By Dr. Joseph Chuman
This has been a very difficult summer. It need not be said that we live in uniquely trying times. It is hard to imagine an era when external events have so broadly affected the personal lives of so many. Indeed, no one is spared. The pandemic constrains and contorts our lives. It imposes frustration, boredom, and anxiety. It makes us edgy. At the same time, dark storms emerging in the political climate render the future threatening and uncertain. And our economy, caused not only by the pandemic but by longstanding trends, is rent asunder, with large sectors in ruins. With massive unemployment and with it the loss of health care, tens of millions facing eviction, people enduring the humiliation of waiting on food lines, the collective insecurity and anxiety confronting masses of Americans feels too overwhelming to contemplate. For those of us who are relatively secure, I never quite know whether concern for those who have fallen over the precipice is a function of compassion or is patronizing. I feel like I am standing on the shore gazing over the ocean and watching my fellow human beings drown and I am powerless to save them. This despair adds to the disquiet.
Life now requires greater resilience and faith
As long as our biology pushes us along, as long as we continue breathing and are walking around, we are fated to cope with the realities that life and circumstance impose upon us. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As in few others times, as we look forwards, our lives now require of us greater resourcefulness, resilience, faith.
I use the word “faith” deliberately. I don’t mean hanging our hopes on supernatural realities, or magical or merely wishful thinking. I am making reference to a humanistic faith, that is the belief that human beings, both individually and collectively, have the ability, the innate intelligence, to guide their futures in positive and productive directions. It was William James who argued that often our beliefs need to come before the facts, and by so believing, new facts, new realities can be created. It also requires the necessary will, and if we are considering society as a whole, cooperation around commonly held values and goals, as well.
All is not dark. I need be more specific. With the presidential election just weeks away, first of all, it is an absolute prerequisite that we have a change of administration. We need to marshal the will to beat the drums, ensure that elections are fair, and campaign to get out the vote as never before. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. As has been said over and over by many in places high and low, without this change democracy dies and the American experiment is over.
We can reconstruct society
I have faith that with such change behind us we can begin anew to rebuild American society. I believe new opportunities will open up, hope will be restored, and such hope will be followed by successes, and success breeds more success in an upward spiral. As I have noted many times, as a humanist I don’t believe there is any determinism that governs our future. The future is open and we have the resources to reconstruct society to ensure greater human flourishing given the requisite will. Experience has taught us that.
The pandemic has unmasked great and strident and, too often, acrimonious divisions in American society, divisions along the lines of race, class, and political and culture values. A workable future must find ways to overcome those divisions. This broad goal I believe must frame the moral and political message and policies that will underlie the reconstruction of American society.
Here I believe that Ethical Culture, as small and humble as we are, has something of great value to add to this project. Ethical Culture at its heart and from its inception has been committed to democracy, but democracy with a distinctive character that takes us far beyond the electoral process.
Engaging across differences is enriching
Where I am leading is to a blueprint for American society that restores a devotion to pluralism, to cosmopolitanism—a commitment to both commonly held values and differences at the same time. It is often said that America is almost unique among the nations in that it is predicated on a series of basic ideas and ideals and not on identity with a dominant ethnicity. It is that notion that needs to be invigorated as a unifying principle that brings people together while allowing for the expression of ethnic values in more local environments. Without regard for larger unifying principles rooted in American ideals—equality, freedom, opportunity, inclusion—it is hard for me to imagine a flourishing and reasonably harmonious American future. Rather than differences dividing people, the democratic ideal I espouse holds forth the notion that people engaging with each other across lines of difference is mutually enriching for society and for all.
Much more needs to be said and needs a lot of development. But I believe that so much that threatens American unity and American democracy is the extraordinary and immoral wealth gap. We have become a plutocracy, and plutocracy and authentic democracy can’t co-exist. The struggle for economic justice must be a mainstay of American renewal.
Ethical Culture has the right, necessary language
And we will need powerful moral voices to inspire us toward these ideals. As noted, though Ethical Culture does not lead with a powerful voice, I do believe that we speak the right and necessary language. We must forcefully add our voice and values to the conversation.
Can this be done? Yes, I believe it can. It has been done before. There is something stubborn and willful in the human spirit in the struggle for a better, more just society. After night comes the dawn. And the phoenix rises anew from its ashes.
I look forward to seeing you Sept. 13 for my talk, titled “Rebuilding the American Future.” In the spirit of solidarity I wish you well and I wish you strength.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.