The Frontier of Truth
by Tony Hileman, Senior Leader, New York Society for Ethical Culture
Any of you who have heard me speak before have likely heard me say that I believe Ethical Humanism resides at the growing tip of our culture, at the forward reach of human understanding and endeavor. Maybe not in those exact words, but certainly it’s a familiar theme of mine and of others in the Ethical Movement.
So it will come as no surprise to you that I think Ethical Culture exists on The Frontier of Truth. That’s where it was meant to reside when the founder of this movement, Felix Adler, a man ahead of his time, placed it there beside himself in 1876. And that is where it has remained ever since.
Those are bold words but they are spoken humbly in the full knowledge and understanding that today’s truth is but tomorrow’s folly. That is why I speak today not of the truth, but of an expanded concept of truth. My exploration this morning is of The Frontier of Truth, an exciting place to visit and a wonderful place to live.
During our time together I hope to say something about truth itself, how it informs our lives and the lives of others, why we should care about it in the first place, and maybe a glimpse into why, of all the options available to us, we have chosen to be Ethical Culturists.
When I began writing this Platform address, it had the working title “The Ethical Culture of the Future.” I was inspired by a talk Felix Adler gave to his father’s congregation at Temple Emanu-El on October 11, 1873, the better part of three years before he founded the Ethical Culture movement. It was appropriately entitled The Judaism of the Future.
At the time of that address, Adler was but 22 years of age. He had just completed his studies in Germany and was considered heir apparent to his father as senior rabbi. That was not to be as in that one address he went from heir apparent to heir unapparent. The Judaism he described that day lay too far in the future for the congregants of Temple Emanu-El.
Learning from that lesson, common sense got the better of hubris and I changed my title. I had already compiled quite a few notes and even an outline. When I reviewed them searching for a new title I was reminded of some daydreaming I had done nearly fifteen years ago.
That daydreaming was something I imagine Felix Adler indulged in when drafting that 1873 address. The theme question, or the dream question as the case may be, was, “If I built my own religion, what would it look like and what would I call it?”
Felix Adler was much better at this than I. He came up with Ethical Culture. I came up with The Frontier of Truth.
Adler was also much more of a visionary than I. Where he set out to found the Ethical Culture Movement, I sat around daydreaming of the Frontier of Truth congregation.
Ethical Culture is a progressive religion that is, as it says on the side of our building in New York, “Dedicated to the ever increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right.” Right takes on additional meaning in this context, and I’ll be coming back to that. But the prominent display of that dedication makes it clear that we have a particular interest in truth.
Truth, like right, has many different and nuanced applications, definitions, and understandings. There’s the truth as disclosed by experience, scientific and otherwise, there’s the truth the opposite of which is falsehood, and there’s the revealed, absolute truths of a bygone era.
Truth is a complex concept. Sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship of the unknown, sometimes for a way of life.
As Ethical Humanists, our true interest in truth lies in the truth of our ideas, of our thinking.
Keeping our ideas in agreement with each other and with our understanding of ourselves is no less difficult than keeping them in harmony with our ever expanding understandings of the world we inhabit. Truth as such is not a static or fixed truth but one that resides at the leading edge, at the frontier of human progress. Thus The Frontier of Truth.
Adler often condensed dual or multiple concepts into a single expression. The “right” in “Dedicated to the ever increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right.” is one of those compound expressions.
Today, we would say that the “right” of which Adler spoke encompasses both the true and the good and might be interpreted as “right relations”—relations in which truth is used well. Truths based on reasoned and rational understandings, concepts, and applications lead to a deep appreciation for the value of learning and experience, and lend a certain elastic, progressive quality to truth.
Truth can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be used as a weapon, as a means and a tool of power. When so employed, it looses its fluidity—it hardens and becomes ossified into what Adler called “decadent theology.” Others are seeing in the older religions what Adler saw and what we see.
