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As a boy growing up I used to imagine a world in which all the other people in it simply vanished. Their cars were still running, the power plants still humming and music still playing, all without another soul on the planet. All alone I dreamed that I would have whatever I needed, food before it spoiled, gasoline as long as I could siphon it out to run generators when the power finally stopped. Of course, I didn’t take into account nuclear meltdowns, animals trapped in zoos, or, my need later in life for medicine. I just lived in my mind in a world without other people.
It’s a strange fantasy for a boy of twelve. More like an introverts paradise, but there is for me to spin out in my mind’s eye; a humanity with me as the only human. I am sure that if I told this dream to any adult at the time they would have sought out psychiatric help.
But why was my imagination running away like that? I could have blamed on being alone or my parents or being bullied in school but I think there was something deeper happening to me. As I think about it from late midlife, I think it had more to do without what disappointed me about humanity. I was very sensitive to the plight of others, sad often at the inhumanity of the powerful towards the poor. I had just returned from having lived in India for two years and I had seen poverty and disease unlike anything most American kids my age had seen. Perhaps as I look back on this dream, I was imagining a world without the pain and heartbreak I had known. Perhaps, I was wiping the slate clean so we might start again. But then that would have taken at least a female to create. A sort of reluctant Eve to my very unsure Adam.
There is no doubt that as a species we are improving. Violent deaths per captia have been falling steadily for over a hundred years and the average age of most people in the world has double in the last eighty years. While death from diseases such as heart failure and cancer are higher per captia in this same time is due, in large part, to the fact we are living longer, to an average age of 82 in the West. Violence and malnutrition killed more of our great, great grandparents that will it kill us. On the face of these facts, we are kinder and more beneficent to those at the margins of our society. Long gone is death by hanging and dueling swords. We are more likely to die of sugar than of violence. In fact, while malnutrition is still rampant especially among the poor, few people die of hunger and plagues and more die of obesity and diabetes. Steven Pinker who has gathered much of this data points out that if you look at the totality of human life, on average this is about the best time to be alive, unless we compare to the future which will have yet further advances in medicine, science and rights. After it was only five years ago that same sex marriage was against the law in most states in the Union. Furthermore, it is easy for us to see how far we have come and focus only on what injustices remain to be conquered. In his words:
“…. it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and above)
So perhaps it was my becoming a man, falling in and out of love, coupled with the improvement of our overall condition that I gave up my fantasy of a world devoid of people, and began to see that, despite all our failures, I am fairly optimistic about humanity. And even more optimistic about what we can become.
Of course, there are real worries as to our future. The first being the fact that we may heat up this planet towards our own extinction. That is the present Anthropocene Age will be the last gasp of humanity. And then there is the real possibility that we will imagine ourselves as gods, Homo Deus as the author Yuval Noah Harari writes, human without known disease, parts largely replaced by machines, a singularity that would change us from a carbon based life form to a silicon one. Not likely you say? Consider hip, knees, hearing, hearts, eyes, oncology.
We are already becoming superhuman cyborgs. The worry that I have is that we may lose our meaning in the world. Not that we won’t find meaning in the world but that we, as we become more things than beings, will lose meaning. Cavemen were separated from the NASDQ by thousands of years. We won’t be. Becoming irrelevant is already our fear as we get older, what will it be like as we evolve at the speed of technology and not natural selection? Indeed says Harari “forget a creator god; we are set to replace natural selection with our own intelligent design before the end of this century.” (From Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow)
What will become as meaning makers in the future? How can we reimagine ourselves going forward? As much as we can extend our lives indefinitely, I do believe that what will keep us human, indeed more human is how we develop artistically rather than technically. Indeed, what will define us as human beings; will be how we care for our each other and how we express the human condition beyond the technical. Poetry, art and music, even our religion will remain the essence, of who we are, not how many answers we find to the mysteries of the world. For technology will never answer our calling to purpose. Purpose lies between the layers of what we can do, calling us every onward to why we should do it. Not so much answering “are we doing it right?” but rather “what is the right thing to do?” This query is essentially humanity’s essence.
I think religion has a lot to do with this future. The old stories of creation, destruction and reincarnation are not just outmoded myths but timeless expressions of our evolving being. We seek new wine in old wineskins. We seek hope out of despair. We seek beauty out chaos. We will always be reimagining ourselves as meaning makers.
This time we are in, this time of social and political upheaval is the necessary falling apart of the institutions of suffering that have accompanied our culture evolution; patriarchy, racism, despotism, homophobia, cruelty… each has to desperately hold on until the technical progress of humanity makes such institutions unnecessary. Consider the fact that as a nation European Americans will very soon be a minority. Consider the fact that multi-racial children are overtaking the prevalence of single race children. What will a future with so much color coupled with the technological means to communicate almost instantly mean for such desperate last gasps as making America Great Again? America itself will soon lose its hegemony over the world, giving way to a multicultural paradigm increasingly in need of cooperation, not conflict. This is humanity reimagined.
And what of our place as progressive religious people in this new world? We have the opportunity to uphold the religious humanism at our core as a guiding light for the meaning our grandchildren will need to thrive.
