Where Reverence and Reason Meet; Judy Toth, Leader

This spring I found myself in a classroom at St. Louis University. I was invited by a professor of social work who wanted his graduate students to have a broader religious perspective (than Catholicism) when working with clients.

I explained the Ethical Society with my usual fervor and enthusiasm. I stated what we are: humanists dedicated to ethical living. We teach character values and comparative religion to our children. We consider social action–building a better world–central to our making ethical living real. We honor the worth and dignity of every individual.

A young man raised his hand after I spoke and said: “This is so good to hear. My mom used to drive me by the Ethical Society every day on my way to school and she would say: ‘See that building down there; it’s a place for wayward heathens and pagans and that spire there is a witch’s hat!'”

I reacted in my usual calm, cool way: smiled and said I appreciated his comments, that the spire was actually there to inspire people to seek the highest ideals in their lives, that our founder, Felix Adler said, “Where all come to seek the highest is holy ground.” However, inwardly I felt like someone had shot an arrow into my heart. If this young man had thought that way, then many others don’t understand or appreciate us.

In the past we have been called “black devil secular humanists,” “heathens,” “faithless,” “godless,” “a religious cult,” and “intellectual elitists.” No wonder it is so hard for us to claim and take a stand for our humanistic, ethical identity.

I’ve seen us try: Sometimes some of us are difficult and negative and scornful. “Traditional religion makes people into sheep–followers with no brains.” We are thinkers and certainly not followers. Or, we say, “We are godless atheists and we’re proud of it.”

Sometimes we are unsure: “Well, it means one thing to one person and another thing to another. Since we don’t have a creed or dogma then everyone thinks differently.”

Sometimes we’re desperate: “Well, you’ll just have to come some Sunday–it’s hard to explain.”

Sometimes we’re wise and careful: One member here carries our Statement of Purpose in her purse and pulls it out to explain us.

I want us to move forward in claiming our Ethical Society identity and heritage clearly and with pride and certainty. I think it’s difficult for us because it is so precious and vital to us–often claimed with pain and with the misunderstanding of our loved ones.

But I also think we claimed “an outside the mainstream of society” place for ourselves when we joined and we don’t see how strongly we “fit” into the arenas of society that so desperately need our participation and our values.

We, to this day, offer the “middle ground” that speaks for an ethical evaluation of all decisions and behaviors as to their relevance to personal good and the greater good for all. But it’s more personal than that. By claiming our ethical identity we affirm who we are. We declare our own worthiness and our right to dignity and respect. When we truly experience our own worth–our life potential for joy and service expands tenfold! Our view of those around us comes from the prism of self-worth we own within.

No greater gift in life than to experience: I am OK–regardless of what my boss says, my spouse says, my children say. I am OK–regardless of my lack of money, my divorce, life’s unfairness, my job changes, my illness, my age.

Seneca the Stoic said, “If you see a man who is unterrified in the midst of danger, happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storms of life, who looks down at men from a higher plane, and views the gods on a footing of equality, will not a feeling of reverence steal over you?” That’s the kind of human being we strive to be and experience in our lives.

Therefore we must vigorously claim our humanistic heritage because it is so relevant and critical to our troubled times today and to affirming our own self-worth.

In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “Humanists a Beacon” by William Edelen, he says:

Perhaps the most ludicrous and asinine charge made by those ranting against “humanists” is that they are “godless.” A list of brilliant humanists, who were also deeply religious and spiritual people in the most profound sense, would be endless: Plato, Aristotle, Erasmus, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More, Paracelsus, and one of the greatest thinkers of the 15th century, Nicholas Cusanus, Sir Francis Bacon, Goethe, Albert Schweitzer and practically all of our major founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln.

The motivation of the humanistic movement in the 4th century was to produce a fully cultivated human being. Educational programs were upgraded and refined. The inner needs of the religious life combined with a classical education became the ideal.

It was the cultivation of manners that one needed to become a fully civilized human being. Would to God that we could revive this humanistic concept, of what it means to be a fully developed person.

Humanists, schooled in the humanities and other liberal arts, combining the needs of the spiritual life with a classical education–whether theist, deist. Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or Hebrew–could very well be the bright hope of this nation.

We can take pride in our humanist heritage. Today, could we not use an emphasis on “developing a fully cultivated human being–one with manners?” As Ethical Society members, we practice what we believe in our daily actions. Ethical relationship challenges abound on a daily basis for each of us.

The story is told of Winston Churchill, who faced a most difficult diplomatic challenge. When attending a dinner, his distraught hostess came to him and said she had observed one of the guests pocketing one of her best salt and pepper sets. She asked if he could think of some way to get her property back without causing an unpleasant scene. Shortly he went to the other end of the great dining table and pocketed the other set of shakers and sidled up to the thief. He opened his pocket just wide enough for the chap to see the shakers inside, and whispered, “I think they’ve seen us, we’d better put them back.”

Churchill created a humble partnership with the hostess and the thief that quietly without embarrassment achieved the right action and result. Yes, ethical challenges do abound!

Ethical life challenges can only be met by the use of reason and reverence. As humanists and Ethical Culturists, we use reason as our primary resource for evaluating and acting on the world around us. Knowledge brings us wisdom while recognizing the paramount importance of good, ethical living with reverence for all living creatures. This combination, when reason and reverence meet, will produce the most powerful human beings in the world as it has in the past.

