Saturday, March 10, 2012

What makes a ceremony Humanist? What makes it un-Humanist?

            This post is intended as an initial survey of possible answers to the above questions.

            What makes a ceremony Humanist is relatively simple—if it affirms the values of Humanism I’ve been invoking for the last three posts (or others from the Humanist Manifesto III), then it’s a Humanist ceremony. Here’s what that might look like: 
  • Common elements: strictly naturalistic language, family/communal gathering, invocation of cultural-historical heritage, symbolic activity, the intention to “tell the story” of the life-cycle as it plays out in individual lives (“Everything we do creates a story. Let’s tell the story we want to tell.” – Rabbi Jerris)
  • Baby-welcoming: meaningful name-giving, symbolic welcoming ritual, and public profession of shared responsibility and hope
  • Coming-of-age: ceremony marking transition into maturity, possibly involving a talk on personal philosophy or the culmination of a meaningful project, with words and gifts relating to maturity given by adults
  • Wedding: focus on the couple as individuals and as a unit in larger chain of life; affirmations of promises and shared goals made by the couple;  invitation to all witnesses to lend support; acknowledgement that marriage effected by life and commitment rather than by pronouncement
  • Funeral/Memorial Service: framed as part of a process of loss and grief; looks at a person’s full life authentically, and “begins the legacy” of the person through a “celebration of life”; embraces the finality, tragedy, and universality of death
             The more controversial question ends up being “What makes a ceremony un-Humanist?” This question raises the difficult issue of determining the boundaries of Humanism—what’s in, what’s out? Over the course of the weekend training, the discussion of each life-cycle ceremony had its own testing of boundaries:
  • General challenges: To what extent can a secular Humanist ceremony borrow language, actions, or objects from its religious counterparts? To what extent should a Humanist celebrant welcome, tolerate, or discourage religious, traditionalist, or nostalgic elements that may compromise their own values as a Humanist? To what extent should a Humanist ceremony explicitly define and endorse Humanism as a philosophy and life-stance?
  • Baby-welcoming: Is circumcision rationally or morally defensible? Is there such a thing as a Humanist baptism (or, in general, a Humanist baby-welcoming water ceremony)?
  • Coming-of-age: Is it good/right to pressure a child to produce a coming-of-age project? Are coming-of-age rituals little more than indoctrination? 
  • Wedding: How feminist must a Humanist wedding be? Can a bride be “given away” at a Humanist wedding? What structures (or traces) of patriarchy can be brought into a Humanist wedding in good conscience?
  • Funeral/Memorial Service: Is there a ‘more Humanist’ way to dispose of a body, and how much should environmentalism play a role in considerations?

 **STAY TUNED! Writing concise thoughts on these last five bullets points is going to take awhile.**

Why would Humanists hold a life-cycle ceremony?

            Before I get bogged down in philosophy, I need to acknowledge the glaring, more concrete reason I’m drawn to life-cycle rituals—I was raised in a (Jewish) culture of them. They were the signposts of life as I grew up, experiencing some ceremonies for myself, and witnessing countless others. This is the autobiographical basis of my attachment to ritual.
I begin with this point so as to highlight how an individual’s connections to ritual are often largely culture-driven (aka from nurture), and this is cause for great diversity in secular attitudes towards ritual.  If a Humanist has strong roots in a particular religion and its ceremonies, those early experiences can set that individual’s image of what meaning-making is supposed to look and feel like. And if a person was raised without much attachment to rituals, there’s a great chance they won’t develop a taste for them later in life. So, when it comes to Humanist ritual celebration, some people just will never be that into it. Some people are academic or activism humanists, but not song-and-dance humanists.

            So I won’t say Humanist life-cycle ceremonies are for every Humanist, or every human.

            For myself as a Humanist, I am drawn to life-cycle rituals by a need to mark time, to live intentionally, and to gather with others—and to accomplish these things by use of the symbolic in word, object, and act. Rituals develop our sense of meaning and purpose, our capacity for wonder and reverence for the triumphs and challenges in life. Our life-cycle ceremonies honor our relationships and celebrate our intersubjectivity. And we express these meanings and values by drawing on (and often creating afresh) the rich heritage of human cultures.
*(I’m just borrowing a lot of the language from the Humanist Manifesto III in this whole paragraph, but I think you’ll agree it echoes a number of the Existential/Feminist themes I mentioned in my last post.)

            As a Humanist, I would want to hold a baby welcoming ceremony in order to make explicit and public our joy, hope, and solemn sense of responsibility in welcoming new life and growing a family.

As a Humanist, I would want to hold a coming-of-age ceremony in order to give adolescents an opportunity to be recognized in their transition from childhood to adulthood, to be honored for developing and sharing their own thoughts and values, and to feel supported in finding new roles in the community and society.

