A Humanist Perspective on Spirituality

Presented as a homily to the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver in the summer of 1992 and subsequently revised and published in Humanist in Canada (Spring 1993), p.5-8;13. A version of the same message was argued in a debate with Thomas Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism at a joint conference with the Humanist Association of Canada the following year.

KEY TERMS: spirituality -- mysticism -- humanist Unitarianism -- culture -- self-consciousness -- the scientific outlook -- the creative imagination -- morality -- value judgments

Unitarian ministers say that, for the past decade or so, their congregations have begun to ask for more spirituality in their church services. But, when pressed to explain precisely what it is that they want, these same people usually have a difficult time expressing the precise nature of their yearnings. There appears to be a difficulty with the concept of spirituality. This is not surprising, not just because it is an extremely abstract concept with no referents in immediate experience, but because it is a concept in a state of evolution. The term, "spirituality" (or "the human spirit") has always been about the very essence of what it means to be human. Even the Hellenic Greek naturalists spoke of it, using the symbol of the butterfly to express their meaning. Clearly, what it means to be human -- and thereby "spiritual"-- in different cultures and historical periods depends upon the world view prevailing at the time. Throughout most of the pre-history and history of the human race, being human has meant being created and controlled by powerful external spirits, or by mysterious supernaturally inspired forces housed in some unknowable way within the psyche. As these premises change, so, too, would we expect the meanings attached to, and encompassed by, the crucial defining concept of spirituality.

For the past few years I have been conducting an informal survey of Unitarian interpretations of spirituality. What I discovered is interesting. I decided most Unitarians do not mean what members of orthodox religions appear to mean when they use the word. Not surprisingly, in this age of scientific enlightenment, few who have chosen to become Unitarians persist in the belief in a master spirit or some sort of spirit force outside of nature capable of interfering in the course of history. Nor do they tend to accept the belief in spirits such as souls that enter and depart the human body at birth and death. Equally incredible, at least to most long-time Unitarians, is the notion of a mysterious injection of something called spirit into the evolutionary process at the point of humankind's emergence. Or the notion that the Bible or any other holy book is the creation of some mysterious spiritual world or entity. So if any of these things is believed to be the source or content of spirituality then, clearly, those Unitarian ministers who have been ignoring the subject are on the right track in recognizing its obsolescence.

But these older meanings are now being discarded at a rapid rate, at least by the members of modern industrial cultures. At the most general and surface level, most such people operate, instead, on the basis of a rather ambiguous dichotomy involving "spirituality" versus "materialism". To be spiritual in these terms is simply to recognize that there is more to life than merely eating, drinking and making merry; more than just buying and selling and acquiring possessions.

However, an increasing number of people are concerned at a somewhat deeper level, and are seeking new and more appropriate definitions of spirituality: definitions implied by the need felt by so many today for less magical and less tribal world views. In fact, I have found that the majority of the people who refer to human "spirituality" or to "the human spirit" mean exactly that: they mean those specifically human qualities and achievements that distinguish our species from other animals. I have uncovered six general categories of this remarkable human spirit, as described by most of the Unitarians concerned with the subject, and it is with these that I intend to deal today. They include 1) artistic creativity and appreciation; 2) attempts to idealize and expand upon the emotion of love, to separate it from lust, and to forge it into a foundation and justification for all human relationships; 3) the sense of being part of something that extends beyond the individual lifetime, and the desire to make sense out of the human role in the nature of things; 4) a concern with living a good life and envisioning ideals and guiding moral principles; 5) the desire to seek objective truths and the capacity to build reliable knowledge; and 6) the capacity for valuing or making wise value judgments. Many Unitarians feel that our ministers may not have spent enough time in the past, discussing these vital human issues.

However, that is not all I found. I also discovered that there is, in fact, a rapidly increasing number of our members who do believe in some sort of spiritual"" existing parallel to nature: a mysterious neo-Platonist world of "essence" capable of being tapped into and producing, for the specially initiated, perfect knowledge of a kind superior to that attainable by means of the senses and human reason. When people committed to this faith ask for spirituality in their services, they are referring to minister-led involvement in specific exercises or rituals deemed effective in achieving this sought-after experience of "oneness" with the universe.

