A Brief History of Religious Humanism
as espoused by the Church of Humanism
The roots of humanistically oriented theology can be traced deeply into ancient history. Its evolution was signified by several developments. First, the acknowledgement of the fundamental value and important role human beings assume in the process of social and universal redemption; second, the attempt to reverse the prevailing blind belief in reality-denying symbolisms, and third, resistance against the oppression of mind and body by individual and collective tyrants, particularly those claiming divinity or omnipotence.
An exemplary personality representing this spirit was Akhenaten (1380 B.C.), the Egyptian Pharaoh who instituted a naturalistic worship of the sun as the main life-giving source. It is interesting to note that this naturalism led to profound expressions of a new aesthetic realism in art and poetry. One of his greatest moral achievements can be seen in the fact that the king, queen and princesses were not shown as gods but as human beings with human attributes. Akhenaten's sun God was acknowledged as belonging to all nations equally and was to be found not in wars and victories but in flowers, trees and all forms of life and growth. To Akhenaten the sun was also the "Lord of Love", the creator of "the human child in woman", one who "fills the Two Lands of Egypt with Love". Akhenaten's sun God emerges as a compassionate, life-affirming carer - a God of gentleness and peace.
A humanistic element among ancient Hebrews can be found in the prophetic call in the Bible. The premise "Ye shall be holy" has a profound qualitative human meaning. The core idea of Judaism touches on issues that preoccupy modern humanistic psychology. These ideas were best expressed in the context of prophetic utterances such as: "A new heart will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh". The restoration of the capacity of feeling was a prerequisite for one's ability to love oneself and one's neighbors and to serve God.
The evolution of the Jewish concept of God is of particular humanistic interest. When the ancient Israelites conquered Canaan, the local Canaanite God was called El. The Israelites first took over the same name of God, which even in today's Judaism is called Elohim, but refined this concept by using the tetragrammaton JHVH. This acronym for - "that which will be, is and was" - signifies an existential concept of being. As the concept of God in Judaism evolved, the attributes of God, particularly as expressed by the prophets of Israel, emerged in stronger ethical utterances. God demands devotion to the cause of justice, righteousness, rationality and peace. To serve God means to help in the great task of advancing the creation of a redeemed world.
In the East, another spiritual force paralleled this humanistic trend. Siddhartha Buddha, a young prince, lived a sheltered life in three palaces in Northern India, and his awareness was limited to the experience of luxury and tranquility. Suddenly he was exposed to the outside world where he discovered the reality of suffering, disease and death. This awareness motivated him to devote his life to the task of ameliorating these conditions. When the Great Enlightenment came over him, Siddhartha realized that the stumbling block to his own salvation and the cause of all human misery was greed: the craving of a sick ego, the desire for the wrong things.
Buddhism is a religion without a specific God, and some of its ethical-psychological, salvation-oriented teachings are of prime humanistic import. The true yogic mystic is not a religious fanatic, but a person who has achieved an inner quality of being, making for a greater awareness of the self and the world.
Contemporary humanistic theology has its roots in Greek mythology and philosophy. Among the significant archetypes are: Prometheus, Antigone and Socrates. When Zeus denied humanity the vital element of fire, Prometheus brought to earth sparks from the sun. Thus he challenged Zeus, who punished him severely, but humanity gained. A critical principle in theology was thus mythologically established, namely the human encounter with arbitrary power.
The classical humanism of the Renaissance is best represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who in his "Handbook of the Militant Christian" demanded a new humanistic theology based on a universally understandable idea, a religion which would be more spiritual and more humane. Instead of stressing dogmas and rituals, his emphasis was on education and his ideals included the striving for a civilization united in speech, religion and culture. He detested war and expressly declared that persons of intelligence and learning in every land must keep the channels of communication open at all times. Erasmus did not aspire to abolish the Church, but desired a "reflorescentia", a renascence of religion, a renewal of the Christian ideal by a return to its Nazarene ethics. Erasmus detested fanaticism and never wished to impose his view upon others. He deeply affirmed freedom of conscience and absolute independence of mind. Thus, the true servant of God is one who is oneself.
A very important contribution to the development of humanistic theology was made by the philosopher, John Dewey. In his profound essay "A Common Faith", Dewey provides a concept of the religious which is purely naturalistic. According to him, God is the active fusion of the ideal and the actual. We might counterpose this with the idea of the diabolic as the fusion of the destructive and the false. It follows that a religious person is one whose life is devoted to the highest (God), and to serve God means to live and act so as to bring more social justice, love and peace into the world.
In this context Dewey points to another basic humanistic imperative, concerning the process of growth. Growth, to him, is the only moral end. That does not mean perfection as a final goal, but a constant process of transformation through perfecting, maturing and refining. This is the aim in living. And so the growth of the ideal, and its further realization, is an act of divinity in its most profound natural and vital sense.
