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Howard B. Radest
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Beyond Reason and Science: A Radical Challenge
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The Humanist Institute

One World at a Time

Howard B. Radest

In this essay I re-examine the meanings of "God" and god-talk. Of course, god-talk has been abused as pseudo-science, as political manipulation, as delusional therapy. But, Humanists, who are committed to respecting the dignity and worth of all persons, cannot simply dismiss believers and at the same time remain true to their own principles. The clue to an alternative approach to the human relationship is in the notion of "stories." Far from being mere fictions, stories help human beings put their experience together, suggest directions for finding meanings in our lives, reflect the experience of particular times, places, and peoples. So, stories enable the rest of us to gain access to "strangers" and make them somewhat less than strange. And this is yet another reason why Humanists who take the human relation seriously cannot settle for anger or disdain. Further, the work that stories do for people tells us that Humanists have failed to create, communicate, and celebrate their own stories. The Humanist voice is not adequately represented by argument and disputation alone although that is our habit. So, I close with the suggestion that our theme is "horizon" and that our story, is yet to be written.

No more satisfying deathbed utterance can be imagined for Thoreau than the reply to a question put gently to him by Parker Pillsbury a few days before his death. Pillsbury was an old abolitionist war-horse, a former minister who had left his church over the slavery issue, a man of principle and proven courage who...could not resist the impulse to peer into the future. "You seem so near the brink of the dark river," Pillsbury said, "that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you." Thoreau's answer summed up his life, "One world at a time," he said. [1]

1. Preliminaries

For most of my life—nearly 60 years now—I have been a naturalist, a secularist, and a humanist. For me, this world, and all that is in it, is both adequate and satisfactory. No other world is needed to explain or justify this one; no other reality is needed to account for this one; no other being is needed to have and to understand this one. In this world, I live and die, suffer and enjoy, act and respond. In it I find my companions, my fellow human beings of course, but also those other fellow beings like animals and trees and stars. [2] In it I find my appreciations and my meanings. In fact, to call for another world is to demean this one. The call may be gentle as a voice of god at evening, or sad as a "vale of tears," or critical as a place where we earn our way into heaven or into hell. But, for me, this derogation, no matter how expressed, is, if you will, an insult. For naturalism, this world is a sufficient locus of being.

For a secularist, the arena of knowledge, action, and value is the ebb and flow of culture, society, and history. Given the existence of actual natural beings—beings with capacities for memory and for sociability—naturalism acquires its political, economic, psychological, and moral dimensions. [3] The ways in which we exhibit relationship are nurtured in the languages we speak, the ideas we have, the work we do, and the joy and sadness we share. In the secular arena, we create and communicate the wise and the stupid, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It is here that duration becomes time and that time acquires structures and directions. It is here, too, that biology becomes character and destiny. For secularism, this world is a sufficient locus of knowing and doing.

For a humanist, being, knowing, and doing are judged and valued. From this flows acceptance of responsibility in and for the world, in and for society, in and for the self. But, acceptance is not simply cognition and critique. It is joyful and sad, adventurous and quiescent. A humanist understands and embraces finitude, surprise, risk, failure, frustration, and, above all, incompleteness and interruption—most intimately in the experience of biography's ends in birth and death. So humanism lives with a tragic sensibility which is by no means the same as saying that it is sentimental or pathetic. For humanism, this world is a sufficient locus of appreciations.

Of course, these themes could be elaborated. But here I simply establish my context. Within it, I address the question of god-talk which serves me as a marker for alternative interpretations of the "religious" life. Ironically, my cue for engaging this question was stated in a 1968 essay by Paul Kurtz who is today (1998) the leading American exponent of a non-religious if not anti-religious humanism. He wrote,

....religious language and belief have a multiplicity of significant functions...: (a) Religious language is expressive....(b) Religious language is performative....(c) Religious talk involves moral evaluation.....(d) Religious language is conative...it involves commitment....Now, if this is the case, then we cannot attack God talk purely on referential grounds or accuse it of verbal deception when it is performing these other functions. God talk, if viewed expressively, ceremonially, morally and in terms of commitment, has other kinds of jobs to do.... [4]

To be sure, given my "confession of faith," you might well expect me to deliver the routine polemics ordinarily heard from humanists. Naturalism, secularism, and humanism typically pose as antagonistic to god. Or perhaps, in "old age" I am about to recant a life-time of commitment and to return, as it were, to my sources which were, in their original, none of these. [5] My intention, however, is otherwise: to find grounds of connectedness across the barriers that divide us; to deny the either/or of confrontation or the carelessness of superficiality. This intention is not the child of prudence, nor is it the sentimentality of an uncritical ecumenism. It is justified by humanist reasons.