As a Humanist, I have held a wedding because as a human in love, I wanted to make explicit and public the commitment, joy, and hope that follow from that love, and to be supported in this endeavor by friends and family. I held a progressive, Humanistic wedding in order to honor the egalitarian values over those of patriarchy which plague human relations.

As a Humanist, I will want a funeral or memorial service because the people I leave behind may need that ritual to help process their loss. And because, as an Existentialist, I believe it is healthy and meaningful for humans to engage with mortality—“It is better to go to the house of mourning… for that is the end of all men (sic), and the living will lay it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Humanism as a philosophy, Humanism as a life-stance

            Humanism is a philosophy and a life-stance. As a philosophy, it is commonly agreed that Humanism eschews the supernatural, understands human goods as derived from human need, and embraces the human development of knowledge, ethics, community, and meaning-making. As a life-stance, Humanism is the individual’s and the collective’s living expression of the philosophy of Humanism.
            I tried to make the above description as diplomatic and broad as possible, but I also think that Humanism (as philosophy and life-stance) more often is crafted on a much smaller scale, by each individual and group according to their understanding of what it means to engage and pursue ‘the good’ in a naturalistic world. Personally, I tend to conflate Humanism with my take on Existentialism (with a focus on concrete existence, meaning, freedom, responsibility, anxiety, death, relationships, authenticity, social criticism, nothingness, the limits of rationalism) and my take on radical Feminism (with a focus on egalitarianism, social criticism, relationships, experience, authenticity, self-critical analysis, and social justice activism). My Humanism is a commitment to human flourishing insofar as it is pursued through all of the Existential/Feminist themes I listed. No doubt other secular thinkers will mold Humanism in the image of their own constellation of non-supernatural priorities and ideals.
            All well and good so far, but I’ve really only discussed Humanism as a philosophy. Humanism as a life-stance is all about what one does with their Humanist philosophy. A person could pursue Humanism in their career, in their politics and activism, or in their communal-cultural practices. I have mixed feelings about whether a self-proclaimed Humanist necessarily must pursue Humanism in all realms of their life—on the one hand, I don’t want to be the one to set or demand a standard; on the other, I personally find it difficult to see career, politics, activism, community, and culture as non-overlapping realms.
Regardless of how it is implemented, I think it is developing Humanism as a life-stance that is the main goal of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. Developing Humanism as a life-stance is the best expression of the truth that Humanism is more than just atheism, which itself can only serve as the philosophical frame or foundation for a lifestyle. Humanism, as a progressive philosophy, includes the requirement that it be lived in order to be affirmed. Developing Humanism as a life-stance requires the creation of opportunities for people to actualize their Humanist values—in work, in activism, and in life and community with other Humanists.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why I spent last weekend training to be a Humanist Celebrant

            This weekend I was fortunate to be part of an exciting and fascinating training on Humanist Celebrancy, facilitated by Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and hosted by the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. For about three days, Rabbi Jerris talked us through the principles and pitfalls of facilitating the production of Humanist life-cycle rituals, including baby-naming/welcoming, coming-of-age, weddings, and funerals. We also had brief conversations about crafting ceremonies for name changing, sex/gender changing, coming out, and “coming-of-wisdom” (hat-tip to Rev. Q). I found the entire experience electrifying, and hope to write more about my thoughts and hopes following this training. For now, I will just explain why I attended:
            My primary motivation in attending this training was professional. I am hoping that my experience and aptitude as a teacher, workshop-facilitator, and Fabrengen leader means that I could have success officiating at meaningful life-cycle ceremonies, and I was looking to add this training to my credentials. After spending three days with a veteran celebrant like Rabbi Jerris, I do feel this training provided me with a fuller sense of each ceremony's structure and substance, in addition to raising my sensitivity to the philosophical and logistical minefields built into such events.
            I was also driven to attend by my passion for philosophizing about Humanism, rituals, the life-cycle, and general meaning-making. There were plenty of opportunities for that! Foundational philosophical questions dogged every discussion. While these questions were debated on and off all weekend, we never addressed them directly or comprehensively—a necessary frustration for a weekend training. Still, these are the questions that have kept my head spinning from Friday afternoon through this afternoon:

            “What is Humanism?”
“Why would Humanists hold a life-cycle ceremony?” and
“What makes a Humanist ceremony Humanist; what makes it un-Humanist?”

So many issues sprout from these questions, I don’t yet know where to start, and it will certainly require much more writing beyond the space of this blog-post to flesh out my own theory or approach to the subject of Humanist celebrations.
            While my thoughts on these questions remain uncertain and unorganized, my ultimate motivation to attend this training was my love and commitment to the generation and popularization of modern, secular, meaningful life-cycle rituals. Lack or loss of God does not, and in my opinion should not, signal lack or loss of meaning. Perhaps it’s my conflation of Humanism with Existentialism and radical Feminism, but I think all humans deserve (and can benefit from) opportunities for personal and collective meaning-making throughout life.  
And, hopefully, more Humanist celebrants will lead to more secular individuals having those opportunities.