The Heroic Appeal of the Ethical Faith
Henry NeumannFrom Henry Neumann, THE HEROIC APPEAL OF THE ETHICAL FAITH,in The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ethical Movement 1876-1926
. . . In discussing problems of moral education we sometimes have parents ask, "What is the sense of bringing up children on these finer principles? Will they not be unhappy in a world where most of their associates are content with the poorer and more common things?" The answer is, "Yes--again and again they will be unhappy. We must pay for every advance we make." If one grows more sensitive to good music, one grows at the same time more sensitive to noise. To heighten your love of beauty is likely to increase your awareness that what once satisfied you may be hideously unlovely.
But shall you therefore be content with ugliness? It is like saying that because you have eyes, they will suffer many times from too glaring light. Would it not be better, therefore, to be blind? Indeed, would it not be better never to love people? If you love, you may be exposed to the torment of jealousy. The more warmly you love, the more your heart will be torn when the beloved object is taken from you. Is love therefore folly? So of the advance in moral perception. The light that broadens and brightens within us has its dark fringe. But shame on the coward soul that would reject the light for that reason! Courage says, "I know that in the way ahead lies pain; but I know also that there is the way of life. Its surpassing goodness makes it worth all that it costs."
All this can be said without self-righteousness. The Ethical Movement says, "Here
is a great work to be done in the world by you and me and by all with whom we work. A
better mankind must be. The traits that distinguish man at his loftiest must more and more
win their due ascendance. This is a task that takes all there is of us--and a good deal
No guarantee exists that Evolution, the God whom many modern persons have substituted for the older, must eventually bring a perfect human society. The higher we rise, the more aware we grow of a higher still beyond. The best we ever succeed in reaching is the vantage ground from which we behold a better surpassing even that. Between the loftiest demands of the spirit and the response in the world of flesh and blood there will always be a chasm, never fully bridged.
Even if a life without the least stain or flaw were at last possible, yet before it appears, this planet of ours may grow as cold and lifeless as the moon. And what do we know of the life there may be in worlds other than our own? This globe, which looms so large when we think of it by itself, is but a pitifully time speck of dust in worlds upon worlds of boundless extent. When we say "perfect" life we must not be provincial, we must not shrink from the sublimities which the world implies. Perfection means totality. In the perfect whole no life is deficient, and no life is any guarantee that this puny fragment of the universe we see in the life of our planet must finally reveal the full glory of the perfect day.
But it is precisely when we have faced these facts at their worst that the heroic appeal in the Ethical faith touches us. We deny that the best in us can come out only when we have the guarantee that the right will ultimately win here and everywhere. On the contrary, many of us believe that a courageous loyalty to the right is most needed when there is no such assurance beforehand. We do not need the guarantee of victory. Our greatest need is to be on the side that deserves the victory. Life is not exalted for us by the fact that our side will win. It is greatened by our trying to be the sort of men and women who fit themselves to promote what ought to triumph, whether we know beforehand that it will or not.
We take our stand upon the worthwhileness of loyalty to the perfect ideal, whatever may thwart its work. We believe that there are heroic depths in the human soul that have never been addressed as they deserve. The real greatness of man shows itself only when the heroic spirit is most challenged. And we are all of us capable of more than we ordinarily suppose. There are depths upon depths in us that we are never aware of until we face unafraid the difficulties we imagine we can never bear. It is marvelous what can be done by courage, which is only strength made conscious of its unused resources. The Ethical faith believes that the spirit of man, awake and aware of itself, is more than a match for whatever it is called upon to meet.
What does such a faith hold out as its reward? The labor is great; but great also are the compensations. Every loyalty brings its own deep satisfaction in heightening our self-respect. As the genuine artist, "Why spend your years in unpaid labor fitting yourself to do great work; why not win popularity and money now?" His answer will be, "I am already rewarded at this moment by what I am making of myself and by the vision that I behold as I give my best." Or say to the man of science, "Why toil so to get at the truth? Why not dish up your knowledge with the sensational spice the reading public wants and sell it now?" He will give the same answer. His self-respect forbids him to do anything else. So even those who have little or no gift for science or art, nevertheless understand what it means to be bound by a moral idea which will not let them rest either in contentment with their own mixed characters or with the easy faith that whether thy do their part or not, things will all turn out right at the end. Their reward is the satisfaction of knowing that they are trying to be true. There is a striving which is its own compensation. To understand it, make it your own.
Such satisfaction also brings a sense of a bond of union, a religious bond. Live the life to which it points, and you feel yourself one with an overarching power and a life that you may call God or not as you think best. The name does not matter so much as feeling the reality itself in this sense of intimate union with a Perfect Life that comes to you when you rise from a lower level of manhood to a higher, from drifting to asserting your will, from a timid outlook to a braver one, from a calculating regard for your own ease to a wholehearted loyalty to something better. You are no longer alone. You are intimately one with all the bravest and truest-hearted that ever have been or will be. You are co-partner with the sublimest eyes; but you are one in spirit with it. You can bring into your life here and now a touch of its grandeur. You become increasingly aware of your real self as not just a thing of bone and muscle and nerve tissue, but a spiritual being capable of sharing in the great forward movement of the race.
When the setbacks come, then, in spite of them--or, rather, just because of them you see a new glory on the face of this ideal company, a grander beauty lighting it up, and a more tender expectation that you will keep your faith. Every glimpse of that splendor heightens your conviction that there can be for you no other way of responding than continued and deeper loyalty.
When we learn to see that radiance reflected from the faces of those with whom we now live and work, the problem of living is cleared up for us. We know why the labors that progress exacts are amply justified. We know better what a sacred undertaking a genuine ethical progress is to mean. We think of our religion not as a way of escaping effort but as a way of getting more effort out of us. The pain that attends growth is not the last word. The guarantee of victory is less important than the will to enlist on the side that deserves to win. To live heroically is its own compensation in which all can share. In every person there is a slumbering hero. To rouse himself he needs only to know how exalted in the cause he is called upon to promote.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion, edited by Howard B. Radest.
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