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Distinctive Features of the Ethical Movement
from an essay by that title by Alfred W. Martin edited by Horace J. Bridges
At its very inception the Ethical Movement was a religious movement. The group of men and women who met on that memorable Sunday morning, May 15th, 1876, were in search of something wherewith to consecrate their lives. They were of one mind in the belief that the human spirit is all starved and forlorn save as it comes into vital contact with an ideal of holiness. They were further persuaded that this spiritual desideratum could not be derived from any traditional doctrines which, however true and precious to others, had ceased to hold any meaning for them. Thus their prime concern was not with any such scriptural and theological issues as absorbed contemporary liberalism; not with any refutation of the dogmas of fundamentalism; not with any negative iconoclastic program; rather was their souls' cry for something positive and constructive wherewith to consecrate their own lives and still more, perhaps, the lives of their children. Like him whom they called from his chair in Cornell University, and who forthwith became the founder of the Movement and Leader of the first Society for Ethical Culture, they were conscious of a deeply-felt need for a religion to replace that which had failed to satisfy. In other words, Professor Felix Adler and his hearers at this initial meeting, half a century ago, found themselves in the selfsame plight as were those Palestinian Jews of the first century, referred to in the Book of Acts as "God-fearers,"--men with a religious nature, but without a religious home; men dissatisfied with the religious institutions and forms of their day and place, yet conscious of the need of coming into vital touch with something transcendently holy. They went from one organization to another, finding in each much that appealed to their religious nature, but more that offended it. From the Synagogue they turned to the Meeting House of the Mithraists and thence they moved on to the temple of the Roman state religion, but nowhere was what they sought to be found. Religious wanderers they were, seeking a religious home and finding none.
So was it with the "God-fearers" of 1876 in New York. They, too, went forth in search of a satisfying religious home and found none. For, both the Jewish synagogues and the Christian churches of that time were encrusted with dogmatism, ecclesiasticism, formalism; woefully deficient they were in vital and vitalizing religion. Over against these institutions stood the ultra-radicals--confirmed materialists, caring naught for religion, so that affiliation with them was no more possible for these seekers of a religious home than with the dogmatists and formalists. Thus these earnest dissatisfied people, who did care for religion and who were eager to come into vital communion with something supremely holy, had no alternative but to organize a religious association of their own, one that would give a conspicuous place to moral and social reform and at the same time put its members in touch with something transcendently holy,--an ideal of ethical perfection with which indeed religion has to do,--an ideal, which depends for its authority not on something alien to itself, but on its own sublime excellence when contemplated and on the constraining influence it exerts upon the will.
Foremost among the distinctive features of the Ethical Movement is the supremacy it assigns to the ethical end. It declares that there is a sovereign end to be acknowledged, one to which all the superior and inferior aims of men must be subordinated; and that this supreme end can be none other than the ethical. To it all other ends, scientific, aesthetic, economic, social, must be made tributary. And by the ethical end is meant the formation of right relations between personalities. It is supreme because nothing under heaven counts for so much as human personality with its latent potentialities and the existence of right relations among beings so endowed. He is most entitled to be called ethically-minded who believes, and acts on the belief that nothing exceeds in importance the establishment of right personal relations, as between husband and wife, parents and children, the social classes, nation and nation. Nor is this highest place assigned to the ethical end because of the happiness that right relations, when established, may bring in their train, for that would be to make the ethical end a means to something beyond itself. No, the creating of right relations is valued above all else because such spiritual activity is the very highest kind in which a human being can engage. The supreme good of life is to be found in the act of creating harmonious relations. And for the dissemination of this viewpoint touching ethical-mindedness--i.e., recognition of the supremacy of the ethical end, the formation of right relations between personalities--for this an Ethical Movement is indispensable. Why? Because the opposite viewpoint so widely obtains. Outside the Ethical Movement morality is looked upon as a means to the securing of some non-ethical objective as the real end. There are those who put scientific pursuits above all else as being most worthy of human endeavor, but in the estimation of the Ethical Movement science is only a superior, not a supreme end. It owes its worthwhileness chiefly to the fact that it can increase the fund of knowledge wherewith right personal relations may be established. Similarly, the creation of beautiful artworks is only a superior, not the supreme human pursuit; for art derives its highest value from the power of the created harmonies to put the mind into at-one-ment with the most entrancing harmony of all,--the right interrelationship of personalities. Once more, there are persons for whom the real ultimate end is prosperity or social position, and morality is made a means to the securing of these non-ethical ends. But here again, the most that can be claimed for them is that they are superior ends, not the supreme end. The daily press has just apprised us of a startling instance of defalcation on the part of a prominent member of a Christian church. Evidently it is possible for a man to be a Presbyterian and a defaulter, but it is not possible for a man to be an ethical person and a defaulter, because the two are mutually contradictory. And if the elders of the church reply, "It is not possible for a man to be a good Presbyterian and a defaulter," they introduce an ethical criterion and so admit the primacy of ethics. We speak of some persons as being scientifically-minded, of others as artistically-minded. What we imply by the designation is that for these persons something other than the moral end is esteemed of highest worth. They are not ethically-minded in the strict usage of the term, for to be ethically-minded means to believe and to act on the belief that right personal relations are the most important thing in the world, that "the distress caused by wrong, twisted relations to other persons is more intolerable than any other, far more poignant in the anguish it gives rise to than want, or sickness, or any other kind of suffering."
