Archive for January, 2011

Leader’s Message – “Love Your Society 365 Days a Year” – February 2011

January 19, 2011

When I was a young child, I received a small box filled with colored envelopes and was delighted because now, every Sunday, I could put my coins in one of them, seal it and place it in the collection basket alongside my parents’ envelope and those of all the other members of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. Now I, too, was making a contribution. It was a proud moment.

I come from a generation that grew up in congregations. Our families and friends were identified by which church or temple they attended. A “mixed” marriage like my parents’ often involved people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, and some compromise had to be reached with regard to the children. I remember telling a third grade classmate that she would not go to heaven because she was a Protestant. That was not a proud moment.

Although my mother would have liked to keep me home, I left to attend college and then traveled even farther to study in Europe. I sought out and embraced people from different faith traditions, loving what I learned from them, eager to make a new home with them. And I did so when I joined the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. It didn’t feel like a compromise to raise our children there. My husband Glenn, who was raised in an orthodox synagogue, and I brought our commitment to community with us, transplanting it into a new garden.

We recalled our respective childhoods in the aftermath of a blizzard when, after we had cleared our stoop and sidewalk, we loaded the kids and shovels onto a sled and headed over to the Society a few blocks away to help the caretaker with his task. We were proud of our children digging in to clear the snow off the steps. That’s what we did as children: joined our parents to dig into the work of our congregations. It was hard work – and lots of fun. We did it because these places were our spiritual homes.

As I meet people in our monthly Newcomer Receptions, especially the younger people whom we hope to attract to our community, I realize that they did not grow up as I did. Many of their families did not give them a legacy of loving commitment to congregation. Perhaps they were even wounded by traditional faith communities. They are “shopping,” looking for a place where they can feel comfortable, comparing our Society to other groups. I sometimes feel that we are on display and must put on a good show. It can feel unsettling. “I understand that you are exploring,” I say. “Perhaps you are on a spiritual journey that has brought you here. I hope you can make a home with us.” I try to describe that home as I experience it and invite them to live with us, knowing that their needs will not be the same as mine, trying to fathom what their needs are, and hoping they will choose to make a commitment to Ethical Culture.

As I work with the Pledge Committee to follow up on last year’s membership donations and plan the next pledge campaign, I observe a kind of commitment demonstrated by some of our members that concerns me. For many, NYSEC is no different than any other organization to which they belong or charity to which they give. It does not seem to be as special, as essential, to them as it is to me, and I wonder why that is. Have their needs not been met here? Have they not made good friends? Has this not become a home for them? As I call people, I ask these questions and listen closely to their answers.

These conversations have renewed my commitment to serving this congregation. One way is to clarify the expectations of financial pledging. Long gone are the days when founder Felix Adler assembled the wealthy men of the society, presented them with a worthy project, and walked out of his office, knowing that, when he returned, his desk would be covered with checks. That is a legacy that we must overcome and pitch in, every one of us, to do our part. The pledge campaign for 2011 is called “Love Your Society 365 Days a Year,” and a party will be held on Saturday, February 12, from 5 to 8 PM to initiate a minimum yearly pledge of $365 and a goal of two percent of net income. Please join me for the hard work – and the fun – of ethical commitment.

Leader’s Message – “The Sufficiency of Ethics” – January 2011

January 19, 2011

At the last meeting of the United Campus Ministry on the Columbia University campus, it was my turn to give a presentation on Ethical Humanism. I decided to show NYSEC’s building centennial documentary, “The Meeting House.” My clergy colleagues were very impressed with our social justice history, but bewildered about our “beliefs.”

“How can you be moral and not believe in the revealed truth of a deity?” they asked. “Who or what do you worship? How can you have hope if you don’t believe in an afterlife? What do you teach about the beginning and end of days?”

I explained that, as a non-theistic religion of ethics, we neither affirm nor deny the existence of God and have more in common with the eastern religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, which are as much philosophies of life as they are religions, than with dualistic (mind-body split) western faith. Ours is a practical religion devoted to ethical living, without imposing a dogma about the supernatural or ritual obligations. It is a faith based on respect for the worth and dignity of human life. Words like “spiritual” and “sacred,” when they are used, denote a reverence for life, a transcending moral principle, or the act of creating meaning and purpose in our lives.

Time flew by as we shared our differences and sought to better understand one another. I grew to appreciate these new colleagues and looked forward to our retreat in January on “Religion and Science,” a topic with which I felt I would have less difficulty than some of them. It was, however, after the formal meeting that I had the most meaningful conversation of the day. A minister asked to speak with me about his struggle with belief.

Daniel Dennett, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, co-authored a study earlier this year called “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” It caused quite a stir. More people condemned the pastors whose stories he told as “hypocrites in the pulpit” than empathized with their spiritual dilemma. Dennett, a well-known atheist, identified them as “good people who find themselves caught in a trap that only someone intent on good could fall into.” One of his “brave informants” had already contacted me in my role as Co-Dean of the Humanist Institute to inquire about training in religious humanism.

I told my colleague the story about the student who stormed into the university chaplain’s office to declare, “I want you to know that I don’t believe in God!” She offered him a seat and an invitation: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are I don’t either.” There is a spectrum of conceptions of God from anthropomorphism at one extreme to abstract “ground of all being” or even “no being at all” on the other. And there is no agreement on where to draw a line on belief. Many people are content to ignore the question altogether, but some clergy feel that they are no longer “believers” and that revealing that secret would have dire consequences.

“What would you do,” he asked, “if you found out that there really is a supernatural god?” I thought for a moment because it really would take considerable imagination for me. Then I answered, “Ethics really is enough for me. I don’t need anything outside of nature to reveal itself to me. I might think it was interesting, but I would also wonder what it had to do with goodness.”

Ethical Culture Leader Edward Ericson wrote, “It is the sufficiency of ethics-being-lived as the foundation of an enriching moral and spiritual development that leads [us] to stress its religious quality and potential. . . Humanism’s starting point is ethics, not speculative theology.”

Gods have come and gone throughout human history. Belief and disbelief in them continue to be rewarded and punished. Much is at stake for those clergy who doubt the dogma with which they have been entrusted. I hope they find peace, and I hope they find me a caring listener. Perhaps one day more of them will spell god as we do – with two o’s.