To continue her series of conversations with humanists about the role of the humanities in our current moment, Federation President Phoebe Stein spoke with Reverend Omari K. Hughes on how theology and religion connect him to the humanities and how the humanities can help us create a more equitable world. Stein met Hughes in 2008 when she joined Maryland Humanities as the executive director and he sat on their board. A recent graduate of Hampton University, at that time Hughes was the director of new media at a local television station. He left his career in broadcast journalism to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and how co-pastors his own congregation at New Life Church in Laurel, MD. Read more about Pastor Hughes here.
What role do the humanities, and the public humanities more specifically, have in moving our country forward at this time?
HUGHES: Of this I have become certain: we are all “standing on the shoulders of others.” None of us are in actuality “self-made.” Instead, it’s because of the contributions of our forerunners: parents, grandparents, mentors, friends, and those whom we’ve never even heard of or met, that we are where we are today. Wherever we are, for better or for worse, we have not “arrived” by ourselves. The challenge is remembering that.
When we fail to acknowledge, remember, appreciate, and honor the contributions of those who have come before us, we “fracture the lenses” through which we view and understand our present contexts and our individual and collectively shared past. History becomes muddled. Uncomfortable truths become lost, buried, and overlooked. Storytellers replace Griots and wishful thinking leads to romanticized and self-aggrandizing “fairy-tales” that take the place of the historical realities that make up our pasts. We forget that we’re “standing on the shoulders of others” and reimagine ourselves as Wendy and Peter Pan. That’s why we need the humanities.
It’s through the exploration of the lives of others, their literature, their history, their art, their culture that we can better understand and more clearly see who we are. A step up from repairing the old “fractured lenses,” the humanities give us access to new ones! Lenses that have been cherished and word by those who have come before us, preserved through the humanities and passed down. When we peer through the lenses that they offer us, we can see what others saw, feel what they felt, learn what they knew and perhaps even get a better glimpse of the shoulders upon which we stand.
How do your experiences first in broadcast journalism and now as a pastor impact your engagement with the humanities?
HUGHES: As a journalist then and a pastor now, I’ve had to know how to listen. Not to hear, that’s a matter of the senses. Listening is something entirely different. It has very little to do with ears and much more to do with the heart. It’s a soul function. It requires that I create within myself the space to receive another. Their stories, their experiences, their joys, their pains. Listening begins with the decision to value another simply for who they are. The humanities have helped me listen.
As a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to serve various congregations, in the United States and abroad. While preparing to serve a congregation in Ghana, I was given some good advice by a colleague. They reminded me that I would be in an entirely different context. So much would be different, even when it appeared to be the same. They suggested that I wait at least two to three weeks before I gave any pastoral advice or prepared to preach a sermon once I arrived. Instead, they suggested that I first sit with the people that I’d been called to serve, and listen. It was great advice. I’d have made so many mistakes if I’d attempted to help without first taking the time to listen.
As I did so, the humanities became my guide. I didn’t just listen in conversation, I listened to the written histories contained in libraries, I listened to the drums that replaced bells in the town’s schools. I listened to songs that were sung in worship, the celebrations that accompanied weddings and the wailings that followed loved ones when they passed and “journeyed home.” My exploration of the humanities living all around us taught me to listen. Listening taught me to serve.
Many people don’t think of religion or theology as part of the humanities, but they are. Can you help us understand how they connect us to the humanities?
HUGHES: The humanities include a wide variety of disciplines that make up our society and culture. History, language, literature, philosophy, and the arts are just a few. Together, they cover the full breadth of how it is that we understand and express who we are and how it is that we understand our relationships with one another. Those same disciplines are all intertwined and related.
How is this whole thing connected? Who am I and what are we all here for? These questions have been on the mind of humankind for quite some time. Religion, theology, and faith have often been the roads traveled in the discovery of those answers, but they have never been traveled in isolation. Like the other humanities, our faiths, what we believe, in whom we believe, and how we express those beliefs have always been impacted by the world around us. They’ve always aided us in our endless desire to “understand.”
There is a passage of scripture in the book of Hebrews in the Christian Bible that describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Even within itself, this verse suggests that faith points towards the “not yet.” To that which we have yet to learn, yet to know, yet to understand. Faith however, does not preclude us from the search for understanding. In fact, within the Christian Bible we find just the opposite. There are numerous passages that encourage the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. In the book of Proverbs for example, the writer writes: “the beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. Though it costs all you have, get understanding. The humanities offer us ways to gain both! Language, history, philosophy, the arts, are all ways in which we share and express the collective wisdom and knowledge that belongs to humanity. Religion and theology are simply another way in which we seek to share the same.