We continue our excerpts of the Humanist talks delivered at First Unitarian Society, starting with the founding Humanist minister John Dietrich. He originally delivered this talk on April 14, 1929.
Put a nonliving object in an environment and nothing happens. Put a living object in this environment, and something does happen. Energy, in other words, or life in terms of energy is a creative principle. It has the capacity to start itself; and when it starts, a long series of results transpire. Sometimes these results seem altogether out of proportion to the cause. The electric energy transmitted through a small copper wire is capable of moving a long and heavy train of cars. The energy hidden away in a microscopic atom, we are told, might blow the earth to bits. But the connection between cause and effect here is always real.
Life is energy, by which we mean it is the creator or initiator of movement, change, development. We are different from moment to moment because the life principle is at work within us.
…Steam, electricity, muscular contraction, are not the only forms of power which are moving the world. There is another kind of power — that which we think of as the mental or spiritual life. What it is we do not know. How it works we cannot say. But that it is a reality is a fact we cannot deny.
…Think of the energy that is released by a thought, and how this energy sweeps through the centuries like fire across a parched prairie. “The power of thought,” says Bertrand Russell, “is greater than any other human power . . . . It is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” Think of the teachings of Socrates, how they have come to human ears in every generation like chords of noble music, lifting men to dreams of beauty and deeds of sacrifice. Take Jesus for example, and think of the changes that have taken place in the world because of the thoughts which have been ascribed to him. Or think of Tolstoy or Voltaire, or Abraham Lincoln or Ingersoll, and the tremendous influence of their thought and the changes brought about in the world as a result of their words.
…It is possible that the words of Socrates might have endured had he not drunk the hemlock; but it is certain that this martyrdom added an incalculable amount of energy to what he taught. So with Jesus. It is hardly likely that his words would have been treasured and elevated had it not been for the deed of heroism which brought his life to a termination. Or as an example of the deed without the word, take John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. What this old man was able to do in the flesh was trivial; he was seized and put out of the way very easily, but what about his spirit? This was a force so great that it moved armies, shook continents, and turned the fide of history. It was more valuable to the northern cause in the Civil War than a hundred regiments. It was true that John Brown’s body lay a mouldering in the tomb; but it was also true that his soul went marching on.
…Is there any one of us who has not met this energy in his own experience as surely as he has felt the shock or seen the illumination of an electric current?
Cannot you remember hearing a word or reading a thought which has transformed your whole life? Have you not encountered some noble deed which has lifted you above the ordinary affairs of life? Have you not met men and women whose personalities have literally poured strength into your lives, so that you have found it possible to do things which you could not do before?
Talk about spiritual life as energy!
Hitherto we have always divided our world into two parts, theologically speaking — the natural and the supernatural, the earth here and the heaven up there, man here on earth and God up there in heaven… The Bible is a sacred book because written by God, while other books are secular because written by men; the church is a sacred institution because supernatural in origin and dealing with spiritual things; while the state is a secular institution because natural in origin and dealing with worldly things; a sermon is a sacred discourse because it deals with heavenly or eternal subjects, while a lecture is a secular discourse because it deals with worldly or temporal subjects. In the same way we have conceived of man’s religious or spiritual life as the problem of conversion or regeneration — that is, the problem of getting rid of the nature of which he was born on the earth and which is therefore “of the earth earthy,” and substituting in its place a new nature which has its origin in heaven, and is therefore heavenly or spiritual.
We see today that there is no such thing as this arbitrary division between natural and supernatural, flesh and spirit. All the spiritual there is, is right here in this world and definitely connected with the flesh. With this standpoint we see how ridiculous and false is the arbitrary between things sacred and things secular. Everything in the human world has come from the life process that is behind. Everything that is a part of the man is a creation of his being and a projection of his spirit. In this sense every thing is neither sacred nor secular but just natural and normal, because it is all the outgrowth of the same thing. Plato is as sacred as the Bible, the state as divine an institution as the church, a sermon no more spiritual because it talks about man’s soul and heavenly mansions than a political address which talks about man’s body and earthly tenements.