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Adler, Felix. An Ethical Philosophy of Life.
Copyright 1918. Reprinted by Ethica Press, 1986.

Chapter IX
Religious Fellowship as the Culminating Social Institution

IN this chapter I shall undertake to sketch the plan of a religious society as determined by the spiritual ideal herein set forth. The religious society is the last term in the series of social institutions, and its peculiar office is to furnish the principle for the successive transformation of the entire series. It is to be the laboratory in which the ideal of the spiritual universe is created and constantly recreated, the womb in which the spiritual life is conceived. No single religious society can adequately fulfill this purpose. The spiritual ideal itself must necessarily be conceived differently by different minds; but the great general purpose will be the same, despite variations in shades of meaning and points of view.

The fellowship of the religious society must be based on the voluntary principle; membership must be a matter of free choice.(1) In antiquity the boundaries of the political and religious organizations coincided. The citizen was under obligations as a part of his civic duty to worship the divinities of the state. In modern times a state church is still maintained in some countries and supported out of the public funds, while dissenting and nonconformist bodies exist more or less on sufferance at its side. But this arrangement is harmful, especially so to those whom it seems to favor. Erastianism paralyzes religious spontaneity. The state, it is true, is profoundly interested in the flourishing of ethical idealism, and in the constant rebirth in its midst of spiritual ideals. But it is not competent to determine what the character of these ideals shall be. The moment they cease to be freely produced they lose their life-giving power. The state within limits may enforce actions; it may not even attempt to enforce beliefs.

On the other hand, the "secularization of the state" has given rise to the deplorable impression that the state exists only for so-called secular purposes, and has stripped the idea of the state of the lofty attributes with which the greatest thinkers of antiquity had clothed it. It is the function of the religious society, dwelling uncoerced in the midst of the state, to reinvest the state with the sacred character that belongs to it. I do not of course intend to exalt the state after the manner of Hegel, as if it were a kind of earthly god or to set it up as an object of religious or quasi-religious devotion. The object of religious devotion is the infinite holy community, the spiritual universe. The function of the religious society is to generate the ideal of the infinite holy community, of the spiritual universe. The family, the vocation, the nation, are sub-groups of this, lesser entities. Even mankind itself is but a province of the ideal spiritual commonwealth that extends beyond it. To concentrate worship upon the state or nation as some propose, would be to usurp for the part the piety that belongs to the whole.

In describing a religious society three main aspects are to be borne in mind:

The teaching, the organization, the worship.

A. The Teaching

In the religious society as here conceived there is to be worked out a body of doctrine, and there is to be a body of specially designated teachers. Am ethico-religious society cannot ignore or dispense with a general philosophy of life and statements of belief. It cannot restrict itself to encouraging practical morality without regard to what are called metaphysical subtleties. A moral society of this kind would soon become ossified. On the contrary, an ethico-religious society should excel in the fertility with which it gives rise to new metaphysical constructions and original formulations of ethical faith. The will cannot be divorced from the intellect. The active volitional life cannot be successfully stimulated and guided without the assistance of the mind as well as of the imagination.

But the relation between philosophy and formulas of belief on the one hand and volitional experience on the other should be the reverse of what it has been in the past. Here there must be a new departure. The doctrine, the formulations, whatever they may be, must not be dogmatic but flexible. Growing originally out of ethical experience, they must ever prove themselves apt to enlarge and deepen ethical experience. By this test they will be judged and they must therefore ever be subject to revision and correction. Every dogma, every philosophic or theological creed, was at its inception a statement in terms of the intellect of a certain inner experience. But then it claimed for itself eternal validity, compressing the spiritual life within its mold,. and checking further development. The body of doctrine which I desire and foresee will likewise be an interpretation of ethical experience, intended to make explicit the fundamental principles implicit in ethical experience, and thereby clarifying it, and assisting its further unfolding. But it is not and should never be allowed to become dogmatic. The difference, I take it, is plain: in the one case experience contracted in procrustean fashion into a rigid formula, in the other case an elastic formula adapted to and subordinated to the experience.

