The Heart of Religion; Bob Greenwell, Program Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis

Well, here we are on a Sunday morning. Other people in the city are attending church or temple. We come here. What is that we’re doing when we do what we do here on a Sunday morning? At the New York Society this morning, people can read a declaration inscribed right on the wall behind the speaker: “Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” What we do here on Sunday morning has something to do with that.

In general, our Movement has four broad components. If any one is missing, we’re not hitting on all four cylinders. We jerk and sputter along. We need all four. One is our emphasis on moral action. “Deed before creed.” That’s right, “put up or shut up.” A second cylinder is Community — friendship and mutual encouragement. A third cylinder is our scientific approach to moral knowledge — Think something is right, test it, revise what you thought, test again, get confirmation from others. The fourth cylinder is: Feeling. Whoa! How’d that one sneak in? Feeling? It’s as though we’re a little embarrassed by feeling. Hasn’t science put feeling in its place — subsidiary to mind? Isn’t feeling the thing that gets us into trouble? Isn’t feeling the demon that leads us into accepting irrational beliefs, out of fear or desperation? Well, yes and no. Feeling out of touch with thought, out of balance with life, can lead to massive delusion, just as thought out of touch with feeling can do the same. But the fact is, I believe, that a certain Feeling is the fourth essential cylinder of our Movement. One way it might be described is a feeling of awe toward the moral core of reality.

So why do we gather together on a Sunday morning? Cylinder # 1 is moral action. Is our Sunday gathering like a committee meeting where we gain new information and plan strategies for moral action? Yes, partly. But members of our Ethical Action committee know that they still need to hold their own meeting anyway. Cylinder # 2 is community. Certainly our gathering today is a form of communalizing, yet is less interactive than community-building in the usual sense. Cylinder # 3 is moral science. Here too, we will often find examination of some moral issue and the various evidences that have come to light, but of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. Cylinder # 4 is the feeling of awe. I would like to suggest to you that our Sunday meeting, while supporting all four cylinders, most particularly aims to give fuel and spark to the fourth cylinder, the feeling of moral awe.

Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground. Adler wrote, looking back, that the “impulse that led originally to the formation of Ethical Societies sprang from the profound feeling that the life of man needs to be consecrated” and that the old ways of consecrating human life were no longer working. “The Holiness conception,” Adler wrote, “had been my starting point. I never gave it up.”

Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.

Well, here we are, meeting.

Here we are to seek the highest.

If ever there were holy ground, this is it.

If ever people can draw upon the spiritual heft of one another’s presence, it is now, here.

If ever spirituality means anything more than a wisp of a wish, it is here, now, among us.

What is spirituality? This!

Our shared feeling, our shared thought, our shared intention and will, our shared attention and focus in this moment, is spiritual, is holy, is sustenance for our deeper lives.

Whatever words and concepts we find to describe this experience, they will always capture only fragments of the experience, and we must always return to the experience itself to recall what we mean when we say the words, “holy ground.”

What is it about this experience that is different from our ordinary experience? Is it not that in the intention to seek and open up to the highest, we drop the evaluations of ourselves that we routinely carry with us: “I’m a worker, and that has such-and-such a value to myself, to my family, and to my society,” “I’m a humorist, I’m a realist, I’m a thinker, I’m a helper, I’m a community-leader, and what I am is of such-and-such a value” — we drop all these evaluations, and we regard ourselves fresh, as having an infinite core value, not relative to anything else, an Intrinsic Worth that can be relaxed into, because it does not have to be defended.

And at the same time we do this for ourselves, we do the same for all those present with us seeking the highest. Our usual evaluations can dart around in our heads like a thousand barracuda just under the surface. We clear the water. We clear the air. In the safety of our intentional gathering, we open our minds and our hearts to the core of those around us, and we acknowledge their core value, not relative to anything else, and we relax and rejoice.
Adler wrote these wonderful words:

We can love only that which is lovable. If we could see holiness, beauty concealed within our fellow-beings, we should be drawn towards them by the most powerful attraction, willingly living in their life, and permitting them to live in ours. We should then love all men, for we should see in all what is unspeakably lovable…. We must somehow learn to regard the empirical traits, odious, harmful or merely commonplace and vulgar as they may be, as the mask, the screen interposed between our eyes and the real self of others. We must acquire the faculty of second sight, of seeing the lovable self as the true self.

What do we do then on a Sunday morning? Number one, we draw ourselves up to a higher intention — our intention to seek the highest. Number two, we drop our usual defenses; we relax into the feeling of a shared intention; we impute the same intention of seeking the highest to all those present with us. Beautiful music serves as an analogy and a lead-in. As we relax into the music, we assume — or perhaps we feel — that everyone else is relaxing into the music as well — and our musical experience deepens. So too, our shared intention to seek the highest. Third, we allow ourselves to shift into an alternate mode of perception, one in which we see ourselves and each other present as lovable selves.

Does this simple practice, this essential component of ours, make us a religion? What do you think? Are we a religion? The answer we give is important, because it affects the attitude we adopt toward the billions of people in the religions of the world, and the attitude we convey to people who may be interested in joining us.