Here’s how renegade Episcopal bishop Shelby Spong puts it: “[Religion] has made such incredulous claims … that it is always on the defensive when new learning that challenges old definitions appears. Traditional [religion] has been buffeted by the insights of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and many others. They have destroyed the credibility of much of our [religious] talk.”
Among those “many others” I would include Felix Adler in that pantheon of human advancement. Spong went on to say in speaking of those old concepts in a refreshing if surprisingly frank way that they are a “delusion and ought to be dismissed.”
We are loath to do that, to let go of what we have held true and sacred in favor of an advanced truth that can carry us further on our human journey. Rather we have a seemingly natural tendency to sway others to our way of thinking, and that’s a habit that’s hard to kick. Impossible for some who continue to ask us to believe implausible things and to tell us not only what to think but how to think. The message of Ethical Humanism is not what or how to think, but to think, to think for yourself about how you want to be and how you want the world in which you live to be.
In order for us to pursue our aim of right relationships, of an ethical culture, our thinking, our truth, must accommodate not only our scientific and psychological understandings. It must also continually advance and adjust to our expanding concepts of the virtues that guide our behavior—virtues like sincerity, good faith, honesty, and respect.
It is in that aim, in that pursuit, that Ethical Culturists become explorers of the frontier of truth. And it is in that exploration that we find a sense of meaning and purpose that deepens the spiritual and religious aspects of life.
Ethical Culture Leader Matthew Ies Spetter put it this way, “Our spiritual being lies in reclaiming the human capacity for renewal, healing, purposing.” The exploration of the frontier of truth is itself meaningful and fruitful past discovery. The search itself confirms the journey.
There are two main thrusts to truth. One is conceptual, arising from our notions of virtue. The other is specific and demands agreement with fact or reality. The one is philosophic in nature, the other scientific. Both can be pragmatic, especially when taken together.
Philosophically, truth encompasses things like loyalty, fidelity, veracity, and integrity. Scientific thinking demands that to be considered true claims must correspond to reality, to the actual state of affairs. Our modern concept of truth embraces both in requiring a proper fit of all elements within a cohesive system. Facts and ideas must agree with each other—no absurd assumptions played out logically but irrationally into equally absurd conclusions.
Enter pragmatism and William James. “The true,” he says, “Is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.”
While not embracing some of Adler’s thinking of the time—thinking Ethical Culture itself has since abandoned as unnecessary—James was in essence an Ethical Humanist. In his acclaimed work, Pragmatism, he held that “Truth is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their agreement, as falsity means their disagreement, with reality.” But he went further, and here’s where he touches on Ethical Culture. “Grant an idea or a belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?”
And then he placed the whole of it on the frontier of our ethical explorations. “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.” In that respect, truth itself becomes a frontier and our pursuit of it through right relations our purpose.
Right relations anchored in the true and the good. In relationships, you can’t have the one without the other, but one doesn’t guarantee the other. An illustration in point.
In a previous professional incarnation, I had a very trusted advisor who I thought could accomplish just about anything. Lloyd—not his real name—was a gentle, eight-hundred pound gorilla, as smart and insightful as they come. The bane of my life at the time was Earl—also not his real name. The names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.
Earl was as smart as Lloyd, but where Lloyd was insightful and pragmatic Earl could be stubborn and wrongheaded. He had blind spots that caused me, him, and others no end of trouble. Couple that with a generous dose of well-aged contentiousness and you have a problem.
During a particularly tumultuous episode—one in which Earl was spreading factual things, true things in an un-good way, using truth as a weapon—I appealed to Lloyd as a last resort. He was no help at all in calming the furor, but his straightforward wisdom was enormously beneficial to me then and now. He said simply, “I can’t make Earl be good—and neither can you.”
A simple, plain truth: No one of us can make any other of us be good. Even in a patient, understanding, and ideal effort to elicit their best, we cannot compel another person be good.
