Ethical Culture Confronts Life’s Challenges

Ethical Culture Confronts Life’s Challenges

When I began my graduate seminar in human rights last Thursday evening at Columbia University, I told my students that to investigate the human rights field, to study in depth such phenomena as international trafficking, the conscription of child soldiers, the horrors of genocide and torture, is to expose oneself to the darkest underside of human behavior. I noted that the field of human rights is inherently depressing, but it is also hopeful, and that it should be their mission as people who will work internationally in the field of human rights to bring hope to the human condition. And then without much reflection, I shared with them my own take on reality. I told them that in my view of the human condition and its prospects, I am a short-range pessimist, but a long-range optimist.

Perhaps because in our introductory period just a few moment before I had told them I was a leader in a religious movement, and what Ethical Culture stands for, I could get away with such a personal confession in an academic environment in which the vibes are usually very serious, and the discourse seldom personal..

I tell this little anecdote as an introduction to wider questions that I want to ask this morning as we launch our new season. They are questions that are personal to all of us. And that is, as we look at life and its challenges, from where do we get our hope? And can Ethical Culture, with its humanistic approach to life, serve us well as we confront life’s difficult challenges.

As the leader in a religious movement, this second question is central. For it is a primary purpose of any religious movement, and the beliefs on which it is founded, to be a source of hope for people. All religions start from the premise that the human condition is problematic; that human life is wracked with setbacks, frustrations, pains, sorrows and tragedies. We are emotionally and physically not well-armored beings, and we are vulnerable to assault by the slings and arrows of life every day. Scratch the surface of any individual and the chances are you will find an undercurrent of hidden pains and sorrows, whether it be grief at the death of a loved one, serious illness, strife and misery in human relations, job loss and financial anxieties, among the seemingly endless list of travails to which we as human beings are prone, often through no fault of our own.

How we experience, cope with, and hopefully get beyond these challenges is, I believe, much a function of personal temperament; some people are cheerier than others, some more introspective and brooding. But even those who are blessed with a temperament that bounces back more quickly from such pains nevertheless experience them as such, and unless they are pathologically Pollyannaish, must concur that life is no bed of roses.

This is where religion comes in. As mentioned, it is one of the functions of religion to enable people to cope with these challenges, by strengthening their resources via beliefs that will inspire them with a sense of hope. When we are hopeful, we can carry on. When we sink into despair, we cannot. Hope enlivens us, and invigorates our energies; hopelessness depletes us and leaves us standing still.

Clearly the 800 pound gorilla of life’s misfortunes is that it will end, and we are perhaps the only creatures who are aware of our mortality and can be anxious about it. Life, by its nature, whether we are speaking of amoebas or human beings, is distinctly programmed to keep on going. Death frustrates that dynamic, to say the least, and is understandably a source of anxiety, sorrow and other negative emotions. Death also short-circuits what I believe is a powerful instinct in us for fairness and justice. If we have picked the short straws in life, if our lives have been made miserable by disease, oppression, poverty and a ceaseless unhappiness, then to have it all end unceremoniously and forever, without due compensation which makes up for that unfairness and rights the injustice we have experienced, seems intolerable. I can understand why people would believe in an afterlife, if for no other reason than to give those who have felt cheated by life a second chance.

For many people, and in the view of the traditional religions, the greatest yen, therefore, is for life ever lasting, especially in an idealized heavenly existence where the person is rejoined with his or her loved ones. Christianity, more than other religions, makes this life after death the centerpiece of hope itself, as presented by Christ’s conquering death through his resurrection. Without belief in the afterlife, there can be no hope at all; all lesser hopes are counterfeit.

Another way of saying this is that life rooted in nothing but nature, itself, absent a Divine Custodian, seems to be a source of despair for many people. Unless our brief lives are tagged to something cosmic, some transcendent reality that ensures that we are not meaninglessly flaying about and smothered by the abyss of time, hopelessness and despair must result.

One person who felt that way, though he was a completely modern man who embraced scientific values, was the philosopher William James. While his high-minded peers at Harvard had become agnostics, James took religion seriously, and hoped that the promises of religion were true, even though he could never bring himself to quite believe them or to pray.

In a very graphic metaphor, James expressed what he thought was at stake in a life based only on naturalism, without the promises which traditional religion could offer. In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote: “For naturalism fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing, little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.”

