Thaddeus B. Clark
Berry Street Lecture, 1958
Read before the Ministerial Conference
The history of American Unitarianism has often seemed to me to be compared aptly to a man crossing a stream on precarious stepping stones. He was only vaguely hopeful, when he began, that the stones would be frequent and close enough to permit him to make the crossing without a dip in the water. As he teetered on each stone, studying the rippling water for a next, he would consider the wisdom of going back. Then he jumped, not always forward but often more to one side, and found a new purchase for his feet. Thus he has progressed, usually glimpsing his next foothold only at the last minute, never quite sure he did move to any objective, continuously in peril of going under, always doubting whether he should have started out in the first place. One of the most disconcerting predicaments of his advance, however, is that he cannot quite see the route he followed. As he looks back, he is not sure which stones held him; the truth is that he cannot now discern a clear route of return and some of the stones seem disturbingly to be missing.
Religious liberalism, as it takes form in Unitarianism, has an indecisive history. This could be an advantage, since, if it has not taken a definitive form, it has no form with which it must stand or fall. At the same time, its formlessness has its own disadvantage, since it must be striving ever for some form in which to keep itself alive, like the man looking desperately for the next stepping stone -- or perhaps more like a family seeking a house to move into while the one they inhabit falls down around them. Keeping alive depends upon the wisdom or the good luck of finding a stepping stone in time. Thus my question is about the form we shall take next, and I would inquire whether we can divine the forces that will determine this form in order to envisage the time immediately to come.
By the time Unitarianism had become an identifiable movement in this country with a distinguishing label, it had accepted a role if not a fully recognizable function. It was religion for the urban middle class -- principally the upper middle class. It is to be contrasted conspicuously with that form of American Christianity that swept out across the country with the frontier and is best called evangelism. Unitarianism remained behind in the urban east for a time and then moved as the cities of the west came into being. The two of our churches I have served in the central rest, New Orleans and St. Louis, demonstrate this urban character; they were frontier churches, but shared little of the mentality of the frontier, and they turned to the east for their fellowship and ministerial leadership. Also Unitarianism of the early part of the last century in this country is to be contrasted with the Unitarianism of other lands and religious movements comparable intellectually and spiritually that made their way among the people of the lower class. American Unitarianism was not a church of the "disinherited” to use Richard Neibuhr’s word, unless somehow the upper middle class can become disinherited -- this would have been a surprising notion to the ship owners, merchants, and bankers of early American Unitarianism.
Perhaps, however, these were disinherited n some other sense: disinherited religiously. This is not Neibuhr's meaning of the word, for he means to refer to the socially rejected. Early Unitarians were not this; the reverse: they had it. The possibility that they were religiously disinherited, however, should not be altogether ignored and is quite worth pondering. The available religion of their time was not for them. In the course of settling upon something that was acceptable to them, they were recognized as different, perhaps heretical, and labeled Unitarian.
As Conrad Wright has disclosed quite fully, nineteenth century Unitarianism was created out of an impulse which had an earlier origin. This impulse would be characterized by some as American. It responded to the new land eagerly and with vigor. It found the Calvinism that it had brought with it as immigrant to these shores quite unacceptable. And as the immigrants discovered one and then another challenge in the wilderness that required a confident surge of life, they discovered some shortcoming in the religion they had known: a shortcoming, a contradiction, and a limitation. Thus a new view of life was created in which the conspicuous religious items were negations, and the new view itself was never articulated too succinctly and certainly never in the formula of a creed. It was deep in Channing, of course, where one can read a continuous affirmation of the worth of life. In other fields, politics and economics particularly, it had more expressive and stirring statements. It is not surprising that we turn to Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine for a cogent expression of our view.
By the middle of the century, Unitarianism had found quite a number of challenges to meet. Of these slavery is perhaps best known to us, and we should like to think that our response to this was more than a mere expression of our Northern domination, for surely it, too, betokened this driving concern for life, a keen sense of the indignities man suffered, and a faith that this life could be good.
Education had become a major preoccupation with Unitarians. This was true over the country but perhaps nowhere more vigorously than in St. Louis, where the members of our church not only founded a university, secondary schools for girls and for boys, a mission school for the indigent, and the public school system, but, believe it or not, even an adult education program. They had some vision, though I have not found this written out, clearly anywhere, of a whole educational program for all stages of life. And William Greenleaf Eliot wrote charming little books on proper deportment for young ladies. In some of this, notably in the establishment of the public schools, they had the powerful opposition, even as today, of certain other religious groups.
The mid-nineteenth century also engendered the interest in social welfare. William Greenleaf Eliot was chairman of the Western Sanitary Commission as Dorothea Dix was of the Eastern. In Boston Joseph Tuckerman went his rounds and is credited by some social work historians as the father of modern case work method. In New Orleans the yellow fever plagues necessitated an abundance of orphanages and the church became a congenial place for social workers and has remained so.
In all these efforts Unitarianism expresses surely with undeniable clarity its conviction that life is good -- at least, that it could be made good. This is no extraordinary notion to us today, but in its time it was producing a new view toward life.
We have sometimes been accused of being an intellectual movement. This does not seem to me to be very noticeably true. The more startling acts of our history indicate something else. To be sure, we had a contact with the intellectuality of the nineteenth century, but I am not sure how deeply we were influenced by any of it.
