By Tony Hileman
Living on the creative edge of our culture means being at the forward reach of how we think about and act toward the world in which we live. It will come as no surprise that I think Humanism resides at that forward reach, as well as at the growing tip of ethics.
Those are not universal attributes, to be sure. Not everyone can be at the forward reach. Sociologist Paul Ray refers to “cultural creatives,” as a group that likely includes everyone in the Humanist movement to one degree or another.
Living on the creative edge of our culture also means change-personal, social, and cultural change. T he late Willis Harmon, futurist thinker and author of Global Mind Change, said, “Throughout history, the real fundamental changes in societies have come about not from the dictates of governments or the results of battles but through vast numbers of people changing their minds-sometimes only a little bit!”
Our culture is created and re-created in a continuing process of sometimes barely discernable steps that repeatedly replace the misconceptions and mythologies of one age with the understandings and rationality of another. This in turn changes our view of the world which again causes change which in turn results in the creation of yet another new culture. This rotation, this cycle can be a delightful and dizzying upward spiral, but it doesn’t happen by itself-we have to work at it.
There comes a point in this cycle of change, as we push back the frontier of the known, when we realize that what we’ve held as rational has become rationalization. There comes a point where we once again uncover in our thinking a mythology masquerading as rationality. That point, that instant of realization, exists on the creative edge of our culture.
These pivotal points are difficult to see at the time, and are generally discovered by looking back, but I believe we are in the midst of a considerable shift of mind toward a perspective that embraces this kind of perpetual change-a shift toward a Humanist perspective.
That outlines what I want to explore: the progressive aspects of Humanism that are shared by many others of goodwill, and how cultures change as a result of the way we lead our lives. I speak from a Humanist perspective but include in my intent all who strive for a better world.
The meaning of the word Humanism has been elusive since it was given currency in this country early in the twentieth century by Unitarian ministers like Curtis Reese and John Dietrich, two of a committed band of Humanists responsible for the publication of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933, and the founding of the American Humanist Association shortly thereafter in 1941.
At the AHA we define Humanism most succinctly as: a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.
Now, that is compact and not all-encompassing, but it hits the pertinent high points of Humanism: It is a lifestance, the functional equivalent of a religion if you like to look at it in those terms, that stresses our responsibility for the world in which we live, as well as our capability to change it, guided by natural values.
That, by definition, places Humanism at the leading edge of our culture, and at the growing tip of ethics. But it by no means claims that territory as its exclusive domain.
That takes care of the academic view of Humanism but, lest you think Humanism too intellectually oriented, listen to what social activist Corliss Lamont had to say in his epic, The Philosophy of Humanism. Now in its ninth edition, it first appeared in 1949.
The philosophy of Humanism constitutes a profound and passionate affirmation of the joys and beauties, the braveries and idealisms, of existence upon this earth. It heartily welcomes all life-enhancing and healthy pleasures, from the vigorous enjoyments of youth to the contemplative delights of mellowed age, from the simple gratifications of food and drink, sunshine and sports, to the more complex appreciations of art and literature, friendship and social communion. Humanism believes in the beauty of love and the love of beauty. It exults in the pure magnificence of external nature.
There’s a certain grandeur to Humanism. John Dietrich, said of it, “Humanism is really the attempt to conserve all the human values that humanity in its age-long struggle has built up, and in addition create such new values as will add to the significance of life on this planet.”
That’s what I see as the creative edge of our culture and I invite you to join us at the AHA as we raise the voice of Humanism.
As executive director of the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest Humanist organization in our land. I’ve been afforded a seat with an interesting view of Humanism today-where it’s come from, where it’s going, and what it means in people’s lives. I’ve also formed some opinions of what it means to live on this creative edge of our culture. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve seen and learned, and what impact it’s had on my thinking.
Humanists come together as individuals who want to shape improved ways of being together; people who want to form and adhere to clear agreements between us; women and men who care about, and want to care for, each other; who want to further our ethics toward the betterment of all-and by ethics I mean the way we behave in our relationships with each other and with the environment of which we are a part.
