For those of us who are sensitive to public affairs and try to remain informed about the world around us, it seems that the moment we are in is besotted with problems. Whether it be the erosion of the middle class, chronic unemployment, the waging of expensive and senseless wars, mass atrocity crimes or the despoliation the environment, there are lots of reasons to feel crushed, or wanting to just tune it out. But, of course, when it comes to political challenges, our times are not unique. Conscientious and aware people could feel as we do in any age.
When we look at the human condition, it seems to me that injustice is infinite, while the forces that we mortals can marshal to combat injustice are finite and limited. The most we can hope for are partial victories, and then we need to renew are efforts, lest those victories prove to be very transient as well. In more depressing moments, it seems like we are like Sisyphus, fated to push the heavy boulder up the hill, only to see it roll down again, and to repeat that struggle over and over, with no resting point, no plateau, and no utopia in sight.
And so we need a philosophy of life to ensure that we not lapse into despair and grow passive. And we need a philosophy of life to help us renew our energies in the service of justice.
There can be no doubt that Ethical Culture is an activist philosophy of life that bids us to not stand still, but engage ourselves in the struggle for justice and the creation of a better world. Born in 1876, Ethical Culture in its infancy took on the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, whether it was child labor, the oppression suffered by the working class, substandard education, the rights and needs of immigrants, the indignities of poverty and much more. At the same time Ethical Culture devoted itself to the moral improvement of human relations in the more intimate spheres of life — in marriage, childrearing, among workers and in local communities. In short, Ethical Culture has been assuredly activist, bidding us to engage life rather than merely observe it, to dedicate ourselves to social purposes beyond individual self-interest, and to allow ourselves to be inspired and pulled by visions of the future than to be pushed by the static traditions of the past.
But where can we look in Ethical Culture to find our sense of renewal in the face of otherwise overwhelming injustice? What ideas can we grab onto which can keep us inspired? And what is Ethical Culture anyway?
Dr. Horace Friess, a former leader of the New York Society, a professor of religion at Columbia University and the biographer of Felix Adler, who was also Adler’s son-in-law, had once written in that biography that Ethical Culture, especially in its religious aspects, “seems endlessly debatable.” That fact, of course, shouldn’t surprise us. A movement which defines itself as dedicated to the free mind, strives to be without dogma or formal creed, and places “deed before creed” leaves itself open to seemingly endless discussion, and therefore ambiguity about its own identity. This, of course, is both a strength and a weakness.
But it seems to me that the freedom and openness of Ethical Culture doesn’t mean that it is infinitely open. Ethical Culture cannot simply mean anything and everything that anyone wants it to mean. If that were the case, it would mean nothing at all. Rather, Ethical Culture, which is now 135 years old, has been given shape by the vision of its founder, what its leaders and others have understood it to mean, and by what we might call its “cumulative history.” All these factors have molded Ethical Culture into a distinctive movement, which has distilled at its heart certain ideas and values which define it, and as such are incompatible with other ideas and values. So what might those values and ideas be? Well, what follows is one person’s answer to those questions. In the spirit of free thought and dissent, the answers I give to these questions, of course, need not be yours.
What I want to do, is to examine these question by looking at Ethical Culture’s relationship to that frequently used concept “humanism,” with which it is often identified. And, it is with humanism that I wish to begin.
What is humanism? Humanism has a long historical pedigree and its meaning has changed and evolved as it has moved through different historical periods. Looking at its historical meaning, an interesting definition can be found in the book The Humanist Tradition in the West, by the British historian, Allan Bullock. In that book, Bullock says the following:
As a rough generalization, Western thought has treated man and the cosmos in three distinct modes. The first, the supernatural or the transcendental, has focused on God, treating man as part of the Divine Creation. A second, the natural or the scientific, has focused on Nature and treats man as part of the natural order like other organisms. The third, the humanistic, has focused on Man, and human experience as the starting point for man’s knowledge of himself, of God and of Nature.
The humanistic mode can be traced back to ancient Roman times and the concept of humanitas, which implied cultivation in the arts, literature, poetry, philosophy, and ethics. It was Cicero who promoted the idea that a person who wanted to effectively enter public life needed to be so broadly educated. Humanism was identified with being broadly and thoroughly educated, especially in what we today would refer to as the “liberal arts.”