We know it best in the literary movement of the Boston vicinity, I suppose. To me, I must say, this seems to have been again an affirmation of the goodness of life in one kind of expression of it. The interest in poetry and the arts on one hand and in nature on the other are surely a revelation of the new found goodness of natural beauty and of human creation. Surely this is the meaning of Brook Farm.
To be sure, Unitarianism in this time was looking around intellectually. It had become estranged from its immediate religious ancestry, and it sought other company. The Oriental philosophies and religions became known to Western Civilization for the first time, and a few notions are gleaned from this first meeting. More conspicuous was the contact with German philosophy. It has been said that when German idealism came to this land, Theodore Parker was on the wharf to meet it. This is true, also, though I should like to make one correction in the detail of this picture, for when German idealism came to America, it came from St. Louis. Theodore Parker, in the story, should have been faced the other way, for in St. Louis the immigrant Germans, intellectuals of the 1848 revolution, sometimes called the Hegelians, had begun the St. Louis movement in philosophy, and published the first journal of philosophy in the English language. The closeness of St. Louis to all this is a bit of unwritten history, not yet deeply explored, and is testified to by the fact that some of the members of Brook Farm were from St. Louis.
I mention this detail of history for an admitted purpose, since I am now in a position to declare, having studied the St. Louis community for some years, that I can find no remnants of this meeting with German philosophy. Not an item in the minds I meet reveals itself as stemming from this period. If we have any philosophy other than something indigenous, it is surely British empiricism. And our emphases have surely not been intellectual but activist.
By the turn of the century, Unitarianism had taken to itself a different look. The two most conspicuous factors that this analysis reveals are slightly opposed.
One is a continuation of a process begun earlier, that now became the espousal of great causes. The abolition of slavery was perhaps the prototype of this form of concern. By the end of the century, Unitarians were conspicuous in most of the well known efforts at social and political reform: woman's suffrage, the labor movement, socialism, and others. Some were mere continuations of old concerns in a new mode of attack: slum clearance, prison reform, and later -- I do not presume to indicate an exact chronology for these efforts -- came international peace and even the prohibition of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Surely we were characterized by our efforts on behalf of these many causes, and in a great measure this approach to life and society remains with us. We feel we must support the good causes even if it means digging around to find some.
Meanwhile the urban middle class that the Unitarian churches served had changed in character. If these people might conceivably have been identified earlier as the disinherited in any sense, by the end of the century they could not be so scribed. They had become in the second and third generation the stable and reliable members the community. It was in 1876, some of my Ethical Society friends take pains to remind me, that a Unitarian minister was read out of his church for heresy, when he became one of the first Ethical Culture leaders. That the Unitarian church would become sooner or later a church for an established, stable section of the community is perhaps inevitable as the sure fate of every religious movement. This amounts to an orthodox opinion of religious sociology. Nevertheless, Unitarianism had not forsaken some of the elements of its early impulse which were restless, searching, formative, and, to borrow a hallowed word, dynamic. The restless and vigorous in our movement labored at the renewing espousal of popular causes; this, too, can become formal, routine and fashionable, but in the time we speak of, it was not.
It is a question in this variety of activity whether any discernible continuities and character reveal themselves. I have disclosed, I suspect, that I think we can find some continuities, and my very summary of our history should indicate this; indeed, I may have twisted the history a bit without intending to in order to substantiate conclusions. There is in this history an undeniable and easily recognizable concern for life. This has a special quality that should not be likened merely to the generalized human concern for the human. It is never a generalized love but thrusts through the general again and again to become very specific and real. It is at times a concern for the underprivileged and the downtrodden, when it is reminiscent of the spirit we find in the Gospels. At times it is a concern that the good life become better -- even become its best -- and is more akin to the ancient Greek search for excellence.
It was not conspicuously intellectual. The concern can be described intellectually in sociological or philosophical terms, even theologically, but in itself it has not been intellectual. It has come from some deeper source within our people. We should ordinarily be resigned to the idiom and say that it has come from the heart, but this is too sentimental to describe the true case and seems to me to miss exactly what is sought, which is a sense of a deep stirring within the very body of man that urges him to awarenesses and concerns, which popular sentiment so often misses. It is much more visceral. To illustrate a bit further with a figure from outside our immediate tradition, I shall refer to Lincoln who seems to me to express this concern most acutely. I find little of the sentimental in Lincoln. In fact, in such instances as the letter to Mrs. Bixby and the Gettysburg address, he backs away from sentimental expressions and avoids the clichés of sympathy. His simple, unsentimental style is much more powerful and succeeds in revealing a concern that is not stereotyped nor in any way superficial. It is enlivened with a sense of fresh insight and true pathos. It arises in a visceral urge and speaks to something deep within us.
Unitarianism has, by no means, always been of such profound nature and has many times become effete and formal in its concerns. Yet I feel in the urgencies of its brief years this renewing quality of fresh insight, deep perceptiveness, and human empathies of inner inarticulate sources.
This has meant that we have not shown any great interest in adhering to an activity once it has become formalized and routinized. Our educational and social welfare projects have not been maintained by us as well as they might have been. Instead, we have sought new expressions for our urgencies. A superficial characterization of it might be that we congenitally sided with the underdog and turned from dog to dog to find the one that most merited our support.
