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Act and word; reflections on the humanist future.

This essay, a sequel to "Dialectic and Disarray: Do Humanists Really Want a Humanist Movement?" (The Humanist, July/August 1993), is based on a talk I gave on May 7, 1993, at the fifty-second annual conference of the American Humanist Association, upon receiving the Humanist Distinguished Service Award. I tried to do justice to an award which, in the past, has boasted a number of truly distinguished recipients, including E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Patricia Schroeder, Marian Wright Edelman, Paul and Ann Ehrlich, Francis Crick, and Ellen Goodman. I was mindful, too, of the death of Edwin H. Wilson, which marked the loss of a living connection to the humanist past in this country and abroad. Finally, I recalled the many voices I have heard over the years lamenting the weakness of organized humanism in the United States despite more than 100 years of effort by the Ethical Culture Societies and the humanist wing of Unitarian-Universalism, and despite more than 50 years of hard work by the American Humanist Association. Hence, these reflections.

I. A sense of history must inform our efforts to build the humanism of the future: a respect for what has gone before, and an awe at what is yet to come. The future, like the past, is not an exhibit to be observed from the outside. History is a participatory and present activity. We are, to paraphrase a forgotten title by James Harvey Robinson, "in the making," always in the making.

Every generation is called to meet the test of the future, and no generation ever begins anew. Original we may try to be, but we are always circumscribed by what has gone before. So tension inheres in the present project, for we inevitably struggle against what was, and yet we are as inevitably bound by it. We know, too, that our children and our children's children will struggle against us and yet be bound by us as well.

A look, then, at our own past. Ironically, for all that we are "unbelievers," we seem to take almost literally the gospel according to John: "In the beginning," he said, "was the word." Of course, there are explanations for our logophilia. As children of the Enlightenment, we are tutored by declarations and manifestos--so much so that we seem to believe that saying makes it so and that a good argument is a sufficient cause. But we also know better than this. We are called, therefore, to a radical reconstruction of our habits. Following Goethe's words, the new humanist "gospel" must be "In the beginning is the act!" Out of and against our past, then, I urge my theme: the humanist future expects us to become less a people of the word and more a people of the act.

We dare not continue our love affair with word play--a game at which we are already too accustomed. I must reject the alluring abstractness of ideas, which is the way the game entices me. Of course, I do not reject thinking; I am not counseling mindlessness. When I "act," I weave ideas, judgments, choices, responses, sensitivities, and connections into my autobiography. In doing this, I mark myself off from objects and things which have a record but not a story. As a rational animal--for I do not surrender my love of reason--I take the "act" seriously when I embed thinking itself into the complicated act of thinking-doing-feeling.

I need--we need--a different grammar. Humanism, which all too often addresses the world in the third person, must become personal, concrete. An "act" is revealed by a different syntax; when I speak of it in the first-person singular, a shift from it to I, I announce the act as unequivocally my own. I do not say that it is done but, rather, that I am doing it. In short, the humanist future requires that I attend to the intimacies of experience, for only as my passions are engaged do my actions merit the adjective humanist.

But this is still much too general, much too hortatory.

When I hear the word act, my attention turns outward. I mobilize a machinery of cause and effect; I look for results and efficiencies. I think of social action, social reform. I remember all the causes I embrace--so many causes in a lifetime. I dance a minuet of "left" and "right" and "idea" and "consequence." An army of habits is conjured by the word act. In the mind's eye, I see petitions and votes and resolutions and debates; I remember marches and demonstrations and all the paraphernalia attendant upon the powers of the world. Yet these are all too impersonal; they turn me all too easily into a creature of collectivities and anonymities. All of this action is apart from me even when I am present. But then, I am not present, not expected to be present. My "private" person--I easily fall into the habit of thinking of myself as private person playing a public role--is insulated, untouched. Indeed, I split apart, become a self and an actor. So I do what I must do--or better, what it is said that I must do--and go home still disconnected. Even as I debate and argue and attack and defend, I hold aloof. For all that social action, at its best, is public conduct privately felt, I discover that it can as easily be a hiding place as a commitment.