It was that poignancy which impelled James to want to believe that the claims of traditional religion were true. He felt that if one believed that there was something “more” in the universe than our everyday, secular existence, then such faith would energize the human spirit, and people would be far better off. Without that faith, we either become dispirited, or are simply self-deluding, or whistling in the wind as his graphic metaphor so strikingly depicts. As James once said, “for those who are truly religious, tragedy is merely provisional.” In other words, if we have the faith and hope that tragedy some day, in some way, will be overcome, we are better off, and stronger, even now, James believed.

This kind of reasoning, which of course is very old, throws down the greatest challenge for us moderns. For it is the nature of modern condition that such faith runs counter to the evidence which modern science reveals and the modern temperament commends. If one takes Darwinian evolution seriously, for example, and I certainly do, then the traditional presumptions about a creator God, divine purpose, divine providence and a special status for the human species, which in some sense places us outside the fabric of all other nature, becomes very difficult, and in my view impossible, to sustain. To be a modern person, and to accept the scientific paradigm, stands at variance, I believe, with the supernatural paradigm, and with it a miracle-working God, who will assure us a life after death, and will guarantee for us that our tragedies, in James’s language, are merely provisional, merely temporary. The modern world makes it very difficult, and I would argue, if one values intellectual consistency, impossible to sustain that faith.

When it comes to traditional religion, one could, of course, argue that the meaning of faith is to believe, despite the evidence, despite what reason and science tell us is worthy of us. This is technically referred to as “fideism.” I suspect that many people entertain this type of faith, and in a sense live their lives in two worlds, or, we might say, a bifurcated world. But in the eyes of many others, myself included, such faith is maintained at the cost of intellectual integrity. It is the effort to sustain belief, even when part of you is naggingly telling you it isn’t so. I suspect that contemporary churches and synagogues are filled with legions of such people. But, you and I and millions of others are not among them.

So here we are in a middle state: we humanists, like all human beings, suffer the pains, and confront the personal challenges, which life throws at us, but because of our intellectual and rational commitments we cannot allow ourselves the consolations which traditional religion purports to bring.

It should be clear that I take the needs of people who attend traditional houses of worship seriously, even as I cannot, and do not, accept the supernatural responses that the traditional religions give to those needs. In this sense, I situate myself differently from the positions taken by the authors of the recent spate of atheism books; people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I share with them the important and often undervalued idea that religion can be, and tragically is, a dangerous force which inspires people to do wicked things. I also share their metaphysical atheism. But one point in which I do depart from them is that in their attack on religion, they fail to recognize that religion and religious communities provide real consolation, comfort and hope to people who would otherwise be hurting more, that religion meets real needs for masses of people, and in and of itself, that is not a bad thing. They, of course, would argue that the comforts that religion provides are false comforts, and its hopes false hopes. But that position, I believe, may not be altogether correct, and it is clearly harsh and cold.

This brings me to my original question of whether Ethical Culture and its humanistic and naturalistic world-view, which does not guarantee ever-lasting life, which does not vouchsafe a second chance in another realm, which does not peg itself to a transcendent God who cares for us and makes sure that in some way we count in the cosmic order, provides a sense of hope which can comfort and console, and enable us to more effectively meet the challenges we personally confront in life, and thereby energize us to cope more effectively.

I believe that it can. I want to explain how by suggesting three perspectives on the issue of hope and what conditions give rise to hope.

While I believe that ideas have real motivating power, and what we believe matters, I want to suggest a relationship between beliefs and personal inspiration, which we usually don’t consider. I think conventionally it is assumed that if I keep in my mind a hopeful idea or belief, such as the notion that God will ensure that all things will work out for the best, or that the pains that I suffer now will somehow be redressed in the future, that holding these beliefs in mind will raise my spirits, give me strength and enable me to get beyond my present sorrow and despair. The notion is that the idea comes first, and the idea inspires emotional uplift, and then action, through which I get beyond my circumstances, be it the loss of a loved one, the pains of a limiting disease, or whatever afflicts me. Perhaps this is sometimes true.

But more and more I find that there is another way to look at human emotions, human behavior, and their relationship to hope. Increasingly, I have become a behaviorist of sorts. Rather than ideas preceding emotions and actions, I often think it is just the opposite: that it is not our beliefs that give us hope, which then rallies us to action. Rather, I think that action comes first, and out of committing ourselves to action, hope emerges. In other words, our actions have personal transformative power in ways in which nothing else does.

