Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What will we teach the kids to say?

**This is my entry (not the winner) from Moment Magazine's recent "Elephant in the Room" contest, responding to the question "What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?"

           I’ve been Jewish with God, and I’m currently Jewish without God—a fundamental difference, yet still I’m Jewish. When I was Jewish with God, every word, every act, was an opportunity to fulfill my purpose, obeying commandments, studying Torah, or meditating on God. God was One, which made everything else—my personal plans, values, and all aspects of worldliness—two, at most. In my opinion at that time as a Ba’al Teshuvah, Judaism, like all religions, was a theocentric philosophy and lifestyle.
           What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? I ask my students this question in my class “Judaism Beyond Belief.” I make the students draw extended metaphors for Judaism, placing God somewhere in the picture. For some, Judaism is a flower, and God the sun—without the sun, it wilts, and blooms no more. For others, Judaism is a car, and God the engine—without the engine, no movement, only idleness and rust. One student, a budding Humanist to be sure, drew Judaism as an onion, with God as a layer—without this layer, many other rich layers remain.
           As a Jew without God, I continue to be dedicated to these other rich layers, although the centrality of God in the religion leads to some awkwardness in my adoption of the tradition. I sing niggunim (no words!) instead of prayers at services. Or I stay up all night studying on Shavuos, and then leave before the sunrise morning minyan. I embrace the radical reading of Passover as a holiday of universal liberation, glossing over the clearly religious nationalist message at the core of the Haggadah text.
           My partner and I are both post-Conservative, atheistic Jews. This Friday night we will be hosting our first Shabbos dinner as a married couple. How will we bless the wine? We are facing the fact that Judaism without God, first and foremost, is whatever we want it to be. Our current plan is to recite the traditional Kiddush (to make our more traditional guests comfortable, and to satisfy the part of ourselves that finds comfort in the tradition) and to recite secular blessings created by Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine and Morris Sukenik. In this manner we will stay true to our religious pasts and our present secular values.
           Doubtless, the question of the meaning of Judaism without God will be raised again when we have children. What will we teach the kids to say—the traditional or the secular humanist blessings, or both? What reason will we give for each? What will we have besides nostalgia to offer, if we want our kids to learn Hebrew and sing about God’s creation and covenant? We will teach them that to be Jewish without God means to find beauty and wisdom on the outer edges of a religion that values learning, family, ritual, art, nature, and social justice—all of which we seek to embrace, casting aside its pre-scientific, pre-democratic, pre-feminist roots.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Humanism belongs to everyone!

(This is part 4 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

So far in this series I have focused on humanism as secularism, and done some work to highlight the secularist ethics that come hand-in-hand with many liberals’ religious faith. In this post, I will present a much more vague, open-ended argument, in order to begin building some aspects of my own philosophy of humanism.

In philosophical jargon, I will say: Humanism must be universally particular.

And in awesome quotable language, I will say: Humanism belongs to everyone.

Let’s back all the way up to the word “Humanism.” On the face of it, it is some kind of “ism” of the “human.” It could be a philosophy about humans, a philosophy for humans, a philosophy that places humans at the center of some domain. Who really knows, it’s just a word.

But how about this: Whatever “humanism” is, every human has a say in its meaning. I believe that the meaning of “being human” emerges from an individual’s sense and experience of being human, and so (at this early point in my inchoate philosophy) there might be as many humanisms as there are people. As a human, I think I have a unique, individual, and authentic perspective on what it means to be a human. But if your experience differs, am I ‘more human’ so that I could tell you you’re wrong? Of course not. I am just one person, as are you. We each bring overlapping and divergent notions of what it means to be a human, and “humanism” must be big enough for both of us.

What I am attempting here is a move for radical inclusivity (although at some point I will have to deal with those humans who understand humanity through a supernaturalist lens) and critical analysis of any concept of humanism that fails to take into account the ridiculous large range of human experiences.

“Whatever humanism is, it needs to be true to my experience, or else it is not as human as I am.” This is a challenge we are bound to give and to answer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are you a religious humanist? Take my brief/awesome quiz!

(This is part 3 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

There is such a thing as religious humanism (is there?), aka humanism with a theology. In my last post I discussed institutional religious humanism, and in this one I will present an account of individual religious humanism.

My account of individual religious humanism is more problematic, but I will attempt it anyhow, if only to get the attention of those individual religious humanists. It’s important to target these people, as there are many Jews that do believe in God (however loosely or vaguely) but do not identify strongly with a Jewish denomination, and I think it could be valuable to the growth of humanism as a movement to point out to them ways in which they are ‘closet humanists’ (or to steal a phrase from Karl Rahner ‘anonymous humanists’). So, to my targets: my goal is to convince you to identify as a “religious humanist.”

First of all, go read the third Humanist Manifesto. Does it speak to you? Does it reflect a lot of your core principles? What is missing? Even if it’s not the most inspiring document to you, do you find yourself assenting to most or all of its statements?

Second of all, take this short quiz (I apologize that it is geared towards Jews, or at least those involved with western religion):

1)      Do you and your God share the same ethical values and priorities?
2)     A core Jewish value is that each person has inherent dignity because they are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Without b’tzelem Elohim, would you still believe in the basic dignity of each person?
3)     Do religious rituals (esp. prayer) primarily bring you closer to God or closer to other people?