As engaged people of goodwill we recognize that the responsibility to do the hard work of influencing the culture we live in lies with us. We accept that responsibility with a full yet humble confidence in our individual and collective ability to do just that-to improve our way of being together and leave the world a better place than we found it.
Humanism is an empowering faith in ourselves and in each other that gives us each a rational hope of living a fuller, happier life than did our forbearers who indeed gave us this Humanism we cherish so dearly. Humanism is an attitude of hope that offers the real prospect of making the lives of those yet to come easier, more content, and more full of what we consider good. Being thus engaged in the flow of human progress is living on the creative edge of our culture.
The early strands of what we now call Humanism, the attitude that people are rational beings who possess within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness, can be found in Socrates’ plea for an “examined life” two and a half millennia ago. Socrates and his fellow philosophers embraced a mythology, a Greek, polytheistic mythology, that they themselves helped humanity pull away from. Examining life from a human rather than supernatural perspective placed them on the creative edge of their culture.
Two thousand years later the Renaissance revival of Greek studies emphasized the value of the classics for their own sake, rather than for their relevance to the Christianity or monotheism that had been stressed during the middle ages. The Dutch cleric Erasmus, who many consider the progenitor both of Humanism and the Reformation, remained a Roman Catholic throughout his life.
Yet Erasmus’ fresh approach to the ancient classics and his war against ignorance and superstition found him at the forefront of his age. He worked with and influenced those responsible for establishing humanistic thought at Oxford and the University of Cambridge. From these and other universities, Renaissance Humanism spread throughout English society and paved the way for the great flourishing of Elizabethan culture and an educated laity.
These individuals, and many like them through the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and the democratic revolution are the cultural creatives Paul Ray speaks of. In his 1996 classic thesis, The Rise Of Integral Culture, Ray holds that, compared to the rest of society, cultural creatives have values that are more idealistic, have more interest in relationships and psychological development, are more environmentally concerned, and are more open to creating a positive future.
I don’t mean to imply that Humanism has cornered the market on cultural progress. The truth is many peoples of different traditions, philosophies, lifestances or worldviews, share the same simple aims we have. Some might even call these pan-cultural aims. I would. I find these aims to be the impelling forces behind Humanism and cultural progress, which I consider separate but inextricably intertwined. While we have had cultural progress in eras and areas devoid of Humanism, you cannot have Humanism without cultural progress because that is exactly what Humanism is all about.
In Tuesday’s With Morrie, Mitch Albom quotes Morrie Schwartz, the subject of his incredibly long-running bestseller: “You have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.” So, Morrie might ask, “what is it about our culture that doesn’t work?” On my short list are the myths that still drive our culture. For example, there is a myth in our culture today that this life doesn’t amount to much except as a test for another, better life to come. Given that myth, is it any wonder that our society finds excuses for using each other, for letting others do their thinking for them, for accepting life and themselves for less than what they are?
Think of the fundamental change that would take place in our culture if, as Willis Harmon said, vast numbers of people changed their mind on this single issue. Consider how the world might look if there were a shift in thinking so that our culture as a whole held human life as being of supreme worth, each of us an end unto ourselves and not a means to the end of another.
Another myth in our culture, one born of the authoritarianism of absolutist thinking, is that we must have unanimity to have unity; that if we don’t agree on questions of origin, destiny and ultimate meaning we cannot cooperate on issues of common cause. Your thoughts may go directly to those on the Religious Right, but there are many on the liberal end of the spectrum that are just as guilty of this false assumption. Those on the creative edge of our culture need to be particularly mindful that our present conclusions are opinion, not dogma.
It was Thomas Jefferson who pointed out that difference of opinion is not necessarily difference of principle. Many who have formed different opinions about our existence share meaningful principles with us. We should embrace that commonality and work in concert with those with whom we differ whenever we find we share a common cause. If we are to advance in harmony, the emphasis in respectful disagreement needs to be on respect.
Still we await that change of mind that will lead to a more universal acceptance of freedom of inquiry and expression of thought as the means of discovering reality and gaining insight about our own human experience, thus displacing revealed, authoritarian truths that simply do not meet the measure of today’s understanding of the world.
