VIEW VIDEO “We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.” – Paul Kurtz of Free Inquiry
Whenever we go to the farm, we stop by the town deli and pick up the latest copy of the local newspaper to see who’s died in our absence. There’s nothing more embarrassing than bumping into someone and asking them how their family is, only to be told the entire family was killed when an asteroid struck their home during Sunday dinner. Talk about an awkward silence. Trust me, that only has to happen once to motivate you to read the weekly paper. So we read to see who died and then I scan the local church news, which is a roll call of pessimism and gloom. Fundamental pastors predicting the imminent return of Jesus, descending on the clouds to wage battle against the ungodly, which includes everyone but them.
Even so, these churches are not without their virtues. If your house is struck with an asteroid and you need food, they will rise to the occasion. But if you’re trying to discern the nature of reality, or the essence of humanity, or even want a boost to your morale, you would be well advised to look elsewhere.
Several years ago, we were fortunate to have Matthew Fox, the author of Original Blessing visit and speak to us, right here in our little meetinghouse from this very pulpit. Formerly a Catholic priest, Matthew Fox was expelled from the Catholic Church for rejecting the doctrine of original sin, hence the title of his most famous book Original Blessing, which sold millions of copies world-wide. The Italian philosopher and psychologist Vito Mancuso wrote the introduction to the Italian-language version of Original Blessing, and included these words, “When Jesus was born the angels did not sing “you’d better watch out!” The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to human creatures, whom God favors.”
Despite that, most of Christianity embraced a theology of gloomy despair, telling us over and over that we were fallen, full of sin, deserving of and destined for everlasting punishment. The great philosopher George Carlin described this religion to a T when he said, “Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you.”
Ten things you should not do! Mindless, unquestioning obedience is everything. Let’s talk about that this morning. You’ll remember we’ve been dwelling on the topic of humanism, the affirmation of human worth, dignity, and value. We’ve mentioned the failure of religion to affirm human worth, dignity, and value, and nowhere is that more evident than in the glacial pace of moral evolution in religion. Because religions, by their very nature, only evolve as quickly as their least moral participants. Again and again in religion, we have observed that those who are the least morally developed too often hold back those who are the most morally developed.
I visited this week with someone who has a family member at the Vatican, a man in a position of great power who enjoys a close friendship with the Pope. This man and the Pope have privately discussed their desire to bring women into leadership, but are unable to do so, knowing too many cardinals, bishops, and priests would not stand for it. Here is a religion with a tradition of papal infallibility, a religion that teaches the Pope is incapable of error in pronouncing dogma. But even then, the moral evolution of the church is constrained by the least thoughtful, least morally developed people in their faith community. This is why religions are most often the caboose on the train of moral progress. They can not begin their journey until everyone is on board. Hence, the humanist’s counsel never to give someone else ultimate control of your moral development, never to place your ethics in the hands of someone less evolved than yourself, whether it is a partner, pastor, or president.
Secondly, and this is a related point. Even as religions move at a glacial pace on pressing moral issues, they often demand absolute compliance from their participants. Challenging and questioning are discouraged, and sometimes even punished. In this country, we can no longer imprison or kill heretics, but we can, and do, impose social penalties on those who challenge dogma. This week, Joan and I were having dinner with a friend and his wife, now Quakers, who belonged to a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, where he served as its pastor. He was young and just starting out. I asked him if he enjoyed his time with the Missouri Synod Lutherans and he said, “Everything was great until we expressed doubts about some of the doctrines, then I had to leave.” Now you know, of course, that we Quakers aren’t exempt from that, either. It’s the nature of religion. We’re slow to evolve and consequently fear and punish those who call us to forge ahead.
Here is where humanism has something to teach us, and that is this, in humanism unquestioned obedience is suspect. If you were to order a humanist to unthinkingly obey a tenet, doctrine, or dogma, you would meet resistance. Now if you are a counselor or therapist, you know skepticism and resistance are healthy responses to any party, person, religion, or government who demands our uncritical allegiance. When we have a high regard for human worth, dignity, and value, we realize the importance of the unfettered conscience, the value of standing upright when others demand we bow at the knee.
This is another reason I believe Jesus was a humanist. In his resolve to be a free moral agent, to stand when others would have him bow and scrape, to honor in every moment human worth, value, and dignity, Jesus embodied the very best of humanity. May we, as his followers, also live with such principled courage.