It was revelatory of the nature of our concern and quite to be expected that we should take up the great causes and lead in prospecting for them. It is just as characteristic of us that once these were established and well supported we should turn away from them, not as having become any less important but as not challenging the liveliness of our concern. Even more than this, we have expressed (I feel I have detected) resentment at the pressure to support old causes, and revealed an impatience with demands to conform here as elsewhere. It is as if we said, "Only new causes need apply.”
When one asks the question in its general form, "Where shall we be going from here?" I find little to give any sign of our likely next step. We are truly teetering on a stepping stone without having yet sighted the next to which we might leap. Any number of people are willing to tell us in which direction we should move, but I see no sign of any movement. We see no stone that promises advance, I suspect.
The sign that we might expect to read in order to discern our next step would be intellectual in character. It might be called theological -- at least philosophical. Yet we are almost notorious in having succumbed to no identifiable philosophy -- certainly none that is current in the present day world. The several that have touched religion particularly have not caught us up: Neo-orthodoxy and Existentialism.
Neo-orthodoxy produced a cold reaction from us for the same reason, I imagine, that contemporary Existentialism warms us but very slightly. The inclination deep in us that is an affirmation of life and an embracing of it in the living found Neo-orthodoxy alien and irrelevant. Neo-orthodoxy spoke of a life that we did not know and to a mind that seemed to us to be twisted. And so we never could really find it congenial, and its intimations of sin and human helplessness and world hopelessness were all belied by the life that we knew and the life that we expected to live. We expected to cope and felt the power in us that was able and daring. Of all of our study of Neo-orthodoxy -- and I dare say that Unitarians made about as serious an effort with it as any, which may not have been a commensurate amount -- we uncovered only bits and pieces here and there that were meaningful and some of us grasped these eagerly, anxious to lay hold on a bit of the truth at least.
We also fear this alien mood, however, and our major criticism of it was quite justified, for we suspected unhappily that Neo-orthodoxy, which had its own special meaning to a Europe in agony, would have only a most familiar and sentimental meaning to America: a new impetus for a fast lagging orthodoxy. The several decades since the alien and revised orthodoxy in America have proved that our fears were quite founded. It has too much bolstered a demand for public piety and for many ancient, stereotyped, and sentimental expressions of an earlier religion, -- and this earlier religion itself held many incidental remnants of a frontier adaptation that had only the most accidental relations with the profundities of Christianity with which it supposed it had some connection.
Neo-orthodoxy arose in urgencies that are not in us. The same is true of Existentialism, I am coming to believe. I speak now of the present day forms of Existentialism and particularly of the non-religious type. It is supposed to have risen out of the disruption and despair of the last war, or to have been revitalized by it. I see no reason to doubt this. In French existentialist writing there is an agony of soul that shows through. No American writer of my acquaintance really reveals any such emotion; certainly not our poets nor our playwrights. I contrast only these now.
Our popular playwrights are preoccupied mainly with personal psychologies. Their efforts have become somewhat more sophisticated than a mere depiction of inner stresses and appear to concentrate upon the interplay of person and situation, perhaps with the added involvement of personal history.
Our poets, never widely popular, are intrigued instead with the technical problems of the elaboration of meanings. They produce something very like our non-representational art, which is also preoccupied with the absorbing problems of technique. Thus we have present in our midst two concerns that are quite diverse and most likely and obvious in present day America. I am not saying that these are necessarily connected with Unitarianism by any means, nor that any outstanding poets or playwrights are Unitarians -- perhaps they are, but this does not matter to my point. The point is that French Existentialism speaks of something and to something that is not in the least suggested by the concerns of our art. French Existentialism speaks to a mind and heart that is not in us.
Let us take Sartre's familiar insistence upon this as an age of anxiety. It can become reasonably persuasive as one reads Sartre's philosophical writings or the existentialist literature. We are anxious, he says, even though we dissemble our anxiety. On a few occasions I have tried to persuade my congregation of this, but I am always persuaded instead when I have finished that I have persuaded no one. This falls in the category of sermon of which the departing parishioner says gently, "That was a most interesting sermon. If it is printed, I should like a copy to study.” He has been convinced just to the point of suspecting that you might have said something, but what it could have been he does not know. The argument that this is an age of anxiety does not convince us. The anxiety of the present day Existentialists is a kind of Weltschmerz. It is a generalized feeling, if there can be such a thing, but it becomes deeply personal. Personal fate and world fate are uncomfortably bound together. It is something of this mood that Sartre reaches, and he preaches to ears that hear him.
Our ears do not hear him. I hope that my comments on the major preoccupations of our arts have suggested why we do not hear. Our ears are attuned to something else. To be sure, we do talk about anxiety, but this has a very personal meaning as expounded by such popular authors as Karen Horney and Rollo May. Of Weldschmerz, we have none.
In a measure I have chosen these two movements, Neo-orthodoxy and Existentialism, not merely as the more likely points where we might have made contact with something of modern thought, but as a suggestion that we have made no contact. With what then are we to be identified intellectually? With logical positivism? I truly have not uncovered a logical positivist among our ministers, though some of our laymen with scientific occupations may affirm this view. Without meaning to be snobbish, I will say that I trust we have escaped logical positivism.
