A Faith in Humanity: The Humanist Perspective
by the Rev. Peter Connolly
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on May 15, 2011
If you look up the term “humanism” in one of the popular on-line encyclopedias, the first sentence in the section devoted to the history of the word is “The term ‘humanism’ is ambiguous.” So, you know right from the start that you are in trouble.
The term is ambiguous because it has been used to refer to different movements or schools of thought throughout history. Around 1806, it was used to describe the classical curriculum used by German schools. In 1856, a German historian (Georg Voigt) used the term to describe what he referred to as “Renaissance humanism,” “the movement which flourished in the Italian Renaissance to revive classical learning.” (Wikipedia).
It was only after the French Revolution that the idea began to be floated that “human virtue could be created by human reason alone, independently from traditional religious institutions” (Wikipedia). This last definition is the closest to the meaning of the term “humanism” we will explore today.
I remember a conversation that I had several years ago with a friend about the famous saying of Protagoras of Abdera, a 5th century BCE Greek thinker, referred to as a Sophist, one of a traveling band of philosophers who were experts in rhetoric. The saying is translated from the Greek as “Man is the measure of all things,” and our argument centered around whether that was an insufferably arrogant assertion or whether its truth is just an inevitable consequence of what it means to be human.
In order to make any kind of honorable sense out of the phrase, I had to render it as “Man is the measurer of all things.” (“Man” in this case, of course, is the fallback term for what we usually refer to, in these more enlightened times as “humanity.”) “Human beings are the measurers of all things.”
The thrust of the argument was that to say that “we are the measure of all things” is to say that, unless something serves our utilitarian purposes, it has no useful value. Think of the inclination that some societies have to hunt whales to extermination for the sake of whale oil; or to blow the tops off mountains in order to get at the petroleum that lies underneath without regard to secondary consequences.
Whereas to say that we are the measurers of all things means that we have the responsibility thrust upon us by virtue of our cognitive capacities to weigh the consequences of any choice that we make. It is with this understanding that any meaningful inquiry into the subject must begin. Other pre-Socratic philosophers have a prior claim to originating the kind of thinking that has come to be known as humanist.
In the 6th century BCE, both Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon are considered “the first” (in the Western tradition) “to explain the world in terms of human reason rather than myth and tradition” (Wikipedia). Wikipedia tells us that Thales questioned the notion of anthropomorphic gods, and Xenophanes refused to recognize the gods of his time and reserved the term “divine” for the principle of unity in the universe. But it is the succinct quote of Protagoras that puts the matter in its most pithy form.
The questions for us today are “What does it mean to assert that we are the measurers of all things? How does such a position influence our view of the divine? How does such a position help us address “otherworldly” concerns (if there are such things?); or a sense of what is ultimate and whether or not there is such a thing as a “perfect” moral system?
The references to the Ancient Greeks are offered to show that the humanist tradition has a long history, though development in the West has tended to marginalize it, many would say, because it encourages a form of democracy so radical that it tends to upset a social order based on received wisdom: a top-down model wherein the legitimacy of a monarch, for instance, is dependent upon “God’s will” — God as the autocrat’s autocrat. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.
We will talk today, briefly, about humanism in some of its forms and permutations through history. It is the movement towards what is called “religious humanism,” something that developed from attempts to accomplish a variety of things: to understand God in a new way that was consistent with the scientific method; to see whether “God” was even necessary for religion; and to see if a reconciliation was possible between life in the natural world and living a religious life.
We will look at these early attempts today to get a sense of how successfully they address the large questions of life and living. They paved the way for the Unitarian understandings that were to follow, but that history is long, too, and fascinating and is more than we can get to today.
There is no doubt that the those who developed the first formulations of religious humanism in the U.S. were heavily influenced by the “humanist” thinkers of the Renaissance. The questions that seemed pressing included “the doctrine of personal immortality” and whether the highest form of ethics needed to be predicated on a belief in a future life (Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism [henceforth: ARH], p. 5).