How rich and full this life would be if we all accepted that the deepest enrichment of human experience comes through our own efforts. The supreme worth of human life, freedom of thought, enrichment of human experience-these all exist on the creative edge of our culture today. If vast numbers of people changed their minds just a little bit these ideas would be our culture.
Of course the very nature of living on the creative edge is that Humanist progress can not have an endpoint. Progress has been made toward the Humanist world Dietrich spoke of nearly a century ago but, even if his most ideal Humanist aspirations were fully and exactly realized, we still wouldn’t be living in a Humanist world for those ideals themselves would have advanced still further-beyond our most vivid imagination.
At a Humanist conference in Florida in 2000, Bill Murry, the dean of Meadville-Lombard Unitarian seminary, said, “It is the radical claim of.Humanism that we can live rich full lives without believing in the supernatural or in life beyond this one. It is the even more radical claim that such lives are more satisfying because they come closer to truthfulness and do not rely on illusions and because they are lived meaningfully through the joys and challenges of working to transform the world.” Given that, it’s not so radical to claim that lives so lived are lived on the creative edge of our culture.
Kurt Vonnegut, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, put it this way: “Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.” We don’t spend a lot of energy pondering questions of creation; we accept the universe as self-existing and accept that we do not always have pat answers. That’s unsettling to some in our culture. Perhaps many.
It seems that most in our culture need the security of revealed, explained and interpreted absolute truths. In 1999 the Washington Post ran a four-month-long series of articles on people of different religious convictions. It was entitled, “Moving from uncertainty and despair to spiritual fulfillment.” Metaphysical uncertainty is linked with despair by our society! Humanists are different. We find exciting challenge where others find troubling uncertainty.
I don’t know why we experience exhilaration where others experience fear. I don’t fully understand this quickening of wonder I experience at the edge of my own understanding, or how that wonder turns to awe in the face of discovery, or in the bafflement of nature’s mysteries. Nor do I understand why others feel a sense of despair in the absence of complete answers.
But I do know that cultural myths, like those that still exist in our own culture, don’t just go away in the face of convincing evidence to the contrary. Fixed, absolute answers give people comfort, and supernatural constructs are real to those who accept them as truth. For every one on the creative edge of our culture there’s at least one at the other end of the spectrum attempting to keep us rooted in outdated thinking and outmoded ways.
They’re a hindrance to cultural advancement, to be sure, but they gradually lose credibility. At the same time, though, countless others in our culture hold conflicting views accepting natural, rational explanations with their heads while clinging to mythological interpretations with their hearts. That must be so confusing for them.
Witness the fundamentalists who forcefully deny any evidence at odds with their supernatural beliefs while at the same time casually accepting the everyday realities of science and technology. I don’t feel particularly threatened by these conflicted cultural dinosaurs. After all, there is a lot more disagreement among their clergy than there is among scientists. But I don’t underestimate their influence or minimize the need for vigilance. They are a challenge now, but their beliefs will one day be viewed as we now view the mythological beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
We hold the worth and dignity of human existence as our highest ideal. Those at the trailing edge of our culture do not. There still exist today those who have taken concepts born of human imagination, hardened them, and used them to establish belief systems based on values that are placed above human life. Those values continue to be used as justification for unjustifiable acts that we condemn.
Let us not be dragged down to the level of that which we condemn, but let us rise to the heights of our own ideals.
Living on the creative edge of our culture is to be progressive, to look forward embracing what can be while remaining fully aware of what is and what has been. It means being for something tangible that can have impact. It means, in the words of Paul Ray, being for “the possibility of a new culture centered on.community and connection with others. connected with nature and learning to integrate ecology and economy.” He goes on but that makes his point.
Most Humanists are active in one social or political cause or another-or two or three or a dozen. To care about others is part of our lifestance. But we can live on the creative edge of our culture without being full-time activists, social, political or otherwise. Without aiding, assisting, advocating or acting directly in support of particular causes, we can act in ways that support and promote those causes. We can be active apart from being activists by living in accordance with our ideals and by being part of a wave of new thinking.
