by Felix Adler, from Adler’s “The Religion of Duty” Chapter Ten (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905)
Note: language has not been modernized.
For nearly two thousand years the Christian Church has existed in the world fulfilling its beneficent function. No one can fail to see that the power of the Church among large numbers in many communities is today diminishing, or has already ceased. Can the world get on without any institution like the Church? Is there needed some equivalent of it? If some substitute is needed, then how far can an Ethical Society fulfill that need?
It is evident that there are points of likeness between an Ethical Society and the churches, and I wish to dwell upon some of these points of likeness. There is the external fact, to begin with, that the Ethical Society assembles on Sunday morning, at the hour when the church bells ring. Nor is this a mere coincidence. At present there are many persons who no longer pay heed to the summons of these bells. The busy professional man, for instance, is apt to bring home on Saturday night the overflow of the week’s work. He looks forward to the quiet Sunday morning with anticipation, determined to clear the way for a fresh start on Monday morning. Even the merchant, and, increasingly, the workingmen in large cities cease to think of Sunday as anything more than a day of rest. The strain of work has become so excessive that mere rest is naturally regarded as one of the greatest boons.
Then there are the claims of the home! The father of the family finds that Sunday is almost the only day in the week when he can unreservedly devote himself to his children, and what better way of spending the Sunday can there be than that? Admitting the force of these contentions, nevertheless, the custom of meeting together in public assembly for the consideration of the most serious, the most exalted topics of human interest is too vitally precious to be lost. Rest is, indeed, important; but a change in the direction of one’s attention is often better than absolute rest, and after almost the entire week has been given up to breadwinning occupations, it cannot but be felt as a liberation of the brain and heart alike, to devote a part of Sunday to the disinterested things in life, the large ideals. Nor will the children be defrauded in this way. For if the Sunday service at all fulfills its purpose the impressions received will import a finer flavor, an atmosphere of elevation into the home, by which both parents and children will be infinitely the gainers. The Ethical Society, therefore, is like a Church in maintaining, and emphasizing the importance of maintaining the custom of public assemblies on Sunday.
The Ethical Society is like a Church in solemnizing marriage, and investing with dignity and sacred significance the last rites over the beloved dead. Those occasions in life when new ties are formed, as in marriage, and when old ties are severed, as in times of bereavement, need an interpreter. None is satisfied with the cold, formal words of a magistrate who expresses merely the legal side of the marriage relation; nor, on sad occasions, is any one content with the mere broken utterances of a friend. The formation of ties and the severance of ties ought to produce profound moral changes in the persons affected; and the Ethical Society, through its representatives, seeks to interpret these changes. It seeks to interpret them by drawing into view the sacredness in the human relations, the sacredness inherent in them, not borrowed or imported into them from beyond.
Again the Church has ever been the center of good works, a reservoir from which the stream of charity has been distributed in manifold channels throughout the social organism. The Ethical Society aims to be a Church in the same sense. For a long time it was believed that only a Church teaching a distinct creed could support charity. The Ethical Society seeks to demonstrate, and if I may be pardoned for saying so, I think it has, to a certain extent, demonstrated that this is a mistake; that a creedless Church, a Church for the unchurched, may be no less effective in the same direction.
But it may be asked why there must be Churches, or substitutes for Churches, to sustain the charities of the world? Why cannot we get on perfectly well with the secular societies, charity organizations, societies for the prevention of cruelty, and like organizations, of which there are now so many. These charitable institutions have no connection with any church. What need, then, of churches to keep up the world’s charities? The answer is that these secular societies are excellent, but that we need the churches, or the substitutes for the Church, as a hearth at which the spirit of charity may be kindled, in which the motives may be engendered that shall lead men to charitable action. Otherwise these secular societies will become mechanical, and formalistic to a degree. A system of electric transportation cannot be operated without power, there must be powerhouses in which the electric fluid is generated. So the Church, or the institution that takes its place, is designed to be a powerhouse in which the electric fluid that moves the world’s charities shall be generated.
