Sunday, August 8, 2010

Humanism and Spirituality

Why is it that humanism and spirituality stand in such stark contrast?

I remember when I was a student at AUB, the legendary Palestinian thinker Edward Said, stopped by to give a lecture on Humanism. (Wow, I just realised he died in 2003. The lecture was - obviously - before he died. That feels like yesterday. I am beginning to feel old.) He is (was) famous and smart, so I sat on the floor in a side room by the packed-out auditorium, and listened to every word he said. But it kind of irritated me: he was talking about how humanism is an important trend in intellectual thinking because it values humanity above all else. We can only know ourselves and people are the most significant element in our reality, so all else fades in importance.

This, in turn, could negate any need for a power greater than humanity: no deity was needed because humanism meant us humans could play the role fine on our own. I personally do believe in God and take great comfort in the knowledge that there is something bigger than myself out there, so I left Dr. Said's lecture slightly disillusioned with one of my academic muses.

It was my belief in God that shoved me toward my current career, as a "humanitarian worker." As I learned about God's love for humanity, especially those with the greatest physical and moral needs, I came to desire to work in a field that would allow me help meet those needs. It was only after a year of working in this career that I realised that the "humanitarian" sector has largely been defined by "humanism". (Once I made the connection, it was kind of obvious, doh.)

I work for a Catholic organisation, so the theory behind our practices and policies is most certainly faith-driven. But my colleagues, for the most part, learned how to do humanitarian aid from non-faith-based institutions. Most of them firmly believe that the extent of our passion and calling in our work - for this is a stressful low-rewards career that requires a high level of personal passion - is the value we place on people. There is no room to prioritize someone, or something, like God, over humanity.

Ultimately, we want to help the same people in the same ways, so life moves on and I can be a spiritual humanitarian right alongside my humanist humanitarians, but I can't help feeling like I'm the one twisting my values to fit the career - after all their two titles match closer than mine.

P.S. There are of course many faith-driven people in this career. They work for the agencies my agency sadly scorns: the Christian humanitarian agencies whose names are probably familiar to any Christians reading this blog. Very few of them come to work for my employer or other employers that don't require a faith-orientation from the outset. I guess if I worked for one of those agencies, I would feel quite comfortable juxtaposing "humanitarian" with "spiritual".

P.P.S. There are few agencies of a significant size and influence that are based on a faith other than Christianity. There are a few Muslim humanitarian groups, and a handful of others, but so far their fame and impact is somewhat limited. This is another mystery to unpack someday...


LKBrazil said...

Seems to me that your title "spiritual humanitarian" makes more sense since human beings are spiritual beings, so your title is describing a deeper, fuller picture of reality. "Humanist humaintarian" seems rather shallow and redundant, doesn't it?

Robert Martin said...

The difference is between "secular humanism" and "faith-based humanism". The former puts all the emphasis on humans as being the be-all and end all... all that can be accomplished can be accomplished by humans and humans alone. The latter says that humans are important and valuable and are able to do great things, but those great things are motivated, empowered, and assisted by something "other" than human.

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