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How does a non-believer understand "Grace?"

The New York Times December 23, 2018 Op Ed section has an an article entitled, “The Power of Grace” by Peter Wehner, which HFFC member Anita Peters urges you to read.

What is “grace?” It is a specifically Christian term similar to that specifically Jewish term “mensch.” How do we acquire “grace?” How do we become a mensch? What is it that lends these words weight and substance in our cultural identity. I imagine there are similar ideas in Hindu and Islam.

I do not share Jonathan Rauch’s pining as an atheist for an understanding or acceptance of grace. Because as an atheist - I understand the meaning of forgiveness, empathy, generosity of self, hope, kindness given when not asked or expected.

The trouble, as I see it, is that we non-believers have not established our own cultural reference points to explain these terms - we understand them within the religious cultures we have been taught or grown up in.

To be touched by “grace” is a positive term an ideal like to be that mensch. If you are Jewish - you strive to be a mensch which is so much more that it’s explained meaning.

If you are Christian - it is grace.

(Both imply wisdom over dogma. A priest may not have “grace” and a rabbi may not be a “mensch.”)

I just finished Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of religion, and an atheist of sorts who early in her life suffered two personal tragedies, the death of her only child at 6 yrs old and within a year the death of her husband, a physicist, in a freak hiking accident. The book is both a memoir and a historical exploration of the appeal of religion to assuage suffering or offer an explanation. She ends her book with her reflections as she was receiving an honorary degree at Harvard:

“How I wondered, had I somehow managed to pass the real tests - the test I never could have imagined surviving, those unimaginable losses? Yet the children left for me to raise (adopted) were both here, alive and well, and so am I: How is that possible?

I don’t know how to answer those questions. What I do know is that for moments, during that noisy and joyful ceremony, the pomp and privilege of that scene receded, and the invisible bonds connecting everyone there, and connecting all of us with countless others and with our world and whatever is beyond it (?), felt stronger stronger than ever, echoing the words of an ancient Jewish prayer (her cultural background is Christian):

'Blessed art Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day.' However it happens, sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace.”

And grace is.....

She renounces the “belief” aspect of religion and instead heartens to the story telling appeal and wisdom of religious mythologies. This is the appeal of religion and its promise.

How do we secular humanists create our own stories celebrating our philosophy of being which satisfies the emotional hunger that religion has and continues to pull at humanity?

Here I refer you to the chapters on God, Secularism and Meaning in Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Look forward to your comments.

Your resident Humanist Celebrant and friend,


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