and now, the needs of our world, with love, peace, equality, and justice as its highest aspirations. But over time, I wondered about my previous beliefs—growing up Catholic. How could I—or even, should I—reconcile the religion of my childhood with my identity as a Unitarian Universalist Humanist? Did I need to be an atheist—believing there is no god, nothing supernatural, nothing beyond what I can know through my senses and my intellect? Perhaps I ought to be an agnostic—being unsure, but open to the possibility of a god or the supernatural or something beyond what I can perceive or know. What did my personal kind of Humanism look like? In the 1980’s being a Unitarian Universalist meant that I had to be an atheist Humanist. Being otherwise was not really accepted.
While struggling with my own spiritual beliefs 30 years ago, I came across this meditation by Unitarian Universalist minister, Reverend Jacob Trapp:
“Religion as a set of right beliefs and right observances becomes divisive…
Religion as walking with others, listening to others, sharing with others, is not a creed but a way of life.
To be religious is to be grateful for the much we are given and to give in return as much as we can.
Religion is a way of life with sympathy, responsiveness, reverence for sacred potential, respect for one another, for mother earth and all her creatures—
A way of life that love makes beautiful.”
This made sense to me 30 years ago, and it still makes sense to me now. This is why I love Unitarian Universalism, because it continues to be a religion that allows me the freedom to explore myself, my beliefs, and how I see the world. It encourages me to affirm love, sympathy, and responsiveness. In the 1980’s I could talk about supernaturalism, mysticism, and other god-or goddess-based beliefs, at least during a rational, intellectual discussion. But the Unitarian Universalist Humanism of that time was very different from current Unitarian Universalist Humanism, and in those days I did not feel I could affirm any beliefs other than atheism or agnosticism to support my Humanist ideals. I identified as a Humanist and knew I would continue to do so throughout the rest of my life because of its high ideals and values. And I also wanted to explore the distant shores of my soul both in the here and now and in the efficacy of the eternal.
Unitarian Universalist Humanism reminds all of us, no matter how we identify theologically, “to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warns us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” And Unitarian Universalist Humanism does not conflate spiritual exploration with “idolatry of the mind and spirit.” Unitarian Universalists, and by extension Unitarian Universalist Humanists, to borrow from Reverend Leslie Takahashi Morris, let “us make our lives sanctuaries to nurture our many identities.”
As I pondered these truths, I felt the old misperceptions of “either/or” melt away, and felt the bedrock support of Unitarian Universalist Humanistic ideals and values as I continued to explore what my personal Humanism might be like.
I started studying Buddhism and in particular Zen Buddhism. The larger questions of existence around whether there was a god, an afterlife, sin/salvation are not relevant to a Zen Buddhist, and to me, this felt congruent with Humanism. Like Humanists, Zen Buddhists focus on the here and now. Zen Buddhism also involves a spiritual practice, Zazen meditation, and an openness to insight, revelation, enlightenment. In talking to my friend, Zen monk Zwiko Redding, I came to further understand that Humanism and Buddhism were extremely compatible. Zen Buddhism’s agnostic belief system affirms peace, equality, justice, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the interdependent web of all existence. For the past 15 years, I have identified as a Humanist Buddhist Unitarian Universalist with a pinch of agnosticism thrown in for good measure.
I have been looking back on my Christian roots with new eyes for the past decade. The story Chuck told today was written by early Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs. She tells the story of Jesus without miracles, very much like Thomas Jefferson did in the Jefferson Bible. She presents Jesus as a spiritual man who was charismatic and compassionate. A man of wisdom and hope. This is a Jesus that I can bring back into my life and explore as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Humanist and even as a Buddhist.
In the past few years, I have also identified as a theist or pantheist, because I believe there is something in all creation that connects each creature, indeed each atom in each creature to all the other creatures and atoms. And I personally believe there is some creative force in the universe that bends toward justice, toward hope, toward love, toward the continuation of life. I have had experiences that I would call mystical or spiritual—sitting atop a mountain at Sunrise and experiencing the interdependent web of existence in a way that cannot be conveyed with mere words, experiencing an almost tangible connection with a treasured friend, and working with a counseling client, finding a path to their healing without really knowing how I got them there, feeling a deep intuition, a sudden, seemingly random insight that moved us to the breakthrough point.
I am not alone in this very personalized Humanism. Many people who identify as Unitarian Universalist Humanists today are more agnostic than firmly atheist. This is a change from the Unitarian Universalist Humanism of 30 years ago. In fact, there was a young woman who got up in front of the last church I served and said she was an agnostic humanist—feeling she needed to clarify that she was both—and talked about how important it is to live humanist values, to develop a good character, be a good citizen, to teach her children morals and ethics, and to be affirmed in community by others who do the same. Yet she also had experiences that she couldn’t explain; experiences that seemed holy, mystical, transcendent. Some of today’s Unitarian Universalist Humanists are exploring spiritual practices, are open to spiritual/mystical experiences, and are wondering if there is something more than what they can perceive with their senses. Our minds call us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; our hearts seek that transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. Today’s Unitarian Universalists Humanists realize that “Life tells its truth in many hues” and that Unitarian Universalism is a rainbow of philosophies and faiths—and who would want to diminish the colors of the rainbow? Without each and every hue our Unitarian Universalist rainbow would be incomplete.
T. S. Eliot famously, or infamously, depending on who you talk to, converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism after moving to England. One of his biographers, Peter Ackroyd, commented that “the purposes of [Eliot’s conversion] were two-fold: the Church of England offered some hope for himself, and I (Peter Ackroyd) think Eliot needed some resting place. But secondly, it attached Eliot to the English community and English culture.” How I wish Elliot could have experienced the Unitarian Universalist Humanism of today. Back when Eliot knew Unitarianism, he found it unsatisfying, too intellectual, not a “resting place” for those in need. But the Unitarianism of Eliot’s time, the 1920’s, and the Unitarian Universalist Humanism of today are two different religions. Today’s Unitarian Universalist Humanism does offer “a resting place;” today’s Unitarian Universalist Humanism recognizes that we are, after all, “only” human.
T. S. Elliot wrote:
“What we call a beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from our exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
I would add:
To find a truth is often is where we start from
On the ceaseless journey within
And the end of a journey is to see oneself
And the world in ways that cannot always be readily explained.
Continue your journeys, my friends, and don’t forget to look for the rainbows.