Humanist Spirituality: Does the concept of spirituality have any relevance to contemporary Ethical Culture, and if so, how?
Of the hot-button words at the Washington Ethical Society, where I serve, “spirituality” might be one of the hottest. But not because everyone universally dislikes it—disliked words are easy to handle, we just don’t use them because we don’t find they add to our conversation. No, the challenge with the word “spirituality” is that some people find it triggering, reminding them of a religious past that they chose to leave behind…some people find it irrelevant, describing something they don’t relate to at all…and some people find it deeply meaningful, offering a way to talk about the experiences of awe and mystery that shape their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed, as people have debated the term spirituality over the years, is that almost no one is really clear on what we mean by spirituality. For some folks, spirituality implies an experience with the supernatural. For others, it’s more about that idea of mystery, no matter where the mystery comes from (for Ethical Culturists, the mystery is often found in the night sky or in a beautiful forest grove). So whenever I do venture into the “land of hot-button words” and talk about spirituality, I try to start by defining it.
For me, spirituality is a felt experience, about the inward feeling of being connected beyond ourselves or of being emotionally moved in a deep way. I went to a Methodist seminary, and although most of Methodist theology doesn’t resonate for me, I do like the way its founder, John Wesley, described his peak spiritual experience: he said his heart was “strangely warmed.” Have you ever felt that? A feeling that you can’t quite describe or be sure of its source, perhaps. For me, my heart is often “strangely warmed” when I’m at a rally, looking around at the people gathered to create change in the world. Or when we are singing together, or when we dedicate our babies to the care of the congregation. I can’t predict when it will happen, but I can identify it when I feel it.
Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, often described these feelings—that I would call spiritual—as spiritual! Indeed his whole concept of the “ethical manifold,” the kind of net or thread of life that connects each person to each other person, is essentially a felt, spiritual experience. But Adler didn’t expect all of his followers to have those same experiences. He was clear that being part of Ethical Culture, at its core, didn’t require belief in or experience of the spiritual aspects that were meaningful for him. In that “platform broad enough for worshipper and infidel” (my favorite words from Adler’s Founding Address in 1876), we could be part of working for justice together no matter what we felt.
I do fundamentally believe that people experience that feeling of spirituality differently. For some people it’s a core part of who we are, while for others it just doesn’t feel like a “big deal” or perhaps we couldn’t identify feeling it even once in our lives. I suspect that’s one reason why the word has such a variety of reactions to it in the Ethical Society…because we personally experience a range of spiritual feelings.
As with everything, I’m most interested in how we act—how what we believe and what we feel leads us to behave in the world. For me, those feelings of my heart strangely warmed are integral to the way I show up in leadership and just as a human being. For others, having a “spiritual” experience may rank very low on the list of motivating factors for action. Our Movement is big enough for all of us; Adler designed it that way and we have the privilege of living into that vision. So use whatever word fits for you, I say, and share with each other how you feel and what energizes and engages you. I’ll be over here with a warmed heart.
Click an author to read another response