The Millennium is a human artifact and we can make what we want of it: Computer gridlock, the Return of Christ, the rise of the Beast from the Abyss, an alien/earthling encounter, big time party time, or a time to take stock. I’m choosing the last, and asking for a check-up on Ethical Culture. What’s the diagnosis on our growth potential?
When we face it without denial, the answer is a shocker. Our growth potential over 120 years had been almost nil. Compared with other religious bodies that date from the 19th century, we are minuscule. Consider some comparisons:
- Unitarians (1825) — 1,000 churches; 140,000 members
- Mormons (1830) — 4-6 million members, 10 million globally
- Seventh Day Adventists (1844) — 775,000, with schools and hospitals worldwide. (One of my children was born in an SDA hospital in Guyana.)
- Ethical Culture (1876) — 20 societies; 3,000 members
- Jehovah’s Witnesses (1878) — 700,000 members
- Christian Science (1879) — 2,400 churches. No membership figures since 1936, when they claimed 250,000 members.
There are contemporary churches that could hold all of Ethical Culture — active members, shut-ins, friends — in one morning service! What may help us deny this colossal failure is that our top five Societies are thriving, and any denomination would be proud to have any one of them as a flagship in their area. But even they don’t show much growth over a test period of, say, 25 years. In 1977, St. Louis had 452 members, and in 1993, 430 members.
And there is little proliferation: In 10 years, Alder’s movement spread from New York to Chicago to Philadelphia to St. Louis. St. Louis (and the Statue of Liberty) date from 1886. In the 110 years since, there has not been one satellite in the vast mid-west. On the map, we find one 500-strong dot in St. Louis, in a Metropolitan area of 2 1/2 million, and one 100-strong dot in Chicago, in a Metropolitan area of 8 1/2 million. And that’s it! We don’t care enough to share enough. Or have what it takes.
The Ethical Movement has failed to claim more than a handful of people in a century of history. The issue has been addressed repeatedly by many of our thinkers and marketers. Adler tried in 1925. We sometimes claim that our message is a hard one, with no blandishments and religious comforts. We say it’s rarefied and doesn’t appeal to the masses. The latest twist is that the Meyers-Briggs cohort most characteristic of us is a minority group in the larger population. Of course, a lot depends on what we mean by a hard message. Ours is, comparatively, not hard in its requirement of commitment and discipline. My family once lived two doors from a family of Mormons, their eldest daughter a good friend of one of our daughters. We would see them driving their children to church school weekday mornings before taking them to high school! We took their daughter with us to Barbados for a vacation, and she had a Mormon church available to attend on the Sunday we were there. Further, in a recent survey of church giving, Mormons topped the list with 7% of their income, the Unitarians drew bottom place with 1%. Ethical Culturists give less than Unitarians, but were not listed.
Why, some ask, should we consider numbers important? They are not important, if you are part of a small group with a high profile of influence: A Fabian Society, a literary group at the Algonquin Hotel, or one of the famous salon groups that met in the Paris of Victor Hugo. They needed to be small. But we claim to be a religion to help all humanity live lives of greater compassion and justice. We have hardly made a dent. Numbers are important because we need to cross a certain critical mass, a certain threshold of membership, to have the resources to do outreach, to create organizations (schools, hospitals, retirement homes, camps), to produce publications. Even if we limit our mission statement to being educational, we have little to show for that.
And there is the matter of intensity. We dismiss those who get worked up about an eternal salvation or damnation. We supposedly have a more real and relevant message. But there is no urgency to it. Our kids are not going to devote 2 years post-high school to take it to the ends of the earth — or even to the corner of the block. We don’t have a hospital in Guyana or a church in Barbados on our outreach agenda.
I have a controversial theory as to why we have gone nowhere. It does not address strategies for growth, or marketing technology. It has to do with message. I believe that where rational humanism preponderates, there is no message for people at large. Those who embrace it as their predominating culture, become an intellectual ghetto.
