Ethics Forums


Faith AS Work:  Religious Experience IN Human Endeavors

D. Micah Hester, Ph.D.

Mercer Worship Service

September 26, 2001

I have been asked by the Rev./Dr. Wilson to come before you today and “let my life speak,” and while I am deeply honored to do so, I admit to some reticence about taking up this opportunity.  As my father, an ordained minister and retired professor of religion, wrote me when I asked for his advice:

Boy am I chuckling!  I don’t know whether to counsel about how to avoid tar-and-feathering or encourage you to begin today looking for another job!!!

It is within this context—the context of the threat of ambush or the loss of livelihood—that I wish to make my remarks to you today on the nature of religious experience and faith as they exist in and through our human endeavors.  If I do this right, my discussion of these two aspects of humanity will be the very act of letting my life speak.

It was just over two weeks ago that tragedy struck three specific locations in the United States, but each of us has been touched by those tragedies in some way.  At the same time, tragedy continues to strike many individuals both here and abroad everyday.  Human living is full of tragedy.  This is a fact of our world, and it would seem that tragedy will never end so long as human beings exist.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I have heard the comments of our country’s leaders, our own senator Zell Miller, the expressions of talk-show callers—that is, the sentiments of citizens and state leaders alike, sentiments which call for blood, revenge, retribution.  Military recruitment is spiking with, as one news agency put it, angry teenagers and forlorn veterans asking what they can do to be part of the retaliatory efforts—not protection and security, mind you, but vengeance.  The cries for not just a “pound of flesh” but megatons ring out in the voices of some of today’s Americans.

At the same time, and often in the same breath, leaders and lay-people call out for unity, for patriotism, for America, and in so many ways and for so many reasons, these calls must not go unheeded.  However, this rhetoric often betrays an attitude of separation as much as it does unification.  To imply that America is one homogeneous group, assimilated and common is foolish, at best, and immoral, at worst.  This new rash of “patriotism,” like every rash of patriotism, risks outright jingoism, restrictively co-opting the definition of patriotism, narrowing its scope and meaning.  It divides “us” from “them,” emphasizing our “inherent goodness” and their “inherent badness.”  To believe that difference is antithetical to community—to finding common ground—that is, to refuse to recognize and understand the many differences among “us,” however, is sociologically unwarranted and undemocratically stifling.  Rather than combating the evil, this rhetoric threatens to create the conditions for further division, greater hatred, laying the seed for horrific acts of violence against anyone who is “not like us.”  And unfortunately, we have begun to see the threat of that violence, particularly—though not exclusively—against our Muslim neighbors here in the U.S. and abroad.

This very debate has hit close to home as well, where comments over in-house e-mail concerning discussions of “difference” versus focusing on what is “common,” concerning exploring race and gender versus, I presume, ignoring these aspects of human living arose immediately after the terrorist tragedies.  It was even suggested during these exchanges that

Now is not the time for academics, now is the time for Patriotism.  WE ARE AMERICANS, all of us, regardless of race, creed, or the soil on which we were born.

And, again, I agree, at least as I read it, that “regardless of race, creed, or soil,” we must reach out to each other during this horrible time in our country—our world.  But more directly—and others during this time have already said this better than I can—to this community, the Mercer community, to imply that academics fly in the face of what we need to be or be doing at this time works against everything higher education stands for—namely, the development of tools and methods for intelligent inquiry concerning the problems that we face today and tomorrow.  If anything, we should challenge ourselves, our students, our communities, and our leaders to be MORE academic, MORE reflective, MORE intelligent about what has transpired, why it has transpired, and what we should do now and in the future.  As a recent New York Times editorial put it,

Though polls show that we overwhelmingly support the idea of going to war, they don't indicate whether we understand that idea.  The killers who attacked us on Tuesday had an all too ruthless eye for appraising how little we knew on Monday.  We have no choice now but, as a horror-struck Hamlet said after being visited by the ghost, to "wipe away all trivial fond records" from the table of memory, and hope that our learning curve will be steep.

To do this we cannot bury differences, but shine the light of inquiry upon them.  To find common ground we must seek through the values and interests of others, we must reflect on our own values and interests.  This demands looking deeply and critically at ourselves, and requires understanding others as they are, not as we want them to be.  In order to develop common ends for which we can all strive, we must see what makes each of us different as much as what makes us the same.  Community itself is comprised of differences, but in community they are differences that work together.  This can happen by chance or luck, but I prefer to use thought, communication, inquiry, and reason.  Invent some manner of satisfying the interests and needs of others while achieving your own ends—that is the path of peace.  In other words, my deep faith resides in what John Dewey has called, “the continued disclosing of truth through [inclusive,] directed cooperative human endeavor.”