It was this idea that matured in the Renaissance of the 14th,15th and 16th centuries, when Europeans rediscovered and came to revere the ancient classics and employed them in order to build their own culture. If, according Bullock’s scheme, the supernatural or transcendental mode reigned supreme in the Middle Ages, then the period of the Renaissance, by contrast, was a humanistic age, par excellence. It was the Italian Petrarch who mastered the Latin classics better than anyone in the Middle Ages, but he also wrote love poetry in the vernacular. If we want to find the shift from God to the human which marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, we can do no better than look at the art of a Botticelli or a Raphael. Or we can look at the anatomical drawings of Leonardo, and better yet, the earthiness, and adoration of the human body expressed in the sculpture of a Michelangelo. What is Michelangelo’s David other than a paean to the grace and beauty of the human form, in all its sensuous glory?
It is sometimes said that the first modern writer was the Renaissance figure Nicolo Machiavelli. The Italian Renaissance was a time in which government was in the hands of princes, whose hold on power was always insecure. Machiavelli was the author of a handbook which relayed practical advice as to how the prince could hold onto power in a precarious world. What is interesting and novel about Machiavelli’s treatise is that it is almost completely secular in character, written for the purpose of fulfilling this-worldy interests. In his handbook, Machiavelli counsels the prince to cultivate virtu, that is, manliness, which Machiavelli recognizes is in opposition to the meekness and humility promoted by Christianity and the Church.
It is not as if the Renaissance does away with God and religion, and a belief in the supernatural, it is rather than the human being and human concerns and interests move to the forefront. In this wider sense, humanism comports with Bullock’s definition, in that humanism is a matter of emphasis and not clear boundaries. It ’s an emphasis in which God still retains a place, though God is not the alpha and the omega of human focus or preoccupation. In this broader sense, there is no contradiction in there being a “Christian humanism,” “Jewish humanism” “Buddhist humanism,” or whatever. Nor is it a contradiction, in this sense, to speak of the humanism of Leonardo Da Vinci, or such contemporary figures as Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day or Mohandas Gandhi, even though these individuals were alsoimmersed in their own theistic and religious beliefs.
When we get to the 19th century, the meaning of humanism begins to change, narrow and harden somewhat. By the time we get to the 19th century, the West has passed through two great revolutions of knowledge. The first of these is the scientific revolution, which expanded the power and reach of the human mind and has had tremendous success in creating what we know as the modern world. In the 19th century, science reached the very pinnacle of its authority, and to appeal to the deliverances of science brought to its advocates tremendous prestige. In the 19th century science rapidly replaced religion in its ability to explain the natural world, and to the minds of many, God had become merely the “God of the gaps,” that is, a power invoked to fill in the gaps in knowledge that science could still not explain. It was a rather pathetic status for the once all powerful lord and creator of the universe.
The second revolution in knowledge was built on the scientific revolution and was brought into being by the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant proclaimed that the only knowledge we can have is knowledge which is brought to our consciousness through our five senses. Hence whatever reality there may be, which lies beyond the reach of our senses, is a reality we can never know. This reality that transcends the reach of our senses is the transcendental realm, the realm of God and the supernatural. Since this realm is unknowable to us, Kant concluded that we must remain agnostic about God and whether God truly exists.
When we conjoin Kant’s theory of knowledge to the power of science, and its skepticism about things divine, it is no accident the agnosticism as we know it emerges in the 19th century. In fact, the very word “agnostic” was coined in 1869 by Thomas Huxley, a biologist and popularizer of Darwinian evolution, that term coming into the vocabulary as a result of the two intellectual currents I am describing.
But there is a footnote to Kant’s theory of knowledge that directly feeds into the birth of Ethical Culture. Some of Kant’s German disciples were not satisfied with Kant’s agnosticism about transcendental realities. In fact, they reworked Kant’s philosophy in such a way that it would have caused their master to turn over in his grave. What these post-Kantian philosophers concluded is that if transcendental realities could not be known through the use of our senses, then they could be known through another faculty, namely our feelings and intuition. It is as if the feelings can know things that reason and the senses cannot know. Our emotions, feelings, intuitions provide a direct pipeline into knowledge of such abstract truths as justice, beauty, goodness, etc. For these philosophers, referred to as romantics, feelings and intuition virtually became a sixth senses which is especially attuned to realities, let’s call them spiritual realities, beyond the world of our sense experience.
Ethical Culture is a product of, and was built upon these two intellectual currents: An acceptance of scientific explanations for the functioning of the natural world, and post-Kantian romanticism that posited a spiritual reality beyond the natural world. So in the mind of Felix Adler, the truth claims of science no longer enabled modern, educated people to believe in a supernatural God and all the traditional beliefs that go with it. While at the same time his post-Kantian convictions led him to believe in a reality that transcends this one. But for Adler this transcendental reality is not populated by a personal God and his angels of conventional religion. Rather, it is comprised of Ethical Ideals; Ideals which are sublimely impersonal yet can inspire us to greater and greater heights of moral perfection. Central to these Ethical Ideals is the absolute worth and dignity of the human person.
