The case for an Ecstatic Humanism—being “skeptics with naturally religious minds” or “open-minded ‘reverent’ humanists”
Because I have a public-facing religious role I often find myself in situations where, suddenly, people want to know, in a nutshell, just what kind of religious person I am and what it is I believe; they want a label and they want it now! Although I generally resist offering people a label when I have the time and opportunity to be a bit more expansive, it remains the case — especially in our “too long; didn’t read” (tl;dr) age — that the demand for them is likely to continue for a good while yet. Given this, it has long seemed to me that the “best” labels to use are those which encourage, not an easy acceptance of the label that’s proffered, but, instead, those which cause a certain puzzlement and which go on to elicit further questions about what on earth might be meant by it.
Now, those of you who know me well will know that, when forced to offer such a label, I generally reply by saying I am a “Christian atheist” or, at least, that I have strong sympathies towards a Christian atheist perspective. As a label it has a couple of immediate and obvious benefits.
The first is that it’s basically true because I am a kind of a-theist whose a-theism is almost wholly a product of a radical and heretical liberal Christian tradition which has long displayed a relentless truth-seeking drive and skepticism. It is this drive which, although it has led people like me legitimately to come to doubt the actual existence of any kind of supernatural entity who could meaningfully be called God, it has also left us with a deep appreciation of the value and worth still to be found in certain religious practices and in many aspects of religious language use and theological thinking. In short, I am both a child, and a very critical friend of the modern theological school of thought known, rather dramatically, as “Death of God theology.”
Just to clarify this a bit before moving on; being this kind of a-theist does not stop someone like me from continuing to use the word “God” because, to cite the contemporary, existentialist philosopher, James W. Woelfel, in the poetic, mythological language of the Christian atheist, God is understood as-if he has died “completely to his transcendent status and [now] identifies himself entirely with humankind and our world” (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript). Consequently, for the Christian atheist, the “only revelation of God” is that to be found in “the faces of [we] unlikely human beings” and in the natural world in general (of which, of course, humans are part), and God’s “only worship” is found in “our compassionate devotion to one another and to the needs of our earth” (ibid.). Indeed, I would argue that this is basically what the historical Jesus seems to have been doing in his own teaching where everything is always being dissolved into the call to show justice and charity, love, to one’s neighbour, which includes, of course, one’s enemy. Naturally, Jesus was not, himself, an atheist, but his tendency to see God primarily in examples of this-worldly, ethical action, sets a general direction of travel which, having passed through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of the natural sciences, leads directly to the door of a twentieth and twenty-first century Christian atheist like me.
The second benefit of the label Christian atheist is, as I have already indicated, that it has the singular benefit of being able to surprise and puzzle people and, therefore, provoke from them further questions as they want to know how on earth anyone can be both a Christian and an atheist.
But it will come as no surprise to most of you to hear that one important question often put to me at this point is, “Since you claim to be atheist, why on earth bother keeping the label Christian at all? Why don’t you call simply yourself an atheist and be done with it?”
Well, for me, the answer is rooted in a historically contingent truth that, as Woelfel notes, Christianity remains “the religion which has decisively shaped and permeated our Western culture” and, whether we like it or not, it is the religion which “still dominates the world of religion by its sheer numbers and influence.” In consequence, because “it is the religion whose origins, history, and ideas the American or European religious thinker is ordinarily the most well-versed”, it is the religion “with which most religiously perplexed people must come to grips with in a special way, since it has both created our problems and will probably offer the most natural resources for our groping solutions” (“Borderland Christianity”, Geoffrey Chapman, 1974, pp. 16-17).
Woelfel’s points are, perhaps not surprisingly, echoed in my own ministry here in the UK within the liberal Christian and Unitarian tradition and, in consequence, most of my time is spent trying to help those who, for good or ill, have been shaped by Christianity, genuinely to come to grips with it so that they may, a) better understand key aspects of our own culture’s particular present difficulties and problems and, b) be able more freely and creatively than before, to use Christianity’s still undischarged resources and energies to encourage new, just and loving conversations and solutions more appropriate to our own, post-Christendom, pluralistic, multi-faith age to emerge.
However, despite my willingness to continue to use the label Christian atheist myself, I recognise that the aforementioned context means that it’s a label which clearly cannot suit, or even vaguely resonate with, everyone I meet — not even everyone in the local church where I am minister! This has meant I’ve always been on the lookout for other labels to describe my basic religious and philosophical perspective in a way that might make better sense, or at least be more generally amenable, to those outside the Christian tradition. The three labels I most often use these days are “religious naturalist,” “religious humanist” and the related one which concerns me in this piece, “ecstatic humanist,” borrowed from an essay published in 1973 by the aforementioned philosopher, James W. Woelfel called “Ecstatic Humanism with Christian Hopes” (“Borderland Christianity”, Geoffrey Chapman, 1973).
It’s important to note at this point that nearly all quotations in my piece today are gratefully borrowed from this essay even when, as in the podcast of this piece, they are silently made for the ease of the listener. If you want to check where my words end and Woelfel’s begin, please take a look at the text either on my blog or in the transcript accompanying this episode.
