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What is Christian Humanism?

Frequently I am asked to try to explain Christian Humanism in a few words, so as I thought how to begin writing again after a long hiatus ...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Protesting The National Anthem

I was surprised at the furor created by Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, when he exercised his right to protest the singing of the National Anthem at a pre-season game.  Before commenting on the issue (I am generally supportive of Kaepernick’s protest) I need to say that I have not been a fan of Kaepernick’s and admit to some prejudice against him because I was put off by his arrogance about his status as a high profile college quarterback as well as his excessive body tattoos that seemed out of place on a college quarterback.  So when Kaepernick first protested by sitting during the playing of the National Anthem, my first instinct was to dismiss him as just another high profile sports figure having a public tantrum about something.

Two events transpired that caused me to rethink the seriousness of Kaepernick’s protest.  First, I heard him speak to the press about the reason he refused to stand for the National Anthem and the lengths to which he was willing to go to continue his right of protest.  Earlier this week I had attended a luncheon and was seated next to the institution’s chaplain who just before he said the traditional prayer of blessing of the food invited the guests to stand and say the “Pledge of Allegiance” because, as he put it, given the event of the past week in which the National Anthem was the subject of disrespect (most everyone understood what he referred to), it was our duty as Americans to stand in support of our flag.  At that moment I wanted to protest his statement by refusing to stand, but I went along with it (although I did not recite the Pledge) because it was neither the time nor the place to make a statement when I would have no opportunity to explain my reason for the silent protest.

Second, I was shocked and dismayed to learn some things relevant to the history of the National Anthem that I had not known until I read an article by Jon Schwarz[1]   in which he discusses in some detail some facts about the War of 1812, the role of the British in supporting the rights of Free Blacks and encouraging both slave and free to join the forces fighting against the Americans (who had started the conflict by trying to seize Canada from the British), and Francis Scott Key’s celebration of the deserved deaths of the Free Blacks supporting the British (as clearly stated in the third stanza[2] of the National Anthem, a stanza we don’t hear sung).  

Francis Scott Key, as I learned in that same article, is not a man deserving of a positive memory in the history of our nation—he was a slave owner and an advocate of treating Blacks as “property” to be owned and sold and with respect to the British, insisting that Blacks who were freed by the British were still “property” and must be returned to their rightful legal owners. 

All that aside we get back to the issue: the right and duty of citizens in our democracy to publicly protest the acts of our government when those actions raise questions of morality or violation of the rights of our citizens, a right that is constitutionally protected.  We should celebrate the exercise of that right even if we do not always agree with the issue being raised by the protestor because supporting their right is also supporting our right when we have an issue that needs to be raised.   

While there are many voices clamoring that he be kicked out of football or worse, we have also seen other brave voices reminding us all that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not only legitimate and commendable, but that by supporting his right to protest we are protecting our own civil rights in a democratic society.

[1] “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery,” The Intercept, August 28, 2016.

[2] No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What is Christian Humanism?

Frequently I am asked to try to explain Christian Humanism in a few words, so as I thought how to begin writing again after a long hiatus due to illness it seemed appropriate to develop a short statement and a longer explanation of the general movement of Christian Humanism, of which I am a small part.  Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. 

A myth has been created by contemporary fundamentalist Christians, who are appparently ignorant of their own history, that humanism is a recent creation of the Twenty First Century anti-theists who are out to destroy Christianity.  Unfortunately they fail to recognize the fact apparent to anyone who has taken a course in world history that humanism has been a part of Christianity since the First Century and a significant factor in its history throughout Western Civilization. Those who fail to learn from history are the fools of our generation who speak without knowledge.

Today there is considerable variance in the positions of those who fall under the umbrella of Christian Humanism, from those who are more generally at the liberal end of traditional Christianity but want to humanize it by refocusing it away from the archaic theological language of tradition and move it the direction of the example of Jesus by exhibiting  compassion to one’s neighbor, to the other extreme where I find myself, which is quite willing to dispense with the traditions and theology of the mysterium tremendum of Christianity altogether, extracting from the studies of Christian ethics what seems appropriate for our contemporary situation and emphasizing modeling one’s life on that of Jesus to the extent practicable.

