Starting Again with Ethical Culture 101
Back from some quality family time in Canada, I feel the familiar pattern: starting over again in the fall. Summer vacation is over. Twenty-five years as an academic leaves me sensing rebirth as September nears. Fall, not spring, is when things start anew in the school calendar -- new students, new courses, new opportunities! Despite all the writing about spring being the time of rebirth -- as I did in my ESWoW blog of 3/12/2010 -- right now I am excited about the newness of the fall.
A big part of the newness is that now as a staff member of ESWoW (no longer "just" an intern), I will be creating and offering a new course on-line: "An Introduction to Ethical Culture", or Ethical Culture 101! While I have taught courses on the founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, I have not yet taught a general introduction to Ethical Culture. Rather than starting with the 1876 speech marking the founding of Ethical Culture, I hope to start with what Ethical Culture means today.
In preparation for this course, I took the opportunity to read a great deal of essays written by Ethical Culture Leaders, most of whom are still active. Over the last week I have read all or part of essays by Algernon Black, Ed Ericson, Howard Radest, Dale Drews, Kenneth J. Smith, Joe Chuman, Bob Berson, Randy Best, Bob Greenwell, Richard Kiniry, Anne Klaeysen, Kate Lovelady, Don Montagna, and Bart Worden. (To those who I did not mention, give me time…I am getting to you!) Most of what I read came from two collections: A Lively Connection, Cable Neuhaus editor (1978), and a 2003 anthology of recent platform addresses still available from the American Ethical Union. The anthology can be purchased through the AEU.
What struck me most about what I read is the passion of the ethical quest that animates so many of the authors. While I know personally many of the authors, in the day-to-day work we do to reinvigorate the movement, the passion is often pushed to the side in favor of more mundane work (approving minute meetings, setting agendas, sharing administrative or pastoral counseling advice, and so on.) In these writings, however, each probably written during a rare retreat from the frenetic pace of modern life, I am reminded of why I went into Ethical Culture leadership. In common in all the writing is a deep longing to live a meaningful life in the short time we are given. Sharing this "flame" is not a simple thing.
So, rejuvenated from vacation and inspired by my colleagues, I wonder how best to capture the passion I feel for Ethical Culture in an introductory course for ESWoW? That is my challenge. I felt that challenge during my vacation during a number of conversations with friends less familiar with Ethical Culture. One of my oldest friends found some of my descriptions of Ethical Culture too vague. He said that people want concrete answers to life's existential questions, like "What happens to us after we die?"
I explained that in Ethical Culture, we do not assume an afterlife. In fact, I went further, we don't spend a lot of time on such metaphysical questions. I reasserted the primacy of ethics: what matters most is how we treat each other. Of course I had some other answers about living on in the hearts and minds of those we love. I also shared my personal skepticism that there is any sort of personal after-life. The lack of a definitive answer to his question, however, still bothered him.
I know that the passion I feel for Ethical Culture cannot be conveyed through pat answers to any existential question. I stressed to my friend that I would love to explore his questions with him -- to strengthen our relationship by sharing our questions and the struggle to answer them together. I felt the passion of Ethical Culture as I did so. I feel it now.
To keep this passion burning, I hope that members of ESWoW will weigh-in on what would help an Ethical Culture 101 class. I invite you to share comments on this blog or to e-mail me directly at hugh_taft-morales at eburke.org. If I do justice to the topic it might help others feel a sense of rebirth as we make our way into another beginning this fall.