By Dr. Joseph Chuman
When it comes time for me to deliver a platform address these days, I find myself at first drawn into the vortex of our current political universe. Our political reality is like a black hole that pulls at us, unnerves us, and at this stage, given the craziness emanating from the White House, we are wearied by it. But that is not all. Between devastation fires in the Amazon, Siberia and Africa, with the Arctic melting at an unprecedented rate, with the oceans, which we think of as pristine and inexhaustible, suffused with garbage and plastic that will be around forever, it feels as if the environmental apocalypse is pressing in on us. The bad news at times overwhelms, and I entertain the compulsion to retreat or otherwise escape.
So, there come times when I feel the need to flee the grasp of the vortex in great measure to maintain my sanity and try to reestablish some emotional equilibrium, and this morning is such a time. I deliberately will not address our current situation, but rather turn to a topic that is as remote as can be from the events of the moment. I usually reserve for my inaugural address of each new season an exploration of the nature of Ethical Culture and its humanistic philosophy, and so I will this morning. Each such endeavor has me searching for some way to interpret our guiding ideas in new and fresh ways, which is my task today.
So, let me begin. As an atheist, I have long been fascinated by religion, not so much in terms of religious doctrines, but in what I believe are the deeper questions about reality and our relations to it that religion, in its philosophical role, and in its best sense, engages. I often like to say that I generally don’t agree with the answers that the religions come up with, but I do often find the questions that they pose fascinating and important because they often relate very directly to the search for meaning in life, which is a search I believe most thoughtful people such as ourselves are fated to engage.
There are an endless number of perspectives and issues I could investigate here, but let me focus on just one. It seems to me that the great religions, despite their tremendous diversity, are all based on the assumption that the human condition is in some sense problematic. In other words, that we are, as human creatures, not quite fitted for the reality into which we are thrust. We are like an ill-shaped piece of a jigsaw puzzle that, given our needs, drives, and limitations, is ill-matched for the environment in which we find ourselves. Hence, given our limitations and imperfections, human beings are inherently ill at ease with the world. In short, life and our condition confront us as problematic
While this presumption is central to religion, there really is nothing quite so radical about it. The curiosity that drives much of secular philosophy derives from the same assumption. Indeed, the very desire to know, to gain a better understanding of the world, is often based on the yen to overcome ignorance, and through knowledge gain clarity, strength, power, peace of mind, and mastery over our condition we would not otherwise have. We are ill at ease and we want to find a better way. For example, the preeminent humanist philosopher John Dewey, very much a secularist, based much of his thought on the bedrock assumption that for human beings, indeed, for all organic creatures, life is inherently problematic; we are faced with problems at every turn. As we confront problems, we engage our intelligence, our critical reasoning, and our best evidence to overcome our problems, whether deciding what to wear today or working to cure cancer. Once we resolve our problem, we momentarily rest, achieve satisfaction, until we soon again confront new problems and apply the same processes of reason and experiment to overcome them. And so, on and on it goes in what Dewey believed was an incremental rising spiral of progress for our species as a whole. Life, in short, is a never-ending process of problem-solving to reach positions of greater fulfillment and satisfaction.
The human predicament writ large
But the religions generally take a more radical view and make escaping the problematic nature of the human condition, as mentioned, central to them. So, in Christianity, the presumption is that the human being is born alienated from God, his creator, which ensures that ours is a condition of sin. From this a lot of bad things happen. Not only is the human being spiritually unfulfilled, most likely morally adrift, but also suffers most of all from the foreboding and reality of death. Such is the human predicament writ large. The cure is to get right with God, accept the dominion, love, and grace of Jesus as one’s savior, and the person who so believes and dedicates his life will overcome sin, will live in a state of blessedness and grace, and achieve eternal life.
It may come as a surprise, and perhaps an uncomfortable one, that Ethical Culture in the mind of its founder, Felix Adler, was built on a parallel framework, namely that the human condition is fundamentally problematic and a way needs to be found to get out of it.