When we consult the great historic religions with reference to this first distinctive feature of the Ethical Movement, we find they all alike subordinate morality to one or another ulterior end. In the Greek religion, for example, morality is made subservient to an aesthetic end. The ideal of personal life to which the ancient Greeks aspired was simply the harmonious development of the physical and the intellectual self. The summum bonum was the acquisition of mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body; the end for which they strove above all else was an aesthetic end; and all their architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, bear witness to the fact. Even sin and virtue were interpreted by Plato in terms of an aesthetic end. Sin, he said, was to be avoided because it is ugly, because it does violence to our aesthetic sensibilities; virtue is to be practiced because it insures the harmonious balanced order of those sensibilities. "The good is the beautiful." Again, in the Confucian religion we see the ethical end subordinated to order, itself one of the products of order. To reproduce in human life the calm, unbroken order of Nature--that, according to Confucius, is the desideratum to be sought after more than aught else. In the Christianity of the New Testament the ethical end is clearly made subordinate to "faith,"--the mystical "putting on of the Lord Jesus Christ," as expounded by the Apostle Paul in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians. Even in Judaism, the most markedly ethical of all the historical religions, morality is not supreme; for everywhere in the Old Testament, we find morality subordinated to the will of Yahweh, He being conceived as the determiner of ethical standards and relations. But, so far as morality is concerned; Infinite Will cannot change one jot or tittle of the eternal Right. It is prior to all else. God himself cannot be more ultimate than the uncreated eternal Right. He can be but its faultless mirror. To it both finite and infinite will alike must bow. Thus in this sense, also, morality is the supreme end, and it is, therefore, no mark of irreverence to respond to the mandate: "Do this because I, Yahweh, say so," with the words, "No, not even though thou be God who speakest." But to the command, "Do this because it is right," we give our wholehearted assent though it be uttered by the feeblest child that ever lisped.
In its reversal of the relation of creed to deed as it has stood throughout the Christian centuries, a second distinctive feature of the Ethical Movement is revealed. The part played by belief in the Christianity of Paul,--who created the new religion as his substitute for Judaism--is familiar to all readers of his Epistles, and will be readily contrasted with the part played by character in the teaching of Jesus. The Ethical Movement, sympathizing with the latter and enlarging upon its content, holds that the value of any creed consists above all in the relation it bears to the moral life. Do you, for example, believe in the doctrine of the Atonement because it is "in the Bible," or because it helps you to make progress in the upper zones of your being? Do you accept the doctrine of the Incarnation because you regard it as "a divinely revealed truth" and therefore to be accepted, or because through it you are helped to worthier manhood or womanhood? In other words, the final test of a doctrine's worth is not the Bible, but life; not revelation, but moral growth. Prof. Adler has compared the moral life to a mansion of many locked chambers and the creeds to a set of keys. The Christian, the Mohammedan, the Hindu, the Parsee,--each comes with his creed-key, claiming that it and it only can open the doors. The Ethical Movement allows the dispute over the keys to go on, because it cares for the opening of the doors. And this marks a far-reaching contrast between the Ethical Movement and the historical religions. For, while the latter have been concerned about the key, describing it, setting up claims for it, securing converts to belief in its fitness for the locks, the prime concern of the Ethical Movement has been entrance to the chambers. It has no dogmas to defend, no creed to mend or amend; it has the problem of the closed doors and a spiritual passion for getting into the unentered rooms of the moral life. The best creed a man can have is that which character shapes and which enlarges and deepens with his own moral growth. For the creed that issues from deed, from moral experience, for that creed the Ethical Movement cares most of all. And when the three great missionary religions, with their respective reachings out to Buddhist unity, Mohammedan unity, Christian unity, shall have learned to reverse the rank they all alike have assigned to creed and deed, their dreams of brotherhood will be realized. For the religious rivalry and jealousy that obtain in each of the sects of each of these great religions are fundamentally due to the precedence given to creed over deed. Touch the sectarian sores and instantly the sectarian nerves respond. When, for example, we hear it claimed that Christianity is "the only true religion"; Protestantism, "the only true Christianity"; Episcopalianism (or any other sect) "the only true Protestantism"; the "High" Church, "the only true, Episcopal, Protestant, Christian religion,"--we see sectarianism doing its deadly work, we see creed superseding deed and paralyzing all earnest effort to make human brotherhood a reality in the world. Hence the practical importance of a movement which refuses to fall in line with the traditional ranking of creed and deed, which reverses it and estimates the essential value of the former solely in terms of the latter. In other words, a man's moral worth does not depend upon his theological beliefs, but the value of those beliefs depends on the degree to which they develop moral worth in him.
