This one’s for my people. My Ethical Culture people, the people I spoke to in my last column declaring Ethical Culture “dead.”
I have heard from a lot of you in the day since my column was published. Some of you are angry. Some of you are sad. Some of you are relieved that someone is finally saying what you have been thinking for so long.
To all these groups of people, I say, “Good.”
If you are angry, it is good that you are angry. I am angry too. I am angry that at a time when people are leaving traditional religion in droves, our movement, which could be their natural home, hasn’t grown at all. I am angry that our efforts to seed new Societies have so often come to nothing (with some shining exceptions – I’m looking at you, Susquehanna Valley Ethical Society!). I am angry that at a cultural moment in which social justice is all many people want to talk about, we seem to have so little new to say, and are so often stuck in outdated paradigms. I am angry at an institutional culture of fear and denial which has made it impossible to have these and other necessary conversations, leading to a sense of stagnation and disconnection in too many of our Societies. I am angry at the defensiveness which cuts off so many opportunities for growth and change, as good faith criticisms are interpreted as personal attacks.
If you are sad, it is good that you are sad. I am sad too. I am sad that the Brooklyn Society has to sell its historic building, and that the Chicago Society quit the movement. I’m sad that, since I joined the movement ten years ago, more Leaders in Training have left the training program than have completed it. I am sad that the St. Louis Society’s 350-or-so members make up one-tenth of the entire membership of the Ethical Culture movement. I am sad to see so many of our young people leaving the movement, not because they had a bad experience at their home Ethical Society, but because they don’t see much of a future in it, or can find no Ethical Society in the cities to which they move. I am sad that we have a good and necessary idea, but don’t seem to be able to sell it.
If you are relieved, it is good that you are relieved. I am relieved too. I am relieved to finally be having an honest conversation about our future, rather than bumbling ahead in the hope that things will somehow turn out all right. I am relieved to have received so many positive responses – alongside a fair few critical ones—from people who are desperate for Ethical Culture to succeed, but have felt paralyzed by our movement’s problems. I am relieved that so many of my closest colleagues and friends recognize the need for a new type of conversation about our future, and are excited to start that conversation.
When I wrote my column, I wanted to do two things: I wanted to be honest about my own feelings, and I wanted to provoke dialogue about our future. The column certainly did the first, and from the reactions I have received it seems to be doing the second also. I have had more honest conversations about the future of Ethical Culture in the last 24 hours than in the last ten years.
This is just the start, though: if we are going to resurrect Ethical Culture, we need to do more than talk. We have to strategize and we have to act. We have to be creative and bold. We have to come together to chart a better future for our movement, because our current path leads to bleak places.
That’s why I am asking all Ethical Culturists everywhere to save a date: on May 8th, 2022, the Ethical Society of St. Louis will be hosting a summit on the future of Ethical Culture. We will begin with an extended Platform, featuring voices from across the movement articulating their hopes and fears for the future. We will then follow with moderated conversations about the path ahead, to see if we can find a way forward. You can participate virtually or in person (COVID-permitting, of course), and your Society Presidents and leadership will be receiving formal invitations with more details soon.
I haven’t given up all hope. I am not resigned to our movement’s death. If I didn’t feel passionately about the movement, I could never have written what I wrote. But I am unwilling to accept complacency and gradual decline. I will not go gentle into the good night, and what you heard yesterday was my rage at the dying of our light. If it made you angry, then I need your anger. Your anger could give us the energy we need to save our movement. If it made you sad, I need your sadness too, for sadness tells us something is wrong and can spur us to change it. And if you felt relieved, then even your relief is valuable, because it demonstrates that a new space has opened for you, too, to be honest with yourselves and others.
One of my favorite quotes from our founder Felix Adler is this, from the speech he gave on the 55th anniversary of the founding of Ethical Culture:
At the beginning of my address, I spoke of those who had trusted us in the belief that something great was to come of it all. And now, in closing, I turn to the future, to those to whom we commit our trust, to our unknown successors in the generations and generations. Across the gulf of years I send them my greeting, in the hope that long after my voice shall have been stilled, an echo of what has here been said on this anniversary day will reach them, urging them to carry on so as to bring nearer the day when the sublime vision which hitherto has been seen but faintly and intermittently shall shed its full radiance on a transfigured humanity.
Those successors he was greeting across the gulf of years? Those people are us. Felix Adler was speaking to us, the unknown generations who would take his mission forward.
The world in which we live today is much different from the world in which Adler lived, both when he founded the first Ethical Society, and when he celebrated its 55th year. But the need for communities that bring people together to pursue the good, the true, and the just is still as great. Our mission now is to regenerate that vision for a different age, to find within ourselves the courage and commitment to take those radical ideas and reform them into something new: nothing less than the resurrection of Ethical Culture.
This column reflects James Croft’s personal thoughts and feelings, and in no way should be read as the collective or institutional view of the Ethical Society of St. Louis.