Today’s news is unsettling. Since September 2011, terrorism doesn’t seem so far away from us, even if it is taking place on the other side of the world. For those who are attuned to international events, the upheavals reported daily are captivating, and not in ways that put us at ease.
Extremism is a defining element of this violence, and it is diametrically opposed to what we believe in. It is inimical to us. So, for my next address I want to stand away from world events and return us to affirming our own values and what we stand for. I want to look again at humanism, which is a world-view and a sensibility where we locate Ethical Culture. I want take this look through a supportive but somewhat critical eye.
In my view, the concept of humanism has two employments, one relatively new, the other ancient in its origins. Let’s call them “Humanism Type I” and “Humanism Type II.” When Ethical Culture defines itself as a humanistic movement, it usually has Humanism Type I in mind. I will make a case for Humanism Type II.
The humanism of Ethical Culture (Type I), as mentioned, is of relatively recent vintage, no more than 150 years old. Though it is related to its much earlier precursors (almost all ideas come from a lineage of antecedents), we can trace its origins to developments in science and liberal religion in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. On the scientific side, the discoveries of the Enlightenment, culminating in the monumental work of Isaac Newton, gave rise to the idea of a mechanistic, clockwork universe, described by unwavering deterministic laws. It was a reality in which there was diminishing room for a God of miracles, a God who is a person, cares about us and intervenes in history. Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, pushed God further into the corners. Here was an elaborate, elegant theory that accounted for the evolution of species – including our own – by processes totally within the natural domain, absent any agent from outside, namely God. The human being was no longer the product, indeed the highest achievement, of divine creation. Like the antelope, tulip or dung beetle, the human being, Darwin proclaimed, was completely natural and a product of natural forces. Soon after Darwin’s compelling treatise, the term “agnosticism” was born.
On the religion side, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism (which can trace its core presumptions to the German idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant) spoke to the romantic notion that we can intuitively know ideas, the great abstractions, such as Justice, Truth and Beauty. Emerson’s colleague in the Transcendentalist movement, Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, carried these ideas forward and formulated something he called “the Absolute Religion.” It was a religion of pure ideas and their adoration. It was a religion clearly detached from Christianity or any of the historical religions and it served as an inspiration for progressive activism. Parker’s influence was folded back into Unitarianism, and around the turn of the twentieth century, “humanism” became the rallying principle in the sermons of several prominent Unitarian ministers.
Humanism reached an important benchmark in 1933, when several humanists got together and published A Humanist Manifesto, a list of fifteen principles that affirmed the natural origins of humanity, the importance of self-reliance of human beings and made a nod toward economic egalitarianism. (Interestingly, Felix Adler, who died the year the Manifesto was created, opposed humanism and prohibited his fellow leaders from signing the document. For Adler, the idealist, ethics could not come from natural sources, as the Manifesto and humanism suggest.) In 1966, the leaders of the Ethical Culture movement published a statement identifying Ethical Culture as a humanist movement.
The declaration of humanist principles put forward in the Manifesto has shaped the contemporary humanist movement and has been the foundation of humanist institutions and organizations. In the past ten years, there has been a flourishing of such humanist institutions that exist to affirm and promote a cluster of principles, some militantly so. Among these principles are framing humanism in opposition to God-belief and religion. Indeed, some of the new groups are explicitly atheistic. Other central principles include secularism, rationalism, naturalism and strong affirmation of science. Such is the outlook of Humanism Type I, and the values it proffers are values I share. But this take on humanism, I have come to affirm, is not sufficient.
There is a second way in which to interpret humanism, which in my view is wider and partakes of a subtlety whose meaning is not exhausted by principles, but is more sensitive to what we might refer to as the spirit of humanism. This is Humanism Type II. It is not so much a set of doctrines but a world-view, a sensibility about humanity and the human experience, which found a place in the West in ancient Greece and Rome, in the East in Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist values, and was vividly expressed in the European Renaissance. Humane, humanities, human, humanitarianism are all related concepts.
This humanism is expressed in the cultivation of what we intuit is essentially human. It is found in literature, art, music, the creative act and those endeavors that cannot be quantified or measured. Its starting point is not God or science, but human experience. In this sense, there is no contradiction in recognizing and appreciating a Christian humanism or a Jewish humanism.
In our time, humanism is vitally necessary. It stands up against the machine and the hegemony of our technocratic culture. The electronic media, which have been woven into the fabric of our lives, are indisputably marvelous tools of great efficacy. But the accumulation and accessibility of facts does not equate to wisdom. Quantity, so humanism senses, is not to be valued over quality, and the latest thought is not necessarily the best. The hard work of learning, patience, substance and erudition and interpretation is still required of us if we are to retain our humanity in the ways that ultimately matter most. Such humanism proclaims the irreducibility of the human to metrics, to merely scientific explanation, to an object to be engineered. It resides where the expressive, creative radiations that we send forth toward others meet. It recognizes that the human being is more than the sum of her or his parts; that within the human lies an ineffable reality worthy of our compassion, respect, cultivation and reverence.
I will develop these ideas and sentiments further in my March 1st address, “In Search of a Wider, Deeper, Richer Humanism.” I hope you can join me then.