Without attempting to assign to the distinctive features of the Ethical Movement an order of relative importance, let the third feature for consideration be the independence of morality as to origin, sanction and binding force. We start with the fact that man has moral experience, and that the most awe-inspiring and commanding of all his moral experiences is the authority with which the moral law speaks, an authority inherent in the moral law itself. The one most certain item of our moral experience is this pressure of the "ought" impelling us to acknowledge the higher of two rival claims upon the will. Just as the authority of reason is both real and binding is relation to alternatives of truth and error, so the authority of conscience is real and binding in relation to alternatives of right and wrong. And precisely as the law of reason forbids our "thinking as we like," so the law of conscience prohibits our acting as we like. In other words, the inherent constitution of our personality as rational and as moral beings constrains us to acknowledge the law and make our choice. Morality is thus independent of any external pressure upon us; it has its basis in the very law of our nature as moral beings, and needs no power beyond itself to authenticate its claim upon us. The Ethical Movement, however, forced into controversy on the issue, took a position quickly recognized as distinctive, holding to the complete independence of morality and ascribing to it a threefold connotation. In the first place, by the independence of morality is meant that so far as Ethical Societies are concerned, the question of the basis of ethics--scientific, philosophic or whatever else,--is entirely an aside, i.e., a matter upon which members are wholly free to think as they choose, and when speaking on the issue, bound to speak only for themselves, never for the Society. Leaders, too, are free to discuss the basis of ethics from the Sunday platform, but bound to do so with scrupulous regard for others' freedom as well as their own, avoiding even the semblance of an attempt to commit the Society to the Leader's point of view. Truly does the genius of the Ethical Movement and its sole safety as a vital and progressive institution, depend upon its refusing, and with adamantine inflexibility, to stand committed to any one of the rival bases of ethics put forth in the fields of science, philosophy and theology. A second signification attaching to the independence of morality is that in itself morality has binding force, be its alleged philosophical or theological implications what they may. In other words, the validity of the moral law is not, as was just now intimated, contingent upon any theological sanction; because moral obligation belongs to "the nature of things," by which we mean that totality of necessary and universal relations without which nothing could exist. Deeper than this no plummet can sink. The moral obligation to be just does not depend upon any decrees, divine or human, but carries within itself its constraining influence. Precisely as there is an absolute condition without conformity to which a square cannot be drawn, so there is an absolute condition without conformity to which no moral being can exist in social relation. As the formation of the square depends upon its diagonal dividing it into two equal triangles, so the coming of two moral beings into social relationship depends upon mutual moral obligation. The two moral beings might never have existed, in which case moral obligation would have had only potential existence, as the predetermined law of social relation for moral beings; but the moment that relation became objective, the necessity of moral obligation was made manifest as part of "the nature of things." No alleged celestial origin ascribed to a command can make it right, nor can "Infinite Will" change, to even the slightest degree, the eternal relation of right and wrong. If a divine command be cruel or vindictive, as we find it in some of the older books of the Bible, that command cannot be deemed right just because it is "the word of God." In other words, there is an ethical standard by which we have to judge even the recorded "word of God."
Thus in this second sense in which we speak of the independence of morality there are implied the mighty convictions (a) that man has, as his most priceless possession, both that which calls to duty and that which answers the call; (b) that he is never permitted to go unpunished if he disobey; (c) that the obligation to strive for the good life is inherent in man as part of his nature as a human being; (d) that the moral sense is an organic part of his nature, a fundamental reality in him, like the sense of sight or the gift of reason; (e) that in proportion as one lives the moral life deeply and intensely one gains spiritual insight. Instead of viewing morality as derivative from theism, after the manner of the synagogues and churches, the Ethical Movement reverses the point of view, holding that the highest spiritual beliefs result from living the moral life. "Blessed are the pure in heart," said Jesus, "for they shall see God." First purity of heart and then the beatific vision. Let it be clearly understood that toward any and all philosophical and theological bases for morality the Ethical Movement takes a position of strict neutrality. But it would be a sorry mistake to construe either its specialization in morality apart from theology, or its refusal to stand committed to a theistic basis for ethics, as tantamount to a confession of atheism. So prevalent is the false notion that Ethical Societies are atheistic, that one is warranted in putting the reader on his guard against it. Because these Societies do not require of members belief in God as a condition of fellowship, either explicitly, in a creed, or implicitly, through participation in prayers and hymns that are essentially theistic; because Ethical Societies are differentiated from "Free" synagogues that retain a minimum of Hebrew ritual, and from "Community" churches in which "central to all activities is the Sunday morning service of worship," it does not follow that they are atheistic. The truth is that Ethical Societies are neither atheistic nor theistic, but of necessity neutral, because the freedom of Ethical fellowship requires it. Were these Societies to commit themselves either to theism or to atheism, they would automatically exclude from fellowship all those persons who could not accept one position or the other. It is just because of its strict neutrality or non-committedness that it is possible for both atheists and theists to be included in the fellowship of the Movement. Among the members the greatest diversity of belief exists and is encouraged. "As individuals we have all sorts of creeds; as a Society we have none." So spoke Dr. Adler in response to an inquirer on the subject, succinctly stating one of the cardinal and distinctive features of the Ethical Movement, clearly differentiating it from all kinds of existing synagogues and churches which implicitly, if not explicitly, commit their members to theism.