This is not because rational humanism is bad in itself. I count myself a rationalist. I count myself a humanist. I bring a sizable skepticism to my processing of life, religion, and philosophy. But rationalism is inadequate by itself. It has no metaphysic of meaning, no cosmic consciousness to convey, no message of hope for those who suffer and mourn and are afraid. Despite the enormous and earth-transforming influence of modern science, from which rational humanism draws its Weltanschauung, rationalists have not been able to translate that worldview into an encompassing, morally transforming faith that teaches us a meaningful way to face life and tragedy and death, and to deal with the passages of life. The kind of thing that religion has provided.
A NEW QUEST
Some years ago I took a large share in our search for common philosophical ground among our Leaders. We produced a concept-map of Ethical Culture. Now I would call for a new quest: To build a
metaphysic or alternative metaphysics based on Adler’s insights into reality. To do
philosophy in the arena where Adler said it belonged: In face of sin, sorrow, and
I think we are afraid to do this for two reasons: (1) Because we are
not sure that the mental grid of our prevailing philosophy will allow us to achieve validity in
any other way than by scientific processing; and (2) Because anything that smacks of the transcendent and the metaphysical and the spiritual evokes such a knee-jerk opposition from the rationalists among us, still fighting Ingersoll’s 19th century battles, that we back away. But I believe that while rationalism prevails, Ethical Culture is going nowhere. Rationalism can debunk New Agers and Fundamentalists, but it has no answer to the major questions of life and death. It sees us as little more than cheerleaders for a good life (on which we have no monopoly), on our way to extinction.
I will not enlarge on the failures of rationalism. Suffice it to say, that (1) Freud noted that much reasoning is the rationalizing of feelings, that (2) reason is but one of the “7 kinds of smart” (Thomas Armstrong) that characterize human personality, that (3) the primal experiences (as Whitehead claimed) are emotional, that (4) thinking needs creative non-logical leaps to advance (as Edward de Bono and others have shown), and that (5) science, so successful elsewhere, is still lagging in helping us to develop our higher powers, to shape our cultural evolution, and to understand the role of imagination and religion in human survival.
What I am working on is an Ethical Culture metaphysic for the 21st century. And this means going forward. In the late 1940’s just before his death, Horace Bridges, a prolific writer on behalf of our ethical faith, claimed (in The Standard, 1949) that Ethical Culture was formed as an alternative within religion, not as an alternative to religion, and that the succeeding generation of Leaders had betrayed that purpose. He closed his article with a return to theistic faith: Credo in unum deum. Henry Neumann countered by saying that Adler had always allowed a diversity of philosophical positions. For myself, I do not want to turn back, as Bridges did, but I think he is right that Adler’s philosophical position has gotten the shortest shrift among us.
Adler broke away from a monotheistic concept of God, broke away from creation and immortality as thus grounded, broke away from the religion of a God modeled on the V.I.P.’s of patriarchal times (king, judge, general, patriarch), and sought to democratize the concept of reality: To each, respect and encouragement; from each, their best — so that the whole may thrive. He posited a universal unity, encompassing each individual in their unique particularity. A network not broken by death! (More on this later.)
To approach such a reality, we need to recognize, as Beatrice Bruteau said in The Psychic Grid, that we all belong to “conviction” or “consensus communities”, formed by the Mental Grids by which we process reality. To move forward we need to take a look at our mental grids.
I start with William James:
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Consider two testimonies, to enlarge on James’s assertion, and to illustrate the shift in mental grid that I am promoting.
(A) My wife Karen had told me of an incident in her life, in which she found her way through a blizzard. This was before I met her. I asked her to write up the incident for me. Here it is:
It was the last week in November 1961, I was 6 months pregnant and only had a Springer Spaniel for company.