Now, I happen to find this particular demand rather puzzling. For what I have just described is an essentially mystical outlook which, for the most part, has been foreign to the tradition of Unitarianism. It represents a yearning to escape from the human condition -- the very condition that Unitarianism has always celebrated. And I consider it a vain and useless yearning. For, whatever wonders we infinitismal, limited, and fallible creatures might possibly achieve in the centuries to come, it most certainly will never be absolute insight into any "holistic" meaning of the universe. This particular type of "spiritual" yearning is what Michel de Montaigne described, over three centuries ago, as the age-old desire to make the handful bigger than the hand. It can't be done.

The reason why I find all this so puzzling is that Unitarians have traditionally questioned faiths that so blatantly defy reason and common sense. Of course we were not the first nor only ones to do so. The Roman poet, Lucretius, in the First Century BCE, derided these sorts of ideas. He wrote:

"For surely it is utter madness to combine
A mortal thing with an eternal, and opine
That both can feel and act as one, what more detached
Can we imagine, more repugnant, more ill-matched,
Than an immortal and a mortal thing together
Trying to stay united through the fiercest weather?"

Lucretius must have also had great fun writing another poem in which he presented the image of numerous unemployed souls gathered around the marriage bed competing to be the first to leap into the newly conceived fetus.

Like many of the great thinkers of Classical times, a large part of the Unitarian tradition has always rejected such dualisms. And, today, at least the modern humanist strand within Unitarianism continues to reject them. For philosophical humanists it is not God, but the human imagination which created the concept of God, that is spiritual. It is not the Bible as a source of truth that is spiritual for us. It is the beauty and clarity of the poetry within it -- and the oral tradition that preserved it throughout pre-history.

This brings me back to what the concept of spirituality does, in fact, mean to most Unitarians and, especially, to those who call themselves humanists. It is what Lucretius was talking about when he said, in yet another poem, "Our lives we borrow from each other; And we, like runners, pass along the torch of life." It is the torch of cultural life -- unique to humans. For us, spirituality represents the potential of those evolved capacities that mark us off from the other animals: all the humanly created aspects of life that we pass along to the next generation. Like our genes, it is a natural product of evolution, and it is what defines our species as human.

We see spirituality as a capacity which has evolved within human beings as a direct result of the evolution of language. No outside force or entity placed it there. That simply is not the way that evolution works. When we speak of spirituality we are referring to all the wonders that followed from the emergence of a distinctively human consciousness: that awareness of the boundaries and singularity of oneself" that extends beyond mere animal sentience. It was a consciousness gradually brought into being by one particular species of upright primates, as they learned to manipulate symbols. Symbolic language made possible, for the first time in evolution, the sharing of experience: experience removed in space and time from the current moment. Only by developing language from out of primitive forms of communication could our apelike ancestors begin to build mental categories such as "self/other", "near/far", "friend/foe", "prey/ predator", and "then/now". Thus it was only through the invention and continuous refinement of language that there evolved a uniquely human form of consciousness -- as distinct from mere animal sensations of outside stimuli.

To explain this great achievement of what we know as human self-consciousness there is no longer any need to imagine it as a mysterious gift from some all-knowing and unknowable force beyond nature. Science has provided us with a better explanation. We are now equipped by modern knowledge to understand our distinctive form of consciousness as simply the natural evolutionary result of the development of memory and imagination within our species, and within each individual human: a memory and imagination initiated and then greatly expanded by language. Nothing more -- but nothing less than that!

With the onset of self-consciousness came an emerging sense of the past and future. It is not only that we, alone among animals, became recorders and transmitters of the past. We, alone among animals, became anticipators and visionaries of the future. In other words, we -- alone among animals -- developed the potential for spirituality.

Humankind is unique in all of evolution for one reason only. It is because, so far, we are the only species capable of manipulating ideas. This is because ideas are impossible without symbolic language. Feeling, we share with all sentient life -- but not thinking. Contrary to popular notions on the subject, it is not our emotions that make us spiritual beings; nor is it wiping our minds clear of thoughts. It is, instead, those very thoughts that define us as spiritual animals. It is the world of ideas and ideals and artifacts that imagination and memory and reason have enabled us to create and pass on from generation to generation; it is this symbolic world -- and nothing else -- which represents spirituality for humanist Unitarians.

By ideals I mean the values underlying our institutions. They are the principles and goals guiding our organized procedures for group living. Ideals provide the grounding and signposts for our ways of governing and of producing and sharing resources; of demonstrating reverence; of protecting and socializing our children; of caring for our sick and old; and of administering our laws and remembering where we came from. By artifacts I mean our objects of art such as our paintings, our recorded music, our books, our buildings, and the products of our science and our technology. All this amounts to a second level of environment -- a humanly-created one. We call it culture. Culture is our spiritual world, and it is a distinctively human creation.