There remains a third meaning attaching to the independence of morality that must be elucidated. It will be understood best when seen in relation to the Pauline doctrine that supernatural grace is an indispensable aid to fulfillment of the law of righteousness. In that most remarkable of all self-revelations in sacred literature--the seventh chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans, he confesses his utter inability to live the moral life by his own unaided effort. He must fall back for help upon Jesus Christ. Let me borrow, thought Paul, of the superabundant righteousness that is in Jesus the Christ, and I will then be enabled to "do the good that I would." He believed himself morally impotent to rise from his dead self to higher things; someone must lift him, someone who has succeeded in fulfilling the "law of righteousness." In contradistinction to this Pauline doctrine, the Ethical Movement holds, with Jesus, that there are latent potentialities in every human being, that there resides in even the lowest of our kind a constant residuum of capacity for improvement, no matter how many times they fail. How else could Jesus have enjoined "Repent," "Be ye perfect," "Strive to enter in"? How meaningless these appeals apart from faith in man's power to improve, apart from the conviction that the morality in man is sufficient to make him independent of reliance on such help as was for the Apostle an indispensable prerequisite for living the moral life!
Since morality is independent of theology and since there is no theology on which all good men agree, but only a morality upon which all are agreed, it follows that it is possible to organize a fellowship on the basis of that morality, leaving men and women free to entertain any theology they choose, or none if they so prefer. And it is here that we touch a fourth distinctive feature of the Ethical Movement--the freedom of its fellowship. An illustration or two will make clear the real distinctiveness of this feature. All the way from the most orthodox of the Christian Churches and synagogues to the most liberal, we find that there is required of anyone who would identify himself therewith, assent either to a creed, or to a creedlet; a tacit, if not explicit, confession of faith or form of worship. Even the great religions themselves--from which the sects derive--condition fellowship on acceptance of their respective Founders. Islam presents its infallible Mohammed; Buddhism, its deified Gotama; Parsism, its inspired Zoroaster; Christianity, its supernatural Jesus. The fellowship of none is cosmopolitan and free. Mohammedanism, for instance, seeks to unite all men in the bonds of Mohammedan love; it does not aim to unite Mohammedans, Jews, Christians, and the rest in the bonds of human love. Christianity admits to it fellowship all Christians on equal terms, but no Christian denomination ever voted, as a body, to stand for a strictly free fellowship with no theological terms whatever in its constitution. But the Ethical Movement absolutely refuses to break the bond of brotherhood by imposing on applicants for membership any such requirements. It leaves its individual members entirely free to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose and to worship or not as they choose, binding them only to that morality which all men accept. And if brotherhood is ever to be anything other than the grim caricature we see in the rival sects with their conflicting creeds and claims, then it is of the utmost importance that there should exist at least one Movement which exemplifies union on the only basis practicable and universal; viz., devotion to "the ever-increasing knowledge, love and practice of the right." Nor should it be at all surprising that while we of the Ethical Movement are not accepted as brothers by any of the sects, Jewish or Christian, we accept them as brothers, because we are not a sect, but a fellowship. As its derivation (from the Latin sectum) implies, a sect is a part of humanity that has cut itself off from all the rest in order to live for itself and to convert all the rest into material for its own growth. But a part of humanity that lives both for itself and for the whole in one universal aim is not a sect at all, but a fellowship. Whether few or many, the part is nonsectarian and universal if the end it lives for be such. And so, while the vast Christian Church is but a sect, the Ethical Movement is not a sect at all, because it exists for no sectarian end but rather to help the world to grow for itself into its own ideal form, without presuming to dictate what that form shall be. What a gratuitous insult it would be to ask representatives of the non-Christian religions, for example, Prince Chung, the Confucian; or Dharmapala, the Buddhist; or Swami Abhedananda, the Hindu; or Rabbi de Sola, the orthodox Jew (all of whom have been in this country), to accept the "Apostles' Creed" or the "Bible" or the "Westminster Confession" or "the religion of Jesus." Surely the only religion we can rightly ask them to accept is the religion of universal Man, the religion that pays due homage to Moses, to Jesus, to the Buddha, to Confucius, according to the amount of truth each has to teach and the inspiration we can derive from the record of his life. Hence, every Ethical Society opens its doors and says, in the language of the New Testament Apocalypse: "Whosoever will, let him come"; whereas the Episcopalians say: "Whosoever will accept the 'Apostles' Creed,' let him come"; the Unitarians say: "Whosoever will accept 'the religion of Jesus,' let him come"; the Congregationalists say: "Whosoever will accept 'the Bible,' let him come"; the Free Synagogue says: "Whosoever will accept a minimum of Hebrew ritual and agree to worship on Sundays, let him come"; the New York Community Church says, "Whosoever will join in 'the Sunday worship central to all the activities' of the Church, let him come." But the Ethical Movement, rejecting all these fellowship-restrictions and taking its stand on the morality which all good men accept, simply says: "Whosoever will, let him come."