Thus much for the bodv of teachings. There should also be a body of teachers. A teacher in an ethicoreligious society will retain something of the character of his predecessors-priest, prophet, rabbi, pastor. The priest is the mediator of grace; the prophet is the seer of visions; the rabbi is learned in the Divine law, and the pastor is the helper of the individual in securing his individual salvation. But these functions will now be seen in an altered light, and will be radically modified in their exercise. The magical attribute of the priest disappears. The confident prediction of future events, based on the assumption that the moral order is to be completely realized in human society, has ceased to be convincing. The Divine law is no longer identical with the Law revealed in the Scriptures and their commentaries, and the salvation of the individual is to be accomplished by other means.

The religious teacher of the new kind is to resemble his predecessors in being a specialist. The word specialist in this connection may, perhaps, awaken misgivings, and these must be removed. He is not a specialist in the sense of having a conscience unlike that of others, or in being the keeper of other men's consciences. Nor shall he impose his philosophy of life or his belief authoritatively, but propose it suggestively. His best results will be gained if he succeeds in so stimulating those whom he influences that they will attain an individualized spiritual outlook of their own, consonant with their own individual nature and need. But specialists of this kind are indispensable. The generality of men have neither the time nor the mental equipment to think out the larger problems of life without assistance, and the attempt on their part to do so leads to crudities and eccentricities of which one meets nowadays with many pathetic examples among those who have severed their connection with the traditional faiths, and have tried in their groping fashion to invent a metaphysic or a creed of their own. (2)

The preparation of the ethical teacher for his special task consists in making himself thoroughly acquainted with the great religious systems of the past, in which much that is of permanent spiritual value is enshrined.(3) He is to fit himself to revitalize what is vital, not to repristinate what is obsolete. There is required of him a first-hand knowledge of the great ethical systems, and of their philosophical backgrounds: furthermore acquaintance, so far as it is as yet accessible, with the moral history of mankind, as distinguished from the history of ethical thinking; in addition, he should intensively study the economic, social and political problems of the time from the ethical point of view, and the psychology both of individual and national character, so far as that fascinating and difficult subject has been opened up by competent writers. Apprenticeship in the social reform movements of the day, direct touch with the inner life of people, on its healthful as well as on its sick side, is also presupposed.

Since no single person can be adequately prepared in these various subjects, and since a variety of gifts and talents is demanded, it follows that the teaching function shall be exercised by a body or group of teachers, not by a single pastor at whose feet the congregation are supposed to sit. Some of the persons engaged in this work will excel as public speakers, others as writers, others as teachers of the young, others as leaders of vocational groups. But all these different functionaries must learn to work, not only in harmony, but in organic, reciprocal support, themselves illustrating in their group life the spiritual relation, the knowledge and the practice of which they are to carry out into the world. The guild or group idea must be applied to the religious teachers of the future.

B. The Organization

Every religion exhibits a certain form of organization peculiar to itself and derived from its controlling idea. The organization of the Buddhist fellowship is dependent on the Buddhist ideal of preparation for absorption in Nirvana. The constitution of the Jewish synagogue reflects the conception of the relation of the Chosen People, as an elite corps of the divinity. The organization of the Christian church is characterized by its bifurcation into an ecclesia militans and an ecclesia triumphans, and further by the idea of incorporation into the body of Christ, a difficult mystical conception as of a typical divine individual including within his body a multitude of other individuals.

The organization of the ethico-religious society has been foreshadowed in the chapter on the vocations. The society is to be divided into vocational groups. In each vocational group is to be worked out the specific ethical ideal of that vocation. In the groups the general ethical philosophy of life is to be applied, tested and enriched. The so-called ethical teachers will here come into fruitful contact with those who are in touch at first hand with actual conditions, and are cognizant of the difficulties to be surmounted in ethicizing vocational standards. The members of the groups in democratic fashion will contribute to the advancement, not only of ethical practice, but of ethical knowledge, and thus become on their side teachers of the teachers. The danger of the formation of an ethical clergy will be averted. The teachers will be in certain respects the pupils of the taught, and the relation be reciprocal, that is, ethical.

