Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Humanist Me

I discovered that I was a Unitarian-Universalist when I walked into the church in Charlottesville, Virginia, 27 years ago and heard a sermon preached by the Rev. Charles Howe.  That was my “coming home” epiphany.  The congregation was largely  composed of humanists, and while I don’t remember the topic of the sermon, I do remember how much it resonated with me, and how happy I was to have found a community of like-minded individuals.  I want to talk a little bit about how humanist reverence is part of my life.   I personally don’t believe in God, or in any kind of an afterlife, but I DO believe in redemption.  I find redemption from the worst parts of myself, because I share my journey with Pagans and Buddhists and Quakers and Jews, with recent converts and lifelong Unitarian-Universalists.

I didn’t mention the humanists specifically, even though I consider myself one, because I think that deep down I tended to think that most lifelong U-U’s WERE humanists.  That’s what first attracted me to this faith in the 1980’s, and it was only recently that I realized that I might have been doing those U-U’s a disservice.  There’s more to this religion than humanism.  For some time I have seen Unitarians embracing a more spiritual approach and paying more attention to our Judeo-Christian roots, while still respecting the individual's free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

27 years ago, "coming home" for me meant coming to a fairly homogeneous church, where everybody pretty much agreed on everything, from politics to spirituality.  We practiced Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of humanism, trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after we’re dead. We rarely mentioned God or Jesus, although I felt very hip whenever we worked Buddha into a service.  I don’t think that church would feel so much like home any more.  I still share time each week with like-minded people, people I care about.  But now coming home for me means coming to be with people who have many differences as well, and who celebrate both their differences and their commonalities.

I still have no use for God myself, except maybe as a scapegoat for the odd mishap, or as someone I can order to damn the driver who just cut me off.  And yet I still manage to find spirituality in all kinds of places.  Recently I spent an afternoon in the Sierra Nevada mountains surrounded by clouds of wild hummingbirds.  I felt what I can only describe as a holy reverence for the natural world.  I felt the same thing when, as a young man in my 20’s, I went out into the Blue Ridge mountains one night, away from all the lights of people and civilization, and I saw the stars, really SAW the STARS for the first time in my life.  (I grew up in New Jersey.  We’re lucky if we can see the moon there!)  I feel that same feeling when a baby makes eye contact with me from across the room, when I KNOW that baby is really LOOKING at ME, and then smiles.  Just for me.  Vonnegut also says that, “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us.  Everything else about us is machinery.”  He says that we are the lucky mud that gets to sit up and look around.

I find the holiness of existence all around me.  I wish I appreciated it more, but when I remember to look for it, it’s there.  No God is required.  It’s in the momentary flash of Buddhist mindfulness I sometimes actually achieve, and then promptly lose when I realize, “Hey!  I just achieved mindfulness!”  I find holiness in quiet moments when I see my daughter reading or my wife knitting.  I find it in Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto, I hear it when Sarah Brightman sings “Nessun Dorma”, and I see it in that baby’s smile.  I’ll take that every time.

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