We remain surely in some projection of empiricism, and I can only hope that it is some sophisticated and critical form of it. It is most likely in some form of a process philosophy. And I return to my earlier assertion that nothing distinctive in our intellectual affirmations or associations will tell us much about ourselves or where we are likely to turn for our next step. The evidence here gives no hints.
And as I look about for some further characteristics of our inclinations and moods, I find two that become provocative. The first was revealed to my surprise by a student who, in searching for thesis material at Andover-Newton, undertook to read all our sermons in the collections of the American Unitarian Association. He must have been desperate. From this he sought to distill the major concerns and beliefs of contemporary Unitarian ministers. His catalogue was quite what was to be expected and anyone of us could have saved him a lot of trouble. Then he went on to state that he had found several other items that seemed consistently true of us, but about which we never really spoke directly. One of these was an abject devotion to fair play. He described a certain kind of honesty that was not merely intellectual honesty but much more inclusive and pervasive, an honesty of performance and of expectation.
I found this striking at the time, and though it happened that I have made a kind of topic of honesty for public talks and public writing, I realized that I had never preached of it as something to be required of Unitarians nor as a singularly Unitarian virtue. And in truth, I did not revise my practice. Honesty is one of the lesser virtues, at best, it is a kind of methodologic virtue, rather than a final goal for life. Merely to have been honest is a meager accomplishment. The most suspect demagogues are always nicknamed Honest John.
Our honesty, however, is something rather different though it may include the popular meanings. It refers to a special method of viewing things. It includes fair play. It includes plain speaking. It can flow, if I must put it in psychological terms, only from a personality that does not dissemble, does not grind axes, eschews its own personal gain, and is devoted to plain speaking but not to barbed words. We mean something of the sort when we speak of being objective and something like it has been called disinterestedness. But in the end we do not embrace either objectivity or disinterestedness for we are also devoted to commitment, dedication, and to involvement.
The thing that I do find in our midst links closely with the peculiar quality of our devotion to the goodness in life, for this becomes a necessary quality to the adequate expression of life. We are quite sure that no plant in the garden will grow unless certain necessary procedures are followed and that there can be no cheating on these. Many people think that you can cheat and find more of life, and the modern age has invented one of the most striking and ingenious forms of this, chiseling. Chiseling is a perfect name and it is exactly what we reject. Chiseling is a construct of the competitive psychology where it is necessary to compete with the very neighbor with whom you also must live, the neighbor at the next desk in the office. Chiseling is cheating just a bit on the growing plants by putting on just a bit less fertilizer than the amount prescribed with the hope that the plants will not know the difference. To carry the instance a bit further, it is then trying to secure the prize at the flower show, when one's plants are obviously a bit undernourished, by cozying up to the judges.
In my afterthoughts, I came to the conclusion that it was by no means surprising that this sense of fair play, this cultivation of a certain personality of honesty, was to be found amongst us, and equally unsurprising that we should never mention it. It is only testimony to a much deeper conviction that is borne out for us in the manner of living rather than in our verbalizations.
The second observation about our concerns has further to do with more basic attitudes than we are likely to express articulately and is not again likely often to be found in our sermonic expressions. It is our concern to be timely -- and this is a good name for it. The opposite, the disgrace, would be to be irrelevant. We are, I am convinced, determined to be relevant. I have been exploring this notion for some time without quite convincing myself until only a month ago. I was at a Unitarian conference at the moment when this question popped into my mind once again. I happened to be standing behind a group of ministers, about a dozen, who discussed some subject earnestly, I don't know what. I could only see their backs and at the moment I was not thinking of them as individuals and do not remember who was in the group. The word irrelevant came into my mind, and then I had a quiet laugh to myself of the sort that I have not had for some time as I thought that the most painful accusation that could be made, and the most distressing, to anyone of them would be to be told he was irrelevant. This we could not endure. We could not admit to being, as the slang puts it, out in left field. A most striking determination of ours and a vital concern is that we be relevant, or to use the more traditional word, timely.
The timely is not held to be important. In fact, it does not have a good reputation. The timely is transient and therefore short lived. Religious things are expected to be more enduring, if not everlasting. This was the conclusion to "The Quest for the Historical Jesus” that was devastating. Schweitzer declared that Jesus belonged to his own time, and that our historical researches failed to capture him and bring him into our time. They did the reverse: they settled Jesus firmly in his own time. Jesus, in other words was supremely and exclusively timely.
It is a question whether Schweitzer advanced or retarded liberal religion by this declaration. The interest of the liberals in Jesus grew out of their eagerness to discover him to be a moral leader and teacher, and their interest was keen. The traditional interest had little stake in his morals or the details of his life and was concerned only with his being a God who could confer a life after death upon the supplicant. The modern tradition of religious liberalism sought to bring Jesus into its world and make him a guide to the saving of this world if not its savior. Thomas Jefferson's little biography of Jesus expressed exactly this interest. Schweitzer's significance rested in his extensive review of New Testament scholarship, which he concluded by stating that Jesus' moral teachings could not be separated from Jesus' expectation that the world would come to an end within the lifetime of his companions. Therefore, his moral teachings could be expected to be applied only to his time that brief time -- and not to all time. Much of New Testament scholarship since has been an attempt to find some way around Schweitzer's conclusion, some reinterpretation, some historiographic device, that would reclaim Jesus from his own time and make him available for our time.
