Reason & Reverence

READING: From William R. Murry’s Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century (Skinner House Books, 2007, pp. 151-153)

I believe a viable religion of the twenty-first century must include the following five characteristics:

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. As Paul Woodruff writes in his elegant little book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virture, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He goes on to note that reverence keeps human beings from acting like gods. It is thus essential to our true humanity. I also think a strong case can be made that lack of reverence is a major cause of all forms of human violence throughout history and in family and community life as well as with respect to the natural environment. And while reverence is not only a religious quality, a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.

Finally, the religion of the future must affirm those values that help to make our lives more fully human. In her spiritual autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong writes:

"In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering “the truth” or “the meaning of life,” but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch onto some superhuman personality or to “get to heaven” but to discover how to be fully human"

This is precisely what humanistic religious naturalism is all about. Becoming more fully human involves the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole and to a deep commitment to the human and natural worlds. It is about the transformation from a shallow life of fear, greed, hedonism, and materialism to a meaningful life of love and caring, gratitude and generosity, fairness and equity, joy and hope, and a profound respect for others.

By rejecting the idea of an afterlife, humanistic religious naturalism emphasizes the quality of life in this world. By eschewing dependence on supernatural powers, it empowers human beings to create lives that are joyful and meaningful here and now. By understanding human life as rooted and grounded in nature, it finds religious meaning and value in both the natural world and human community. With eyes open to the demonic side of human nature, it nevertheless retains a realistic hope for human progress and a better world.


Reason and Reverence 
For various reasons, and much to my surprise, over the past couple of months I have been drawn into a conversation about what might be a good “strapline” for the free-thinking religious movement to which our local church belongs — namely, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

I’ll spare you the details and simply say that our denomination’s Executive Committee recently decided they needed to run an “Identity Project” and have hired “a consultant” to help. Their intention, they say, “is intended to assist Unitarians create a clear message about who we are and what we stand for.”

And their first attempt was? . . . (dramatic pause to open envelope) . . . “Love and Justice”.

I have to say that my heart sank when I heard it. Not, of course, because there’s anything wrong with love and justice per se but because it’s the kind of motherhood and apple pie strapline that says nothing distinctive about us at all. I mean who in their right minds would be against either love and justice? Even hard-core, illiberal, conservative, creationist, anti-LGBT and anti-abortion Christians make appeals to love and justice — and they most assuredly love motherhood and apple pie as much as the rest of us.

And so began my conversation with the question put to me again, “Well, come on then, if not love and justice then what?”

I have to say I began — and have so far always ended — the conversations by protesting very strongly against any denominational project which looks to me merely to be an attempt to sell ourselves as if we were a product like a breakfast cereal, a deodorant or a toothpaste (to my mind it’s part of the neoliberal infection of our religious movement I spoke about recently). The kind of complex, nuanced, critical, free-thinking religion we have tried to create, maintain and practice for over four-hundred and fifty years is simply not amenable to being summed-up by any strapline or sound-bite or conflated into a single, simple “product”.

The truth is that over the centuries we have not created a single, easily identifiable product but, instead, have in a variety of ways consistently been engaged in an unfolding process or journey which, when viewed over the long-term, we can see has primarily been concerned, not to articulate simple, final religious doctrines/products but, instead, to ensure we (both as individuals and as communities) have always had complete spiritual freedom in matters of religion and belief. I’ll return to this in a moment.

But I was pressed again, if not “love and justice” then what? Some kind of strapline is almost certainly going to be chosen so  surely it should at least be better than “love and justice”? I resignedly, grudgingly accepted that, yes, it should at least be better than that.

Now, as most of you know, for a long time I have considered myself to be a kind of religious naturalist and one of the best recent books to come out of the Unitarian movement on this subject is William R. Murray’s “Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century” and in it he explicitly expands the term “Religious Humanism” to become “humanistic religious naturalism.”    

The first thing I wanted to do today was introduce to you Murry’s basic religious position and I hope you got something of this through the reading. On both the church website and here on my blog I’ve put up links to an article summing up the contents of his book and to a very informative, hour-long talk and Q&A on the same subject that he gave a couple of years ago to a Unitarian audience. It’s also worth alerting you to the fact that Murray has recently published a short e-book available for Kindle (or Kindle-like) devices called “Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a way of Life.” This is not only a good general introduction to humanistic religious naturalism but also a valuable guide to how one might actually begin to practice it alone and together. In fact, were any interest expressed in it’s contents, it would make an excellent subject of study for our conversations next term. Any takers?

