(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Many of you might be familiar with the famous eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He is often called the father of modern Humanism.
There is a story which he told about an event that happened to him at a young age. One evening, while walking home, he found a bridge damaged and closed. To get to the other side, he was forced to take a path through a swamp. At some point he tripped and fell into the swamp. He struggled to get out but only sank further. Hume shouted for help and many villagers came out to investigate. But they recognized him as the well-known Atheist and refused to help. “The devil has ye by the feet,” they jeered. “Let ‘im get ye out!”
One young milkmaid, however, remained behind. “My dear,” Hume said to her, “doesn’t your Christian faith implore you to help others, even your enemies?”
“Aye,” she replied, but ye shallna get out o’ that, till ye become a Christian yoursell, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”
David Hume promptly said the Lord’s Prayer and the milkmaid did as she implied she would – she swung a log into the swamp upon which Hume crawled to safety. He is said to have repeated this story often – commenting that the young woman was the best Christian theologian he’d ever met!
Hume was one of the leading thinkers of his time. Along with men like Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Adam Smith, his philosophy defined what is called the Age of Enlightenment. That period emphasized reason over superstition, and science over religion. Immanuel Kant, another philosopher of the time, said the Enlightenment was humankind’s escape from mental immaturity – a mindset that cannot think on its own but instead depends on guidance from other sources – like Ministers or Scriptures.
My message series this month looks at what I assert are pathways to enlightenment. What are three primary ways by which we find greater knowledge, understanding and awareness about the meaning of life, ourselves and the universe? My topic today, the path of serving, is a leading way to achieve enlightenment.
In broad terms, serving is not just about doing tasks for others. Instead, it an outcome from Humanist ideals which place the well-being of people, not God or religion, at the center of concern and study.
That leads me back to my story about David Hume trapped in a swamp. The young woman was likely conflicted. Helping an avowed Atheist was contrary to what she’d been taught – to avoid nasty heathens. But she was also motivated by a desire to assist someone who was suffering. She solved her dilemma by asking that Hume make a statement of faith so she could in good conscience serve him. As a practical and logical man, Hume was not one to foolishly stand on principle. If saying a simple prayer saved his life, who cares?
And that gets to the heart of becoming enlightened through serving. Ultimately, we must ask, who is it we serve first and foremost? Ourselves? God? People?
Hume and other Enlightenment philosophers believed that most religious persons, like the milkmaid, are motivated to serve themselves first, God second, others last. The milkmaid wanted to go to Heaven and was afraid of the alternative. To address that fear, she loved and served God. Being more kindhearted than the other villagers, she also had sympathy for Hume. She wisely concluded she could meet all three of these motivations with her cunning solution.
As Hume said, she unknowingly expressed Christian theology better than any famous Minister. Christians were and are, and I mean no disrespect here, motivated by self-interest to spend eternity in Heaven. Pleasing God is secondary, but dependent, on that self-interested goal. Helping others might come as a result of the first two.
But therein was a paradox for Hume, his fellow Enlightenment philosophers and, indeed, for any of us. Without fear of death, and religious beliefs to address that fear, what is it that will motivate people to love their neighbors and serve? Indeed, many commentators say that religion is the only reason people act morally.
Without religion, do we seek a quid pro quo arrangement when we serve others – I will rub your back only if you rub mine? Or do we serve because it makes us feel good?
Some might say that since serving others makes us feel good, we are in fact motivated by self-interest. If so, non-religious folks are no better than those who serve and love only in order gain eternal life.
Employing reason and logic, Hume responded “no!” He returned to the core question. Without religion and fear of death, what is it that will motivate people to serve? Hume believed that wanting to serve others is a natural desire. Empathy and benevolence are a part of human DNA. We intrinsically WANT to serve. If we feel good as a result, that is not what motivated us. It is simply a by-product of serving – NOT the cause.
Therein is the pathway to enlightenment. It is to dig beneath our egos and find that intrinsic part of us that desires to be good and do good. We must understand ourselves by getting in touch with our motivations. We must find our true – and good – selves.
I believe one does that by humbling oneself. By doing so, we will see ourselves as mostly insignificant in the context of an immense universe. Reason and science inform us that humans are nothing special. We are subject to the same forces that influence all other parts of the universe – we’re born, we exist for a time, we die. Even the chemicals that comprise us are no different then those in a tree or a distant planet.
Indeed, Hume famously said that, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Such a conclusion is a dagger at the heart of religious myth and superstition. Most Scriptures say we are the reason God created the universe. He made humans to please himself. That’s why he demands loyalty and obedience.
But as we contemplate an almost limitless universe and as we understand the natural forces that created us, such delusions of a God centered importance are lost. What makes me more special than an oyster, a planet or a tree? The universe was not created for me or anyone else. My fear of annihilation and death is, in truth, my self-interested desire to live forever – to be more important than any other created thing – all of which decay and die.