It was not just this one point in which Schweitzer found Jesus conditioned exactly by his own time and with appropriate words for his own time. Indeed, it was his whole message and his whole life, which was world-denying. Ever deeper study of the life of Jesus indicated at every point how involved he was in his own time, its tensions, its frustrations, and its turmoils. He died finally in his own time, for his own time, and at the hands of his own time. Thus he cannot be lifted us from this time past and set down in our own time. The question of what judgment Jesus would pronounce on this or that deed in this time is always irrelevant and unanswerable. He spoke for his own time.
The implication, of course, is that this is a fault -- at least a misfortune, perhaps even a deficiency -- in the leader of Christianity. He should have spoken for all time and thus for our time. He should have spoken universal truths, but instead he was aggravatingly specific, and said to render unto Caesar -- and the neighbor to be loved is the Samaritan.
Of course, if it were altogether true that Jesus spoke to his own time alone, he should have been forgotten when his own generation came to its end -- the very time within which he expected the world to come to an end. But the historical fact is that he has not been forgotten. His words and deeds were truly often forgotten and he was remembered only as a God with the power to confer a life beyond death. Yet even his words and deeds were never entirely forgotten and became resurgent again and again down through the centuries. Somehow his words and his own life that spoke only to his own time were meaningful to later times -- inevitably men would go back to these simple accounts and read them again. What has been the source then of this periodic re-examination of the life of Jesus, and the continued references to him? An inevitable misinterpretation? Schweitzer's view seems very nearly to imply this. You may have Jesus in your own time to take him to your bosom only by misinterpreting him. Even Origen seems to have recognized this misappropriation, for he suggested that the value of the account might lie in its very vagueness by which every man could interpret it to suit himself. The insight in this seems remarkable for the second century when today almost every man who can write undertakes to rewrite the life of Jesus to suit himself.
I do not think that we can settle the matter finally with quite such a simple explanation. The two millenium long interest in the words and deeds of Jesus cannot be quite fully explained by attributing it to the common human propensity to misinterpret in order to interpret as one pleases. We must re-examine the premise which declares that Jesus is not available because he was timely. We might try considering the reverse: that he is valuable now because he was timely then. Perhaps the revelation of his enduring appeal may be discovered here.
And is this not what one finds when he turns back to the synoptic Gospels to read of Jesus? He finds a real person. He finds a man who was timely, who spoke to his own time, felt deeply with it, and would give himself for it. However much these accounts may be hearsay and however much they may be legend, the person revealed is a real person. Real not merely in being an historical as opposed to a fictional figure, but real in being human, alive, fresh, warm, concerned, eager, involved, imperiled, suffering, loving, losing, and dying. If he were not of his own time and for his own time, he would not be all these things. And is this not what we prize and what we seek? The revelation of personal reality? His very value lies in that he was timely and because timely he was real and fully alive.
We must not depreciate the timely. I have undertaken these brief paragraphs about Jesus as the best means available to me to explore the meaning and significance of the timely and to question whether it is not true of us that we prize the timely. We prize it and yet we are not confident in declaring its high value. We should prefer too to talk in universals and erect everlasting monuments. Let us not undervalue what may be the most valuable of all, being timely and relevant, fully a part of life, fully involved, fully committed, and fully giving of self.
Consequently our timeliness, like perhaps a number of our virtues that we do not advertise highly or confidently, may be our greatest attainment. Yet whether we prize it or not, it is supremely important to us, and we may wonder whether we shall ever agree to accept anything less. We could not endure the accusation that we were not timely and relevant.
We may not be able to discern the next step which Unitarianism will take. It may be a very halting step, a timid step, but we shall not take many steps without checking on ourselves to see whether or not we are meeting our own qualifications. We may not determine these requirements in a highly intellectual or articulate fashion, but we shall frame them by virtue of the very persons we have become. We will be timely and we will be honest, and we shall not take many steps that go against these demands in our nature.
When we relate these facts of our own selves to the past of the Unitarian movement and the world of today in which it finds itself we may then discern, I think, something of the direction in which we are going to move. We may not see the exact next stone to put our foot upon, but we are thinking, "It must be this way!”
In hoping to indicate what this next step is likely to be, I have to pause a moment and apologize for grinding the methodological axe. It might be described in a number of ways and a number of various vocabularies might be suitable: psychological, sociological, philosophical, or some other or composite. My choice will be a historico-sociological approach suggested, I suppose, mostly by certain methods in comparative religion, admittedly a pseudo-science. I frame it now in terms of the individual and society. Some students of comparative religion uniformly ask this question of each religion and see it as a continuous problem of each religion. Some perhaps even rest their entire approach upon it. So far as I am concerned, it is a helpful approach at the moment and not necessarily more valid ultimately than some others. I am merely begging that you do not depreciate my intentions here by the form in which I have couched my arguments.
The contrast of the mystic with his religious institution is the most vivid instance of the tension of individual and society in religion. Certain primitive communities give evidence of another type, one in which the individual can only play a role assigned to him by birth and tribal custom. Certain hermits, holy men, and celibates indicate the reverse, a religion of the individual without any social support. Thus we might go through the obvious forms and types in which the individual can relate to the society of his religion. Sometimes there are no choices and the individual can only take the available solution. Sometimes the choices present problems and even incite competition. Sometimes the very character of the relationship presents a problem -- this is our case in this time.