But the second thing I want to do today, which forms the specific subject of this address, is to suggest that Murry’s book’s short title, “Reason and Reverence”, would be a more appropriate denominational strapline, and that this is the case whether or not you consider yourself to be a humanistic religious naturalist.

For me the two words “reason” and “reverence” powerfully and succinctly point to something of the genuinely distinctive process we have continually pursued through our history and which have generated, amongst other things, our own particular and distinctive radical understandings of in what consists “love” and “justice”, understandings that differ in significant ways from the ideas of “love” and “justice” that operate in more conservative religious and political circles. Because of this difference I want strongly to emphasize today that the words “love” and “justice” do not define us in any particular, meaningful and distinctive way whereas the words “reason” and “reverence” do.

Before I go on I should unfold this point about us being more like a religious “process” than a “product” a bit further.

A couple of years ago I introduced to you an insight of the most important twentieth-century Unitarian historian, Earl Morse Wilbur. In 1920 he gave a lecture called “The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” in which, after all his years of study, he concluded that although in our early years we undoubtedly put forth strong doctrines (about, for example, God, Jesus and salvation and, amongst other things, what love and justice should look like) it turns out that this doctrinal, product-like aspect of our churches was, in the end, only “a temporary phase”. When we look at our history in toto what we see is that Unitarian doctrines have only ever been “a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom” — a spiritual freedom which, later in the essay he calls “complete.”

This is an absolutely vital thing to grasp about our religious tradition. To be a Unitarian in the sense understood by Wilbur — and me — is not to commit absolutely and finally to the ultimate and lasting truth of any specific current religious doctrine/s or local religious flavour, rather it is to commit absolutely to participating in this ongoing quest to ensure we, and those who follow us, continue to have this complete spiritual freedom.

With this thought in mind we can turn to the first word of my suggested strapline, “reason”, because the use of reason has clearly been a central driver of this larger movement, this ongoing quest for complete spiritual freedom.

You will recall that Murry sums up the faculty of reason in his fourth point as the “human ability to think critically and constructively” which “has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances.” Reason is an utterly indispensable part of human being and clearly one of the best resources available to us as human beings are our reasoning and reflective capacities. As Murry points out elsewhere, the humanist perspective (whether theistic or naturalistic in flavour) has always thought “that thinking — clear, informed, sensitive thinking — is the best guide we have for help in everyday living” and that “what we think or how we think about something makes a huge difference in our lives.” Importantly, Murry also points out that: "One of the most important discoveries of the last two hundred years is that we are not ruled by fate or determined entirely by our past, but we can take charge of our lives by how we think."

This shows clearly that the use of reason has helped, and continues to help, drive our quest and continually to make possible our freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

Now, I would argue that no matter what flavour of Unitarian a person is, whether Christian, Buddhist, Humanist, Atheist, Religious Naturalist, Pagan or whatever, they will all be people who value reason in this fashion.

But, although the use of reason is vital, to be fully human is not to live by reason alone — to try to do that would be unreasonable. The proper use of reason shows us the limits of reason and I know of no better expression of this recognition than these words from John Locke’s (1632-1704) introduction to his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690):

“When we know what our muscular strength is, we shall have a better idea of what physical tasks we can attempt with hopes of success. And when we have thoroughly surveyed the powers of our own minds, and made some estimate of what we can expect from them, we shan’t be inclined either to sit still, and not set our thoughts to work at all, in despair of knowing anything or to question everything, and make no claim to any knowledge because some things can’t be understood. It is very useful for the sailor to know how long his line is, even though it is too short to fathom all the depths of the ocean. It is good for him to know that it is long enough to reach the bottom at places where he needs to know where it is, and to caution him against running aground. . . .”

In short, reason, appropriately deployed, can help us gauge something important about who, what and where we are and it can also prevent us from sailing onto the many dangerous rocks of false belief and illiberal religion that abound everywhere. But what reason cannot do is measure every depth.

It is at this point that the second word of my suggested strapline, “reverence”, comes powerfully into play. For starters, as Murry observes, “it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished” and Murry rightly cites Paul Woodruff’s splendid and quietly influential book “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by noting that “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.”