How’d you do? Here is some of my reasoning behind these questions:

1)      I’ve always found it a bit suspect when a person’s God is in total agreement with that person’s moral judgments. Frankly, it smacks of idolatry—posing a God as a complete affirmation of one’s own moral compass. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum will hand-pick the religious laws they prefer and ignore others. I’m not calling this hypocritical; I’m just calling it the natural human response to receiving a tradition that is not entirely humane. Thus my particular Jewish community reads the Bible and find a God who always commands social justice, and never commands genocide. I respect this kind of reading, but I want the inherent secularism in it to be acknowledged.

2)     A non-secularist would answer ‘no’ to this question. They truly see God as the foundation of value and worth in the world, without which there is no foundation of value and worth.

3)     Only in liberal religion will you find people who pray regularly, but not as a way to feel close to God. These people are focused on the human world. If you don’t like the term “religious humanist” then at least use “culturally religious,” as it appears that you are drawn towards religious ritual as a matter of cultural gathering, and not as a means of communication with God. (My apologies to God2-niks who think this question sets up a false dichotomy, but face it, if you find God “in-between” people, then expect me to peg you as a kind of religious humanist.)

So? Have I convinced you to call yourself a religious humanist (or at least, ‘culturally religious’)?

The only question remaining is, so what? So what if I (hopefully) cornered you into taking on this label?

I don’t know. This is as far as I’ve gotten in this line of thinking. You tell me what it means to persuade liberals to call themselves ‘religious humanists.’

Monday, October 10, 2011

Is there such a thing as religious humanism?

(This is part 2 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

There is such a thing as religious humanism, aka humanism with a theology. Obviously a god that presides over a humanism is one with no authority or power. But, hey, if you believe that “It’s up to us” and you believe in a god, then I am willing to call you a humanist. Religious humanism can be found on the far-liberal spectrum of religion. Unitarian Universalism is an obvious example, but since I am Jewish I will focus on Jewish examples so as not to make a total fool of myself.

Religious humanism can manifest both institutionally and individually. Institutionally, I think that Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are forms of religious humanism. Mordecai Kaplan’s dictum that Jewish tradition has “a vote, not a veto,” expresses my “up to us” principle. While our tradition (in all its religiosity) certainly can positively influence our beliefs and lifestyles, we refuse to let it hinder the development and expression of progressive values. Of course, the fact that Kaplan’s theology is one of God2 makes this an easy argument— God2 theologies lack a commanding God, and pretty much always affirm the human values of their adherents. Reform Judaism, while upholding a (modified) God1 theology, also ‘smacks’ of humanism to me. Reform Judaism is unapologetic about its rejection of divine law and commandment—and, for me, that goes a long way towards it overlapping with humanism (although, yes, there is much more to humanism than that).

As my account of individual religious humanism is more problematic, in the interest of space I will save it for my next post.

Just to acknowledge my biggest gap here—yes, so far, I am entirely conflating humanism with secularism. I hope you don’t mind—I do not have a robust concept of humanism yet. Also, I think the point that there are religious institutions that form their ethics by secular means (that is, regardless of God’s commands) is important. The presence of a secular meta-ethics within liberal religion is currently my main argument for the existence of religious humanism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"What is Humanism?" Secular Ethics as Minimal Requirement

(This is part 1 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

Humanism is already defined quite well by the third Humanist Manifesto. The manifesto affirms reason, compassion, experience, science, arts, nature, dignity, society, service, relationships, peace, justice, opportunity, individuality, happiness, diversity, equality, rights, liberty, and responsibility, all in the context of a naturalistic world. At first glance, all of these values are fundamental values of the human.

One line that particularly appeals to me is “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” I like to paraphrase this meta-ethical statement as “Human good is determined by humans based on the human experience.” To me, this is the heart of humanism, from which all of its other values flow. I believe humanism is the result of individual and collective self-reckoning, without the intrusion of absolutist claims based on the supernatural.

A general sentiment in the manifesto that appeals to me is “It’s up to us.” I’m drawing most specifically on the “ours and ours alone” phrasing which ends the document, but “It’s up to us” looms over the entire manifesto. The advance of knowledge, the development of humane values, the improvement of society and human welfare—humanism is the affirmation of our sole responsibility to these things. Nothing else in the world will take care of them for us. “Taking care” is solely the work of humanity.

If you do not share this “It’s up to us,” sentiment with me, then I don’t think I can count you among the humanists. Yes, human knowledge, values, and action are all fallible things, but they are all we have.

**I will end my post here, but I should anticipate negative reactions to the ‘in or out’ mentality in my last paragraph. In writing this series on humanism, I am indeed hoping to create some definitions that qualify or disqualify individuals and institutions as humanist. While I will also seek to lay out some broad principles that allow for diversity within humanism, I think the integrity of the term ‘humanism’ is strengthened by locating and affirming its limits.

"What is Humanism?" Intentions and Precautions


As “secular spirituality” is not a recognized or respected phrase, I would like to do some writing staking my claims in “humanism.” I will use two main sources for my thoughts on humanism: the third Humanist Manifesto and the word “humanism.”
As someone with a previously strong religious identity, I will be examining humanism insofar as it might “do the work” that my religion once did for me, including:
o   Inform an ethical/political/activist philosophy
§  My specific agenda will be to establish humanism as a firm and unambiguous foundation for some or all of the following: anti-oppression work (radical feminism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, etc.), environmentalism, peaceful dialogue, and great-love compassion.
o   Gather people for sharing life, wisdom, and mutual support

Precautions (responding to my intentions in opposite order)

I get that “Humanism” is not a single thing, nor is its current popular iteration one that is intended for or will easily lend itself to replacing religion. “Humanism” is very likely too broad a term upon which to found a culture or specific political agendas.
(My intention in this regard is to explore its cultural possibilities and to claim it for specific political agendas.)
I know that there is much more writing on Humanism than the manifesto, and I know that many people do not base their concept of Humanism on the manifesto. Oh well—I like it. I am writing all of this as an amateur, and hope to convince you through my thoughts, not my scholarship.
As these posts are all initial investigations, I may or may not ever arrive at a robust concept of “humanism.” Expect anything that I write here to touch upon one or two aspects of humanism, but to be missing many other pieces of the picture—at least at first. For example, my first few posts focus solely on humanism as secularism, and of course there is more to humanism than just secularism.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Do you believe in God1 or God2?

