Living an Intentional Life: Ethical Culture

The creation of the present moment – of our time and place in history – started long ago. In this blog post, I want to talk about the story of us. The archive of humanity. Imagine our whole human history as a room full of file cabinets. Every single human attempt at the search for truth, meaning and explanation is contained within this room. Pages and pages of recorded feelings, stories and thoughts are piled away in the most disorganized system in the universe. It is chaos.

There is a file cabinet called compassion. Another is called pity, and another is called forgiveness. The list of topics is endless: survival, tools, fire, rain gods, superstitions, evil, salvation, Apartheid, morality, physics, ethics, science, feminism and even neoliberal capitalism. On and on, we have sought understanding, and every thought is contained in this room. But the file cabinets are empty, the files blanket the floor, and attempts at organization have a dreadful history. Entire collections of thought have been lost among cobwebs, burned at the stake, interrogated out of existence, or sometimes stifled into submission. Competition for relevancy is fierce.

The room we are imagining is full of pyramids of paper; hoards of conclusions struggling for significance at the top of the pyramid. Thought built upon thought. There is never-ending conflict as squabbles for relevancy are ignited each moment humanity adds new thought to the mounds. As each era of human existence worships a different set of capstones to explain and organize the universe…. As each culture shapes its theology, philosophy, and mythology…. As each religion hones its perspectives on where we come from, why we are here, why we exist, what happens after death and what we should do about it all during life….

It is chaos, and this is the realm of ideas in which our consciousness and worldview are shaped. If we stay with the metaphor, this room is a persistent illusion of shape-shifting pyramids of thought that form as we humans try to make sense of the world around us. This is the story of us – as individuals, as humanity, as historical and future peoples. In our present moment, “we exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs and godlike technology many people can reach.”[1] In this context, I ask us to consider the matters of meaning, morality and living an intentional life. This is the quest of the humanist. Each day, we embark on a genealogical investigation into philosophical and theological thought on the nature of being. This is an invitation to dig through your piles of thought.

When we are born, the people who raise us – parents, teachers and role models – each share with us what they think is important from their own piles of thought. As individuals, each of us spend our lifetime plucking and picking at the piles in our unique attempts to understand, to shape our own perspectives of the meaning of life, to figure out our morality, and to mold our existence on this planet. Sometimes we get caught up with the details: paying the electric bill, changing diapers, walking the dog. The details are important too. The details make up much of what we do. But today I want to remind us of the big picture, the big questions.

Each day that unfolds in our lives is an opportunity to make meaning in life. In my everyday work at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, I am lucky enough to have conversations with people – congregants, colleagues, family and friends – about some of the most relevant questions anyone can ask in a lifetime. From everything you’ve experienced and learned in your lifetime thus far, I wonder what your conclusions are. What do you believe? Is there a meaning to life? It there a purpose to the universe? Where does morality come from? What do your answers to these questions mean for the way you live your life before you will inevitably die someday?

If you just choked on your coffee, I don’t blame you. I just threw out some of the biggest philosophical and theological questions that humans have been asking for thousands of years. Volumes have been written. Wars have been fought over whose answers were correct. I don’t expect you to share your final answers now or even next week, but I imagine you have bubbling thoughts. This moment is about encouraging each of us to share those thoughts with each other – with our loved ones – not only our questions but also our attempts at answers. Today is about reminding us to ask the so-called ultimate questions that stretch our hearts and minds. Ask the questions. Seek your answers. Find your truth.

I promise not to sit here selling some version of what Ethical Culture considers as ultimate truth because we don’t promote an ultimate truth. We Ethical Culturists are ultimate cross-examiners – if anything. We’re not ultimate truth definers and defenders. This platform is about how our search for truth and meaning shapes the intentions we have in life. Ethical Culture as a religious tradition is about a living invitation to the continual review, investigation, and consideration of what meaning you ascribe to life.