I am not interested in re-playing the tired games of proof and disproof. I believe that all that can be said in the effort to posit and refute has been said. St. Thomas, on one side, summed up the argument nearly a thousand years ago and the Enlightenment, on the other, made an equally effective reply. Little has been added since, although this has not discouraged us from adding more words to more words. The sides having been chosen or, more likely, temperamentally adopted, the dance of proof and disproof becomes as choreographed as classical ballet. Trapped into advocacy, we really do not listen to each other. Instead, like students in the classroom eager to impress an instructor, we wait for our turn to speak, scarcely attentive to what the other is saying, seeking, and suffering. Less courteously, we accuse each other of infidelity and heresy on one side or superstition and ignorance on the other. Since we love our own superiorities, a perverse pleasure accompanies this pseudo-debate. Ultimately, however, these games are irrelevant. No one's mind is changed.

If this is not too uncharitable a view—I know that we take ourselves very seriously—it suggests the first of my humanist reasons for this essay. The dignity of the human being is a central theme of humanism. It follows that we are morally commanded to listen and to respond to each other. And this, the debate, which is not really a debate at all, subverts. No doubt, there was a pre-Darwinian time when it was indeed fresh and genuine. And occasionally, its vitality re-appears as in more recent controversies about the complexities of evolution. Ironically, however, the argument from design is re-told in Darwinian terms. For example,

The old breed of creationists consists of Biblical literalists for whom Genesis is the ideal textbook. They believe that God created the Earth in six days a few thousand years ago....The new creationists, however, are Christian intellectuals....They hold faculty positions not at Bible colleges but at public and secular universities....they are promoting the idea that living organisms and the universe are so impossibly complex that the only plausible conclusion is that an omniscient creator designed it all on purpose... [6]

But even those who propose a reconstructed "argument from design" are less than sanguine about a personal creator. They are much closer to the natural theology and deism typical of an 18th century marriage of science and religion. But, the experience of believer and unbeliever alike—with few exceptions like the Amish or the Hasidim—is worldly, secular if not secularist, although the two blend into each other. What appears, then, is an uneasy resurrection of the doctrine of "two truths," an uneasy treaty between faith and reason. For example, a recent survey by Edward Larson, repeating one first conducted by James Leuba in 1916, found that little had changed.

40 percent of responding biologists, physicists and mathematicians believed in a God...to whom one can pray "in expectation of receiving an answer."...Roughly 15 percent...claimed to be agnostic...while...about 45 percent...said they did not believe in a God as specified by the questionnaire, although whether they believe in some other definition of a deity or an all-mighty was not addressed." [7]

But even "two-truths" cannot be dismissed as mere confusion. It too expects us to listen.

If I am not concerned with the being or non-being of god, neither am I interested here in the religious politics which appears today in so many parts of the world. God has become, as it were, a general or perhaps the high command. A struggle for power and wealth wears a godly costume, sometimes for principled reasons, soon enough for opportunistic reasons. More seriously, we live with a confrontation of dogmatics that is alien to the democratic spirit which informs humanism and which celebrates diversity and variety. For the humanist, these are not merely accommodations but appreciations. William James put it well when he wrote,

Is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?....I answer "No" emphatically...I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have the exact same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions....Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. [8]

Religions also pose as therapies, the manipulation of human beings, a vice made familiar to the modern world in Karl Marx's indictment of religion as the "opiate of the people." In our time, religious experimentalism has lost all boundaries and so manipulation wears both traditional and novel costumes. Self-help technologies and spiritual racketeering, like religious politics, demand opposition from us. Unapologetic public exposure, however, is made more difficult by the mask of religion which disarms criticism. [9] But, deeper than opposition is the duty to nurture a more widely distributed critical intelligence. Thus, another humanist reason for addressing my theme, the commitment to education that goes beyond civic and vocational justifications.

A fundamentalist spirit is found everywhere these days and not just among religionists. It seeks to close down reality, aims to reduce choices to the one true choice. Of course, this must be resisted. But, sadly, resistance invites a mood of hostility, a division of the world into allies and enemies. The humanist reply, however, cannot be "holy" war but the nurture of transcending values. The struggle is to be environed by a sense of connectedness, loyal opposition, and fairness. These are the virtues to be cultivated as antidote to fanaticism.

I am not advocating that humanists adopt god-talk as a stratagem or as an accommodation. But I do want to break the barriers. So, I cannot dismiss god-talk as irrelevant to my own commitments, let alone to the commitments of the vast majority of people. [10] It is simply a mistake, however, to allow any single voice among the diverse voices of humankind to set the terms of any important discussion. Yet, this is just what has happened as medievalist and literalist on all sides are allowed to define the ground of religious discourse. A noisy silence is the result.

Finally, a ghost haunts humanism and its free-religious and free-thinking neighbors just because it accepts the reduction of god-talk to being and non-being. Humanism often seems obsessed by the god question almost to the point of unreason. So, for its own sake, it must take account of god in a different way. It is clear enough that the meanings of god's reality vary with place and time and person. This variety and ubiquity is, in a certain sense, a natural phenomenon. Its fascinating complexity needs exposure particularly as modern communication drives us toward a simple-minded homogeneity. The "sound-bite" is everywhere. But, if the humanist takes his or her responsibility seriously, then no human voice should go unheard and no human striving simply dismissed. God-talk needs its humanist interpretation too in a world that is variously and magnificently successful and as magnificently disastrous. The common ground of that interpretation is the sense of lost meanings and lost directions. On that ground, today, humanist and traditionalist both stand.

