The religious character of Ethical Culture seems endlessly debatable. Is Ethical Culture a religion? Or, is it a secular philosophy of life? Despite the fact that Ethical Culture is now in its 128th year, the question is still not resolved. Though many, and I would guess, most Ethical Culturists would identify Ethical Culture as their religion, at the same time, I know that a significant minority would not. For people in the latter category, religion comes with a lot of baggage in the form of creeds, rituals and a very flawed history that they don’t want to identify with. For many people attracted to movements like ours, religion is a repository of all things evil. Mention the word “religion” and what comes to mind is authoritarianism and self-righteousness, self-interested clerics who sustain their power by duping and exploiting the masses with superstition, obscurantism and dark mysteries to which only they have privileged access, strange and irrational cultic practices, not to mention xenophobia, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holy wars. For such people religion is a virtual allergy, and there is much in religion’s malignant underside, to verify that they have a point.
On a more intellectual and technical plane, those who do not interpret Ethical Culture as religious will argue that as they see it, religion requires a belief in God. Since Ethical Culture is not focused on God-belief, and does not require it, it is, therefore an unwarranted stretch to refer to it as a religion.
On the other side of the equation, there are people for whom religion carries no such baggage, or the baggage is not so heavy that the positive aspects of religion don’t outweigh it. They see religion as a conveyor, though not necessarily a consistent conveyor, of very positive values such as brotherhood, compassion, justice, love and the worthiness of human beings. If religion has been the focal point for great evil, then friends of religion can point to illustrious figures such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama, whose worthy and humanitarian achievements cannot be divorced from their deep immersion in their religious faiths.
Those in the pro-religion camp might also argue that a totally secular outlook on life fails to satisfy a need that they feel very deeply. If not a personal God, they may sense that behind the workaday world, behind the physical universe, there is a greater, more encompassing reality, and it this reality that religion addresses. For example, they may feel that there is an intelligence that pervades nature. Or, if they are ethically inclined, they may feel that there is a moral law, a cosmic order of right and wrong that is embedded in the fabric of reality. Perhaps they feel that justice will prevail in the end, and we are the instruments of its ultimate triumph. Perhaps many people with a sense of the religious resist the idea of an absurd universe, and they feel that there is a purpose coursing through nature and for which humankind exists, and toward which the human future is slowly but inexorably bending. Perhaps there are those people who feel that this material world is not all, and behind it lies a unifying principle which supports all things, and which serves to bind everything together. And perhaps many sense that because we are finite, so there exists an Infinite of which our lives are particular and transient expressions. Perhaps many intuit, that there is, as William James did, something “more” to the universe than what we through our limited faculties and our limited senses can know and experience. After all, they might argue, our senses are like antennae tuned to only limited frequencies. Outside their range, perhaps there are many more frequencies, whose waves lengths we simply are unattuned to, but which we dimly sense are there.
Even without positing a father figure God, a divine custodian who created and judges us, those who have these sensibilities rightly refer to them as “religious.” They constitute what William James, again, referred to as a person’s “overbeliefs.” For such folks, if Ethical Culture seems to have this broader reach, if it inspires them to this heightened sensitivity especially as it pertains to a perceived moral order, then Ethical Culture can rightly be understood as their religion.
In certain more prosaic ways, Ethical Culture is undeniably a religion. For one, it is recognized by the government as such, with the result that this building is tax-exempt as a religious facility. In 1946, the Washington Ethical Society went to court to plead tax exemption as a religious organization. Deeming itself incompetent on theological matters, the federal court agreed that the Ethical Society is a religion on sociological grounds. The court noted that we meet as a congregation on a specific day for specific purposes that functionally resemble worship in the traditional churches. We provide moral instruction for our children. We carry on charitable work in the community as churches do. In other words, if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. And the court was right. In a functional sense, Ethical Culture is a religion, even though we don’t affirm a belief in a Supreme Being.
When it comes to the deeper questions of belief, the ambivalence as to whether we are a religion or not was placed at the heart of Ethical Culture at the very beginning by Dr. Felix Adler, who created the Ethical Movement. He declared very explicitly that “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded”, implying that religion is virtually a matter of temperament. What Adler intended to do was to make ethics the cornerstone of his movement, and he realized emphatically that one could be ethical if you construed your ethics religiously or in a secular way. What this implied is that ethical commitment is primary in Ethical Culture; the beliefs you employ to arrive at your ethics are secondary and open to the free conscious of all who subscribe to it. Ethical Culture invites all to join, whether you believe in a Higher Power or do not. “ Deed before creed” became the working motto of The Ethical Culture Movement.