Here, I need to be very precise. When asked whether Ethical Culture was Felix Adler’s religion, he said “no,” my religion is not Ethical Culture, my religion is what Adler called “Ethical Religion.” In other words, he differentiated between Ethical Culture and Ethical Religion. What was the difference in his mind? Ethical Culture is a much broader concept. It is a movement open to all, provided that they acclaim the primacy of ethics in their lives. How they justify that commitment to the primacy of ethics is personal to them. Some come to their ethics through a secular philosophy, some though a belief in some kind of spiritual order; for others, it is a matter of intuition, and many others come to their ethics through no particular foundation at all. Yet, Felix Adler had his own very sophisticated and difficult philosophical view about how reality is structured and that understanding provided the framework for what he termed “Ethical Religion.”
Without getting into too many details, one aspect of his religious viewpoint is that the human condition is set up in such a way that we are constantly open to a life filled with frustration.
How so? In Adler’s view, reality in a sense is two-fold. On the one hand, we live in the actual world, a world in which we are continuously subject to the slings and arrows of misfortune. We suffer pain and illness, loss, sorrow, tragedy, and death—as well as joy. We are, as most everyone will conclude, religious and otherwise, vulnerable creatures. Such is our everyday condition. But on the other hand, Adler maintained, there is an ideal realm that we can frame with our minds. If we suffer from pain, illness, poverty, loss, and sorrow, with our minds we can readily imagine, indeed, he believed we are fated to imagine, an ideal, perfect, realm devoid of pain, illness, poverty, and loss. And Adler contends that we are drawn to this world, we yearn for it, and to the best of our abilities we seek to reach it through our efforts to restructure our lives and our society. But because this realm is ideal, by definition we can never achieve it. Its reach always exceeds our grasp. Hence, caught between the actual realm and the ideal realm, the lot of man is one of frustration. Frustration is built into the human experience, he believed.
But as a religious thinker, Adler in his Ethical Religion proposes a way out. It is his solution, and he by no means requires that others, including members of Ethical Culture, need to buy into it. Indeed, it is a very hard sell. And here Adler’s thinking becomes esoteric.
Members of the ‘spiritual universe’
The way out of frustration, Adler holds, is to recognize that we all possess a spiritual essence and that we are all individual members of what he calls the “spiritual universe.” We are all joined together in an organic whole, so that any action I take to influence others reciprocally creates a change in me. Hence we are to “bring out the best in others and thereby we will bring out the best in ourselves.” For Adler, there is something special and distinctively inherent in the ethical act. Through the ethical act we gain an inkling of our spiritual, transcendent nature and we gain a glimpse, however fleeting, of the spiritual universe of which we are an inseparable part.
“My ideal of the divine life is that of…a spiritual society infinite and composed of infinite members, infinitely diverse, each necessary to the whole and the whole necessary to each. It is this ideal of the perfect life in which I seize the symbol of the utter reality of things. And the truth of this ideal I can discover in ethical experience, for this, as I interpret it, is nothing else than the endeavor to act toward my fellow beings as a member of the infinite spiritual society would act toward his fellows—seeking to prompt and quicken them to express the eternal excellence that is potential in each and thereby making actual the eternal excellence that is in me.”
Then, building on this idea of the infinite spiritual society, Adler in his last chapter of his magnum opus, An Ethical Philosophy of Life, entitled, “The Last Outlook on Life,” discusses our confrontation with our own mortality. In a language that sounds almost Christian he says,
“The world as we know it is itself the veil, the screen, that shuts out the interplay, the weavings, and inter-weavings of the spiritual universe. But at least at one point, in the ethical experience of man, is the screen translucent. The plan of the spiritual relation is there traced in outline. It is the plan that conveys that certainty as to what verily exists beyond, within, beneath. …The thought of this, as apprehended, not in terms of knowledge, but in immediate experience, begets the peace that passeth understanding. And it is upon the bosom of that peace that we can pass safely out of the realm of time and space.”
In short, it is our recognition of our place in the spiritual universe that is the vehicle to get us beyond the frustration that we usually experience in the everyday world, as well as mitigate the fear of death. To get ourselves beyond the pains, sorrows, and frustrations that so riddle the human condition, Adler sees, along with many other students of the human condition, as a widely felt and deep need of human soul, so to speak.