Put another way, Christian Humanism ranges from the attempt to make Christians less interested in the mysteries of the world beyond and more caring about the world we live in, to dispensing with the superstructure of Christian thought and living in a world without god but with the Jesus of history as our teacher, model and guide.  Each of those extremes offers a full range of implications and problems, which we do not have time or inclination to deal with in this commentary. 

Christian Humanism is the conjunction of two different and typically unrelated conceptual approaches to understanding our world and for some of our contemporaries these terms and the ideas they represent do not fit together comfortably.  Indeed, for some it is an impossible and incompatible pairing of terms.  Christianity exists in the context of an overarching theological framework that informs and gives meaning to our understanding of our world and man’s place in it.  Humanism celebrates mankind’s intelligence as the key to understanding and explaining our world without the need for god or any other agency or rationale external to man, and at the same time it affirms our necessary connection with and dependence on each other for mutual support, concern and care. 

While it is an uneasy conjunction of terms, a look at history shows that Christianity and Humanism have had interesting interconnections going back at least as far as the Second Century when the writer of the Gospel of John and Justin Martyr (St. Justin) were contemporaries and both introduced the Greek concept of the Logos to the Christianity of their time (c. 125 A.D .), which they borrowed from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Gospel of John arguing that the Logos (in Greek thought the divine force that underlies the universe) predated but informed Christianity, and Justin arguing to the Roman authorities that Christian thought and values were consistent with the Logos and that therefore the Empire should leave alone this new sect because they were just stating the contemporary understanding of religion in a slightly different way that was not inconsistent with Stoic beliefs and values.  In both cases there was an integration of Christianity with the secular beliefs of the time.

This is not the place to create the history of the inter-relationships between Humanism and Christianity, or the intermingling of the divine and the human through the pages of history.  There are many sources for understanding that history for those who are interested, and perhaps the places to start are the New World Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, both of which have good summaries of Christian Humanism.  Here we will only mention the Middle Ages when Christian clerics controlled education through the monasteries and Charlemagne ordered centers of learning set up throughout the Empire, with monks and clerics morphing into professors.  Subsequently Western universities including Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were established through Papal decree and began teaching law, medicine, philosophy, languages and the classics (and so we have introduced the “humanities” to our curriculum).

In the Renaissance, perhaps the most significant single writing was Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) in which he argued that the religious duty of man is to approach learning from the human perspective, a very clear conjunction of Christianity with a humanistic approach.  In the Reformation human knowledge advanced with the invention of the printing press and the writings of Erasmus, Martin Luther and John Calvin.  The Enlightenment saw further advancement of the connection between humanism and Christianity with the emergence of secularism, liberal philosophy, Deism, bourgeois liberalism, an interest in the historical Jesus, and a non-conformist emphasis on reason and intuition in religious matters. 

We come back to our premise as stated at the beginning of this article—that Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. 

How far can we stretch the fabric of the umbrella of Christian Humanism to include the extremes that claim a place under its framework?  It is clear that the movement within Christian Humanism that sees itself attempting to humanize Christianity with an emphasis on social concerns such as economic justice and concern for one’s neighbor is a legitimate Christian movement.  It is not at all clear that dispensing with traditional or modern Christian theology, and the willingness to live with only Jesus as teacher and guide, is sufficiently Christian to still fall within the broader Christian family.  As most ideologies, much depends on various interpretations of Christianity and who is doing the interpreting and for what objective.  I stand by my claim, while hearing and taking seriously the objections of those who argue to the contrary, that the version of Christian Humanism for which I argue on this site, a view that is willing to live without god but with only Jesus as our guide, is consistent with the views of other modern Christian thinkers including Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and deserves its place as both Christian and Humanist.

