Thursday, October 22, 2015

Humanism: Secular & Sacramental

Looking for a definition of humanism, I came across a number of them:

  1. Any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate
  2. A system of thought that rejects religious beliefs and centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth
  3. A variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world and often rejects the importance of belief in God
  4. The denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts
The lack of unanimity in these definitions clearly reveals the lack of unanimity in the way the term is understood. This led me to leave the definitions and go in search for the original use of the term. In the fifteenth century Europe, the University curriculum consisted of religious as well as nonreligious subjects. To distinguish the nonreligious from the religious, the term humane litterae was used. A scholar enthusiastic in humanities was called a humanista. Thus a humanist was someone who studies nonreligious subjects. The 15th century European scholars like Erasmus and Thomas More were humanists. Their humanism could be defined by the first meaning given above.
In a couple of centuries, the term humanism acquired a different meaning. In the 17th century Europe the movement of Enlightenment was gaining strength, and humanism came to have the meaning of antireligious. In the 15th century it meant only non-religious, but in two centuries, it changed to antireligious.  The 2nd to 4th definitions given above are variations of this meaning. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is a union of more than 100 Humanist, rationalist, secular, ethical culture, and free-thought organizations in more than 40 countries. It states its Minimum Statement on Humanism as follows:
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

The rise and evolution of humanism raises a significant question. What exactly led to the evolution of a non-theistic humanism? One may argue that Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity was a humanist in the sense that Erasmus and Thomas More were humanists. The wellbeing of humanity was the prime concern for Jesus. His declaration that Sabbath is for Man; not Man for Sabbath makes his stand crystal clear. The Christianity of Jesus was not an otherworldly religion. He asked people to pray Let thy Kingdom come, and not Take us from here to heaven above. Paul exhorted Christians to live together as a community that transcends the differences of gender, class, and race. The emphasis was to create a heaven on earth. Later on the Christianity of western Europe became an other-worldly religion with its emphasis not on the wellbeing of humanity. Instead of standing on the side of the exploited, Christianity stood with those who exploited them.
Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios made a distinction between Secular Humanism and Sacramental Humanism. By secular Humanism he meant the Godless humanism of modern Europe. Mar Gregorios argued clearly that a Godless Humanism cannot be the real Humanism, for humanity cannot even survive denying God. By sacramental Humanism he probably meant the humanism affirming God. The term sacrament often means a visible ritual that represents the invisible divine. The sacramental humanism views humanity as a visible expression or representation of the invisible divine; humanity as the image of God. The sacramental Humanism is the authentic faith of Christianity.

Mar Gregorios traces the development of secular Humanism from none other than Augustine of fourth century. Augustine believed that God's glory is inversely proportional to Man's glory. When man's glory rises, God's glory lowers; when man's glory lowers, God's glory rises. It was such a view of the western Christianity that forced the later proponents of Humanism to deny God, for in order to glorify humanity, it was necessary for them to lower God. The Eastern Christianity, however, has believed that God's glory is directly proportional to Man's glory. Being the visible image of the invisible God, when man's glory rises, God glory rises as well.  

The humanism of 15th century was a revolt against the corrupted Christianity of their time just like Jesus’ movement was a revolt against the corrupted religion of his time. But the humanism of 17th century went to the extreme of rejecting God. Let us sincerely hope that the humanity will soon realize that rejecting God is as unhealthy as a corrupted religion.

This situation may be generalized to include any religion of any time and place. Every religious movement begins as a humanistic movement, with the wellbeing of humanity as the primary goal. Eventually they get corrupted. Humankind gets marginalized and exploited by a corrupted religion. A reform movement starts to set right the goal of the religion. It may sometimes go to the other extreme of denying what ultimately exists.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On Islam and Christianity

   Recently I posted a small article in Facebook on Islam and Christianity. Here is the article:
    "Dear friends, I think it is time to find out what is common for Christianity and Islam rather than looking for how they are different. We are 99% similar, only 1% different, aren't we? Let us focus on the similarities and live together peacefully in this world rather than waste our precious time arguing over negligible differences.
    We agree that there is only on God. We both honor Jesus. We both worship God. We both have prayer and fasting. We both teach an practice a God-fearing life. We both have similar stories of the creation of the world. We both believe in heaven and hell. We both want to surrender ourselves to God. We both want to live a Godly life. We both want to support and help the poor and the needy ..........
    However, instead of focusing on these similarities, we have been digging the negligible differences among us, and in this process we have forgotten that we are 99% similar. The result? We fight with each other needlessly. Can we all focus on the similarity and discover that we are on the same side and not on opposite sides?
    The differences among us are in some beliefs. Beliefs are beliefs. They cannot be proved. They don't have evidences. Beliefs exist because there are people who believe those beliefs. Let us look at our beliefs objectively instead of fighting for them. They are not worth fighting for. Even within Islam people hold slightly different beliefs about various things. Within Christianity, people hold different beliefs, which is why there are thousands of churches. Let us accept the fact that people will always have different beliefs, and our beliefs keep changing.
    Look, we are brothers. We belong to the same family of God. We are not supposed to fight over our beliefs. Can we ignore the beliefs that separate us?
    Friends, please share this important message of peace among your friends, and let us save our world from extremist movements."

