Speaking of Ethics: Living a Humanist Life

Speaking of Ethics: Living a Humanist Life

Author: Joseph Chuman  (CreateSpace, North Charleston, S.C., 2014)   Reviewed by Doris Friedensohn

On the cover of Joseph Chuman’s Speaking of Ethics, a silhouetted male figure holds a bullhorn in his right hand. With his left hand extended, index figure pointing upward, he rallies his troops. Women and men gesticulating wildly join him in protest. Action on behalf of one’s beliefs, the image makes clear, is vital to Living a Humanist Life.

As leader of The Ethical Society of Bergen County for the past 40 years, Chuman is drawn to acts of conscience. But he is, first and foremost, a teacher: an explicator of values and a diagnostician of conflicts. Speaking out is his natural medium. (Acknowledgement: I have been in a writers group with the author for the past 15 years.) Sundays, at the Society’s meeting, he has used the “platform” address to examine ideas, historic moments and personalities, community differences and spiritual dilemmas. Topics ranging from The Pursuit of Happiness and Reclaiming the Enlightenment to Spinoza, The First Feminists and Religious Violence have a common thrust: clarifying what it means to be human.

The 25 richly developed essays in this volume–all originally platform talks–are accessible, learned, and personal. While they reflect Chuman’s own commitments and passions, they also provide a profile of the 140-year-old Ethical Culture Movement. Ethical Culture, as Chuman explains, is committed to democracy, the dignity of the individual, social justice, modern science and meliorism. It sits, comfortably and uncomfortably, on the margins of conventional religious institutions on the one hand and various humanistic/atheist organizations on the other. He quotes Felix Adler, the Movement’s founder, saying “it is religious to those who are religiously minded . . . and it is simply ethical to those who are not so minded.” For Adler, the crucial issue was deed, not creed. Like Adler, Chuman argues that while “he sees no evidence of a divine custodian,” he finds atheism as a philosophy to be essentially negative. Adler, he reminds us, founded Ethical Culture in the Industrial Age–in a moment when machines and their profit-minded masters threatened the humanity of millions. In the 21st century, the challenge to Ethical Culture is unchanged: to nurture a “feeling for humanity,” rooted in our capacity for empathy.

Our story, Chuman says, is the “slow march of freedom. It is the expansion of personal autonomy. It is the triumph of increased tolerance.” The effort may be collective, but it needs strong individuals in the vanguard. First among the author’s pantheon of heroes is the Neopolitan scholar Giordano Bruno, born in 1548; Bruno defended Copernicus’ theory of an infinite universe (with the sun, not the earth, at the center of the solar system). Accused of heresy, imprisoned, and threatened with torture and death, he chose to be burned at the stake rather than recant. Chuman celebrates this freethinker for his prescience and rare courage. Other heroes profiled include Thomas Paine for his attack, in The Age of Reason, on Christianity as a negative force in history; Mary Wollstonecraft for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (a philosophical manifesto on behalf of women as the moral and intellectual equals of men); John Dewey’s “creative intelligence” and “communitarianism” as models of the human capacity to create a better world; and the anthropologist Franz Boaz, who believed that cultural relativism and the tolerance it encouraged did not undermine such universal values as equal rights, freedom of expression, or the pursuit of truth. Biography is a rich mine for Chuman, especially in these desperately complicated times. Now more than ever, he feels, members of his community yearn for inspiration from outspoken and morally courageous individuals.

I wonder: does Ethical Culture, as a path, require too much courage for the average person? Does it demand too much independence of spirit? In an essay entitled “Why the Ethical Movement is So Small and What We Can Do about It,” Chuman reflects on the humble origins of the Mormon Church in western New York in 1820 and its explosion into an organization of 4 million members. Among its characteristics are a hierarchical structure, powerful devices for differentiating church members from others, a dramatic founding narrative, heavy demands on members for support of the church, and a missionary zeal. Ethical Culture, founded a half-century later, rejected dogma, ritual and an authoritarian structure. Instead, it celebrated individual conscience as the ultimate authority. Why is it, Chuman asks, that Mormonism, which seems to defy common sense, flourishes while Ethical Culture, which celebrates the dignity of the individual, appeals to so few? (The organization currently has 4,000 members.)

In answering the question, he reminds us of the limits of rationality. Religion, Chuman says, invoking Durkheim, “is essentially an expression of the power of community.” Religious symbols, rituals and narratives create connections among people; they also speak to deep yearnings in the human psyche. There’s a dark, needy and instinct-driven side to our nature, the author insists, which Ethical Culture should certainly address.

Members of the Bergen County Ethical Culture community will want to visit and revisit these essays. How fortunate they are to have this fine distillation of the intellectual and spiritual journey they have shared with Joe Chuman for so many years. Outsiders are fortunate, too. Speaking of Ethics welcomes us to explore humanist values, debate them, and–yes–recognize them as our own.

Doris Friedensohn, professor emerita of Women’s Studies at New Jersey City University, is the author of the food memoir Eating As I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad and Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy.



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