Dr. John Young 10-1-06
Weekly Thoughts about Living a Humanist Life and Practical Spirituality
Living a Humanist Life:
Forgiveness as a Humanist Discipline
As humanism has matured as an ideological, ethical and religious movement, it has progressively faced up to the facts that thoroughly modern, scientific, secular human beings can still be and are cruel, violent, short-sighted, bigoted, unethical and immoral. The evolving events of the 20th century, and now, the beginning of the 21st century, have left us no rational alternative than to become more humble about humanism and human beings. Thoroughly non- or even anti-religious regimes have been and are totalitarian and killed and oppressed millions of people who deserved to live and flourish. Many individual scientists and learned secular specialists in every conceivable field of learning have cheated on results, presented their prejudices as truths, and misled and mistreated both their fellow human beings and the natural world.
All of us still believe in being rational and making full use of the truths and useful techniques that science has demonstrated. We still all share a firm humanistic foundation to our belief systems. However, we realize now that whether you call it systematic error or sin, even humanists are not only are imperfect, but they are often consciously malicious. We, too, need forgiveness, both from our fellow humans and from life itself, nature or nature’s God.
How can we practice forgiveness as a discipline of our humanistic faith? I find the process of the Jewish High Holy Days quite useful as a humanist. I try, day by day, week by week, and year by year to consider my errors, to admit or own them to the persons concerned, to make amends where I can do so effectively, and to do my best to transform them into future blessings in the world. Because my parents lived to be aged, I was able to transform many of the inadequacies of my adolescent reactions to them during my young and middle-aged adulthood. I owned the inadequacies of my own behavior with my first wife as we divorced, and made that a process of mediation and reconciliation instead of simple being adversarial and stooping to a blame-game. I made substantial financial and other amends to her over many years. It took me a while, but she is now a part of my daily prayers because I want to celebrate the much that she gave me and shared with me. I have learned much from the relatively few of my many congregants over the years that have actively rejected or even denounced my ministry with them. I recognize that often they have been my vital teachers and that sometimes they have had the preponderance of truth on their sides. I have learned from people I opposed as a citizen, even when I abhorred what they stood for, and how they acted with me or others. I greatly value the courage of my intimates and friends when they point out my inadequacies and mistakes and have the courage to confront me about them and to stand by me as I endeavor to transform myself and my systematic errors or sins into blessings.
The best summary on forgiveness that I have ever read was by the great 20th
century Protestant ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, which is found in our hymnal:
Forgiveness in the Jewish High Holy Days
Unitarian Universalists believe that each religion has part of the truth, and that no religion or ideology has all of the truth, just as we believe that each individual has part of the truth and that no individual has all of the truth. Another of our UUA traditions is: the Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. One of the ways that we discover, experience, and practice the wisdom from the world’s religions is to celebrate major world religious holidays. One of the holidays that we have celebrated here at UUCJ annually since I have arrived are the Jewish High Holy Days, the 10 day period in the early autumn when Jews celebrate their New Year, Rosh Hashanah by proceeding through a 10 day process concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This year, Yom Kippur is tomorrow. Jews celebrate these 10 days by considering their own errors, both against other people, and against the cosmos or God, admitting them to the people or forces wronged, making amends when possible, and not only resolving not to curb these errors but to make systematic efforts to re-focus their powers and energies to transform these errors into blessings.
Like the Jews, our relationship with Reality, with God or the powers that be as we understand them, is a relationship of awe and reverence, of admiration and gratitude, but also a relationship of questioning, dialogue, and protest. So, we do want to seek forgiveness for what we have done wrong. We want to recognize our mistakes, own them with those concerned, makes amends where we can, and transform these mistakes whenever possible into future blessings. Like the Jews, we think this is an important part of loving our neighbors, and we know that everyone is ultimately our neighbor. But also like the Jews, we realize in addition that we have made errors against Nature and the ultimate powers, and we wish to recognize these mistakes, own them, make amends where we can, and transform them as much as possible into future blessings. Like the Jews, on Yom Kippur, we want to learn how to forgive life and the world for the cosmic injustices [from our perspective] committed against us, as well as to gain forgiveness for the injustices that we have committed against the cosmos. Like the Jews, for us, doing this is an important part of how we love God, face reality, do justice to the world and to nature.