I really have to start further back than this in order to return humanism to the personal. I want my public conduct to be genuinely my own--or better, I must "own" (and own up to) my public conduct. In saying this, I am also saying that public conduct cannot be dispensed with--that intimacy for a humanist cannot be reduced to the merely meditative, the merely reflective, or even the merely interpersonal. A humanism of the act, in other words, requires a politics--an intimate politics, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical. As I reach outward from within and am transformed inwardly from without, my acts emerge from my loves and hopes and dreams and, in turn, reshape them. In this way, my acts take on personal integrity. They are, as it were, tokens of my character even as they shape and reshape my character. Thus I am reminded of Felix Adler's comment, "In the attmept to change others, we must inevitably change ourselves." An act, therefore, is in its nature intimate and political all at once.

II. An act is a personal center of energies joining world and self. It is simultaneously an exhibition, an expression, a connection, a celebration--and only finally an action. An act conveys, therefore, far more than the simplicities of means and ends. It is an existential, aesthetic, psychological, and communal event. Its moral, political character--which is most often the way we think of it--is thickened, made multidimensional, when I look at it autobiographically. Of course, an act is also a response to others and to the world, but that would take me into an exploration of what must be responded to--the person in pain, the society in turmoil, the dream turned nightmare--and I must leave that very large undertaking (looking at an act morally, culturally, communally, and politically) for another time.

Exhibition. An act exhibits me. Even my speech is a "speechact," a type of doing and a revelation of myself to myself and to others. My accent, my choice of words, my subject matter all tell my story, as do my movements and manipulations and silences. In an act, I show myself to be an energetic animal with directions, concerns, and values. Unlike the fall of a stone or the motion of a planet, my act has a trajectory that is not entirely dictated by the forces acting upon me. Indeed, aware of these forces, I resist--I am contrary--and so exhibit in yet another way that I am who I am. An act exhibits me as a different kind of natural being. I do not simply accede to events and powers. And even if I am a stoic, this is itself a choice, a decision. I act upon and against; indeed, as a humanist, I am often seen to "go against," which is why Prometheus is a humanist ideal.

An act connects me across space and time. As I act, I engage with others. Even in acts that seem to disconnect--as in political revolution and personal isolation--I presume connection. Revolution, after all, is action against oppressive connection; isolation is action against trivializing connection. Revolutionary and hermit (and mystic, too, by the way) depart the world that merely is, but in that departure they shape the manner of their going by their rejections and transvaluations. So, strangely, revolutionary and hermit (and mystic, too) are really our brothers and sisters in exhibiting connection.

An act is pregnant with meanings. In those meanings, an act differentiates me, identifies me. An act, in other words, exhibits me. So when I say that I am a humanist, I am making a claim. I am telling you about the shape of my acts and so about their meanings.

What then is the shape of a humanist act? For example, I talk about respect and concern for all human beings, including myself. (Yes, I talk of all human beings.) I am Jefferson's Declaration or Paine's Rights of Man; I use words like dignity and worth. But when it comes time to give dignity its content, I find the doing of it much more difficult than the saying. In an act, I must make way for, allow space for, an actual other. And that requires me to hold back, to accept restriction. Nor is this simply a matter of moral rules and lawful commands like "do no harm" or "honor thy father and mother." These latter, after all, relate the personal act for which I am responsible to collective activity--of the state, the law, the society, the church--in which I can remain safely anonymous.

An act is a test of my faith and my faithfulness. Dignity, after all, asks me to respect even the unpleasant, frustrating, and evil other; it asks me to account for my own unpleasantness and frustration and even evil. I must listen carefully to myself and to another, which is never easy. I am much more likely to rush to expression which, in its noisiness, is a way of suppression. I am much more likely to enjoy the sound of my own voice. And so I do not listen, just as the parent does not listen to the child, the teacher to the student, the leader to the voter. I talk democracy but think ego and hierarchy. I am, therefore, much less likely to accord dignity to another person in the face of its demands and discomforts. And I quickly give this failure its reasons: "they aren't ready" or "they don't know" or "they aren't worthy." But that is a betrayal of my claim to honor the dignity of others.

