The Varieties of Ethical Expression by Michael S. Franch

When Ethical Culture was founded in the nineteenth century, it introduced something new, perhaps radical, to the world of religion. Ethical Culture was also then on the cutting edge of progressive social change. We are now in a different time politically and religiously. What is there that is distinctive about Ethical Culture in the current era? With many diverse expressions of both liberal religion and humanism, what distinguishes Ethical Culture in matters of belief? How does Ethical Culture differ from generic liberalism?

photo by Jeffrey Bary

What is distinctive about Ethical Culture today and what distinguishes us from other liberal religious and humanist groups? We’ve been pondering these issues for a long time. In his history of the Ethical Movement, Howard B. Radest noted that at their first meeting after Felix Adler’s death in 1933, Ethical Leaders devoted four of seven sessions to “the issue of the distinctiveness of the Ethical Movement” It was an issue at the Movement’s 75th anniversary, as we grappled with both explicit humanism and more conventionally religious manifestations in Ethical Culture Sunday meetings [Radest Toward Common Ground (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company 1969), p. 249, 303.]. In 1982, Radest himself declared, “We need to find out…if Ethical Humanism can have a distinctive message” [Howard B. Radest, “Ethical Culture and Humanism: A Cautionary Tale.” Religious Humanism vol. 16, no. 2 (1982) 70.]. Now, we are again asked to ponder our distinctive identity in an environment where there are “many diverse expressions of both liberal religion and humanism.”

The fact is we have always existed in an environment of complementary and competing approaches. Ethical Culture was but one manifestation of the rich 19th-century intellectual environment, fueled by new insights in the natural world, biblical scholarship, and comparative religion and by the challenges of urban and industrial America. It takes nothing from Felix Adler’s accomplishment to say that he was one of a number of religious and social reformers, including freethinkers, what is now called classic Reform Judaism, and in the Unitarianism of the liberal Western Unitarian Conference variety. Indeed, some of these Western Conference Unitarians saw so many similarities with Ethical Culture that they offered to join forces, an offer Adler rejected.

Ethical Culture, today, as in the past, has company in American religious life, cousins of a sort. Like cousins, we have different parents. Like cousins, we compete for attention. Like cousins, we have grown different from our parents; some of us are very different from the others, and some of us could be siblings. Some have even left the family; others have been adopted into it. We are very conscious of our differences from each other, but to outsiders, we are still identifiable as family. Our extended family now includes Unitarian Universalists, Humanistic and some Reform Jews, and members of American Humanist Association chapters that are organizing congregationally. The “godless congregation” movement has yet to prove its staying power or cultural impact, but it is potentially another new member of this family [James Croft and Greg Epstein, “The Godless Congregation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” Free Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 6 (September 23, 2013).].

Nearly two years ago, the Washington Ethical Society (which is affiliated with both the American Ethical Union and the Unitarian Universalist Association) hosted the first Humanist Clergy Collaboratory—a gathering of sometimes competing cousins united by family feeling. Although some of the attending organizations included “secular” in their names, it was a gathering of religious leaders. I think that despite our different labels, we all felt “these are my people.”

This feeling of kinship, however, did not mean that we lost our individual identities into a larger entity, nor that some members of the family have not had, or still have, fraught relationships [See Radest, “Ethical Culture and Humanism” cited above, for some of that history.]. It did illustrate, however how it is possible to feel at home in two different places, just as we might be part of two beloved families. In the past and today, some Ethical Culture Leaders also have Unitarian Universalist credentials; some, in the absence of Ethical Societies, have joined or attend Unitarian Universalist churches or Quaker meetings. Because there are more Unitarian Universalist churches than Ethical Societies, I find myself speaking in their churches more than in Ethical Societies—but I always preach Ethical Culture! That is, the centrality of ethics and our duty to become better people in a better society. And since they invite me back, I think they like what they hear.

In fact, many of the people in the UU churches where I preach would be at home in an Ethical Society, and many Ethical Society members could be at home in those largely humanist UU churches. Some of the cousins will be comfortable or uncomfortable in one or another of the family’s congregations, finding some too religious or not religious enough, some too Christian or too Jewish or some not Christian or Jewish enough. Some will sing too much, some too little, some will be too “touchy-feely,” others too stark and devoid of feeling.

Some of us would feel at home in the house of only one of the cousins, but many people, in our American culture of religious choice and change, might be drawn to us if they felt comfortable in our houses.