This entry was originally posted on State of Formation in June 2011.

Some people who don’t believe in God still want to believe in “God.” The result is a modified type of God-idea. Call the new kinds God2.
God1s are characterized by “classic” God attributes, most notably will and power, or put more simply, agency. Without agency, there is no God1—no Creator, no Judge, no Redeemer, etc. The advance of the scientific, naturalistic world-view has driven God1s back into the far-reaching “gaps” in our knowledge. In the ancient near east a God1 could send or withhold rain, and even cause localized earthquakes (Num. 16:30-33). With modern meteorology and plate tectonic theory, those who attribute natural disasters to an angry God1 are challenged to explain at what point in the natural chain of cause-and-effect God1 intervened.
Before we move on to God2s, let’s first take into account options for modifying a God1 belief in the modern world.
1)      A deistic approach forces God1 into the gaps at the extreme edges; for example, when someone claims that God is responsible for the Big Bang. God1’s agency is here limited to the ultimate first action—quite the honor, but also a far-cry from the natural and historical interventions previously allowed.
2)     While not a modern move, one also can witness a profound limitation placed on God1 in the move from Deuteronomic to Christian theology, that is, the move from this-worldly to next-worldly reward and punishment. A God1 whose justice reigns over heaven and hell is powerful, but certainly nothing like the God1 whose justice reigns on Earth. However, the mystery of life-after-death still keeps a large, inviting space open for belief in God1.
3)     The God1 of limited theism (found in books like Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People) has greater agency than a Deistic God1, but is still severely limited. Frankly, I find the limited God1’s agency very confusing. What does it mean if God1 can’t put out a fire, but can inspire courage in the heart of a firefighter? (Kushner 139-142) How does that work? What exactly are the dynamics and boundaries of God1’s psycho-emotional powers, and do they move atoms at all?
Regardless, these modified God1 beliefs express the desire to harmonize an agential God with a mostly-naturalistic world-view.
God2 is any “God” that lacks agency, that is, will and power. Here are some kinds:
1) Mordecai Kaplan’s God2 is a power without will—a force. Also known as “the power that makes for salvation,” adherents of Kaplan’s theology relate to this God2 by identifying in nature and history the developments that foster human flourishing. Kaplan’s God2 is not just a symbol—in calling his God2 “God” he is attempting to point out the existence of an objective force in the world—but his God2 clearly lacks the distinct agency of a God1.
2) The God2 of pantheism is identical with the world. Being all things, pantheistic God2 doesn’t choose sides or make a plan, so It doesn’t have much of a will. Being all things, this God2 is powerful, but only in the sense of being like Tillich’s “power of being” (aka ground of being aka being-itself). This is not the kind of power that God1 seekers care about. A siddur will not get you far if you are looking to pray to the God-that-is-all-things. Anyhow, it’s an awkward God to worship. Sure there’s probably a lot of good poetry about God2 (Rumi?), but the popular praise-request-thank model of prayer doesn’t seem to fit with such an amorphous God.
3) Another God2 borders on the symbolic—the God2 of definitive metaphors like “God is love” or Gordon’s Kaufman’s “God is serendipitous creativity.” As an out atheist, it’s hard for me not to read those phrases as anything other than closeted atheism. That’s “God” used as an exclamation point, not as a proposition. All of the meaningful content is in the second half of the sentence; all “God” does to the idea is give it a name, and affirm its utmost importance.
What all of these God2 share is that they are descendants, once-removed, of God1. In order to read God2 into any part of the western religious canon, a lot of ironic reading (aka allegorical interpretation) is necessary. A God2 is likely to be factored into a scenario of salvation, but one can never say literally that “God2 saves,” as if God2 were a specific agent that could identify problems, have motivation to act on them, and act on them. In all of these God2 examples, God2 will save you, but only at the pace and power of human progress. And a God stripped of supernatural power loses a lot of appeal for most people. Think of all the images of “God” that are dependent on the God1 model: Creator. Father. King. Judge, Shepherd, Friend. Redeemer. Savior. Can the word “God” be cleansed of all these personalistic images? Please—“God” is a name! It’s a proper noun—that’s instinctually (because grammatically) personalizing. And so to say that God2 “speaks,” “wants,” or “loves,” is to speak very equivocally.
Indeed, the phenomenon of belief in God2 is founded on a desire to equivocate. The term “God” gathers a variety of significations, and many people want to hold on to some while letting go of others. Insofar as “God” functions to tie together rhetoric about ultimate meaning, cosmic explanation, and ethical direction, it is an unacceptable loss for some people to lose “God” when they begin to doubt the existence and power of a God1. They still desire an ultimate point of reference, on account of the orientation and instruction such a point of reference provides. The need for sense and order backs the desire for monotheism, and so “God” simply holds a central place in the individual and communal psyche. And so, modern-minded folks still seek out a one-principle to hang their hope on, to call “God.”
But should God2 be called “God”? What is a God without will and power? Yes, the word “God” carries many significations—but are certain significations essential? Does God2’s lack of agency disqualify it from deserving the label “God”? Think of what the mass of people right now, and throughout history, mean and meant by “God.” To them, God is a conscious over-being with the power to save and the right to judge and kill. That’s God1 aka God. What can you do with a God2?
(**An addended love-note to God2 lovers: Sorry! Also here’s where we agree—(1) the world is interconnected; (2) self-conscious life is the closest thing there is to “the Universe contemplating itself”; (3) transcendence is still available even without the supernatural; (4) people are indeed capable of great good.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Judaism: Religion of Reason" One book, Two book-reviews