Ecstatic humanism, Woelfel tells us, is “a humanistic perspective which transcends or goes beyond purely secular forms of humanism”. This should make it clear that he is using the word “ecstatic”, not in its everyday sense, but in its etymological sense of “transcending” or “going beyond.” Woelfel uses it in order to help make it clear that he is encouraging a humanism which remains “sensitively open-minded about the possibility of dimensions of experience and reality beyond our present knowing” and which remains “constantly aware of the limitations of the human situation and human knowledge” (“Borderland Christianity”, Geoffrey Chapman, 1974, p. 22)
Like the label Christian atheist, the label ecstatic humanist has the benefit of not only being true for me but also a label which is able to provoke surprise and puzzlement and, therefore, often elicit further questions from people who want to know how on earth anyone can be both a humanist and ecstatic, i.e. being aware of, and sensitive to, aspects of the world that lie beyond the human. In this brief piece I can’t, of course, fully unfold the implications of the label but, drawing on Woelfel, I can at least give you a general, broad, brush-stroke picture.
The project I’m outlining here is humanist because, as Woelfel points out, it is dedicated to encouraging “the growth of humane and scientific knowledge and its application to the rational solution of human problems, the alleviation of human oppression and suffering, the enlargement of individual human rights and freedoms, the widening of educational, social, cultural and economic opportunities — in general, to the enhancement of human life” (ibid. p. 19).
It’s a humanist project because it seeks to encourage people to base their lives and decisions upon the best knowledge we have of humankind and the world “especially through the sciences, and to seek thoughtful, reasoned solutions to human problems.”
It’s a humanist project because it looks to human criteria in our thinking and living and because it strongly believes “that this is all we have to go on in any solid and public way” (ibid. pp. 19-20).
But it’s also an ecstatic and, therefore, a religious humanist project, because unlike other, purely secular humanisms, it’s not “truncated” (ibid. p.21). As Woelfel points out, truncated humanisms turn out not to be “fully humanistic because”
“. . . they are not open to all that man [sic] and his encompassing universe possibly are. They are not sufficiently sensitive either to the range of and depth of the human spirit or to the limitations of our situation or knowledge. They tend arbitrarily to draw boundaries around human experience and the world and presumptuously to declare that the matter is closed, the reality completely described and circumscribed” (ibid. p.21).
As Woelfel notes, truncated, purely secular humanisms in the end simply reveal an “insensitivity to data, to ‘the facts,’ and [an] overconfident reasoning — both of which are aberrations of the humanist approach to knowledge” (ibid. p. 21); they are, to put it another way, humanisms which have forgotten that there will always exist for us not only known unknowns, but also unknown unknowns.
Consequently, for Woelfel and, indeed, for me:
“A truly whole and adequate humanism is one which, precisely in its absorbing preoccupation with [hu]man[ity], is sensitively open to the possibility that man himself [sic] may be more than we think at any given time — that he [sic] may, for example, be a creature involved with dimensions of reality of which our knowledge either is ignorant or has only scratched the surface” (ibid. p. 22).
I hope you can see that it is precisely this openness to self-transcendence, to dimensions of reality which it can never access, or of which human knowledge is ignorant or has only scratched the surface, is what gives this project its religious dimension.
All in all, it has long seemed to me that what Woelfel is describing in his essay is, in general terms, what, at its best, the Unitarian tradition has been trying to offer people for the last four hundred and fifty odd years. Because of this, I have no hesitation in continuing to offer up for consideration a liberal Christian flavoured species of naturalistic, religious or ecstatic humanism in my own ministry with the Cambridge Unitarian Church. But, questions of meaningful historical continuity with my forebears aside, I increasingly feel a pressing need to offer up this basic religious and philosophical stance because, as we seek to recover from the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and also try to deal with the increasing climate emergency, to get through this well — or even at all — we will clearly need to draw upon the fullest range of human resources and experiences available to us, both scientific and religious and philosophical.
However, in order not to succumb to the temptation to over-extend or exaggerate our religious and philosophical resources and experiences it seems to me that we always to need consciously and diligently to be weaving them together with a humanism that is not truncated. This is why, along with Woelfel, I continue to feel that it’s vital to articulate a modern, ecstatic humanism that can still take us “out of ourselves” to behold with wonder and awe “the mysteries surrounding our existence” — mysteries which include, of course, “religious experience, love, art and beauty, the devoted search for truth” (ibid. p. 24).
Although I realise many of you will not share my willingness to adopt and use the label Christian atheist if, like me, you feel that you are ‘a skeptic with a naturally religious mind’ (à la Ronald Hepburn) or an open-minded ‘reverent’ humanist (ibid. p. 14), then I hope you will at least spend a little time considering the case for an ecstatic humanism and perhaps, too, even now and then, using the label yourself. At the very least it might start an occasional, interesting conversation.
If you would like to join a conversation about this or any other podcast then please note our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 10th February at 19.30 GMT. The link will be published in the blog and the notes to the podcast for that week.