I believe that humanism is our religion. We keep people alive longer than necessary in the hope that they will garner more meaning from our existence. And we as UUs have been embracing that humanism for nigh on the last 500 years. It’s not that we reject a deity per se, but that any deity we imagine must be necessity include us as active participants. Homo Deus to be sure, but not at the expense of other living creatures. We must include the rest of our planet. Our future faith will be embraced by our first and seventh principle, that we do believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people (although as I will argue on Earth Day, all beings is more likely) AND we believe in the interconnected web of existence of which we are a part, no matter whether that existence is human, animal, plant or even part machine.
It is our common faith. The belief that we are all interconnected is the higher ground that we call the world to, it is the reason we are about the business of building the radically inclusive community. It is true to our heritage as Unitarian, the believers of One God and the Universalists, the believers in Universal love. So strong is this common faith that we could actually save the world with it, testify to congress for it and shout out to the world with it.
Humanism is not the rejection of God, necessarily. It is rather the belief that human reason, intellect and experience are sufficient means by which to discover and hold the sacred, the greater meaning to our being here. It is a rich and abiding heritage and, current theocratic tendencies notwithstanding; it is more a part of our world than you think.
Great thinkers like Galileo, Newton, Voltaire, Roseau, John Locke, the Buddha, John Dewey, Margaret Fuller, and Emerson are all part of this rich heritage. Any one of whom brought us forward with the simple idea that we, that is human beings, can actually discover the meaning of our world and existence with the faculties of reason and the use of experience. Blind faith is unseated. Faith in our abilities to discover is enthroned. The fact that you are here, weighing my words, deciding if you agree or disagree is due in large part to the gift of humanism;
And it all begins with being able to think. This is the church where we ask you to think, to NOT check your mind in at the door. Humanism in the West started in earnest after the philosopher Renee Descartes claimed thinking itself as the proof of our existence. The only sure truth, he wrote was that we are thinking creatures. Now you can argue with that if you want. But it does make us all pretty unique as creatures. Cogitio Ergo Sum. I think therefore I am. Of course, even that can get you into trouble. Soon after finishing that piece of wisdom, Descartes went out to the tavern with his friends. The evening progressed and the wine ran out. One friend went up to the bar to get another bottle and called out to Descartes, “Renee, do you want more wine?” To which the philosopher replied “I think not” and Poof! He disappeared.
Back in my days as a seminarian, I would get into the most ridiculous arguments about the nature of God. Does God exist or is human knowledge enough? I, being an enchanted agnostic, often played more referee than advocate for either position. The arguments were interesting but ultimately useless. Because when the rubber hits the road, you believe what you need to believe based on your experience. This is the other great gift of humanism; that we are required to measure what is claimed with what we know. Now this does not mean just what we know with our senses. We can’t see love, for instance, but all of us, humanists as well as theists believe in love. But humanism has, since the 17th century forced us to measure what we believe with what we have experienced. It was Voltaire, the grandfather of modern humanism who put it so succinctly:
“All men are born with a nose and ten fingers, but no one was born with a knowledge of God. “
The knowledge of God or of anything beyond what we can see has to be learned to be appreciated. We may be wired for spiritual inquiry as some neuro scientists have now discovered, but there is no such thing as a God Gene. Humanism whether or not you believe in God, the Force or Mother Earth informs our journey with this fact. We must learn through experience what we hold most deeply. I am reminded here of my encounter with the father who had lost his teenage daughter to cancer many years ago.
“Do you think there is a God out there?” he asked me. I started to formulate my answer, thinking instead of the Hebrew God within but somehow that seemed entirely too trite to say to a man who had just lost his teenage daughter. I said nothing. “I don’t think there is, John. I used to think so but not now. I think God is a drug.” Years later he would reform his anger with a new experience: the one of human companionship, deep love and forgiveness. He would write me a letter. “God IS a drug, John” he wrote, “The idea that there is more than us has helped me heal. I still miss her terribly but now I know she was part of that same God we call life. I go on remembering what truly is beautiful and it is still good to be alive.”
As my colleague Robert Latham once said “the most profound and critical agent of human transformation are our answers to the questions of mystery – the more committed in community a religion is searching, the more powerful a tool of social change is becomes…(From PSWD UUMA Retreat Jan. 2006)
Humanism in and of itself will not answer all the mysteries of why we live and why we die – it alone did not answer my boyhood fantasy of being all alone. Reason and experience alone may not be enough for us to feel a greater connection to the unknown but it sure helps. The ineffable expressed in the poem I shared in our meditation picks up where reason alone leaves off. Humanity reimagined must contain humanism as its most honest expression.
As Bill Sinkford, the President of the UUA once preached,
“Humanism…gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.” (The Language of Reverence)
Humanism gives us the power of discernment but it doesn’t give us, in my opinion, the last word. It gives us truth and freedom, but it doesn’t give us complete truth or complete freedom. What if we needed more than reducing God to a bio-chemical reaction in the brain? What if we needed the sublime power of the sunset, the miracle of forgiveness, the unexplainable change of heart? What if we can’t explain why some live and others die? What if we wanted to believe, fantasy though it may be, that God had a farther purpose than just us?
Humanism and the spiritual search are not mutually exclusive for most of us. Humanism vs. God, no contest! For either one. The well spring of our humanity is too deep to restrict our journey to one or the other. Our humanity reimagined requires that humanity keep searching for expressions of the sublime even as our knowledge seeks to ever expand in a multiverse expanding.