[Informed comments are welcome.]

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Christian Fundamentalist Cruelty To The Transgendered

The State of North Carolina just passed a law that prohibits transgender people from entering any public restroom other than the one conforming to their sex as identified on their birth certificate, prohibits any third restroom not identified as male or female as an attempt to accommodate transgendered people, and further prohibits any city, county or local ordinance that conflicts with that state law, or any school district policy that states otherwise.

It is unfortunate that the right wing social barbarians of North Carolina, who claim this action in the name of their Christian freedom to discriminate, cannot grasp the fact that transgender people do not choose that life style and should not be punished for being true to who they are.

What does it matter which bathroom they use? North Carolina is just making itself look bad and shooting itself in the economic butt.  If a person wearing a dress and possessing a penis (or has had it removed) subsequently enters a women's bathroom and uses a private stall (which is all they have there) how would anyone know or care?  If a person with a vagina but wearing men's clothing enters a men's room and uses a stall (they can't use the urinal) who would notice or care? 

Why compound the issues further by prohibiting public entities from having bathrooms that are private and gender neutral the way they do now for baby changing rooms? Why interfere with local governments who take a more tolerant and compassionate view? When are we going to stop catering to the right wing loonies who deny everyone else the right to move into the 21st Century and claim their presumed religious freedom as their rationale to act like the bigots they are? Why shouldn't the fried chicken people or the golden arches folks be able to build a third bathroom if it makes their customers more comfortable?  Citizens of the modern world that most of us live in should indicate their disgust by boycotting North Carolina until it comes to its senses and stops catering to the fundamentalist Christian bigots who want to run everyone else's lives.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Surrogate Father and Mentor Wanted

This is a different posting that my usual commentary on here but I have been inactive on this site because I have taken on a role as counselor on an international site and in that context I have come across a situation that I have been unable to deal with effectively without reaching a wider audience.  So here goes:

 Are there any adult males or families out there who are willing to mentor and assume the role of surrogate father to a 16 year old boy who lives in Europe, has been abandoned by his family and desperately wants a father’s guidance, interest and love?

Here in brief is the situation: The boy attends secondary school where he will graduate in the summer of 2017. He wants to attend university but needs guidance, assistance and emotional support from a father figure to finish his current studies while living in an unheated home with parents who are constantly drunk and have told him they do not want him. He is managing to get by under very difficult circumstances. He is an intelligent young man with good values and maturity, sensitive, considerate, artistic, emotionally stable and in good health. His primary language is not English, he is largely self-taught but takes English classes in his school and is fluent in English. He would like someone to adopt him but that is too difficult to accomplish, so alternatively he wants someone to care for him enough to provide emotional support for him to finish his education in eastern Europe and to continue that role as mentor as he grows into adulthood.

Is anyone on here up to the challenge? The ideal person would be someone who has a family of his own, who will take the time to contact this young man regularly, who will visit him in his country in Europe and (if a visa can be obtained) bring him for a visit to his own home. 

I would gladly undertake this role myself, but I am 79 and we have agreed that I am too old to be his surrogate father as he grows into adulthood, so I am acting as intermediary to do initial screening and background check for his protection and advise him as he makes his decision, since this will be a life changing decision both for him and for the person who is willing to take him on.  Obviously full and complete information will need to be exchanged throughout the process. If you are interested send me a message [here] and we will go from there.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Michigan's Cruel Rule Denying Medical Insurance To Rape Victims