In a measure -- how much of a measure is the final question -- the fate of the person is the foremost problem of liberal religion today. The person is a concern of the times, of course, and this emphasizes the problem and gives it certain characteristics. It has come to the fore, for instance, in the talk of conformity, and we adopt this language though this is not the whole of our concern at all. "Organization man” and the "other directed” have both become well known persons in our present day world, and this description of the problem dominates much thought as it is alleged that these people have had their true inner selves eroded by external demands and judgments. We wonder whether any of us are completely free of such erosions and whether we have not been made what we are by our effort to be what is expected of us.
Thus the entire adjustment psychology which seemed a few years ago to be the solution to the individual's life task becomes the threat that would rob him of his very being. The sequence of question and doubt is from adjustment to conformity to the destruction of the person.
Yet these are only the beginnings of the doubts about the nature of the real person. Dare we treat people in the courts as if they were merely the products of their unhappy neighborhoods, whether the slums or an over-indulgent suburbia? Are people not something in themselves and to be held accountable for their own actions? We waver today between the notion that a man is not at fault for what he is because someone else has made him that, his neighborhood, the war, his companions, or his parents, and the notion that he must be taught forcefully what he failed to learn -which comes to look like mere vindictiveness. We wonder where the real person is in all this.
A not greatly different puzzle arises over rehabilitation, one of the most popular of recent efforts at man's betterment. When we rehabilitate a man, whether from crime, mental illness, physical handicap, age, or mere lack of privilege, do we do more than find some adjustment for him? Some mode of life acceptable to the community where he must live? Some role for him to play out that is not unbecoming?
Again we ponder over such a threat to the person as certain efforts for his welfare that are alleged to pauperize him. To pauperize a man is to make it profitable for him to become a pauper, I suppose, and no one can any longer doubt that this has been the effect of some of our public welfare efforts. The role has been described quite vividly many times of families that have made a very happy adjustment to the relief check and the welfare lady.
We can find very similar doubts about efforts made at the most sophisticated levels as is suggested by what is sometimes called "supportive therapy.” When a person has gone weekly or even almost daily to a psychiatrist for a dozen years, we justifiably wonder whether this can be called therapy at all. Perhaps the patient has adapted to a mode of life that makes living possible for him, one in which he can become adequately competent -- competent enough to earn enough money to pay the doctor bills, at least. Yet is such treatment in any way making this person into a real person? Or is it merely providing the support -- as the very label suggests -- by which he can attain a life satisfactory to him?
Every area of activity and field of thought has put some aspect of the problem in its own formulations: what is the real person? It is as if we had realized that Socrates injunction to "Know thyself” was at bottom impossible to heed. Our perplexity is taken into every problem we face to give it a personal aspect.
We fear another war not merely because it might mean a holocaust beyond anything ever known before in man's history. We have the fear itself to fear, as it has become popular to say, and our concern is over the fate of the person. Is he not already being destroyed by the very imminence of war, so that he can live no normal life, all his evaluations and purposes made trivial because he is unmanned?
It is not any mere "keeping up with the Joneses” that disturbs us, for this alone is a small item of evidence in a great flood in this time that flows over the person to drown him. We have not enough appreciated the extent of the oppression upon us of this threat to the person which we fear. The art of our time, especially our literature, has not grasped this theme deeply. It has not done what the Existentialist literature has been able to do in giving form to the problem so that it can be felt. We talk, of course, of the confusion in this time and speak of man's feeling lost, but this is too general and too vague to crystallize our feelings, and has become a stereotype of speech makers. A few of the American war novels seem to me to have me closest to revealing the aloneness of the person amidst gigantic forces, but they have not come close enough.
I suggest that we disconcert ourselves by our fondness for using a psychologizing approach to every mention of the individual. We analyze every question into terms of insecurity, compulsion, trauma, or one or another of the popular vocabulary of psychopathology. This gives the impression that the pressures on the person are internal and that he will solve his problem by getting himself somehow internally reorganized. I shall cite the fate of some of the great literature of the past in the hands of the present day which is sure to respond to Hamlet as if the play were a case history of a psychopath. An instance that is more clear in my mind in my personal experience arises in the rather unusual number of opportunities that I have had to see Hedda Gabler. Only once have I seen an American actress interpret Hedda Gabler as anything more than a bored sophisticate with an easily identifiable neurosis. The largeness of Henrik Ibsen's conception is in this reduced to only a minor irritation, and one wonders why anyone wrote a play about a minor, personal frustration. Ibsen did not, but we make it into this in our viewing of it.
We shall not confront the bondage of the urgencies in the human spirit in this time by this psychologizing, nor release them by relegating them to the psychoanalyst's couch. This, gentlemen, is a religious matter, and it involves the person in its confrontation of the world in which it must live and in the universe, for even as the world calls halt, the universe beckons.
Unitarianism in America has had a continuous and intimate contact with the problem of the individual, and in forms that are still familiar to us. Unitarianism's pre-history in this country sought for a confidence in man's ability and for courage, hardihood, and venturesomeness equal to the challenge of this vast, rich land. This required the abandonment of much of the immigrant religion that asserted man's impotence, world uselessness, and personal purposelessness. Instead, it affirmed finally, man's inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, indeed a radical, bold, and almost pompous declaration of his significance.