I had moved to New Hampshire in Sept. 1960, had never been north in the state. Was asked to join my husband on a hunting trip. Followed him several days later driving independently. Stayed for 3 days and then came home with my following him in his car. We were returning by the same route I took going up. It began to snow heavily. At an intersection just outside of Laconia on Lake Winnipeasaukee I lost sight of his car, but assumed he’d kept to the right. (In actuality the route we were taking veered to the left.) The snow got heavier, and heavier. There was almost no visibility. It was past 5:00 p.m., and, with early evenings that far north and the blizzard, I could only see an indentation, which was the side of the road. I kept my eyes on that indentation so that I wouldn’t move into the ditch. I felt that I just had to keep going until I could get to a village, or spot another traveler. I saw no one else on the road, passed no villages and had no idea where my husband was, or where I was going. I just knew that to stop would strand me and be life threatening. I drove for a little over 3 hours. At last I saw on each side of the road tall hedges. I thought to myself at last I’ve found some place to stop. I had, it was my own front yard! The drive, in normal conditions, would have taken a little over an hour. I have no idea what roads I traveled. I had seen no signs. It was a different route than I’d taken going up and I had never traveled any other routes in that direction. In looking at the map it was just a network of small roads. The direction in which my husband drove was the highway. As I walked into the house, the telephone was ringing. It was my husband. He had stopped at a friend’s in Laconia and they had considered taking a four-wheel drive vehicle to look for me but felt I must have just stopped someplace. Besides there were only small local roads and many of them winding in and around the lakes. It would have been hard to know where to start. They had just kept calling, thinking that I might somehow h ave made it home.
There is no need to claim supernatural guidance here, to substantiate what I am driving at. We have to rule out visceral memory, since she had not traveled that route. We could postulate that under the awesome experience, some homing instinct, present in pigeons and dolphins, kicked in. Or we could put it all down to incredible chance. But one thing is certain: There is no sense of rationality being at work, but she found her way home.
Nearly two years later, the baby she had been pregnant with now grown to a 16-month old toddler, Karen and her child were at a Unitarian conference, she at a lecture and he left with the child care group. Normally too polite, even when bored, to get up and leave a lecture, she suddenly felt an urge to leave the meeting. Emerging from the building, she saw, 50 yards away, her toddler, by himself, descending a slope to the dock. He loved water, and there were 40 feet of it awaiting him, and no one in sight. She intercepted him. The embarrassed child care attendants were unable to account for how he had escaped their control. Once again, there was no rational explanation for the urge that overcame her.
Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, one of my English mentors, studied many instances of this kind, and came to the conclusion that we have access to powers that normally we do not tap into.
(B) My other example — lest you think that Karen, as a Unitarian, was vulnerable to “spiritual” experiences that no self-respecting rationalist would countenance — comes from Bertrand Russell, patron of 20th century rationalism, the Ingersoll of this century.
In his Autobiography, Russell tells of an occasion when he was staying with Whitehead, whose wife was seriously and painfully ill:
FROM HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Chapter 6, Principia Mathematica):
During the Lent Term of 1901, we joined with the Whiteheads in taking Professor Maitland’s house in Downing College. Professor Maitland had had to go to Madeira for his health. His housekeeper informed us that he had “dried hisself up eating dry toast,” but I imagine this was not the medical diagnosis. Mrs. Whitehead was at this time becoming more and more of an invalid, and used to have intense pain owing to heart trouble. Whitehead and Alys and I were all filled with anxiety about her. He was not only deeply devoted to her but also very dependent upon her, and it seemed doubtful whether he would ever achieve any more good work if she were to die. One day, Gilbert Murray came to Newnham to read part of his translation of The Hippolytus, then unpublished. Alys and I went to hear him, and I was profoundly stirred by the beauty of the poetry. When we came home, we found Mrs. Whitehead undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain. She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Ever since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that. The Whitehead’s youngest boy, aged three, was in the room. I had previously taken no notice of him, nor he of me. He had to be prevented from troubling his mother in the middle of her paroxysms of pain. I took his hand and led him away. He came willingly, and felt at home with me. From that day to his death in the war in 1918, we were close friends.
At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer and a pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain, but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight that I then imagined myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.
