BothAndian Humanism

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
March 30, 2003

Quote at top of Order of Service:
If we insist on interpreting historical humanism as a philosophy, and, even more, as an exclusively Western philosophy—we not only err, we throw up an insurmountable barrier against opening dialogue with the manifestations of this humanist attitude that exist in all of the other cultures of this earth. —Salvatore Puledda, from On Being Human: Interpretations of Humanism from the Renaissance to the Present (1997)

READING, from "What Are Noetic Sciences" by Willis Harman, reprinted in IONS Review, March-May, 2003 (Institute of Noetic Sciences)

INTRO: Even exploring the evolution of Humanism necessitates open thinking by open minds, because things continue to change and shift, including our scientific understanding and methodology. In this reading, Willis Harman—president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences for 20 of its 30 years—identifies an emerging realm of inner awareness, approached quite methodically. He writes…

"A new science is arising, a science of the human mind much broader than psychology has been to date. We have called it "noetic" science, after the Greek word for intuitive knowing. Perhaps it is somewhat inaccurate to speak of it as though it were totally new; it might be better to refer to a noetic emphasis in the human sciences. But the radical nature of the developments should not be underestimated. It is the second stage of a two-stage process.

The first stage, the rise of modern materialistic science, is one of the most important evolutionary leaps in human history. Its essence embodies a remarkable proposition, namely that knowledge of the objective sense-perceived world should not be based on religious or traditional authority, nor the guarded property of an elite priesthood, but should be empirically based and publicly verifiable, open and free to all. Thus there is not Russian chemistry and American chemistry, or Hindu physics and Christian physics. There is only science—the best framework of empirical relationships and conceptual models currently available, continuously tested in public by agreed-upon procedures.

The goal of the second stage, just begun, is creation of a similar body of knowledge, empirically based and publicly validated, about the realm of subjective experience. For the first time in history we are beginning to create a growing, progressively funded body of established experience about humanity's inner life—and particularly about the perennial wisdom of the great religious traditions and gnostic groups.

For the first time, there is hope that this knowledge can become—not a secret repeatedly lost in dogmatization and institutionalization, or degenerating into manifold varieties of cultism and occultism—but rather the living heritage of all humankind."

SERMON: BothAndian Humanism, Jaco B. ten Hove

Have you ever seen relatively enlightened thinkers presenting ideas in such a way that they actually contradict their own premise but don’t realize it? Often it's not so much the content of their presentation but its style that, apparently unbeknownst to them, belies the illuminating message they're trying to convey.

I've witnessed this recently in some noble attempts to articulate postmodernism, an elusive and still new approach to understanding our world. It's a risk to try to explain postmodernism at all, but perhaps it can be partially and almost adequately summed up as the stark realization that there is no "objective" position possible, that everything implies an inherent subjectivity. This means, to use a short killer phrase that makes absolutists simultaneously cringe and foam at the mouth, "It's all relative"—all observations are influenced by one's own experience and identity.

But wait a minute—I've just fallen into the trap myself: I made an absolute statement. How do I really know "it's all relative"? Maybe that's just my inherently subjective experience and identity talking. And so the circular conundrum goes in the see-saw world of postmodernism. How can we say anything definitive, if everything is subjective?

There's a lot more to this, of course, and it's all very challenging stuff. How many of you feel like you don’t yet really have a good grasp of postmodernism? Well, I actually think you're on to something. It may well be ultimately ungraspable anyway, so your fuzziness could be more accurate than you might like. Welcome to the dilemma of postmodern articulation—at least as it appears to me…from my inherently subjective posture…at this particular moment in time…

I know a colleague who lectures intently and enthusiastically about the value and rigors of postmodernism, but does so directly out of a left brain orientation, using logical, definitive exclamations of the Truth of this new perspective, often at great, mind-numbing length. This speaker apparently fails to see the irony of using an extremely rational style to over-explain a very non-rational and paradox-laden subject. To my eye, it effectively demonstrates and reinforces the older method she claims to be moving beyond.

Also, our reading [above] offered a milder example of this intriguing, if sometimes distressing phenomenon. Willis Harman, noted visionary and pioneer of a organization dedicated to scientifically exploring the forefront realms of human consciousness, offered a very helpful "two-stage process" of scientific advance. He noted the development of a new way of pursuing truth: past the first stage of materialistic science into a new "noetic" science, that recognizes the value of inner awareness and intuitive consciousness, which manifest primarily in subjective experience.

