VIEW VIDEO We are citizens of the universe…– Paul Kurtz of Free Inquiry
I’ve been thinking about our new grandson, Miles Henry Gulley, now 26 days old. If he had been born in China, he would be almost 10 months old, since infants born there are dated from the date of conception, not the date of birth. I like the Chinese tradition of counting in utero time, given my belief that we are always experiencing some form of in utero, some stage of development preparing us for the next stage of life, a necessary step to be taken.
Miles Henry was inside his mother’s womb for nine months, which must have been amazing, though he lacks the ability to tell us. I once met a man who told me he remembered being inside his mother’s womb, and he sounded so convincing, I thought he might have hyperthymesia, the ability to recall with great accuracy and detail personal events or experiences and their associated dates, but then he also told me he’d seen Bigfoot while camping at McCormick’s Creek State Park, so now I just think he was wacko.
He said it was pleasant inside his mother’s womb, dark and warm and peaceful, and when he came out, it was glaring and noisy and people were laughing and shouting, and he wanted to go back inside his mother, but couldn’t.
This describes nearly every change I’ve ever experienced, the transition from comfortable familiarity to jarring unfamiliarity. Me pulling back, the future tugging me forward.
We’ve been discussing the virtues of humanism. We’ve often heard that term denigrated, which is a disservice to such a helpful philosophy. To be a humanist is to have a high regard for human worth, dignity, and value, and that should never be disparaged. It is consistent with the best of Christianity. One virtue of humanism is its effort to expand our horizons, to tug us forward. It asks us not to be citizens of a particular nation, concerned only for that nation, but to be citizens of the universe, to carry within us a concern not just for our immediate surroundings, but for the world and everyone in it.
I’ve been thinking about this week about how small my grandson’s world is. For the first nine months of life, he was confined to a womb, which kept him safe and secure, but now that he’s born, his world has grown exponentially. This theme of “expansion” will hopefully become the pattern of his life. His world will grow larger and larger, his responsibilities greater, his circle of concern will expand. Today, exactly four beings inhabit his little world—his mother, his father, Maggie the dog and Olivia the cat, but when Joan sees him on Tuesday, his world will expand by 20%. After that, there’s no going back. Every year of his life will bring him more friends, more associations, more experiences. His life will be less insular and more expansive, more spacious.
We have all known people, haven’t we, who’ve been reluctant to let their lives expand. These are people who’ve reached a place of emotional, spiritual and existential comfort and have stopped, refusing to go forward. There’s a family I know with three sons in their late 20s and early 30s. Their friends today are the friends they had as children, they live at home, they vote and think the way their parents vote and think, they sleep in the same beds in the same rooms they slept in as children. They contribute nothing to their upkeep. They are adolescents frozen in time, unwilling to let their world expand. If a new or original thought has entered their heads since childhood, I am not aware of it. It is as if they have never left the womb. They have, in a very real way, failed to thrive.
To be a whole and healthy human, we must always be moving the borders of our lives further and further out. As infants, our worlds are necessarily small. But life should change that. Our worlds, our allegiances, our perspectives should grow. This is why political and religious efforts to shrink our world should be rejected. Those who lift high the torch of yesterday, who venerate what has been and fear what will be, would keep us bound forever in the shackles of the past. They are like the Israelites who, when the present day proved challenging, demanded that Moses return them to their past, to slavery in Egypt. But the humanist, and the Quaker too, say, “Always move forward. Always be stretching. Always be growing.”
Friends, we will either live in an expanded world, or die in a narrowed one. We must love our world, and all the races in it, to the same degree we love our nation and those in it. Until we do that, our world will lurch from one Ukraine to another, the powerful doing what they wish while the powerless suffer what they must. It’s no longer enough for us to care only for our own. No longer enough for presidents and prime ministers to protect and preserve only their own. No longer enough for parents to love only their own children and no one else’s, for grandparents to love only their grandchildren, and no one else’s.
Think of history’s pattern. Humanity began as individuals, who eventually joined in marriage to form families and then clans. For thousands of years, and in some places still, the family and clan are the prevailing human structure. But elsewhere families formed villages, and villages formed city-states. City-states merged to form nations. But if we are to make it, if the grand experiment of humanity is to succeed, one more step is crucial. The nations of the world must pursue the common goal of universal well-being. We must become citizens not of a specific nation acting only in its own interests, but of a worldwide community committed to the enrichment and betterment of all.
One of the more interesting stories in the Bible is the tale of the Tower of Babel, when all the peoples of the world, speaking one language, gathered to build a tower to the heavens in hopes of finding safety from floods, and finding enlightenment, aloft in the heavens in the presence of the divine.
The story ends tragically, with God purportedly destroying the tower and creating the full range of human languages so humans would be confused and be unable to cooperate. We’re not sure who wrote the story, it’s one of the oldest stories in the Bible, but I know one thing: that story was most assuredly written by someone who feared the possibility of human cooperation, someone who wanted humanity confused, confined, and controlled. Someone unable or unwilling to take that last and most important step of all, the movement from parochial priorities to universal well-being.
I believe with all my heart that Christianity at its best beckons us toward communion and cooperation, from the parochial to the universal. In the second chapter of the book of Acts, the presence of the Holy Spirit visits a home in which the first Christians are gathered. The writer describes a loud wind filling the house, and as the Spirit fills each person, each person spoke their native tongue, and each person present understood what the other said. It was the undoing of Babel, God’s longing for human communion and connection.
This too is the hope of the humanist, and why we can say with our humanist brothers and sisters, that when any corner of the world suffers, we suffer too. When any corner is blessed, we too should feel and know their joy.