But we can lend a hand and here’s how: By doing our best to instill and inspire the desire to be good—to facilitate the values and processes inherent in the motto, “Dedicated to the ever increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right.”
We cannot make others be good, but we can help them be good by doing whatever we can with the opportunities allowed us to help them want to be good. And without a dedication to the ever increasing knowledge and practice and love, love of the right—of the true and the good—even that minimal but essential task becomes impossible.
That’s why I speak so often and so passionately about the animating vitality of Ethical Culture, about it’s influence on our lives, and about its importance to the world. Behind all the great issues of our time lie individual lives. And those individual lives make up the kind of world in which we live.
Look around at the state of affairs today and that’s not a very comforting thought. Look back at how things were just a hundred years ago and it’s very comforting. Right living makes for a right world. And, despite obvious challenges and setbacks, the record shows that humanity has gotten the direction right.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” Wounded justice can rise from the dust and shame to reign supreme in ourselves and in the lives of our children.
Being good, doing right, is not easy, it takes work, hard work that you have to do yourself. I can’t do it for you, and neither can anyone else. And, like anything else difficult, you aren’t going to get very far if you are not committed, if you are not dedicated. You have to want it. That begs the question, Why? Why be good? Why pursue right relations or the ideas upon which they rest? Why seek truth on its own frontier?
No advancement of science, no understanding of sociology, no knowledge of group dynamics can answer that question for you. The “why” question is, in this context, ultimately, a very personal, a deeply religious question. Perhaps the first and certainly among the germinal questions of the spiritual pursuit of life. “Why be good?”
We could be flippantly pragmatic and say, “because the world works better, is more dependable if we’re good—if we don’t lie, cheat, steal, or hit.” True, but even the great pragmatist himself, William James, wasn’t quite that pragmatic.
He took a very Ethical Culture, a very interpersonal approach to the largeness of the question by reducing it to its smallest elements. He said, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water …”
Those tiny invisible moral forces that work from individual to individual. The small acts of truth and goodness that occur between us daily, moment to moment, constantly. That is where the greatness of “the right” lies. And if you’ve ever experienced that, or glimpsed the beauty of that, or even thought that it might be possible for you, you have loved it for within the accomplishments of the greatest of us can be found the individual acts of the least of us.
Scientists call it the butterfly effect—that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Teaneck, New Jersey, the winds around the world are increased by a tiny invisible force a force that is perhaps just enough that leaves flutter and branches sway on the other side of the earth. Add another butterfly, or two, or a few thousand, and those winds can cause leaves to fall, branches to break, and the panes of windows half a world away to shatter.
There are so many variables that no one can predict the effects of the smallest act, nor can anyone identify with certainty the causes of the largest of human events. Take the butterfly effect and apply it to right relations and ask yourself is it plausible or implausible to think that small acts born of gratitude and generosity can stir the creativity of others?
Is it plausible or implausible to think that stirred creativity can sway the thinking of still others? Is it plausible or implausible to believe that that thinking can multiply until it shatters the outdated and harmful attitudes so prevalent in our world today?
I say it is plausible. The butterfly effect of ethics can stir others, it can sway attitudes, and it can shake the earth, causing an upheaval felt throughout the tributaries and rivers of life.
And that was the understanding, the concept, the idea that Felix Adler advanced in founding this movement on The Frontier of Truth. A powerful idea that you can’t help but love. An idea that makes you want to be good.
When you’re on the frontier, what is left behind you is an important reminder of why you are there in the first place. In that 1873 address, Adler asked, “But what now? The field is cleared, the rules are removed, but what remains? — Vacancy unmeasured.” Vacancy unmeasured. Adler went on, “The old has been torn down, but the new has not been reared in its stead. … The bark of religion is swimming in shallow places and will be stranded if ye beware not. Away, then, with false hesitation. … The demands of the times are known. Be they fulfilled. We cannot stand still for to stand still is to be crushed. We must progress.”