This noetic content fits well into the postmodern rubric, I think, but what I take issue with here is that Harman, who died in 1997, declared there are two and only two stages to scientific development, and that noetics is the second, culminating phase. Well, how did he know that there might not be a third stage? Instead of open thinking, he presented an absolute fact that seemed obvious from his perspective: scientific evolution is a two-stage process. His declaration closed the door on any further evolution of thought beyond what he could imagine.

It's a quite natural thing for one to speak only about what one knows, but the postmodern imperative, if there is such a thing, is to qualify truth claims with open-minded humility and larger perspective. This does change the conversation, but it needn't shut us down. There is a place of integrity to be found within the demands of such a vague ethic, and one can still articulate from strength, but it often involves struggling to reach beyond what is immediately obvious, and then being willing to make adjustments. Dogmatism and absolutes need not apply.

My primary focus this morning, humanism, in both its most formal statements of principle, assumes an inevitable change of perspective, perhaps anticipating postmodernism. Humanist Manifestos I and II each feature umpteen affirmations that were "designed to represent a developing point of view, not a new creed," as described by a signer of the original 1933 version [Raymond Bragg]. Forty years later, in 1973, the superceding version similarly ended with this acknowledgment:

"These affirmations are not a final credo or dogma but an expression of a living and growing faith. We invite others in all lands to join us in further developing and working for these goals."

I think this is the Good News of humanism—not just its many positive affirmations, which resonate deeply with me, but its fundamental openness to further unfolding. It is to that end that I aim my comments today, for I sense that in the emerging climate of postmodernism, there will need to be room for both adjustments and entirely new thrusts, like when a new tooth starts to push out an older one. We will keep making adjustments (like when I got older and realized I had to take flossing seriously, so I made an adjustment and added that behavior), but right now I believe we're also growing a whole new tooth with which to chew upon the issues of our time.

This morning I'm addressing scientific development first and then humanism because they are inextricably interwoven historically and continue to blend significantly. Humanism has relied heavily on science for its methodology and worldview, and there are certain ripples in the fabric now that are affecting both threads.

To address the latest thrusts in postmodern consciousness that involve both science and humanism, I will use one of my favorite adjectives, which is, you may have guessed, "BothAndian." For instance, in the reading, Willis Harman portrays scientific development in a linear evolution from one stage of external, materialistic exploration to the next—and apparently final—stage of inner, subjective investigation, but I find such a linear model very constrictive. I believe it is not either one or the other, it's BothAndian.

In fact, this could be the next step in our human development: the ability to honor and utilize both these methods of science—and more! This would be a leap, methinks, beyond over-specialization into more holistic wisdom, which I think is very much called for these days.

Speaking of wisdom, let me offer an example of how both kinds of scientific exploration—materialistic and subjective—can be applied to a subject of growing interest to people across many disciplines, what has come to be called "emotional wisdom." Also known as emotional intelligence and in shorthand by the letters EQ (as a complement to IQ), this is a person's ability to be aware of and then channel emotional energy productively.

What's more subjective an experience than emotion? And yet, sophisticated researchers from a variety of angles have been scientifically studying how certain training (or its absence) effects our capacity for more (or less) emotional wisdom. Among other things, they have discovered that the arousal of emotion can actually improve some problem-solving and decision-making abilities. [See the work of Yale Psychology Dept. chair Peter Salovey.]

This may fly in the face of our experience. I have certainly known times when emotion, especially anger, has instead clouded my abilities, but I also know I have not been coached very much about how to raise my emotional intelligence, and times of negative reinforcement have pushed me even farther away from such potential "wisdom."

I never received the benefits that some children are now getting from newer curricula founded on the idea that "experiencing one's self in a conscious manner—that is, gaining self-knowledge—is an integral part of learning." [See the work of Karen McCown of the Nueva School in California.]

Researchers in this field point out how a century and a half ago the biologist Charles Darwin—who was raised Unitarian—argued that humans had evolved an emotional system for a good reason: because of its survival benefits. But this idea got lost in the subsequent rush toward more and more reliance on strictly rational processing of information. Despite this subsequent emphasis, they say, "neurologically…the separation between rationality and emotion makes no sense" [Antonio Damasio, in Descartes' Error]. So some scientists are investigating emotion as an important component of our holistic intelligence.

All of this I mention first to suggest that the application of long-venerated scientific methods to these more esoteric studies is a bothandian activity of the highest order. One without the other is weak: purely empirical science, pretending to be objective, is delusional, as is undisciplined intuition without grounding in some accountable community. Willis Harman was right that "the living heritage of all humankind" is rich with insights gained from careful study of subjective experience.