Doubtless individual representatives of each of these sects will repudiate the claim that the Ethical Movement is distinguished by this freedom of its fellowship; but the fact remains that not one of these sects, as a body, ever voted to adopt a strictly free basis of fellowship. A distinguished Unitarian recently pointed with pride to the personnel of his church, including in its fellowship Christians, Jews, agnostics and atheists! "What could be more free than such a fellowship?" To which we make answer that Unitarianism in 1894 took a definite position as a Protestant sect, in terms so precise that any member who objects to it for himself has no alternative but withdrawal. Many who are Unitarians in private belief are admitted members of Episcopalian churches. Does that make those churches any less Episcopalian? So the admission of Jews, agnostics, etc., to Unitarian Societies does not make the latter any less Unitarian, any less Protestant, any less Christian. Such confusion is patent to every thoughtful observer. The masquerading of Unitarians as Episcopalians is not admirable, and Unitarian preachers there are who have hotly denounced it. But we have yet to hear them denounce Jews, agnostics, etc., when they masquerade as Unitarians. Is it not high time to have manliness in religion and only one rule of honor and sincerity for all men alike?
Toward worship, theism, prayer, Ethical Societies take an attitude of strict neutrality, in order that the freedom of ethical fellowship may be kept absolutely inviolate. Some of us are theists, but none of us could ever be induced to join or to lead a Society that made belief in God a condition of membership. Freedom of thought has led some thinkers in every community into theism, others into agnosticism, and still others (fewer in number) into atheism. Yet all three classes of thinkers may find themselves consistently at home in the Ethical Fellowship, because in its bond of union, or statement of purpose, there appears nothing that commits its members to worship, or to religion as a confession of faith in things superhuman. In the "bond of union" of every Ethical Society stands the statement that neither acceptance nor denial of any theological or philosophical opinion precludes one from membership. Therefore at the Sunday morning meetings of Ethical Societies only that "minimum of public observance" is adopted in which all the members, with their divergent theological and philosophical views, can consistently participate. And if it be said of these Sunday "services" that they are "cold and barren," it most be conceded that they have at least the grace of consistency, doing no violence to the reason or conscience of members by the intrusion of elements that nullify the professed freedom of fellowship. Incidentally it may be well to recall the fact that it took three hundred years of Christianity for the beautiful prayers of Chrysostom to crystallize. It ought not, then, to surprise us that adequate substitutes for such Christian sources of inspiration have not as yet been created by Ethical Societies. Fifty years ago the founder of the Ethical Movement foresaw that its distinctive character would disappear were its members committed to "worship," or to acceptance of theism and prayer. Therefore, to insure the perfect freedom of the Movement, he kept his "Statement of purpose" absolutely devoid of these elements. Let theistic members, if they will, organize within the Society a group for the holding of theistic services, even as Socialistic, Individualistic, Kantian, Hegelian and other groups might be formed; but never let the Movement as a whole be committed to the position of any group. In such wise did he safeguard the freedom of fellowship. He compared the Movement and its groups to a cathedral with its chapels, the integrity of the Movement depending inexorably upon the persistent refusal to permit the particular cult of any of the chapels to represent the cathedral.
Let it not be supposed that the Ethical Movement aims to unite all men in its fellowship. Rather does it seek to draw into fellowship all those who would enjoy spiritual freedom and yet feel themselves bound to the claims which the moral ideal makes upon them. It aims to unite all those who would live upward toward the supreme realities of life--truth, love, duty. Those who deliberately prefer to live the downward life of irreligion, it cannot gather into fellowship while that choice persists, because morality excludes immorality by an irreconcilable antagonism. Only weak and confused minds will flinch from admitting this fact. We are bound to distinguish things that differ and not swamp all sense and sanity by a refusal to recognize essential differences. But, let it be borne in mind, and very clearly, that while we cannot hope to unite all men in one fellowship, we can hope, and ever more must hope, to rouse indifferentists to warm interest in the ideal life, to redeem the deliberately immoral and win them over to morality; to rescue those who have chosen to live downward, and so include them, at last, in the religious fellowship. Remembering that in the best of us is something bad and in the worst of us something good; remembering that the most immoral man is not always immoral, but has his better moments in which he looks down with shame and horror on his life, we are bound to maintain hope and to strive to help him rise and fit him to enter the fellowship of imperfect people whose pole-star is the perfect.