Note three kinds of human experiencing in this episode: (1) aesthetic, as Russell listened to Murray’s poem; (2) analytical, his habitual mode; and (3) mystical. As often noted in mystic experiences, the subject senses the experience not as something predominantly emotional, but as a way of cognition. Truths are “seen”. Russell speaks with caution as to what happened, but he has no doubt of a profound, life-changing experience, whose effects were to last a lifetime. Also, note the legacy of religious teaching to which he related what he was sensing.
The above are examples of mystical experiences that over-pass rationality. I have chosen them for their shock value to rational humanism. But one could also cite numerous everyday experiences in which humans relate to their world by channels other than reason. A Paul Kurtz will speak glowingly of “imagination”, but for him imagination is aesthetically decorative, not heuristic, not probing and probative of the nature of reality. Yet imagination has created our culture.
For Ethical Culture to claim the attention of humanity, and persuade people that we have an encompassing approach to reality that can create meaning and offer significance in face of all that challenges it, we need to be able to present a religion that draws on this broad spectrum of human experience. My outline follows.
An Ethical Metaphysic for the 21st Century
There is one cosmic energy, at work throughout the universe. Science says so. Adler’s multiplicity in unity says so. We must learn to recognize, celebrate, and cooperate with that energy. Religion differs from science in this that science objectifies, studies, and applies force. Religion connects personally to it.
Let’s call it The Force. In its manifestation in nature, Henri Bergson called it the élan vital. But I prefer the Star Wars version. (Obi wan Kenobee would have sounded odd telling Luke Skywalker, May the élan vital be with you!)
Let me illustrate my point about personally experiencing the Force by an exercise with regard to gravity, one of the incarnations of the Force. Go to the riverfront in St. Louis and watch the mighty river flow by. What moves it? Gravity. Why don’t we fly off the face of our planet? Gravity. Our hearts have to pump against it. We need to maneuver around it and utilize other forces in order to fly — which birds learned to do millions of years ago. To sin against gravity is to step beyond support and fall and hurt oneself. And there are ways of consciously and deliberately working with gravity. For example, practising good posture is making good on an evolutionary step in our relation to gravity. (The Alexander technique is based on using our skeletal posture to promote our best relation to gravity.) And as we grow older and weaker, a gravity-conscious person will lose weight so that there is less of it for gravity to pull down. Science can calculate the effect of spatial curvature around a body of mass and use those calculations in sending a space ship to the moon and back. But a gravity conscious individual relates personally and experientially to the force field in which he or she walks. A force field ordered in part by gravity.
And so with the other manifestations of the Force. There are manifestations of the Force that impact us through sunlight converted into carbohydrates and reaching us as food. (The Quaker bows and blesses each meal.) Manifestations of the Force create the electro-chemical cell communication that we call brain activity. And so on. A religious metaphysic will be aware of these forces, will celebrate them, will seek personal and collective connection with them.
The cosmic energy manifests itself in myriad forms. Big Bang forces are still with us. Particles created millions of years ago recycle through us. The Force is in rocks and in the sea. It was in dinosaurs. It’s in DNA. It is in protoplasm and in animal and human consciousness. Menstrual cycles in women are physiological activities generated over the course of evolution in response to the force of that planetary body we call the Moon. (Mens (Latin) = moon.) They are really moon-cycles.
These different forms are created by the operation of what Daniel Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea calls Algorithms (after a 6th century Arab mathematician in Baghdad). Algorithms are step by step procedures for solving a problem or accomplishing an end. Computers are good at using them, as Deep Blue demonstrated. Dennett underscores the point that they operate mindlessly in nature and evolution, as much as they do in physical and chemical processes. He does not want us to read any cosmic purpose into the process of Natural Selection. There are, as he puts it, no skyhooks to draw the process along, only earth cranes. But he does not explain where algorithms come from. The scientific enterprise assumes that as we explore the universe we will find the algorithms that generate the data studied, like a rock face climber who assumes that there will be footholds and piton opportunities to take him or her to the top.