In the next place, the Church has been a school of moral idealism. The Ethical Society aims to be that and only that, and to advance upon the Church in the single-minded pursuit of moral ideals. For if we call the Church a school of moral idealism, if we recognize its high character as an agent of moral good, we cannot on the other hand forget, much as we would like to forget them, the moral evils for which the Church is accountable, the persecutions, the bitter fanaticism’s, the religious wars with all the atrocities attendant on them. These are facts and cannot be ignored, however much we would like to ignore them. True, there is also another and different set of facts. The new spirit of brotherhood that Christianity brought into the world; the self-sacrifice so often displayed by Christians, especially in times of pestilence, in bringing comfort to the bedside of the sick and dying; the consecrated devotion of the missionaries, for instance, the missionaries of the Island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, which I lately visited, who went out there in the darkness, the storm and the bleakness to carry their religion, and with it civilization, to savage tribes. It seems to me that if we wish to be fair we must be willing to see both sets of facts; and we must furthermore recognize that, apart from exceptional examples of moral heroism, the Church has infused its moral influence into the lives of ordinary men and women, teaching them strict standards of personal rectitude and purity. I think that the chief reason why there have been those enormities to which reference has been made, is to be found in the presupposition that no one can be good, or earnestly strive for goodness, who has not previously accepted a certain formula of faith. Hence quarrels about the right belief followed; and it became inevitable that men should hate and persecute those whom they suspected of entertaining the wrong belief. The moving principle of the Church has been the desire to save men morally, to save them from sin, and it was only because rightness of belief was deemed indispensable that churchmen became persecutors. But all the more is it necessary to profit by the lessons of the past, to extract from religion this poison of dogmatism; and this leads me to the consideration of the point in which the Ethical Society differs from the Church.
We do not say that creed is unimportant. On the contrary one should try to think out his own creed. But no one should attempt to force his creed upon others. A common creed should not be the bound of fellowship. Rather should it be clearly understood that morality is independent of creeds. Not that a creed after it has been formulated does not react on morality, but the obligation to strive after the good is inherent in man, is a part of his nature as a man; and a high and true belief is rather the outcome of the effort toward goodness than the indispensable, precedent condition of it. The Ethical Society, then, is an institution for saving men morally, for helping them to make this effort toward goodness, without having for its basis any accepted common formula or creed. The decisive importance of this deviation from the churches is obvious.
But if this be so, it will be objected, how is it possible to induce men to make the effort, there being no authority of book or creed to lean upon. The answer to that is that the method we must pursue is to put men in the midst of crowds. We may not rely on books, we must rely on men. Men who are themselves aflame with the desire for the good can kindle in others the same desire. What a man feels he can make others feel; what he sees he can make others see; when he supremely wills the right he can make others will it. Ethics is propagated just as art is. The artist is a man who loves the beautiful, and loves it so much that he can make others love it; who sees the beautiful and can open the eyes of others to see it. So morality is propagated.
But apart from the contagious effect of any example, what is the authority of these personalities? Their authority is the authority of their experience. What we want is men of the world. Not, of course, in the common meaning of that phrase, for that is misleading. A man of the world is commonly understood to be one who knows human nature on its mean side, who knows the selfishness of it, and can take advantage of it, knows all the wickedness, knows to what depths man may sink when the bestial part of him comes uppermost, and when, just because he is a rational being, he is apt to become fouler in his ways than any animal. The man of the world is one who has no “illusions” left. But such a man is not a true man of the world at all, because he knows only half the world. He does not know the possibilities of goodness, the infinite delicacies of moral thought and feeling, the sublime dramas that are often enacted in the humblest lives, dramas or tragedies, that have none the less their climaxes of divine compensation. A true man of the world is a man who knows both sides. But one cannot appreciate both sides unless by experience he knows the good side. A man who knows the good can also estimate the bad, but a man who knows only the bad cannot properly estimate the good.
The personalities who are to influence society, who are to be put into the midst of crowds, the men we want must be men who speak with the authority of experience; who know the good, and know that it is infinitely worth while, and that it is the only thing in life that is worth while; and who know this at first hand, know it not from any Bible or creed, but as the most real fact in the world, as a fact of their own truest and inmost experience.