Of course, I have my likes and dislikes. I am, after all, a humanist and not a saint. Deafened by my likes and dislikes, dismissal becomes easy; and dismissal is an affront to dignity. It is possible, then, to violate the dignity of loved one and of enemy alike, and for the same reasons. Indeed, dismissal exhibits a greater disregard of dignity than opposition, anger, disagreement, or criticism. In dismissing you, I empty you of being, literally make you ineligible for dignity. And I can verify this from my own experience, when I have been another for someone else. I ceased to count--which pained me far more than accusation or anger or punishment.

Expression. I have powers that I enjoy and limitations that I admit (unwillingly, to be sure, except when I need an alibi). In an act, I make myself and I make my world. I have this impulse to Prometheus, even if the gods punish me for my pride. I am Sisyphus, too, even if the stone runs inexorably down the mountain again after all my labors. In an act, I discover that I do for myself and to myself. And so, when others try to do it for me or to me, I resent it--not just because they take something of mine away but because they silence me. They are usurpers, whether acting for my "good" (as they so often claim) or for theirs (which is my suspicion). I am violated. My act, then, announces my freedom; it is a form of rebellion and a form of free speech. This is exhilarating in its power and frightening in its responsibility. It is comical and tragical, too, when I measure my hopes against my realities.

An act happens, is a happening. I act, in other words, intuitively, directly; even my hesitation is an event. Only later do I reflect and name and give reasons. And only after that do I invoke my moral vocabulary. Mistakenly, "rationality" has it otherwise. It sees an act as an outcome of assumptions and deliberations; it tries to turn my experience Euclidian. Paradoxically, then, rationality tells a lie about experience. We are thus taught backward, from abstraction to conduct; but we act forward, from conduct to abstraction. (That is no small cause of our dismay at schooling and our mistrust of reason.)

An act calls attention to who I am and what I believe--to my character, if you will. I take on my duties and refuse to look elsewhere for someone to take on what must be made my own. In an act, in other words, I become who I say I am.

Just as I "listen" in order to exhibit my humanism, so I must "pay attention" in order to express my humanism. By contrast, I know the temptation to abstract a person from his or her being. I am adept at labels--believer, unbeliever, atheist, theist, liberal, conservative, and so on--which permit me to put another behind a curtain, even to put myself behind a curtain by taking "roles" and "positions." I know how easy it is to find "reasons" for not having acted (which is not the same thing at all as acting to remain aside). I also know how easy it is to find "reasons" for merely reacting to the requirements of role and command. I say to myself in mitigation, "If I don't do it, someone else will." I adopt, in other words, a pseudomoral algebra--use any I for x, as it were--and so evade myself. The idiocy of reason, moreover (as a skeptical Montaigne showed long ago), is the power to propose at least two arguable outcomes for any genuine choice, to make dilemma into ontology; reason all too easily becomes my Hamlet pose. In short, it is easy not to "pay attention" and so not to expose myself.

Connection. An act is an encounter with another and with the world. I never act alone, despite an individualism that decays into egoism and a subjectivity that decays into subjectivism. I act on things, with things; and on persons, with persons. In the encounter, I am also acted upon. So an act which appears uniquely my own and which seems so easily encapsulated in a boundaried description is a connection across time and geography. My act emerges from my character, to be sure, but my character emerges from encounters gone by and even from encounters yet to come, anticipated. I am shaped in my encounters with parents, teachers, friends, and so many unknown others, and I am shaped in my encounters with so many imagined others met in literature and poetry and drama and dream. So an act implicates all of these too, becomes a fact of history, my own and another's. Connection, then, is not just a simple matter of cause-and-effect or a known circle of family and friends.

