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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 26, 2014

A Meditation on the Currents of a New Humanism

Blessed are the man and the woman
Who have grown beyond their greed
And have put an end to their hatred
And no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
And keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
Which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.

—1st Psalm, adapted by Stephen Mitchell

A little while back I received a book in the mail. Nothing unusual in that. But, it wasn't one I had ordered. Instead it was one of those small perks that come from having published books in a particular field. It was an advance reading copy that the editors hoped I might be willing blurb, write an endorsement that could be used in publicity, or, possibly on the cover of the book. It was David Loy's latest, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. I absolutely adore David, he's both a scholar and a Zen teacher, a not unheard of, but not a particularly common combination. He's also a pretty fierce social justice activist. So, you may get it, just my kind of guy.

In this book David outlines the major problem for Zen in the West, at least as he and I both see it, where many of us are trying to find a way that sees forthrightly the various problems within the received tradition as it comes to us from East Asia without then falling into the reductionist materialism that marks too much of modern Western thinking. I felt he really succeeded, and in his little book presents a synthesis of the best of East and West that may well become one of the early classics of what I call an emerging “liberal Buddhism.”

His book also touched on many of the very same issues I believe that contemporary Unitarian Universalism has to deal with. In particular I think it possible to read his book and to see the issues of the great humanist current that runs through the project of liberal religion. It fired up my heart. And, today with a little help from David, I want to explore humanism, and how it too is a walk between Scylla and Charybdis, between the siren songs of the Western religious traditions with their many, many problems and an analytical reductionism leaving us in a universe devoid of meaning.

Now words are slippery things. What they meant in some time or place shifts and mutates, and they come to mean something else in another time and place. So, for instance, Unitarianism, which etymologically simply means one God, has come to stand for a rational approach to religion, and Universalism, which etymologically points to a belief that human beings will not go to hell when they die, has come to stand for a belief in the universality of our human condition, how we are all in this great mess together, and how our salvation, our salve, our healing, is going to be found in our attending to each other. Just so, for many reasons, the word humanism, which etymologically speaks to people or human-centered came to be the word we use today for a broadly naturalistic and rational stance in the world.

Now in this age of the rise of the spiritual but not religious, we Unitarian Universalists are perhaps the spiritual but barely religious. And, this is quite important. The spiritual that the majority of us use to describe ourselves is humanism. As such I think it might be good to look a bit more deeply into what it is, what it is not, what gifts it brings, and what problems it manifests.

Now to repeat, because it is important and because it is the first thing too many people misunderstand about humanism. Humanism is the term of art we use spiritually, not for human centered, although humans are very important in this view, but rather for assuming naturalistic causes rather than supernatural causes for things. A humanistic spirituality is firmly placed in this world. And a humanist is a person devoted to the great matter of our living and dying through an investigation of the natural world in which we find ourselves.

Western humanism comes to us from Europe, and really begins in the Renaissance, although it rises by looking to classical antiquity, particularly Greece. This Renaissance humanism combined a celebration of the individual with a close observation of the world around us. And it turns out that is amazingly powerful. This humanism, in fact, shattered the world that had been before.

Instead of our world being the center of the cosmos, we found the Earth is a small rocky planet, spinning around a middling sized star, somewhere out at the very edge of one of many, many, many galaxies, all them part of an inconceivably large universe. And, possibly even more startling, was that whatever was supposed to be meant by humans being created in the image of the divine, we humans have been irrefutably shown to be one of several species of great ape, fully a part of the biological world. So, in humanism, humans are very important, but always within the context of being a very small part of something very big, and very complicated.

As we all know those various discoveries about us and the natural world, would come in fits and starts over many years. And, and, this is important, all along the way people in power have resisted it, challenging, marginalizing, mocking, imprisoning and killing humanists for defying the old ways in their, if you will in our relentless quest to know what is. But, at least so far, this humanist current has been unstoppable.

In time the Renaissance humanist enterprise became the European Enlightenment, and out of that modern scientific method and various philosophies of the person not based in revelation emerged. Today physics is revealing the astonishing weirdness of the very small and the very large in ways that challenge our understanding of the material world. But I believe its biology that has caused the greatest stir to date. In particular Darwin's and Wallace's twin discovery of a mechanism for biological change through natural selection has shattered the old certainties about God, and with that loosening the iron grip of organized religions.

In the spiritual realm the discovery of natural selection, to my heart at least, and I know for many others, put the last nail in the coffin of the last great argument for the existence of a supreme God, the so-called “argument from design.” It means, whatever else may be true, the world does not need a conscious agent in order to come to this world that we exist within. Rather what we find is pattern, ordering, is a natural thing that needs no supernatural interference to happen. Rather, what we find at the heart of the world, of the cosmos itself, is creativity. Creativity. I'll return to that.

I believe it fair to say that humanism has created the modern world. And, any fair-minded person would have to acknowledge, this relentless inquiry has not been without shadows. Possibly the greatest evil to birth out of the modernist project was “social Darwinism,” a belief, as Herbert Spencer summarized it, in some “survival of the fittest.”