Felix Adler, our founder, understood this. I often envision a young man is hunched over a desk in a study in Heidelburg, Germany: It is 1875. Books surround him, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Plato, the Bible, and Emerson, to just name a few. All of a sudden, what he has been searching for comes together in his mind.

All religions have a thread of profound truth in them. However, their major flaw lies in their insistence on being the one truth! Therefore religion must be based on the search for truth based on reason (as outlined by Kant in his writings) and in tandem with that, reverence for life and all living things through honoring their worth. Moral codes of conduct for ethical living based on rational thought would ride side by side with a profound respect, deep joy, and appreciation for the eccentricities, flaws, and complexities of human beings.

Traditional Western religions have been based on God and his laws. What abut a religion based on faith in human worth? The next step in religious history would be a religion based on human “good” or worth and grounded in humanistic and philosophical perspective, centered in “right living” today as a reward in and of itself, filled with reverence for one’s self and others.

Achieving such a “religion of the future” would not be easy because our founder, Felix Adler, realized that one wouldn’t be using old parameters of religion so it would be built philosophically and structurally from the ground up.

He drew from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called “for a new church based on moral science and moral faith.” He drew from Immanuel Kant, who stressed the centrality of ethics and practical reason that could be separated from theology. He drew from his Jewish heritage with its emphasis on social action and reform. He drew from humanist writers down through the ages.

He recognized that by founding this Ethical Culture movement and the first Ethical Society, he would be making some daring life choices. He took an unknown career path rather than retain his mainstream Jewish faith, thereby choosing to be an “outsider” rather than an “insider.” He became a creator of his faith and his life, rather than a follower. He chose the hard way–an uphill path of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

He was constantly asked: “What is an Ethical Society?” “Are you folks heretics, intellectual elitists, rebels?” “Why make it hard on yourself?” “Why not hedge your bets and have a heaven for eternal reward, and comfort?”

And to this day we humanists, we Ethical Society members are asked these questions! Over one hundred years later–in these dark and turbulent times–we, as Adler did, can be lights for ethical living. We must come out of the dark and claim our identity or die.

Putting Ethical culture and the Ethical Society on the religious map of New York City, spreading it across America and around the world, was Adler’s dream and he did it! Over 100 years later it is our turn. Being as clear as Adler was about who we are–our unique identity–being proud of it and sharing it with others is our mandate. For forces in our society today demand that you and I step forward and claim our place in history.

For I an deeply concerned about trends in our society that are strongly counter to the well-being of all free thinkers and those concerned with the character of our national heroes and leaders.

We are surrounded by ethical/moral dilemmas constantly as this whole judicial/congressional process, our President and congress are mired in moral, mortal combat. I don’t condone Clinton’s actions with Monica Lewinsky but I think the issues are much broader than a philandering president, with regard to privacy and the right to a fair judicial process.

Our Ethical Society is the place where we can speak and act to end the destructive trends in our culture today. We say here that our faith is in honoring the worth and dignity of all, yet our country has strong groups that would deny this basic human right. The religious right attacks gays, women’s rights and other people and issues that do not fit their narrow worldviews. Yet they are ever more powerful in promoting religious views in Congress, blurring the lines between church and state.

Other destructive trends are the ever-increasing influence of materialism and consumerism that tends to obscure what is truly important in life for Americans. We have a shallow culture when appearance and wealth determines success in a human being!

These trends promote an ever-diminishing emphasis on character values, the true strength of and foundation for a successful human being. You ask kids today what constitutes success and they use a very different yardstick–money, athletic ability, career status, to just name a few.

We need heroes like baseball’s Mark McGwire, who captured our attention for his home run hitting prowess, but in his actions around his achievements he role modeled: love of family for his son, sharing of honors for his fellow athlete, forgiveness for his ex-wife by bringing her and her husband to the big game, and honoring the past by saluting Roger Maris’ family.

Outside Busch Stadium there’s a sign that says, “Superheroes are put on pedestals, but real heroes bring us up with them.” We need heroes of good character in every part of our society.

So an Ethical Society community does its work and has as its mission to give another view of life that is character-centered while demonstrating a strong faith in the power of community. Here we support each other in handling life’s unfairness and unreasonableness, its crazy tragedies and hurts.

Here we hold a faith that in community we can build a better world–one free of pollution, hunger, and violence. Today we will hear of “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” and what we can do to support this worthy cause. We must act to build a better world for all on our planet. I’m proud of our Society. I urge us to take an even stronger stand against the trends in our society that encroach on basic human rights and distort what constitutes a good human being.

We cannot be complacent in these times. We must take a stand for our unique identity as humanist beacons of light and reach out to like-minded groups, then spread the word to our families, friends, co-workers and those we meet in daily living. Be able to say with pride and confidence, “Yes, I do belong to the Ethical Society,” and “I want you to come see if it is for you.” Only then can we affirm ourselves as Ethical Culturists.

Why is this so? Because when I claim deep down inside of me–its central principle–to honor the worth and dignity of everyone including myself, I know and experience my rights and my place in this world as a person to be respected, honored and loved. And by the most difficult person of all–myself.