A major extension of these ideas can be found in the work of Julian Huxley. At one point he refers to God as Sacred Reality. Reality is identical with the facts and actuality and encompasses the major challenges of life and death, emotional and intellectual development, interpersonal relations, marriage and divorce, health and disease. Other components of reality consist of beliefs having to do with ultimate issues, such as ideas concerning that which determines destiny, acknowledgement of principles and forces in nature, and ideals such a peace, truth, social justice and love. All of these become a part of the organized idea system of a person. This is the meaning of the phenomenon Huxley calls "finding religion". Through the interpenetration of the inner life of a person with the all-inclusive, outer, universal existence, a distinctly religious feeling emerges, namely that of communion with God.
The art which must be practiced in order to optimally coordinate all human faculties toward this end requires biological, naturalistic awareness. The development of the senses and the raising of individual and collective consciousness are therefore essential to evoke this feeling of sanctity. The maximal enhancement of the evolutionary process becomes a sacred duty, having a pure, religious, human quality.
Worship and prayer-meetings are not to be degraded to appeals to appease idolatrous forces, but rather to be seen as a communal proclaiming, affirmation of belief and values for the delight of the heart, edification of the mind, meditative contemplation and the uplifting of the spirit.
An interesting thesis of organismic, evolutionary being is elaborated upon by P.H.J. Van Leer in "Challenge and Answer." The oneness of existence is seen as dependent on organisms, each one being in itself composed of parts whose harmonious, relationship constitutes their creatively functional nature. Therefore, the process of self-realization, the transformation, and maintenance of the whole as well as of all its components becomes the object of supreme concern in the quest for the achievement of high states of civilization and universal being.
A major contribution in this context is made by the existential theologian, Martin Buber. His concept of reality is based on three ideas: 1) the idea of unity, 2) the idea of the deed, and 3) the idea of the future. The principle of unity determines the existence of the organism, the deed enhances the act of creation, and therefore a particular type of future emerges. Elementary in this process is the I-It and I-Thou principle. Both connote a primal relation. In the I-It relation the other is seen as an instrument or object. In the I-Thou relation the other is validated as an authentic being, a part of the same whole. The I-Thou, the highest expression of authenticity, can be spoken - verbally and non-verbally - only with the whole being. When it is spoken, its basic substance is love, reason and sanctity. The dialogical life leads to authentic being.
Erich Fromm, the humanist social psychoanalyst, raises important issues and provides some preliminary solutions. His social critique concerns a condition which he calls the pathology of normalcy. Contrary to general belief, the average person is not capable of loving, rational thinking or creative living. Therefore certain prerequisites have to be met to enable the individual to develop one's capacities for reason and love. One of Fromm's major theses is based on the destructive effect of self-centeredness, narcissism. This narcissism is not a simple sense of self-adoration, but is the result of a person's unsatisfied need for genuine relatedness and love. In the effort to escape one's state of separateness and aloneness a person tries to establish symbiotic, obsessive, "love relationships" which, reinforced by the negative influence of social reality, lead to self-defeat. Emotionally deprived people experience powerful feelings of alienation, forfeit their personal freedom while trying to attach themselves to a love object, and eventually lose their sense of objectivity and reason. Their love hunger leads to possessiveness and jealousy, which in turn destroy their relationships. Moreover, because of the excessive emotional dependency of such individuals, a whole neurotic complex ensues leading to authoritarian domination or submission expressed as sadistic or masochistic behavior. The object of obsession may be a love partner or it may be anything and anyone on whom such a fixation has been developed. At the core of the loss of the ability to love lies the compulsive parental attachment which must be dissolved before a truly mature personality can emerge. The same principle applies also to whole societies.
Fromm provides us with a new humanistic concept of love, not based on an irrational, romantic process of "falling in love", but on the values of caring, respect, responsibility, knowledge and joy. Love is a state of being and an art, a challenge of emotional transformation that calls for the creation of new human resources and modalities helping to transcend the prevailing ineffectual and self-defeating cultural and institutional attitudes.
In focusing on practical ways of making creative love, as a redeeming personal and social power possible, Fromm, in our time, is actually helping to complete the task started by Jesus 2,000 years ago.
Further important work has been done by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow who also aspired to overcome the tragic and deficient human condition. His major goal is self- actualization, meaning that a person can become actually what one is potentially - i.e., the development of one's fullest human potential. Maslow is the great unifier of religion, science, psychology and art. With his uniquely insightful book, "Religions, Values and Peak Experiences," Maslow's psychology may be equated with religion in dealing with ultimate concerns and highest forms of being, centered around the same naturalistic, humanistic values promulgated by the great founders of world faiths: truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, aliveness, justice, meaningfulness. Maslow provides us with new insights and methods for transcending mediocrity and hedonistic vegetation, and for prompting the spiritual uplift of human creativity.