Norah: “There’s this part of Judaism that I like. Tikkun olam. It said that the world is broken into pieces and everyone has to find them and put them back together.”
Nick: “Maybe we don’t have to find it. Maybe we are the pieces.”
To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.
Michael Lind of Salon recently wrote an article critical of Paul Kurtz’s new “Neo-Humanist Manifesto” which calls for a new planetary humanism encompassing an allegiance to humanity as a whole, planetary institutions and a new global agenda and critical of Secular Humanism in general. Frankly, I like most of the Kurtz manifesto but a commenter known by the alias smallpackages offered a powerful riposte in defense of secular humanism as an entirely acceptable and appropriate worldview for our time. Given a year to fashion such a response, I could not have come close to saying it so well:
What you miss, as a big picture and in the fine-grained details, is that humanism, which can contain faith or no-faith, is not the “opposite” of belief. It is a whole other thing. You could make a credible counter-argument that a manifesto is nothing but a creed of course, and you would be right. But that’s why you cherry-picked that manifestation, as it were, and did not account for the publications, debates, books, productive lives — the whole complex mess and literature of the 200-year-old humanist tradition in America. Because it suited your simplistic duality portrait.
The Humanism of Ingersoll, Twain, Einstein, Sagan, and Kurtz is not anti-religion by definition. It is a recognition that religious belief is but a subset of the whole of human experience and culture, and that it contributes so much and no more. And that when we set aside the fixed dogmas and morality finishing schools of all small r religious traditions — Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Marxist, Reaganism, et al — we find meaningful lives and positive values emerge, quite naturally.
You are correct about this apish world. My in-laws are optimistic, for Holocaust survivors, but from them I gain a pretty stark idea of who and what we really are, given poverty, nationalism, religious extremism, and just plain barbarity, unleashed. And on a local level, I can notice daily examples of the cruddy way we all are.
But you are way too selective, in order to grouse. The overwhelming fact of human existence is not our capacity for brutality, as obvious and terrible and constant as it it is. It is how billions of us are still HERE. And we all get up every day and co-operate, regardless of the minor, superficial differences of faith or no-faith. Personal ethics are manifestly intrinsic, and tested daily, by all that is average and ordinary, across cultures. Kurtz and others are asking us to shift our focus, to see ALL of it, not just the blindered, passion-play-fable architecture imposed on us from childhood. When we do this, we do not become less moral. We understand morality without sentiment or discoloration. And that effusive feeling in his words, that sense of glory and beauty in our human abilities, that he celebrates? It’s real.
It is a worldview centered on the realities of the present and a faith focused on humankind that is as real as any other. Very nicely said smallpackages!
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. –Thomas Huxley
Concerning God, the afterlife and other questions beyond the ability of humans to ascertain empirically I think the most honest approach is Agnosticism. “I don’t know” is a humble and honest answer in the face of a universe that is vast and potentially infinite and a human condition that is unfair, sometimes absurd yet immensely captivating in its mystery. My faith is centered on people and on a quest for self-knowledge, for flourishing and for unity. It is lessened by the bad choices that harm others and create dissension within the family that is our species and is strengthened by the good that we do that alleviates such harm and reminds us of our common heritage and our common destiny. It is strengthened by raw curiosity about almost anything and a constant re-discovery of beauty. When I am alone and at rest and not tempted to adopt some public persona that pleases others…which I suspect is the stance I will take at the final rest as well…I more often think on such questions with excitement because of the universality of the uncertainty and how it is such an equalizer in human affairs.
I once asked a colleague to consider this koan and it spooked her. So, for my hump day readers, here is that same koan:
What did your face look like before your parents were born?
Some interpretive help can be found from the words of the ancient Buddhist teacher Dogen.
Tricycle Magazine, a Buddhist monthly, has an interesting interview with the head of the Nichiren Buddhist lay group, Soka Gakkai International or SGI: Daisaku Ikeda. SGI is one of the major forces behind the rise of Buddhism in the West and has had my interest for some time because of its concept centering on a “human revolution” as the modern expression of the Buddha’s teachings on enlightenment.
You have recast the teachings of the Lotus Sutra in terms of a process you call “human revolution.” The first part of that term gives expression to your philosophy of Buddhist humanism. But there’s also revolution. What are some of the more revolutionary aspects of Buddhism as taught by the SGI, and how does religious humanism spark that kind of revolution? Buddhism is inherently revolutionary. I can’t think of anything more radical than enlightenment. It is both a return to our most natural state and a dramatic change. To quote Nichiren, “There is definitely something extraordinary in the ebb and flow of the tide, the rising and setting of the moon, and the way in which summer, autumn, winter, and spring give way to each other. Something uncommon also occurs when an ordinary person attains Buddhahood.”
The expression “human revolution” was made famous by President Toda. It is a way of expressing the idea of enlightenment in contemporary language. In Nichiren Buddhism, enlightenment always impacts society. Through an inner, spiritual transformation individuals can awaken to a genuine sense of the sanctity of life. This counters the disregard and mistrust for life that is at the root of what is wrong in contemporary society. This inner change is thus the basis for realizing both individual happiness and a peaceful society. Again, in Nichiren Buddhism the two are never separate.
In terms of the individual, Mr. Toda explained it this way: “Human revolution isn’t something special or out of the ordinary. It could be as simple as someone who had been lazy and uninspired becoming enthused and committed. Or someone who hadn’t been interested in learning putting themselves into their studies. Or a person who has struggled with poverty becoming more stable and comfortable in their life. Human revolution is a change in a person’s basic orientation in life. And it is the transformation in awareness caused by Buddhist practice that makes that possible.”
In an opinion piece over at SEED Magazine David Weisman examines the remarkable compatibility between recent findings of neuroscience and the tenets of Buddhism. With a thesis that explores this quandary: “How did a religion over two millenia old come so close regarding the mind?”
Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree. How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.