Joe Chuman

Ethical Culture was founded on freedom of conscience, and we are proud to say that we espouse no dogma, doctrine or creed. Yet, clearly Ethical Culture endorses a set of principles, which emerge as “second order” beliefs from our guiding commitments to the primacy of ethical ideals and the dignity of the person.
In short, Ethical Culture cannot be based on whatever anyone chooses to believe and there are boundaries as to what beliefs fall within Ethical Culture and those which do not. But how are those boundaries established? Is it what the founder, Felix Adler, espoused? The collective beliefs of Ethical Culture’s professional leaders? The funded history of the Ethical Movement? Or, some other criterion?

“Ethical Culture is a religion where you can believe anything you want.” This is a definition of our Movement that carries more than a hint of rebellion against the authoritarianism of the religious faiths from which its purveyors had recently escaped. It’s a tad churlish, in my view. Fortunately, it’s also a description I don’t hear any longer.

But however anti-intellectual, it does raise an inescapable question for us: Namely, does Ethical Culture require a set of fundamental beliefs? If so, what are they? And, closer to the topic of this brief essay, what are the sources of authority that set the boundaries that define Ethical Culture? Who or what decides what Ethical Culture is and what it isn’t?

All philosophies and religions are subject to interpretation, including interpretations that veer widely from each other. But Ethical Culture presents distinctive interpretative problems issuing from its character as a “free religion.” Being a free religion means that Ethical Culture places freedom of individual belief and conscience at its heart. Perhaps my churlish, anti-intellectual rebel was correct after all.

But I don’t think so. To assert that Ethical Culture is founded on freedom of belief is itself to proclaim a belief. By contrast, a doctrine of enforced belief, or a religion that requires a mandatory creed, would be outside the bounds of Ethical Culture.

If we are searching for Ethical Culture’s defining essence and its boundaries, a good place to start is with the founder and his vision. Briefly put, if Felix Adler had conceived Ethical Culture differently then the Movement we have would not be the one we identify as Ethical Culture today. We owe our understanding of Ethical Culture to the thinking of the person who originated it and set its course.

But, while we owe Adler great deference in setting the initial content and boundaries for Ethical Culture, the Movement extends beyond Adler’s own thought and vision. This is true for several reasons, the first implied in the nature of the freedom of conscience just mentioned. The intellectual freedom intrinsic to Ethical Culture requires that the thoughts of its founder not be dogmatized. It is characteristic of Christian fundamentalism, for example, to affirm that what Christ said is true because he said it. This mode of interpretation cannot apply to Ethical Culture because inherent in Adler’s own thinking was not only the imperative of the freedom of individual minds, but also the notion that religion evolves. He located Ethical Culture on this evolutionary continuum and frequently postulated that religions of the future, including Ethical Culture, would inevitably change. Adler did not presume that he had the final word as to what Ethical Culture was or would be years ahead.

Also critical is that, while Adler’s thinking launched Ethical Culture and initially set its boundaries, his philosophy is not equitable with Ethical Culture. Rather, his thinking points toward a deeper reality, which his philosophy aims to illuminate. He is but an interpreter of a larger reality that is the source for ideas that emanate from it.

An analogy with the traditional faiths is apt. The prophetic figures of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and their teachings, direct our attention, not ultimately to themselves, but to the divine reality, to God, which is the focal point of reverence and worship. Likewise, Ethical Culture points to a higher reality, that of ethical ideals, foremost human dignity, and the respect and reverence that dignity requires of us. The concept of dignity itself is tightly conjoined with freedom. To be deprived of freedom is to be robbed of dignity. Or otherwise put, freedom is a prerequisite for the realization of dignity. It is commitment to this reality that begins to shape the beliefs of Ethical Culture and its outer boundaries.

In my view, recognition of dignity as a human attribute intrinsic to all men, women, and children is a product of a universal intuition. It is, furthermore, Ethical Culture’s distinctive mission to raise respect and reverence for the dignity of the person to primacy of our concerns. Beyond respect and reverence, Ethical Culture exists to help nurture this attribute in all relations of human life, both private and public.

So to proclaim the primacy of human dignity is to circumscribe definable limits on both beliefs and actions that are commensurate with Ethical Culture and those that do not. Beliefs that lead to the enhancement of persons and the human condition, morally, socially, politically and economically, fall within the bounds of Ethical Culture. Those that violate, oppression, exploit, demean, degrade, and humiliate human beings, do not.

But locating the source of Ethical Culture in the universal reality of human dignity, linked as it is to freedom of mind, still leaves us the question of Ethical Culture’s limits and which authority sets those limits.

I have already asserted that Adler’s thought cannot be the boundary setter for the reason that his philosophy of Ethical Culture transcends itself, so to speak. So where do we look? Is Ethical Culture a consensus of what its professional Ethical Culture leaders say it is? Is it a consensus of what the laity has asserted and continues to profess? Or do we have to look to the funded history of the Ethical Culture Movement as a whole over its 141-year history in order to set its outer limits?

I conclude that to adequately define Ethical Culture we need to combine all these in an admittedly ungainly mix, with an emphasis on the last of these named sources. But by looking to Ethical Culture’s cumulative history, we, of course, find all that has gone on before, including the intentions launched at the beginning by the founder.

But when we look at the cumulative history of Ethical Culture, we need look not solely at what has been said about it, but at what it has done—the actions of its members, and leaders, and the behaviors that is has inspired. How Ethical Culturists have conducted themselves in their public and private deeds, both under the umbrella of the Movement, and even outside of it, reflexively illuminates the ideas that have inspired those actions. We know what Ethical Culture is (and what it is not) by its fruits, so to speak. There is a tight correlation between actions and ideas.

I recognize that my response to the question at hand may be more complex and ambiguous than a sharp definition and clear boundaries to our Movement would provide. Those who seek crystal clarity may not be satisfied. I contend that this lack of clear boundaries is inherent in the Ethical Culture enterprise itself. Ethical Culture is always growing, always changing, and remains porous around the edges.


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