Is Ethical Culture, as Adler conceived it, humanism, or at least a type of humanism? If we understand humanism in the broader sense as I have so far described it, as a view of life which emphasizes human concerns and interests and all things human, the answer has to be yes.
But Felix Adler did not like the term humanism and fervently denied that Ethical Culture was such. His reason has to do with the fact, as mentioned, that by his time, humanism began to take on a narrower and more specific meaning. Rather than adopting the Kantian move, which was identified with German philosophy most of all, later humanism based itself primarily on the scientific, empirical outlook which was most identified with British philosophy.
Because of its full throated embrace of science, humanism in the 19th century came more and more to identify itself over against religion and to see itself in secular and even anti-religious terms. Through American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey, humanism, moreover, came to be based on philosophical naturalism, which clearly would have rejected Adler’s idealism and transcendentalism as he rejected it. By upholding a belief in a transcendental or spiritual realm beyond the natural realm, Adler always believed he was doing something religious. Humanism as it was evolving was ardently secular and began and ended in the secular realm.
This type of scientifically-based humanism began to self-consciously take shape in the early 20th century in the minds and preaching of several left-wing Unitarian ministers and found its most precise formulation in a document drafted in 1933 called “The Humanist Manifesto.” We might conclude that with the publication of the Humanist Manifesto, humanism began to crystallize, and became a defined movement centered around specific principles. For lack of a better term, humanism became an ideology. It became based on a philosophical naturalism. It grew more explicitly identified with science and the scientific method. And humanism most distinctly differentiated itself from religion and theism.
Though the authors of the Humanist Manifesto presented their document as an example of religious humanism, their notion of the religious involved giving a kind of religious sensibility to the secular. Adler’s notion of the religious character of Ethical Culture, by contrast, was not rooted in the secular or in nature, but in what Adler considered to be transcendental ideals, and in that sense he was philosophically closer to traditional religion than those who drafted and signed the Humanist Manifesto.
` The Humanist Manifesto set forth fifteen “affirmations” that would underlie a new religion commensurate with modernity. Among other principles, it declared that the time of theism had passed, and the distinction between the secular and the sacred can no longer be maintained. It affirmed the salience of science and evolution, the purpose of all institutions as being “the fulfillment of human life” and gave a nod toward socialism. Though the Humanist Manifesto denied that it was establishing a new creed and identified itself as a statement of religious humanism, there is nothing in it that would differentiate its principles from those of secular philosophy. In fact, its publication corresponded with the formation of the American Humanist Association, an organization, which in contrast to Ethical Culture sees itself as explicitly secular.
Adler died in the year in which the Humanist Manifesto was published, but he lived long enough to see its appearance. Not only did he refuse to sign it, he also forbade other Ethical leaders from doing so, though V.T. Thayer, the then director of the Ethical Culture Schools, was one of its 34 signatories.
Adler’s main objection to the Humanist Manifesto was its grounding in philosophical naturalism, what Adler believed naturalism implied about ethics, and where ethics comes from. For naturalists, ethical ideals emerge out of the frustrations we human beings encounter. We run up against problems and we use our imaginations to frame ideals which can inspire us to get beyond the problems we confront. This means that ethical ideals are rooted in human circumstances and their vagaries. Ethics are ultimately created by human beings.
For Adler this would not do. Naturalism leaves ethics too earthbound. For Adler, ethics are more magisterial and pristine than that. They emerge from an ideal, spiritual, realm and as such are not subject to the vagaries of human circumstances, nor are they human projections, or products of our imaginations. Human beings do not make ideals, but like the postulates of mathematics they are there for us to discover. For Adler, ethical ideals, what is right and just, are changeless, timeless and absolute. They hover above us and beckon and inspire us through our behavior to move closer to them. They are not products of human affairs or human history, but stand outside of history. They are ahistorical so to speak.