Among the groups the vocational group of Mothers will occupy the central place. The influence of women, especially of the mother group, must penetrate the religious society through and through, for the purpose of drawing the entire fellowship together into a coherent unity. Women henceforth will take a deeper interest in the ethical development of human society. A main factor, if not the only factor in the ethical development of human society, is the elevation of the vocational standards. The group of mothers will therefore be in close touch with the other vocational groups in order to gain a knowledge of the higher standards therein proposed, in order to appraise them, and to inspire the growing generation with the devoted purpose to carry these standards out in practice.

C. The Worship or Public Manifestation of Religion

The ideal of worship likewise must undergo transformation. It has meant an act of homage toward a superior or supreme individual; it has meant eulogistic affirmation of the power, wisdom, goodness, of that individual; it has meant prayer or petition for help from that individual. It has also meant spiritual edification.

In all these various modes, religious worship heretofore has focused attention on a single individual deity as one who embodies in himself the sum of perfection. In thus presenting the ideal of perfection' it has encouraged preference for unity at the expense of plurality. The salient feature of the spiritual ideal sketched in this volume is the affirmation, on ethical grounds, that plurality is of equal dignity with unity, and hence that the divine ideal is to be represented not as One, but as manifold; not as an individual, however supereminent, but as an infinite holy community, -- every human being being in his essential nature a member of that community.

But can worship be offered to the members of a holy community? In a certain sense one might say, Yes, Preeminently so, since worship may be taken to mean Worthship, and the worth intrinsic in our fellowmen is the object of our unceasing homage. At the same time very different associations have gathered about the word. Public worship consists largely of eulogistic singing, prayer, adoration, genuflexion, and these axe appropriate only to deity conceived as an individual. We cannot even say with the Psalmist "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork." For though the beauty and order apparent in Nature is one aspect of nature on which we delight to dwell, yet we cannot disingenuously suppress the counter evidence of disorder, ugliness and suffering which Nature no less obtrudes on our sight. The argument from design implied in the Psalmist's words is no longer tenable. Certainly -we cannot any longer pray for material assistance as our forefathers did, or invoke supernatural intervention in situations where human science and human helpfulness are impotent. But worship also aims at ethical edification, by holding up to the mind the moral ideal as an object of imitation, and as a rebuke to man's shortcomings. This indeed is its highest function. Nevertheless the moral ideal, as we conceive it, is incapable of being presented in the guise of an individual being, no matter by what superlative language the limitation inseparable from individuality be concealed. The bare attributes of omniscience and omnipotence are abstract and convey no positive meaning whatever. In actual worship a concrete image is invariably associated with the notion of the individualized Deity, such as the Father image or the Christ image. And as soon as this is done, the vast ethical ideal tends to shrink to the dimensions of a human image; and instead of the ideal in its fullness, only certain selected but inadequate aspects of ethical excellence are presented to the worshiper.

And yet in an ethico-religious society also the public manifestation of religion is indispensable. Of what elements shall it consist?

First, there are to be the public addresses by the teachers, having for their main object to arouse or intensify a certain kind of spiritual distress, and then as far as possible to appease it. Every religion in my judgment originates in a particular kind of anguish, and is an attempt to assuage it. The spiritual distress in which the ethico-religious society has its origin in the agonizing consciousness of tangled relations with one's fellowbeings, and the inexpressible longing to come into right relations with them. He is fit to be a public teacher of this religion who profoundly experiences this distress, who desires nothing so much as to cease to be, for his part, a thorn in his neighbor's. side. We are that, each of us, inevitably. The more this feeling is strong in him the more will he arouse similar feelings in others, and thus awaken those who are spiritually asleep, the self-righteous, the self-satisfied, and he will then indicate to the utmost of his power, the way of relief.

The specific ethical ideals of life are also to be presented in public assemblies -- the ideals of private ethics, of marriage, friendship, and the rest. These expressions of the specific ideals, charged with feeling, and taking on appropriate imagery, will gradually attain a certain classical fitness -- classical at least for a time -- and may be used as public readings.