In Unitarianism the urgency toward a new understanding of man was indicated in Channing's long effort to devise a doctrine of man within the framework of a religion. By the middle of the nineteenth century the concern for man had become intensely personal in what might be the pinnacle of a specific stream of man's quick rise in Emerson's "Self Reliance” and in his injunction to the theological school students to "acquaint men at first hand with deity.”
While this self-assertion was coming to its full emphasis, the second urgency was also taking on distinctive forms, and this was the concern for the perfection of man's world. While Emerson was asserting man's self-reliance, others were testing man's ability to improve his lot by the abolition of slavery, reconstruction, education, health, social welfare, and the whole host of efforts that distinguished us by the turn of the century.
I have the feeling that at the turn of the century, the Unitarians were so engrossed in righting the world that they dwelt little upon themselves in any disturbed mood. This appears o be the testimony of William James who began is great work on the "Varieties of Religious Experience” with the chapter on the "healthy minded”. James couldn't find very many healthy minded. They were mostly his Boston Unitarian friends, such as Edward Everett Hale. They didn't interest him very much so he then completed two volumes on the sick souls, and gave the whole study of the psychology of religion, what for us, must be seen as an unfortunate turn. Edward Everett Hale, and his compatriots in religion in his time, were concerned to set man's world to rights and they created "Lending Hand” societies. They were too busy about the world's problems to have troubles of their own, and they had achieved the self-confidence necessary to enable them to push ahead without examining themselves or their premises. It was truly the time of "the progress of mankind onward and upward forever”.
What has happened to us in the twentieth century seems to me clearly indicated by a few obvious points in the history of our churches. These undertook first, from the turn of the century, a period of long pastorates. At least it was so in my part of the country. The theological complexion exemplified extremes as evidenced by Arthur Weatherley in Lincoln, Nebraska, and George Rowland Dodson in St. Louis. They were long pastorates nevertheless, and each had very marked individualities, but these churches in our metropolitan centers established a stable, secure role for themselves with little change in membership personnel during the generation. The movement as a whole hardly expanded. Perhaps it contracted to major metropolitan institutions. Each was quite self-sufficient, and the ministers spoke politely to each other when they met at annual conferences and somewhat less politely to officers of the American Unitarian Association. It seems to me almost typical of the transformation of a movement from its more dynamic character as a sect to the service of more stable community problems as a church.
In the twenties the restlessness began. By the thirties the urgency for revitalization had burgeoned to an alarming size. Today it has come to dominate the movement and has found forms in which it can move to the reconstruction of the movement in new institutions and new forms of the institution. Our immediate background is the churches of the first quarter of the century, which were comfortably established to serve the stable values of the community. It is out of this immediate background that we confront this time in which the individual is frustrated in his search for purpose, torn by a multitude of demands, and threatened in his very person.
If you try to represent to such a person in this time, that the solution for him resides within one of these institutions that we built earlier in the century, he can only suppose you are jesting. This looks like retreat or escape to him, as if you are recommending that he need only forget all his problems and immerse himself in an insulated euphoria. The person who comes to us, comes because he does have problems, and this is exactly the one solution he is not prepared to accept.
Thus we are creating a very different type of religious institution, not because this demand is somehow made upon us, but because we are the people we are, for we are none of us able to accept the church that we devised a generation ago. Thus the problem we face is an institutional problem. We need only be self-conscious for a moment to observe our efforts and the points of our concern to see that actually we are deeply immersed in this problem. We are trying every conceivable kind of program. We test this and that form of organization. We write constitutions and then rewrite them. We debate the profit in one effort, and argue over the responsibilities of committees, commissions, councils, and boards. We are a vast effort of institutional reconstruction.
The concern that drives us, however, is the person. If we were concerned exclusively or even primarily with the institution, we should settle on something and then build up the structure to maintain it. But the institution for us is not tested by its own ability to endure, to amass power, or to encompass. The institution is tested by us in its effect upon persons and its ability to meet the problems of persons. Thus we change it, redesign it, test it, and even build it over from the beginning.
A subtle shift in focus has taken place. From the time a few decades ago, when the question was whether religion could make the world a better place for man, the question has changed to asking whether religion itself can devise a better place for man. The inquiring finger moved from one to another concern for the world until it has come to point at religion itself. Religion has followed the direction of the moving finger, sometimes belatedly and sometimes pointing the finger, but it is not quite prepared to accept the fact that the finger has come to point at itself. This is perhaps only a subtle shift, but for religion it is tolerably cataclysmic.
Truly the issue for religion in this time is religion itself -- and the religious institution. More and more it is being asked, "What are you doing to man? or for him?”
We may not face this question with full clarity within Unitarianism, but we face it. If we are not exactly re-examining our religion and our religious institutions to reveal what the answer frankly is, we are at least experimenting to discover what values we may serve.
Does religion provide a locus for a significant life rather than a place where a person may spend his otherwise idle hours cooking church dinners and serving on committees? Does religion lead a man more deeply into life or provide a cloister for a pleasant separateness from life? Does religion break through the limitations and barriers that confine life to prescribed littlenesses, or does it strengthen the barriers to insure the confinement? Does religion offer a challenging range of attitudes and attachments to draw out a life, or does it define a simple set of stereotyped responses to life's challenges? Does religion lay hold of the fullness of the universe to reveal it to its communicants, or does it hold up but one aspect for eyes to focus on?