I don't usually re-post articles from elsewhere but this action by Republicans in the Michigan Legislature is so unreasonably cruel and anti-women that it needs to be broadcast widely. Reprinted from Daily Kos. Emphasis mine.  AGB

by Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic Leader Michigan Senate

I wanted to share a speech I intended on delivering to my Republican colleagues on the floor of the Michigan Senate today as the offensive new "rape insurance" law they passed has now taken effect. Unfortunately, they adjourned the Senate today without giving me my constitutional right to give this statement, but while they may not have wanted to hear it, I wanted to share exactly what I had planned on saying to them.
I rise today to remind my Republican colleagues of what today is.
As of today, your rape insurance proposal is now the law of the land in Michigan.
Thanks to what every single one of you on that side of the aisle did, rape victims in Michigan that become pregnant from their attack will now be told by their doctor - and their private insurance company - that they’re on their own.
Yes, a victim of a sexual assault in Michigan will now have to face the reality that their Republican legislators – those who decry government involvement in health care on a daily basis - passed a law that does exactly that. Except it only applies to women, so apparently that doesn’t count.
And if taking away the rights of rape victims weren’t enough, thanks to what you did, Michigan women with wanted pregnancies who are told by their doctors that something has gone horribly wrong and their pregnancy must be terminated will be told that their government doesn’t think that’s necessary medical care.
They too will now face a reality that you have prevented their private insurance company from covering the exact care that’s needed, that their doctor recommends, and is in the best interest of their own health.
In short, it’s a whole new era of unequal health care you’ve created here today, an era in which women are treated as second class citizens and told their male dominated legislature and a the extremist special interest group that funds their election campaigns know far better about the types of health care coverage they should have than their own doctor does.
So I have to ask, why aren’t you speaking out proudly about this today?
Is this not exactly what you wanted?
Is this not exactly what your vote was in favor of?
Or is it because, god forbid, you actually know what you did is wrong? That you know your vote that created this disgusting law was the absolute wrong vote to make? That if you could go back in time, maybe you’d put the health and the rights of your wives and your daughters ahead of what Right to Life told you to do that day?
I know that’s true for at least some of you.
Some of you told me yourselves in private shortly after the vote was taken that you wished you had the courage to vote against this disgusting bill.
You know who you are. I don’t need to name any names here today. But if you came to me that day seeking absolution for what you did, I’m here to tell you that on behalf of the millions of women and young girls you belittled that day and whose lives you’ve hurt as a result, the answer is no.
The people of Michigan asked you not to create this law. You didn’t listen.
My colleagues and I shared deeply personal stories - stories that none of us should have had to speak about publicly but felt compelled to in an effort to get you to actually think about what you were about to do.
We tried in vain to show you that your actions would have very real and very serious consequences on countless women throughout our state, including some of us right here in this very building.
But you didn’t care. You didn’t even have the courage to stand up and respond, or utter a single word out loud as to why you were about to pass this terrible law.
You instead sat silent, content to push your voting buttons and cash the campaign check you’d soon be receiving from those who were telling you to do this.
And so, here we are today. Rape insurance is now the law of the land, and not a single one of you wants to mark the occasion. So I’m doing it for you.
As this horrible law takes effect today, I want you to remember what you did.
The next time you read a story in the news about a woman being raped, remember that you turned your back on her and told her that she doesn’t deserve every available medical option that’s available to her.
When you hear of a woman facing a difficult pregnancy, one that may sadly end prematurely, remember that you told her that her health and well-being is less important than your ability to get the endorsement of a radical special-interest group.
And when women from across the state ask you why you would do something so offensive, remember that you had a chance to stand up for them and put their interests ahead of the absolute worst of what politics can be, and you chose not to.
I’m proud to know that I come here every day and fight to make Michigan a better place for my 2 daughters. But I’m disgusted to know that they’re now growing up in a state in which this kind of misogyny is now the law of the land.
I had to agree when I heard Rachel Maddow say this about our legislature just last night: “Over the last few years, Michigan state government has become way more insane than anyone nationally gives them credit for.”
Well, you may not be getting enough credit for it nationally, but across our state, the people know this exact kind of insanity happening here at their Capitol all too well.
I’m going to keep fighting on their behalf, and I can promise you that there are a whole lot of people out there ready to keep on fighting with me.
I haven’t forgotten what today means. Nor have the people of Michigan.
And you better believe we’re going to remember it November as well.    

