Dr. John Young 9-24-06
Weekly Thoughts about Living a Humanist Life and Practical Spirituality
Living a Humanist Life:
Humanists, like us, people who focus on this life and this world, affirming reality, and embracing all people, tend not to be caught up in history and to be openly skeptical of tradition. However, we are each fascinated by our personal histories, and often quite tenacious, perhaps even sometimes dogmatic, about our own chosen traditions. This shows up a lot in any congregation, even a Unitarian Universalist congregation like ours. Some people are upset when something that they are accustomed to is moved, changed, or done differently. They are accustomed to it being there, or doing it in a particular fashion, and they may get upset if it is changed.
In that context, 20th century British writer, G.K. Chesterton, had a couple of interesting ideas about tradition. He said: “Tradition means giving votes to our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.”
His quotation made me think. Tradition IS a way of giving votes to our ancestors. It is a way of honoring the past, and that does make it a democracy of the dead. So, tradition also becomes a way of reminding the present participants that they, too, although certainly the people in charge at the moment, are a small elite of all the people who have depended and will depend upon this congregation.
So, as we go forward in nurturing the future of UUCJ, we have a covenant not only with all our present membership, but also with hundreds of people who founded our spiritual home, and, then, maintained or re-created it over the generations, and thousands of people who have benefited from it in the past 100 years. We also have a covenant with the hundreds of people who will lead it and the thousands who will depend upon it in the future. We are, as Paul said in his Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2: “Seeing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience and perseverance the races that are set before us.”
Playwright George Bernard Shaw proposed that: “The reasonable person adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the world to him self. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable person.” Most of us, most of the time, are, despite Shaw, reasonable people. We adapt ourselves to the world. We figure out how things work in a particular system, and we accommodate ourselves to that system, if we want to be part of it. Life would be chaotic if no one chose ever to be reasonable in this sense, to adapt to a given system, to integrate ourselves into accepted ways of proceeding. However, Shaw obviously had a point. Innovators need to make changes. They need, at least temporarily, to seem a bit unreasonable because they are suggesting a new or at least a different way.
People who always try to make every one and everything else adapt to himself or herself is not usually only considered unreasonable, they are considered insane. So, part of becoming a successful reformer, innovator, inventor, or revolutionary is to become enough a part of a system so that you are accepted as a reasonable person, a member of the team, and, then, to selectively propose reforms or innovations, inventions, or revolutions in ways that communicate and become persuasive to the people in your community. Most of us are unwilling to respond constructively to some one that we feel is making insane proposals, but most progressive folk are ready to embrace reasonable reforms and even progressive revolutions.
In our practical spirituality, we still do expect people to join, to integrate into our shared community, to listen as well as to talk, to build their proposals upon our shared experiences, and to nurture their dreams out of our shared efforts. As we begin the annual 10 day period of the Jewish High Holy Days, it is useful to remember the primary lesson of these Holidays is that we can always begin our lives anew. As the Jewish tradition wisely reminds us: in order begin our lives anew successfully, we need to: remember our blessings and our errors, to admit our errors with those we have wronged, to make amends if we can, and, most importantly not only to curb our errors but to transform our most persistent and pernicious mistakes into blessings for the world.