I wrote 2 reviews of founder's new book "Judaism: Religion of Reason."

Here is a link to my review of the book on JewishBoston.
And here is a link to a different review I wrote for Jewschool.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Good regardless of God-belief

My good friend and Divinity school classmate Caitlin Golden works at Social Action Massacusetts, previously Social Action Ministries. Check out this awesome guest blog she wrote last month, explaining the name change. I  hope other "inter-faith" organizations follow their lead, and work to create opportunities for social change and community service that welcome people who want to do good regardless of god-belief!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Trading "God" for "Good"? Part 5 (Final) -- Some notes on Good

One word that seems weighty, but spared of total synonymy with religion, is “good,” aka “the good.” To me, it’s a bit of a bland term. It reminds me of all that Greek philosophy I failed to read. I want to say that it feels too general to be a gathering term, but then again all of my central terms so far have had that generic touch that makes them hubs for meaning.

The thing is, I can define my other terms. “Spirit” defines the human person (and human collective) as the meeting of subject and object. “Sacred” is a label we apply to those things which we hold most dear as a matter of our ethical existence. (Aha—my interest in sacred is really an interest in the ethical—forcing me to confront this word “Good.”)

The most daunting aspect of confronting the word “Good” is that I am entering some of the most well-worn territory in philosophical history. I understand that ethics is the ‘first philosophy’ in the post-metaphysical landscape, and so of course I have to take it on now. But—it’s a huge topic. For now, I’ll pick at it:

-         Good – first and foremost, is a spoken label. To paraphrase Hamlet, nothing is good or bad but speaking makes it so. So, in analyzing the word “good” I always want to analyze the speaker, to understand what provoked them to use that word. “Good” as a label, is always used relative to its speaker. Insofar as a person takes their own existence/self as good, I will guess that anything they term as “good” is also “good for” them.

-         The neutrality (relativism) of this term means that it can be used by anyone, which immediately gets us into trouble. Exterminating the Jews was “good for” Hitler. I feel a desire to rid the term of its neutrality, to make Hitler’s use of it somehow unfit. The neutrality also makes it less evocative—the words “God” and “sacred” have certain weight and connotation that makes it easier to identify false meanings.

-         There are a set of words that I relate closely to “good.” While good might be the central gathering term, it is these words that actually express goodness for me. A lot of these words can be found on Maslow’s pyramid: health, safety, belonging, love, flourishing. Two other heavy-hitters I would include are: compassion, justice.

-         There is still so much to unpack from “good”!

            Ethical good = good between people
            Personal good = good for the individual person  
            Practical good = gets the job done well    
            Aesthetic good = beautiful, entertaining, captivating
            Other kinds?

-         The principle riddle involved in determining goodness is that of prioritizing. Given that we include so many human values in goodness, these are bound to conflict—and then which good do we pick? There are trade-offs, conflicts, and sacrifices—between values, between immediate and long-term goals, between proximal and distant subjects. And so on.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Trading in God for Good, part 4 - Can Soul, Spirit, and Sacred be used in secular contexts?

            The above terms are used to indicate human engagement with transcendence. “Transcendence” seems to be a key term in the art of meaning-making. In my classes, I define transcendence as “beyond-ness,” and I believe our ability to reach/push beyond whatever are our apparent limitations signifies our ability to transcend. My family, my partner, the need for justice for the oppressed—these are things outside of myself that make demands upon me to which I have a deep response. They pull me outside of myself towards my ethical duties, and so I think of them as sacred.
When I use the word “Spirit,” to refer to myself, I am pointing out my human capacity for depth and growth—because I can evaluate and change my thoughts, because I can evaluate and change my actions, I am more than simply the person I am at this moment. Growing individuals repeatedly transcend their former selves. For these reasons, I find it easy to use “sacred” and “spirit” to indicate transcendent aspects of human life, without invoking the supernatural.

“Soul” is a trickier word, which I hope to dispense with in this paragraph. Since “sacred” is an adjective, and I really use “spirit” to describe an activity of self (or at least as a synonym for self), I find myself able to contextualize my use of them in ways that do not appear to endorse some kind of thing beyond the physical world. But let’s be honest—a soul is a metaphysical object. Sure, I can use it metaphorically, but I will constantly mislead a lot of my audience. I can try to say that “I feel it in my soul,” is just like “I feel it in my gut,” but the first statement is far more metaphorical than the second. No—“soul,” to me, is far too charged with supernaturalism. It smacks of immortality, of divine judgment, of supernatural transcendence—the soul is the part of me that is utterly separate from everything I know and think about myself—and I can’t imagine what that could mean in a secular context (Freud’s subconscious??). So I reject “soul” as an available word for discussing secular spirituality.