All these questions may be asked and some are being asked vigorously. Unitarianism asks these questions of itself with increasing frequency and deepened concern. I take this as evidence that we are turning to this pressing question, and if we have already turned to it, the insistent demands will surely cause us to imbed ourselves more deeply in it, and we shall move in this direction as our next step.
The most clearly enunciated questions that we have to answer are posed in sociological and psychological terms. I am not saying that we have to answer to sociology or psychology, but rather that the questions shall come in these vocabularies prompted by popular concerns arising from these sciences. The questions will be in such forms as these: What sort of society do you provide? How do you propose something beyond a society by which its goodness may be judged? What is the effect of your society upon the person? What form of person does your society cultivate? What range of personalities can your society accommodate? What personal dynamic does your society rely upon for its maintenance? We shall put such questions as these to ourselves with ever greater frequency.
We shall not be content, of course, with the sociological and psychological formulations merely and will encompass other forms, surely the philosophical and the theological. The vast legion of traditional questions must again be asked with a new form of concern. Can religion glimpse in the universe the necessities that will sanction one form of society above all others? Is the personality that can adjust to the democratic society the only one the universe can afford to approve? Are the impulses to love and to be loved the only personal dynamic to be cultivated? Can we form an organization that can at one time serve the stable values of the church, provide the dynamic of the sect, and include the significance of the mystical? Is the purpose of the individual person to be defined only in his participation in the world's societies? (This vocabulary is purposely a concoction of the sociological, psychological, philosophical and perhaps others. It might have been more theological in flavor, and only whim dictated this form. The last question could have been formulated: Does the divine become immanent only through the church? The question is over the concrescent nature of God and whether he can be fully concrescent in the actual entity except when society is fully involved.)
Some people will object to this projection as our immediate future. Their conception of religion would prefer some different future, whether more pietistic, more active politically,-or more intellectually or theologically concentrated. I am not saying that our future should be what I am saying it will be, though I shall not be regretful, I think, if it is. I am saying, in a sense that we shall not deny our inheritance, though perhaps we should. We have had an abiding concern for the person, despite a variation in the manner in which we have expressed this concern in our brief history of hardly a half dozen generations. We have a devotion to certain processes that are evidenced in an almost subconscious devotion to honesty and fair play, to use the popular words. These do not permit us to ignore the persons closest to us and we possess a continuous concern, almost an anxiety, over our relations with people about us, and therefore within our little churches. (Much that passes for "human relations” is abhorrent to us because it aims at manipulating people, and manipulating people seems almost exactly what is both degrading of human dignity and a depreciation of human worth.) We insist furthermore on being timely. And the pressures of this time threaten to regularize human behavior, stereotype thought, and standardize emotional responses. Religion and the churches will either add themselves to this pressure, or side with the person against it. I cannot believe that we shall not be the champion of the person in this time.
The perplexing question which we are coming to ask and shall ask with increasing insistence will be "What is the effect of our church on the people in it?” We must admit that we have no certain answers to this question, only a few faiths. The behavioral sciences have hardly provided us with the instruments to answer this question confidently. Each of us has a few haphazard bits of evidence that assure him that the effect of our many doings is good for our people. I shall admit the one that has increasingly impressed me, and this has been our young people. The adolescents who have had the dozen or so years possible to them in our church schools encourage me greatly. They are not very self-conscious about their Unitarianism, which may or may not be important, but they impress me as real persons, with initiative, self-confidence, a good sense of how to live and work together, and with fresh insights. I wish I could be as encouraged about our work with adults.
Our concern over the effect of our church upon the people in it can be actually expressed in a certain kind of research that would be most appropriate to our open minded spirit, but for some reason we have undertaken no such thing or sought to encourage it, and this I find both strange and dismaying.
More to the point at this moment is a fuller grasp of what may lie before us. We can deal with this future in niggardly fashion or we can confront it creatively and with insight. It need not be a mere humanitarianism given over entirely to the popular efforts for human betterment or some one or agglomeration of these that we might adopt as a raison d'etre. It need not be a gleeful ceding of our movement to human relations. It need not be an espousal of any mere techniques, as if there were a final saving grace lodged in them; whether of institutes, of group operations, of committee structures, of church expansion, of fund raising, of training of ministerial skills, or any other of the whole host of bright new stimulants. These are all properly prescribed for us, but each should be taken moderately, preferably accompanied by a cathartic.
If this is a proper religious question, and we can be sure it is, then the real challenge is to invest it with the fullness that the word religion should bring with it. The peril is that any religion may descend to the level of the problem posed by a time, so that it is no larger than the problem; that it may succumb to the timely. When it does, it becomes "a rule of safety,” and not an "adventure of the spirit.”
The challenge to us is that we lift our effort above a mere treatment of the manipulation of people in groups or the mere psychologizing of the individual in his adjustment to external pressures into a larger and more insightful understanding of the person and his community, an understanding that is more than intellectually stated so that it becomes the full functioning of a religious community in which the person shall be led to know both the fullness of his own being and his involvement in the fullness of all being.