Mason Olds puts it this way:
The religious humanists claimed the Renaissance humanists as their spiritual forbears in that they advocated such things as enjoying this life to the full, developing well-rounded personalities, getting away from religious control of knowledge, and using textual and historical criticism for studying religious documents. (ARH, p. 5)
Today we will spend some time with and share some thoughts about Greek Humanism; Renaissance Humanism, the humanism of Friedrich Nietzsche; and “Naturalistic Humanism.” This last strain emerged in the 1930s. Naturalistic humanism is well-described in an essay entitled “The Naturalistic Face of Humanism” by Robert Waggoner:
Naturalism requires that certain divine characteristics be attributed to nature. First, if nature is all there is and power operates within nature, (such as in weather conditions, in the force of a mighty river; in the growth of living plants and animals, etc.) then nature, rather than a supernatural being, must be considered all powerful. Second, if intelligence is all there is, and intelligence is operative within nature, (through design, order, wisdom, beauty, etc.) then nature, rather than a supernatural being, must be considered all wise. Third, if nature is all there is, then nature, because it exists, must be considered self-existing. This implies that nature is eternal, another attribute of deity (thebible1.net).
This view could only have become viable after the publication of On the Origin of Species by Darwin because the book “gave plausible mechanisms for the theory of organic evolution.” Nature, in other words, offers for some seekers, answers to questions of ultimacy. When that’s all there is and there ain’t no more, what is “all there is”?
The theory of “naturalism” as an orientation for an understanding allows for a context that is familiar, and not speculative and which is internally coherent. It doesn’t account, though, for the feelings of alienation and inadequacy that may be natural when we contemplate the natural world as embodied by the planet we live on when it is placed in the context of a universe that takes terms like “billions of light years” as descriptors of distances between galaxies. Even a single galaxy is beyond the mental or imaginative capacity of most of us.
So, natural humanism contents itself with relativity rather than ultimacy. And if you start to wonder how such a thing as “dark matter” exists or how a black hole can operate in the same universe that you live in, well you’ll have to imagine yourself out of the reasonable natural context that you live in or you’ll have to imagine in the immensity of galaxies, light years, black holes and dark matter. The question is: “Is it sufficient to answer your quest for understanding in which to live your meanings and purposes?”
Religious humanists grew out of the context made possible by the naturalistic humanists. For them, the measure made by man of meaning was against what one envisioned as “the Good Life.” The scientific method prevails and the questions of religion and values are questions whose meanings do not exist except when measured against what is conceived of as “the Good Life.”
This philosophy prompts the question: “What happens when the things of the good life disappear, get broken, leave you alone and afraid?” It is a philosophy that allows for a sense of place from which to make sense of the world.
But it does not answer the questions asked by Job in the book of that name in the Hebrew Testament. Or other questions that arise when a loved one dies, when one’s body is the host for a disease, when enough is never enough, when the ache of loneliness or desire leaves one to make sense for oneself some of those things in the natural world that don’t conform with one’s conception of “the good life.”
A response to the apparent insufficiencies of a naturalistic humanism arose from the thought (and, no doubt, experience) of Harry Nelson Wieman. He is called a religious naturalist sometimes, but is also referred to as a proponent of “theocentric naturalism” (Wikipedia). Here’s a quote from 1971:
How can we interpret what happens in human existence to create, sustain, save and transform toward the greatest good, so that scientific research and scientific technology can be applied to searching out and providing the conditions — physical, biological, psychological and social — which must be present for its most effective operation? This operative presence in human existence can be called God.
So, we can see that this worldview attempts to hold to the scientific method and the language of religion and theology. It is the product of a serious and imaginative inquiry into the nature of things and our place in the universe. As to the universe itself, Wieman wrote in 1963:
It is impossible to gain knowledge of the total cosmos or to have any understanding of the infinity transcending the cosmos. Consequently, beliefs about these matters are illusions, cherished for their utility in producing desired states of mind. In human life, in actual human existence, must be found the saving and transforming power which religious inquiry seeks and which faith must apprehend. (Wikipedia: H.N. Wieman)
Wieman looked at the value of Christianity this way:
Creative interchange took place in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, who were thereby transformed. It continued even after his death, and the disciples interpreted this continuous transformation as the presence of the resurrected Christ in their lives. (ARH, p. 19)
“Creative interchange” became for Wieman the best term to describe what he understood by the word “God,” especially when that term includes the idea of “love” as well. Creative interchange increases both the understanding between human individuals and human freedom. (ARH, p. 19).