Certainly, this is a far cry from what most of us would understand as Ethical Culture. But my point is that this effort to frame some concept of an eternal spiritual universe and our immortal place in it certainly places Adler among religious thinkers, as does his attempt to use religious and philosophical ideas to get us beyond the pain and suffering and fear we experience, to leverage us beyond the contingencies of life, in a sense to work to enable us to discover a stable unchanging place where we can find peace and security beyond the frustrations, tragedies, and hardships that go with our lived experiences. In short, as with so many religions, he tries to enable us to contemplate a different realm and land us somewhere in which what ails us in the lives we live remains behind or at least transformed in their meaning.
Changing consciousness via religion, philosophy, drugs
The point is that there is a yearning felt by much of humankind to escape the world, so to speak. Religion and philosophy are vehicles by which to do this, but they are not the only ones. In a much less lofty sense, someone had once defined the human being as a “psycho-pharmacological” animal. It is a fact about human beings that since the beginning of time, people have tried to change their consciousness through the imbibing of various substances, namely drugs, be it alcohol, peyote, mescaline, marijuana, LSD, or whatever. It is as if we are dissatisfied with normal consciousness and strive to escape it by launching ourselves into new, strange, and heightened forms of consciousness. And this weird tendency can be used to define us. I don’t think any other animal behaves this way, at least not deliberately.
But getting back to religion, perhaps the most extreme example of attempting to escape the hardships that accompany the human condition is found what is referred to as mystical experience. Mysticism is a minor tradition, so to speak, in all the great religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism Buddhism, and a multitude of others. Mystical thought and experience can also be found in secular contexts and I must admit it is a phenomenon that certainly captivates my interest, though I would be hard-pressed to admit that I have ever had a full-blown mystical experience. But, the idea has great appeal, I think.
What is mysticism? Mysticism is a change of consciousness that seeks to enable us to escape time and situate ourselves in an eternal present where we are not bogged down by the past or future. It its most basic sense, it is a felt experience in which the boundaries that separate our individual selves from the wider reality that surrounds us fall away. Our everyday sense of ourselves is that each of us is an individual ego that is separate from the environment and the reality in which we move about. There is me and there is not-me, and there is a boundary that separates me as a discrete individual from all else. The mystical experience occurs when the boundaries that separate ourselves from all else fall away and we experience a sense of unity or unification with the broader reality of which we are a part.
For those not traditionally religious, perhaps the most common form of mystical experience is derived from what we might call nature mysticism. I am walking through an august forest and a sensation overcomes me that I am one with nature. I come to feel what I intellectually know, and that is that I am inextricably part of nature. Or perhaps I am gazing up at the stars on a particularly clear and splendid night and sense that I am one with the glorious and infinite universe. Carl Sagan once noted that we are all made of “star stuff.” The mystical experience puts us in immediate contact with that reality.
There is a famous line in Emerson’ essay entitled “Nature” that captures the essence of the mystical moment. He says:
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
But the point is that the ego disappears, its perceptive functioning becomes passive and we sense that all nature flows through us. We are one with it. The reference to becoming a “transparent eyeball” was over the top even for his day.
In a more modern idiom, nature mysticism was expressed in the poetry of Mary Oliver. One of her better-known verses is as follows.
do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Some have compared Mary Oliver to the great 18th century British poet, who had a strong mystical bent, William Blake. Blake’s pithiest and most famous expression of mystical consciousness was captured in the following:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
What the mystical sensibility expresses is the yearning of those so inspired to escape this world, at least the world of change, of contingency, of pain, desire, nostalgia, sorrow, frustration, suffering, which comprises so much of the human experience, and to seek refuge, as it were, in what is an eternal unchanging now. It means letting go of the past and our desires for the future, and its anxieties, for only the present moment is what is truly real. To aspire to such a frame of mind, to dwell in the moment, we might say is to seek and attain a stance of invulnerability from the slings and arrows of life.
