01 Community

What is Authentic Community?

Authentic: “Being actually and exactly what the thing in question is said, or claims, to be.”

Community: Readings below will stimulate discussion about what community is and has the potential of being. The salient questions that each of can ask are –What should an authentic Ethical Society community be? What should it do? How would its members interact with each other? What do I want from my Ethical Society community? What do we want as fellow members? What do we want to offer from our community to the wider community? What are we already doing that is authentic community? How are we falling short? What unfulfilled potentials do we have? What potentials do we need to begin building in? How can we build our Ethical Society community to be more nearly what we want?

…Ethical Culture is a philosophy of life, a life-stance, if you will, which affirms that the highest dedication of men and women, what counts most of all in life, is to recognize ever more clearly, and to strive to bring into being ever more potently that element in each person which proclaims that he or she is in fact a human being – not merely a thing to be used, or abused, or manipulated. It proclaims that each man, woman and child possesses an unseen element – call it humanity, dignity, worthiness, a “sacred” dimension within the human, if you wish – which we need to appreciate and respect ever more vividly.

…We see it in acts of compassion and of love, and in genuine self-sacrifice. We see it in the quest for righteousness and justice. It is awakened in ourselves when we are disturbed by human oppression, or inequity, or cruelty. We see a sensitivity to this human dimension in much of art and music, in poetry, the novel and in the theater. And we see it, too, in much of religion, or in what we might say, from our perspective, is the best of religion.

Ethical Culture exists to make that human dimension, that element of human worth more pronounced. It is to make the potential for moral goodness actual; to make what is latent manifest; to make what is all too weak in human affairs all the more strong.

…Ethical culture stands for those fundamental values which make for a decent society: For human dignity, for justice, for equality, for compassion, for reason, for the open mind and for the nobility of the human spirit. By so declaring itself, Ethical Culture stands against some of the prevailing currents of our time. We invite all those who share our vision and our values to stand with us.

Joseph Chuman, “Why the World Needs Ethical Culture”

In the moral and spiritual anthropology of Ethical Humanism, dignity and moral freedom are defining characteristics of being fully human. As we help to activate these human attributes in other lives, we rally our own deeper qualities of personhood. . . . As you have acted to empower the greater personhood of others, so you have actualized a fuller personhood in yourself.

Edward L. Ericson, The Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion

People have the need to be individuals, and an equally strong need to belong. Ethical Culture aspires to create community that honors both: offering a forum for a togetherness that welcomes differences…. Because we assert the primacy of ethics as our centering theme, the Ethical movement officially remains metaphysically neutral. This protects the integrity of our central task, and allows us to remain an authentic mediator between our skeptical secularist and our non-theistic religious members. We thus offer a sturdy and flexible democratic model for the emerging pluralistic world. We are by design a hyphenated tradition: A philosophic and religious way, simultaneously… We have learned to accommodate ourselves to the discomforts of a paradoxical perspective, intuitively sensing it is our ultimate source of structural health and grass roots empowerment At our best we wed the strengths of both skepticism and commitment Our challenge is to honor the genuine diversity of perspectives among us without paralysing or unnecessarily catering to ambivalence….

The kind of religious community the Ethical Culture longs to be can connect us to the deepest sources of our being. It can help guide our moral groping and ground our visions of a shared future.

Lois Kellerman, “8 Commitments of Ethical Culture”

The Ethical Movement hopes to bring about a world in which caring relationships and social justice can flourish. We have learned from experience that this task will take many lifetimes. Therefore we have dedicated ourselves from the beginning to creating ethics-centered life-span communities that embody ethical values and deliver them in fresh and inviting ways. These values include an attitude of respect for all, and habits of being truthful and keeping commitments

Lois Kellerman, “Pledging at Ethical Societies”

Because Ethical Culture is a fairly new idea carried by a small constituency it is not automatically understood. Some may think it is some sort of social club or single-cause forum. It is not Ethical Culture is an aspirational movement dedicated to cultivating the potential in people for a full ethical-liveliness. It is radically ethics-centered. It believes that by addressing the ethical dimension of human experience it can find common ground in diversity and midwife transformational changes in the way individuals and all kinds of groups relate. Thus does it hope to reduce suffering and increase creative response to problems in the world.