Global mind changes do not come about by accident, but they are not necessarily the result of intentional, specific purposes, either. Generally, it is not acts of greatness or causes of majesty that create our culture. Though they have impact and it is in that impact that the seeds of change often take root, cultural progress most often comes about as a result of the way we live our lives-our simple, daily lives.
Living on the creative edge of our culture means giving full expression to your ideals in each and every one of your actions. Not just in situations of great import when things are so far out of hand that not to act responsibly would be unthinkable for anyone with even a modicum of compassion or morality, but in the niggling little trials of our everyday lives. It’s the way we lead our lives that makes the difference.
Living on the creative edge of our culture means speaking out in the face of injustice, wherever we may find it. We don’t have to be international diplomats or have been elected to high office to make a difference. Even in ordinary circumstances a simple “That’s not right” or “Hey, that’s not fair” can have a profound impact on events. Living on the creative edge of our culture means speaking up when you hear slander that denigrates others. Silence isn’t acquiescence, but it’s all to often taken for such. Stand up and speak out!
Stand up and proudly proclaim your Humanism at every opportunity. Others do not hesitate to identify themselves by the tradition, movement or lifestance that best expresses their view of the world. Why should we remain silent about our Humanism? Speak up! Stand up and speak out!
Living on the creative edge of our culture means reminding your friends, especially the affluent, of their responsibility for the world in which they live. It’s okay to tell others, especially employers, that it is wrong to treat employees as tools-as mere means to an end. It’s necessary to point out that a person whose work does not have the same economic value as another’s still has equal worth and dignity and is equally deserving of our respect.
Living on the creative edge of our culture means taking responsibility for your own beliefs and not accepting another’s view of the world simply because they are in positions of influence or authority. Living on the creative edge of our culture means having the courage to think for yourself and to freely express your views to others considerately.
We have this moral responsibility, to think for ourselves, whether we want it or not. It is up to us to form and understand our own beliefs, and to act in accordance with those beliefs. It’s how we think about and lead our lives, our simple daily lives, that creates culture.
We are small in number we self-identified Humanists, we cultural creatives, but we travel in the midst of an enormous company of principled allies, of those close to that crucial mind change that will bring about a transformation of our culture.
Ray expresses this optimism in saying, “Something very different is coming and, yes, we can do something about it.” This is not a fringe phenomenon but is tantalizingly close to being part of the mainstream of American life. Now, Humanism is not the dominant view of American society. But I do not accept it as a mere tributary of the mainstream of our culture. I believe Humanism to be the undercurrent of progressive thought carrying us forward.
We Humanists have believed so long and so passionately in humanity’s capacity to improve itself. We believe in our ability to change the world, to create, through the way we lead our lives, the mind shift that will continue to carry us forward-to create through our good intentions and ethical actions a global mind change that alters for the better the way we act toward one another.
It was the Humanist impulse of the Renaissance that refused to accept the status quo and freed us from the shackles of authoritarianism, recognized our human abilities and responsibilities, and moved us forward toward where we are today. It has not been a smooth progression through the numerous stages of our advancement, but we are still moving forward. Despite the many glitches of the past and the inevitable glitches to come, the direction is set.
It is the fullest expression of my Humanist faith that the world, and we in it, will continue this change for the better. I invite you to share that belief with me, not only abstractly but as we take up the work of improving our selves, our communities, our society, and our culture.
Acting from a common perspective we can ignite in others our reverence for the supreme worth of human life, our insistence on free inquiry and open expression of thought, and our longing for fuller lives for all.
Humanism is an idea and an ideal: an idea that has brightly lit some of the most luminous eras of our history; an ideal that helped guide the advancement of our ethics through those eras and continues to do so today. Just as we enjoy the life dreamt of by our Humanist forbearers, the ideas and ideals of Humanism can light the way and guide us as we create the culture that will bring our heirs happiness and fulfillment we can now only dream of.
It can get dark and lonely at times out there ahead of the cultural curve as we hope and believe we are-probing the unknown. Let’s work together to light the way for others. Let us shine light equally on our successes and our failures so others may learn from our lives in order to lead more successful lives themselves.
What better legacy, what better world, can we leave?
What better work can we do on the creative edge of our culture?
Please join the American Humanist Association in this quest!