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Myths of Christmas: Advice to my Fellow Clergy

The Toronto Globe and Mail published a column [6 September 2012] by a psychologist, Dr. Joti Samra, in which she responds to a mother who had asked for advice because her 12-year old son still believes in Santa Claus and, while it is endearing and embarrassing simultaneously, she was reluctant to break his spirit by telling him the truth.

Dr. Samra urged the mother to tell her son Santa was not real, noting that one of the amazing things about children is the innocence and enthusiasm of their beliefs and their awe at the wonders of the world, but that the duty of the parent is to help prepare them for the real world.  She observed that the way to approach the issue is to gently explain that the Santa myths have historical roots in the 4th Century bishop St. Nicolas who was admired and recognized because he gave gifts secretly to those who were less fortunate and were in need, and then to help her son move beyond the Santa story to appreciate the value of unconditional gift-giving and the true spirit of Christmas which lives in us all when we give to others.

As is common for newspaper articles, readers commented on the story and I was fascinated by the range of comments, which can be categorized into several distinct groups: (a) Mom is the naïve one here because no 12-year old that is not living under a rock could possibly believe in Santa; her son is merely pretending because he has concluded there is some advantage in getting gifts from a pretend Santa.  (b) It is wonderful that there are kids who are so innocent of the hard realities of the world that we should let them continue to believe without destroying their innocence so long as it is possible for them because there is no point in discomforting them before they are ready for the truth.  (c)  As kids mature they give up their belief in Santa Claus as the jolly elderly elf who travels all over the world with his sleigh driven by flying reindeer and his sack of gifts for good children everywhere, so why as adults do they hold to the even more unbelievable story of a god who manages the events of the world and picks winners and losers, invisible guardian angels who fly, the son of the god born to a virgin, and a god who came back from the dead and now sits on a heavenly throne and will come back one day to judge the living and the dead. 

As I contemplated these responses from the standpoint of a humanist who chooses the life and teachings of Jesus as a model for ethical values but who does not buy into the mythical structure of traditional Christianity, I had some reflections from my early experience that might be helpful to parish clergy. 

A very long time ago when I was a student at a theological seminary in Rochester, New York, many students struggled with issues of faith and belief, which was one of the purposes of theological seminary (at least among the responsible seminaries!), and some seminarians who found they no longer believed the traditional theology found it was easier to pretend to believe than it was to give up their vocation and disappoint their friends and family.  Many of them chose to affiliate with liturgical denominations such as the Episcopalians/Anglicans, where they could say “the church believes” rather than “I believe.”

Early in my career, when I was chairman of the department of religion of an educational institution in New England I had a friend who was chaplain of a Catholic educational institution nearby that was run by a religious order and attached to a grotto of Mary that sold souvenirs and religious trinkets.  From conversations with him I knew that he did not believe that these trinkets had any actual spiritual value, so I asked him how he dealt with the fact that his religious order continued to sell these trinkets and encourage believing in their efficacy.  His response surprised me.  The people who come to the grotto are a very simple people, he said, like children, with very simple beliefs.  They don’t ask any questions and they are comfortable in their belief so why should we disturb them in their innocence and naivete?

Ah, the endearing innocence of children.  How comforting it is that our children are secure in their childhood beliefs in incredible stories and myths even as we know that the hard realities will intrude on them soon enough as they mature and outgrow them, some sooner, some later, but as that 1st Century Saint Paul (not Saint Nicolas!) reminds us—all of us must eventually become adults intellectually and spiritually and put behind us our childish beliefs.  That is all a part of the business of growing up spiritually.

And what is more incredible (“too improbable to be believed”) than the myth of a virgin giving birth to the son of a god who turns out to be the god himself,  expecting this god to help you win the next ball game or the next election or the war your nation fights against your neighbor.  What is more unbelievable than the claim that a collection of religious texts written two millennia ago was actually written by a god, or that a man wearing imperial robes and carrying a golden shepherd’s staff can act on behalf of a god as his emissary, or that the course of an illness or history will be changed because you asked for it.  The gullibility and the arrogance of such claims are monstrous.  They make the naivete of children seem so much more preferable, because at least the children outgrow their childish views.

