Some Reflections on the Heritage of Humanism, By Joseph Blau

Thank you! Thank you all for this award. [Distinguished Humanist]

In the wake of the annual orgy of award ceremonies, we have all learned that a proper acceptance speech begins modestly with an expression of the honoree’s obligations to others.  I, too, begin with words of gratitude to others-to you who have seen fit to name me to this honor, you who are here for this occasion-and to many others who have influenced the course of my long life.  I can speak by name of only a few of these others because they are most important to me.  They have “made me what I am today.”

Especially, before I speak of anyone else, I name the most important of the living influences on my being what I am.  My wife of nearly half a century, Eleanor W. Blau, has not only encouraged and influenced me in all I have done since I first met her, but she has also actively participated with me.  The award to me honors her as well.

I try very hard, not always successfully, to avoid being the kind of oldster in whose conversation (private or, as now, public) the words “in my day” occur frequently.  But I do want to tell you about the critical period in the year 1925 that started me off on my way to Kalamazoo-it took me just sixty years to get here!  I was sixteen that summer and had completed one semester of the then-current Contemporary Civilization course in Columbia College, and had enrolled for the second semester in the Summer Session.  That was the summer of the epic “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee.  I had, of course, heard of Charles Darwin; his books, as well as those of T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer and John Fiske, were on my father’s bookshelves, and their names had registered on my memory in my high-school classes.  But the impact of their work, the Darwinian Revolution, had not hit me until that summer.  The selections we read for the work of the class were given vitality, even urgency, by the duel that took place between William Jennings Bryan, on the witness-stand for Fundamentalist Scriptural literalism, and Clarence Darrow, cross-examining Bryan as part of the defense of John T. Scopes, accused of violating the Tennessee statute that banned the teaching of any scientific theory that contradicted the biblical story of creation, literally accepted.  To most of you here tonight, this story is remote, if not ancient, history.  For me, it is part of my autobiography, a living reality.  My youthful indignation at the legally correct, but intellectually skewed, decision in this case led to the “radicalization” of my religious views.

Some years later, my studies in the philosophy and history of religions, with, especially, Herbert W. Schneider and Horace L. Friess, led me both  to an academic career as a professor of philosophy and of religion, and  to a continuing personal dedication to liberal religion, as represented both in the Ethical Culture movement and in religious Humanism.  These commitments, in turn, fed into my involvement for the past forty years with the current problems in the maintenance of full Jeffersonian-Madisonian freedom of religion in the United States.  Ultimately, also, it is these commitments that have led to my presence here as one whom you have seen fit to honor.