Last Sunday morning Marty and I drove over to Pasadena to hear Bryan Stevenson speak at All Saints Church. I’ve known Bryan since I was a little boy growing up on the campus of Eastern Baptist College and he was one of my father’s all-time favorite sociology students. Bryan went on to Harvard Law School and then moved to Montgomery, Alabama to found the Equal Justice Institute, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
Lately he’s become a strong voice in the conversation about race, poverty, police misconduct and mass incarceration, and I’ve watched with joy as his book, Just Mercy, and his TED talk, We Need to Talk About An Injustice have moved huge numbers of people to genuinely rethink our dominant American narrative.
Listening to Bryan, I was reminded of the power of proximity when it comes to living out our highest values. As long as we keep ourselves apart from the most broken places in our world, we can approach every form of injustice as a social issue, and feel good about ourselves so long as we hold the right opinion and vote the right way on that issue. When we get closer, however, and get to know the individual people who are being neglected and abused by our broken systems, and begin trying to make a difference, things quickly get a whole lot messier, as we discover our own brokenness – and often our own healing – in the midst of the struggle.
Bryan also reminded me of the power of stories, especially when it comes to motivating people to make the kind of sacrifices required to change things for the better. We secularists, and especially those of us who had to find our way out of supernatural religions, are often so enamored with our rational arguments and scientific evidence that we forget what reason and science tell us over and over again, loud and clear: We human beings are emotional animals.
As a young man, I ran a ministry called Kingdomworks, which recruited Christian college students to spend their summers in inner-city churches, organizing day-camps for children. Since becoming a humanist, I’ve heard from many of my former volunteers. Some are confused or disappointed by my transition, but others are thrilled that I’ve not only joined them on the other side of faith, but also have begun to communicate a new – to us at least – way of joyfully living for love and justice.
Yesterday I received a beautiful note from one of them, who said she’d found a poem that reminded her of my Christianity. Given who reads this blog, I reckon it may speak for some of you too.
Failing and Flying
by Jack Gilbert
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
A few days ago I met one of my favorite USC seniors for breakfast. Ray is not usually awake before 10 am, so I considered it a compliment that he rolled out of bed for me. I’d have been more flattered if he’d combed his hair as well, but that’s really just bald man jealousy on my part. In any case, soon enough we were up to our ears in the kind of conversation that makes this work both meaningful and a little bit scary.
We started out talking about Ray’s classes, but as is often the case with seniors, the conversation quickly turned to his plans for after graduation, which include a tour of Europe, an internship in Southeast Asia, and a PhD program before long. Ray was already committed to loving relationships and social justice when I met him last year, and it’s been a joy to watch him grow as a humanist ever since. I’m not sure what he’ll do for a living, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll spend his life making things better for other people. In the meantime, though, I’ve been kind of curious about his love life. After all, for better and worse, romantic relationships are often where the action is when it comes to defining values and pursuing goodness in an intentional way.
In this case, I knew Ray had broken up with his steady girlfriend last semester, and he’d made no secret of the fact that lately he’d been having a lot of fun with a smartphone app called Tinder, which is most often used by young adults looking for immediate, no-strings-attached sexual encounters. So then, I asked him to explain how all that stuff actually works real life. I quickly discovered that he’d met up with nearly a dozen strangers in the past month and had sex with roughly half of them. They were all nice people, he said, but none of them – including him – had expressed any interest in getting together again. It was all just for the moment, just for fun.
If you think I’m working up to some kind of aggrieved moral judgment here, well, think again. I won’t deny that that kind of casual, technology-enabled sexual promiscuity freaks me out a little bit, or even that it makes me sad sometimes, but the older I get, the more aware I am that my sensibilities are anything but objective, and that what worked in my day doesn’t necessarily work so well for my young friends. Slowly but surely, I’m learning that my job here is to lovingly ask more and better questions rather than trying to force my one-size-fits-all answers down everybody else’s throats.
Fortunately, I’d just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s now book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, which has a whole chapter on the ways new technologies are reshaping our romantic relationships, and I’d just listened to podcast of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk about the paradox of choice, which explains how having too many options causes people to be less satisfied with whichever one they choose, so I had loads of good questions for Ray and me to wrestle with together. We wondered about the long term effects of an unlimited supply of easily available sexual partners. We speculated about the dangers of commoditizing – and being commoditized in return by – other human beings. Ray openly described his eagerness for a lifetime partnership like his parents’, and I observed how many of the most important qualities of Marty’s and my marriage wouldn’t show up or be valued in today’s dating economy. While I took care not to criticize Ray’s desires, I pushed hard for him to think more carefully about how well his day-to-day behavior lined up with his overall values and goals in life.
“This was a great conversation,” he said as after we finished. “Honestly, you’re the first older person I’ve heard who doesn’t just seem jealous about not having this kind of access to recreational sex back in the day.” He paused for a moment, before adding, “Anyway, thanks for being here, and not just today. You’ve changed a lot of lives, you know. Someday me and the rest of us students are going to start making money, and when that happens you’ll have all the support you need for this chaplaincy.” Then, as we hugged goodbye, he added, “I just hope you can hold on until then.”
That’s what I hope too, of course, which is why I’m still raising money for the chaplaincy on the one hand, and looking for a paying job that keeps me close to campus on the other. There’s no way I’m going to give up this kind of campus ministry. We’re not just building a warm and wonderful humanist community here, after all; we’re raising up a new generation of thoughtful, loving, proactive humanist leaders, who will spread out and do lots of good all over the world.
Ever since I became a humanist, I’ve been trying to work the word ‘ministry’ into the secular lexicon. After all, almost every government but ours calls its various departments ‘ministries’ (and their heads ‘ministers’) because they tend to the various needs of its citizens. Plain and simple, ministry is a great descriptor of effective, intentional care or service, whether or not it has anything to do with believing in God.
There are lots of words like that. Fellowship, mission, monastic, and even spirituality could all be helpfully utilized by secular community builders if we weren’t so afraid of being confused with our supernaturalist counterparts. Mind you, I don’t want to take those words away from anybody; I want to share them with everybody who’s doing what we’re doing, which is bringing people together to intentionally pursue goodness, love and justice.
This thought came to mind again today when one of my humanist pals alerted me to this post by one of my Christian heroes, Hugh Hollowell, who cares for homeless people in Raleigh-Durham, NC in the most beautiful way:
Hugh knows I don’t believe in God anymore, and he also knows I stand by every word I wrote to him back when I did. Make no mistake; we’re all called to be ministers, if not by God, then by the better angels of our natures. Thanks Hugh.
In 1893, the centerpiece of Chicago’s World Fair was the White City, fourteen neoclassical masterpieces carefully arranged around a large reflecting pool by architect Daniel Burnham, who knew from the start that the whole thing would be torn down as soon as the fair was over. Certainly Burnham must have been grateful for the opportunity to see his vision work so beautifully in practice, but I’ll bet he hated to see it end, too, and wondered if and when he’d get the chance to actualize it again in a better, more permanent way.
Then again, maybe I’m projecting, since that’s how I’ve been feeling ever since last weekend’s Sunday Assembly in Hollywood, where I finally got to orchestrate a big secular community gathering just the way I wanted…and it worked!
Here’s the story: Two English comedians on their way to a gig started talking about the idea of a church without God, and two years later Sunday Assemblies have sprung up all over the world, mixing what they call ‘the best bits of church’ with pop songs and science to celebrate life in a secular way. Marty and I attended one of those gatherings here in Los Angeles, and afterwards a few Sunday Assembly leaders innocently asked for some feedback. As you can imagine, I proceeded to wear those folks out with my big ideas until they decided the best way to get rid of me was to just let me run a meeting myself.
For starters, Marty and I organized our family and friends – including a bunch of my USC students – to show up early to help set up and, more importantly, greet each and every participant in a warm, friendly way. We had a pianist play upbeat music as people came into the meeting hall, too, and every chair got filled, so the room seemed full. Even before the program started, the positive energy was terrific.
At 11 o’clock Ian Dodd, who helped found Sunday Assembly LA, got up to welcome everyone, introduce me and let people know they might notice a few changes that morning. Then I introduced Maggie Wheeler and the Golden Bridge Community Choir, and the first of those changes became apparent because, instead of pop songs, Maggie quickly got us all singing, “If we want hope to survive in this world today, then every day we have to work on…teach on, march on, and sing on!” in a loud, soulful way. By the time they sat down and Ian returned, it felt like we really were all in this thing together.
The whole program was planned that way. Instead of just announcing the Heal the Bay service project, Ian invited 8-year-old Victoria on stage to read her heartfelt personal invitation, which made everyone want to hug her. Then someone else welcomed all the newcomers to join her for lunch afterwards, before an obviously nervous young man took the microphone to share the touching story of his lonely migration from ultra-orthodox Judaism to secular humanism, and his gratitude for the understanding friendships he’s finally found through Sunday Assembly. By the time we were asked to stand and greet each other, people all had lots to talk about. Then, after the collection was taken, it was my turn to speak.
My talk was mainly about learning to live out our values instead of arguing our beliefs, but honestly, for most of the people in that room, what I said mattered a whole lot less than the way I said it. You see, despite having no remaining supernatural inclinations, it turns out I’m still a strait-up evangelist.
It’s not just because I talk with my hands, tell stories and make jokes. It’s not because I know how to work a crowd, either. No, I’m still an evangelist because I still walk on stage fully convinced that what I’m offering will make your life better, and openly aiming to motivate you in that direction. In other words, I speak with passion, like I’ve got good news. Not surprisingly, that’s a big problem for lots of secular people, even when they agree with everything I say.
I can’t blame them for being suspicious, of course. After all, we’ve all heard way too many phony, absurd, shameful, and exploitative messages from people who sound just like me. The fact that I’m encouraging people to make the most of this life in a rational way – by building loving relationships, doing meaningful work and cultivating a genuine sense of wonder and gratitude – is beside the point. For those of us who have been harmed by it, any kind of emotional manipulation can be deeply troubling.
And yet we go to the movies. We ride roller coasters. We smile when our significant others dim the lights and cue up the slow jams. Strange as it sounds, when we know and trust what’s going on, we actually enjoy being artfully frightened, thrilled, turned on, and even saddened sometimes. Likewise, at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, we purposely set the stage for true emotions that we know will be good for us.
Frankly, that’s what I was going for with the whole program at Sunday Assembly. My goal was to inspire everyone there to want to build the kind of loving, missional, secular community that can heal broken lives and transform all of us – and especially our children – into better, happier people. I didn’t just want them to think it. I wanted them to feel it in their bones.
I said at the beginning that my event orchestration worked, but really, who knows? Everyone seemed to have a great time together, and more Assemblers than ever stuck around afterwards to chat, but I can’t imagine there weren’t plenty of mixed feelings. Honestly, I have no idea what the leaders of Sunday Assembly will make of our little experiment. All I know for sure is that I got a fleeting glimpse of the humanist community I’ve been dreaming about since I left the church, and the experience was so exciting that I hated to see it end.
Here’s a hopeful thought: Ephemeral though it was, the White City inspired a revolutionary approach to urban planning that transformed great metropolises and smaller towns around the world. Mind you, I can’t guarantee that someday there will be vibrant secular communities positively transforming lives in all those cities and towns, but I will say this much: If there are, I already know what they look like.
PS If you’d like to support this kind of community building, just click here to make a donation to the Humanist Chaplaincy of Los Angeles.
I’ve been the Humanist Chaplain at USC for nearly a year now, and in a few months I’ll be the Humanist Chaplain at UCLA as well. I need to raise money for both those projects, but I’m new to Los Angeles and hardly anyone really gets my idea of building a relational campus ministry to inspire secular young people to make the most of their lives. Nevertheless, after slowly amassing a fairly large collection of potential supporters, I’ve sent you precisely zero letters about what I’m doing here. Seriously, what’s my problem?
I mean, it would be easy enough to describe jump-starting USC’s Secular Student Fellowship by speaking in classes, organizing community dinners, participating in academic forums and public ceremonies, networking with like-minded staff and faculty, and meeting with a steady stream of bright, energetic young people. Or to add that because both my ‘deconversion’ and my new role have been so widely publicized, I’m counseling all kinds of other people about pursuing goodness and building community on the other side of faith.
But none of that stuff captures the heart of what’s happening here.
For that I’d need to tell you a story about this work making a difference in somebody’s life, the way I did when I was an urban missionary. Unfortunately, these days most of my stories are about hyper-connected university students, who would surely discover me writing about them and lose their sense of safety, no matter how carefully I disguised their identifying details.
All I can share, really, are the things we talk about. You know, like their families, their roommates, and their significant others. What they believed growing up versus what they believe now. The meaning of life. Managing stress. What they’re studying and what they hope to do with it once they graduate. Managing anxiety. The origins of the Universe. The meaning of life. How to work for social justice. Sexuality. The meaning of life.
Seriously, my college students talk a lot about the meaning of life, which, strange as it sounds, means I end up talking a lot about the reality of death. Because, after all, for those of us who don’t believe in eternal life, it is only the scarcity of our days which makes them infinitely valuable, and which demands we decide how best to spend them.
Honestly, those conversations are usually great fun, partly because they always lead to the consideration of maximum happiness, and partly because my student friends are so very young. Occasionally, however, we must face together the actual death of a loved one, who suddenly has no more days to decide. In those moments, I often quote these lines of Robert Ingersoll:
The idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear, beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow – hope, shining on the tears of grief.
And yet there is one thing of which I am certain, and that is that if we could live forever here, we would care nothing for each other. The fact that we must die, the fact that the feast must end, brings our souls together and treads out the weeds from the paths between our hearts. And so it may be after all that love is a little flower that grows on the crumbling edge of the grave. So it may be that were it not for death there would be no love, and without love all life would be a curse.
I share those obviously antique words because I want my students to feel the urgency to connect, not only with one another, but also with the world around them, and with themselves. And because I want them to start learning to set their grief beside their joy in a place of honor, instead of hiding it away. And because I want to show them that our kind of warm, compassionate, community-building secular humanism is nothing new.
No, the only new thing here is my wife Marty and me, reaching out to secular students at USC and UCLA in an organized, proactive way, and asking you to help. Honestly, as much as we love this work, Marty and I can’t keep funding the Humanist Chaplaincy of Los Angeles out of our own savings. Don’t worry, eventually the young people we serve will graduate and support this chaplaincy because it touched their lives. In the meantime, however, if you value this good work, please make a tax-deductible donation to keep it growing.