Religious Humanist Manifesto

What is most disturbing about witnessing our presidential politics descend into theological polemic is the uneasy feeling that our country is entering into what appears to be a worldwide recapitulation of religious wars that brought untold suffering on humanity for millennia. While those of us on the “religious left” can trade theological barbs with those on the “religious right,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that our religious discourse must step away from theology—a focus on how we understand the operation of the divine in the cosmos—in favor of what we might call religious humanism.

Religious humanism is not secular humanism. Religious humanism does not deny the presence of the divine in the cosmos and in the mind, heart and soul of humans. Religious humanism does, however, understand religion as a human endeavor to comprehend what is ultimately incomprehensible and to express the ineffable. Humans gain glimpses of the divine, and there are certain humans who are gifted with greater access to manifestations of the divine in the world in the same way that some people are gifted in art, poetry or music. Indeed, religion may be understood as art. However, even the most gifted prophet is only able to gain a glimpse of the divine, which, in the final analysis, remains incomprehensible and ineffable. The instant that this insight is translated into human symbolization, whether through speech, text, art, music or architecture, it ceases to be divine and becomes fully human.

The impact of this realization is that there can never be any “true” religion. All human encounters with the divine or with a sacred reality are authentic. More significantly, for the religious humanist, there can be no literary document, no text that can be construed as “the word of God.” For those of us who hold the Bible or any part of it as scripture, it must be acknowledged that what makes it scripture is that it is a record of our religious community’s encounter with the divine. This principle is crucial to any humanistic manifestation of religion. That a book contains the infallible “word of God” and that “our faith community” has unique access to this word simply serves as a bludgeon to alienate and demonize those with divergent religious visions.

As a Jewish religious humanist, I recognize Torah as the basis of my covenant relationship with God. Yet, that does not mean that God wrote the Torah or that God dictated the Torah word-by-word to Moses. God did not stand on Sinai and speak words to Moses. Indeed, as noted, word, text, language are purely human phenomena, and God does not have feet to stand or a mouth to speak or a finger to write words on a tablet. God is not a published author, and it is clear to me, as has been demonstrated by biblical scholars since Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century, that the Torah was not written by Moses. It is, in fact, a composite work written over centuries by different people or groups of people responding to particular historical, political, economic, social and religious circumstances and reflecting the particular view of that person or group.

What I do know is this. The moment that I enter into a covenant relationship with God--the moment that I become a servant of God and commit myself to incorporating what I understand to be God’s will into my life and projecting that out into the world as a way of sanctifying my life and my world--at that moment, I stand at Sinai and accept God’s Torah. As a teacher of Bible, including the New Testament, I readily identify with the passion and death of Christ as an image of God’s love for and solidarity with humanity—God’s desire to reunite with humanity and to bring humanity into God’s kingdom.

These are not infallible theological positions to be used as bludgeons against those who hold differing views. These encounters with the divine are actually gifts that we give to each other as part of our common human longing for connection, meaning, value and sanctity. If, as a nation, we could learn to address issues of meaning, value and sanctity in terms of religious humanism, we may be better able to find a common ground that will actually allow us to incorporate these values into our common national purpose.