One day a student asked me to give the class I was teaching a blessing. I was taken aback, stuck on that word: blessing. The class was called “Humanist Spirituality,” and we were in a classroom at Union Theological Seminary. My students were candidates in the Master of Divinity program, and we were discussing a passage in an excellent book by philosopher Robert C. Solomon entitled Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life.
I often teach classes on humanism to self-identified humanists; this was the first time my students were theists. I had suggested the course to the seminary because I suspected that I would find some “not-yet-unidentified as” humanists there. What I found were “humanistic theists” or people who had a transcendental, not a supernatural, sense of deity. Throughout the semester, we compared theology and philosophy, shared our own experiences, and sought a common language.
Some words are rejected as irrational by (or fraught with emotional weight for) humanists. Words like sacred and holy, spirituality and blessing can conjure up an otherworldliness that we eschew. Life in this natural world is enough. It holds enough wonder and awe without belief in an afterlife or the supernatural. But these words can also describe deeply human experiences, ones of connection to nature and other people. Solomon writes “that if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness. . . [and], like philosophy, involves those questions that have no ultimate answers, no matter how desperately our various doctrines and dogmas try to provide them.”
One day we were discussing a quotation from Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger: “I opened my heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” For me, this existentialist philosopher, who confronted the Absurd and also wrote, “I know of only one duty, and that is to love,” is a humanist “saint.” I find in his work a freedom and humor that comfort me. This was, however, not the case for one of my students whose theism was expressed in a purpose to the universe and a special place for humans.
And this brings me back to her request for a blessing. If the universe is indifferent, what does it mean to feel gratitude for one’s life? Is it a blessing to be alive? Should we count our blessings – and bless others?
I thought about the phrase I recited as a child in the confessional box at St. Anne’s Church: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It is a request to listen and accept the litany of sins to follow. I also remembered Irving Berlin’s song, “Count Your Blessings,” which he used in the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” He credited his doctor with suggesting that he try “counting his blessings” as a way to deal with his insomnia. The final lyrics are: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep/ Just count your blessings instead of sheep/ And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”
I decided to express gratitude to my students. They challenged me in ways that I hadn’t expected, and I had learned as much as I had taught. They trusted me and each other enough to share their personal experiences. They were a blessing. “OK,” she persisted, “but will you bless us?” Had I not been a blessing to them, too, I wondered? And then I really listened and understood. “I bless the journeys that you have undertaken to find purpose in your lives and to engage others with compassion.” It worked, to judge by the nods and smiles I received.
“Blessing” is variously defined as approval, encouragement, a thing conducive to happiness, and a grace said before a meal. To “bless” is to consecrate by religious rite, endow favor, or invoke a wish for good health. It seems to me that we would do well to both count our blessings and bless others. There is much work ahead of us this year to further our social justice mission. Let us also remember that we are blessed with a history of activism that inspires us, a meeting house that holds and supports us, and a community of members that strive to be their best ethical selves.
(By the way, next semester I’m teaching a class at Union on humanist ceremonies.)
Last month I packed my passport and warm clothes and traveled north, crossing the border into a kinder and gentler land. I met many people there who had traveled from near and far to form a community of many faiths and shared values. They warmed my heart, and it felt good, especially when I thought about the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th. During the first week of November, the city of Toronto hosted the seventh assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was the third one that I had attended. Ethical Culture leaders and members have participated in every parliament since the first one was convened in Chicago in 1893.
The theme of this parliament was both inspiring and daunting: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” Hundreds of programs were compiled on an app that we could easily access on our cellphones but it was obvious that we would only be able to attend a sample of what was offered. My daughter Emily Newman and I both gave presentations – hers on “Get Ready for a More Inclusive Generation;” mine with colleague Vanessa Gomez Brake, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, on “Navigating Secular Identities on University Campuses” – and staffed a table in the exhibit hall sponsored by the American Humanist Association.
Throughout the week, people stopped by to visit and thank us. “We need you here. We’re humanists, too. We hold different beliefs but share your values.” It was clear that humanism offered “the promise of inclusion” in the parliament’s theme. We also connected with members of the Oasis Network, which, like Sunday Assembly, offers “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” Whenever and wherever the next parliament meets, we agreed that we must collaborate, together with the American Ethical Union and other religious humanist organizations, on expanding our presence and programming.
