In mid-December 2001 Anthony Lewis, the long-time editorialist for the New York Times penned his last column.
I have always found Lewis a voice of sanity; a principled champion of freedom and humane values. His final word did not disappoint. In that column Lewis wrote that his gravest concern over the decades was humanity’s descent into irrationality. He was thinking not only of violence, but of the power of fundamentalist groups here and abroad to capture and influence the public mind. But Lewis said that he had faith that reason would, in the long range, prevail over the forces of irrationality and obscurantism, despite the darkness of the moment. It was a thought simply and elegantly rendered. I also found it inspiring to find a public figure with a faith that confirms my own.
Lewis’s column brought me back to the program we held at the Ethical Culture Society on the Sunday immediately after the attacks of September 11th. I found most impressive that people sought us out, both members and those who knew of us but until then had never set foot in our building. I think that people sensed that ours is place in which they could find support because we are a community that represents and reinforces their values.
This means a lot. It is positive proof that Ethical Culture is not merely a “religion by default” to coin a phrase, a place where people of vague belief find a home among friendly folks. We are not merely a big tent for the religiously indecisive. It points to the important fact that Ethical Culture has an affirmative and positive identity, a fact that we too seldom reflect on or articulate. In short Ethical Culture is a conveyor of discrete values around which to fashion a way of life for men and women which is significantly different from others. What are some of the values and belief that compose a humanist identity?
First, as noted, is a belief in living a life of reason. This does not entail crusty rationalism, but a life in which we integrate our reason with our emotions, our sense of beauty and the creativity of our imagination. It means that when decisions are to be made and belief to be honed, we seek to avoid contradictions, eschew obscurantism and the indulgence of what our reason tells us just isn’t so.
Next, our Ethical Culture bids us to make ethical priorities our highest priorities in the service of living the good life in the widest sense. This means putting the welfare of others and our own ahead of the yen for wealth, fame or power. This way of life does not gainsay the search for the good life for which material well-being is essential. It merely suggests that the good life cannot be good in the highest sense, unless ethical living is the supreme aspiration.
Third, it recognizes the dignity of all human beings as the centerpiece of ethics. In short, people are not to be used as we use a piece of furniture. Rather, their sacredness must be preserved.
Fourth, we recognize that we are in great measure social beings, who are dependent on other people in describable and indescribable ways. We are part of the wider tapestry of humanity, and beyond that the interdependent web of nature. This reality mandates, what I like to call “associative obligations.” We live not only for ourselves. We live to enhance life, and bring forth what is best in others and ourselves.
Fifth, we are people of faith. We have faith in the human future, and act on that faith even now, as we commit ourselves to building a more humane world.