By Dr. Joseph Chuman
It takes some effort to turn away from the craziness of the current moment and focus on other things. Yet this is what I intend to do for my first platform of the new season. I usually devote my September talk to some reflection on Ethical Culture and Humanism and what it means and this month’s address is no exception.
I want to bore into a topic that has intrigued at least since my college years. It involves the age-old quest to get beyond, at least to some degree, the human condition. We are, of course, vulnerable creatures who suffer from the slings and arrows of misfortune. Realization of our vulnerable state has given rise through the ages to the quest to rise above contingency and get into a state of invulnerably, so to speak.
This search has generally fallen to the great religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, and to certain philosophies, such as Stoicism.
All the religions, in fact, see the human condition as problematic. In Buddhism, the basic reality of the human condition is that life is pain. For Christians, the human being is a fallen creature destined to be sinful and fated to suffer the ills that come from that state. Even our own Felix Adler, who took religion seriously, felt that in our ability to pursue ideals from which we always fall short, frustration is the inevitable fate of the human being. By his own admission, Adler subscribed to a “tragic view of life.”
At the same time that they describe the human condition as problematic, the religions put forward prescriptions for getting us beyond our problematic state. The most highly developed prescriptions to escape the imperfections inherent in the human condition are found in the mystical traditions of the respective faiths. In briefest terms, the mystical tradition seeks to identify us and our experience with the immediacy of the moment. It develops disciplines to escape the contingencies of life that negative experiences impose on us or anxieties generated by fear of the future. In short, there is no past nor future, just an eternal now.
But what does humanism prescribe? Does it suggest that we attempt to escape the travails that accompany our normal experience and find refuge in a state beyond pain and suffering? Or is there perhaps a middle path that enables us to embrace the experiences and challenges life imposes on us, but to do so with greater equanimity and less suffering and anguish?
I intend to look at a possible humanistic answer to life’s problems in my first address of the new season: “As a Humanist, Should I Seek to Get Out of This World?”
I hope you have had a restorative summer and I warmly look forward to seeing you all on Sept. 8.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.