Mohandas Gandhi acknowledged that reading William Salter’s Ethical Religion was an influence on his own developing thought.* The book was created from a collection of addresses Salter gave in his early years as Leader (equivalent of a minister) at the Chicago Ethical Society, and was published in 1889.
The following excerpt is my slight update of Salter’s words, using more modern language where his dated words might distract from his message for many of today’s readers. The original can be found and downloaded for free at Google Books.
At its core, “secular” is the opposite of or in contrast to “sacred” and by extension “religion.” (”Religion” is a relatively new concept in human culture, as we use it today. “Sacred” and “secular” are older.) Coming from the Latin, its derivation is from “worldly” or “temporal” as contrasted to “eternal” or, I suppose, “other-worldly.”
The term “secular” is used today in several different ways — ways that are in tension with each other, with real implications. That’s true for those who use the term for something they support, as well as for those who use the term for something they oppose.
Pope Benedict XVI said, “There is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West … a world without God has no future.” Mitt Romney, running for President in 2007, equated “secularism” with “radical Jihadism.” Newt Gingrich denounced “secular fanatics,” and wrote about Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.”
In this article, I’ve tried teasing out four different meanings of the word as used especially by those who support secularism. There’s obviously some connections between them; they are, however, somewhat in tension.
Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center credited Clarence Darrow as an inspiration for practicing law in a way that helped the powerless. Clarence Darrow is remembered as someone whose motivations came from outside traditional religion.
Clarence Darrow’s father had studied to become a Unitarian minister at Meadville Theological School (then in Ohio), inspired to leave Methodism over slavery. He had been ordained, but doubts concerning God led him to start his own manufacturing business, instead. His wife also was what at the time was called a freethinker. They did name one son Channing, presumably for the early Unitarian leader, and another Everett for Edward Everett (the same Unitarian whose oration preceded Abraham Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, and was a contrast in its length of 2 hours compared to Lincoln’s very short address). Clarence was named Clarence Seward, remembering the ardent abolitionist and Republican Party founder who served as secretary of war during Lincoln’s presidency. (Darrow became associated with the Democrats in his own adulthood.)
From William Salter, an early Ethical Culture leader; adapted by Jone Johnson Lewis:
A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:
“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”
Compassion without reason is ineffective; reason without compassion is destructive.
“Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” – Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897
How can you make resolutions you’ll actually keep?
Making general resolutions to change (”I’ll lose weight” / “I’ll stop smoking” / “I’ll do something about my job”) rarely results in actually achieving what you resolve.
Those general statements are good starts, though.
Think smart. That’s S – M – A – R – T — a way to look at your goals, to make them work for you. New Year’s resolutions are one kind of goal.
“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s no accident that I gave one of my sons the middle name of Emerson.
The feedback I got from the experiment I tried on the first Sunday – a new kind of meditation, suited for Ethical Culture, that involves talking and listening to another person – was overwhelmingly positive, and I’ll likely be trying that again. I loved hearing what people found valuable in the interchange. It was different for different people.
What would it mean if we took more time in our lives to really listen to another person? Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to another, seeing the person in the “now” as we listen, not through a lens of all that we know of the person from the past, not through a lens of what we expect that person to say or do?
And what would it mean if we had others take the time to really listen to us? Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to us, seeing us as the person we are in the “now,” not who we’ve been or what they’ve come to expect us to say or do?
For me, this gets to the basic Ethical Culture commitment of attributing human worth to every person we meet — those we know well, those we meet for the first time, those we have never met but have expectations of, been primed by preconceptions (culture? media? experience with others “like” them?).
Some of you who were there said that the question was particularly intriguing. ”What is something that excites you?” I chose it for exactly the same reason some of you said you liked it: it’s not something we normally ask ourselves, but it is a question that helps us see what’s really important to us, where we’d like to spend more of our time.
Those of you who weren’t there might try focusing on that for a minute or two, for some self-connection, and then maybe asking a friend if they’d be willing to listen to you for a minute or two — then ask them the same question.
And so I’ll be trying the Ethical Culture “meditation” practice again. I’d recommend taking the risk of talking to different people each time we try this together — getting to practice talking about something important to you, and listening to what’s important to another person — with a variety of people. If you find yourself bored or bothered connecting like this with a particular person (I am guessing this is more likely in our imaginations than reality), remember that it’s only a couple of minutes — worth the risk, I think, of even talking to someone you might normally avoid. Most likely, you’ll be surprised!
And it’s an experiment. If it doesn’t work for a whole lot of people, we can drop it. If it doesn’t work for you, I invite you to look around and see whether it’s worth letting it work for a whole lot of others, worth your discomfort for a few minutes because it does bring something to all those others. And if it does work for you — I hope you’ll really enjoy it!
I cannot fully celebrate anyone’s death. It would make me less than I want to be. It was Osama bin Laden’s celebration of death of others in the service of his ends that led him to inspire so much pain and suffering. I don’t want to be like that, even in a moment.
I mourn the pain that he caused to not just those killed by acts he inspired and planned, but to their families. I mourn the happiness lost to millions billions of people through the fear of terrorism. But I also hold just a small place to mourn the person he might have been but was not — the person he chose not to be.
I remember hearing just after 9/11 from someone who’d met Osama in college in America. That person remembered an evening when Osama was sitting at a piano and picking out notes and singing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I remember, in the pain and shock of what we call 9/11 as shorthand, thinking of what might have been had he not made some choice, somewhere along the way. I can mourn that self he didn’t become and could have become.
That humanity which he long buried in himself and stamped out so that he could do hateful things is one small part of what I mourn today, along with all the other human losses that choice he made led to.
One way we can refuse to be like Osama bin Laden is to stubbornly refuse to be drawn into the denial of any person’s core humanity in service of our own ends.
Yes, it was probably the lesser of evils BY FAR that he was killed rather than left to live and inspire more death and pain and suffering. But I mourn that killing him was the only alternative we could find, based on his own choices.
Recently, someone asked me about the “correct” version of the quote from Felix Adler about “eliciting the best” or “bringing out the best.” Here is an edited version of my response, based on quick research:
He said it several different ways. Here are two I can document as actually being from him:
The title of a chapter in An Ethical Philosophy of Life is his most common way of wording it, and might be considered canonical: Act So As To Elicit the Best In Others and Thereby In Thy Self. In that essay, you’ll also find his attempts to explain what “the best” meant to him.
From a 1926 article on moral education, “Personality: How to Develop It In the Family, The School, and Society,” he worded it this way: “Seek to elicit the best in others, and you will thereby challenge and bring to light the hidden best in yourself.”
We have tended to paraphrase. “Yourself” instead of “Thy Self” is quite common, or “bring out” instead of “elicit” or “work to” instead of “act so as to.” Mostly that’s an impulse to bring it up to date and keep it from sounding so Victorian or stilted. (I think of my grandfather’s phrase about not using “ten dollar words.”) Personally, I like “elicit.” “Thy self,” not so much.
We don’t use the “Seek” version much and it’s longer but I actually like it better — and he wrote that one for a wider audience (moral educators) and much later in his life, when, like
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