When the Ethical Movement was born it was intended to be, and it still is, above all else a forward-looking movement morally. And this fact brings us to a fifth of its distinctive features, its belief in the possibility and the imperative need of ethical progress. But by this is not to be understood the popular notion of more adequate and more widespread practice of the moral precepts preserved in the Scriptures of the Jewish and Christian faith. To insist on this desideratum would not be distinctive of the Ethical Movement. All synagogues and churches are agreed on the necessity of moral progress in this sense. What the Ethical Movement contemplates, and what it means by its belief in moral progress, is the acquisition of new ethical conceptions, insights, new moral formulas, to supplement those which have been found inadequate for many a modern moral need; the attainment of new ideals of righteousness beyond those revealed by the great moral teachers of the past, ideals--mental pictures of what it is supremely desirable to have in the relations that subsist between personalities. The distinctive feature of the Ethical Movement is the conviction that the moral standards set up by the illuminated seers of the past are not sufficiently comprehensive to cover the new moral situations that have been created by economic, social and other conditions, unknown to the Great Masters of antiquity. Over against this conviction that we need more light on the moral life than has been furnished by any of the historic Guides, stands the conviction characteristic of Jewish and Christian bodies alike, that within the pages of their respective sacred scriptures all the moral guidance man needs is to be found; that in the teaching transmitted by the prophets of their respective faiths all necessary moral truth is encompassed, making superfluous anything beyond the all-sufficing moral "revelation" of their religion. It is precisely at this point that the distinctiveness of the Ethical Movement appears. For, the very "revelation" which to the devotees of these faiths is a terminus ad quem--a final and complete statement of ethical truth--is to those of the Ethical Movement a terminus a quo, a station from which new journeyings into the realm of ethical insight are to be undertaken. By the followers of the Old Masters in ethics their message is deemed the last word that can be said on the moral life, so that development is possible only within the limits of the prophetic vision. Thus, for example, the Christian, believing that all the moral help man needs has been supplied by the New Testament revelation, conceives of development as confined within the circle of scriptural teaching, whereas the Ethical Culturist, holding that none of the ancient revelations shed the needed light on peculiarly modern moral problems, construes development as reaching out for new ethical conceptions and formulas, beyond the general maxims and precepts of the great Bibles, to new statements that will cover the moral requirements of the new day. In short, the Ethical Movement actively conceives of progress in the ideals of righteousness beyond the highest hitherto put forth. Does any one question its distinctiveness in this respect?
In what synagogue is it unequivocally declared that the limits of Old Testament ethics must be transcended if we are to meet the moral needs of the modern world in marriage, in business, in politics, in international relations--to cite only the more conspicuous fields in which existing conditions betray the insufficiency of the ancient codes? In none. What we hear instead is the unqualified claim that the Hebrew prophets and poets have given us all the moral guidance we need, and for all time. And what we see is the pathetic and painful spectacle of learned rabbis straining the meaning of Old Testament texts to make them teach something other than their authors plainly intended. Similarly, we ask, in what Christian church is the contention clearly and unfeignedly put forth that the ethics of Jesus, notwithstanding all its undisputed and eternally valid excellences, yet needs to be supplemented if the moral problems confronting "a world morally out of joint" are to be adequately solved? Again the answer must be, in none. Any liberal Christian preacher who would dare to show forth the insufficiency of the ethics of Jesus and illustrate it by examples from the gospel record would be in serious danger of losing his pulpit. Indeed two such enforced resignations within the Unitarian fellowship have been brought to notice within recent years. I know no Christian who hesitates to confess that Jesus is the complete, perfect, all-sufficing Way, Truth, Life; that Christianity includes the whole of religion, needing nothing outside itself to make it any truer, higher, better. But whosoever attains a glimpse of Religion as truer and holier than Christianity and dares to give utterance to that insight and to confess his allegiance to that higher faith, would, to say the least, jeopardize his standing in any church, for there would be those among the members who recognize the solemn command laid upon him who took the view of Religion as holier than Christianity and yet sought to wear the Christian name and hold a Christian pulpit. In our war with Germany a man might have worn the German uniform in Germany yet have remained at heart a loyal American; yet it is difficult to see how any man of conscience would ever consent to put inside and outside so at variance.
To synagogue and church alike is the idea intolerable that their Bible does not contain all the moral teaching the world needs or ever will need; and, as a consequence, the unethical practice prevails of putting constructions upon texts which were clearly not in the minds of their authors. As among the rabbis so among the Christian clergy we see the most astounding liberties taken with scriptural words, phrases, sentences, in order to make them vehicles of the best ethical thought on moral problems for the solution of which the record, fairly and unbiasedly interpreted, offers no help. And the inevitable result of this pernicious practice of crowding new meanings into ancient statements is a confusion of ideas and the defeat of all efforts at clarification in ethical thinking. Orthodox Christians argue that the teaching of Jesus is complete and final because he was God, and hence what he taught must be sufficient for all time. And though Unitarians and other liberal Christians disown this doctrine of the deity of Jesus, they nevertheless hold to the inference which their orthodox brethren have drawn from it. Both the liberal synagogues and the liberal churches have abandoned the theological element of the orthodox creeds because it has been utterly discredited by modern research, but neither synagogue nor church has abandoned the idea that the ethical element of the creeds is fixed, complete and final. On the contrary, each group sees in the ethical teaching of its scriptures, the ultimate pronouncements of moral truth, valid for all people and all time, progress being confined to fresh application of the precepts enunciated. Contrast with all this the position of the Ethical Movement. It starts where the Jewish and Christian communions stop, seeing in the ethical precepts of the Old Testament and in those of the New, stages in the evolution of moral standards beyond which we are now to advance. It takes the ground that moral truth, like scientific truth, is progressive, that in the development of civilization new conditions have appeared, giving rise to new and vexing problems for the solution of which more help is needed than either the Old or the New Testament has supplied, thus making it imperative that the ethical element in the Hebrew and in the