Aristotle once said that if a person wishes to be courageous, one must do courageous things. One doesn’t become courageous by merely wishing to be courageous, or thinking about courage, or even thinking hard about it. One becomes courageous through getting off one’s duff and doing courageous deeds. Even if one’s action is merely half-way action, doing something is better than doing nothing at all, or saying to oneself that I will act when I finish clarifying my thoughts. Action is, by itself, liberating; action is empowering and action, again, is transformative. Nothing dulls the spirit like doing nothing when something needs to be done. Nothing enlivens the spirit and makes us hopeful about ourselves and our future like action does.

If we lose someone we love, the grief and despair is often very great, and this is natural. In the face of the death of a loved one, no doubt there is a period when one wishes to accede to the grief and do nothing but grieve. But all things change with time. And there comes a time when one needs to, and indeed can, functionally get beyond the grief, through willfully moving back into the social world and into the sphere of action, perhaps haltingly at first, perhaps uneasily. But through that assertion of self, one can usually find the hope, courage and strength to move on to experience life in growing fullness. My point is that hope does not come first and action follows. But it is the very action itself from which hope and faith in oneself and the future emerges.

As it is with our personal challenges, so it is with the big picture. Let me get back to the issue I raised at the very beginning. For those who stay current with world events, it is hard for us to remain hopeful about the human prospect if we walk around with our eyes open. It was the ancient playwright who observed that “man is a wolf to man.” It is not hard to accede to that view. Billions of our fellow human beings live in abject poverty, yet there is no material basis for poverty. If the world’s resources were distributed more evenly no one would suffer degrading poverty. That they do is not because of the insufficiency of resources, but because those who have wealth in abundance refuse to part with it. If uncountable numbers of our fellow human beings are too poor to stay alive, it is because their fellow human beings don’t want to give up what they have, even if they have a thousand times what they need.

When we look at the realities of political oppression, of human exploitation, of torture, of war, of genocides, in which we glibly talk about the gratuitous slaughter of millions of human beings, it becomes hard to sustain hope, or to be optimistic about the human prospect.

But, of course, that is not the entire picture. We know just as well of innumerable acts of kindness, of generosity, of social caring that speak to us with inspiring beauty. Human beings can certainly be aggressive and unspeakably cruel. But at the same time there is a natural impulse to want to be caring toward others, to be compassionate, to want to bring joy to others, and to experience the positive fulfillments that come from nurturing the human bond and fostering cooperation.

When we look at the big picture, there are many reasons to be grim, to be sure. But it is my belief that the antidote to despair and pessimism is, again, action in the service of goodness. Let me give you an example close to home. Two years ago we started our sanctuary project, which right here in suburban Bergen County provides humanitarian support to political refugees who come to our shores seeking political asylum. Some of them are detained and are given a very rough deal. They are at the very bottom of the totem pole when it comes to legal protections and rights. All of them have fled for their lives, and each one of them, without exception, is a victim of physical torture. We find places for them to live in nurturing homes. We provide medical care and education and transportation. We let them know that not all people are like their abusers, and we help give them hope for the future. We share the joy of seeing them come out of themselves, and the joy of making human contact with people who by virtue of culture and life experience could not be more different from us. Almost all have been sub-Saharan Africans.

It is certainly true that by our efforts we are not stopping genocide, we are not saving millions, but we are making a real, supportive difference in the lives of fellow human beings who have been through hell. And my point is that that focused action transforms not only the person who is the recipient of that action but those also who provide the help and the care. It enlivens our spirits, and makes us more hopeful about the good effects that active caring can bring. Concerted action in the small corners of life — shining light on the darkness — creates a glow that spreads out and illuminates one’s outlook about the big picture, and thereby transforms one’s relationship to it.

James may be right, that objectively speaking when looking at the very big picture, we are all skating on very thin ice, and without a God to cling to who will snatch us up for all eternity and give our lives cosmic meaning, there is a poignancy, tragedy and a futility that mocks our most enabling enterprises. But how we look at that final picture, the real weight we give it in our lives, is subjectively colored, and indeed transformed, by how we live our lives in the moment.

Another philosophical heavyweight, Albert Camus, was also sensitive to the tragedy, indeed absurdity, inherent in the human condition. The paragon of this absurdity and objective meaninglessness was the Greek character Sisyphus, whose punishment in the afterworld is to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again, and to engage in that process endlessly. “What,” Camus asks, “is Sisyphus thinking as he is walking down the hill only to begin the objectively futile and meaningless task of pushing his boulder up the hill for the millionth time? Is he despairing? Is he depressed? Does he have grim thoughts about life and its prospects?” “Not at all,” says Camus. In fact, by giving up the wish for final salvation, by jettisoning any cosmic hopes, Sisyphus frees himself from false hope and can apply himself to the task at hand. Through struggling with tragedy, through wresting meaning out of meaninglessness, through rebellion against our fate, Camus believed, like Sisyphus, we achieve a type of freedom, a type of nobility, even greatness. Rather than being a pathetic, self-deluding individual, consigned to a poignant fate, Sisyphus is rather a hero, Camus tells us. As Camus said, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus, the humanist, gives a positive, life-affirming response to James’s despair.

