Felix Adler on Spirituality

Humanist Spirituality: Does the concept of spirituality have any relevance to contemporary Ethical Culture, and if so, how?

Excerpted and summarized by Jone Johnson Lewis — In the early 20th century, a series of four of his lectures were published under the title “Essentials of Spirituality.” From the tone of the lectures, I imagine that he was challenged to “bring down to earth” his philosophy of ethical idealism. In the introductory essay, he begins by saying this about the topic of this edition of the journal:

The first essential is an awakening, a sense of the absence of spirituality, the realized need of giving to our lives a new and higher quality; first there must be the hunger before there can be the satisfaction.

Similar effects are often produced by widely differing processes. In the psychical world that quality which we call spirituality may be associated with and evoked by Theism, or the belief in a Divine Father; by Pantheism, as in the case of Spinoza, whose face at the very first glance impresses you with its spiritual cast; or even by the Buddhist belief in Nirvana. It may also be attained by following the precepts and striving after the ideals of Ethical Culture. For spirituality is not indissolubly associated with any one type of religion or philosophy; it is a quality of soul manifesting itself in a variety of activities and beliefs.

Before we proceed further, however, we must hazard a definition of the word. In the region of mental activity which is called the spiritual life vagueness is apt to prevail, the outlines of thought are apt to be blurred, the feelings aroused are apt to be indistinct and transitory. The word ‘spiritual’ becomes a synonym of muddy thought and misty emotionalism. 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. We shall endeavor, however, to attach a distinct and definite meaning to the word. Mere definition, however, is too abstract and nakedly intellectual. Perhaps a description of some types of character, combined with definition, will be the better way.

Adler then describes something about the lives of Savonarola (Roman Catholic monk, reformer, ruler), George Washington (as “master builder of a nation”), Lincoln (a brief mention), John Howard (prison reformer), and George Peabody (philanthropist contributing “to bettering the housing of the poor and to multiplying and improving schools”). He continues:

To be a prophet or the lawgiver of a nation is not within your province and mine. For such a task hardly one among millions has the opportunity or the gifts. To be liberators of their country has been accorded in all the ages thus far covered by human history to so small a number of men that one might count them on the fingers of a single hand. Even to be philanthropists on a large scale is the restricted privilege of a very few. But to lead the spiritual life is possible to you and me if we choose to do so. The best is within the reach of all, or it would not be the best. Every one is permitted to share life’s highest good.

The spiritual life, then, may be described by its characteristic marks of serenity, a certain inwardness, and a measure of saintliness. By the latter we are not to understand merely the aspiration after virtue or after a lofty ideal, still pursued and still eluding, but to a certain extent the embodiment of this ideal in the life—virtue become a normal experience like the inhalation and exhalation of breath! Moreover, the spiritually-minded seem always to be possessed of a great secret. This air of interior knowledge, of the perception of that which is hidden from the uninitiated, is a common mark of all refinement, aesthetic as well as moral….

Constituted as we are, there exist for us lower and higher ends. This distinction is fundamental for ethics. Food is necessary; without it we cannot live. But the getting of food—however necessary—is a lower end. Knowledge is a necessary end, and a higher one. The practical moral ends, such as the reformation of prisons, the improvement of the dwellings of the poor, are yet higher ends. But above all these is the highest end, that of moral completeness, of perfection, not in one particular but in every particular. Spirituality consists in always keeping in view this supreme end. The spiritually-minded person is one who regards whatever he undertakes from the point of view of its hindering or furthering his attainment of the supreme end. If a river had a consciousness like the human consciousness, we might imagine that it hears the murmur of the distant sea from the very moment when it leaves its source, and that the murmur grows clearer and clearer as the river flows on its way, welcoming every tributary it receives as adding to the volume which it will contribute to the sea, rejoicing at every turn and bend in its long course that brings it nearer to its goal. Such is the consciousness of a spiritually-minded human being.

The essay continues with Adler’s description of the conditions of the spiritual life. These are summarized in the first sentence of this closing paragraph of his essay:

The spiritual life depends on self-recollection and detachment from the rush of life; it depends on facing frankly the thought of death; it is signalized, especially, by the identification of self with others, even of the guiltless with the guilty. Spirituality is sometimes spoken of as if it were a kind of moral luxury, a work of supererogation, a token of fastidiousness and over-refinement. It is nothing of the sort. Spirituality is simply morality carried to its farthest bounds; it is not an airy bauble of the fancy, it is of “the tough fiber of the human heart.”