But as I see it, the process is less one of skyhooks or earth cranes than one of discovering the rungs of a ladder hitherto hidden — a ladder like the one in Jacob’s dream on which angels (i.e., message-bearers) ascended and descended between earth and heaven. Take, for example, the Fibonacci mathematical series, where each next number is the sum of the previous two: O, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. Leonardo Fibonacci discovered it in the early 13th century. But, of course, it did not come into being on discovery by a human. Without the help of Fibonacci, sunflowers had been producing whorls in their flower heads according to the series, and sea creatures had been using it in generating shell patterns. It’s part of the universal ladder. Once discovered, we can use it, but we did not invent it.
This, I think, is what, in part, Adler meant by the reality-producing powers of the mind. Our minds are products of universal algorithmic processes and at the algorithmic level of consciousness, they can understand the algorithms that formed them and other parts of the universe. Part of my scheme, developed below, and echoing a Hebrew approach to reality, would focus on the role played by paradigm figures, giving us access to the Force via personal consciousness. Even non-theists have their Buddha.
The Force manifests as “ethical energy”, as Adler called it. When the Force appears as human consciousness, it creates a sense of choice. And that’s what ethics is about. Adler also called it a “consecrating” energy. It is the commitment of the mind to make a difference, to go along one path rather than another. It is a creative force. And this relates to what I think is the other aspect of the “reality-producing powers of the mind.” It is my belief that Adler got that phrase not only from Kant but from the English Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century, an influence that also helps to explain Emerson. Listen to Wordsworth as he speaks (in Tintem Abbey) of:
all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create,
And half perceive.
That, I think, is the definitive explanation of the “reality-producing powers of the mind.” We spend our time half in perceiving and half in creating. We perceive the algorithmic processes and then we create new realities, spun from our minds. We make truth, as James would say. And so our metaphysic would call for us to create the ethical realities for which Ethical Culture was named.
To cooperate with the Force in this manifestation, an Ethical Society has to live up to its name. Here should be a place where people find respect, care, kindness, peace, fairness, honesty, and goodness at work. Here we should have models of how love works. And for this, Adler said, we need to form the habits that go with experiencing the sacredness of binding ties. He called for spiritual evolution — and how tedious are our endless debates as to what “spiritual” means, as if it could be found at the end of an analytical probe! He said that discipline is necessary. The Societies will grow, he declared, as the Movement gives birth to personalities of abiding ethical faith, who are aflame with it. Such personalities will hand on the torch. This does not imply the absence of tension. When two or more persons share the same turf, there will be tension. Effective Societies are not based on the absence of tension, but on the way that tension is handled. When I was a Methodist, I was exposed to several books on the “path to perfection” — there was this notion, stemming from John Wesley, that a person should actually vigorously strive to bring all their thoughts and desires under the control of love. That Methodists often failed to so, like the rest of us, was true, but they were constantly exposed to the challenge of a higher way of living.
There need to be individual and collective channels to access ethical energy.
Other religions have channels like prayer and worship and ritual to access spiritual power. We need them too. Within our own tradition, we too need to learn methods of meditation and contemplation, to be inspired by symbolic ways of speaking not only to one another but to the depths of our minds within. But again we are too afraid to venture outside of the logical and the analytical. Drumbeats scare a rationalist! A collective song or statement makes us afraid we may lose out individuality. We mainly sit and listen. We fail to use our 7 kinds of smart.
It won’t be easy. Our paucity of numbers does not give us the benefit of great resources of music and poetry and art. But if only we could signal that it is all right to try, a beginning could be made. It won’t be easy because we come from different traditions, and generations. Maybe those who appreciate the kind of music generated for the Long Island colloquium would not appreciate the kind of metric, rhyming, hymn lyrics set to old folk tunes that I enjoy. But if we had enough experiments, we could vary the offerings. It won’t be easy because the people who come to us are often refugees from other traditions and have allergic reactions to anything that associates with their now rejected past.