Why don’t the same persons who are able to outgrow their childish views of Christmas not similarly outgrow their childish views about religion?

To my fellow clergy, who are reluctant to break the spirits of members of their congregation, you should need no reminder that the naïve beliefs of adults in your congregations are not endearing.  By using ambiguous language to avoid the issues you are prolonging their growth to maturity and interfering with the mandate of Saint Paul to put aside childish views and grow up into a mature faith that does not depend on mythology.  Borrowing from Dr. Samra, we suggest to our fellow clergy that the way to approach the issue is to gently explain that the Christian myths have historical roots in the 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth who was admired and recognized as a great teacher of love and compassion toward those who were less fortunate and were in need, and then to help their congregations move beyond the Christian mythology to appreciate the value of unconditional love and affirmation of others which is the true spirit of Christianity, which for the true Christian should live in them. 

What we wish for this Christmas is not that its myths be taken seriously, but rather that the spirit of generosity and kindness that underlies the spirit of Christmas become a reality in and for all of us, that the hungry are fed with bread and meat and not with empty promises, that the prisoners are visited with a spirit of reform of the human heart and not with promises of heavenly salvation, that the sick be visited with comfort and health care for all and a commitment to fight against the many illnesses that plague us, that the homeless find shelter accompanied by rehabilitation and job training and forbearance of foreclosures and evictions, and that the politicians sit down with each other and stop acting like children and get on with the business of compromise necessary to move us forward.

For all we wish joy, happiness and peace in the New Year – but we will not hold our breath waiting for it to happen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Israel Attempts To Stifle Dissent

A disturbing article appeared in today's Guardian that discloses an attempt by Benyamin Netanyahu's extremist party to stifle dissent among Israeli academics and intellectual leaders who are openly supporting the peaceful boycott by Palestinians of merchandise and agricultural products from Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Israel has been steadily trying to take over Palestinian lands by constant expansion of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territory. The Guardian reports:

A protest petition has been signed by 500 academics, including two former education ministers, following recent comments by Israel's education minister, Gideon Saar, that the government intends to take action against the boycott's supporters. A proposed bill introduced into the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – would outlaw boycotts and penalise their supporters. Individuals who initiated, encouraged or provided support or information for any boycott or divestment action would be made to pay damages to the companies affected. Foreign nationals involved in boycott activity would be banned from entering Israel for 10 years, and any "foreign state entity" engaged in such activity would be liable to pay damages.
Boycotts have long been recognized as a peaceful means of protest and dissent. The boycott movement [known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, or BDS] among the Palestinians has been going on for more than five years, but since the violent attack by the Israeli military against the peaceful flotilla that tried to bring in food, medical and building supplies to Gaza last month the campaign has gotten increased support both inside Israel and among others throughout the world community.

Supporters and Israel-watchers alike have been dismayed over Israel's increasing tone-deafness to the effect its increasingly repressive tactics are having on the rest of the world community. Israel is becoming more and more isolated as its objectives and tactics are being subjected to scrutiny by the world community.

Silencing of dissent and the punishment of peaceful protestors in Israel, and the constant rejection of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy by the right wing Zionist extremists, are indications that democratic freedoms, including the freedom of speech and the right of protest are being closed down in an Israeli state that is becoming increasingly repressive and fascist. That is disappointing to some of us who had hoped for better things from Israel. It used to be a nation to admire.

Fanatics are dangerous to democratic values and ideals—and religious fanatics are the most dangerous of all because they find justification for extremism and violence in their religious faith and commitment. Christians, Jews and Muslims all contain an irrational strain of violence among their extremist fundamentalist supporters that seek political power to silence dissent and undermine democracy.