Humanist Spirituality: Does the concept of spirituality have any relevance to contemporary Ethical Culture, and if so, how?
“You can’t improvise on nothin’ man, . . . You gotta improvise on somethin’.”
–Charles Mingus [Quoted in Steven Fesmire, John Dewey & Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003, p. 96.]
“You can’t be spiritual about nothin’ man. You’ve gotta be spiritual about somethin’.”
Okay, the second quote was not by Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture. But it is something that he and all the great writers on spirituality, ancient, and modern, have said in their own ways.
The pairing of Adler with the jazz great is appropriate, however, because the ethical life has an element of jazz in it. It has rules, but is not simply about rules. It is a constant interplay of values, experience, intentions, successes, and failures. But it has to have an animating idea from the start, and it needs a strong drive to propel it forward, something to give it life. Adler called that animating idea several things, including “things ultimate” [Felix Adler, The Essentials of Spirituality. New York: James Pott & Co., 1905, p. 12.]. A good word for the propulsive force, one that Adler used, is spirituality
“Spirituality” can be a tough word for us, both for what is seems to say and for what it doesn’t say. On the one hand, it has theistic associations, which don’t comport with our naturalistic and humanistic worldview; and on the other hand, it is often so vague as to be meaningless. Probably every Ethical Culture Leader has been told by a couple planning a wedding ceremony, “We don’t want a religious ceremony, we want something spiritual.” Adler complained about the “vagueness” and “muddy thought and misty emotionalism” associated with the word, and wrote “If there were another word in the language to take its place, it would be well to use it. But there is not. We must use the word spiritual, despite its associations and its abuse” [Felix Adler, The Essentials of Spirituality, p. 2.].
And use it he did. Adler wholeheartedly supported the concept of spirituality, writing two books with spirituality in their titles, and referring to it in other books and numerous addresses. He described the goal of spirituality and offered practices for building a spiritual life. His language was often old fashioned even in his day, but I find him still meaningful, inspiring, and useful.
Today’s Ethical Culture Leaders do not define “spirituality” in quite the same way as Adler did, but have taken Adler’s concepts and given them life in today’s naturalistic, humanistic Ethical Culture. As in so many things, Adler’s strong foundation still serves Ethical Culture, even if what we build on is in a different style.
Despite our different words and concepts, we have the same task today that Adler addressed at the beginning of the 20th century. It is, in fact, the same task that thoughtful writers on spirituality have long addressed. In The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal, Adler quoted the late medieval mystic, Thomas à Kempis:
Without the truth there is no knowing
Without the way there is no going.
[Felix Adler, The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (reprint, Ethical Press, n.pl, n.d.), p. 169. Originally delivered as the Hibbert Lectures, Manchester College, Oxford, 1923.]
Readers of this journal have a different truth and their way is not the same as those of this 15th-century Christian, but the wisdom of his couplet applies to us. We need to know where we are going—what is our ideal or truth—and what path we will take to get there.
Defining My Truth
My religious life does not focus on heaven or union with the godhead or nirvana. I do not expect a life beyond death. I want to enhance my time on earth, to make it better for others and for myself. I want to be a good person, kind to my fellow human beings and to our natural world. My faith assumption (that is, my Truth) is that if I behave in certain ways, I can accomplish this.
One way of accomplishing this is to feel, in Adler’s phrase, the “consciousness of infinite interrelatedness” [Felix Adler, An Ethical Philosophy of Life, Presented in Its Main Outlines. New York: Ethical Press reprint, 1986, p. 203. Originally published 1918.]. I see this as the key element of my humanist spirituality. I want to feel a greater, deeper connection with humanity and with nature. I want to feel the conviction that all humans, including myself, are creatures of worth and dignity. We humans form an interdependent web of unique individuals. I am part of the whole, but a discreet, individual part. This sense of infinite interrelatedness also extends to the nonhuman parts of the natural world. Furthermore, this sense of infinite interrelatedness is not just an idea that I hold, but a truth I want to live.
But important as this “consciousness of infinite interrelatedness” is, as much as I declare it one of my truths, it is not the goal of my spiritual quest. My goal is the behavior that this consciousness inspires. In other words, this Truth should guide and be visible in my behavior. It indicates whether or not I am on my Way.
These truths inform my knowing. Now, what is the Way that enables my going?
Finding Our Humanist Way
I find remarkable agreement across religious lines over the centuries—despite lots of disagreement, of course—that the central element of spiritual practice comes down to two words: Pay Attention. Sages prescribed practices that called for attentiveness to their Way. These practices can be ends in themselves, but if we pay attention, they not only increase our capacity to pursue our Truth but to let us know when we are either on or straying from the path that takes us where we want to go. Maybe we will discover new pathways. But we must pay attention.