We also need the inspired and inspiring story. We need an air of optimism to access resources. And spiritual figures help generate this. I recently did a series on paradigmatic figures for two Unitarian churches. I spoke of Amos, and Buddha, and Confucius, and Socrates, and Jesus. I believe that we can respect them for what they believed and also translate their influence into humanist terms. But oh, how powerful those stories are! Even secular humanists see the need to honor an Ingersoll or a Tom Paine or to create their own academy of thinkers. Unitarians, organized in 1825, claim Servetus, put to death for heresy in the 16th century, as one of their own; some Methodists have claimed the enthusiastic experiential religion of Montanus, from the second century.
In like manner, we might do well to look around and ask after our kinship through the ages. Or go one better and lay all human experience under contribution to advance the evolution of ethical living.
The experience of the Force as ethical energy creates insight into as yet uncharted dimensions of human life. It was Adler’s faith that his experience of moral striving for perfection was the best clue to the nature of reality. From that insight he extrapolated beyond this life. The Force creates a network that is not broken by death. He said our dead could be treated as real presences in our households. He said we could work with them as co-creators of a new reality. We have never been able to honor and explore that language! Today we would call it too New Age! Think of it: Protestants remember their dead, Catholics pray for theirs, Mormons get baptized for them, Eastern religionists expect to meet them again in the recycling of life through incarnation. Adler boldly declared that we could “work” with them! Now!
Death is the great value-eating monster. Humanists who hand death a too easy victory do not (as I see it) recognize how death cancels worth, if death means extinction. Humanists claim that there is enough internal validation of the good life for us to pursue it, even though the universe be meaningless and death be the end of personal existence. I think they are in denial, whistling in the dark. Evolution has brought forth a creature, namely ourselves, which has developed a consciousness that can look backward and forward, can value beauty, truth, and goodness, can accumulate experience and enlarge relationships, and then this same evolution consigns us to extinction — if humanism is right. To me that brutally challenges the idea that we have worth. As I said above, it makes Ethical Culturists cheerleaders for the good life, as we head for the cliff of extinction.
I have counseled families that suffered a tragedy: One involved a mother who drove a vehicle with several kids aboard, on a rainy day, hit the curb on one side of the road, hydroplaned across the road, and crashed into a truck. The collision killed her 10 year old and her 7 year old on impact. How would you counsel her about this terrible loss? Tell her to cherish their memories? She needs no urging. But what about the kids?
Draw on Bertrand Russell and Corliss Lamont and Carl Sagan and Herbert Fingarette and all you have to say is, They are no more. They have no further existence. They are not just dead, they are extinct. Gone, into a black hole of oblivion and non-existence. Where you too are headed and like them will soon be utterly gone. I find that an appalling nihilism. Even if there were no other answer, I would prefer to heed Dylan Thomas’s advice to his father: “Go not gently into that dark night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But on this issue I prefer to extrapolate with Adler and from the insights of those who have contemplated long on death and in every culture and in every time have believed with Robert Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra: “There shall never be one lost good.” I prefer to go with Jesus’s statement, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground but the Father knows it”, and see that insight as a law of the universe, a description of the conservation of consciousness, that says, The smallest living event registers with the Force. There are algorithms for human continuity that transcend the here and now. As I once said in a long poem reflecting on death: “The universe created me/ Intent on reciprocity.” That’s my anthropic faith.
I have no map to that dimension. I do not need a heaven like a carrot to persuade me to be good, or a hell like a stick to force me into goodness. I appreciate Thoreau’s “One world at a time.” But I need a sense of meaningfulness that is not negated by death. Humanity has long imaged transcendence over death, even in non-theistic religions, and that imagery may well be important to our evolutionary survival. In the 70’s Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) argued that all human culture is an illusion created to repress our sense of the terror of death, and now in the 90’s Barbara Ehrenreich (Blood Rites) argues that it is our terrifying sense of being victims that creates the urge to go to war. Arousing our sense of terror is a survival mechanism. I sometimes wonder if the dinosaurs in their bigness and speed and danger and overwhelmingness are the ultimate metaphor for death, and that is why they both frighten and fascinate us. We need symbols and experiences of transcendence to battle this terror.