Adler himself used the term “religion” according to the common meaning of the day. Religion meant a set of beliefs about ultimate reality and about how that connected with our moral striving in life. Religion was a certain set of beliefs. Adler personally had such a set of beliefs, which he developed over many years. But Ethical Culture has never asked members to accept any particular set of beliefs as creed. Thus Adler could say, “Ethical Culture is not my religion; Ethical Religion is my religion.” That is, he called his own set of ultimate beliefs his Ethical Religion, but you did not have to accept his religion — that is, his set of beliefs about ultimate reality — to belong to Ethical Culture.

All this was based on the narrow meaning of religion as a set of beliefs. But our understanding of the nature of religion has deepened and broadened in a century of sociological and anthropological study. For people today, “religion” means much more than a set of beliefs about ultimate reality. Religion has a tone of importance and exaltation that grabs the whole person, in feeling, thought, will, imagination, and aspiration. If we say to someone, Ethical Culture is not a religion, that means something entirely different today than it did a century ago. What it would say to the modern listener is that Ethical Culture is not a wholehearted endeavor, not something in which to find total felt meaning. If Adler were speaking today, I believe that he would say, “Ethical Culture is my religion; and based on the fundamental affirmations of Ethical Culture, I have also gone on to develop my own metaphysical set of beliefs about ultimate reality, which you are welcome to accept, develop, reject, or ignore.”

I am going to turn now to a scholar of religion, Huston Smith, whose text on the religions of the world is regarded as the leading resource for encompassing the major religions in one volume. He reveals, as though from the inside, the spirit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and what he calls the Primal Religions, by which he means the native traditions of Australia, Africa, ocean islands, and the Americas. Huston Smith’s great work, The World’s Religions, was first published in 1958. Very recently however, he wrote a foreword to another book, and he used the opportunity to distill his 50 years of study and immersion in the various religions down to a concise statement about the nature of religion, and it is fascinating. He doesn’t give the usual insider’s answer that religion is the worship of God. Yet he does not give the usual outsider’s answer either, that religion is a cultural phenomenon by which people hypnotize themselves into enjoyable trance states and anxiety-relieving belief systems.

Rather, his answer is wholly original and perceptive. Here is what he actually says:

Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, …its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions… of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world.

The radical socialists among us hate this kind of statement, and I have to honor their reaction, because they teach us that we should aim for a world in which economic structures serve rather than subvert ethical values. In the radical view, all religions are propaganda. That is, people with power promote those religious ideas which justify their power and increase it. But this observation can be completely true without denying that there may be something more in the religion than those aspects that the ruling class can turn to their advantage. This more can even be the essential part of religion.

And so I get back to Huston Smith: The periodic incursions of revelation in history are what created the world’s great religions. Its dynamite is its news of another world.

News of another world. This, Smith says, is what a religion is. Proclamation of this news is what all the major religions have done, is the thing that religions do that give them their power and their massive success. Why should news of another world be such dynamite? Imagine you grew up in a cave, and the cave was the only world you ever knew. Yes, you experienced some pleasure and saw a bit of dim light — you painted on the cave walls — but pain and darkness ruled your life. Then one day someone bursts into your world with news that there is another world! And that it is full of pleasure and light. And that there is a way to get to it. If you can trust this messenger, the news is dynamite. You take time to observe this person, his or her mannerisms, sincerity, sanity, the degree of openness and love that is present. If everything you see confirms that this person is normal, indeed is even more sane and more loving than normal, indeed that there seems to be a radiance of personality, then the excitement of the news becomes dynamite, a cultural explosion. It is news, and it is good news.

But if this is what religion is, don’t we have to say, We’re not one? News of another world? I don’t think so! More like news of no other world! This is it, buddy. Live with it. Wake up and smell the coffee. Stop and smell the roses.

Well, actually we don’t go so far as to say there are no other worlds; we just say, ” Other world or not, the key is deed in this one.” But we definitely do not bring news of another world. Not only are we not a religion by this standard, but if the one thing that religions do that attract millions into their fold is to bring news of another world, the implication is clear: we are going to remain small, hardly a blip on the radar screen of world religions.

But wait! We’ve jumped in too fast. We assumed we knew what Huston Smith meant by “news of another world.” Let’s go back to his words.

Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world. Revelation [in these religions] invariably tells us of a separate (though not removed) order of existence.

“A separate (though not removed) order of existence.” The powerful religions bring convincing news of a separate order of existence, yet not one disconnected from this one. The trouble comes in when people start trying to picture this, or try to communicate it in pictures. Almost always the image that comes to dominate the feeling and thinking in these religions is that the other world is “above” this one. We connect to it by rising up in thought or feeling or desire. Our world is below, and that one is above. The irresistible pull of this image sees to it that we bring in ideas of hierarchy and one-way authority, top-down. We seem to have a built-in bias for thinking of up as better. After all, in our evolutionary history, we stood up. We looked down on the lower animals. And right now, my neocortex sits on top of the older parts of my brain that handle such “lower” functions as feelings, or sexuality. The Good News of another world, fresh and dizzying in the moment it’s originally proclaimed, gets fast translated into our habitual categories of “up = better”, and therefore the other world must be up, in comparison with which this world is dirty, lowly. The Good News becomes: how to escape from this one. Yes, our ordinary world is rescued from being a place of hell, but it does not become a place to celebrate. But what if a messenger brought us news of a different world, and the further news that this different world is simply a different dimension of our world, news of another way of taking the very world we are in? What if the good news that all of the powerful religions have been trying to proclaim is an ability to shift to an alternate perception of reality, and that this shift is better described as lateral, sidewise, rather than a shift up? Prayer would no longer be “I lift up my heart to Thee, O Lord,” but “I shift my heart and see.”