And speaking of humankind, I also began this treatment of humanism by elaborating on science because of the hand-in-glove relationship between the two. For almost a hundred years now, humanists have established their integrity with the building blocks of science, unlikely to stray much beyond the limits of firm scientific understanding.

At least that's the impression one gets from the humanist movement, both religious and secular—two of the most obvious camps under the broad umbrella of humanism. Religious humanists generally share and include most of the affirmations of the secular humanists, but it's not necessarily true the other way around. My colleague James Robinson, of Brewster, MA, has described the difference between avowedly secular or ethical humanists and their religious humanist kin:

Secular/ethical humanists, he says, "affirm the moral values of human dignity, democracy, the free search for truth, a society based upon justice and fairness, respect for cultural differences. [They also] appreciate the wonder and mystery of life, and draw inspiration from science, art, and literature, [always] open to the experience of wonder and awe."

But religious humanism goes a step further and "attempts to give answers to age old questions [such as]: Is there a God? Is there a life after death? Are there angels? Did a Higher Power create the universe? Does the human being have a Soul? Is there any scripture or Holy Book we should reverence? Any spiritual prophet we should follow? To these questions, religious humanism basically answers ‘NO.‘"

Despite the existence of many very positive humanist affirmations, "NO" has been a pretty essential word for religious humanists of the past century, and their rejections of traditional theological speculations have generally relied on scientific awareness as it has unwrapped more and more of the mysterious cloak of life. Humanists have tended to say NO to almost anything supernatural, superstitious or mystical, preferring to be guided by the more grounded knowledge of traditional science.

As important as this pioneering energy was, such a preponderance of dismissal can inspire an attitude of superciliousness, and there have been consequences to the superior self-righteousness of some humanists. I find myself uneasy with an overwhelmingly negative and too-quickly critical approach, and I suspect many others like me have been chased away from the general humanist ranks by loud, harsh voices that can dominate discussions with ironically narrow but well-defended perspectives.

My friend and colleague—and currently one of the foremost UU humanist thinkers—Kendyl Gibbons, now in Minneapolis, suggests that "many people today are skeptical of truth claims, sometimes producing a moral cynicism and even a kind of crankiness." She believes some cranky humanists hold the often-unexamined assumption that science will help us control the messiness of nature. But this is a hope destined to be frustrated; thus the crankiness, perhaps.

She contrasts that style of humanism with a different angle that sees science less as "the answer" and more as a means to create experimental understandings, centered in a natural order that is open and mostly unpredictable. Those coming from that angle will more likely be, she predicts, "creative, playful, happy humanists." [From the report of a GA 2000 panel moderated by Khoren Arisian, as is the following reference.]

Another colleague, Sarah Oelberg, also in Minnesota (long a hotbed of humanism), has identified three kinds of humanism, which she calls Hard, Soft and Mushy, portrayed thusly:

Hard humanism is a blunt, no-nonsense rational approach, hard also because it puts responsibility squarely on us. This humanism, [Oelberg] pointed out, empowered many UUs to change themselves and the world. But [it also] has sometimes become arrogant and rigid, a new orthodoxy. And so another generation has looked for a more humane humanism: softer, kinder, gentler, willing to make in-course corrections and be adaptive. "Hyphenated humanists" are UUs who discard many humanist principles and keep a few, picking and choosing among UU theologies in an eclectic way, until they "melt together in a puddle or muddle." These she called the "mushy" or "melted" humanists.

Considering these of course simplistic categories, I would like to think that I can stay out of the "mushy" realm even as I propose my own kinder, gentler approach of BothAndian Humanism, which clearly does some picking and choosing, I admit. I want to think that the next leap of human consciousness will be an inclusive one, incorporating the best thought from any quadrant of the past and stretching forward with creativity, so I try to avoid dualisms and false either/or choices by seeking bothandian possibilities.

In this quest, I am bolstered by a long line of articulate humanists whose positions could counter any stereotype of the domineering, overly rational humanist that tends to get overly identified with this non-theistic posture. A few references will help illuminate the broad, even spiritual qualities and approaches that have always resided in humanism, even if not overtly.