So, although reason is necessary we all know too well how human hubris can allow us to over estimate reason's reach and, sometimes, with catastrophic consequences.

But with reverence in play we find appropriate ways to encounter, feel and respond to the unfathomable depths and mystery of our natural (and existential) world and to bring them into appropriate, creative dialogue with reason. As an earlier Unitarian religious naturalist, Kenneth Patton, once put it, “The mood of religion must be the love of life, the exuberance of life, the use of life, the reverence for life.”

Reason has its vital place in our form of liberal religious life but without the presence of reverence we cannot say we are living a truly full, religious life. Taken together like this, I would argue that reason and reverence are highly distinctive markers of what it is to be involved in our unfolding Unitarian tradition and it is from them that we continue to generate our own distinctive understandings of love and justice — understandings that have recently played out, for example, in our commitment to seeing same-sex marriage through onto the statute book.  

Now I could say much, much more about this but this address is close to my self-imposed limit of two-thousand words and so I will simply leave you now with a version of the difficult question I was forced to address.

If you were asked for a strapline describing what you understand the Unitarian tradition to be about, and you had to come up with one, what would you chose? “Love and Justice”, “Reason and Reverence” or something else?

As examiners love to say: Discuss.


Unknown said…
In so far as any tagline can express depth, Reason and Reverence works well. When the talk was being discussed by those present, someone mentioned 'community' and it did get me thinking. Whilst by definition the word would not distinguish the unitarians from other religious communities (the other words say what kind of a community we are), it does set us apart from those who would pursue an individualised, private 'spirituality'. In a neoliberal environment where even religion is coopted as a private, individually 'marketed' identity, community is no longer a motherhood and apple pie word, and expresses that the free religious journey is a shared one, a mutual endeavour with a significance for the society around us, rather than just individual self expression, or fulfilment. Conversely by stressing reason and reverence together we are making a statement about the type of community we are seeking to embody - one that is not dependent upon badges of creed, culture, or restrictive clinging to tradition, but rather mutual exploration and questioning. So perhaps 'Reason, Reverence, Community'? Or 'Reason and Reverence in Community?'. There is also a bit of me that likes the irony of proposing a new 'trinity' to try and sum up unitarianism!!
Thanks Ben, that's an addition I, personally, like very much. All the more so given that I've just returned from conducting a wedding in France that was a perfect expression of those three things. Thanks for posting your words. Much appreciated. A.
Unknown said…
After reading your blog I bought Becoming More Fully Human, it is so far a good read. I followed UU Humanists on twitter, and found their most recent tweet shared that Bill Murry has just died, sadly.
Dear Jim,

Glad to hear that my blog sent you to Murry's most recent book. I'm very sorry to hear he has just died. Thanks for letting me know. Although he'll be missed his work will, I think, remain relevant for many years to come so he'll still be "among us" (figuratively speaking) for a good while yet. I look forward to hearing your further thoughts about his recent book and, perhaps too, about "Reason and Reverence." Best wishes, Andrew.
Robin said…
The problem with 'reverence' is that it sounds slow and passive, and the combination doesn't sound like we do anything. 'We do not need to think alike to love alike' includes the idea of free though but implies commonality of action and community. Plus it has a good history, even if it has been reinterpreted
Dear Robin,

You may be interested to know that the local Cambridge (UK) church where I am minister has for many years used "We need not think alike to love alike" and it appears on every order of service and on our noticeboards. Best wishes, Andrew.

Unknown said…
Hello! I've just started exploring religious humanism and am looking forward to reading Reason & Reverence. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Unfortunately the video link you've provided to Murry's lecture and Q&A leads to a private video that I'm unable to watch. Do you happen to know where else I might find this video, or any other video and/or audio that features William Murry? So far this is the only one that I have found. Thank you.
Greetings "unknown". Thanks for your comment. It's a pity the video to which I linked has gone and I, too, have just done a bit of research and found no other one's out there. Sorry about that. I can only encourage you to read his book whenever you can. Good luck on your journey of exploration.

Every best wish,

Unknown said…
Hello again! I'm the "unknown" person from March 14th. :) I've found what seems to be the audio recording of Murry's lecture and Q&A that you've referenced in your post. Check this out:

Here's another recording:
Thank you. Much appreciated. I hope all remains well with you and yours in these strange times.

All the best,