“Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence” by David Bumbaugh (excerpt)

The following is excerpt of “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence” by David Bumbaugh (2003):

Humanism, with its emphasis on the ongoing search for truth and understanding, with its insistence that revelation is not sealed, with its conviction that all truth is one, with its commitment to “truth, known or to be known,” has an inherited vocabulary of reverence implicit in its underlying assumptions–a vocabulary of reverence which is drawn from and depends upon the ongoing scientific enterprise, the enlarging exploration of the universe and humanity’s place in the universe. […]

The history of science in the twentieth century was the history of an enlarging understanding of the universe, its evolution, its history, and its structure. We have engaged the universe at the very limits of our capacity. We have explored the world of the microcosm and the world of the macrocosm. We have found at both extremes incredible complexity.

In high energy, subatomic physics we have encountered a reality that can only be fully explicated in the language of mathematics and that, when translated into our common discourse, confounds all our settled conventions. We have discovered a world in which particles emerge from and return to the undifferentiated void, a world in which particles oscillate in time, between past and future, a world in which particles appear to be in constant communication with each other across vast distances and at speeds greater than the speed of light, a world which, incredibly, is changed and altered by the very process of observing it, a world in which the distinctions between subject and object disappear. We are not sure what all of this means, but it becomes clear that at this fundamental level of reality, there is no distinction to be made between you and me and the tree and the rock. Ultimately, the more we understand of our universe at this level, the more we are driven to reverence before the mystery of the invisible, ineffable reality in which our quotidian existence is rooted.

At the other extreme, the macrocosmic world, we discover a universe that is larger than we can encompass in our imaginations. Throughout the past century, our estimates of the age and the expanse of the Universe have proven over and over again to be far too modest. As our ability to measure and observe has improved, we have found a universe that is many billions of years old, most recently, we are told, 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few months. As our tools have enabled us to look further and further back into the history of that universe, we have been able to write the story of its emergence to within a few seconds of the beginning. We cannot say much about those first few seconds, and we cannot say anything at all that is more than speculation about the time before time. But this much seems clear: The universe, beginning from an unimaginably hot and dense singularity, evolved through a series of stages, each producing the conditions necessary for the succeeding stage. Our sun, our solar system, our planet, our own beings are all late stages of this evolving universe. And curiously enough, much of our insight into the early history of the universe emerges from and resonates with our insights into the interaction of subatomic particles–suggesting a strongly recursive universe in which patterns repeat and recur over many different scales. The more we understand about the macrocosm, the more reason we have to stand in awe and reverence at the process which shaped and structured its evolution, our evolution.

Nor has this been a matter of intellectual satisfaction only. The insights of cosmology and theoretical astronomy have served to tie us ever more tightly into the emerging story of the universe itself. Just as the processes of the subatomic world underlie and ground our daily existence, so the history of the emerging universe continues to work itself out in our ongoing lives. We now understand that the heavy elements–iron, carbon, oxygen, and all the others–were not present in the earliest stages of the evolving universe. In fact, all of those heavy elements were created in the incredible heat and unimaginable pressures at the heart of massive stars. As those stars died in gigantic super-nova explosions, all of these elements so essential to the creation of our planet and to our own existence were scattered as dust across vast reaches of space. Eventually that dust coalesced under the force of gravity, and planets were born. And on some of those planets, life emerged and evolved into more and more complex forms. The history of the universe is our history; we are all of us recycled stardust. In the words of Robert Terry Weston, “out of the stars have we come.” Our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes of the universe itself. How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of those same vast processes that created galaxies and suns and stars and planets?

The work that has been done in biology during the past century has magnified that sense of reverence and awe. Building on Darwin’s work in the middle of the nineteenth century, biologists have presented us with a powerful understanding of who we are and how we are rooted in fundamental processes. Thus we know that the evolutionary processes which produced the universe, the galaxies, the stars, and planets continued on this earth changing its landmasses, its oceans, its atmosphere, its climate. Early–and recent investigations place the date closer and closer to the formation of the planet itself–in tidal pools, or in clay beds, or in volcanic vents, life emerged. And from that first life, all living things on this planet emerged. All that lives or ever has lived derives from a single source.

That itself would be cause for awe and reverence, but recently the earth sciences hint that the tale may be even more complicated. Scientists like James Lovelock suggest that life did not simply emerge on earth, but that life is a defining artifact of the earth, that the earth became a self-regulating, living entity—Gaia–that we do not live on earth, but must be seen as elements in earth’s living system. Biologists like Lynn Margulis have suggested that the evolutionary concept of the descent of humanity from earlier life forms obscures the incredible complexity and interwoven nature of life. Evolution, in her view is the result of the complex interaction and integration of organisms with their total environment. She argues that we did not descend from earlier forms, but rather that our existence is the result of the cooperative, symbiotic merging of earlier life forms to produce greater and greater complexity. Margulis would have us understand that those earlier life forms, in many if not all cases, continue to exist, within us as well as apart from us.

