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?
In the early 1960’s Pope John XXIII convened the Vatican II council to encourage the Catholic Church to adopt reforms to bring it into the modern era. It was then that the Church finally permitted the liturgy to be practiced in vernacular languages so the people could understand what was being said and they modified other fundamental practices. Of course, organized as a unified church with a clear structure and unquestioned lines of authority, these changes could be promulgated among the Catholic faithful as their new norm as soon as they were adopted. My Catholic friends were suddenly eating fish on Friday and there wasn’t supposed to be any more snide talk behind my back about who killed Christ.
At about the same time, in 1965, a commission was convened among Ethical Culture Leaders, chaired by Joseph Blau, to clarify and update the philosophical underpinnings of Ethical Culture. The Movement was then still emerging from the long shadow cast by the founder Felix Adler and his hand-picked successor Elliott. It was agreed by the Leaders that a new direction was needed to bring Ethical Culture into the modern era.
The group confirmed that Ethical Culture constituted a stream within a broader Humanist movement, something that Adler had refused to acknowledge or accept. Further, the leaders affirmed that the Neo-Kantian notion to which Adler had been devoted, and which ethics was founded upon certain eternal ideals that we are to discover through our learning and our experience, was essentially displaced. In its place, they adopted the Deweyan philosophy that saw ethics as something rooted in our own experience. They recognized ethics as being something we create and which evolves in order to respond to our needs and aspirations.
This was a rather significant change of direction for a Movement that had been defined and realized by the vision of essentially one founder who literally ruled it for nearly 60 years. In the post-Adler world of Ethical Culture, there was no governing authority any more nor was there a supreme council whose decision bound anyone. So, what was the authority of these Leaders to make such a profound change of direction and how could they impose it on the membership? Moreover, how did the communities of Ethical Culture react to the news of the change? What was the impact and effect of a substantially new statement of “belief”?
There is no account of rebellion in the ranks in the two principal histories of Ethical Culture: Toward Common Ground by Howard Radest, which was published later but whose account really stops in the 1950’s, and The Humanist Way by Edward Ericson, who was part of that council and described its work. It is likely that there was little reaction and likely little effect. We are a rather unstructured community and the fine points of philosophical analysis do not define us, as much as we may enjoy engaging in the analyzing. In Ethical Culture, we even say that there is no creed, no catechism, no statement of belief to which members must subscribe. Subtle distinctions, then, are simply not critical.
In my experience having facilitated countless discussion groups, colloquies and community circles, I have been surprised from time to time by the variety of views that are expressed. We may assume that others in the Movement are in agreement with our own individual philosophies, but there is a rather broad range of beliefs, stances and positions. What we do have in common is a consensus on broad questions and it is adequately fulfilled by such broad tenets as “deed before creed” and “elicit the best in others and thereby elicit the best in oneself.” These hark to the social action commitments of Ethical Culture, the affirmative injunction that we must serve humanity, preserve the earth and build the future. On whether the origin of ethics is in the eternal order of the universe, as Adler supposed, or if it emerges out of our own experience, may be interesting discussions, but we will put them aside when we hear a call for action over hunger or injustice.
So what instills the continuity in Ethical Culture if there is no pope, no governing board, and no standing authority? Our strength comes from our people and it is from our people that the nature of Ethical Culture is continually renewed. As we engage in social activism, we restore our mission and our purpose. Since we do not engage in activities that would support someone’s belief in the supernatural or the miraculous, those who find meaning there tend not to stay. Pronouncements on the part of the leadership will set a tone that may render the community comforting to some people and uncomfortable for others. But the leadership has little authority to call a tune to which a set community will dance. We’re just different from the Catholics that way.
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