And so he did. He built on the frontier of truth a new movement, one that united life, this life, and religion. Our movement, like our country, was built on something that had never been done before. Both are grand experiments. Both were established on a lush and verdant frontier.
In commenting on Ethical Culture at 100, a 1976 New York Times article said. “Dr. Adler, a commanding figure, inspired the movement in its early stages with a philosophy that contained elements of the mysticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the idealism of Immanuel Kant, and the native optimism of America.”
Think of it, this twenty-something son of an immigrant Jewish family inspired a movement with the native optimism of America! Is it any wonder that he placed it on the frontier of truth? That he sought new understandings and better ways for us to be together in the confidence that he, and we, could succeed?
He saw in our individuality, our uniqueness, the numen of ethics. And yet he grounded much of his thinking in our togetherness, our connectedness. Adler was visionary in his thinking but I don’t believe even he saw our individual uniqueness to be as vast and certain as science has since proven it to be. At the same time, that same science has underscored Adler’s complementary concept of connectedness—that we are more alike than we are different.
We are each a unique prism through which the ray of experience passes, is refracted into a spectacular array of color, and is scattered, lighting the lives of others. We need each other’s light to support us and to help us find our way. It can be dark and lonely out there on the frontier, unaccompanied by cultural opinion.
It’s very difficult to maintain your direction in unexplored territory. Head and heart are often tempted down divergent paths. It’s part of the challenge to keep them aligned and headed the same direction. It’s easier to change one’s mind than it is to change one’s heart. There are things within us that are resistant to reason and that do not easily yield to the dictates of rationality.
But if there is to be advancement—personal growth and cultural progress—we need to keep trying, to keep questioning, and to keep exploring. Skepticism is part of the landscape of the frontier of truth. As Bertrand Russell said, “It is a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. “
I would add that from time to time we need to test ourselves, to attempt things that exceed our capacity, to reach for ideals that are beyond our grasp. That is why we need each other, to support us when we waver, to lead us when we lose our way, to pick us up when we fall. To care for us in our efforts rather than to criticize us in our failures. That’s life on the frontier. That’s life as an Ethical Humanist.
Let me conclude with thoughts from one of my predecessors. Fifty years ago, Jerry Nathanson, a leader at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, remarked “I have said that we believe the good and the right to be the creation of distinctive individuality, that ethical personalities are not born but are created in the course of living. The forwarding of this attitude toward life, the promotion of its effective expression, is essentially what Ethical Culture is all about.
“This is simple enough to say. The difficult thing, sometimes agonizingly difficult, is not merely to say it but to live it.”
That takes courage, and it takes a lifetime exploring on the frontier of truth. We cannot simply decide that we want to embrace truth and to be good and then be done with it. It takes more than conscious decision, it takes more than head—it takes heart, it takes grit.
We are religious explorers and see the quest of the good and the true as a lifelong pursuit. The frontier of truth is an expansive and expanding frontier one that is not to be conquered and claimed but rather one that is to be continually explored, and in that exploration further expanded.
We hold truth to be growing rather than finished—a frontier to be explored rather than a fixed residence to be occupied for now and forever. Truth thus becomes an ideal rather than an absolute and it is in that ideal that we see that truth itself is a frontier. A frontier we can explore and an ideal we have the capacity to shape and reshape for the good of all. And it is in that good, that right, that the merit of our efforts should be measured.
Nathanson concluded his thoughts by quoting Adler. He began, “We believe the justification of any religious faith, including an ethical faith, is not to be found in its grounding (important as this is for each of us individually), but in its consequences. As Adler remarked, the faith creates the facts which justify it.”
And the way to do that is to keep our thinking, our creativity, our ideas and our ideals on the frontier of truth through ever increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right. The reader is reminded that this is the written text of an oral address and remains in that style. While the speaker’s presentation marks have been redacted, there has been no attempt to edit it into an essay.
Platform address to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ, January 20, 2008
by Tony Hileman, Senior Leader, New York Society for Ethical Culture