No other animals create and transmit culture. This is not because animals like chimpanzees and dolphins lack family feeling or communicative sound systems or even intuition or crude concepts. What they do lack is the symbolic language in which to encase all this.

What does it mean to be, as far as we know, the only spiritual animals in the universe? First of all, it means that we are capable of imagining, and bringing into being, realities not currently given in the physical surroundings. An example is the arts that likely emerged very early in what we call cultural evolution. Drawings, stories, poems and music -- all have contributed to an expanded spiritual world for human beings: a world of vicarious experience. These spiritual products free us from the narrow limits of animal subjectivity. They allow us to feel and see and hear what others, in far-off times and places, have felt and seen and heard.

The experience of the listener, reader or viewer may take the form of feelings of self-fulfillment, or a sense of deja vu, or heightened appreciation of the human condition, or possibly an empathy so intense that the artist's representation of experience is virtually being re-lived. To the degree that the creative agent has succeeded in accomplishing this end, for people of varying times and cultures, the work can be said to possess spiritual quality.

Second, being spiritual means that humans tend to look for some sort of reassurance of being part of something beyond the mere individual life span. Even an unsought awareness of this can produce a spiritual "high", as when -- in the midst of an expanse of mountain or ocean -- an understanding of the essential connective nature and relative insignificance of one's own self in Nature's scheme can strike like a sledgehammer.

We are engaged in a spiritual undertaking whenever we yearn for an integrated view of self and of human destiny within some larger picture: a picture capable of ordering and making sense out of our daily experience. That picture has been represented by many different world views throughout history. In earlier times, in the absence of reliable universal knowledge of the nature of things, a variety of traditional myths were the source of the world views of human groups. We now know these views to have been sadly limited and often mistaken, but they served a purpose in their time. And, in our time, they provide a record of where the human race has been. Today we rely on science for our picture of the way reality operates, and as scientific knowledge evolves, we adjust our world views accordingly.

At least Unitarianism traditionally followed this course. Indeed, it was precisely because of the need to do this, on the part of our intellectual ancestors, that Unitarianism originated in the first place. And today, we humanist Unitarians continue to believe that there is nothing so spiritual as a scientific insight -- especially one that forces a creative readjustment of our world view. And we believe that there is nothing so remarkable and awe-inspiring as the understanding of the origin and role of humanity in the scheme of things which is now provided by modern evolutionary science. For us, there is nothing more wondrous and worthy of appreciation than the life process which shaped humanity into what we are. For us, it is not the gods, created throughout pre-history by the evolving imagination of our primitive forebears, that warrant worship. It is, instead, the remarkable eons-long process of cumulative accidental changes and adaptive modifications called evolution that is the ultimate object of reverence.

So far, I have been discussing two distinctively human spiritual pursuits: artistic creativity and the reverential search for understanding of the origin and role of humanity in the scheme of things. A third important spiritual undertaking is the moral one.

Ethical ideals and principles, and rules for living a good life, have been the worthy goals of much spiritual endeavor throughout human history. Humanists recognize the entire range of human experience -- past and present -- as the source of these ethical guidelines. As with knowledge, we recognize that the responsibility for morality is ours alone. Ours in the sense of all humanity, that is. And, as with knowledge, we accept the hard fact that there is no mystical shortcut -- as much as we might wish that it were so! Neither is there any source of morality in non-human nature. We agree with Albert Schweitzer that the refusal of most religions to accept the exclusively human source and responsibility for morality has been an obstacle to spiritual progress all through history and is now a threat to the very survival of life on this planet.

We look for what the modern humanist philosopher, Paul Kurtz, calls "the common moral decencies", and what some have referred to as "the virtues". These are ways of relating to other people and to other forms of life that make continued survival possible and enjoyable. We think that morality consists of simple human attributes like honesty, kindness, responsibility and fairness. To us, they are abundantly spiritual precisely because they are human and ordinary. We consider that the test of principles and rules and virtues is the consequence of living in terms of them. Do they work to ensure the survival of the group involved and the earthly home of all life? Do they work to provide fulfillment for the individual? The job of clarifying and testing and altering these moral attributes and guideposts, in the light of experience, is a continuous spiritual task.

