Secular Spiritual Education
"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.