Self or Other? Spirituality or Social Justice?

Self or Other? Spirituality or Social Justice?

Ethical Culture was born in response to the evils wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Dr. Adler and the original founders of our movement, who lived in New York City, were keenly aware of the Dickensian realities that characterized the life of the urban poor. It was a world besotted with substandard housing, minimal education, rampant pollution and inadequate sanitation and disease. It was a world of crime, crushing poverty, oppressive, unsafe working conditions, and the abomination of child labor. It was world in which the acquisition of extraordinary wealth of a few, built on the exploitation of the poor, created a gaping moral divide. It was a world in which government regulation and social safety nets lay many decades in the future.
It was Ethical Culture’s self-appointed mission to redress these inequities. And this it attempted to do through settlement houses, creating model tenements, through agitating for government honesty and accountability, through documenting the horrors of child labor, and laying the groundwork for the first legislation which regulated child labor. It strove to overcome inequality through building schools, by educating workers and owners alike to the importance of the ethical dimension of work, and it did it through robust support of the labor movement. Ethical Culture did all this in its early decades, and much more.

These projects bore practical fruit, and they made the lives of those whom they strove to help less oppressed, and far better off. And through the genius and generosity of Ethical Culture’s founding generation, many of these projects went on to become lasting institutions which continue to thrive to this very day – the Visiting Nurse Service, and half a dozen settlement houses, the Ethical Culture Schools and the Legal Aid Society among them. So energetic was the Ethical Society’s commitment to social reform that the Ethical Movement seems indistinguishable from it. These achievements in the arena of social reform are certainly the most tangible things we can point to when trying to describe Ethical Culture to people who know nothing about it.

Yet, if someone were to describe Ethical Culture solely in these activist terms, as a social justice or social reform movement, his or her description would be only very partial and incomplete.

If one looks at the intentions and career of Ethical Culture’s founder, Dr. Felix Adler, there is no doubt that he saw himself and the movement he created in religious terms. Because the religious substance of Ethical Culture appears from afar as initially overshadowed by its social justice work, and because Adler was a religious radical who was trying to give religion a very different meaning from what we conventionally understand by religion, its religious character may not be at first very obvious.

But there cannot be any doubt as to how seriously Adler sought to articulate this dimension of Ethical Culture, even more so in the second half of his life. If one attempts to tackle his eloquent, precise, high-minded, and somewhat antiquated prose, one thing that is compellingly obvious is that Adler unfailingly speaks a religious language, replete with constant reference to “spiritual relations”, “the spiritual realm”, “spiritual ideals” and so forth. Although it is highly philosophical and almost opaque, Adler entertained a concept of immortality throughout his life. At some points Adler talks about our possession of a soul, and our spiritual linkage with all other souls. Like a latter day Platonist, and with an almost mystical sensibility, he is fascinated by the interplay of light and dark; by the tension of what he calls “the actual” realm of time and space in which we dwell, and the ideal or perfect “transcendent” realm beyond that of time and space, in which we don’t.

To the ears of the modern activist, and even to some of his 19th century members, this kind of language, and the preoccupations which lie beneath it, may seem diversionary, irrelevant, unnecessary, maybe even embarrassing. But it is my reading of Adler that one can only understand what he was trying to do with Ethical Culture, and what he was about, if one interprets him as a religious figure. Although he certainly made common cause with the secular activists of his day, he himself was not one of them.

What should be clear was that Adler was able to conjoin his understanding of spirituality and social justice. But in order to do so, he had to define spirituality in a particularly idiosyncratic way. For it is my contention that a commitment to social justice and spirituality, rather than smoothly joining with one another, more readily are opposing tendencies and preoccupations.

Perhaps, it would be good to back up for a moment, and try to describe what we mean, or what can be meant, by the word, “spirituality”. For it is my opinion that though the word is readily used in our culture, different people mean radically different things by it.

There are three primary meanings of the world “spirituality”. There is the traditional meaning, the modified traditional meaning, and the modern/metaphorical meaning. Let me brief try to summarize each.

Traditional spirituality is the spirituality that the classical theologians of Judaism, Christianity and Islam appropriated as their own, and it remains the normative assumption of these faiths. In simplest terms, traditional spirituality relates to a belief in and sustaining a rapport with real spiritual beings. I employ the description “real” to emphasize that a belief in these beings is not metaphorical. What is a spiritual being? A spiritual being is an incorporeal being, that is, some kind of existent thing that does not have a body – in other words, a pure spirit. What are spiritual beings? Angels are spiritual beings. Ghosts are spiritual beings. And, of course, God is the supreme spiritual being.

A belief in traditional spirituality implies what is known in philosophy as “dualism”. As the word suggests, dualism asserts that reality is divided into two separate, independent, primal substances, matter and spirit. What is matter is not spirit, and what is spirit is not matter. So we have the realm of matter, which we can call “nature” and the realm of God which is outside of nature, above nature, that is “supernatural.”