2. God-talk

As a pragmatist, I begin with our experience. It is obvious that religious inventiveness is the rule wherever we find human beings. It is equally obvious that neither proof nor disproof make much difference to the beliefs people hold and, further, that these beliefs may be contradictory without stirring discomfort. This "blooming buzzing confusion" tells us that any effort to reduce religious experience to a single meaning is evidence of advocacy, whether deliberately chosen or unwittingly adopted. Unlike arithmetic where there are correct and incorrect answers or the sciences where there are adequate and inadequate theories, religious experience is at play in the worlds of life-directions. Of course, even that generalized functional description can be betrayed. A mystic, for example, may simply be having no ends in view. A Christian Scientist makes cognitive and faith claims interchangeably. And the Pope finally rehabilitates Galileo on the Thomistic grounds that God would not create a world where the truth of science contradicts the truth of faith.

Where life-directions are at stake, it is not surprising that argument and evidence fail to carry the day. Instead, as John Dewey put it,

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories....In fact, intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with the alternatives they assume—an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them; we get over them. [11]

Modern humanism, however, is impatient with history. Given its Enlightenment roots, what can be demonstrated is what must be believed. In that sense, humanism is a religion of the word. [12] So it is almost impossible for humanists to grasp the noetic legitimacy of intuition, feeling, insight. These are read as irrationality or more charitably as expressiveness, but surely not as knowledge. [13] For that reason, "belief in god" is understood as a cognitive affront. It is ignorance or superstition or anxiety or manipulation. An assertion of faith must point to some form of weakness or failure. Consequently, the believer's experience and integrity are under a cloud. And yet, the believer continues to believe. Caught thus in a trap of its own making, humanism cannot address the human being in his or her variety and cannot sort out the legitimacies and illegitimacies of belief. So, it cannot complete the justification of its naturalism, the adequacy of the world.

It is not surprising that humanism with its demand for "clear and distinct ideas" should have trouble with god-talk. Such talk—like so much interesting talk—is a confusion of prejudices and insights. Its referents are often obscure: now pointing to "the one true god," or to the "incarnation," or to "truth" or "love;" now pointing to some "order" or "power" or "prime mover;" now pointing to some local or tribal familiar spirit in the person of totem or saint; now pointing to a being in history or radically apart from history. God is variously the en-sof, the mystery, the unutterable, the ever-present and ever-elusive object of faith. God is the alpha and omega or the absence of being itself, the nirvana of Hindu and Buddhist. Simply to catalogue these references exhausts our energies. Yet, these references are taken seriously somewhere by someone. War and oppression and inquisition are not infrequently grounded in such a hostility of references.

The humor attendant on the anthropomorphic gods of Greece or the North Countries escapes the "people of the book"—the Hebrews, the Muslims, and above all the Christians. That same sense of humor escapes the humanist too which suggests their common parentage, even their common agenda. With minor exceptions like the occasional Talmudic story, the god of the West does not laugh and both god-believers and god-deniers do not laugh either. A world away we can find the suggestion of a less sober-sided perspective. Thus, in the Upanishads,

...."How many gods are there...?" He replied...:"As many as are mentioned in the formula of the hymn of praise...viz. three and three hundred, three and three thousand."

"Yes," he said, and asked again, "How many gods are there really...?"

"Thirty-three," he said.

"Yes," he said, and asked again, "How many gods are there really...?"

"Six," he said...

After also producing the numbers three, one and a half, and one, the dialogue between Vidagdha and Yajnavalkya concludes,

..."Who are these three and three hundred, three and three thousand?"

Yajnavalkya replied: "They are only the various powers." [14]

Yet, the gods are at work in behaviors, personal and institutional. So my attention shifts from claims of being to claims of doing. When not ambushed by the book and the word, I re-discover myself, my neighbors, and my world in god-talk. It is, as it were, more social than metaphysical, more biographical than cosmological, more imagery than facticity. I am enabled to get a reading on experience that is not otherwise accessible to me, that is not, if you will, discursively available. I discover that responsiveness too is a type of knowing, and that its vehicles are story, myth, legend, and metaphor. Gesture, music, poetry, dance, object, and architecture point to locations and appreciations. With them, I am placed in the world and I know my place and connections. [15]

God-talk's work then is meaning, interpretation, and explanation; god-talk's context is relational; god-talk's medium is symbol. For these things to take hold of me I must take hold of them. That means that I cannot speak at a distance and I cannot respond at a distance. Presence is the actual and the symbolic condition of god-talk. Of course, I am present in science-talk, in technical-talk, and in arithmetic-talk too. Yet, in these I make the effort, never entirely successful, to be non-personally present. Thus, the claim is that, given conditions of accessibility to data, instrument, and skill, any person would do science-talk in the way that I do and with similar outcomes. That is the legitimacy of the notion of "objectivity" rather than the illusion that the event can speak for itself and that the inquirer is simply transparent. But in god-talk, I am present in a different way. Absent my personal presence—and god-talk ceases. Thus, it relies on biography, community, and history. God-talk's referent, then, is existential.

The risk of this existential reference is that God-talk can be dismissed as merely subjective, the aberrant musings of an "illusion," to borrow from Freud. So, I hasten to point out that god-talk does not persist within the human isolate although it is often given expression by the religious genius. Hence the recurrent acts of meditation, and the recurrent metaphors of desert and sea. Equally recurrent, however, is the return, the re-entry into the community. Verification, if you will, is in the communal act. To be sure, as Charles Sanders Peirce pointed out, science is what the community of scientists is up to at any moment in time. But that community is identified by the fact that its members agree to be non-personally present. Its dimensionality therefore is narrowly drawn. It is gathered around a deliberately abstracted language and specialized ways of asking questions and of measuring the adequacy of their answers. It should be added that science takes its universality seriously so that community membership, while narrowly focused, is also broadly inclusive. By contrast, god-talk communities rely on personal presence, specific biographies, and histories and languages that are richly expressive.

3. Telling Stories [16]

Human beings are story-tellers, and nowhere more than in stories of the gods. The story may be told in dance, in gesture, in sound, in picture, in stone, and, of course, in words. The teller, and the told-to are a seamless entity, a locus of connections between kinds of is-ness in which reality is in the relation. Stories may include claims of being but these are bounded within the portrayed connection. In other words, we distort stories when we treat them as hypotheses. The paradigmatic instance of this distortion is of course the Genesis story and the creationist controversy. Stories are experienced, not verified.

When we isolate "plot" or "character" or "teller" or "told-to" from each other we lose the story. When we reduce the story to the parts we select, we usually have some other story in mind. Aesthetic criticism, like theology, then serves to reveal these acts of isolation and reduction. Although epiphenomenal, criticism surely has its uses. It arms us with categories of translation and alerts us to interesting possibilities. Thus, its opens the doorway to other stories, breaking into the alienation that is the temptation of pluralism. Resistant to alienation, the story as such says, "Open yourself for others and be opened to others." Thus, I learn the story of the other although its symbols and context are not mine. With effort, I can recognize it and so the other.

My story carries my "community of memory." [17] The story of the other invites me into communities of memory that are not mine. I am captured by a Gregorian Chant, by a Renaissance Madonna, by a Zen koan, by a laughing Buddha. I sing with a Methodist or chant with a Native American. I become an intimate stranger, remaining apart and yet also within. I tell a parable with Jesus, enter the belly of the whale with Jonah, cry out against the universe with Job. Familiarity becomes more inclusive. And of course, all of this would be impossible were cognition and verification the meaning of stories.

Of course there are silly stories and evil ones, although caution instructs me to be wary of hasty judgments like, "that's only a fantasy." There are stories that last for centuries and others that disappear in moments. There are family stories that remind me of what is mine and epic stories that remind me of history. Yet familial or epic, they are all personal stories. I laugh or cry, am enthralled or appalled or bored. Some stories are closer than others, more available; some more distant. Even the story of the moment is a shared connection as in those late night tale-tellings between strangers at a bar. No story is finally opaque or simply transparent.

Experience is carried by stories. Indeed, it is how I become, in and through stories. That is what connects me to family, to friend, to community before I have the vocabulary to name what was happening. That is what makes me still. After all, what is it that I recall of the event long afterward? It is the story, its metaphor, its location, its players. Even the abstraction—say of mathematics or physics—stays with me because I embed it in the relation of teacher and student or in the recollection of discovery or in the pain of failure. In stories, I find out that the other is made in the same way I am, paradoxically made differently, individuated. Neither of us is shaped by the kind of language that shapes the computer or the periodic table. We are an outcome of nuance, a rich and fruitful ambiguity. Stories echo in memory more vividly than the eruditions that only momentarily seem so important. And I retell stories renewing experience again and again after some first telling.

It is in stories that I find the gods. Of course, arrogance tempts me, tempts all of us. It is all too easy to transform my story into the truth—it isn't a story at all—while yours remains only a story. So, I trivialize the gods as when I dismiss the stories of the Greeks and the Norse as "myth." But I also know how to attend to the other's story. I do this readily in theater and concert hall or when reading a novel. What is this attention? Is it only amusement or curiosity, a temporary rupture in my experience of the world? Or is it a different way of putting the world together for me? In moments of generosity, I catch the story of the other, respecting its otherness. I do not say that the other is "really" telling my story, but poorly. And I do not say that we are "really" all telling the same story, but in different languages. Such patronizing sympathy closes stories away from me, from us, does not permit the story of the other to open to me.

In stories, I find the gods. They love and hate, bicker and battle. There are jealous gods and creating gods, gods who are father and mother and both, and gods who are the receptacles of being. Austere, there are distant gods who set the world in motion and then resign their post. Prime mover and first cause and grand watchmaker are the metaphors we use. And there are the intimate gods who walk in the garden with me or are incarnated, who teach me and suffer with me and speak to me. There are gods who protect and judge. There are even the gods that forget me, ignore me. As Emily Dickinson writes,

Apparently with no surprise

To any happy Flower

The Frost beheads it at its play—

In accidental power—

The blonde Assassin passes on—

The Sun proceeds unmoved

To measure off another Day

For an Approving God.

So many gods. It is a strange ecumenism or else a further arrogance that reduces these to some one true god, who is, perhaps in a moment of toleration, to be found in many forms or served by lesser gods. That, for a humanist, is to miss the richness of stories and the possible participations which connect us to others and to world.

It will, of course, not please some story-tellers, especially those of the religions of the book, to hear multiplicity where the preference is unity. Some of them will, no doubt, read me as pagan. And there will be those among my fellow humanists who will not be pleased with anything less than the excision of god entire. Some of them will, no doubt, read me as heretic. But then, I am a humanist. To my ear the gods are not kindred nor need they be, not extant nor need they be. The gods serve person and culture at different moments in experience, answer to different vocations and duties, replace each other, evolve and develop. Gods have biographies and histories [18] and their stories like other stories live in the relation of teller and told-to. To be sure, stories also point-to; and the stories of the gods typically point to claims of being. But then, being is not self-defining. The claim of being may point to independent being modeled in kind after the being of distinctive self and distinctive other or, perhaps, of universe and void. Or the claim may point to being in relationship like the lovers who are for each other but who cease to be lovers when they grow apart. It may point to ideal being as directionality without specifying any necessarily natural or non-natural setting. Or finally, the claim may point to the line between different kinds of certainty, the certainty of probabilities and predictions as in the sciences and the certainty of in-spite-of as in Kierkegaard's "knight of faith." [19] To reduce all stories to one kind of pointing-to is not to listen, not to pay attention.

It is not required that the being of the gods be entirely assimilated to what is. Indeed, even for those whose faith is in such being as existence there is puzzlement. Thus, god is variously a mystery, an unpronounceable name, without attributes, undefinable, ultimate. Strange indeed that such an unknown god should be invoked as a necessary assurance for the known. By contrast, as John Dewey suggests,

The benefits that will accrue, however, from making the separation [between the ideal and the physical] are evident. The dislocation frees the religious values of experience once and for all from matters that are continually becoming more dubious. With that release comes emancipation from the necessity of resort to apologetics. The reality of the ideal ends and values in their authority over us is an undoubted fact. The validity of justice, affection, and that intellectual correspondence of our ideas with realities that we call truth, is so assured in its hold upon humanity that it is unnecessary for the religious attitude to encumber itself with the apparatus of dogma and doctrine....all that an Existence can add is force to establish, to punish, and to reward. [20]

And yet god-talk is invoked as assurance. Returning once again to experience, that invocation is neither mysterious nor surprising. In a world that is "stable and precarious," that which interprets stability and carries us over the terrors of the precarious is precious indeed. Similarly, in a world that is chaotic, that which lends an orderliness that reaches to me and mine, that is not impersonal as a natural law is impersonal, is similarly precious. The same can be said for the unity which encompasses the fragmentations of our experience of the world, and for the familiarity which overcomes the alienations of the world. Of course, the world is not presented only as threats and insecurities. It is rich with possibilities and surprises; indeed these are the other face of the precarious and the chaotic. In short, the invocation reveals my needs as a world-experiencing being.

Biography, too, announces the need for assurance. I know the negativities of experience and I know they await me even if I have not encountered them each and all as yet. I have faced and will again face sadness, failure, fear, and death, not once but many times. I need a vocabulary that interprets them, a responsive vocabulary, a language of hope and comfort. I also know the positivities of experience, the satisfactions and joys of being in and with the world. Whatever I may then add or subtract, the story is both out there and in here at the same time, an intelligible sociability which neither theology nor science can or intends to provide. Finally, it is the story that moves me and interprets to me and provides context for me. To abstract its lessons or to reify its structure is to miss its integrity and its utility.

4. Horizon

Humanists, too, need to do the work of orderliness, of assurance, of hope, and of comfort. In short, they need to find their way to a god-talk of their own. There are moments in communal history when experience is disrupted. This is the story of Abraham breaking the idols. But, it is also the story of modern revolution, of enlightenment. Surely disruption has its existential moments too, as when persons and families face the breaking apart of their being as in death or as when they re-come together as in birth. Stories are re-told, becoming new tellings when the great migrations move whole peoples from continent to continent or when war and pestilence and famine mark the end of the line. Surely the American knows this for America is a creature of disruption. Not for nothing do stories tell of catastrophe which force this re-telling of stories, now a radical re-telling of stories. Not for nothing are stories filled with remarkable rescues and promises signaling hope or reparation for life's intolerabilities. And, not for nothing, do stories offer up embodied ideals—models—of effort and of achievement. Sometimes, stories tell of the end of things and sometimes of beginnings. Stories do not happen arbitrarily. They also lead away and lead into. To be sure they typically conserve, but not always.

I know that every age thinks of itself and of its time as special. But, I do not merely echo this reaction when I say that we live in a moment of disruption. So our stories are in the midst of a radical re-telling. For example, in Archibald MacLeish's re-telling of the story of Job the voice out of the whirlwind is silenced and instead he ends,

Blow on the coal of the heart.

The candles in churches are out.

The lights have gone out in the sky.

Blow on the coal of the heart.

And we'll see by and by. [21]

And new stories are in the well of creation. No doubt, this is Paul Tillich's reminder of the "shaking of the foundations" or Martin Buber's "eclipse of god." Less biblically, it is Nietzsche's "god is dead." Location, direction, and meaning, the ultimate story that stories tell, are obscured, hidden. Disruption is loss, is frightening, but it is also promising.

Disruption is ironic, paradoxical. We turn backward. Familiarity— of story, of symbol—is comforting even when it has lost its substance. Thus, fundamentalism only seems to be on the attack. What it betrays in its anger, however, is the anxiety of being lost and of being at a loss, else why shout so loudly. Thus, too, the stories that announce a "new age," a spirituality without being but also without reason. It too reaches back, but now to mystery cults and witchcraft and nature worship, finding meaning in the familiar unfamiliar. In "post-modernism," chaos itself becomes philosophy's story. [22] Inchoate these may be; even their irony has its meanings, and is, perhaps, a way of grasping today's story as pseudo-story and not yet as radical re-telling.

Surely Holocaust and Hiroshima are symbol as well as event, and are not just theodicy's dilemma. In defense, literalism is everyone's temptation. But no matter how loudly we shout—and fundamentalism is only the more obvious noise-maker—yesterday's stories do not meet our need. So humanism, too, is required to re-tell its story of human dignity, which is the ur-theme of its stories. Everything in our experience announces disruption. So, we look backward or failing that, our attention is centered in the moment that passes leaving scarcely a trace. The cult of the ever-new that empties time and experience is fundamentalism's sibling, disconnecting us from history and from each other. We are, as we say, de-mythologized or as a James Thurber cartoon had it years ago, "disenchanted." We have become a time of massive invasions of experience without meanings, and so our worldliness is no comfort to the secularist even if it afflicts the traditionalist. Pluralism becomes an isolation of life-worlds confounding our ability to make sense of each other. We become strangers to the other and ultimately strangers to ourselves, an individualism without individuality. In place of an enjoyed opened-up world of tongues and conducts, we retreat into separated and alien enclaves. If the universalism of faith is betrayed, so too is the cosmopolitanism of humanism. All stories are hidden.

At the same time, we live within a new geography of earth and planets and stars and galaxies whose profusion and extension stir an anxiety at the unmanageable, even incomprehensible, size of things. Little wonder that we retreat to stories that remind us that once there were moments when time and space and destiny fitted human dimensions, when, therefore, we were not disrupted. In our retreat we take refuge in stories that seem to hold disruption at bay. But these stories only reveal our aggressive anxiety, our desperate search for a safety we cannot find. At the same time, we escape to triviality, seeking thereby to hide away in stories that do not seem to matter very much. The "block-buster" novel or film busies itself with gossip; the epic in language or architecture or what have you is exchanged for mere bigness. The music of the marketplace contents itself with repetitious rhythms and unintelligible sounds. The "fine" arts, trying to move against trivializing bigness in poetry and song, reveal their failure in the esoteric experimentalism of "serious" genres. These failed stories tell their story too. The story of our stories is of a divided self in a divided world.

We may think of this as the moment's aberration. But the modern disruption was forecast hundreds of years ago, at first in a burst of revolutionary hope, a short time later in a resigned tone of endurance. So, we have fragments of re-telling, to be sure. But the modern story, as it is sometimes called, has yet to be told—at least that is humanism's faith—although its disappearance is already celebrated in many places. That modern story will be marked by the opening-up of world and self. Looking backward, so many of our stories, and in particular our god-talk stories, tell of closing-in and closing-down although in their original, they too were about opening-up. But, opening-up is a theme we have scarcely probed. To its promising, threatening, precariousness—for that is what opening-up intends—our response is untutored, unprepared. That unpreparedness too is disruption. So, we live on the bridge between: helplessly, we re-tell the stories we love and cannot tell the stories we do not yet know. A century ago, Matthew Arnold, in Dover Beach, pictured us:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams

So various, so beautiful, so new

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here, as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Certainly, these are moments when the humanist must live the stoic's theme and perhaps that is the best we can do in this between time, this bridge time. But we live in a Darwinian moment too, when destiny is to be grasped differently and nature's sufficiency even more radically appreciated. Horizon, then, is a metaphor of faith, now humanist faith, and it is toward horizon that the humanist story-teller needs move. That would be a humanist's god-talk—surely without use of the god-word which is likely to offend and mislead—but god-talk nevertheless. It would re-tell the story of nature's sublimity and humankind's possibility. But now both sublimity and possibility move inward to a self more accessible and more mysterious than ever, and outward to a universe alike more accessible and more mysterious than ever. Horizon, after all, is the illusion of arrival at a place that always recedes. This paradox of is and seems, of accessibility and mystery, is of the nature of all the things that are, that come to be and that pass away. But horizon is also hope and aspiration. The vocabulary of its radical re-telling has yet to be invented; the relation of teller and told-to has yet to be imagined. The humanist, like the traditionalist, is for the moment mute although this stops neither from speaking loudly and often.

Of course, re-telling a story risks hubris, as in the claim that I am important enough for the universe to pay attention to me, the traditional claim of the loving god on one side and of Job on the other. But humanism is not immune. Its hubris was forecast in the optimism that ushered modernism into history, as if catastrophe and pain could be vanquished and as if the world were become simply friendliness. As it were, that story was not yet original, not yet a radical re-telling. So, "man" replaced "god," and "progress" replaced "salvation," and "science" replaced "revelation." For a while, this reminiscent novelty met us where we were—but not for long. Of course it is the story of all stories that they borrow from each other and only eventually emerge as re-tellings. So, the humanist should not be overly faulted. Yet, a new re-telling awaits—it is only a "perhaps" as are all stories until they are told. It will celebrate the modern achievement: the expanding inclusiveness of species membership, the notion of "species-being" as Karl Marx put it; the grandeur of a knowing that paradoxically reveals the comic pretensions of a knower who undertakes the universe even as that very undertaking teaches of his or her evanescence. A strange reincarnation of reason, indeed!

The god-talk of today's humanist then is embedded in the Darwinian moment, which like all moments of creation is felt as disruption. As the biologist Edward O. Wilson writes,

The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where final extinction is possible. But, we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative....If [it] cannot be in the form of a religious cosmology, it will be taken from the material history of the universe and the human species....The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined....We are a single gene pool from which individuals are drawn in each generation and into which they are dissolved the next generation, forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions...from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved. [23]

Of course, there are hints of horizon's stories. But, these hints have not yet been transformed into a community of memory. They are found in interesting places like science fiction and children's literature, and in more typical places too. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz is rich with horizon's irony. Isaac Asimov's I Robot and his Foundation Trilogy catch horizon's possibilities. And, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek points alienation toward appreciation. But Humanism's stories are hardly evolved, and so its ability to do the work of god-talk is also only a promise. Hence, it is that humanism stands indicted as arid, intellectual, superficial by its enemies but also by its friends who reveal it in loyalties that are notoriously fleeting. What friend and enemy point to is that the humanist is ignorant of the stories yet to be told. Offended by the abuse of stories—the politics of religion and the game of proof and disproof—all stories are for the humanist under a cloud. This is the sadness of its failure to acknowledge its own humanness.

Ultimately, god-talk is the work of meaning—finding, creating, trying-out, amending—and in its radical re-telling no story can live without doing that work. Pre-modern humanisms told their stories in drama, epic, and history or else in sound and stone, and on canvas. They borrowed images of mother and child, slayer and slain, love and jealousy and all the vast anthology of need and response. Even as they used the sacred images, they moved them from heaven to earth. Above all, these humanisms taught the lesson of the story: reality is in the relationship of having and connecting. Now, in a time of disruption, old stories must vanish into a radical re-telling no matter how much they linger in memory or are clutched in fearful desperation. Their sources are forever behind us even as their vocabulary is iterated. As vocabulary replaces meaning, god-talk becomes everyone's problem. Horizon, with all its illusion and promise, is the humanist's participation in its solution. Yet, it remains only in its latency and awaits its radicalism.



[1] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 389.

[2] For a discussion of companionship, see Howard B. Radest, "A Humanist's Companions: Democracy Reconstructed" chap. 8 in The Devil and Secular Humanism (New York: Praeger, 1990), 119-141.

[3] It may well be that other natural beings, e.g. higher apes, whales, also have a politics, economics, psychology, and ethics. But however many secularities there are and for however many natural beings, politics, etc. are connected to actual natural beings. Hence it is a mistake to assume that nature is "neutral" and does not include values, preferences etc. But this does not authorize us to speak of "nature as a whole" or of the "universe" as either value-free or value-laden. Instead, for certain enterprises we may legitimately assert that nature includes values and ends always being careful to specify which of those enterprises we use as referent.

