Humanism and Religion – part 2
The principal reason why some religious teachers are not humanistic is because they distrust human nature and have a pessimistic view of human beings. These religious teachers tend to downplay the humanity of the founders of their religions, emphasing their superhuman or even divine qualities.
Traditional Christianity teaches that due to our Fall from the grace of Eden, humanity is in a state of sin and that this original sin passes from one generation to another as part of our human nature. The only redemption is considered to be through Christ, whose nature is believed to combine divinity with humanity. Therefore traditionally Christians were encouraged not to rely on or trust their corrupt human nature but instead to rely on the divine Christ their saviour.
In Buddhism there are different understandings of how human Gautama Buddha was. While all schools accord him a special status as the ‘wheel turning’ Buddha who presented the Dharma (doctrine/law) for his age, some schools play down the significance of his own human struggle in this life, claiming that he was already an enlightened being at birth and that he merely ‘manifested’ his actions of ascetism followed by meditation under the bodhi tree as a kind of act.
There is a strand in Buddhism which distrusts human nature on the grounds that it is ‘samsaric’, the karmic product of impure causes and conditions, and contends that to achieve the ultimate fruits of the spiritual path we must abandon our ordinary human bodies and impute ourselves instead on subtle bodies of light. While developing and associating with our higher energies and potentials is surely a good thing, there can be a danger that practitioners will distrust and become alienated from their normal human urges and energies, which would not be a humanistic approach.
Unlike Christianity, Islam has a fundamentally positive attitude towards human nature. Muslims believe that, although Adam and Eve fell from the garden, their human nature was not corrupted or tarnished. Therefore there is no original sin passed from one generation to the next. Instead, Muslims believe that everyone is born with their basic purity (fitra) intact and it only through the vagaries of our upbringings and the difficulties of the world that we develop sin and alienation. Because of this basic postive view of human nature Islam does not require renunciation of the body. Therefore “there is no monasticism in Islam” unlike in Christianity and Buddhism. Bodily urges such as sexual desires are considered fundamentally healthy and to be enjoyed within “marriage [which] is half of the religion”.
No Muslim would claim that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was divine, because the fundamental tenet of Islam is that “there is no god but God, without partners”. Muhammad is considered fully human, the best of creation, and a perfect model for believers. God said to Muhammad ﷺ “but for you I would not have created the world” because Muhammad, as the perfect human (al-Insan al-Kamil), is most able to appreciate God’s truth, beauty, and love.
Through emulating and loving Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims are able to share in his grace and experience something of the truth, beauty, and love he experienced. This is why the following story of Muhammad ﷺ and his companion ‘Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is recounted: “We were with the Prophet and he took the hand of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. ‘Umar said to Him, “O Messenger of God, you are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet said, “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) until I am dearer to you than your own self.” Then ‘Umar said to him, “By God, it is now that you are dearer to me than my own self.” The Prophet said, “Now, O Umar (your faith is complete).”
The point here is that the Muhammadan nature is the essence of human nature, and that by embracing this nature we fully embrace our humanity and are able to experience all its peace and blessings. We do not need to deny our humanity, but we do need to efface our normal, limited sense of self in order to achieve closeness to God, and become like his beloved.
To efface ourselves in Muhammad ﷺ we need to transcend our personality but not our humanity because Muhammad ﷺ is the epitome of humanity. Also, because Muhammad ﷺ was suffused with light (noor) we will find that, by cherishing him, our humanity becomes suffused with light and takes on a higher quality.
Humanism and Religion
It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.
An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.
In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an.
In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect.
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
Sufism: traditional, modern, and post-modern
I want to posit that the jump-off point between modern and post-modern philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of language games. His point is that there are multiple human language games in operation simultaneously; each language game functions to establish a different type of truth, and the truth established by one language game may have only limited relevance to the truth established by another.
Science is a key language game. In the modern era the truths established by science have swept all before them and proponents of scientism claim that science has a monopoly on truth. However, in the post-modern era Wittgenstein’s notion of language games provides breathing space for other types of truth e.g. ethics; aesthetics; and religion.
