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Was Jesus A Humanist?

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From Phil's weekly newsletter:

I was thinking this week about how computers make everything so much easier, which is good and bad. Computers spare us from drudgery and make it possible to accomplish more work. Before we had computers, it used to take me 3-4 weeks to spend my paycheck, but with a computer, I can now blast through my paycheck in a day or two. Computers also make it easier to communicate with people, which is good when I wanted to send out a meeting-wide email about Kay Frye this past Thursday. On the other hand, it makes it much easier to send people nasty emails. Before I had email and was mad at someone, I had to find a piece of paper and a pen and envelope, track down their address, and write them a letter telling them they were bad and going to hell. It was a lot of work to be mad in the old days. I’d write the letter, which sometimes took hours, then put it in my desk for the night, and by the time I got up the next morning, I wasn’t upset anymore, and I’d throw the letter away. Now with email, I can fire off angry letters right and left, leaving a trail of bruised and broken bodies in my wake.

I got an email like that this week. A man wrote to tell me he’d read all my books and sermons, but no more. I’d made a joke about Florida, saying the good thing about climate change is that the rising ocean levels will eventually sweep Florida out to sea, and he took offense to that. You know times are tense when you can’t tell Florida jokes.

His email went on and on, accusing me of various sins and shortcomings, then ended by calling me a humanist. It sent me to the dictionary to look up the word humanist, which is defined as someone who has a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. I thought, “Well, that’s a lovely thing, to be a humanist.” I was flattered. It’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a quite a while. So I emailed him back to thank him for calling me a humanist. I do indeed have a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity, I told him. Thank you for noticing. It was kind of you to say so.

He wrote back saying he didn’t mean it as a compliment, but how is being called a humanist not a compliment? Being a humanist is the best thing ever. How is that not a compliment? Some of the people I admire most in the world have a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. I’m thinking of Socrates, Aristotle, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus. We mustn’t forget Jesus, who after all told his followers to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. I know what the man meant to say, because I’ve heard television preachers rail against humanism. He meant to say I was an ungodly, New Age heretic who believed in evolution. That’s what he meant by humanist, but that’s not the correct definition of humanism, which I also told him in my reply. Then I mentioned Jesus was a humanist, and that’s when he told me I was going to hell.

We too should have a strong interest in and concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. Just like Jesus did. In fact, I’m starting to believe in humanism so much, I think it should be a requirement for anyone wanting to join the church. From what I’ve seen, Christians who aren’t humanists do a lot of harm. I think anyone who is Christian should be concerned for human welfare, values, and dignity. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? If Christians in Germany had been humanists, Hitler would have been diagnosed as the troubled soul he was and given therapy. If Christians in the South had been humanists, slavery would never have been, which means the Civil War would never have been waged, which means the racial animus that still divides our nation would never have existed, if Christians had been humanists. If Christians in Russia were humanists, children in Ukraine would be playing on playgrounds instead of huddling in basements with the debris from bombs raining down on their hunched and tiny forms. We could all use a little humanism these days, couldn’t we?

I heard a woman say the other day that the greatest problem in the world is that too many people aren’t Christians, but our greatest problem is that enough people aren’t humanists. There’s not enough concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. We have too many Christians who aren’t good humanists, too many Muslims who aren’t good humanists, too many Jewish people who aren’t good humanists, too many Hindus who aren’t good humanists, too many atheists and agnostics who aren’t good humanists.

I want to be a good humanist, just as Jesus was a good humanist. Think of that word for a moment. Humanist. It’s related to the word humane. Now there’s a lovely word. Humane. Having or showing compassion or benevolence. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the woods and wanted to be a forest ranger when I grew up. Then I became a Quaker and thought it would be interesting to be a Quaker pastor. Then I started writing and thought it would be fun to be a writer. But now I want to spend the few decades I have left as a humanist, showing compassion and benevolence, having a strong interest in human welfare, values, and dignity.

I was texting with one of my favorite humans in all the world this past week, Mark Strietelmeier, that great mystic, humanist, and winner of the Columbus, Indiana Reader’s Gazette subscription contest as a child, for which he received a baby pig.  We were discussing humanism and I was wondering to myself what God thought of humanism, when Mark said, “Don’t forget. It was God who put humans in the center of the garden.”

Now if someone asks you what religion you are, you can tell them you’re a Quaker. But as sure as God made little, green apples they won’t know what that means, so you can save yourself a lot of trouble and tell them you’re a humanist, a devotee of the first religion instituted by the Lord God Almighty some 300,000 years ago. You can tell them you’re a card-carrying member of the beloved offspring of God, started smack dab in the center of Eden.

Of course, then they’re going to ask you what humanists believe, and now you know what to say. You look them in the eye and say, “I believe you are my brother, (or sister, or sibling, whichever the case may be,) and I have a strong interest in your welfare, worth, and dignity.” And then you can prove it, by loving them as you love yourself.

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Was Jesus a humanist? Humanism in its modern form no doubt overlaps with the more liberal aspects of many religious traditions. I have mentioned Robert Wright's Evolution of God where religions go through cycles and gods are perceived as conservative (retributive) in difficult times and liberal (accepting) in good times.

Was Jesus a Christian?

That some people apparently thought (and still do) he was anointed in some meaningful way does not make him so.

I have no problem of cherry picking the best bits (things that actually make sense) from religious traditions around the world. But when it comes to God? I have no need of that theory, apologies to Laplace. I still argue it makes sense to be looking around the world and how it ticks and basing our principles (humanistic or otherwise) on our understanding and not some potentially outdated tradition that is not subject to revision.

As to God ... I like Campbell's take on this

But the ultimate mystical goal is to be united with one's god. With that, duality is transcended and forms disappear. There is nobody there, no god, no you. Your mind, going past all concepts, has dissolved in identification with ground of your own being, because that to which the metaphorical image of your god refers to the ultimate mystery of your own being, which is the mystery of the being of the world as well.


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