Christian tradition, no less than the theological, be advanced upon. Our civilization is not that of ancient shepherds, living a nomadic life in the wilderness; nor is it that of settled farmers living in Judea two thousand years ago. Ours is an industrial age, a scientific, a democratic age; an age of machinery and factories and popular government. As a consequence new problems have arisen of which neither Moses nor Jesus ever dreamed, and for the solution of these, new ethical concepts and formulas must be furnished. As against the position taken by the synagogues and the churches, the Ethical Movement insists (and herein its distinctiveness lies) that the same impulse which animated Jesus to advance on the ethics of Moses must animate us, to supplement the ethics of Jesus with new light for guidance on the unsolved problems of the modern world. Loyalty to the acknowledged progressiveness of moral truth requires us, even as it required him, humbly to press on to new moral concepts, while reverencing every great teacher of the past for his contribution to the stock of moral knowledge. Thus the Ethical Movement is marked by its conviction that excellent and of immortal worth as are the general maxim, "love one another," "return good for evil," "judge not," etc., they are too general to serve our modern need; that new ideals of righteousness beyond those already revealed must be set up; that never yet has the moral code been completely revealed; that no one of the world's Bibles with all its imperishable excellences is comprehensive enough to embrace the total of moral requirements in modern society; that not merely better moral behavior on the basis of what ethical teaching we have is needed, but also new moral knowledge to meet situations for which the historic codes do not provide. When Matthew Arnold declared, "We have all the moral knowledge we need, our only difficulty is in applying what we already possess," he uttered one of those commonplaces of modern thought against which we need to be constantly on our guard. For, not only is his statement incorrect but the exact opposite is the grim truth that so often confronts us. Everyone who has grappled with the pressing problems characteristic of our time knows that one reason why they are still with us is that we are still without the needed moral light to shed upon them. The world has not advanced beyond the stage of elementary moral practice because the teaching offered has not reached beyond elementary moral ideas. And both free synagogues and free churches are vainly struggling to make these do the work for which they are not fitted. Both institutions remind us of the distinguished Viceroy of China who in 1909 had become thoroughly enamored of Western ways of thought and life, yet sought to satisfy Oriental needs by formulas taken from Confucian books written twenty-four centuries ago! So the liberal Christian churches, while increasingly alive to the necessity of facing the social problems of our century, yet rely exclusively on moral formularies drawn from the New Testament. How often have we heard Unitarian clergymen urging the claim that the "Golden Rule gives us all the help we need if only we would apply it faithfully." But the truth is that the Golden Rule permits of only limited personal application. Situations there are, in the industrial world for example; where this "rule" cannot be effectively applied, as experience proves. Most unfortunate it is that the familiar maxim, "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you," was ever called the Golden Rule. For, strictly speaking, it is not a rule at all. It does not tell us precisely what to do in any given situation. It simply indicates the spirit that should control and animate our action leaving it to us to find the appropriate deed. Beware of the shallow notion that any reflection is cast upon the Bible or upon Moses, Isaiah and Jesus because what they have bequeathed to mankind of moral precept proves insufficient for our time. They regarded it as no part of their mission to legislate or prescribe for the moral needs of centuries beyond their own era; nay more, they owed their success as teachers of ethics to the very limitations they put upon their work. Surely, then, it ought not to surprise us if, in relation to those issues upon which just now we are sorely in need of guidance, the ancient codes fail us. To illustrate this fact, to make still clearer the truth that more moral light is required than the historic guides supply, let us call to mind some of the paramount moral needs of our time, touching briefly upon each.
One is an ethicized conception of the State (and its corollary, an ethics of citizenship). In vain do we search for it in the Bible. Jesus did not touch upon it for several reasons, but chiefly because it lay outside the sphere of his wisely-limited mission as a teacher of personal ethics. Said an Episcopalian professor of Oxford University in a recent issue of the Hibbert Journal: "Our Lord carefully refrained from expressing an opinion on political and economic problems, which were beyond the scope of his mission. His concern was not with the State but with the individual, not so much with Humanity as with Man." With the State he was not concerned because, according to his belief and that of all of his Jewish contemporaries, the State was a temporary institution, destined soon to be replaced by the expected Kingdom of Heaven on earth. So full of this great expectation was the apostle Paul that he could advocate a doctrine of unrestricted submission to the dictates of the State. "The powers that be are ordained of God," was his plea--a doctrine positively harmful for us who believe in the persistence of this old world for many an eon yet, and who are fully persuaded that "the powers that be" in the State are too often "ordained" by anything but a divine Power.
A second paramount moral need of our day is an ethics of big-business, involving the relation of employer to employees in unprecedented ways. The problem of the right relationship between these parties in industry in only a century and a half old. It dates from the time when the "domestic" system of industry gave place to the "factory" system, when machinery was substituted for tools, and when the old, close, personal relation of master and workmen was replaced by a cash nexus and the wage-system. How, then, should we find in any Biblical record the necessary light on this dark problem? The most that the ancient moral repositories can supply is a group of general maxims, unquestionably true and precious, yet as plainly insufficient to be of direct help.
Another of our paramount moral needs is more light on the spiritual significance and purpose of marriage. Is it realized that there are only two verses (and their parallels) in the Gospels that touch the subject of marriage, and neither sets forth its spiritual meaning? Moreover, Jesus exemplified and exalted celibacy as against the marriage relation--witness what we read in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, at the twelfth verse. The plain truth is that Jesus left no direct teaching wherewith to meet the marriage problem as we have it among us today. And the apostle Paul, it will be remembered, saw in wedlock only a concession to human weakness. "It is good for a man not to touch a woman, nevertheless to avoid fornication let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband." If they (the unmarried) "cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn." Furthermore, as against the spiritual conception of mutuality, reciprocity, complementariness of influence in the marriage relation, Paul taught the subordination of the woman to the man--due fundamentally to his inheritance of Hebrew tradition.