This is a pernicious view clothed as a scientifically supported reality. Libertarianism, the political philosophy that has the greatest chance of overtaking contemporary American culture, is simply a logical conclusion of this position, where the individual acts solely for the individual, and that survival of the fittest is the only morality. If it were true, well, we would have to learn to live with it. But, it is not true. It is predicated on a whole series of false views about reality, starting with an abuse of what Darwin actually observed.

Fortunately there are alternative ways of engaging the world from a naturalist, from a vital humanist perspective. Ways I find that are at once more accurate, and speak to a more generous and rich possibility for human beings, and, for the rest of the natural world. However it requires us to re-examine the scientific paradigm that has come to be the backdrop of our understanding of reality, and which informs our contemporary humanism. It requires we move beyond a bare positivism, as those philosophically minded might put it, toward what some call a critical realism.

But, we're here in our Meeting House, and here we're not actually talking philosophy. We're talking spirituality, if, if you will, a spirituality for the barely religious. Within our gathering we are being invited into a new revolution of heart and mind, an ever more radical stance in this life. We are being called to an invigorated, a once and future, a new humanism.

In his book David Loy points out how among the powerful gifts found in turning a critical gaze inward on our very humanity has been seeing how we are shaped so powerfully by language. For instance as we step back and look we see how our distinctions between nouns and verbs, while generally useful, are in fact an artifice. Again while language has enormous utility, and beauty, all sorts of good things; the way language is constructed, and it is constructed, also has an unfortunate side effect of creating a dualism between things and actions that isn't actually supported by hard looking.

David points out one of the more obvious examples of the problem, where our distinction between noun and verb breaks down. “What,” he asks, “does the 'it' refer to when we say, 'It's raining'?” So, we are invited into an engagement with the world, using the tools we have at hand, but trying not to confuse them with reality. It's hard. But, it can be done. The fact that we can watch ourselves becomes an amazing thing, if we hold it all a bit lightly, and if at the same time, we engage full heartedly.

As an alternative stance for a new humanist, David calls us to notice how reality is “a confluence of processes, and each of those processes is directly or indirectly dependent upon the many organic and inorganic processes that compose (our) biosphere.” We need to resist the reductionism that is inherent in our very language and is the shadow of our close examination of things, and which has caused us, as one dramatic and terrible example, to misstate the truth that the phrase “natural selection” points to. Yes there is a mechanism of natural genetic mutation, which generates the wild creativity of our existence. And. There is a better way of seeing it than as things acting in isolation, a truer way.

David Loy summarizes this beautifully. “If the universe is not something that is evolving but is the evolutionary process itself, then another word to describe that development, in all its cosmological, biological, and cultural aspects, is creativity.” Here we return to that word: creativity. And from that place he asks a burning question. “Are the cosmic formation of galaxies, the biological ramification of speciating life forms, and the cultural development of human societies different manifestations of the same generative principle?”

I find that a breath taking question. And David gives his own answer, which maybe is ours, as well. “Not as different things that the universe is making, which assumes the old duality between nouns and verbs, but as various transformations of a resourceful process that ceaselessly creates new physical, organic, and cultural forms.”

This is the world that we live in, and this is the world any relevant spiritual philosophy must embrace.

I've often said if I were not a Buddhist I'd be a humanist. But, here, I'm finding myself being invited into a place where I'm having a hard time distinguishing between my understanding of Buddhism and my understanding of humanism. Maybe the Buddhist part has a better technology of the spirit in its meditative disciplines. And, perhaps, a better handle on the tragic part of our humanity. On the other hand humanism isn't burdened by generations of cultural assumptions complicating clear seeing, and is perhaps more open to a new and more accurate story of who we are. Whatever, we do seem to be moving into the same place, through a relentless examination of the world and our human existence.

I would add the great intuition that binds our hearts with the world and everyone and everything in it that is supported by so many years and so many lives devoted to looking deeply, is not merely the province of the humanist view. It has been intuited in many places and many times. In fact I suggest all the great religions have had to find a way to accommodate this vision, usually articulated by their great mystics. Here I see both hope and danger.

Often I find this insight relegated to a gooey thing, as my friend the social critic and author Mark Dery puts it, something tamed, controlled by being made sentimental. But, that's misdirection from those who for many reasons are afraid. And there is something to be afraid of. The reality of interconnectedness is in fact dynamic, sometimes frightening, sometimes terrible. It is creativity. And it destroys even as it creates. But as we attend and attend deeply here we find our individuality as precious, as beautiful, and as passing in and out with the rest of creation. Creativity. Here we fund reality. So powerful, so compelling, it may in fact deserve to be called by that ancient word God. But definitely not your grandmother's god. Well, actually in her deep heart, maybe it is exactly your grandmother's god. Revealed as creativity.

But whether we use the language of religion for this insight or not, here is reality, our reality presented for us to notice. And, if we open our hearts to it, we are given the opportunity to find it as the truth that informs our actions, creating healing where there has been suffering, joy where there has been sadness, hope where there has been despair, and new life where there has been a slow dying.

That's the new humanism.

And that's the hope the spiritual but barely religious are bringing into the world.

It is our good news.

Very good news, indeed, for those who have the ears to hear it.