While Ethical Culture welcomed both those who were “religiously minded” and those who were not religiously minded, Adler did not hide the fact that he himself was emphatically religiously minded. Though it sets many of us apart from our founder, Adler did believe in a non-material, spiritual reality, beyond the realm of our senses, and outside of space and time. He believed that our ethical experience hinted at something transcendental in the universe, that though impersonal, was eternal and perfect and to which the ethical progress of humankind was tending.
Adler was among those religious thinkers of the late 19th century who found the conclusions of Darwinism to be upsetting, as they related to the status of human beings. Although he thought natural selection was a reasonable theory to account for the physical evolution of the human species, he fretted over the implications that the human being could be understood as nothing but the movement of molecules and a complex of chemical reactions. If that were the case, what distinguished the human being from any other material thing? What protection does the person have from mere use or exploitation by others, if there was nothing in the person which made him or her worthy, sacred or holy? So Adler sought to find a cosmic reality, impersonal though it was, that ensured that the human being somehow counted in the universe at large. Indeed, such impersonal cosmic entities flourished in the post Darwinian period. Emerson had his “Oversoul.” Herbert Spencer spoke of the “Unknowable,” while Matthew Arnold posited “a power not ourselves that makes for righteousness.”
Adler’s religious theorizing was highly creative and brilliant, and it was very abstract. With his death in the 1930s, the religious aura of Ethical Culture began to fade, and our movement entered what we might refer to as its humanist stage. An influx of immigrants bringing with them unionism, socialism and Marxism entered Ethical Culture, and assuredly moved it in a more secular direction. By the 1960s, in the heyday of the humanistic psychology movement, the leader of Ethical Culture drafted a paper that identified Ethical Culture as a humanist movement, a term that Adler shunned for its emphasis on human ends devoid of the spiritualizing dynamics inspired by transcendental ideals.
Felix Adler was a religious thinker, and although he denied the existence of a personal God, revelation and miracles, his language, his metaphors, his imagery were saturated with a religious vocabulary. After his death, as Ethical Culture became more secular, Adler’s transcendentalism was replaced implicitly with the scaffolding of philosophical naturalism, more closely related to the thought of the great humanist philosopher, John Dewey.
Naturalism has many technical meanings, but in simplest terms it signifies a belief that nature is all there is, and there is no reality outside of nature. For a naturalist, there are no gods, except as metaphors, there is no immortality, because the mind or the soul is linked to the natural functions of the brain, and when the brain decomposes, mental or non-physical activity also ceases. For the naturalist, ideas are natural and have real influence on us, but they are ultimately derivative from the natural and social realities in which we operate.
The emergence of naturalism in our movement, indeed, the monumental phenomenon of the secularization of modern life and the triumph of the scientific and rational culture in which we live, raises a challenging question for us and for others. And that question is: Can you have religion or spirituality without belief in transcendental, spiritual beings? Or otherwise put, does it make any sense to talk about a naturalistic religion or a humanistic religion, which is ultimately grounded in nature?
If you believe that religion requires a belief in real spiritual beings, then by definition, your answer must be “no.” But words and concepts change their meaning with the passage of time. Certainly in contemporary usage, religion has come to mean devotion to principles or ideas or realities which produce experiences and have consequences similar to those which traditional believers claim in the their relationship to supernatural realities and to spiritual beings. I am quiet convinced, for example, that when young seekers return to the church or synagogue stating that they are looking for religious or spiritual experience, what they most often mean is not rapport with an unworldly God, but rather the uplifting and comforting experience of sharing sense of community with fellow congregants – in other words a totally this-worldly and naturalistic experience.
And so to the question, is a humanistic religious experience possible, my answer is “Yes.” In fact what I would like to do is to present four ways in which it is possible. In my description of four types of religious experience, I don’t intend to explain anything strange, or particular esoteric. In this community there are a great many art lovers. No one here would deny that when moved by beautiful art or music, that they have had what we might call distinctive aesthetic experiences. When I talk about religious experience I am not talking about anything more unusual or I think accessible than that.
Last Sunday, we had presentation on mystical experience. As explained, mystical experience is characterized by transcendence of the ego, in which the felt boundaries between the self and the other disappear, and there is a sense, usually ecstatic and compelling, of union with the object of the mystical experience.
Mystical experience is the most intense form of religious experience, but there are other forms of religious experience in which a sense of oneself remains preserved and is not totally absorbed.
As I understand it such experiences involves a felt sense of connection between the person and some greater, more encompassing, enveloping reality of which he or she is a part. Felt connection is the operative term. It is virtually a cliché to say that we are a part of nature. Or, we are part of the human family or the human tapestry. To actually experience and feel these connections is what, in my assessment, makes for religious experience.
