“Ethical Religion” by William Salter

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.

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Secularism Today

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.
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Clarence Darrow and the Ethical Society

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.

I feel as I always have, that the earth is the home and the only home of man, and I am convinced that whatever he is to get out of his existence he must get while he is here.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Courtesy Library of Congress

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.)
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Reading from William Salter: The Higher Life of Humanity

From William Salter, an early Ethical Culture leader who had also been a Unitarian minister; adapted by Jone Johnson Lewis:

“The higher life of humanity is made of our higher impulses, our higher thoughts, our higher strivings. We all must live and we must work (or some one must work) for us to have the means of living. But this physical life is not its own end. It is not enough to eat and drink and sleep, to labor and amuse ourselves. In this way we may keep the body fresh, but the body is the servant of the soul. When we think, when we search after truth, when we aspire to bring our lives into harmony with the best that we know, when we wish to put ourselves in alliance with all the better and nobler forces in the world, then we are most truly ourselves, then we become aware how great are the heights and how rich are the rewards of living. May we enter into this higher life of the spirit today, may we in the brief time of our being together here give a welcome to all good thoughts, to all generous impulses, and may they stay with us and more and more make their home with us, so that gradually, little by little, our lives shall be transformed and transfigured by them.”

A. Eustace Haydon on Humanist Spirituality

A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, a Baptist then Unitarian minister, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:

© - used with permission


“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.”

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What Did Felix Really Say?

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
stones in water, the rough edges may have been worn smooth through experience of what communicated best the idea that he wanted to be understood.

Purpose and Aims

I found this on the way to looking for something else: a paragraph from an early constitution of the “Ethical Union” of the first Ethical Societies in the United States, referred to in a book published in 1896 as being from “a few years ago.”

The general aim of the Ethical Movement as represented by this Union is to elevate the moral life of its members and that of the community; and it cordially welcomes to its fellowship all persons who sympathize with this aim, whatever may be their theological or philosophical opinions.

The word “moral” is not one we tend to use today — perhaps the Moral Majority (which some of us believe was neither) ruined the term for a generation or two.  But in the context of the Ethical Movement, “moral” meant then, and means now, living in relationship in ways that respect and draw out the worth of every human being.

Apart from the slightly stilted Victorian language of the paragraph, it’s not a bad summary of what we aim to be today as well, here at the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

As we move towards our Opening Sunday of the season on September 12th after our summer break from Sunday meetings, I think that this aim bears repeating.  In our 21st century way, we can implement what was there said in 19th century language: help our members and the community to live more ethically, bringing out the best in ourselves and others, and cordially welcome into full participation in our community, anyone who feels themselves also drawn to that aim — recognizing that this common purpose is more important than whether we agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve, on some philosophical or theological matter.

A Holiday They Can Believe In?

We are mentioned in this article in the Post:

Atheists gather for a holiday they can believe in: Independence Day

Glad to get a mention. Our Ethical Society is definitely an atheist-friendly group with many atheists, but we’re not exclusively an atheist group. We’re nontheist in that belief in deities is not required or even important to our identity. Thus, atheists are comfortable, and so are mixed families and others who don’t believe that people must have a deity to ground ethical behavior.

What We Value

As part of the membership meeting in June, 2010, I asked members to remember two incidents this past year that stood out for them in the life of our Ethical Society — one that they enjoyed, and one that they didn’t enjoy so much.  I also asked that they try to boil down to one word the quality of life that they were wanting — a quality of life they found in the moment they enjoyed, a quality of life that they found wanting in the moment that they didn’t enjoy.  Out of those words, I created this word cloud:

State of the Society 2010

State of the Society 2010

As we think about plans for the Society in 2011, and each of us for our individual part in those plans, these longings for what we’d like to see more of can inform us and how we continue to build our community together.

(Note that I omitted or translated a few words offered that seemed to describe what people didn’t want, or answers that were more than one word long.  The more times a word was mentioned, the larger the word in the “wordle.”)

Change Is Comin’

Many of the other Ethical Societies have, somewhere on their building and often near or above the area where the platform speaker stands, some version of the Felix Adler quote, “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”  (Felix’s original words actually were about “men” but he did seem to mean that in the inclusive sense.)  The reference is to the idea in many religions, and especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that there is some space that is especially holy — a place set aside, a place to be especially respected.  Adler’s idea was that it was not the place that was holy; it was the act of taking seriously high ideals together, as a community, that created “holiness.”  It’s an extension of the idea of the worth of the individual human being: when such human beings act in ways that help to bring out that precious worth in each, we create something that serves, in an ethical society, the same function as a priestly dedication of a space might serve for another group with different emphasis and beliefs.

When our Society got started, using rental space, we had no way to put that wording on our space, so we included it explicitly as part of opening words.  Now, thanks to the creative and generous gift of member Amy Anderson, we have a banner with the words on it to put on the speaker’s lectern.   And so, it would be redundant to use the words as part of our opening.

Any change in ritual — even in groups like ours that eschew ritual or deny that we have rituals — will bother some, and please others.  For the remaining months before our summer break, we’re going to experiment with some different opening words, seeing how they work.  I’d ask that you not react just the first time you hear them, but “try them on for size” as you hear them several times over the next few months.  Then, in June, take some time to reflect on which words resonated for you, and which ones didn’t.  And also take some time to listen to others about which of the opening words resonate for them, and which haven’t resonated.

Perhaps some of the words will just take hold, like the candleholder of the “ethical person” migrated from the food table at a festival to the front table and transplanted what had been at the front table, with very little comment from members — and now she or he just seems to be part of our Sunday mornings.

It seems no matter what words we use in the script for Sunday morning, some people like some parts, and dislike others.  We’d love to magically find something that speaks to everyone — whether a founding member or a curious newcomer sitting in our midst for the first time, or everyone in between — and that’s not likely to happen.  But who knows?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better.”  In our non-ritual rituals, let’s give these experiments some time, and see what happens.