*   *   *

If you do not know by now, I am a well-entrenched naturalist, a thoroughgoing secular humanist.  What that means to you, I can only imagine, but what that means to me is quite simple—viz., the answers to life’s questions are to be found through natural, not supernatural, sources.  Call me a heretic, but if I am to lay my life bare, this point I must make clear:  experience, I believe, is all we have.  That which is beyond experience, if there is anything at all, is beyond my philosophy, or as others have argued, is beyond philosophy itself.

Experience, however, is no simple thing.  It is multi-faceted, multi-modal; it has depth and breadth.  And experience is never just mine alone; it is always also communal and historical.  For the sake of understanding the complexities of experience, we take to categorizing and characterizing some of its many aspects.  Among a number of ways of carving it up, there are emotional experiences, cognitive experiences, and, yes, religious experiences.  But while most of us agree that emotional and cognitive experiences readily testify to some form of human powers, religious experience has been taken by many as a sign (if not a proof) of powers beyond our own.  In saying this, however, we need to be clear.  After his extensive 500+page study of the varieties of religious experience, William James points out, “the only thing that [religious experience] testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”  But what is that “something larger”?

The complex array of religious experiences shows us that this “something larger” can be most anything.  For myself,  I have determined to place my hopes and develop my habits in the direction of others…my fellow travelers on life’s path.  My world of experience is not my own; it is beyond me.  My life is never just mine but belongs as well to the communities of which I am a part.  My actions, my works, affect and are affected by this world in which I reside and the family, friends, colleagues, and others who are all around me.  Though I fail often, I choose to work towards, believe in, have faith in goodness, connection to others, communities, even my future self, a better self—that is, something larger than myself.

All that is requisite for this faith is here, now.  And all that is meant by this faith are those tendencies to act towards said-goodness, towards deep connection, towards intimate cooperation.  Is this not what the New Testament book of James tells us?—faith is work.  Ancient prophets—Isaiah, Micah, for example—point to this as well.  Faith as belief, faith as worship, faith as praise is empty.  Faith as justice, faith as action, faith as community—these are the righteous paths.  When I ask after your faith, the prophet says, show me your work.  My own work is in my family, my friends, my students, my colleagues.  It comes in the development of the love of wisdom and methods of ethical reflection.  Again, I surely fail often, but my work is the numerous activities that support loving environments and intelligent habits of action.

There is no doubt—and here my “xenophobic” friends and I may agree—that tragedies are calls to action, and surely this is true of the events of September 11th.  They say that we must do more than we have done.  Tragedy as such a call, then, is necessarily a call to faith.  So long as you see action and belief as separate, it asks not in what you believe but in what you will do.  And in its most religious sense, tragedy asks how you will help justice and goodness prevail.  This does not require senseless motion or thoughtless activity; retaliation and violent destruction are not just and good, for while vengeance speaks to the concerns and pains of the those who inflict it, justice and goodness—morality itself--require intelligently, communally, inclusively developed ends and the appropriate means to achieve them.

When craftsmanship becomes artistry, when knowledge trumps ignorance, when good supplants evil, when justice prevails, there is religious experience in all its glory.  When my own activities come together with others, when shared experience occurs, when common goals are reach, when I extend beyond my current self and reach out to and with others, this is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” and it is my faith that just those things will come to pass, and by that I mean, I must and do work for that!

*   *   *

Whereas I said earlier that tragedy would seem to be a fact of the human condition, let me conclude by reminding us that we can be comforted, at least a bit, by another fact of the human condition, and that is the fact of triumph.  For all the evil we experience in our own lives and see in others’ lives, there exists bountiful goodness.  From heroic acts of bravery by emergency teams and civilians to the simple act of a caring touch, goodness shines forth.  I cannot say that, on balance, there is more goodness than evil; I have no way to gain perspective on this.  But I do believe that goodness can thrive so long as we keep the faith—that is, do those works that put us in union with something larger than ourselves.  We must look at and beyond isolated events, looking as well at the conditions that make tragedy, in all its manifestations, a reality.  Then we must undermine those conditions with our works.  To that end, connect with others in your communities and beyond your communities—include, do not exclude.  Develop intelligent goals and the ethical means to achieve them.  Work for justice; aim at the good.  Therein, I have faith, we will “find our greatest peace.”  Thank you.