The late 19th century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll, vividly expressed the positive side of humanist liberation:

"When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. …I was free—free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination's wings…"[quoted by Frederick Edwords in "What is Humanism?" 1989]

In 1926, one of the foremost early humanist leaders, Curtis W.Reese, wrote:

"To know one's self as inherently worthful, actually to find fullest expression in the widest human service and consciously to become a co-worker with cosmic processes, is spiritual experience deep and abiding." [in Humanism, Chicago; Open Court, 1926]

4 years later, in 1930, another humanist luminary, John H. Dietrich, said that

"(B)eing spiritual is a characteristic humanism values and seeks to foster." ["What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?" Humanist Pulpit 4, 1930]

Then came the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, which declared that

"Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected [3]…(and they do) not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered." [5]

Mid-century, Albert Schweitzer, a humanist and member of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship, promoted his very evocative and influential "reverence for life." Meanwhile, in 1964, committed humanist Abraham Maslow collected a great number of stories about what can easily be classified as mystical encounters and published a seminal work, Religions, Values and Peak Experiences. He determined that agnostics and "non-religious" people were actually more likely to have such experiences which, he declared, lead to a more integrated personality and attitude toward life [as described in "Humanistic Mysticism," a sermon by Robert Hemstreet, 1983].

Forty years after the first Humanist Manifesto, a second one in 1973 affirmed that

…(R)eason must be tempered by humility,… infused by a sense of human caring…[and] balanced with compassion and empathy…the whole person fulfilled. Thus, we are not advocating the use of scientific intelligence independent of or in opposition to emotion, for we believe in the cultivation of feeling and love." [4]

And at the turn of this latest century, the president of one of our two UU theological schools, Meadville-Lombard in Chicago, and former minister at our UU neighbor River Road Church in Bethesda, William R. Murry, spoke out very clearly:

"Today's humanism will recognize the importance of the non-rational factors in human experience. There is even a place for mystical experience… We can experience emotions and even to some extent be guided by them without giving up the importance of reason. We can express feelings that are not rational but not based on irrational beliefs either. Our emotional life is just as much a part of us is our reason… Humanists are whole people…(and) the new humanism can be an open humanism—open to wonder and mystery and transcendence in a naturalistic framework. [From "Religious Humanism," an address delivered at the UUA General Assembly, 2000.]

I could not have expressed the basics of BothAndian Humanism any better, I think. So I do not really claim to have invented anything new, really. But there seems to be a rising tide, a century-long wave cresting now in this new millennium, that points us on a path that may feel new and strange. That could be because such an expansive embrace that attempts to reconcile paradox and pragmatism is still far from accepted in our reliably dualistic mainstream, much as postmodernism might send otherwise rational people running in the opposite direction.

As fuzzy and frustrating as postmodernism can appear, some of its most able proponents, notably Richard Rorty, proclaim a degree of humanistic hopefulness that can stave off despair. Rorty simplifies things considerably by emphasizing that in the face of all demands for complexity, people can best be guided by doing what they can do best. "Such people," he says, "would not be those who knew a Secret, who had won through to Truth, but simply people who were good at being human" [quoted by Peter Weller, "Humanism and the Postmodern Challenge," 1999].

And this empowering vision of how to rise to the challenge of postmodernism—by being good at being human—can be further deepened by a very hopeful notion expressed by Italian writer Salvatore Puledda. He suggests we can open doors to humanism by redefining it as a global attitude, not a Western philosophy. If this puts some so-called philosophers out of work, well, so be it. More important is the accessibility of an inclusive humanist attitude, if we are to counter forces that pull very hard in other, more divisive directions.

There is certainly no shortage of critical issues before us, begging for attention from people who are simply good at being human, who are busy doing what they can do best and not immobilized by confusing doctrines or fearsome litanies. Do you feel immobilized? If so, ask yourself and your allies: What will help? In an increasingly subjective world, absent many of our previously reliable touchstones, we must collaborate to find new, more progressive pathways toward the good of the whole, including both the larger community and the whole person.

This will likely put our emotional wisdom to the test. It will hopefully push the boundaries of our science toward broader and deeper understandings. It calls us to innovate and articulate without obfuscating. It starts with our next steps. And somehow I suspect the path is going to be even more challenging than we might have thought, given the chapter of violence now being written in our name.

Can you feel the new tooth beginning to poke out? It's likely to be both painful and productive. May it help us smile more than frown.

I have not mentioned one of the foremost UU humanists of the mid-20th century and a strong personal influence, Kenneth Patton. I will spend another whole sermon on him and his vision of naturalistic humanism. But for the moment, let's put some of his words in our mouths, as we sing #303, We Are the Earth Upright and Proud. This is an optimistic call to extend our human awareness beyond our skin, into deeper relation with the whole planet. #303…

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