This vision is broadly and deeply religious. The primary strategy of the national Ethical Society umbrella group (the American Ethical Union) has therefore been to develop modern congregational-style groups. These consist of small intergenerational communities where people can engage in life-long learning that sustains and enhances ethical growth. Participants in this plan are encouraged to provide places for themselves where they can genuinely get to know others who have dedicated themselves to this task. Professionals are engaged to work with groups on how to better share their joys and sorrows, and work together to make the world a better place.

Living together is not easy. We bring our personalities, past wounds and private agendas with us. But when we choose to belong to an Ethical Society we are making some very specific commitments that relate to the way we act While all of us realize we are “not there yet” in any full ethical sense, still when we are voted in as members of Ethical Societies we willingly relinquish our anarchistic impulses in order to honor the integrity of community life. This includes our right to say whatever we want to say whenever we want to say it We did this not in the spirit of repression of mindless conformity but rather to assure that the baseline conditions for productive ethical group interactions are met These condition include:



Some central principles presently include:

-Our choosing to attribute worth to ourselves and others, and the deep mutual respect that flows out of this in word and deed.

-Our exploring continuously what it might mean to elicit the best in others and thereby ourselves.

-Our promise to keep commitments we have freely chosen. Our willingness to self-reflect in non-deprecating ways when we have broken those commitments. Our seeking help when necessary to explore how either to renew those commitments or change them.

-Our trying as best we can to be truthful in ways that are not cruel, but rather, aimed at fostering the reality and wholesomeness of our relatedness.

The first deterrent to destructive patterns of behavior is a firm grasp on the part of members of the tenets of the group they have entered. It is the Ethical Society’s responsibility to offer regular forums for this in which basic assumptions can be explored not just intellectually but experientially. Many people specifically need training in communications and group-life skills. Some carry such deep wounds in their personhood that they may need to seek outside counsel prior to or in conjunction with active entry into community life.

An Ethical Society’s strength and weakness flow out of the same source: Its dedication to a dynamic, open-ended quest; its longing for inclusiveness; and its tolerance for ambiguity. By its nature it therefore entertains a higher degree of creative tension and ambivalence. It relies heavily on the good will, discipline, and assumed basic reasonableness of its members.

Finally, we must not forget that all we have ever to offer ourselves and the wider world is the witness of our relationships and the ethical health of the modest groups we strive to cultivate. Lois Kellerman “Disruptive Behavior: The Challenge to Ethical Societies,” April 1992

We truly believe that people do not become good by fitting into a pattern prescribed for them by others; they become their best selves, we are convinced, as they find out how they can order a life that has never been lived before to meet crises and challenges that have never existed before.

When they do this, they find a new person, one who has a place in our world and our lives that cannot be taken by anyone else. Our founder said, and it is a profound way to put the matter, that when we discover our best self we discover a person who is irreplaceable in the moral universe. That irreplaceability is to be found in the love we have for others who depend utterly upon it, in the imagination and insight that further our common life, in the support that we give to our great common ideals – truth, Justice, brotherhood – that are continually under pressure. Each of us has a part to play in our efforts to create a better world. If, day by day, we make choices that make clear we stand for that better world, our destiny will become apparent to us. The ideal component in our life will increase. The demands upon us will increase, just because our irreplaceability will become greater. But, far from dreading the pressure, we will see the greater sacredness of our acts. We will be fulfilling ourselves.

Finally, we hold to the insight that this person fulfillment is to be achieved in a community of similarly striving moral individuals. Personal fulfillment does not draw us away from others; it binds us to them. As our lives become more spiritual in the pursuit on our great common goals and the discovery of our own specific irreplaceability, we enter into a community among those varied spirits that is of a quality that cannot be achieved in any other way.

Sheldon Ackley, “What We Stand For,” The Ethical Platform June 8, 1986

Communitarians have rightly criticized the self-deceptive assumption that one can be only shaped from within – there are external forces that shape us without our deciding so, and if we don’t have healthy, authentic institutions we won’t have authentic individuals either – the I and the we are essential to each other.