Regarding ethics, in the modern era David Hume’s statement that “an is does not justify an ought” severed the link between scientific understanding and ethical imperative: science can describe what is, but we can make no clear inferences about what we ought to do from scientific understanding.
Wittgenstein’s point is that just because scientific truth does not speak to ethical truth does not mean that ethics have disappeared, merely that they are a discrete language game that we need to play on their own terms; likewise aesthetics and religion.
If we look at W’s insight in regard to religion we can see that it negates the need for modernisation of religion, a project that has gained significant momentum since the 19th century. (NB. This doesn’t imply that religion should be fossilised, unchanging, or immune to social criticism).
Under the onslaught from scientism, religious modernisers have sought to dispense with all that is ‘superstitious’ or supernatural and metaphysical in religion (e.g. heaven, hell, angels, miracles) and place it in on a rational, scientific basis. In doing so they have made a fundamental category error, thinking that there is only one type of truth in town (scientific) when in fact there are many.
Scientific truth and religious truth have quite different characteristics and purposes: the purpose of science is to find publicly demonstrable (objective) truths that can explain physical / external phenomena; the purpose of religion is to demonstrate eternal truths to the consciousness (subjective) of individuals and groups so as to bring us to salvation / liberation. There may be little overlap between these two enterprises or language games. Note that the vast majority of people who have achieved liberation / salvation in human history have been ignorant of science and its truths.
For those of us living in the West it is impossible to revert to pre-modern, traditional Sufi perspectives. The alternatives are modern or traditionalist approaches to Sufism. Whereas modern Sufism makes significant concessions to the predominant Western, modern language games of science, rationalism and individualism, and is therefore at risk of de-naturing Sufism, I argue that the traditionalist approach need make no such concessions.
Traditionalism is highly compatible with post-modernism because it accepts that the force / truth of religion derives largely from its narrative structure, enveloping adherents in its myths, and thereby re-orienting them towards the Divine and eternal.
Moreover, a traditionalist who is conscious of post-modernism is able to participate simultaneously in multiple language games: through the force of faith and imagination they can commit themselves fully to traditional Sufi narratives / myths while also being able to participate in scientific / rationalistic language games. There may be little overlap between these games, but there may also be little conflict, depending on the context.
The difference between the post-modern traditionalist Sufi and the pre-modern traditional Sufi is the post-modern characteristic of ‘knowingness’: the ability to consciously step between narrative frameworks / language games. In the post-modern world we can be fluent in multiple language games: we don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket. The scientific language game provides some truths, the religious provides others. If we are working on medical hygiene we will use the scientific framework; if we are working on our salvation we will use the religious framework. It would be a mistake to dispense with either.
Sufism and Quakers
I am a Muslim who sometimes attends my local Quaker meeting. In England, Quaker meetings offer unstructured worship where one sits in silence until someone feels moved to speak. In my local meeting I can generally enjoy 30 mins of silent meditation or dhikr until someone speaks. In the silence, Quakers wait on God “as if none were present but the Lord” and the metaphors they commonly use to describe God are spirit and light, which map to the Sufi concepts of ruh and noor.
The ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ book which sets out the current rules for Quakerism in England says that you need to be “broadly Christian” to be a Quaker (i.e. to be a member of The Religious Society of Friends which is the English Quaker congregation). However, many Quaker meetings (including my local one) make no distinction between members and regular attenders. There is no requirement for an attender to be Christian, as long as one is “in sympathy” with the meeting.
In fact, I have found a number of Quakers to be in sympathy with Sufism. One lady at my local meeting is planning a return trip to Konya after a moving visit. She asked the Sufi brethren who were her guides in Konya to take her to Rumi’s mausoleum but they insisted on taking her to Shams first. Soon after arriving at Shams’ tomb she was overcome by emotion and found herself kneeling on the floor weeping! However, when she was taken to Rumi’s tomb she found it quite ordinary in comparison. When she asked the Sufi brethren why, they asked her “where do you think Rumi is?” In death there is nothing to keep Rumi apart from Shams so Mevlana can be found at the tomb of his friend.