But am I fooling myself about this word “spirituality”? Am I being unrealistic about how language is used when I present myself as a seeker/finder of “secular spirituality”? Probably. Do people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” mean they have secular spirituality? I’m guessing no—I think they mean that they have notions about the spiritual (=supernatural) world that they are uninterested in forming into a system.
           And what would I replace the word “spirituality” with? My inspiration for using the word “spirit” comes from G.W.F Hegel’s book “The Phenomenology of Spirit”—just as often translated as “The Phenomenology of Mind.” Perhaps instead of secular “spirituality,” I mean: secular “amateur psychology of human flourishing as individuals and collectives.” That may be a more accurate expression, but it’s terrible branding.
            And is the phrase “secular sacred” also a misuse of common language? Microsoft Word quickly informs me that “secular” is an antonym for “sacred.” Clearly “sacred” smacks of religion, through and through. But what word will I use instead of “sacred”?
            As an atheist, what word(s) can I use to enter/center conversations on what matters in life, on what is worthy of human care? What word(s) can I use to succinctly evoke various ultimate facts about human existence/ethics? (Are there no ‘ultimate facts’ on these topics?) How do I talk about the greatness of the human spirit without “spirit”? How do I relate what is of utmost importance without “sacred”?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Trading in God for Good? Part 3 -- Soul, Spirit, and Sacred in Secular Contexts

In this post, I will provide examples of some secular uses of the above terms. I present these examples as the beginning of an argument towards reclaiming them outside of their traditional religious contexts. Obviously, in my next post, I will need to struggle with whether one or all of these words are too tainted by their connection with religion to be used as atheistic indicators of human existence and meaning.

SOUL – “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) “Living being”—in Hebrew nefesh chaya, or “a living soul.” There are multiple terms in Hebrew that can be translated as soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, yechidah, etc). In this verse, the word “soul” reflects the new man’s vitality—not his ability to survive death in any form. Thus, the Bible itself presents us with a use of the word “soul” uncoupled from any notion of immortality. To be a soul means to be a living being—no more, no less.

Apart from religious contexts, “soul” can also be used rhetorically to point towards the metaphorical center of a person. This center is often irrational and highly personal. Thus I can “know it in my soul” in a similar way that I might “know it in my gut.”

In the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame online entry for Otis Redding, we are told: “His name is synonymous with the term soul, music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” For more on how “soul music,” reclaimed religious items for the secular, look for the scene in the movie “Ray” in which Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) writes the song “I Got a Woman.”

SPIRIT – I’ve already written a lot about this in a previous blog post and also this pamphlet. But a few examples of the secular use of “spirit” just to remind you:
The power of the human spirit discussed in this article on the Disable Veterans of America Winter Sports clinic.

We got spirit, yes we do! (Pretty sure this is secular-- or are our cheerleaders indoctrinating us?)

That’s the spirit!

SACRED --  I’ll start with a scene from The Simpsons:
(Lisa and Janey are in Lisa's bedroom reading the "Baby-Sitter Twins" books)
Janey: I can't get enough of "The Baby Sitter Twins." They arrested the counterfeiters, rescued the President, and made 4 dollars.
Lisa: I love everything about the world of babysitting. The responsibility, the obligations, the pressure...
Janey: And full refrigerator privileges!
Lisa: That's a trust, Janey. A sacred trust.
Janey: Geez. Lighten up, Lisa.

Here are some other quotes that use the word “sacred” pretty secularly:

“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson*

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” – Thomas Jefferson

“National defense is the sacred duty of the young and all other people.” –Kim Jong Il

Also, thanks to Jeff Lowe for pointing out this fantastic example from the classic comedy "Back to School." (Example in the first minute. For the faint of heart, don't watch further than that!)

Help me out here! Know any other good, secular uses of SOUL, SPIRIT, or SACRED?

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Serendipitous Creativity of Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P

I had an independent study in Constructive Theology with Gordon Kaufman in Fall 2008 during my last year at Harvard Divinity School. He died the other day, and I thought it would be fitting to say a little about my time with him and his influence on me as a theologian/atheist.

Kaufman died at 86, meaning that he was 84 when we worked together. For a gentleman that old, he had an impressive amount of fight in him. I'm not sure if he remembered me fondly, as most of my time with him was spent in heated debate over the meaning of the term "God." Regardless of his opinion of our meetings, I treasured all of them, as he was someone who had spent his entire academic career establishing a firm outpost on the edges of theology, an area I was (unbeknownst to me) traveling across at that time.

Before proposing an independent study with him I wanted to impress him, so I read a few books of his I found in the Div school library. Two of his most recent books "In the beginning... Creativity" and "Jesus and Creativity," were on display in the lobby of the library, and I also found a slim volume called "Essay on Theological Method" in the stacks. The first two books were fairly recent, and developed his newfound definition of God: “serendipitous Creativity.” While I found these inspiring though very reconstructionist, his “Essay” really captivated me—in it he sets out his formal understanding of “God” as a limiting term (it always indicates an aspect of our reality that defines/circumscribes reality; it does not refer to an actual ‘thing’) and the ultimate point of reference (whatever the meaning of “God” is, all aspects of reality are relevant to it). As my own theology at the time was spiraling into abstraction, these bare-minimum yet-fundamental definitions appealed to me. And of course a lot of his theology focused on God as mystery: one of his early collections of essays is called “God the Problem” and his theological opus is titled “In Face of Mystery.”