With the help of such men, we may hope to make of an Ethical Culture Society a school of moral idealism, without any formulated creed, with no formula imposed, which may be accepted today and rejected tomorrow; with no intellectual fetters of any kind. Every one is free to come to the Ethical Society, provided he comes in the right spirit, realizing that his moral education is not yet finished, the he is in need of further moral development. I do not indeed agree with the orthodox Church in the statement that there is no moral health in man, that he is a being absolutely depraved. We have made some gains, we have traveled some distance on the moral road; but we need more strength, more light.
And there are two objects to which the Ethical Society is particularly consecrated. The one is to help people do the good they already know, to square their practice with the theory they already possess; and help them not merely by hortatory methods, by appeals from the pulpit and the platform; but also by such scientific methods as modern pedagogy places at our command. I find that young men are going to perdition everyday, simply because they have never been morally trained; that men and women are making miserable mess of their lives, in marriage for instance, simply because they have never been morally disciplined. The employment of training and discipline, therefore, for adults as well as the young, as a means of morally strengthening them, that is of enabling them to do the good they already know, is one of the objects of the Ethical Society.
But the other object is in a way even more important. It is to gain additional light as to what is right. There never was a greater mistake made than that of Matthew Arnold, when he said that the knowledge of duty is a simple matter; that every one knows what the right is, and that the only difficulty is to do the thing that we recognize as right. On the contrary, one of the greatest sources of disorder at the present time is uncertainty as to the standard, lack of a clear perception of the line of duty, absence of moral light. We need light on the great social problems of the day; we need to see far more distinctly than we do, what are the duties of employers to employees, and conversely; we need to see far more distinctly than we do, what ought of right to be the relations of the social classes, and also what ought of right to be the relations of men and women to one another, now that women claim and properly claim equality of opportunity with men. And what does the higher patriotism require of the citizen, and how is patriotism to be reconciled with cosmopolitanism? On these and a hundred other questions we need more light; and we shall never get it unleash we are impressed with the importance of getting it, unless we feel so deeply the necessity of coming into right relations with others that we shall constantly make the effort to get into such relations. And through the effort we shall be taught. By groping towards a new social justice, we shall gradually find our way to it; by moving forward at any cost, we shall gradually discern more plainly the goal towards which we are moving.
The question is often raised nowadays, what is it that makes life worth living. This question, to my mind, almost argues a moral defect in those who put it. Life is worth living to him who has worth; life is worth living whether it be happy or otherwise, whether it be bright with pleasures or dark with adversity, for the purpose of adding to the moral worth of him who lives it. And we add to our moral worth in two ways; by living rightly, according to the light we already have, and by constantly seeking for new light. Yes, and I add, the latter is even the condition of the former; and in the moral world as elsewhere, he who does not advance retrogrades, he who does not conquer new ground loses the ground he has already covered; from him who has not the new light shall be taken away even the light he already has.
These are the tasks which the Ethical Society sets itself. In virtue of these tasks, it is an institution as sacred to its members as any Church. Its public exercises indeed are simple, and are lacking in the charm and grace possessed by older institutions. Perhaps we may hope that in the future it will acquire a grace of its own, a seemliness in externals in which it is now deficient. But be that as it may, there is at all events a religious conception underlying the Ethical Society, a religious purpose informing it. For it seeks to help men to realize the infinite content in their finite existence, to hold up to them ideals of conduct which are competent to give power to the will and peace to the heart.
The following extract from a Statement recently published by Dr. Adler is here subjoined, to show the relation of his religion to the aims of the Ethical Societies. No one who reads this book will fail to perceive how much the author’s religion means to him, and how earnestly intent he is on propagating it; and yet the Ethical Societies, of which he was the founder, are not committed to Dr. Adler’s religion, and he himself has always been most solicitous that they should not be.
We have here the singular example of a religious teacher profoundly devoted to his religious belief, eager to make converts to it, and yet insisting that it shall not become the basis of fellowship in “the Church of the unchurched”, of which he is the founder. The reasons that have influenced him are indicated in the last chapter of this book, and in the following extract:
The one characteristic mark of the Ethical Society is, that a common creed is not the condition of fellowship, is not the basis of union. We are united, but by other means and by an agreement of a totally different nature.
