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.**

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful summary -- someone was paying attention during class. I love teaching adults. Thank you Matt. I did want to speak this week, but I came home to a funeral and my week got derailed, but I was able to serve a grieving family.