Attendance exceeded 10,000 people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. Presenters included students, clergy, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, best-selling authors, and more. These were the six ambitious program tracks:
- The Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
- Countering War, Hate & Violence with Peace and Love
- Climate Action: Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
- Indigenous Peoples: The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity & Healing Our Mother Earth
- Next Generations: Interfaith Has No Age, Youth Voices for Change
- Justice: Advancing Concrete Change Toward a Just, Peaceful, and Sustainable World
If it sounds overwhelming, it was, but a spirit of generosity prevailed. Everyone shared their faith traditions and stories, hopes and dreams for the future, and creativity in the form of art, film, music, and dance. And throughout the week, the Sikhs fed us, as they had at past parliaments. Langar is a free communal vegetarian meal that is part of every gurdwara or Sikh place of worship and education. Funded entirely by donations and served by volunteers, langar provides an estimated seven million meals a day around the world. People often said, “Let’s meet up at langar.” It was a daily opportunity for food and friendship.
When the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1993, a century after the first historic gathering in Chicago, a document called “Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)” was one of its most significant outcomes. During a two-year period, more than 200 theologians and scholars were consulted, and the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders. More commonly known as the Global Ethic, this declaration states that fundamental to all religious faiths are the requirement to treat all persons, without exception, humanely; the Golden Rule of reciprocity; and the demand for peace and justice. Since its ratification, it has inspired other documents such as the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and a Charter of Forgiveness.
As hectic as this week was, I found solace. Every morning I woke up to another onslaught of tragic news headlines and despaired. But I walked over to the conference center with anticipation, eager to learn and share. We created a temporary community of inclusion, love, and hope that changed us for the better and will live on in the work that we do. Until the next time we meet, the Parliament organization will keep us connected. For more information, visit https://www.parliamentofreligions.org/.
In a New York immigration court, young children are representing themselves before judges hearing their cases. Last month 2-year old Fernanda Jacqueline Davila appeared before Judge Randa Zagzoug, who in one afternoon had seen over 30 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. More children than ever are being held in government custody for longer than ever before. About 13,000 children who came to the United States on their own are being held for months in federally contracted shelters. Hundreds more who were separated from their families at the border are either in shelters or temporary foster care. They have all been stranded by the Trump administration’s determination to keep immigrants from crossing the southwest border of the United States.
“We rarely had children under the age of 6 until the last year or so,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We started seeing them as a regular presence in our docket.” A new government policy has made it more difficult for relatives to claim their children from federal custody. Eleven-year-old Marilyn hoped to join her mother in Florida but because relatives are now required to undergo fingerprinting and background checks, it could take months before they are reunited.
Jess Morales Rocketto of Families Belong Together, a coalition of nearly 250 organizations that works “to permanently end family separation and incarceration, seek accountability for the harm that’s been done, and immediately reunite all families who remain torn apart,” highlighted the case of 5-year old Helen, an asylum seeker from Honduras who was detained at the border and persuaded to sign away her rights. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump Administration never stopped separating children from their families. In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night. We have learned we cannot take this Administration at their word.”
Let us remember these children on November 20th when we observe Universal Children’s Day. This marks the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989. The Convention sets out a number of children’s rights including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence, to not be discriminated against, and to have their views heard.
According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), which promotes the principles and provisions of the Convention, it reflects a new vision of the child. “Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. . . Previously seen as negotiable, the child’s needs have become legally binding rights. No longer the passive recipient of benefits, the child has become the subject or holder of rights.” (Visit https://www.unicef.org/world-childrens-day for more information.)
Although this is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, the United States still has not ratified it. Indeed, ours is the only nation that hasn’t. The treaty has never even been sent to the Senate for consent and approval. What is our excuse?
According to Sarah Mehta, ACLU Human Rights Researcher, “While there is no good reason for the United States not to ratify the CRC, there are several reasons why we urgently need it. Ratifying the convention is not just about saving face in the international community — it will require us to confront some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States and to work to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.”
I couldn’t agree more, and this year I plan to celebrate Universal Children’s Day by petitioning our government to ratify the Convention on Children’s Rights. You can, too, by visiting the Campaign for US Ratification at http://www.childrightscampaign.org/. This volunteer-driven network of academics, attorneys, child and human rights advocates, educators, members of religious and faith-based communities, physicians, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, and other concerned citizens believes that children and youth are our most important resource in an increasingly interconnected global community. Even if the current Senate is unlikely to act, our letters, emails, petitions, and personal visits will keep this issue and our support before them.