A digression. An example of shift from another field. Physicist Victor Stenger has been one of those who have cautioned against too-easy translations of quantum puzzles into spiritual cosmologies. For example, one of his books is titled, Not By Design! But in his new book, Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, he argues that at its deepest level, reality is literally timeless. Not at the level of ordinary experience — unfortunately no time-travel for us — but at the underlying level of reality, there is no time. If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what could! In the molecule of air sitting on my finger, the subatomic particles and energies inside it are timeless. So with every speck of my body — go deep enough and we pass out of time. Time and the timeless. Food for thought. Food for feeling. Just an example of what might be meant when we talk about making the mental shift from our ordinary reality to the same reality in different light, coextensive with it.

I believe that Adler was bringing radical news of another world, that is, of another dimension of this world. From the outset, we have had a positive feeling toward this world, our positive feeling that this world is worth living in and fighting for. At the same time that we’ve focused on this world, we’ve been groping toward a way to express our intuition of the moral character of reality. If your sense of the moral character of reality is a heavy and burdensome one, then you are not experiencing the news we’ve been trying to proclaim. You are probably thinking hierarchically, with the moral standards somehow floating above you, implying your own unworthiness.

In Adler’s day, the feeling was that the old religions would soon wither away. Many people had heard the good news of the freedom to think. It was to them good news that religions had been debunked, and that no-longer-meaningful superstitions and rituals could be left behind. This news predated Ethical Culture. Ethical Culture simply appealed to the large group of people who felt free of religious superstition, and it called them to ethics. It was like a Good News – Bad News scenario. The good news of the day was liberation from oppressive and institutional religion. The bad news, brought by Ethical Culture, was that “Liberated and exhilarated as you now are, you still must behave ethically!” Well, bad news has never won many followers. It’s a wonder the messenger wasn’t killed! It doesn’t help us or anyone if we go around proclaiming bad news, especially when the news that we really have discovered is great good news.

The good news that we have to proclaim is this: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! There is another world. We’re not doomed to this world of pain and bleak evaluations of yourself and others. The other world is available to you right now, for all it takes is a shift in awareness. When you make this shift, you experience yourself as a member of a glorious, wonderful, perfect, divine world! In this world you have intrinsic, unique Worth. Sometimes you experience it spontaneously. But there is a path to experiencing this world intentionally and habitually. It is to act always in your life in that same way you would act if you were fully experiencing this world, as though each other person you meet has unconditional Worth. This is the path. Through it you will come to experience the worthwhileness of all that is, and your life will be worthwhile, joyous, and fulfilling.

As we began our program today, you made a shift in order to appreciate the music. Despite the fact of bad things going on in the world outside, we shifted to a different mode of experience. Further, we left our usual evaluations at the door, in order to be able to shift into an affirmation of our Worth and the Worth of everyone gathered here with us. We made not a shift up, to heaven or to floating spirits. We just shifted in place, as though to see and hear from a different angle. As we become skillful in the ability to enter into this experience, it begins to color our ordinary lives. It becomes easier to act as though other people have intrinsic worth. We have to pretend less and less. As our Sunday morning program ends, and we shift back into ordinary experience, we find our ordinary experience slightly different than before. There’s more energy. There’s less anxiety. There’s more resolve to grapple with any problems we face. We have great good news to share. Worth is the heart of religion. Our Worthship service is our crucial weekly reminder of the call to our lovable selves. We come together with an intention to seek the highest, and the ground on which we stand shifts, becomes transformed into holy ground.

Closing Words

Felix Adler died in 1933. Two years earlier, he spoke these words on the Occasion of the 55th Anniversary of the Founding of the Ethical Movement:

In this solemn moment, at the end of 55 years, my mind goes back to a certain May evening in 1876, when I saw before me an assembly of men and women who had summoned me to state publicly the nature of the proposed Ethical Movement…. That evening the Society was founded. Of those who were present, the charter members of the Society, I am, to the best of my knowledge, today the sole survivor. I am as it were the memory of the Society. With deep gratitude I think of those who first asked me to lead them along a new path, and who followed so devotedly. They have all passed away, and others, thousands by this time, who succeeded them, have passed — a great procession! I greet them in meditative hours. Their faces are not mournful. Their extended arms point forward. They were interested in the future — in something great to be. And they put their trust, not in a person but in an idea. From the first they resented the imputation that this could be a merely personal movement; they believed rather that it was destined to acquire a universal significance.