This concept of authenticity then is central to who we are as proponents of Ethical Culture. Yet, just as this valuable moral ideal has been trivialized within the broader culture, so it has been within our own lives and movement Finding the intricate balance between “being true to oneself and the also necessary value of “interdependency” is a major task for us.

Crucial to our future as an institution, and not as an institution for its own sake, but as a vehicle to a better future for all people, is a clear understanding of what we mean by the virtue of “being authentic” and by carefully guarding against slipping into self-serving patterns of seeing “authenticity” as simply “doing our own thing.” Being for ourselves in a world now so small and so interconnected and vulnerable also means “being for each other.” The uniqueness of our contribution to the world in which we find ourselves will most likely succeed as we earnestly seek to be true to our own best selves and support each other in this same task, a dual task that is yet at the same time our gift to ourselves and to each other, the very source of the Joy of human existence.

Don Robert Johnson, “Authenticity: The Ground of an Ethical Culture,” May 30. 1993

We are now entrenched in the middle of a struggle. Challenged is the entrenched utilitarian, rationalistic-individualistic, neoclassical paradigm which is applied not merely to the economy but also, increasingly, to the full array of social relations, from crime to family. One main challenger is a social-conservative paradigm that sees individuals as morally deficient and often irrational, hence requiring a strong authority to control their impulses, direct their endeavors, and maintain order. Out of the dialogue between these two paradigms, a third position crises. It sees individuals as able to act rationally and on their own, advancing their self or “I,” but their ability to do so is deeply affected by how well they are anchored within a sound community and sustained by a firm moral and emotive personal underpinning – a community they perceive as theirs, as a “We,” rather than as an imposed, restraining “they.”

Amitai Etzioni, The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics

To cultivate, culture, truly ethical societies we must give up the “illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion – we can build learning organizations,’ organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

Organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap into people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization…. Learning organizations are possible because not only is it our nature to learn but we love to learn. Most of us at one time or another have been part of a great ‘team,’ a group of people who functioned together in an extraordinary way – who trusted one another, who complemented each others’ strengths and compensated for each others’ limitations, who had common goals that were larger than individual goals, and who produced extraordinary results. (p.4)

Learning organizations are ones in which each member’s life, goals, and longing for mastery and fulfillment are intrinsically tied to the organization’s vision for its own purpose, goals, and mastery. “People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them – in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively. As such, it is an essential cornerstone of the learning organization – the learning organization’s spiritual foundation. An organization’s commitment to and capacity for learning can be no greater than that of is members. The roots of this discipline lie in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, and in secular traditions as well. (p. 7)

We start by clarifying the things that really matter to us [and] by living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations, (p. 8)

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

A[n ethical society] is not a machine but a living organism, and much like an individual, it can have a collective sense of identity and fundamental purpose. This is the organizational equivalent of self knowledge – a shared understanding of what the [community] stands for, where it’s going, what kind of world it wants to live in, and, most importantly, how it intends to make that world a reality.”

an adaptation from “The Knowledge-Creating Company” by Ikujiro Nonaka

The following are quoted in Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World by Carolyn R. Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1993)

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

William James (p. 15)

The factors most toxic to the heart are self-involvement, hostility, and cynicism.

Dr. Dean Ornish (p. 23)

There are simpler ways for sure. But community is the path of greatest challenge;

community presents the opportunity for the most growth; community provides the means for work of the deepest impact. It is worth it? For me, yes.

Peter Gibb (p.27)

We know that where community exists it confers upon its members identity, a sense of belonging, and a measure of security. It is in communities that the attributes that distinguish humans as social creature are nourished. Communities are the ground-level generators and preservers of values and ethical systems. The ideals of justice and compassion are nurtured in communities.

John W. Gardner (p. 31)

Communities are places or entities where each member can give something, where they can contribute something that they feel especially able to give, something that they are good at The gift from each member is valued by the whole community and all gifts are unique and individual. The gift that community gives back to each member is that of a role and a connection.

Ed Margason (p. 31)

More on this topic: