Meet Me in St. Louis

This Summer, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be moving on from Harvard after 7 years. When I first came to America to begin a one year Master’s degree in Arts in Education, after two years teaching high school English in the UK equivalent of Teach for America, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Coming to the US was a retreat: I had expected to love teaching, and to be good at it, but had discovered that I was terrible and, because I could see every day that I was not helping my students or using my talents in the best possible way, I didn’t really enjoy it either. Returning to academia was a safe option: I knew I was good at writing papers and discussing ideas with people, so spending a year in America to think big thoughts – and get a Master’s degree in the process – seemed like a solid plan.

Then I fell in love. I fell madly in love with a set of ideas which has shaped my thinking as a philosopher and an educator profoundly, and I couldn’t get enough. Though I flirted with the idea of going back into theatre (I even went as far as interviewing for a dramaturgy program at the American Repertory Theater), applying to study for a doctorate in education seemed like the obvious choice: it would enable me to keep thinking, keep growing, keep learning. And, for the most part, I have not regretted that decision one bit. When I’m struggling to make sense of the direction of my life I fall back on a simple question: “James, are you learning anything new? Are you growing as a person?” If I can answer “Yes!” to that question, then I generally feel happy about my choices – and Harvard has certainly been the catalyst for huge growth in my intellectual, emotional, and existential life. I have loved the courses I’ve taken, and I adore helping teach graduate and undergraduate students, so it seemed for a while that the academic life beckoned.

Over the last couple of years, however, I began to wonder whether academia is the right path for me. While I enjoy teaching, I do not honestly love the process of writing and rewriting (and rewriting, and rewriting…) papers for publication – a significant part of any academic’s job. And while the life of the mind has a great many qualities, I have always felt a strong desire to reach out of the academy, and to bring alive the ideas which inspire me for people who may never set foot in a university. Mostly, though, I have in the past two or three years become increasingly convinced that Humanism must be a central pat of my life – and the academy is not currently that interested in Humanism.

My passion for Humanism is difficult to describe, and the attempt to do so engenders a certain reticence in me to which, as a public communicator, I am not accustomed. Although I am in general indifferent to the opinions of most others of my life choices, I find myself embarrassed to admit the extent of the importance of Humanism to my life, for fear of a negative reaction. I want people to understand, yet it is tough to find the words. So let me put it like this: just for a moment, think of Humanism as my religion. Humanism is the word I use to describe my deepest values, those principles I esteem so highly that I wish to dedicate my life to their service. The literature which inspires me, the movies and music which bring me to tears, the ideas which drive me, are Humanist to the core. I am a lover of Carl Sagan, and of Star Trek, and of the Symphony of Science. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is my Narnia, and my heroes are all those people who, fighting oppression and injustice and ignorance, pushed the human species toward a brighter future. Think of Humanism as my religion.

Now perhaps it won’t be so strange to you if I tell you I will, in August – if all goes well – be moving to St. Louis, Missouri to complete my training as a Humanist congregational leader in the Ethical Culture movement. Just imagine I’m becoming a Humanist priest: I’m training to be a congregational leader for Humanists, and in August I hope to start working with an actual congregation, and the Ethical Society of St. Louis is the lucky (unfortunate? Foolhardy?) congregation which gets to complete my training through a one-year paid internship.

Why St. Louis? I’ll be honest: when I imagined all the places I might move to after getting my doctorate from Harvard, St. Louis was not at the top of my list. I imagined San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington D.C., New York, my beloved London and, in my more whimsical moments, Las Vegas and Key West – but never St. Louis. When I tell people I’m moving there they give me a funny look. But I’m more than happy about this decision: I’m ecstatic. I can’t wait. I’ll give you three reasons: first, St, Louis has what is probably one of the largest non-theistic congregations in the world, housed in a stunning building filled with wonderful people led by an amazing leader, Kate Lovelady. I’ll be writing a lot more about the Society in the coming months, but for now here’s some images of the gorgeous mid-century modern building:


Second, I’m actually excited to move to a more conservative part of the country. While my friend and colleague Chris Stedman is a Humanist bridge-builder and peace-maker, I’m more of a troublemaker. The motto of Auburn Seminary is “Trouble the Waters. Heal the World” – and I hope to go to Missouri and seriously trouble some waters. An example very close to my heart as a gay man: while in MA many of the great battles for queer equality and acceptance have been won, in Missouri there are huge battles still to be fought. I want to fight for justice, freedom, and equality – particularly while I’m young and have the fire and the energy to do so. I believe that there are many battles to be fought in Missouri, and I’m excited to add my voice to the passionate activists already working hard in that state.

And finally, I’m looking forward to the move because it represents the true beginning of my career. After seven years in grad school and three in undergrad I have spent most of my adult life studying, and I’m ready to start putting what I’ve learned into action. At Harvard I have studied and taught philosophy, pedagogy, cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, persuasion, and leadership. I have studied freethought history and Humanist philosophy, and effective activism with The Humanist Institute. Through the Ethical Culture Leadership Training program, and through my long association with the Humanist Community at Harvard, I have been learning how to grow an organization, how to meet the pastoral needs of congregants, and how to convey the Humanist message. I am just so ready to take everything I have learned and to make a difference in the world. I hae chosen to do that through Humanist congregational leadership because that is the place where, I fervently hope, my talents and my loves will intersect most closely, and I will be able to make the biggest impact.

So, the next six months will be an extended farewell to Boston. I hope to write here more frequently (it would be difficult to write less frequently!), using this blog as a place to work out a philosophy of congregational leadership which might help me in the future. I would like to begin dialogue with clergy and congregational leaders in other traditions to get some perspective on congregational life, and hopefully learn something from them. And, obviously, I am going to finish my doctoral dissertation (I promise, Mum!). But mostly I will be preparing, with excitement, and more than a little trepidation, to pull up the roots I have been planting in New England, and follow Humanism west.

Meet me in St Louis.

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