So we met, and he was impressed that I had found and read his “Essay” and we agreed to work together in the Fall. Our meetings were contentious mostly because I was in love with his earlier work, in which he gave very little content to the concept of God beside that of mystery. In the last two decades he had become enamored with his idea of God as Creativity—for him, it gave God a role in the creation of the world and of humans (and thus of human values), and gave humans a positive orientation towards future progress. I insisted that he was not doing justice to God’s mystery (even if Creativity itself is mysterious—in the Spring of that year he taught a class with Stuart Kauffman, combining his theology of Creativity with Kauffman’s evolutionary biology on emergence). I also argued that Creativity was an ambiguous basis for ethics, as much evil could be justified in the name of progress. Clearly, I did not fully understand, because he remained pretty convinced.

In the end I focused my final paper on his early work, writing “God and the Problems of Speaking, Discerning, and Relating to the Ultimate,” a piece I intended as my groundwork for a truly agnostic theology. He gave it an A-/B+, and our final meeting was in his home on Mt. Auburn Ave. We talked for two hours, yelling at each other about the problems of reification.

I’m sure I was among the last of many students in his career. If he did remember me, it might’ve been with a fair amount of disregard—at one point, I attacked monotheism itself, saying that an ‘ultimate point of reference’ did not do justice to the apparent chaos and disunity of the world. He told me this was insanity since, without the hope of monotheism, there was no chance of making sense ever—this from a man who defined God as Serendipitous Creativity. We were two very radical theologians having it out. I will always treasure my time with him.

P.S. In my recent wedding ceremony, I sought to re-translate the traditional seven blessings in order to reflect my atheism. In two, I replaced “God” with serendipitous creativity. See #3 and #4 here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Trading in God for Good, part 2 -- Replacing "God" with "Sacred"

           I began to let go of “God,” during my last year at Harvard Divinity School during Tamsin Jones’ class on Modern and Post-Modern Responses to Religion. Jones introduced me to Richard Kearney’s (then-unpublished) Anatheism. The book is an exploration of possibilities for understanding and relating to God after the ‘death of God.’ To me, the basic idea behind post-death-of-God theologies is that a God that can be totally conceptualized is not worthy of the name “God.” If God is the linchpin to your metaphysical theory, then clearly you are treating God as a linchpin, and not as an infinite Other that transcends even the very notion of “being.” The question “Does God exist?” simply makes God an additional item amongst the set of existing things. If God is related to infinitude, then even the word “God” is doing this reality a disservice—it is at the very least grammatically limiting.
Kearney draws on the Abrahamic faiths and post-onto-theological thinkers to propose a surplus/Stranger approach to “God.” The surplus/stranger is that which is outside of our understanding, our sense of the world, our sense of what’s expected. To free God from the limits of our philosophical systems is to allow God to be mysterious, alien, unpredictable, unexpected. By posing God as “the unexpected,” “the extra,” and especially, “the other,” Kearney is committed to seeking/finding God outside of the institutions (and words) in which He is normally encountered. If God is Stranger, then God can (and should) manifest in ways that are not normally labeled “God.”
            Throughout his book, Kearney regularly uses the phrase “the sacred” instead of the word “God.” For me, this was an eye-opening, life-changing piece of rhetoric. “The sacred,” as a term that expresses ‘godliness’ outside of the grammar of a proper noun, is an important step towards freeing God from the tyranny of the word/concept “God.” While Kearney’s anatheism returns again and again to God (“anatheism” literally means “again-theism”), he inspired me to find in “the sacred” my first atheistic substitution for “God.” In “the sacred” I found a powerful new synonym for “what matters” that did not rely on the word “God.” I like to use the word “sacred” in the context of “I hold this as sacred,” or “This is sacred to me,” (read more on my notion of the sacred here). It provides me with the vocabulary to express my ethical orientation towards my experience of the world. It is my new “password”—through unpacking the word “sacred” I discover what I believe matters in life, what I believe is worthy of human care (attention, time, money, energy).
Of course, “sacred” has two notable flaws, which I will work through in the next few posts.
1)      It’s a word primarily associated with religion. Many people will tell me that the very term “sacred secular” is an oxymoron. Can it be separated from its primarily religious context?
2)     Like the word “God,” (and also the word “Good”), “Sacred” is just a sign used by a speaker to point at whatever meaning they invest in it.  The content of “sacred” is entirely up for grabs.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trading in "God" for "Good"? Part 1 -- Losing Faith in "God"