For us, of course, this is an earthly journey. While I might look to the starry skies to awaken my sense of awe, I don’t look to the metaphoric heavens for inspiration or direction. I look around me, and to my fellow human beings and to the natural world, for guidance and inspiration. In the words of Edward L. Ericson, onetime Leader of the Washington and New York Ethical Societies (and author of The Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion), “we . . . seek the roots of the spiritual here, in our time and relationships, in our common life, in the world in which we are born” [Edward L. Ericson, “Human Sources of Spiritual Strength,” Platform Address, October 8, 1978.].
I am no Thomas à Kempis or other devotional master, but I have four suggestions for going on the humanist way. They are not unique to us (as I said above, there is agreement through the ages) but can they work for us. Since human relationships are a central part of my religious faith, how do I give them expression in my ordinary, daily life?
With this in mind, here are four, overlapping suggestions for traveling the Humanist Way. (Although I have used the term “the Humanist Way,” since there are many humanist ways, I could also have written “a humanist way.”)
First, take Ethical Culture out of the meetinghouse and reinforce your belief in interrelatedness with daily rituals. We don’t light Sabbath candles, observing dietary laws (except those of us who are vegetarians and vegans), or have household altars. But we could have an “at-home” spirituality. Over thirty years ago, my wife, daughter, and I began briefly holding hands before eating. We originally sang a little song. We soon dispensed with the song, but Eileen and I continue our moment of handholding, sometimes accompanied by a few words and a squeeze of the hand. We do this when it is just the two of us; we do it when we have guests. Even if we have a hurried meal before rushing to an evening activity, we sanctify that time by affirming our human connection.
Second, stop and think about what you’re doing and what it means to you. In more exalted terms, we can again turn to Adler:
The prime condition is to acquire the habit of…detaching one’s self from one’s accustomed interests and pursuits, becoming, as it were, a spectator of one’s self and one’s doings, escaping from the sweeping current and standing on the shore. For this purpose it is advisable to consecrate certain times, preferably a certain time each day, to self-reflection . . . to seeing one’s life in all it’s relations;…
[Felix Adler, The Essentials of Spirituality, p. 11.]
Another way of saying this is to live consciously. Daily life is a spiritual experience to those who are awake to the fact that their lives are the expression of their faith. Every day offers multiple opportunities to acknowledge the worth of the people around you, from intimates, to coworkers, even to the panhandler on the street. This doesn’t mean that you have a deep relationship with every passerby, but it means that you treat everybody with respect. You can recognize another person’s humanity in even brief interactions—or you can treat them as nonentities. Only the former will keep you on your spiritual path.
Third, remember that it’s not all about you. You are cultivating your ethical personality but ethics is not a solitary activity. To quote Adler again, “Spirituality depends upon our tutoring ourselves to regard the welfare of others—moral as well as external—as much our concern as our own” [Felix Adler, The Essentials of Spirituality, p. 22.]. You are on a spiritual journey, but in our religion of interrelatedness, you cannot travel alone.
Fourth, rules can help. It’s not all improvisation! I don’t always think about exalted concepts such infinite interrelatedness as I go through my day. I doubt that anyone can, and in any event, such a concept, while it might give you a feeling to aspire to, does not give direction. As this essay shows, I’m moved by abstractions, but I’m moved by the concrete even more. In that quest for concreteness and direction, I find Adler’s Supreme Ethical Rule a crucial guide: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in yourself.” It supports our uppercase Truth, but its chief value is that it keeps me on our Way.
Down and Dirty and Feeling Spiritual
Finally, this humanist way is effective. As you cultivate your spiritual life—through focus, and practice, and awareness—you might begin to see more about yourself and about your society. Part of our spiritual growth is learning to perceive what is before us. One morning, I had a spiritual “aha” moment of the kind described by Edward Ericson, who defined “the spiritual life” as “simply human life in its more dazzling moments of self-realization” [Edward L. Ericson, “Human Sources of Spiritual Strength,” Platform Address, October 8, 1978.].
My “dazzling moment of self-realization” came after a long Saturday morning with other neighborhood association volunteers—men, women, black-, white-, gay-, and straight-people—loading alley trash onto trucks. I was exhausted and dirty, but I felt enhanced, even uplifted. Eileen and I settled in this neighborhood because we value diversity and integration and the richness of people of different backgrounds building mutually enhancing lives. I realized that I was not only participating in such a society, I was calling it into existence.
That morning I had achieved some of that connection—that interrelatedness—for which I strive. I felt what Kate Lovelady (now Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis Ethical Society) and members of the North Carolina Society described as “what a spiritual state feels like ”
[I]t’s a state in which we sense the invisible connections between others, and ourselves and between nature and ourselves. It’s a feeling . . . ‘that everything is right and I’m in my right place.’ It’s a moment when we experience awe and wonder and a sense of meaning.
[Kate Lovelady, “Feeling Spiritual,” in Anthology of Recent Platform Addresses by Ethical Culture Leaders. New York: American Ethical Union, 2003, p. 82.]
I didn’t do the work in order to have this feeling. I did it so my neighborhood would have clean alleys. The feeling was a bonus. But that moment of spiritual insight told me that I was on the right path, that I was walking the Humanist Way.
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