Still one other of the crying moral needs which must not be overlooked is that of an international morality, to supplement the man-to-man morality which we find in the Old Testament and the New. In neither book do we find any teaching on international morality, and for very excellent reasons which cannot be here discussed. But the point to be noted is that this lack has created the need of more light to help solve the vexing question of international amity and peace. We need an ethicized nationalism to replace the narrow, nefarious, chauvinistic nationalism now rampant throughout the world. But this ethicized nationalism has to be worked out as part of a code of international morality; we do not find it furnished in any of the ancient scriptures. It is essentially a modern concept, and it lay wholly outside the range of Jesus's teaching, concerned as he was with the ethics of personal life.
Here, then, is a group of great moral needs, bound up with economic, social, national and international problems. On all of them there exists much difference of opinion. On none of them have we as yet a consensus of moral judgment. In vain do we look for light on them from the moral repositories of the past. Even as to the personal ideals that are held up as patterns worthy of emulation an astonishing variety of opinion obtains. One finds his ideal in the Christian saint; another, in the Greek sage; a third, in the Gothic gentleman; a fourth, in the self-centered, strong, free Superman of Nietzsche. Hence a literature of conflicting ethical ideals, a "chaos of ethical convictions," but no consensus of opinion upon personal ideals. Hence, too, the conspicuous place given to moral education in the Ethical Movement and the distinctiveness of its belief in ethical progress. Precisely as the American Association for the Advancement of Science invites its members, while enjoying absolute intellectual freedom, to explore the field of Nature and make fresh discoveries there, so Ethical Societies bid their members go out into the field of Duty, and with like intellectual freedom, shed new light on the open, unsolved problems of the moral life.
If, now, the further question be raised, how is the needed new moral knowledge to be acquired? The Ethical Movement answers in terms equally distinctive,--by moral experience.
When Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine architect, successfully competed for the construction of the dome of the cathedral, he closed his series of specifications for the structure with the following significant suggestion: When the dome shall have reached the height of fifty-seven feet (that is, just before it is to be closed in), let the masterbuilders, then in charge of the work, determine what the next step is to be. For, said Brunelleschi, "la pratica insegna quello si ha da seguire,"--practice teaches what the next step to be taken shall be. So in constructing the dome for the cathedral of the moral life, inner experience is our teacher, practice in moral architecture our basis of decision as to how we shall supplement the moral principles transmitted from the past. Thus there is this very real sense in which practice precedes theory. To know the spiritual meaning of love one must live the life of love. Only by "doing the will" does one "know the doctrine." We of the Ethical Movement take our stand with Brunelleschi. We believe that by striving to get into right relations with our fellowmen we shall find just what these relations ought to be: by working toward an ideal of justice in social and in business life, we shall learn what the true ideal really is; by experiencing the deeper contents of the moral life we shall approximate adequate statements of the moral Ideal.
Beginning with reverential and grateful appreciation of the immortal contributions made by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus toward the upbuilding of the moral life, cherishing and treasuring their teachings, making them an integral part of the moral instruction given to the children and young people in its fellowship, every Ethical Society proceeds to indicate the directions in which more light is needed and how it is to be sought.
The Ethical Movement begins with the accepted norms of human conduct, i.e., with those which by "the consensus of civilized peoples" have long since been put beyond the pale of further question. That we should be kind, just, honest, grateful to our benefactors, sympathetic towards the unfortunate,--that honor, justice, love bind us regardless of our explanation of them, or of our fidelity to them,--these are moral beliefs about which men generally agree. Here, then, is common standing-ground. Here we can come together and work together, and push on thence into new and unexplored fields of the moral life, no matter what our theological and philosophical opinions may be.
II. What's special about Ethical Religion?
1) Martin describes the relationship between dissatisfaction and religion. What does this point to in the picture of popular religion in our day (Peale, Liebman, Sheen)? What about our own position in this matter?
2) Morality is a means or an end. Of these alternatives, which makes the more sense to you? What does Martin say about his choice? Does he convince you?
3) What does Martin mean by a "supreme" end? Do you think there is such a thing? Why, why not?
4) In the discussion of creed and deed, does Martin allow any legitimate place for creed? Would you?
5) Review Martin's "three meanings of the independence of morality." What do these show about the strengths and weaknesses of the Ethical Movement?
6) Martin says, "We are not a sect, but a fellowship." What does this mean? Do you agree? Is this a good thing?
7) What is the "bond of union" in an Ethical Society? What does Martin mean by "ethical progress"? Do you agree? Why, why not?
8) What "new" moral situations have arisen that require "new" moral ideas?
9) What does Martin mean by "moral experience"? Describe, if possible, an example of moral experience in an "unexplored" field.
This document is part of a larger document, "Understanding Ethical Religion," edited by Howard B. Radest.
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