So what are the four types of religious humanism?
The first type, which is the most common, is what is frequently called “nature mysticism.” It is the classic sunset experience. It is the sublime realization that we are children of nature, made of the same stuff as the stars, the stones the trees, and the earth. We are the products of nature, of the same primordial evolutionary forces that have molded all life indeed of inanimate matter, and to nature we return. The religious mystic looks over the natural landscape, contemplates the immensity of the oceans, gazes at the stars and says to herself “I am that, and that is me.” The felt connection between self and the enveloping natural world brings heightened feelings of wonder, of awe, of a paradoxical sense of comfort that comes from a realization of one’s smallness, and perhaps in special moments, feelings of sublime peace and the sense that it is a blessing to be given the gift life and to be able to contemplate it all.
It is in search of such experience that people, myself among them, feel a sense of spiritual uplift when hiking on the wooded trail, or paddling a canoe down a quiet stream, or seeking out magisterial vistas from mountain promontories. It is why people head to the woods seeking spiritual renewal, which the contrivances of urban landscapes could never deliver. For Emerson it was in the woods, that “all mean egoism vanishes.” And for Wordsworth, the greatest of the poets of nature mysticism, nature was
“The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide the guardian of my heart and soul, of all my moral being.”
In nature mysticism we find a communion between the human being and the enveloping natural world that is infinite in space and time. Without reference to gods, miracles of otherworldliness, it provides an experience of uplift and renewal an abiding appreciation of the specialness of life and how good it is to be here.
The second type of religious humanism is what I call “reverent agnosticism.” Reverent agnosticism can be illustrated by this metaphor rendered by Isaac Newton. Looking at his extraordinary achievements in creating modern physics, Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a little boy paying on the seashore; and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”
This is the human condition before the unknown. From the perspective of the agnostic, the cumulative knowledge of mankind is merely the tiniest spec amidst an ocean of ignorance. Not only do we confront truths that are unknown and to be discovered, as Newton, put it, but we also confront unknowables. It does not take much philosophical reflection to arrive at the realization that we can only know the world from our narrow perspective. Our knowledge is limited by our senses and the range of our marvelous, but finite minds. Outside the range of our mind and senses, we may conclude that there exists a much broader reality that is simply beyond the range of our faculties to know, just as X-rays are beyond the range of our sight. It is as if our minds are like searchlights reaching out in the darkness. The beam of our light extends only to so far. But we know by deduction that there is reality beyond the point our beams of light can ever reach. Or to invoke a final metaphor — it is as if we all live out our lives in a room that is completely sealed. In our case, sealed by the limitation of our faculties. Because we know that we are inside, we intuit that there is an outside, but we can never know what reality is like outside those boundaries.
This ignorance before a vast Unknown is the stance of the agnostic. It calls us to recognize our limitations, and thereby engenders a sense of humility before an infinite universe.
In the discourse of religious polemics, agnostics are often condemned by traditional believers for being arrogant. By not acknowledging the existence and the rule of God, so the argument goes, agnostics are replacing God with man, and thereby making the idolatrous, arrogant and dangerous mistake of identifying man with God. Man needs God, so it goes, to keep him humble, and thereby chastened his propensity for unbridled power, dominance and cruelty.
In my view, the traditional believer has it all wrong. For it is the traditional believer, who says he knows God exists and what God wants from us and thereby claims to know what he cannot know. That, to my mind, this is the arrogant position. The agnostic’s position, by contrast, is one of modesty and humility, because he recognizes the limits of the human capacity for knowledge.
This sense of limitation before an infinite universe, generates not only a sense of humility, but as with the nature mystic, a sense of wonder, indeed reverence, for the very fact of existence, and gratitude for even our limited ability to discern a parcel of the tapestry of reality, however small.
The third type of religious humanism moves us closer to the human realm, and was outlined by John Dewey. I refer to it as Deweyan idealism. In contrast to Felix Adler, Dewey did not believe that ideals are inscribed in the universe. Rather he believed that human beings create ideals out of their imaginations, but as he put it, they are not made out of imaginary stuff. Our ideals arise out of our frustration as problem solving animals. We experience a frustration such as being earth bound, and through our imagination we formulate an ideal response such as a rocket ship. That ideal then becomes a motive force in inspiring us forward to creatively resolve the problems and place us in a more effective, fruitful relationship with our world. Take any problem and any ideal that comes out of it, let it inspire you toward more effective integration with your environment, and Dewey frames that relationship with the ideal as religious.