Mason Olds tells us that “Humanists endorsed Wieman’s use of the scientific method as the means for arriving at the truth, and they appreciated his concern with the problem of transforming human personality so that both individuals and society can be improved.” Religious humanists, though, did not, by and large, accept Wieman’s use of the term “God.” Because it was not what the Christian church meant by the term, they thought his interpretation dishonest and believed that it would lead to confusion.
One is tempted to add, the teachings of Christ are themselves confusing when he speaks in parables; in both cases, the speakers are provoking their listeners to think creatively. In Wieman’s understanding, this leads to a relationship of godliness in creative interchange. But both parties must be willing to engage in the interchange. It takes two to tango and to be in more profound relationships of creative interchange.
It is probably true that in all times, there are those who stand outside of convention, who ask the kind of questions that are not supposed to be asked, who dare to take stands that are unpopular because their thirst for truth outweighs their felt need for the security that comes along with acceptance. In the field of philosophy, one such person, undoubtedly, is Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in Germany in the last half of the 19th century.
The sharpest interpretation of the Nietzschean critique that you’re likely to hear is by Mason Olds in his examination of American Religious Humanism:
God did not create humans; humans, through their poets, created their gods out of human need. Zarathustra (in Nietzsche’s well-known book Thus Spake Zarathustra) explains that humans encounter an indifferent universe full of unbearable suffering. They feel impotent, so it is comforting to believe the universe has ultimate meaning, that God works in his infinite wisdom through human suffering and privations, that humans endure pain for their own good — if not in this life, certainly in the afterworld. Unlike the herd, Zarathustra sees the gods for what they are, the flitting ghosts of poets, and dispenses with them.
This line of thinking can take us a long way, especially when it is so eloquently expressed. But let’s take another look at that second sentence: “Zarathustra explains that humans encounter an indifferent universe full of unbearable suffering.”
But is it an indifferent universe? And is it full of unbearable suffering? What makes the universe indifferent but our inability to find our place in it? Once we are situated in a way that resounds with purpose and dignity, we have found meaning, we have found salvation. In our search, we are aided by members of our family, our educational systems if they function well, and by the community that provides us spiritual nourishment.
And suffering is unbearable only when it is experienced alone. The universe may be indifferent if you are born into it indifferently, but a huge amount of passion and pain goes on in the process of giving birth, the birthing process. You might call it “suffering.” But the suffering of giving birth is meaningful and so not unbearable and the love provided to a child makes suffering bearable.
Do humans endure pain for their own good or because they/we are intimately connected with numberless beings in dozens of contexts? It is painful to be part of a community because inclusion also includes the certainty of loss and death, loss of one another. And it is painful to be alone and without human connection.
To enter into the spirit of humanism, I think you have to give the tradition of religion its due. Some “solutions” to the “problems” of being human are facile and lead to self-delusion. Some are satisfying and full of richness and depth, soul-affirming.
In Nietzsche’s view, the predicament of “man” or “humanity” is that we are without God. We are without that single unifying force that can unite us and protect us with the cloak of love.
Or are we? Perhaps we are in the midst of it when we make it, hand to hand, pulse to pulse, human being to human being. So, maybe we do create God in a way.
Anyway, when we come together to sing a song together as we hold hands and dedicate ourselves to something larger than each one of ourselves, we create something of worth and significance, something that glows in Spiritual Community or “the community of the spirit” or the community that is connected when all spirits are connected through a commitment of love to mission, that thing that gives a purpose to meaning and a meaning to the miracle of being alive and being alive in the midst of other living creatures: you and I and all the others who haves names and lives and identities different from yours and different from mine. Is there not meaning enough in that?
- Wikipedia articles on “Humanism” and “Henry Nelson Wieman”Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Protagoras”
- Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism (Minneapolis MN: University Press of America, 1977)
- Moses Hadas, Humanism: The Greek Ideal and Its Survival (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960)
- Thebible1.net: “The Naturalistic Face of Humanism” by Robert L. Waggoner