Margulis reminds us that within every cell in our bodies there is a life form called mitochondria. These small entities are absolutely essential to our existence. Mitochondria are the processors that transform chemicals into usable energy for our bodies. Without mitochondria our lives would not be possible. And yet, mitochondria exist quite independently within our cells. They have their own DNA; they have their own reproductive processes; they have their own life cycles. They have an existence significantly separate from the host cell. Margulis speculates that early in the evolution of life, some primordial bacterium ingested mitochondria. Rather than being digested, however, the mitochondria set up housekeeping within the cell and in a remarkable symbiotic relationship began supplying energy to the host, allowing for new forms and possibilities to emerge. In these ways, earlier life forms were not overcome, defeated, out grown, cast off as new forms emerged. Rather, the evidence suggests that in some cases at least, the earlier forms are incorporated in and an integral part of the life of more complex forms. Margulis reminds us that the bacteria from which life emerged were here before we were, continue to be here with us now, and undoubtedly will be here after we have been replaced by some new emergent life.

More recently, we have been reminded of our rootedness in the natural processes of life by reports of the results of the human genome project. The mapping of the human genome has demonstrated anew how clearly we are part of the Gaian system of life. Not only do we share more than ninety percent of our genes with other primates, our genome structure is not markedly different from fruit flies or mustard plants. Our beings are intimately related to every living thing that creeps, or crawls or flies, to every living thing that is rooted in the earth and reaches for the sun, to every living thing that inhabits the dark depths of the oceans. We are but one form life has taken, one expression of Gaia’s living process. It is difficult not to speculate that if the universe is truly as recursive as it seems, perhaps we are to Gaia as the mitochondria are to us.

Nor is this continuity with the past true only of our relations with other living systems. In a curious way, we carry with us in our bodies the very environment in which we evolved. The heat of our bodies is the heat of stars, tempered to the uses of life. The salt in our blood and in our tears is the salt of ancient oceans, encapsulated and carried with us, generation upon generation, into strange and distant places and circumstances. The past is not dead. It lives in us even now. The evolutionary universe, the ancient environment, the emergence of complex life—all are recapitulated in every moment of our existence.

When the Humanist Manifesto declared that we are part of nature and we have emerged as the result of a continuous process, it not only denied the creation stories of the western religious traditions, it gave us an immensely richer, longer, more complex history, one rooted in a system which invites not blind faith but challenge and correction and amendment, one which embraces “truth, known or to be known.” It also gave us a language of reverence because it provides a story rooted not in the history of a single tribe or a particular people, but a history rooted in the sum of our knowledge of the universe itself. It gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in humming birds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing. A language of reverence for Humanists begins with our understanding of this story as a religious story–a vision of reality that contains with in it the sources of a moral, ethical, transcendent self-understanding.

It is a religious story in that it calls us out of our little local universes and invites us to see ourselves in terms of the largest self we can imagine—a self which was present, in some sense, in the singularity which produced the emergent universe, a self which was present, in some sense, at the birth of the stars, a self which, in some sense, is related through time to every living thing on this planet, a self which contains within itself the seeds of a future we cannot imagine in our wildest flights of fancy. It is a religious story in that it whispers of a larger meaning to our existence—a suggestion that in us the universe is grasping for self-knowledge, for self-understanding, for insight. How we participate in this process, or what the ultimate consequence of this process may be, we cannot know. But if, as the Humanist Manifesto suggests, we are not separate from nature and we are a result of nature’s inherent processes, then our struggles with meaning and purpose, our endless search for insight and understanding can not be limited in their significance or consequence to the human enterprise alone, but must be part of the emergence of the universe itself.

It is a religious story in that it implies a broader ethic for our lives. To understand the human race as related in the most intimate of ways to all living things on this planet; to understand the earth not as the platform on which life exists, but as itself a living being, regulating its complex systems in such a way as to sustain ongoing life; to understand our own physical beings as a congeries of ancient living forms, quietly and unobtrusively contributing to our ongoing existence while pursuing their own mysterious imperatives; to understand ourselves as the incarnation of those same forces and substances and circumstances which produced galaxies and stars and planets is to enlarge our sense of responsibility and our definition of moral living. In light of this enlarged revelation, the ethic of the main-chance, the ethic of short-term benefit, the ethic of immediate gratification, the ethic of tribal values and ethnic identities so prevalent in our world are challenged in the most profound way and found in every case to be inadequate. […]

This is a religious story; it invites us to awe; it demands a vocabulary of reverence. It is a story that is uniquely appropriate to the Humanist tradition.

About the Author

The Rev. David E. Bumbaugh served congregations in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey, and is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of Summit, New Jersey. He has taught ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School since 1999 and is the author of Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History.

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One Comment on ““Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence” by David Bumbaugh (excerpt)

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