I          Faith in “God”
            Since I came out as an atheist a year ago, I have been searching for a word, or words, to place at the center of my ethical/existential thought. In these posts, I will trace my steps from “God” to “Sacred,” and subsequently give an account of my current struggles with the word “Good,” as a candidate for central term. My interest in all of this is examining what word(s) might serve best as a common way to enter/center conversations on what matters in life, what is worthy of human care.
            I lost my faith in God years before I lost my faith in “God.” I probably stopped praying regularly around 2004, and yet graduated from Harvard Divinity School five years later with a higher degree in Theology. Why did I continue to pursue theology (talking about God) after my relationship with God had crumbled? I often like to use the metaphor of a mobile (like the kind that would hang above a crib). A mobile hangs from the ceiling, and holds a variety of items in dynamic balance. The crucial part of this balance is the single ring from which all the items ultimately hang. (A pic or two to help you visualize) For me, “God” was that ring. If I wanted to have a conversation that activated an individual’s sense of intense care for their existence, human life, human relationships, and other matters of ultimate meaning, “God” was the word from which to hang the conversation. As a teacher, I found that “God” was the short-cut through which otherwise unreflective students would feel motivated to make grand statements about human existence and ethics—thus the appeal of “God” for me as an educator.
            Personally, I stayed faithful to “God” because I needed a central term that represented my encounter with life and reality as a whole. These were my “reconstructionist” years, in which I believed in God, but defined God as anything but “a supernatural personality with power.” Instead I dabbled in pantheism (God is all), panentheism (God is all, and then some), and Mordecai Kaplan’s original Reconstructionist theology (God is the natural force that makes for salvation). All of these theologies staved off atheism, but did little for my relationship with the Jewish religion. They afforded me the ability to continue to talk about God meaningfully, but never to relate to God actively. None of them brought me back to prayer or dialogue with God, which to me are the lifeblood of religious activity.
            These theologies failed to revive my religiosity because they treat God as a password, rather than as a living being. If “God” means a lot, but it doesn’t mean “a supernatural personality with power” then the word has clearly been degraded— as Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Hadash of Chicago likes to challenge, “If by ‘God’ you mean ‘love,’ then use it in a sentence—‘I God You?’” (For more on my disappointment with an impersonal God (Aka God2), see my series on State of Formation, part 1 and part 2). Joking aside, it is generally harder (and rarer) to use these altered meanings of "God" in everyday life and language (besides in the sentence "God is..."). 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Matt Lowe's Humanist Sheva Berachot (for Jewish Weddings)

1)      We are blessed by the fruit of the vine, by which we mark and share our joy together.

2)     Glorious is each thing, for “all things are beautiful in their time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

3)     We are blessed by the serendipitous creativity of evolution that produced humans among an almost-infinite variety of creatures.

4)     We are blessed by the generational chain of human life, by which we receive and pass on our life and our values. We are blessed by the serendipitous creativity of evolution that produced humans among an almost-infinite variety of creatures.

5)     May humanity rejoice in its work to make the world safer for all children. We are blessed by the work that transforms the world and expresses our hope for future generations.

6)     Let us gladden the loving couple, so they may enjoy gladness like the legendary gladness of paradise. Praised be the ones who gladden the loving partners.*

7)     Praised be those who increase joy and gladness, loving partners, exultation, song, pleasure and delight, love and great-love compassion, peace and friendship. May we work and hope for the day when, all over the world, all people regardless of religion, race, class, gender and orientation will hear the voices of joy and gladness, voices of loving partners, the jubilant voices of those joined together in love, the voices of young people feasting and singing. Praised be the ones who cause loving partners to be glad together.*

*by Rabbi David Gruber, with edits

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shmuly Boteach teaches you can be good without God!

Shmuley Boteach, the Rabbi often known for surfing, writing books about sex, and posing poor defenses of religion in debates against New Atheists, has written a response to Albert Mohler's tweet calling Anthony Weiner to Christianity.

About halfway through the article, he writes something that, to me, is the definition of secularism as a value, and a powerful statement that goodness is not dependent on religious belief.
It is not faith that guarantees our morality but rather an ironclad commitment to righteous action, be we atheists or theist.

Full article here

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The problem of a God Who shares all your values

While I am not on board with every detail in Paula Kirby's article Atheism is the true embrace of reality, there is a section in the middle that I highly recommend. Scroll down until you see every paragraph start with the phrase "Some of us knew..." This section casts suspicion on subjective experience as a source for knowledge about God, and really drives home how theology is most often anthropology/psychology (that is, it says more about us than about God).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I guest it again! State of Formation guest post!

Second guest-post in a week, y'all! Check out my taxonomy of Gods, now posted to State of Formation, "a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. Founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, it is run in partnership with Hebrew College and Andover Newton and in collaboration with the Parliament of the World’s Religions."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I Guest It! Sex Ed Transforms

I am getting married at the beginning of June, and my partner is putting up posts on her blog every day this month, reflecting on the process of wedding-planning and marriage-making. Her blog "Sex Ed Transforms" is about sex education, conversation and communication that addresses how we influence ourselves, each other, and the young people in our lives with regards to sex and sexuality.
And she let me write a guest post! Check it out HERE!

And while you're there, read the whole series!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Graduation Speech on the literal/metaphorical power of Self-Reflection

My high school friend Tori Ball gave a fantastic speech at CES-JDS's high school graduation. Besides her supreme wit and winning delivery, this speech calls the graduates (and all of us) to commit time in our day and in our lives to self-reflection and self-reckoning. This is definitely a lot of what I mean by spirituality-- tending for the fact that one is a spirit, a being capable of self-awareness and reflection.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Scientific Secular Spirituality!

It's in the news, people! I'm not the only one...

Article on recent survey of atheist scientists and their spirituality

Look for acknowledgement that mystery, awe, beauty and connection to something great than oneself still exist, regardless of God.

