Since its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberalism has been in decline. Religious liberalism is the approach to a religious tradition which emphasizes rationalism, critical assessment of traditional doctrine, humanism, and an openness to modernity. While religious liberalism has declined, secularism and fundamentalism have grown, which has created a perceived binary for many people between being secular and being “religious.” The liberal approach to religion gained its short lived popularity from its ability to formulate a way to express reverence toward God or Nature without giving in to restrictive and abusive dogmatism. It balanced secular knowledge of the world with the human need to feel and express awe and reverence toward the forces that create and sustain life. The inability to find that balance in a rapidly changing society is a large part of the reason for the decline of liberal denominations and religions today.
The need to feel and express awe and reverence toward something greater than oneself is a natural instinct for human beings. The usual culprits are God(s), the universe/nature, or the nation/tribe; and frequently these things will be interrelated or conflated with one another. For example, in Judaism God is the creator of the universe, which demonstrates his absolute power, and he chose the tribe of Israel to be his special people. Or take American political conservatives who frequently conflate being a “true” American with being a white Protestant. In these instances the symbols of the tribe/nation become sacred expressions of the people’s relationship with God and represent their favored status. This type of reverence rightly makes many liberals and humanists uncomfortable. The worship of God and nation has led to many atrocities in the past. To combat this, many liberals will critique this form of reverence without offering anything to replace it other than perhaps an affirmation of human dignity. This is not enough.
Humans want to be connected to something larger, whether it be a group or a god. The problem is that a group in itself is usually not enough. It must have a transcendent purpose in order to make membership and identification worthwhile. This is typically achieved through attachment to a deity, i.e. people come together because it is what their god commands, or through a utopian vision, e.g. socialists who wish to make a perfect society. Most liberal religious groups have lost this transcendent quality. The typical complaint about liberal religion is that it feels like little more than a social club and it’s therefore pointless to make attendance and participation a priority. The lack or reverence toward a transcendent entity or purpose is the root cause of the decline of religious liberalism.
Reverence is more than just the words that are spoken or sung at a prayer service. After all, liberal Jews and Christians still pray to God and read from the Bible. Reverence is as much a deeply felt emotion as it is a metaphysical belief. Reverence is defined as deep respect. Finding ways to cultivate reverence that maintains its intellectual integrity and humanist focus is the challenge that faces religious liberalism.
What should be the object or goal for reverence in Humanistic Judaism then? There are no easy answers, in part, because the people who typically find Humanistic Judaism are averse to anything that appears too “religious.” But I will offer a suggestion. Spinoza is often seen as the first secular Jew of the modern world, yet his philosophy was not strictly speaking atheistic. He spoke of God as a singular, self-existent substance which comprised the totality of all existence, i.e. there was nothing but God, and all thought and matter were merely attributes of God. Spinoza also made the comment, “Deus sive Natura,” which means “God, or Nature,” implying that God and Nature were interchangeable. But Spinoza did not stop at pantheism, he also theorized that the intellectual love of God was the supreme spiritual experience, and this love was expressed through contemplation and knowledge of Nature and our place in it.
We don’t need to accept Spinoza’s philosophy wholesale to see the benefits of the basic outlines. The object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism could similarly be nature or the universe, and the contemplation of our place in it as the supreme spiritual exercise. The UUA’s seventh principle is a good summation of this approach to humanistic spirituality, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I like this iteration for a few reasons. First, it firmly states the connection of humanity to all existence as one part of many. Second, it emphasizes interdependence, i.e. our connection to and dependence on everything. And finally, it uses the image of a web rather than God to demonstrate our connections.
If we accept this to be a viable object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism, as I believe we should, this necessitates certain values and practices. Environmental sustainability comes to mind as the foremost obligation, which will involve a lot of consideration for congregations, institutions, and individuals. Obviously respect for human dignity and work towards social justice will be included in this. Perhaps less obviously for some, animal rights and welfare will have to be considered as a necessary aspect of reverence for the web of life, including but not limited to vegetarianism. And finally, reverence for the universe will include the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms, since reverence will be impossible without knowledge.
Through contemplating our connection to and dependence on all of existence, we can derive a consistent ethical system which includes all of reality in varying degrees of importance. Our dependence on the earth motivates us to support environmental causes. Our dependence on other people drives us to live morally and work for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Through recognizing the underlying unity of all existence we come to revere that unity, which in turn leads to concrete values and actions. To use the formulation of the Shema: “Hear O Israel: Everything is connected; the Universe is One. You shall revere the web of life with all your mind, heart, and strength. And be mindful of all the obligations interdependence places upon you.”