Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986
In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”
The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.
To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?
Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the
moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.
Many popular definers associate religion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Religion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not hold water. Reasoning through observable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed authorities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.
As for the persistent attempts to identify religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradition and the Buddhist Nirvana are religiously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley definition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and reverence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis, the definition simply substitutes one mystery for another.
A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities:
- In almost every culture, religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established priesthoods is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
- Religious teachers and prophets persistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new; if they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappears. The religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies; Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently affirmed that they were simply recapturing the true message of the Prophets. Novelty is historically irreligious.
- In ordinary English, the word religious is usually equivalent to the Yiddish frumm. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as “more religious” or “less religious” by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, when they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
- The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay, are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension, but they are more characteristic of historic religious interest than is social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Bar Mitzvah. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
- Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with groups. In most cultures, sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The root word religio is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult that defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
- The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space, and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.
Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate elements together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is inseparable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.
The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensible world of continual change and a persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of spacetime events that modern science investigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experience. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his personal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the temporary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety, he searches for persons or forces that enjoy the blessing of immortality. With these, he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something “bigger than me.” The religious experience is universally an act of feeling at one with what seems to possess the aura of eternity.
If we test this definition by the evidence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered by the cloak of reinterpretation. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be divinely old.
The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not significant because of its ethical content; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of continual and frightening change, they give to human behavior a mood of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically charming, but they lack the religious dimension. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter — birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more eternal than the seasons. Their continual repetition and observance is an ultimate security.
Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally explained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the saint is rationalized as an encounter with the changeless. To “transcend” the world of space and time may be informationally absurd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.
If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identifying with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism requires the following observations:
- The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an infinite capacity for adjustment, is its special power and glory.
- Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every person is composed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism proclaims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
Thus, humanism is more than a religion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious experience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.