But great stress is to be laid on the fact that we are united; we do work together in a common spirit and for definite ends. The question for any one who would pass judgment on us to consider is not whether such a thing as a religious society without a common creed is feasible; on the face of it many might be tempted to say that it is not, that such a thing never has been and never can be. But to this we simply reply that we are a religious society, that we bury the dead, that we consecrate the marriage bond, that we support a Sunday school, etc., and that we have done all this to the greater or less satisfaction of a considerable body of people for more than twenty eight years. The question is not whether theoretically such societies are possible, but seeing that they exist, to understand the common spirit that animates them, the bond of union which holds them together.
What, then, is this bond of union? If you have no common creed, an inquirer may ask, have you a common philosophy, are you Spencerians, Kantians, etc.? Without expatiating on this point, we shall, it seems, have to dispose of it in the same manner as above. Some of us have no gift and no inclination for philosophical thinking, others who have the gift are encouraged to employ it and to work toward a philosophical system which shall satisfy their intellectual needs. An agreement, however, on philosophical first principles is not enforced or expected. Here again it is believed that unfettered liberty is best, and that such liberty is incompatible with exacting, as the condition of membership in an Ethical Society, assent to any philosophical form, however broad.
The basis of union is the sense of a common need, a keenly-realized desire to get away from bad ways of living, and at least to approximate toward better ways of living. We have the conviction that for the solution of the grave and tangled problems which beset us as individuals and society generally, more light is needed as well as more fervor, more light than is shed by the Old Testament or the New, more light than is furnished by any philosophical system of the past; and in the greatness of our need, we have the courage to seek such light. We have the conviction, that in matters relating to conduct, truth is found by trying; and that while a man may “err so long as he strives,” yet it is by continuing to strive that he will correct his errors, and only by venturing forth in untried directions that he can discover new truth. The Ethical Culture Society, therefore, may be described as a society dedicated to moral striving.
But there is this to be added, that the common search and effort are dependent on agreement in at least one fundamental particular. We are agreed that the thing we search for is the thing which we cannot afford to do without; we are agreed that the attempt to live in right relations, to realize what is called righteousness, to approximate toward the ideal of holiness, is that which alone gives worth to human life. And it is in the name of this ideal of holiness that we exercise our religious functions. In its name we consecrate the marriage bond; the marriage relation itself is intrinsically holy, apart from any benediction or sanctification from the outside; it is this intrinsic holiness of the relation that we accentuate in the ceremony. In the name of the same ideal we bury the dead; the sacredness of human life and the eternal ends to which it is consecrated, are the underlying text of the words we speak at the brink of the grave. By the same ideal, we seek to console the afflicted, urging them to turn their sufferings to account as means of growth and moral development. And finally, it is the same thought of the divine content possible to every human life here and now, which we seek to impress upon the young in our Sunday school and in our day schools.
And after all there is a certain definite view of life underlying the Ethical Movement. As every religion has taught a fundamental conception of life, and has gained strength by so doing, so we, too, are teaching a certain fundamental conception, the conception namely, that progress in right living is the paramount aim and end of life; that right thinking and right believing are important only as they lead to right living, and that the thinking and believing must approve themselves to be right by their fruits in conduct.
Is such an undertaking as ours likely to prove permanent, is the common spirit that now unites us likely to last, or will it be disintegrated by those differences of thought and feeling which more and more are likely to emerge in the future? That will depend on the energy with which we hold fast to the common aim. In the cognate sphere of Science, we see that devotion to truth is a sufficient bond. Theories of what is true have their day. They come and go, leave their deposit in the common stock of knowledge, and are supplanted by other more convincing theories. The thinkers and investigators of the world are pledged to no special theory, but feel themselves free to search for the greater truth beyond the utmost limits of present knowledge. So likewise in the field of moral truth, it is our hope, that men in proportion as they grow more enlightened, will learn to hold their theories and their creeds more loosely, and will none the less, nay, rather all the more be devoted to the supreme end of practical righteousness to which all theories and creeds must be kept subservient.
There are two purposes then which we have in view: To secure in the moral and religious life perfect intellectual liberty, and at the same time to secure concert in action. There shall be no shackles upon the mind, no fetters imposed in early youth which the growing man or woman may feel prevented from shaking off, no barrier set up which daring thought may not transcend. And on the other hand there shall be unity of effort, the unity that comes of an end supremely prized and loved, the unity of earnest, morally aspiring persons, engaged in the conflict with moral evil.