Dualism, which is inseparable from the monotheistic faiths, has a long pedigree in the West. Plato, St. Augustine, Maimonides, Averroes (the great medieval Muslim theologian), and all traditional believers today are dualists. For traditional believers, the supreme spiritual being is not only personal, but omnipotent as well, and therefore can intervene in the realm of Nature, which he created, and cause interruptions, breaks in nature, which are referred to as miracles.

Believers in traditional spirituality engage in rapport with the spiritual realm through worship, reading and living by its word, through praise, engaging in ritual and other acts of devotion, and even through acts of partial identification, which we know as mystical experience.

So much for traditional spirituality. Modified traditional spirituality, of which Felix Adler was a good example, is much more difficult to explain. Although, there are ancient variants of it, it is most closely identified with the emergence of the modern world and the growth of science.

Adler was a modern person, who believed in the discoveries of science. As such, he believed that science affirms regularities in nature, had thoroughly destroyed a belief in traditional theology, and with it a belief in miracles and a supernatural, creator God who caused them. But like many liberal thinkers in the latter half of the 19th century, he was uncomfortable with a thoroughly naturalistic, material, Darwinian and de-spiritualized world in which the human being could ultimately be reduced to the movement of molecules and chemical reactions. Like many thinkers of his day, he longed to locate human existence and human experience, and most important, anchor human worthiness, within a larger reality that was transcendent, eternal and unchanging. Like many thinkers of his day he sought what the philosopher William James referred to as a “more” in the universe. This desire to find some kind of cosmic companion in a cold universe had somewhat of a romantic tinge. We can find this impulse in thinkers such as Mathew Arnold, Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson and William James himself.

For Adler, modern science destroyed traditional religion, but nature and science could not posit a reality that would vouchsafe the worthiness of the person. In other words, it could not satisfy the longing that from a cosmic perspective the human being counts for something.

To make a very long and complex story short, what Adler fell back on were his commitments as a philosophical idealist to assert the transcendent, cosmic reality he felt necessary to ensure the worth of the human person. Idealists proclaim that only ideas are real. If I see the mountain over yonder, the sense impressions of what I perceive go into my mind and form an idea of the mountain. If I say “I see the mountain” what I more accurately perceive is the idea of the mountain that has formed in my mind. It is only the idea of the mountain I know, and not the mountain itself. How the mountain really looks is something I can never know. Moreover, Adler’s mentor, Immanuel Kant, had described how the mind works to mold or create reality. The mind is like a net or a filter, and just as the size of the fish you catch is dependent upon the type and size of your net, so as the mind actively filters and shapes our disassociated sense impressions; it creates reality. In this sense the mind is our primary process. Nothing is ulterior or behind the mind in shaping reality.

In his own fashion, Adler declared that the mind constructs a timeless spiritual reality comprised of ethical selves, which he called the “Metaorganism” or the “Ethical Manifold.” This was Adler’s version of what he called “the Godhead.” And unlike the Lord of monotheism, who took the form of an ancient king, Adler’s version of the divine was multiple. It was constructed of an infinite number of souls, each one distinct and individual, yet all inextricably linked in an organic web of interrelated members. This, for Adler, was the timeless, absolute, changeless, transcendent, spiritual realm. Since it was an idealistic construct, it was not natural, and since it was not born out of our sense experience, but out of the structures and processes of the mind itself, Adler referred to it as not supernatural, but as “supersensible.” Our ultimate goal in life, Adler believed, is to use this spiritual reality to transform the imperfect and unjust world we live in by the light of the spiritual ideal realm. Our life and our world, in other words, is to be used as an instrumentality to move it and us closer to the ideal, which served as template. And as we do so, though all the frustrations we endure, the reality of the ideal become clearer, and we recognize that we ourselves are partly of this spiritual realm. Because we are to use this world to realize our spiritual natures, Adler’s spirituality clearly had a very social dimension to it. Because of his specific take on spiritual reality, he was able to direct the spiritual quest explicitly in the direction of other human beings, their pain and suffering, and thereby avoid the narrow individualism which so often accompanies the spiritual search.

All this may seem far removed from our contemporary understanding of Ethical Culture, but my point was simply to illustrate a different type of spirituality. Like the traditional notion of spirituality, thinkers such as Adler believed in a real realm which was not material and transcended nature, but unlike the spirituality of the traditional religions, the spiritual realm was not a person, was not a creator and didn’t intervene to change the laws of nature. It was a spiritual reality that was sublimely, perhaps austerely, impersonal, but it did anchor the fragile, brief and transitory human career in something infinite and everlasting. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his affirmation of an “Oversoul” affirmed beliefs similar to these, as do many contemporary New Agers.