As humanism began to crystallize around specific principles anchored in naturalism, Adler also was concerned about the creation of a new sect. Beyond ambiguities of concerning Ethical Culture’s religious nature, Ethical Culture has always exhibited characteristics that make it look and feel like a specific sect, as well as a dynamic that suggest that Ethical Culture is trans-sectarian, so to speak. We are like a sect in that we are an institution with a building, a Sunday school, well ingrained practices such as our Sunday meetings and all the practical, parochial concerns that any other religious congregation would have. Moreover, we want to intuitionally preserve ourselves. Yet, when it came time for the New York Society to move away from rented halls and commit itself to building its Meeting House, Adler was at first hesitant. He feared that with a permanent home, Ethical Culture would become merely a church among churches. In his vision, Ethical Culture was not merely another church. Its centerpiece was the ethical impulse, pure and simple, and its appeal was to people of good will regardless of their personal creeds. In other words, Ethical Culture was not to be defined or hemmed in by binding creeds, but was to be trans-creedal, so to speak. It was to be a movement for the ethical improvement of humankind, and in that sense its mission was, and to varying degrees, remains trans-sectarian. I believe that my predecessor, Algernon Black, who was not a strong institutionalist, but as a dynamic leader of the New York Society, spent most of his fifty year career out in the field fighting the progressive fight, saw Ethical Culture in these trans-sectarian terms. In other words, its mission was far greater than merely preserving an institution or preserving a specific set of beliefs or teachings. Rather Ethical Culture exists to continually explode its own boundaries, so to speak, in the service of its ethicizing mission. Its
thrust is outward toward the world in order to transform it, rather than merely self-preservation, though, needless to say, if it does not preserve itself it cannot perform its ethicizing mission.
Organized humanism in the contemporary sense is built on the foundation of a cluster of ideas and values, reason, science, opposition to theism, among them. But in Adler’s view of Ethical Culture, unlike organized humanism then and now, science, reason, the critique of religion are not the heart of Ethical Culture. Ethical transformation is the heart of Ethical Culture, and while science, reason and so forth are crucial do it, they remain adjuncts to its central purpose, and not the basis of a new creed, so to speak.
With Adler’s death, Ethical Culture’s commitment to idealism began to fade, and Ethical Culture became more and more identified with humanism in the contemporary sense in which I have been trying to describe it. This evolution occurred because of changes in the demographic makeup of the New York Society especially, and because of changing currents in American philosophy.
Adler’s generation of Ethical Culturists was comprised to a great extent with people of German origin like himself who would have been more or less comfortable with Adler’s idealism, which had great resonance on the European continent. But with the turn of the century, many of the people coming to Ethical Culture were immigrants imbued with the politics of socialism, Marxism, atheism, and other philosophies much closer to the naturalism which was soon to predominate in Ethical Culture. Moreover, John Dewey, the luminary of Columbia University’s philosophy department, and perhaps the most influential American philosopher of the 20th century, was close to Ethical Culture and was a philosophical naturalist and an identified humanist. In the words of Edward Ericson, a former leader of the New York Society, “Ethical Culture was the movement that Adler built and Dewey, through his followers, so quickly inherited.”
During its first 80 years or so, the philosophical ground on which Ethical Culture stood began to shift. Adler’s idealism to a great extent became outmoded, and was seen as a philosophy of a different time and place. For the reasons mentioned, Ethical Culture became more aligned with a philosophy of naturalism and the term “humanism” entered into our vocabulary and was increasing used to describe Ethical Culture.
By 1966, the then professional leaders of Ethical Culture drafted a document, later endorsed by the American Ethical Union, entitled “Ethical Culture as Humanism.” But in so describing Ethical Culture as humanism, the statement took great pains to identify Ethical Culture as humanism in the broader sense, rather than in the narrower sense which would identify with it with humanist organizations of a specifically secular character, or what I am referring to as “ideological humanism.” So for example, that document states, “The Ethical Culture Movement can identify itself as Humanist only if the name humanist is preserved from restrictive, narrowly sectarian, and dogmatic usages, which unfortunately, it has sometimes been made to serve.” It goes on to say,
In our Movement we do not restrict the name “Humanist” to apply only to those who subscribe to a particular philosophical style or metaphysics dubbed “Humanist,” but use this term to affirm a broadly defined and commonly held commitment and faith…
In our identifying ourselves as a Humanist Movement, and in associating with other groups which fit this designation, we hold to the standard of intellectual and spiritual breadth. We stand ready to share with other Humanist bodies in creating a deeper, wider, and more adequate expression of this way of life; but we cannot accept a basis of unity which would be purchased through the surrender of the distinctive values and freedoms which give this Movement its historic significance and potential.
I want to hang on that last sentence that makes reference to “the distinctive values and freedoms which give (Ethical Culture) its historic significance and potential,” because in suggesting a degree of difference from other humanist organizations, I think the drafters of this document got it exactly right.
So let me put my cards on the table. Is Ethical Culture a humanist movement? Is it a type of humanism? If we define humanism in the broader sense as being concerned with the welfare of human beings, in being dedicated to cultivating knowledge about ourselves nature and the world, of being sensitive to the indwelling humanity of human beings, then assuredly yes, Ethical Culture can very aptly be described as a humanist movement or a species of humanism in this wider sense. But if we consider humanism in its narrower sense, as a movement built around a cluster of distinctly secular values such a reason, science, and a critique of religion, then Ethical Culture is onlyincidentally humanist.