The variety of ways of being together in the larger liberal religious and humanist family suggests that there can be many ways for Ethical Culture to express itself. The challenge of building a healthy and effective Ethical Movement lies less in distinguishing our beliefs from our neighbors than in finding ways to express them with the oomph needed to make them a life force. We excel at being a head religion. Can we also become a religion of the warmed heart?

I think that Ethical Culture can express itself in more than one way. We have our traditional format—and as a person who talks in front of congregations, I like it—but it is not the only format that can present Ethical Culture. In “Why The Ethical Movement Is So Small And What We Can Do About It,” a 1987 platform address, Joseph Chuman proposed borrowing from traditional faiths those elements that could be appropriated consonant with Ethical Culture’s traditional rationality and outer direction. Our commitment to an intellectually rigorous approach does not preclude developing “a stronger ceremonial life” that touches deep, non-rational chords [Joseph Chuman, “Why The Ethical Movement Is So Small And What We Can Do About It,” a platform address, July, 1987, in his Speaking of Ethics: Living a Humanist Life, (2013), pp. 256-63.].

This is not unheard of in Ethical Culture, although for a period we resisted the call. Felix Adler advocated festivals and he and Percival Chubb and other Leaders developed ceremonies for various occasions. Chubb also wrote hymns, three of which, along with a musical setting of an Adler poem and text by George E. Odell, are found in the current Unitarian Universalist Association hymnal [Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press), 1993.]. In 1955 we even published a songbook, We Sing of Life in cooperation with the Unitarian Association. The initial idea was to publish readings interspersed among the songs, but according to Vincent B. Sillman, who compiled the volume along with AEU religious education director Florence Klaber, Ethical Leaders did not receive the idea well:

In my exceedingly limited experience, Ethical Leaders seem to be a songless tribe. At any rate, on one occasion it was my assignment to present some of the songs at a meeting of the Fraternity of Ethical Leaders. I assumed that to get acquainted with the songs, they would join me in singing them; but not one of them did. While I was working with the songs, I was also collecting and developing other service materials, including responsive readings, which at one point I scattered in otherwise blank spaces among the songs. The Ethical leadership was horrified at this, and practically disowned Florence Klaber for allowing such a thing [Vincent B. Silliman, “Hymnbook Reminiscences and Reflections” (The Berry Street Essay, 1977). Noted musicologist Irving Lowens was the third collaborator. Accessed 10/8/2018. The readings were published separately as We Speak of Life.].

These two books have disappeared from our use, a move perhaps hastened by the decision to print the text in calligraphy rather than standard type, but they reflected the interest in moving beyond the platform address and some music that was growing in the Movement by the 1950s. Looking back at this period from the late 1960s, our historian Howard Radest noted meditation and silence in meetings as “regressive trends” and found “a genuine possibility that the movement might enter too comfortably into the religious cultus of the period …” [Toward Common Ground, p. 303.]. Presumably, Dr. Radest was among the silent Leaders at Sillman’s presentation.

Since my involvement with the Ethical Movement in the 1960s, Societies (as well as Leaders) have become more comfortable with group singing and ceremonies that set off the time together by ringing a bell or lighting a candle. Some Societies publicly share joys and sorrows and some have developed marvelous festivals to commemorate seasonal change as well as such events as Darwin Day [Emily Newman, “How Does Your Society Celebrate Season?” AEU Dialogue, Winter 2015.].

These developments would have been anathema to the “hard” humanists who were at one time common in the Ethical Movement, and are still to be found, and they, too, have a claim on our common life. Which raises the question of how wide a range of congregational experience can Ethical Culture accommodate. Can we have our equivalent of High Church and Low Church congregations? While our Movement has never been anti-religious, is there room for a more “secular” approach to Ethical Culture in some Societies?

Are we fairly uniform in our approach because we are small, or are we small because we are uniform? Evolution teaches that adaptation and variability are keys to survival. We have slowly evolved from the public lecture of the 19th century to what we have today, and are on the cusp of forms that have not yet been created or that we can borrow and adapt from others. We have become a much richer Movement, I believe, by widening our range of practices. Technology and the society’s increasing pluralism give us unprecedented opportunity to look the range of styles that support and deepen our substance. I am sure that this range of style includes things that would not find to my taste, but which would enrich our experience and broaden our reach.

Could there be an Ethical Culture revival meeting? Could we ask people to come forward and commit to respecting the worth and dignity of the individual? Most likely, not for our current members. But might there one day be an intellectually and emotionally intense gathering for those out there who have never heard of Ethical Culture but might be reached? Time will tell. The one thing I am certain of is that our substance can find life in many styles.

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