Felix Adler’s ethical insight as clue to reality (“It is this ideal of the perfect life in which I seize the symbol of the utter reality of things.” 5/10/31) is not a non-rational and merely visionary projection. It is contexted in the philosophy of idealism, an idealism that has been embraced by some of the greatest thinkers of the human race, from Plato through Kant to Hocking to its contemporary exponents (e.g., Henry Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, 1983). To find Adler a visionary but to think his philosophy outdated is simply to say that his philosophy does not pass muster viewed through one mental grid. I think Adler’s mental grid is defensible. I think Bob Greenwell (of St. Louis) is right when he says our common ground, to be consistent with Adler, would be belief in “the objective reality of the ethical ideal.”
Adler was no slavish follower of Idealism. He made his own pioneering contribution, through the notion of sociality as a characteristic of reality. For example, in his articles on “The Problem of Teleology” and “The Moral Ideal” (International Journal of Ethics, April, 1904 and July, 1910, respectively), he argues (1) for an understanding of purpose, not as externally imposed on life, but as created by the confluence of two separate causational sequences at their point of meeting, that is, ends are organismic, and serve not to explain nature (as in science) but to evaluate it (as in ethics): “There are no ends in nature, except such as ethically we read into nature.” And (2) that belief in a single divine Being was a necessary characteristic of a stage of human awareness, but must now be replaced by an ideal of reciprocity in a network of equals, each bent on contributing one’s best to a united whole — Reality as Democracy.
I would like to see an Ethical Culture Metaphysic discussed at all levels among us. Not given to some national committee, but explored in every Society and by our Leaders. Perhaps we can develop a metaphysic that will give us the energy to care enough to share enough in the 21st century to persuade a larger number to join us.
THE LOST METAPHYSlC OF FELlX ADLER (in his own words)
The Road Not Traveled
If what has been said regarding the ethical manifold holds good, then a genuine philosophy of life can only be reached by the ethical approach to the problems of life. This has never yet been consistently attempted.
The True Universe Is Spiritual
I am compelled to say once more at the last that the outcome and prize of striving is the assurance that the true universe is spiritual and that we and those we love are included in it. Behind the world of space and time lies the world of ideas.
Beyond The Rational
Feeling and impulse actually make up the major part of life, and can neither be left out of account nor compressed into intellectualist formulas. To describe our highest nature as the rational nature is perilous, since the word rational suggests intellectual. Either we must strain the significance of reason to include feeling and will, which is contrary to common usage, or we should select some other term such as spiritual, to designate that nature within us which operates in science and art and achieves its highest manifestation in producing the ethical ideal.
Ethical Insight Is The Clue To Reality
It is this ideal of the perfect life in which I seize the symbol of the utter reality of things. The world as we know it is itself the veil, the screen, that shuts out the interplay, the weavings and the interweavings of the spiritual universe. But at least at one point, in the ethical experience of man, is the screen translucent. I do not affirm immortality. I affirm the real and irreducible existence of the essential self. Or rather, as my last act, I affirm that the ideal of perfection which my mind inevitably conceives has its counterpart in the ultimate reality of things, is the truest reading of that reality whereof man is capable.
The Spiritual Task
The plan of life must exist before the deed, at least in the mind of the leader, the guide. The various acts recommended must be seen as so many attempts to spiritualize human relations according to the ideal plan. Spiritualize! Not: promote the empirical best, the natural best. Not: You can be a comrade in the Ethical Society irrespective of your philosophical or theological opinions. If this is taken literally, then there is chaos. Certain humanistic undertakings can still be pursued in common, but there is no integrality, no integrity in the movement.
The things of earth are to be used as instrumentalities by which we are to become aware of the spiritual reality.
The idea of organism in its spiritual sense is, for me, the beginning of ethics — the beginning and the end.
The problem is to see that the lost shall not be lost. That the connection be maintained. This can only be at the point of the eternal in each.