In an act, I am tangibly alerted to my historicity and sociability. Indeed, the encounter will not let me live in the illusion of isolation. For example, I resist and am resisted--but where can this come from if not from another, indeed from many others? And for all that an act is a point of personal focus, it is a diffusing event too. Like the stone that drops into the pond--or, better, the diver who leaps into the lake--an act is both a point of attention and a center of distribution. I hesitate because the presence of another confronts me, is encountered; I cannot help but be unsure of what my doing does to another, to unimagined others. An act, I am made painfully aware, is never a by-itself, never an in-itself. Connection, in other words, is as much a source of risk as of support. As the Talmud puts it: if I destroy a life, it is as if I had destroyed a world, and if I save a life, it is as if I had saved a world. Connection, then, carries a world burden. By my act--my act--a next-world is created; and by my failure to act, a different next-world is created. In either case, I cannot evade the responsibility.

Connection makes clear the danger of using the first-person singular, the illusion of I all by itself. I am an outcome, a continuing outcome; I create, but I do not create myself alone. I acknowledge, therefore, my need for another and my being needed by another. Who I am emerges from my place and time--my actual world-space, if you will. But this I did not choose. Had I emerged in another world-space, I would be another and act differently. An act, therefore, leads me to grasp the play of fortune in my life. In this way, it carries its own cure for pride--pride of achievement, pride of choosing, pride of doing. An act reminds us, re-minds us.

My individuality comes into being only because of my connections. I know myself only because I know you. If I were alone in the world--left on a desert island, let us say--I would not be, could not be, an individual at all. Like the victim of sensory deprivation, I would have no character (except some echoes growing more and more indistinct of such character that was there before I was marooned). I would lose my characteristics and, in any event, would not need to have them, would not notice their absence. It is just my difference from another and my presence to another that makes my identity. So our myths sing of god the creator, not so much to remind us of our dependence--we learn the lessons of dependency soon enough when hungry and cold and frightened--but because the gods need "creation"; without it, they are unformed, characterless, ultimately empty.

Celebration. An act is celebration. When I act--really act--I am alive. I feel joy, pleasure, satisfaction in the doing. I feel fear, pain, frustration too. The doing is a doorway to my being; I learn over and over again that I am alive, that I have life not simply as a fact of biology but as a fact of experience. And with this knowing, which is now genuinely "personal knowledge," I want to sing my embrace of it all. I want others to know my aliveness and, reciprocally, I want to know theirs. Later, I will find words like naturalism and community and humanism to describe this embrace.

In an act, I confess that my experience--all of it--is my experience: the dark tones and the light, the mountains and the abyss. In that embrace, I do not yield the glory to God, the pain to Satan--even to the God and Satan in me as if I were two persons. As a humanist, I depart the myths of yesterday, not on the inane ground of truth and falsity--a myth is not science, nor meant to be--but on the pertinent ground of meaning and meaninglessness. The myths of yesterday do not tell the story of my wholeness, my entirety. In a humanist narrative, I do not delude myself that some of what I find in an act is me and the rest is not me. This is the unity that is pointed to in an act as exhibition--I show myself; that is sounded in an act as expression--I announce myself; and that is told in an act as connection--I evoke myself. At the same time (so that my subjectivity avoids the trap of subjectivism), an act is an encounter: I show myself to and announce myself to another. And wonder of wonders, I am heard and seen, and I hear and see. This cries out for its myth.

An act sings of this embrace. I celebrate that I am; we celebrate that we are. A celebration is always sociable and in the present, whatever its content and no matter how long a time passes in the story it tells. Indeed, it is the magic of celebration that it brings past and future into the present--but also into a unique present. We never quite sing the "same" song, tell the "same" story, on two separate occasions. That is myth's renewal--it is not mere recitation--and its renewing power. Time and space are, for the moment of celebration, annihilated. All is before us now and we are in and of it now. That is the power of theater, of poetry, of music, of dance, and that is the power of an act as celebration.

Celebration is presentness and presentation. I do not wait on some future or look back to some past to justify my life. I am, and that calls my attention to the deadliness of postponements. I am led by the celebrated present to the now of love and friendship and do not wait upon these after some prerequisites are met. In an act as celebration, I learn that experience is not a bargaining ground, a marketplace of give and get.