Modern/metaphorical spirituality is something different entirely. It is not dualistic and does not affirm a realm, spiritual realm outside of and independent of nature. When contemporary people inform us that they are “into spirituality” or crave “spiritual experience” or affirm, as many do, that “they are spiritual and not religious” many are not affirming a belief in real, independent spiritual beings, whether traditional or impersonal. What they are affirming is some type of heightened emotional experience, such as the uplift one feels when listening to beautiful music, or the sense of warm togetherness one feels in the midst of a powerful communal experience. Pursuers of traditional spirituality and modified traditional spirituality would deny that their spiritual experiences are a species of psychology. Modern spirituality understands itself in psychological terms, perhaps along the lines of what the late psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as “peak experiences.” They are emotional highs, whether induced by drugs, sex, love, community, music, starry nights or beautiful sunsets. These experiences contrast with the humdrum world of material pursuits and possessions, but their sources are still the natural world, and they can be fully located, if not fully explained, by an understanding of man as a natural being.

If one analyzes further the structure of these modern spiritual experiences, I think the common denominator of them is a felt sense of connection, which locates the individual in something larger than herself and thereby breaks down feelings of the isolated ego. These lines of connection can be with encompassing communities, with other individuals, with nature, with a sense of roots and historical threads of which one is a part, or it might be with the perceived essence of an object or phenomenon. So if one meditates upon a beautiful painting and comes in contact with an aesthetic dimension which one senses is innate to the proportions, shapes and forms one is perceiving, that relationship with the abstract essence of the painting one might describe as “spiritual.” One perceives the essence within the art and is in some kind of emotionally moving communion with it.

Of the three types of spiritual experience, I must confess that I am a seeker only of the third. Traditional spirituality I outwardly reject because I see absolutely no evidence for independent, spiritual beings, neither angels, nor ghosts, nor gods. The second type of spirituality that affirms that there are impersonal realities beyond the world of sense, I admit I find tempting. Some say that the new speculations into physics, even biology, give clues to spiritual realities independent of the material world. When posed with the question, for example, “are the laws of physics merely extrapolations of the perceived regularities inherent in the natural world, or do the laws of physics precede and somehow stand outside the natural realm so that physical bodies are obedient to them? – I respond with the former. Many committed to a form of modified spirituality would respond with the latter. But I personally remain unconvinced.

The third type of spirituality, I find totally consistent with my naturalism and my humanism. In this sense, but only in this sense, I have no trouble identifying myself as a religious humanist.

But here, I inject a caveat, which for me is all-important. As I said at the beginning, spiritual questing and social ethics tend to pull in opposite directions. Spirituality and social action are not natural bedfellows. By their natures, spirituality seeks a heightened, individual experience. Social action work is deliberative, plodding and often pedestrian. Furthermore, the spiritual quest can be one of pervasive self-absorption and narcissistic indulgence, unless it is tempered by, and somehow incorporates within itself, a very basic concern and interest in the welfare of other people. Much of contemporary religion is dedicated to a search for individual salvation in the next world, or personal success in this one. Much of it, in its eclecticism and pick-and-choose character, mimics the consumerism of the marketplace. Much of it is the search for the uplifting and ecstatic moment, defined in very individual terms. Much of it seems preoccupied with the self. A whole raft of sociological literature documents this kind of emphasis.

Clearly, virtually all religions encompass social ethics, and many congregations and denominations continue to do good things. But my point is that the nature of the spiritual itself is such that the social justice and social service work of the religious groups is an adjunct to spiritual experience and not intrinsic to it.

Is it possible to develop a spirituality that is tightly intertwined with a broader ethic? I believe it is. Felix Adler, as mentioned, did so. There are forms of what are called eco-spirituality that attempt to experience the interconnected nature of ecology and the place of the human species in it in ways that strengthen an environmental ethic and derivative activism.

If spirituality is about felt connections, I think that a humanist spirituality can focus itself on the humanity that resides in each human being. Through acts of attention we can peer beyond the veil of the manifest persona of the individual to more greatly appreciate the humanity that lies within. We can attune ourselves through greater caring to acts of compassion and of justice. We can have festivals and celebrations that strengthen the human bond, and deepen appreciation for our shared lives with others and the common humanity in both its difference and sameness which joins us together.

In conclusion, it seems apparent to me that spiritual experience of whatever type can be desirable in two ways. It can be desirable in and of itself as expansive of our spiritual and emotional, even intellectual, potentials. It is an aspect of the human experience as appreciation of good music or art is an aspect of the human experience. It pushes us to the farther reaches of the human experience. But spiritual experience, however defined, can be measured by the conviction it brings in the aftertime, so to speak. In other words, by having an intensive experience, defined as spiritual, it can strengthen the values and convictions that we already have, so that a heightened communion with a beautiful sunset, let’s say, can strengthen our conviction about the need to preserve the natural world, and so forth.

But in the very final analysis, I harbor a preference in my understanding of the value of spiritual experience. The world is replete with religions and spiritual quests of seemingly infinite variety. Man seems to be a religion-making machine. Most of these endeavors come replete with profusions of myths, rituals, rules and prescribed modes of conduct, from what you eat to how you dress, to when you wash, and to how you are to raise your children. But in my view, humanist that I am, religion and spirituality count for little unless, in the final analysis, they conduce toward the ethical. In other words, the purpose and end of the spiritual experience – the spiritual quest – in my humble opinion, should make of us better people.

Dr. Joseph Chuman 2 October 2005

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