[4] Paul Kurtz, "Commentary on Paul Edwards' Paper: God Talk," in The Idea of God, Edward H. Madden, Rollo Handy, and Marvin Farber, eds. (Springfield, Ill. : Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 1968), 90.

[5] See my essay, "An Affectionate Journey" in Exodus to Humanism, David Ibry, ed. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 1999).

[6] Laurie Goodstein, "Christians and Scientists: New Light for Creationism," The New York Times, December 21, 1997.

[7] Natalie Angier, "Survey of Scientists Finds Stability of Faith in God," The New York Times, April 3, 1997.

[8] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902, New York: Collier Books, 1961), 378-379.

[9] This duty is magnificently performed—and not just for humanists—by another of Paul Kurtz's gifts to humanism, The Committee for the Scientific Study of the Paranormal and The Skeptical Inquirer.

[10] I know that even an attenuated form of god-talk will be troubling to most humanists. So much has been imported into it that the consequence is a mixture of ambiguity and sentimentality. But I am also aware that there is a strong naturalistic tradition that struggles to give legitimate expression in humanist terms to that which remains as an enduring reason for the persistence and pervasiveness of god-talk, thus the tradition, exemplified among many others, by Felix Adler, by Henry Nelson Weiman, by John Dewey and in somewhat different ways by William James and by George Santayana.

[11] John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1910) 19. Italics added.

[12] It is with a good deal of hesitation that I use the word "religion." It continues to be a subject of contention among humanists. The struggle to find the correct descriptor seems endless. Typically, international organized humanism struggled for several years recently in the attempt to resolve the issue and finally—but as subsequent discussion revealed, clearly tentatively—arrived at the rather clumsy term "life-stance" to characterize itself. Paul Kurtz, a leading figure in organized humanism, who until about 1980 was prepared to support a pluralist definition of humanism including "religious humanism," has more recently developed the neologism, eupraxophy. But, this term has not found general acceptance in the wider humanist community. Meanwhile, Unitarian-Universalists and Ethical Culturists in the United States identify themselves as religious humanists whereas the American Humanist Association and the Council for Secular Humanism reject the term. European humanists, by and large, also reject the term, "religious" in no small measure because religions have historically been established (e.g. England, Norway, Spain), or near-established (e.g. Italy) and there are deeply rooted cultural memories of the warfare around issues of religious politics, e.g. clericalism vs. laicism. Thus, the Norwegian and Dutch humanist movements wish to be known as humanist tout court while the German humanist movement is known as the free religious association and the French humanist movement insists on the term, laique in its self description.

[13] William James put it well when he wrote,

...if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists...we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly....But it will fail to convince or convert you...if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions....Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any...rationalistic talk...that may contradict it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1961), 74.

[14] "How Many Gods," from The Upanishads in The Portable World Bible, Robert O. Ballou, ed. (1944, New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 50.

[15] For example, James W. Fowler, in working out the "faith" implications of Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of cognitive moral development, writes of what he calls "conjunctive faith,"

...This stage (stage 5 of 6) develops a "second naiveté" (Ricoeur) in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings....Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience....The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination....Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and rituals (our own and others') because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 197-198.

[16] I am sensitive to the fact that "narrative" has become an intellectual fad. Yet, over the past several years, I have found that "narrative" is an invaluable instrument for achieving and conveying understanding. It is not mere fiction nor is it merely a device for translating abstract ideas for those less than able to comprehend abstraction. In its own right and for appropriate purposes, it is noetic. On the other hand, unlike some post-modern critics, I do not think all knowledge is reducible to narrative. See, "What Must Be Responded To?" chap. 6 in Humanism With A Human Face. (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996) 123-149. Central to my recent work on medical ethics is the notion of "thinking with cases," the characteristic epistemological stance of physicians and nurses. On analysis, this turns out to be a particularly powerful method of knowing, teaching, and learning even of the most difficult materials.

[17] Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).

[18] Jack Miles offers an interesting treatment of this theme as applied to the Hebrew Scriptures in God: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). A discussion of the theme from the point of view of comparative religion is found in Gerald A. Larue, Ancient Myth and Modern Life (Long Beach, Calif.: Centerline Press, 1989).

[19] In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard discusses the story of Abraham's willingness to obey god's command and kill his first-born son, Isaac, as a "teleological suspension of the ethical." He concludes his discussion, "A man can become a tragic hero by his own powers—but not a knight of faith....Faith is a miracle...and faith is a passion." Robert Bretall, Editor, A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 134.

[20] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934) 44.

[21] J.B., A Play in Verse (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1957), 153.

[22] For a development of this theme, see Howard B. Radest, "Strange Enemies," chap. 3 in Humanism With A Human Face (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996) 47-74.

[23] Edward O. Wilson, "The Biological Basis of Morality," The Atlantic Monthly, 281: 4 (April 1998), 53-70.


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