It may seem as if my discussion up to this point has been excruciatingly hair splitting, but if we see ourselves as Ethical Culturists and want to remain loyal to Ethical Culture and what its purpose is, then these issues and differences, I contend, are not so trivial. In fact for me, speaking very personally, they form the wellspring of my deepest life commitments, and remain the guiding intuitions of religious devotion, so to speak. They are the most powerful sources of personal inspiration. Here is what I mean:
The purpose of contemporary humanist organizations as I see it, take the American Humanist Association, for example, exist primarily to promote a particular philosophical view, namely that of humanism, centered, again, around a distinct set of values, such as rationalism, a commitment to science, a critique of religion, all of them extremely compelling and which I hold in high regard. Its primary purpose is to teach and promote these values, which is fine and good. Yet, to my mind this is not Ethical Culture. However attractive humanism is in this sense, there is nothing in it that elevates ethics and ethical transformation of society to the top of the list with regard to its values and commitments. In other words, it is not necessarily activist.
Ethical Culture’s mission is different, and given my own commitments, that difference is crucial. Ethical Culture has a different purpose, a different orientation and a different flavor. What Ethical Culture stands for, as implied, first and foremost, is attempting to ethicize unethical and unjust conditions. Its commitment is to activism in large and small places. And its commitment is to ethical transformation regardless of the philosophical or creedal commitments that may motivate people to that action. Those beliefs remain secondary. Again, its primary purpose, at least as I understand it, is not to turn people into ideological humanists, it is rather to humanize and ethicize an unethical world, regardless of the beliefs that undergird its members’ and allies’ commitments. It is for this reason, that Ethical Culture welcomes into its ranks people who may believe in a Supreme Being or a reality beyond the world of nature, a stance which to my understanding the AHA would find hard to accommodate being a secular organization resting on philosophical naturalism as it does. It is for this reason that I am perfectly happy to serve on the Teaneck Council Council tworking to redress racism in Teaneck, or some other common cause, even though the minister or priest who is sitting next to me is going to spend eternity in heaven at the side of his Lord, whereas I won’t. Again, for Ethical Culturists, it is the impulse to ethicize, to introduce the ethical factor, the centrality of inviolable dignity of the person into social conditions that oppress or annihilate that dignity at every turn.
Felix Adler once eloquently invoked this mission, when he said:
Above all, the one thought into which all I cherish most, all I most hope for, and aspire to, can be compressed into this: May the humanity that is within every human being be held more and more precious, and be regarded with ever-deepening reverence.
The vice that underlies all vices is we are held cheaply by others, and far worse, that in our inmost soul we think cheaply of ourselves.
That’s it: The purpose of Ethical Culture is to inspire in us the intuition to transform the cheapness with which people are held into a reality that is precious.
I want to end where I began. Though I don’t subscribe to Adler’s idealist metaphysics, and in fact am a philosophical naturalist, much closer the thought of John Dewey, there is a core to Adler’s thought which I find inspiring and especially useful in the struggle against injustice. For me it goes to the very heart of what Ethical Culture is meant to be. As mentioned, Adler believed in the reality of ethical ideals; ideals that remain deeply rooted in reality and do not change with the vagaries of human whim and history. They are ahistorical truths which guide and inspire us. The great moral exemplars, be it Gandhi, Einstein, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and multitudes of others, believed something of this. They had a deeply intuitive commitment to truth, love and justice that transcended the conditions of the moment no matter how oppressive unjust and bleak they may be. A belief in such moral ideals, and their priority in the scheme of things, can serve as a plateau from which to radically critique evil wherever we see it. A commitment to such ideals, which are bigger, greater than we are and will outlast us, can also be a source of sublime inspiration. They can be a source of faith in the future and faith in our own efforts to build that future. Such a faith can enable us to look at our efforts over the long range and can thereby save us from despair and long range pessimism. To stand for such ideals, and to be inspired by them, even if we lose the struggle of the moment, can put us in touch with the farther reaches of what it means to be human in the best sense. To live under the inspiration of ethical ideals can bring us into touch with what is most noble in the human experience. And, in the very final analysis, even if we fail in the moment to triumph over evil, to have lived in the service of ideal ends is to wrest from defeat a spiritual victory, which alone validates the effort and makes our struggle, as well as life itself, sublimely meaningful and worthwhile.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
3 April 2011