A fourth aspect of the spiritual quest is the search for truth. It has become fashionable to assert that there is no such thing as truth -- that "We each create our own reality!" And that, as no one can be perfectly objective, there is no point in even trying. The humanist answer to all this is that mere common sense should tell us that truth is important. As Santayana pointed out, "Truth is simply what happened." Of course it is never easy to ascertain what actually happened in any specific instance -- either in a court of law or in a historian's analysis or a journalist's report. Ideological prejudices and emotions, and the self-serving desires and delusions they promote in us, are too often in the driver's seat. But respect for the truth and for objectivity in the search for it are superbly spiritual commitments to the humanist Unitarian.

Related to the search for truth is the building of scientific knowledge. Scientific propositions are a particular form of knowledge that make "if-then" kinds of claims. If we act in this particular way, then a certain effect is likely to follow. To the degree that a scientific proposition has survived a rigorous public testing procedure, we consider it to be a dependable guide to action. We value objective history and journalism because they are our only available means of learning reliable lessons from the past and present. But we revere science for yet an additional reason. It allows us to control our future, rather than being merely helpless victims of social and technological change.

Of history we ask, "Is it true?" and the concern is a spiritual one. Of the findings of science we ask, "Are they reliable?" and that is also a spiritual concern. The truth is what happened, and humans ignore it at their peril. Reliability, however, is about what will work to make something happen. Of all the animals, only humans can build objective knowledge of both these things. What could possibly be more wondrous and more spiritual than such a remarkable undertaking?

This brings me to the fifth and perhaps most important aspect of spirituality for humanist Unitarians. It involves the fact that humans are capable of making choices. We call this valuing or judging or making value judgments. It has its roots in the feelings that we share with all animals. However, when we include the notion of values as idealized objects of reverence that determine direction for the future, we have something distinctively human and spiritual. For example, when we say that cave people valued their totems and rituals and myths we mean not only that they sensed and enjoyed these things momentarily. We mean that these things symbolized desired experiences, and the very act of remembering and visualizing and seeking them aroused emotions of warmth and safety and joy. These are intensely human activities -- and in no way supernatural!

But the evolution of the human valuing process did not end there. Ultimately it came to involve judging the best means of prolonging or repeating enjoyable experiences, and of expanding them and sustaining them over the long term. And not just for the self but for the family and community and ultimately for humanity as a whole. This level of valuing is not possible without advanced reasoning and knowing. The wise valuer is one who is informed about the current situation and the choices available, and has the reasoning ability and knowledge required for predicting the probable consequences of these choices. Also required is a sense of the degree to which each string of consequences is likely to aid or prevent achievement of the goals desired.

Because not everyone is prepared for the critical thinking required, not everyone is capable of judging wisely. And not everyone is willing to accept the responsibility involved. Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the causes of the holocaust, concluded that the worst offenders in Nazi Germany were not essentially evil. They were merely ordinary God-fearing people who simply refused to make any moral judgment at all about events and their own role in them. "Who are we to judge?" they said.

She also noted that, among her academic colleagues and friends, those who depended upon an external moral authority were the ones who tended to accept most readily, the dictums of Hitler. For people accustomed to leaning on a banister, she said, it is the mere presence of a banister that matters -- not its nature. Exchanging one banister for another is the easiest thing in the world! Arendt concluded that, in such times, it is not the true believers who are to be trusted. She said that, in her circle of acquaintances, it was the doubters and skeptics who proved reliable, because they were used to examining things and making up their own minds.

At the time that I joined our denomination about thirty years ago we called such people Unitarians. Now, because Unitarian Universalism appears to have changed in this regard, we must specify that we are referring to humanist Unitarians. For such people, the making of wise value judgments is the most magnificent and the most spiritual of all the achievements of human beings. It brings together in one glorious culminating activity, all four of the spiritual capacities mentioned earlier. It requires a creative imagination; a sound world view that recognizes the significance of the human role in evolution; a morality that values equity and peace and order in human relationships as well as the long-term welfare of life on this planet; and a respect for truth and the scientific outlook.

With the potential for wise judgment, we believe that humans have become unique in a truly significant sense. As Isaac Asimov has pointed out, it is probable that our scientific achievements have allowed us to become the only creatures in the universe capable of tracing the very origin of life and of looking back to the very beginning of time itself. And our valuing capacity has given us the power to shape the future course of cultural evolution rather than leaving it to the blind chance and technological drift that may well destroy us all.

What could be more worthy than the optimism and activism and the courage and disciplined scientific attitude required for this task? What could be more wondrous than these magnificent and uniquely human capacities? And what could be more spiritual than a willingness -- in the face of humankind's necessary responsibility for the future -- to take up the torch of life and climb, without a banister, the stairs that the human group itself must build as we go?