Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soporific Ethics, and a Great Central Park View: The Society for Ethical Culture, Manhattan

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about my experiences at the Society for Ethical Culture this weekend. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that it just wasn’t very interesting. And it was also a little depressing.

The Ethical Culturists own a truly gigantic building right on Central Park West. Their view of the park is fabulous. Their deal is that every Sunday, instead of a worship service, they have a lecture from an academic or somesuch person about an important ethical topic. Their slogan – displayed prominently in their sanctuary – is “Where People Come To Seek The Highest is Holy Ground.” They’d changed it to “People” from “Mankind” 20 years ago, and they were still talking about it. Three different Ethical Culturists referred to this change on three separate occasions over the course of 75 minutes. This gives you some idea of the glacial pace of change at the Society for Ethical Culture.

I walked into the ceremonial hall. Plain, simple, dark brown wood. Chairs instead of pews. Stained glass windows depicting families standing in noble postures of familial concern. (At the front of the room, instead of any kind of altar, they have a mirror…. You get it, right? You yourself are what is holy.)

There were about 35 people there. The demographic breakdown was as follows:

People in their 20s: me and my friend and another member’s young son (3 total)
People in their 30s: 0 total
People in their 40s: maybe 2 total
People in their 50s: maybe 2 total
People in their 60s, 70s, or 80s: maybe 28 total.

That was it.

Last week was the anniversary of the establishment of their Society, so they had an open afternoon lecture where members of the Society gave testimony about why they joined it. “Ooh, testimony!” I thought to myself. “Surely, through testimony, I will learn about the burning heart of this tradition – what draws people to participate in it and what binds them to it.” I thought about the Mormon testimonials I’d seen, where desperately sincere 20somethings stood up and talked about how Jesus and the Mormon Church had changed their entire lives, saved their souls, brought them deep spiritual contentment. I thought that this was going to be great.

Instead, five elderly members of the church got up and told very boring five minute stories about when they were young children on the Upper West Side, they realized that God didn’t exist, so they didn’t know where to go to find people like themselves, and then they found the Society, and everyone was so friendly, and everyone was so ethical, and now they sing in the choir.

That was it.

It’s too bad, really. You couldn’t find a nicer, gentler group of people who were more dedicated to left wing principles and to not doing anybody any harm. According to their literature – though I saw no evidence of this – they have a long tradition of social justice and social action. But what I saw was more like a group of kind elderly friends who agree on the principles of right living, and who gather and discuss these principles now and again. Well, honestly, even more passive than that - they listen to lectures on these principles. I saw no passion, no strength, nothing directed outward to the world.

The “Senior Leader” (pastor) seemed aware that this was an issue. He’d structured the afternoon meeting as an open house, so more people “from the community” would want to walk in and learn about what the Ethical Culturists did (in a gentle, non-judgmental, non-intrusive fashion). But there was nothing to draw us in. And the Senior Leader hardly seemed upset. Coming from the Jewish community, where testimonials about impending demographic catastrophe serve as preambles to just about every single goddamn communal conversation, I was totally startled by the Ethical Culturists’ calm in the face of their certain extinction. Particularly since most of them were Jewish.

Before the boring stories started, I actually asked the one member who seemed aware that newcomers were in the house, “Why is everyone here so old?” (Though I asked it more politely than that). She nodded thoughtfully and said that it was true, that virtually all the children and grandchildren of the Ethical Culturists had either become completely secular, or they had reverted to the religions of their grandparents or great-grandparents. She was not really sure why this was the case.

Are we really such primitive people that ethical behavior without any kind of smells, bells, rituals or supernatural beings holds no appeal for us beyond a single generation? I saw a dying culture last weekend. I saw a group that represented not the start of an enlightened new tradition, but that represented the end, the remnants of a progressive idea that had failed to perpetuate itself.

To tell the truth, I didn’t find it very appealing either. It was a bunch of Jews who’d built for themselves a very gentle, very secular kind of something that gave off a very polite little odor of twice-shampooed Episcopalianism or Methodism. I wish them the best of luck, but I’m never going back.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Ethical Culture was founded by secular Jews. But I think it comes across as more Unitarian than Episcopalean. They have excellent lectures/debates every once in a while though. But those seats... They make my back spasm.

Anonymous said...

I am the grandchild from a family that had me attend the Ethical Culture Sunday School - well attempted to do such - it was not for me from a very early age. I want pomp , music and some ritual. I do enjoy going back to the "big hall" downstairs - sounds like you were in the upstairs assembly room. THe big hall is great for concerts and I was there for a recent Good Friday service. My parents eventually became Unitarians and I am that hard to believe exists ( ant there are plenty of us) a liberal fringe Catholic - while my sister has participated in a Liberal Jewish group for years. My children are all in the anti church phase = one of them might even decide to take a look at Ethical Humanism - But I suspect that they could be happy Unitarians - as in fact I might be at some time too!

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