The Baltimore Society for Ethical Culture has this great phrase that says, “if you aren’t practicing your religion, you’re probably practicing ours.” Most of us weren’t born into Ethical Culture. Instead, we steered ourselves into these waters as we continued to search for a community that met our need to ask endless questions. At the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, we often ask questions about injustice in the world, and we follow up with wanting to know what we can do about it. We gather to discuss methods of raising our children with strong codes of ethics without endowing them with fears of eternal damnation or making them mindlessly repeat creeds. We are here to grow and to sort through the pyramids of thought that have been handed down to us.

The problem, though, with living a creedless religion is that there is no concrete formula of answers passed down to us. We aren’t given a standard set of responses to questions about whether or not there is a god, what life after death consists of or even what books or truths we should behold ourselves to. Instead, we are encouraged to form our own personal creeds, and this is no easy task. Each of us is given the responsibility to ask the questions, to solve the problems and to shape the world around us.

As we gather on Sundays, we are given the gift of living with intention. We are encouraged to return to the world with something new to think about. To be an Ethical Culturist, we must live out our Ethical Culture values in an uncertain world. We live ethically not out of fear of hell or for want of eternal paradise. No. Instead, we strive to live ethically because life is most meaningful when lived ethically. We strive to live ethically because we place a central value on our relationships with other human beings. We strive to live ethically because we want to bring out our best.

Ethical Culture Societies are the place where we live the search for our own understandings of what it means to live ethically. Our ethical action committees bring issues to our attention often. We gather on Sundays to consider what we might do differently. Our community gathers to shape each other’s moral agency. We teach each other. The answers to ultimate questions will continue to change as the next generations fill our seats in our meeting houses. We will continue to add to the pyramids of thought that spill over into that metaphorical room from our earlier thought experiment.

The founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, encouraged everyone that he taught to continue to ask the questions. He would be disappointed in us today if we merely continued repeating everything he said in the late 19th century. He recognized that there always has been and always will be an intergenerational process of thought that shapes the story of human existence. Our work in this lifetime is to add to that story and to ensure the freedom of future generations to continue to ask questions.

Adler said, “The human race may be compared to a writer. At the outset a writer has often only a vague general notion of the plan of his work, and of the thought he intends to elaborate. As he proceeds, penetrating his material, laboring to express himself fitly, he lays a firmer grasp on his thought; he finds himself. So the human race is writing its story, finding itself, discovering its own underlying purpose, revising, recasting a tale pathetic often, yet none the less sublime.”

Each day we live our lives, we are writing our stories. Every person you pass in the street has a story. Contained within those stories are heartbreaks and passionate love, playful tenderness and secret fears. That is what being human is about. Each of us is a needle in a haystack, and we come to any community of like-minded people in order to be found. To find ourselves. To find our paths. To find a community to love us, to celebrate our life’s joys, and to join us in our life’s sorrows. Our relationships with each other are what give us meaning. Our growth as we seek the answers is what gives us fulfillment.

The creation of the present moment – of our time and place in history – started long ago. It will start again as you walk out our door in the next minutes or hours. If you have just learned about us for the first time or if you’ve stepped through the Ethical Culture doors a few times before, welcome home. Welcome to our community of seekers. We have no truth to defend because we recognize that truth is fluid, like poetry. It starts, it stops. Sometimes it rhymes, has obvious rhythm. Other times, it’s a collection of words spread across a page that simply evoke a feeling, a memory that we can’t entirely put into words.

Today I encourage you to go out and talk about the story of you. Talk about it in poetry or song. Talk about it without words, just in reflection. Ask yourself the big questions, and then come back. Bring a friend if you’d like. Bring your questions. Bring your answers. Your joys. Your sorrows. Your history. All parts of you are welcome here. Grow with us.


[1] Lyrics – “Weightless Wings”

About Catherine Bordeau

Catherine received a B.A. from Cardinal Stritch University in world history and women’s studies. She has a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary - an experience made possible by a three year, full tuition scholarship at Columbia University. She is currently completing a Master of Education program. A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin who called New York City home for many years, Catherine is currently teaching and living in Mexico.

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