My one concern: There's an appreciation of secular spirituality as something highly individual, and thus free from communal authority figures. While I see that spirituality tends toward the personal, I would love to find a way to create communal spiritual principles, expressions, and celebrations that draw their authority from the community.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On the Self as a Collection

            I’ve been reading some biology that reminds me that my body is a collection of things that once existed on their own— mostly bacteria, but also various cells that, before they became specialized, could themselves be thought of as individuals, rather than as parts. So I am forced to recognize that what I call “I” is also something that a group of life-forms could be calling “We,” if they had a voice—which they don’t. I have a voice and I can say “I,” but it doesn’t change the fact that I am just as much a location of symbiosis as I am an individual in my own standing.
            Thinking about myself as a conglomeration compels me to consider my own mortality, to consider what death will do to me as an individual. As I have said a few times before, I see death as a severe withering of the personality. At death, the truth about myself as a temporary gathering-place of smaller life-forms is revealed. After “I” am gone, they slowly dissipate. And that’s that.
            To be honest, I am bringing this topic up not because I am concerned at all about my own fate, but rather, this question: What will become of my books?
After a recent trip to Maryland, my entire book collection is under one roof for the first time since high school. My entire library, which I would estimate at about 500 or so books, is with me. As a bibliophile, who I am is intensely tied up with this library. I have lovingly organized them into their sections: fiction, profound fiction, philosophy, philosophical theology, Judaism, Christianity, non-Judeo-Christianity, politics, environmentalism, psychology, and fan literature (Simpsons, Grateful Dead, Marx Brothers). I have read a lot of these books, but I would still venture to guess that I have not read around half of the pages I own. I probably own 10x more Heidegger or Buber than I have ever read. I collect books at a faster rate than I read them. Looking at my collection, one can see who I am, but this “I” is both what I’ve read and also what I would like to have read. My book collection is a curious symbol, composed of 500 or so signs that, individually and collectively, speak about me as their owner.
            I hope that the analogy is clear by now. These books are a part of me. But, when I die, what will become of my books? Since I plan to continue reading throughout my life, I like to imagine that they will serve as a partial record of the intellectual content I have consumed. But, I wonder, what is the meaning of all this intellectual consumption? I read a lot of books, which means that some make a profound impression, some leave traces, and some leave nothing. A lot of book-reading is more like an experience than like gaining possession—once I’m done reading, I do not “have” these books any more than I “have” a concert after it’s over (for more, see my upcoming piece, “What will become of my ticket stubs?”). Even if I utterly absorb the contents of a book, what then? What does it mean? What difference does it make?
            I find explanation (though I’m not sure how much solace) in Richard Dawkins’ account of the meme, the intellectual equivalent of the gene. What I call “I” is just as much a gathering-place of memes as it is a gathering-place of genes. Perhaps “intersection” is a better word, as it signifies that I am a location at which things both gather and dissipate. My reading of my books lives on as far as the bits of conversation (and pieces of writing) I pass on about them are themselves passed on.
            And what about the books themselves—what is their life after my death? Looking at my library, I am struck by a creeping realization that they will outlive me. They existed before they were mine, and they will exist after they are mine. They are ultimately not my library; they are just books. The only remaining meaning in my having possessed them is that their new owners are likely to be people geographically close to me, and who very well might be my descendants (or their cousins). I think of how I picked through my late grandfather’s books after my grandmother finally moved out of their large house in New City into a smaller apartment in New Jersey. His collection of memes, like his collection of genes, became a part of me, became a part of my experiences and my identity. It’s a beautiful thing—although, at the same time, I have to recognize that I received his books by picking through them, rather than receiving them as a library. My books will last and might be passed on meaningfully through me. My library, my beloved collection that speaks volumes about who I am, is as temporary as “I” am.
P.S. Jesper Hoffmeyer’s “Signs of Meaning in the Universe” was the immediate inspiration for this piece.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is anything sacred? Why the Harvard Humanists should not honor Seth MacFarlane as the 2011 Humanist of the Year

1)      I have been an avid fan of Family Guy since the show began. I have watched every episode and laughed my way through almost every episode.
2)     I don’t feel like compiling a list of examples, but I think it is fair to say that a majority of Family Guy episodes have at least one gag that makes light of sexual/domestic violence, or at least makes a grievously misogynistic joke. I think any fan of the show would agree with this statement, and if not, they are not watching closely enough.
3)     In the correct entertainment context, violence is funny. Cartoon violence is even funnier.
4)     Misogynistic violence against women is not funny. I say this as a feminist and as a humanist. It should be obvious why I say this as a feminist. As a humanist, I think I am drawing on a couple of lines from the Humanist Manifesto III, including the following:

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all. (emphasis mine)
5)     The italicized line, for me, signifies the intersection between Humanism and feminism (also Humanism and anti-racism). Sexism and racism are inhumane responses to human difference, ones which strip individuals and groups of their “worth and dignity” (to quote another section of the manifesto). They are the opposite of mutual care, concern, and freedom from cruelty.
6)     I think there is a subtle line between appropriate and inappropriate tongue-in-cheek offensive humor. For me, the line is in whether or not a critique of the humor is built into the show. Consider Cartman from South Park—he’s offensive and hilarious, but he rarely says something offensive without being judged by other characters on the show. Peter Griffin, Stewie, Lois, Quagmire, and Herbert (this is just my initial list of the most offensive Family Guy characters) are almost never judged onscreen for their racism, sexism, and pedophilia. If you think everyone in the audience gets that these characters are anti-heroes, try discussing Family Guy with a middle school student.
7)     I know I haven’t connected all of my dots here, but I just wanted to respond to the announcement as soon as possible. While I love Family Guy as entertainment, I do not find it any way to be a Humanist text. Sure, it’s atheistic and proudly so. But Humanism, to me, is far, far more than atheism. Just as an out-spoken atheist is not necessarily a good human/person, an out-spoken atheist show is not necessarily a good example of Humanism.
8)    In conclusion, I do not want Seth MacFarlane to represent Humanism, and I think that if Humanism is in any way related to anti-racism, feminism, or any other forms of anti-oppression work, then honoring him is a major compromise of Humanist values.