What Dewey did was to remove the religious from religion. Religion pertains to the institutions, the creeds, the rituals, the accoutrements we usually associate with tradition religion. For Dewey we can have a religious (today people would say a “spiritual”) relationship with any ideals that inspires and moves us toward greater creativity, satisfaction and integration with our world. It is to be found in our vocations, in art, in science, in music.
Dewey might as well have been speaking of Ethical Culture when he wrote, “ We who now alive are parts of a humanity that extends into the remote past, a humanity that has interacted with nature. The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by the grace of the doings and sufferings of the entire human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible, and more generously shared than we have received it. Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confines to sect, class or race. Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind. It remains to make it explicit and militant.”
My final variant of religious humanism I refer to with the inelegant term “non-instrumentalist holism.” I need to explain what I mean. What I mean by this is a subtle appreciation for the invisible values that we derive from the tangible things of this world. To be spiritually or religiously sensitive is to be focused on the ultimate values for which things exist, and not on the things themselves.
To be spiritually or sensitive is to be aware of the ultimate purposes or ends for which instrumentalities exist. When we perceive the beauty behind the painting, and within the music, we have touched the spiritual. When we intuit the complexity and design of nature, we have touched the spiritual. When we perceive something as mundane as law and government, but see them as but practical mechanisms that reflect the values of justice, equality, freedom, and cooperation, then we have gleaned the spiritual dimension that stands behind these instrumentalities. Likewise when we discern timeless human truths in a novel or poetry. To perceive the timeless ends behind he things of this world is to touch the spiritual or the religious and so endow our lives with a sense of edification that enriches us in ways that matter most.
This concept of “non-instrumentalist holism” can be applied most importantly to our relations to others people. When we first encounter another person, the first thing we see is a form, and then a face. We then experience their gestures and hear their worlds. Only then do we develop a more holistic sense of who the person is. Sometimes we like what we see. Sometimes we are unmoved. At other times what we experience is repulsive. But if we are willing to make the extra effort, if we are willing to apply ourselves a little harder, like applying ourselves to any task, what we often discover is that the person is more complex than he or she appears on the surface.
Every life from the inside out is a story. If we simply skim the text, we miss the story underneath. But if we apply ourselves a little harder, a coherent story may emerge. Each person’s story is a composite of joys and tragedies, or struggles and triumphs, of dreams and frustrations. And each person in his or her triumphs and struggles is unique and precious to him- or herself. As I would not find a distinctive work of art something to discard or hold cheaply, so I need to honor the indwelling humanity of the person, however flawed that person may be on the surface. Just as the beauty of the painting transcends the value of the canvass, so the worth of the person transcends the creature of flesh and blood whom I encounter before me.
It seems to me that every human encounter presents me with a choice. I can choose in instrumentalist ways to ignore the humanity of the other and abuse him or her. Or, I can choose to treat people as ends in themselves through common courtesy and decency, through being honest with them and defending their interests and rights. Whether dealing with a serving person in a restaurant, a homeless person on the street, a child an employee, a friend, or a stranger, I can choose to value them cheaply or strive to appreciate them in their humanity, in their wholeness, and with an intuitive sense of the other person as a subjectivity in his or her own terms.
This non-instrumentalist appreciation of human beings is the consciousness that gives rise to ethics. But the appreciation alone of this indwelling, priceless dignity of the person is not the culmination of a spiritual-ethical view. The fully ethical condition emerges when my own humanity touches and actively builds connections with the other. It arises when I experience the joy of the human bond, when we sing together and celebrate together, and when we work together under the inspiration of justice to serve the good of humanity. It emerges even more, when I enter into the life of the person who is down and enable him or her to think well of him- or herself, as Felix Adler once wrote. It emerges when I express myself to another with support, empathy and caring.
It emerges, also, in a grander sense when I understand myself to be part of the unfolding tapestry of the human experience, and then dedicate myself to the realization of what is best in me and all others with whom I share a common destiny.
Ethics so understood, is the vibrant connection. It is the lived relationship. It is what elevates us beyond the banal, the self-interested, the mundane. It is the warp and woof of our highest purposes.
In closing, I have few doubts that the God-believer will look at my sketch of religious humanism and judge it wanting. He or she will say that to be truly meaningful religious experience must provide a sturdy cosmic connection. It must guarantee that that the universe take note of our existence and log it it down for all eternity.
By this eternal standard my humanistic religious experience is too transient, too wispy, too much a product of human psychology to be meaningful.
To which the humanist can only respond, “ Perhaps this emergence out of human psychology is all that religious experience ever means or ever has truly meant.”
Dr. Joseph Chuman
1 Febraury 2004