Mystical unification is a part of all great religions
As stated, one does not need to be a religious person to have such experiences, but mystical unification of the self and all-encompassing reality is a perception that all the great religions have developed to a high degree, although in each faith it remains a minor branch.
Although they have often been branded as heretics, for the Christian mystic the ultimate unity is of the individual soul with God. But it is the Eastern faiths that have perhaps made these types of transcendent experiences most central to their beliefs.
While Hinduism is a religious culture with a bewildering variety of teachings and practices, perhaps the form best known in the West is what is known as Vedantic Hinduism. In Vedanta, the only reality that exists is Brahman, which is all that is. Each of us possess our individual selves, known as atman, but atman and all that we perceive in the world is based on false knowledge and does not truly exist. By coveting things in this world, by chasing our desires, we are clinging to illusions. As we travel through the world we experience an almost endless cycle of deaths and rebirth. The objective of Vedanta is to end this cycle and to achieve moksha, that is, freedom or liberation from the endless chain of death and rebirth, at which point the atman, or the individual self, will experience reality as it truly is and the atman will dissolve into Brahman and be identified with it. This state is one of ultimate bliss and ultimate freedom. This unification of atman and Brahman is often illustrated by the Sanskrit phrase “tat tvam asi,: which translates as “thou art that.” In other words, you and the infinite, encompassing reality are one and undifferentiated. The self becomes dissolved into the infinite reality of which it is a part as particles of salt when stirred in water dissolve into it.
Buddhism, which emerged as a Hindu heresy of sorts, perhaps presents the most emphatically elaborated system for getting us beyond the contingencies of this world. Although highly complex, with multiple sects espousing different doctrines, classical Buddhism, which is more a psychological system than a religion, indeed there is no God in classical Buddhism, is based on what is known as the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism can also be highly intellectual system and uses critical thinking to assess the human condition.
The first truth is that life is pain and suffering. Like a doctor providing a diagnosis for pain, Buddhism concludes that the cause of suffering, which includes frustration, disappointment, all sorts of negative emotions, is desire, or what Buddhism refers to as “attachment.” That’s the Second Noble Truth. The prescription to get beyond suffering and the like, which is the Third Truth, is to annihilate desire. And the way to do that, which constitutes the Fourth Truth, is to live one’s life according to the Eightfold Path, which requires right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
With a life so lived, one will eventually break the bonds of attachment to life and the cycles of death and rebirth and ultimately achieve the state of nirvana, which actually means “emptiness.”
In Buddhist teaching, the idea of letting go of attachment is very thorough-going. In the deeper recesses of Buddhist thought, nothing truly exists in and of itself, in that everything is relative to or dependent on something else for its existence. But for our interests, Buddhism also makes the claim that the idea we have of our own individual egos, our own selves, is a fiction, in that this, too, is a form of attachment.
We tend to imagine that we each possess a self, like a little homunculus in our heads in which our person identities are located. But at most, what we find are neurological impulses and what we sense as a self or an ego is an imaginary person we construct out of the surrounding experiences that impinge us. So, in Buddhism an objective is to transcend or annihilate the concept of our individual self. Thinking we are an individual self, or ego, is the ultimate form of attachment.
The entire universe in an individual
A central concept in Buddhism is emptiness. Emptiness is not a synonym for nihilism. It is not that nothing exists, rather to perceive the world as empty is a mode of perception. It is to understand that nothing exists independently by itself, but all things contain those elements that go into creating it. So, if Buddhists claim that the self is empty, it is to understand that there is no separate entity such as an independent self, but that what I sense as myself is really a composite of the neurological, social elements, and whatever that I construct as myself. Once we grasp the reality of emptiness it actually opens us up to a fuller appreciation of reality, in that each individual carries within him or her the entire universe.
When it comes to our emotions, this change in perception can be most useful. If I become very angry and remain attached to my anger and believe it is mine and mine alone, then it can fester and cause great pain. But if I can change perspective and see that what I originally sense is my anger has origins and causes far greater than me, and outside of me, then I can step back, gain some distance from it, and perhaps achieve a calmer, less engaged relation to the anger. I can become, in other words, an observer of the anger, rather than a person who suffers from it. I want to get back to this observation in a moment when I look at our humanism.