From an act emerges the reenactment--the rite, the ritual. This is anathema, I know, to humanists, but mistakenly so. In ritual, an act is reenacted, and all of its manifold richness is brought into the present, the now of the reenactment. But--and this is the miracle of ritual--the now of reenactment can occur over and over again. I can remember over and over again and connect over and over again and dream over and over again. Thus, a reenactment becomes (always a becoming) a way that I share with another and another shares with me. And in that sharing, absent others can be present to an act long ended. The reenactment is thus an invitation to sociability across the boundaries of time and geography.

The issue is not between ritual and no ritual--that, alas, is the way we argue it. Rather, the issue is the integrity of the ritual. Does it sing my/our song; does it celebrate my/our meanings? The issue is also the aesthetic of the ritual. Does it sing beautifully or dully; is it alive or merely a going-through-the-motions? The issue is also the truthfulness--not the truth--of the ritual. Does it reenact my/our memories? An act forces these questions on us, not once but many times. For as act succeeds act and as actors multiply, no single song will do. Reenactment, then, is also renewal.

Production. Only now (and belatedly, some will say) do I attend to the act as doing something. Of course, an act aims at an achievement--or at preventing an achievement. When I act, I not only change the world--"invoke a next-world," as I have said--but I intend to change the world. In the excitement of the act, however, or more likely in my fascination with its mechanics, I too easily forget that world-changing is a dangerous undertaking. Little wonder then, when I realize this, that I prefer the anonymity of collectives or the defense of busyness or the illusion of passivity. But next-worlds will arrive and my presence, for or against or abstaining, will shape them. I am then unavoidably implicated by an act. I am responsible, and that responsibility is also autobiographical. I not only change the world but I change myself. This I scarcely intend, but it happens.

I perform and, in performing, generate not only next-worlds but next-selves as well. An act thrusts me into this maelstrom of makings and doings--or better, when I act, I thrust myself into the maelstrom. With that, I acknowledge not just responsibility but all that fearful joyousness which the creator knows. It is not simply the product--which is an abstraction--but my product. Unlike the productivity of mechanism (objects of industrial production, for example), my products have a pesonal signature and a personal history.

Here and there in the maelstrom, a point of organization appears--temporarily--and that is where I find the product and the producer. An act, then, is a construction, a structuring. Even an act of nay-saying provides a structure that was not there before. For all that an act is energies and changes, it is also stabilities. That is why an act's outcome can be named, can have a name.

An act teaches me the lessons of world generation. This, after all, is the achievement of poet and composer and sculptor as much as reformer and revolutionary. But I am none of these; I am ordinary. Am I then excluded from the action? No, world generating appears everywhere; it is not a privilege of genius but a fact of humanness. So, as we say, I "make" a home and generate a world; I am a friend and generate a world; I do my job and generate a world; I add, substract, invent, remove, shift, and in all of this I generate a world. That is the grand democracy of an act.

At the same time, world generation expects humility. How often do I wish it had been otherwise, say that I didn't mean it, express my regret. Yet an act teaches me that I cannot call things back. Responsibility is thus double-sided--both joyful and frightening. And in recalling my acts, I explore a kind of moral and personal archaeology. In my acts, as it were, I see my character in formation. But my achievement then has an irony to it: it is both stable and evanescent, self-revealing and self-altering. The next-self I see in the act, the next-world I see, is elusive; I cannot catch it. Just my reaching for it is an act, producing a next-world and a next-self beyond that. For all its apparent simplicity--after all, an act has a beginning, middle, and end, or so we think--an act reminds me that experience always outruns my grasp of it.

