What’s Your Source?

Lakeside forest illuminationCreative Commons License photo credit: K3ntFIN

When you self-identify as a Humanist, adherents of revealed religions often feel compelled to take you to task regarding your beliefs, or (in their view) lack thereof. I actually have many strong beliefs: in freedom of conscience, human rights, democracy, ecology, the expansion of consciousness through yoga and meditation, to name a few. (Incidentally, one of the most absurd phrases to enter the popular lexicon in recent years has got to be “values voter.” It’s used to identify conservative religious voters, as if everyone didn’t vote according to their values, whatever they may be!)

I’m agnostic regarding the existence of gods or deities (I find the question largely irrelevant); along with many of my friends, this gets me the “nonbeliever” label among certain theists.

I realize there are many Humanists whose sense of identity is primarily centered around their nontheistic worldview. Indeed, if you peruse the American Humanist Association website or read Free Inquiry magazine, you’ll find more written on this topic than any other single issue. Nonetheless, under the secularist umbrella, you’ll find individuals who self-identify using a wide range of labels: Humanist, non-theist, agnostic, atheist, freethinker. To each individual, the differences among these appellations is significant. Then of course there are all the adherents of nontheistic religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. There are also many Jewish, Christian and Muslim humanists: people who subscribe to one of these theistic religions but put humanity ahead of dogma. For these people (I realize I’m using very broad strokes here!), when a religious doctrine is found to be an affront to conscience because it causes unnecessary suffering, it is reinterpreted or jettisoned.

I recently had an encounter with a believer in a personal god who said, “My source is God. What’s your source?” (Strongly implicit in the question was the assumption that anything less than a supernatural entity was suspect.) I asked him what he meant by the word “source.” He replied that God was the one who empowered him to remain centered in an uncertain world; the one from whom he received the strength to deal with the difficulties of life. I answered that my Humanist life stance and holistic spiritual practice led me to consider my “source” a combination of my own mind and the collective consciousness of humanity. Thinking about it a bit more deeply, I went on to mention my physical and spiritual ancestors, my friends and family, my community and my companion animals: everything and everyone that empowers me to be fully human.

The answer I received was unfortunate. My monotheistic friend declared all these to be limited and flawed, whereas God (he said), was limitless and perfect.

It’s my personal policy to avoid damaging anyone’s working spirituality. If belief in or devotion to a god, a saint, a Bodhisattva or a sacred text makes an individual spiritually whole and a better human being, I fully support it. I myself sometimes “pray” to the goddess Gaia or the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin (although I conceive of them as mental constructs of human ideals rather than actual persons or entities). I have no interest in undermining anyone’s religion, although I will readily critique it if I perceive that’s it’s causing harm. Hence, I didn’t take the bait and explain why I considered his god every bit as limited and flawed as any other source. Instead, I simply explained why the sources of personal power I’d mentioned were sufficient for me.

My view of divinity is a creative spirit arising within the Universe. It can be apprehended in the majesties of the natural realm; it guides the best of humanity to work together toward the highest ideals of reason, compassion and creativity. If miracles are to happen, they’re up to us; we can’t rely on an outside agency to make them happen.

Of course, I could be wrong about this; perhaps there is a transcendent deity standing somehow outside the Universe and intervening directly in human affairs. All I can say for sure is that at this point in my spiritual journey, the evidence against this seems to outweigh the evidence in favor of it. But it’s tremendously liberating to be comfortable with ambiguity about such things.

But what about this idea of self, family and friends, physical/spiritual ancestors, community, spiritual teacher and companion animals as one’s collective “source?” This makes perfect sense in my view. These are all genuine entities, encountered through our senses and apprehended by our minds. We don’t have to twist ourselves in knots trying to prove or disprove their existence. Not one of them is perfect, omnipotent, or entirely benevolent. The best of them are people much like ourselves, with good qualities and bad, trying to do the best they can. More than good enough for me! My father had flaws; he was also a great, generous man who bequeathed precious gifts to my sister and to me. Although their spirits left their bodies long ago, my grandparents still advise and direct me. My mother is very much my North Star, I’d still like to be her when I grow up! Kuan Yin (AKA Avalokiteshvara), Gaia, the Buddha, and Jesus are all my spiritual ancestors. Thich Nhat Hahn is my cherished Sensei. My wife, my daughter and my friends are more precious to me than I can say.

And my cats are perfect. Just ask them.

All the best,

William K Ferro

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