In its teaching, Buddhism presents among the most sophisticated, detailed, and philosophically elegant systems to enable people to get beyond or escape the everyday conditions and experiences that we endure in our ordinary existence.
My point in this survey is that if we look at the career of humankind, there has been an unmistakable and persistent yearning to get beyond the everyday human condition, and much of religion and philosophy has been devoted to that task. There is a yearning to get beyond the contingencies of life and find a place of perfect peace.
And so, my final question is, “Where does humanism stand in this quest to escape the world?” Our answer needs to depend on how we define humanism. I think that we can define humanism as a philosophy of life and an orientation that puts a premium on human flourishing and living the good life for ourselves and for all. That means, among other things, developing our human potentials, our emotions, our intellect, our physical abilities, our capacity for love and companionship, compassion, and caring, our sexual potentials, our appreciation for wisdom, art and learning, our kindness and caring, to the fullest extent possible. Humanism involves living a rich life and helping to bring about the conditions wherein all people can fulfill their potentials as well. Ethical Culture adds to this an emphasis on respecting the dignity and worth of all people, and this respect is certainly a requirement for the achievement of the good life.
If we are humanists so understood, then it seems that we need to stand apart from the invulnerablist position, at least in its purest forms. If we seek to rise above the contingencies of life, and make ourselves invulnerable to suffering and misfortune, then we need to let go of desires, and remove ourselves from caring and love and striving for better things. If humanism is committed to embracing the fullness of the human experience, then we must be prepared to endure sorrow and loss together with happiness, joy, and achievement. Most humanists want to be gripped by what we do and those we care about; I don’t think we want to escape it, if escaping it means giving up love, caring, and aspiration.
The devout are not neglectful of this world
But the story doesn’t need to end there, I believe. If we look at the religious philosophies I cited, it is my conclusion that the devout Hindu or Buddhist doesn’t truly live his or life in the way their religious philosophies promote in their ideal form. And Felix Adler certainly didn’t believe that we should or ever could launch ourselves completely beyond this world of frustration. The Buddhist, Hindu, or whoever, is not devoid of compassion or neglectful of things of this world. The Dalai Lama, for example, is by no means uninvolved or unvested in the politics of Tibet.
But what such philosophies do in a functional sense is to change one’s perspective on the harshness of life, and I think that humanism can learn something from this. What I mean is that within the humanist world-view it is perfectly appropriate to adopt perspectives that take the edge off hardships and suffering. As humanists, we don’t need to seek invulnerability from life’s hardships, but we can lessen them by often recognizing that there is much in life that we cannot control and that seeking to master it is an illusion. Life is full of contingencies. Bad things happen to us, but so do very good things. Things come and go, and sometimes we can take the edge off bad things that happen to us by recognizing that fact. When bad things happen to us–we lose a job, or fall out of a love relationship—I am not saying that our suffering should be drained from them. But perhaps we can lessen the suffering if we step back and look at these misfortunes across a broader landscape of events and place them in the context of larger realities that played a role in their occurring. We don’t need to be passive victims of life, nor do we need to escape it. We don’t have to be perfect Buddhists in utterly removing ourselves from these events and the emotions they generate. But we can at least strive to step back and look at the larger picture, while recognizing that we only have limited control over our own lives. We can adopt the stance of what is sometimes referred to as “the observing ego.” I have tried in certain ways to do this. To provide a very trite example, I used to get beside myself if I got stuck in front of the Holland Tunnel for an hour when I had an appointment to make in Manhattan. I would tear my hair out. But if we can recognize that being stuck in front of the tunnel has causes much larger than ourselves and there is nothing we can do about it, we can gain, perhaps, a sense of calm. It was Friedrich Engels who once noted that “freedom is the knowledge of necessity.”
In short, as humanists, I would say life comes with the recognition that life comes with its scars as well as its joys. And I suspect that most of us, most of the time, would not want it any other way.
Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on Sept. 8, 2019.