  I am glad several people found time to read this article and comment. When I saw the comments, I thought I shall write some explanation and elaboration of that article. First let me go over the comments. A few people agreed with my perspective. They said:
    "If only more people understand this the world will be a better place to live!"
    "If we go deep into all the religions, we will find our believes very similar . Depending on different places just like languages are different, application of believes will differ. Basically same."
    "Correctly said. Let's hope this message brings a beginning for a good change."

But some others couldn't appreciate this perspective. They were in favor of Christianity.
    "The Holy Quran emphatically proves that Jesus has passed away like other mortal human beings, and is no longer alive anywhere. It clearly states that Jesus possessed only human characteristics, and was in no way divine but a servant of God and his messenger. If the fundamentals are different then the whole thing is different right ..... There is no point in similarities .As humans (as Christians ) we should live in harmony with each other ...."
    "Sorry I am not agree with you. There is big difference between Christian and Islam. Jesus teach us to Love the people even they are our enemy but Mohammad teaching kill the people those who are not believe in Islam."
    "Pls go through the real history of Islam and that of Muhammad. Then u will understand what is Islam. Try to read Quran, the words of Muhammad. We can't blame ISIS for the cruelty and barbarian deeds since they r only following their book. Also watch the speeches of EA Jabbar on you tube."
    "Christian's are peace making people. The Islam believes when they kill, rape, and assault people, then they get heaven with70 virgins.The Christians believes that is sin.."

    One person had a slightly different view. He distinguishes between real and namesake followers of religion.
    "You live as a true Muslim or christian then automatically Peace and Harmony prevail in this globe. Basic problem is name sake Muslim and Christian people only, be true to your religion."

    Although I posted in a forum where Muslims could also read it, no one cared to respond. Perhaps my perspective was too strange for them.

Perspectives: Subjective and Objective   

    The perspective I am taking in this article may be described as a neutral one. If you belong to a religion other than Islam or Christianity, it is easy for you to assume such a perspective. But if you are a Christian or a Muslim, such a perspective is very hard for you because you are very much used to the viewpoint of your own religion.

    Please look at the following diagrams and try to understand what I am trying to say here. 

If you belong to Religion 1, you look at Religion 2 from within your religion. That is your viewpoint. Similarly if you belong to Religion 2, you look at the other one from within your religion. Let us call it a subjective perspective.

    It is not easy to assume a neutral viewpoint as shown in this diagram. You will have to imagine that you are standing outside your religion, and you will have to see both religions in front of you. Let us call it an objective perspective.

    Although such a shift of perspective is not easy, it can be learned and practiced. I am not asking anyone to leave their own religious community. I am simply asking you to imagine that you assume a neutral position, and you see both religions objectively. This is what I have done in my short article. 

Facts and Opinions
    Let me also explain another distinction I have used in my article. I have distinguished between facts and beliefs. Facts are independent statements. They stand by themselves supported by evidences. However, beliefs (opinions) are dependent statements. They always depend upon people who hold those beliefs. Let me explain the differences with examples:

  1.     Christianity is a religion.
  2.     Christianity has been in existence for about 2000 years.
  3.     Most of the Christians believe that Jesus is God's incarnation.
These statements are facts. They stand on their own feet. There is no difference of opinion about the truth of these statements. Now let us look at some other statements:
  1.     Christianity is the only true religion.
  2.     Christianity will continue to exist forever.
  3.     Jesus is God.
These are not facts. These statements are the beliefs of some people. If no one believes in these beliefs, they won't exist any more. Beliefs cannot be proved or disproved simply because they don't have any evidences to support them. 
    A lot of people find it hard to make this distinction. They often take beliefs for facts. For example, for most of the Christians the belief "Jesus is God" is a fact. All religions have their own beliefs. But unfortunately, most of the followers of a religion do not see their beliefs as beliefs, but as fact. This is a very simple thing that all people need to learn, and this simple knowledge can save our world from religious extremists.
    "The Holy Quran emphatically proves that Jesus has passed away". This is a quote from a comment I received. I would modify this sentence as follows. "The Holy Quran argues that Jesus has passed away". Proving and arguing are two different things. Quran only argues that Jesus passed away. How can Quran prove it?

    Let us focus on the facts. Both Christians and Muslims are homo sapiens that live upon the earth. Both need air to breath, water to drink, and food to eat. Both need clothes and shelter. Both have the same physical, psychological, and social characteristics and needs. Both have birth and death, and both have to struggle to exist. They feel hungry and thirsty in the same way. They laugh and cry in the same way. Although they live their life almost in the same way, they have slightly different views of the meaning and purpose of life. The way they talk about their life varies slightly due to their cultural differences. Their religious beliefs and rituals slightly vary.

    Let us learn to distinguish between fact and belief. Let us accept the fact that people have always  had different beliefs. It is impossible to attain uniformity of beliefs in the world.  
    Let us also learn to distinguish between subjective versus objective viewpoint, and let us learn to look at our religion objectively as well.
    Christians, do you hope to make the world a better place by converting all Muslims to Christians? Even if you do so, there will be new divisions within Christianity, and new religions will keep on arising. Muslims, do you hope to make the world a better place by killing or converting all the Christians? Even if you do so, don't you think Sias and Sunnis will develop into two separate religions and fight with each other. Let us stop our attempts to convert or get rid of others. Let us accept the fact that it is human to have varying beliefs. Can we just respect one another as human beings? Why don't we just live and let live?