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Secular Spiritual Education

Matthew Lowe

Not An Oxymoron.

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by Matthew Lowe

"I daydream of a time when secular humanism has developed supplementary community schools

My passion for Judaism had always been based on a passion for God—and so my realization last April that I am an atheist engendered both a personal and professional crisis in my life.

The personal crisis passed quickly. Besides my religion, Judaism has always been my culture. I belong to a young, progressive Jewish community in Brookline called the Moishe Kavod Social Justice House, and there I can enjoy many dimensions of my Jewish identity without ever really needing to confront my disbelief. Regardless of the non/existence of God, there is so much apparent wisdom in the Jewish tradition, and so much to appreciate in the Jewish lifestyle and life cycle, that I am quite certain I will remain in the Jewish community for the rest of my life. The question of how my partner and I will raise our future kids, with what level of Jewish literacy and observance—that is a personal crisis for another day.

The professional crisis remains. The most difficult aspect of my dilemma is that I am really good at Jewish education. I have been a Jewish educator in one form or another for over half my life. At 13, I won a B'nai B'rith International programming award for my Friday night service and meditation for teens and their parents. At 18, I created Bible Survivor, a game in which teams attempted to "vote out" out-dated books of the Jewish Scriptures. At 24, I invented "Speed-Debating the Proofs of God," in which teenagers debated the traditional proofs of God's existence in a "speed-dating" format. With my extensive background in Jewish living and learning, and my talent for informal education, I have often day-dreamed about "saving" the Jewish supplementary school (AKA "Hebrew School"), an institution known primarily for being boring.

But in some sense, I have been in a professional crisis ever since 2002, when I first learned about biblical criticism as a student at List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Following my loss of faith in divine authorship, I found myself compelled to teach Bible as literature rather than as history. Instead of teaching the attributes of God, I began teaching metaphors for God, and God as a metaphor. No longer able to teach theology as a source of absolute truth, I taught theology as a source of human truth, as a testing ground for human visions of the nature of reality, the ultimate, and the sacred. In talking about and exploring the concept of "God," many people find an easy and compelling entry-point to thinking about themselves deeply, as individuals, as community, and as a world. As I continued to struggle with my own belief in God, I capitalized on the psychological-philosophical value of theology in order to continue to create educational spaces for pursuing wisdom and self-knowledge.

I believe now that my professional mission has always been just that: creating educational spaces for pursuing wisdom and self-knowledge. As a believer, I had always thought of God as the key to these pursuits. With my faith shaken, I created classes for supplementary school students that continued the mission through struggling with the concept of God—classes like "The Shapes of God," "Theology for Skeptics," and "Judaism vs. Idolatry" all explored how God-talk develops our sense of self and values. Now, as a non-believer, I am inspired to continue my mission outside the walls of religion, in the secular world.

Currently my best bets are in education or counseling psychology. I could teach at an institution for practitioners, and thus influence others to promote my mission for an educational space for secular spirituality. And yet I still toy with the idea of remaining in Jewish education—doesn't the Jewish world need humanistic teachers too? My newest class is called "Judaism Beyond Belief," and it explores one's options for Jewish identity after God (spoiler: the options are assimilation, Yiddish culture, Zionism, Leftism, and Humanistic Judaism). It's a great class and a noble venture, but I don't think it's my professional future. I am teaching about secular Judaism because it works for me personally; I am not inspired to advocate it for all people, and I can't say yet that I have a desire to devote my life to the growth of atheistic Judaism. I want to believe that I can best serve humanity by crafting a message (and an educational vehicle for that message) for all people. It remains to be seen where such a message and vehicle will be supported.

These days, I daydream of a time when secular humanism has developed supplementary community schools. That would be perfect! However, this will not be a reality for a long time, and I am searching for a career right now. I am constantly searching for fields of study that would sponsor my goal of "wisdom and self-knowledge education"—which I have been calling "secular spirituality." (I know "spirituality" is normally a metaphysical term, but I use it naturalistically, in the sense of the phrase "greatness of the human spirit.") Because it is atheistic, secular spirituality does not fit into religion. Because it is concerned with directly influencing the life of individuals and communities, secular spirituality does not usually fit into institutionalized philosophy, despite philosophy's nominal love of wisdom.

Secular spirituality education could be considered a combination of psychology and education, something like the promotion of human development and flourishing; and yet, there are few venues where this combination is allowed to see the light of day. Most professional psychology interactions happen in one-on-one or group therapy, not in classes. Once, when I was a second-grade teaching assistant, the school counselor came in to share a lesson on recognizing and communicating difficult emotions. Unfortunately, in secondary and higher education, counselors are not often invited into the classroom to assist in human development. In high school I learned many lessons about life from my English and History teachers—but that was a fortunate coincidence, not an intentional aspect of school culture. Some well-funded schools (public or private) have philosophy classes, but these classes are always the side-project of a full-time teacher of another subject. Is there any full-time work for the teacher who is solely devoted to education for greater self-awareness? An educational pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge deserves a place in the secular world.

Comments (now closed)

Joshua Schuman

27 Feb 2011 · 12:22 EST

Excellent article! My wife has been all over "Humanistic Judaism" as a path for us an our future children.

Tom Nagle

27 Feb 2011 · 17:38 EST

Great article Matt, and a fascinating journey your on. Good luck!

Jess K

28 Feb 2011 · 07:32 EST

Congrats on your first published article, Matt! It reads clearly and your inquiries are filled with compassion for the Jewish futures that await. Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise with us.

Marzipan

28 Feb 2011 · 08:59 EST

You should check out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. You would be welcome on so many levels and be able to engage in the rewards of teaching youth!

Ari

28 Feb 2011 · 12:06 EST

You know what I think about the content :), but nicely said and congrats on your first published work. I can't wait to read more and learn from you, as I always do.

Michael Witkin

28 Feb 2011 · 22:21 EST

Matthew, your issues are familiar to many of us Humanistic Jews. You might consider working for a Judaism of the 21st century, Humanistic Judaism. There's not much money in it, but we need leaders and teachers. Go to http://www.humanisticbarandbatmitzvahs.wordpress.com to see how we are approaching Jewish education in a very assimilated 21st century America.

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

01 Mar 2011 · 11:16 EST

The Society for Humanistic Judaism and other similar groups are out there in desperate need of people like you! http://www.TheAtheistRabbi.com

Matthew Lowe

01 Mar 2011 · 11:21 EST

Thanks, friends, for your kind words. Marzipan, I have been considering checking in with the Unitarians; thanks for the extra push. Rabbi Falick and Mr. Witkin, I would love to discuss HJ more, and you'll be happy to know I'm already half-way recruited-- I'm chaperoning and leading a workshop at the HuJews Conclave at the end of this month!

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