why I call myself a humanist (occasionally)

cameraman statue in Bratislava

The main reason I call myself a humanist* is because I believe God is too. Humanists put a high value on the freedom, beauty and experience of humanity, and this was true long before religious violence and oppression (especially in Europe after the Reformation) drove such a huge wedge between the church and humanity that humanism started to get the term “secular” tacked on to the front of it (and after that both of those good terms suffered in popular understanding).

In the language of Genesis, when humanity was created “in the image of God,” “it was very good.” And I believe that. I think the celebration of humanity continued from there in many holy words, even if the celebration also included an honest display of our weaknesses.

I think Jesus showed us what the Divine looks like in human form, and so we simultaneously have God and humanity revealed. Following the path toward the fulfillment of humanity is one way of understanding the heart of Jesus’ invitation to us.

I’m also biased toward humanism because I acknowledge that all we see and understand is filtered through human “eyes.” There is no such thing as revelation that is unfiltered by, and, therefore, thoroughly mixed with, humanity. If God were to write commands on stone tablets, we’d still have to perceive them through human eyes and make sense of the human language with human brains. Human lenses are all we’ve got. Those lenses are awesome and extreme flawed.

The same reason, stated negatively, is that I don’t think there is any such thing as non-human spirituality in our experience. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but it’s outside of our awareness. The only spirituality we know is a deeply human spirituality in which we relate to each other and to any meaningful connection with what is “beyond human,” including God. So in my understanding, all of our experience of, or relationship with, God fits into what I would call human spirituality. Because that’s all we’ve got and all we’re capable of – by definition.

But now let me be less argumentative and deliberately make room for what I would consider a non-humanist perspective. I don’t mean this at all in an un-generous spirit, because I sincerely believe this to be a valid approach. But I would describe this as the approach of seeing things as if one could step outside of human experience and really see in (say) spiritual terms. In fact, significant portions of the New Testament are written in this way. To humanists, this tends to often look like “over-spiritualized” language, yet it’s obviously meaningful and useful language for some.

So some of us prefer to approach things from a human side and others prefer to approach things from the “beyond human” side.

Consider the contrasts this creates in, for example, a statement that could easily be said after a church service: “The Spirit really visited our service today.” Well, that’s awesome, I guess. But I’ve heard that statement used just as regularly for what was clearly a humanly manipulated worship exercise that succeeded in creating an emotional response as I have for a service where people were clearly energized to follow a Jesus-like path of forgiveness or loving community. And it’s very hard to really know exactly how much of what happened in either of these cases was truly the work of the Spirit. But I tend to think our most reliable advice comes from the idea that we can know the truth by what bears fruit or that Christians should be able to be recognized “by their love.”

So non-humanists are welcome to use their kind of language (of course) and the language may be an accurate reflection of what went on, but I personally tend to find such perspectives less than helpful for myself. I am much more interested in what people experienced in human terms, and if the effect of that experience is someone receiving lasting healing or people who are able to forgive someone who hurt them or enabled to love their enemies or if someone is inspired to work creatively and non-violently for justice, then I think “the Spirit probably visited that service (or those people) that day.”

Whichever language or approach we use, we should mostly pay attention to the fruit – show me the love and I’ll vouch for healthy spirituality.

cameraman statue in Bratislava

*The main reason it is only occasional is that I generally prefer to avoid any labelled association with an “ism.” Following Vernard Eller’s wonderful book, Christian Anarchy, I tend to think than any such label, including good labels like humanist or pacifist, risk making a single principle foundational or ultimate – in other words, making the ism into an idol.

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