But is there a substitute for prayer?

Among the advantages of prayer is often mentioned this: that in it the soul reaches out towards its source, and in so doing wonderfully recruits its spiritual energy. It finds, ethically speaking, its second wind. It reaches down beneath its utmost strength to find an increment of strength not previously at its disposal. The question is whether this increment of strength cannot be obtained more surely and to better purpose in another way, namely, by concentrating attention on the spiritual need of the fellow-beings with whom we are in daily touch, and by becoming aware to what an extent the finer nature imprisoned in them is dependent for its release upon our exertions. The appeal of the God in our neighbor is the substitute for the appeal in prayer to the God in heaven, the call of the stifled spiritual nature in the men and women at our side, is to draw out of us our utmost latent force, the strengths underneath the strength.

The common life we share with our fellow-members in the religious society demands expression in song and in responsive services. The high wave of this common life welling up in us, rising to the surface, makes the glow of religious meetings, gives them fervor, and a touch of rapture, not indeed the common life conceived as a uniform life, but as the life we live in others, and they in us.

The addresses that awaken and appease spiritual pain, the presentation of the various modes of right living, the songs that lift the individual above his private self and help him to live, not indeed submerged, but rather spiritually accentuated in the life of the whole, these are the public ]manifestations of ethical religion as I see them. They will contribute to make of the society itself the symbol of its ethical faith. We shall not have an external symbol like the cross: the fellowship itself will be our symbol.

There will also be festivals. Every religion must have its festivals. In place of Baptism the solemn taking of responsibility for the spiritual development of the child. A festival of vocational initiation, like the ancient assumption of the toga. Festivals of citizenship, inspired by the ideal of the national character as one to be spiritually transformed. Festivals of humanity in connection with the commemoration of great events in the history of our race and of great leaders who were inspired in some degree by the ideal task of humanity. Festivals of the seasons, deriving their significance from the spiritual interpretation of the corresponding seasons of human life, -- youth, middle age, old age. And a solemn though not mournful festival in commemoration of the departed.

The religious assembly should itself be organized; the members of the different vocational groups should be allocated to different parts of the meeting hall, as were the Guilds in certain of the mediaeval cathedrals.

Besides the public manifestations, the private religion will receive attention. The religious society as a whole is to be the microcosm of the spiritual macrocosm, a miniature model of the ideal society, but care must also be taken for the private communion of the individual with the spiritual presences which the ideal evokes. There should be a special breviary for the sick, a Book of Consolation for the bereaved, a Book of Friendship, a Book of direction for those who pass through the experience of sin, and a book of preparation for those who face the end.


(1) Among other ethical relations based on free election, friendship is the most important. In a separate Book of Friendship which I hope to publish, I intend to review the ideals of friendship as they have arisen from time to time in the history of civilized mankindthe ideal of Pythagorean friendship, the ideals presented by Aristotle, Kant, Emerson. And I shall endeavor to show in each case the connection between the friendship ideal and the general philosophy of life. I shall then set forth that ideal of friendship which is the corollary of the spiritual conceptions outlined in this volume: the friend being in my view one who assists spiritual development as a spectator. He is the faithful mirror of his friend's progress toward personality, the benevolent yet incorruptible recorder and appraiser. By this token friendship is distinguished from the interlocking relations such as that between partners in marriage, vocational co-workers, etc.

(2) In certain Ethical Societies abroad, the fear of encouraging the rise of a new clericalism led to the plan of drawing for ethical teachers on professors of universities, and others engaged in various lines of practical activity.. These persons could of necessity give only the leavings of their time and thought to the complex questions which they undertook to discuss; and the experiment, as might have been foreseen, proved disastrous.

(3) It has been said that the science of today lives only in superseding the science of yesterday. Whether this be true of science or not it is not true of religion. The religions of the past are not merely superseded. There is much in them that is to be reinterpreted, and thus perpetuated.

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