On his deathbed, David Hume was asked if he wanted to reconsider his Atheism and become a Christian. At a point when death loomed near and fear can induce some to choose faith as a way to be at peace, Hume replied by telling a story. In that story, he is standing on the banks of the river Styx, the mythical separation between life and death. Charon, the boatman who transports people across the river, beckons him to come aboard. “Wait!” Hume cries out. “I’ve endeavored all my life to open the eyes of the public. If you allow me but a few more years of life, I may see the downfall of superstition!”
“Ha!” laughs Charon derisively. “That will not happen for hundreds of years! Do you think I should grant you a lease for such a long time? Get in the boat now you lazy, loitering rogue!”
Faced with his death, Hume did not flinch. His reason, sense of humor and deep humility remained. The end comes for us all. Why should anyone think they are exempt?
By seeking to understand my role in the universe – in light of an insignificant existence – that causes me to not only face reality, but also discover my true purpose. If I am of no great importance, what is it that I can bring to the world? How can I make a difference? Where can I touch the future – even though my name and life will be forgotten?
I must find the true me and gain, as Hume implied, a more mature outlook rooted in reason, guided by love and absent fear.
Awareness of my true but insignificant self does not demean me in an unhealthy way. It does not mean I abandon meeting my basic needs. Rather, inner awareness enables me to become a better “me”. Freed from fear, freed from the need to pretend that I can live forever, that will empower me to understand my reason for living. And that is: Because we each have goodness built into us, our purpose in life is to express kindness, love and service to others.
By arriving at that crucial discovery, I can then clearly see my path forward. I might be of no greater importance than an oyster, but I can still find significance by how I live. My impact on the future, my footprints in the sands of time, will come from whom and what I serve. Shall I serve my ego and the immature self that only desires? Or, shall I grow up, shall I embark on a path to enlightenment, shall I empower my inner goodness and SERVE the wider world?
I do not pretend that the prompts of ego are easy to throw away. As much as I want to walk pathways to enlightenment, I can often fail. Yes, I deeply want to serve, but my self-interest too often gets in the way. I cannot say how many times when I contemplate my work and my responsibilities that I dream of finding a simple part time job and living a life of greater ease. I admit to having a sense of obligation – and that partly motivates me. But I’m also forced to challenge my selfishness and live according to my better angels.
We each have many ordinary tasks to do in life, but there are also times when we can do extraordinary things – comfort someone who hurts, help a person in need, or advocate for marginalized and oppressed people. Serving encompasses such deeds and it also includes speaking kindly, forgiving, and acting with humility. If we are true to the goodness within us, if we have done the work to diminish our egos, we cannot help but want to do these things. Service, love and kindness are what define us and what will last long past our lifetimes.
Over the past few months, I’ve been asked by two members, at different times, what can an elderly Humanist do to practice their beliefs? They want to know how they can still serve when the effects of aging make that difficult.
These two expressed what I’ve just stated – we all have built within us a yearning to love and give. I told them the truth as I see it. They still serve in countless ways. They serve with their friendships, their gentleness, their wisdom, and their determination to grow old not with bitterness, but with grace, laughter and kindness.
The irony of enlightenment through serving is that it is continually self-fulfilling. The more one serves, the more one gains enlightenment. If you show me a person who serves without fanfare, who is regularly a person who gives and loves selflessly, I guarantee that person will be a humble, gentle and mostly enlightened soul. I guarantee that person will leave his or her mark on the world in ways a thousand times greater than one who plasters his or her name across tall skyscrapers or emblazons it on a large jet.
Such is one reason this congregation commits itself to meet the needs of children. We want to touch the future. It’s why we serve in homeless shelters for young adults and kids. It’s why we assemble weekend food packets for hungry school children or hygiene kits for homeless teens. It’s why we’ve begun a new effort to tutor at risk children at a local school. It’s why we are devoted to our Children’s eduction and OWL programs and why a few dedicated women – like MJ – sacrificially give up their Sundays to make that happen. It’s why this congregation is committed to eliminate any vestiges of racism and white privilege in ourselves and our communities – so that all kids can grow up with opportunity.
We deeply believe in the value of reason and logic. As David Hume wrote, reason tells us that humans are of no great importance to the universe. We are not the reason it exists. That can be a frightening awareness. But with that truth comes our enlightenment – that we find our reason for living not from an external God. We find it from within. We find it in how we express the impulses of kindness and service that are knit into our very being. We live, we find our value, we leave behind a legacy in what we do to selflessly serve. Yes, we work to meet our own needs – but that work should only enable our true purpose.………….we are servants, plain and simple. Knowing that, we know everything.
I wish you all peace and joy.