III. When I began these reflections, I did not expect the notion of an act to turn out the way it did--so complicated, so dimensional. I had in mind a shift away from manifestos and arguments and statements of principle; I had in mind a shift toward humanism as "lived experience." Unfortunately, the more I pondered this shift, the more its puzzling richness appeared. In ponscience, then, I could not leave the impression that the shift from word to act was only an effort to evoke humanist "witness," as our Protestant friends might say, or to "build a better world," as our reformer friends might have it. I had to be clear--at least to myself--about what I was calling for with that shift. And some of it at least--for instance, the notion of "next-worlds" and my responsibility for them, or the notion of celebration and reenactment--would, I knew, be uncomfortable. As a humanist I am, after all, not given to these mythopoetic forms and claims. But I really think they are inescapable.

I have focused on the first-person singular quite deliberately. Yet know that I live in a world and with others, and that we are collected in groups and live by communal and social practices. In short, the first-person singular is, in its own way, misleading, just as the I and thou of interpersonal relationship is misleading or the impersonality of it and they is misleading. That brings me to a concluding thought. An act is embedded in institutions, is mediated by institutions and reconstructs institutions. If, then, I am Prometheus, I do not face the gods alone, and if I am Sisyphus, I am accompanied on my journey up and down the mountain.

Humanists, alas, have been careless of their companions and their institutions, and this, too, is a legacy of our Enlightenment ancestry. Consequently, a humanism of the word has been a lonely humanism. I have been brought up to think of institutions as mere contrivances. For the historically minded, this is the message of the "social contract," which allows me to believe that we bring institutions into being as mere tools for achieving some short-or long-lived ends, and these ends are brought to the institutions by disparate persons as selfinterests. The end result, then, is that my interest in an organization vanishes when my ends are achieved. We are, then, inveterate proceduralists. Concretely, we reveal this when the first step--or almost the first step--in our way of institution is writing bylaws (after the model of a "constitutional convention") and when the last step--or almost the last step--in our way of institution is a legalistic quarrel. At that point, I break apart from you only to begin the same self-defeating pattern over again. I enter and depart very quickly, or I do not enter at all.

The shift from word to act carries with it a shift in our way of institution, too. Here the nonmechanistic intentions of an act are particularly significant. To invoke history (as past and as future), to invoke connection and celebration and exhibition, is to call for institutions that tutor us in the aesthetics of an act and not just in its ethics and mechanics. An act calls for its setting and stage, a place to perform its reenactment and a context for the performance. It calls, too, for the encouragement of an audience, for the pedagogy of a critic, and for the support of a cast of characters. The future of a humanism of the act, then, carries with it the need for humanist institutions, not just organizations. We know that we do not come into the world formed and ready to act; we are formed and made ready over and over again. This is what institutions are all about. Not least of all, they are about helping us to be ready.

Absent this attentiveness to common and regular and supportive practices (to humanist institutions, in short), we learn only from the acts of others. But because these are not our own, we are trapped into uncomfortable imitation or compulsive opposition. And because both imitation and opposition are unsatisfying lifediets for most of us, we withdraw. Humanist loneliness grows, humanist words multiply, and humanist acts become more and more difficult. As a humanist, I finally become passive.

The complexity of an act also describes the structure of an institution. It is a place where I exhibit, behave, celebrate, connect, and produce my humanism and where, in turn, I learn to act in all its dimensionality. So a humanist institution is revealed in the behaviors of its participants, in the messages they deliver, in the values they exhibit, in the connections they make with each other. Out of this context of energies, productivity grows--world-changing, world-reforming. Back into this context, celebration comes--reenactments and continuities. From this context, values and ends emerge, not just interests and goals.

Creating and sustaining humanist practices is another way of describing a humanism of the act. Finally, as these practices are undertaken, the organizations--which, again, are not the same as institutions--emerge and are submitted to inquiry, to criticism. For example, what does the actual behavior of members look like; what voices are heard; what continuities are celebrated? Sadly, humanist organizations all too often fail to meet the tests of practice and settle, instead, for the perfectability of the word. The future of humanism depends, however, on this shift to practice. As we do--if we do--we leave for those who are to come a worthy legacy, a future worth having. Failing that, we are mere inheritors, faint echoes of yesterday's glories.
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Author:Radest, Howard
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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