Indeed, Camus, I believe, is on to something. Through my own observations of people coping with what at times seems to be overwhelming tragedy, I have come to the conclusion that the greatness of the human spirit is not to be found necessarily in the manifest victories and triumphs we win over tragedies, but in the sheer persistence, the doggedness, with which people struggle with the hardships they confront. Without cosmic guarantees, the active struggle with life’s frustrations itself gives rise to the hope that the struggle itself is meaningful and worthwhile. And it is through the continual investment in that effort to overcome our condition that we win spiritual victories in the moment, regardless of what the ultimate big picture has in store for us.

My second thought about the sustaining of hope relates to the power of human relationships and human community. As stated before, I do believe that ideas can be powerful in moving and inspiring us. But behind the strength of ideas and beliefs is really the strength of the human community which supports those ideas. Although it may not be initially apparent, it is human community which is the fuel which gives the ideas that we hold as individuals their strength and power.

The reason I hold with conviction the beliefs that I do, in great measure, is because other people hold those ideas. So, let me apply this insight in a critical way to the religious beliefs of traditionally religious people. If a religious person believes that God is her salvation, and believes it with conviction, it is my conclusion that the power of the idea for her results from the fact that she is part of a community of people who hold to the same idea. If she were the only one to hold this idea, the chances are the idea would be sterile, and have no emotional importance or inspirational power.

So when people join a religious congregation, as many flocking back to the churches and synagogues do today, and engage in the beliefs, practices, rituals which are part and parcel of religious life, it is my view that the emotional power of those religious experiences and the power of the beliefs is really the power of the community of believers expressed in a different form. If such a congregant goes through a period of pain and anguish and is consoled by the teaching of her religious faith, in my view the healing factor is not so much the ideas she is clinging to, but the power of the human bond and the love and caring of the members of her community who are delivering the consoling message. In others words, it all boils down to community and humanity in the end. If hope and strength emerges from one’s involvement in a religious community, it is the power of the human bond in the final analysis that makes it so.

What is true for traditional congregations can be, should be, and I contend, is no less true for the members of humanistic communities such as our Ethical Society. Being engaged in a community of caring people, a community in which people can share their sorrows, celebrate together and have intelligent, open-hearted, discussions about life issues and other important things, communities in which people matter to others and thereby matter to themselves, places where there are real common interests, in my view, become sources of strength and hope. Perhaps this is ultimately what religious communities of any type really do when they console, and we do it, I believe, pretty well.

Finally I want to bring together these first two ideas — that of committing ourselves to action and that of the power of the human bond — by reintroducing a theme which Marc Bernstein focused on in his fine address of last spring. The central motto of Ethical Culture, which our founder, Felix Adler, coined, is that we should “strive to bring out the best in the other, and thereby we bring out the best in ourself.” Characteristically, Ethical Culture starts not with the self, but with the other.

There is wisdom in that, when we ourselves are challenged by pain, sorrow, loss and disappointment. We tend to think of our needs as a zero-sum game. I feel bereft, I feel deprived, I feel needy, and I want to have those needs filled by some agent from the outside. If I feel unloved, then the assumption is I will overcome my sense of being unloved when someone comes along and showers their love on me as one would fill up an empty vessel.

But I don’t think that our emotional lives work in such a straightforward way. Rather, I think there is a type of paradox of human needs, which is often operative. Oddly enough, if I feel needy, bereft, unloved, or despairing, often the best response is not to lick my wounds and passively wait for help to come to me from the outside. Rather, the very antidote to feeling needy is to strive, as best as one can, to lend oneself to others, to give of oneself to meet the needs of others. And lo and behold, we often find that the very act of giving of ourselves outwardly paradoxically fills the need that has made us feel bereft in the first place. Not always, but giving and receiving are the two sides of the same coin. In other words, to give is to receive, and to give of oneself in a way that helps others, is to bring greater energy, purpose and worthwhileness to one’s own life. In helping others, we help ourselves, and find a source of purpose and hope. Such are bases of a humanist hope.

I want to round out and end my talk with a little poetic wisdom:

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!

Dr. Joseph Chuman

9 September 2007

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *