The Soul's Fierce Struggle

Berry Street Essay, 1959

Dr. J Raymond Cope


This is a transcription from a tape made of an address given by

Dr J. Raymond Cope, Minister, The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, California,

given without manuscript, for The Berry Street Conference May Meetings  

May 22, 1959




Dr. J. Raymond Cope


The Unitarian Ministers who have attended the Berry Street Conference, since William Ellery Channing first addressed his fellow ministers, inaugura­ting this annual occasion, have heard some noble utterances through the years. Each year, the Minister who is invited to write an. essay on the subject of his choice, is given eight months in which to prepare - to look into his deepest in­sights, summarize them and bring to this body what that Minister thinks to be-basic. Laymen are not invited, and a minister speaks to his fellow ministers about their common concerns. I submit to you that eight months is a long time to carry the burden of looking over one's thoughts, asking one's self whether this or another thought is worthy to be presented. Then, finally the day arrives, and one is aware that, notwithstanding the fact that he at no time has neglected his preparation, his greatest wisdom and his greatest eloquence really find him somewhat humble before his fellow ministers.

This morning I want to speak about Man's spiritual struggle, and the way it relates to the Church, and more particularly to the profession which we have chosen. By way of introducing this, I would like to say something about the Berkeley Church, of which I am Minister. The Church occupies a most imposing corner on the edge of the University of California Campus. It is a beauti­ful structure, designed by one of the great masters of design. Its simplicity is disarming. Whatever one's religious outlook, there is something about the build­ing itself, that tells a person "this is the truth!"  To the pulpit have been invited many of our great ministers. My immediate predecessor was Horace Westwood. He had a long and profitable ministry. Back through the years: Robert French Leavens, Harold Speight, John Howland Lathrop, and before him, Frederick Lucian Hosmer, Geoghegan, and Payne.

My experience during these thirteen years has been as different from anything I had ever known previously in the ministry, as if I were in a different profession. Week after week, depending upon the minister’s other commitments, he rarely spends less than twenty hours in his study, and more often thirty or more, visiting with people who come by appointment, each for an hour. Whatever con­versation is introduced, erelong, upon the persuasion of the Minister, the visitor begins to unfold something about his own deep hungers and his problems. The people who come are of all ages: adolescents, young adults, people of advanced years. Recently a woman of ninety-eight, one of California’s first women physi­cians, came, and having heard me give a series of lectures, announced that she found it necessary to re-think everything she had believed. They come bringing every imaginable question. Personal problems, family problems, some discovery, or just the awareness of the presence of "nothingness". To each person who comes, I make the same request. "In your search, when you discover something, will you please come back and share it?" There are psychiatrists and psycho­analysts, needing someone sympathetic to talk to, who come. From these people, as well as from their patients, I learn some things that have almost revolutionized my thinking, religiously.

I am a Minister, and I address Ministers. It is not my intention to speak of the work of psychiatrists or psychologists. They have their method. It is not ours. I want to speak about the minister, but, parenthetically, may I suggest that the time is not far off when we are going to have a new crop of theologians. They are people who have been trained in a new profession of "listening" – list­ening quietly and passing no judgment. This has been done in the confessional, but beyond this, the similarity breaks down, and the priest and the psychologist have little in common.  But, they may be coming to us in the not distant future as theologians, armed with insight as deep as no other professional has been privileged to obtain. I assure you that much that passes today as good theory in the field of psycho-therapy, compares with the use of leaches and bloodletting in the field of medicine. It isn't easy for one trained in the field of the natural sciences to set himself up as one to solve the spiritual problem, the cure of the soul. Psycho-therapy has as many mechanics, as many individuals seekingclues about themselves, as many not knowing the mystery of human personality, as any other profession we now know. Listening has been a great privilege, and from it I have come to have a very deep concern, for the Church, and an even deeper concern for the Minister in his attempt to fulfill his traditional role of prophet and priest.

I want to think of the question in two inter-related areas. One, the spiritual searchings which I have called "Man's Soul's Fierce Struggle", and second, the manifestations this search takes, through the various forms of insti­tutional life in the Church, our services, our activities. May I reverse the order of these in speaking to them.

The religious observance, the ceremonials, the celebrations, (the surfaces of the services of worship), as well as the creeds, the doctrines, the dogmas (which are their theoretical justification, and the historical authentication to which they make significant reference), have a low meaning, and a high meaning.  In their low meanings, none of them really make much sense. On the high level of meaning, you find all of them profound, with metaphorical significance. Taken literally, it is difficult to imagine Man becoming more stupid, or more supersti­tious or giving less attention to the normal processes of intellectual life. You find Joseph Smith sitting on one side of a curtain, and on the other, Moroni and his golden tablets, and from these the Book of Mormon is translated.  Or, on a mountain covered with smoke, lightening flashing, Moses stands receiving the Decalogue from the Finger of God.  Or, Jesus, who for three centuries had his life carefully edited and changed, as well as his teachings, to meet the catechistic needs of the beginning Christian Church.  No matter what religion you speak of, there is none that has much to say about an authenticating historical moment, that stands up very high. The research of the past fifty years has drawn abso­lutely everything out from under the orthodox tradition that that Church claims as its authentication. We know now that it was not until 150 AD, or more nearly 180 AD, that Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Thou art the rock, and on this rook I will build My Church".  And, furthermore, "I am giving you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven". It took Jesus until 180 AD to tell this to Peter!  Before that the Church did not have much need of a rock, or of Peter’s keys.  I say, looking at it on this level, the great moment breaks up into a mirage! These stories have been created by the great myth-makers, the great poets. All the great traditions begin by a "once upon a time". The same is true of the doctrines, the dogmas. There never was a doctrine or a dogma that would stand up under intellectual inquiry. Yet, there is no one of them that is not profound in its deeps.  They speak a metaphorical language, and they speak to the human spirit. Very often the mind knows not this language at all.  The creation story - the Garden of Eden myth, seems to be as authentic a statement of Man's interpretation of his own involvement in creation as any other. Man, historically, has held himself responsible for throwing the monkey-wrench into the cogs of creation. Adam, in the Hebrew, means "Red Earth", and Man sees that in some way his own existence - "Red Earth",into which God has blown his own breath; is metaphorical, parabolical, it says something that is oblique, yet none the less true. That woman is created from something very close to Man's bosom; the boisterous waves separate to allow men who are righteous to walk on firm ground, while those who are unrighteous are engulfed; a man who is untrue to his commitments is swallowed by some great monster from the deep; or another man forfeits family, wealth, health, learns something about suffering, and in the end comes up with the indomitable statement, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him". These are all in metaphor. When you speak of historic moments, when you speak of creeds, dogmas, or doctrines, this is one thing; but, if you are speak­ing of the ritual, the festivals, the ceremonials, you are speaking of something else. They are two different things. The latter are things the mind under­stands but slightly, but they give issue to profundities not to be captured bythe normal intellectual processes.

So much for the form. Now we turn to Man.'s spiritual search, and I confess to you I hardly know what it is we are trying to define. There is a certain element –we give it many words. It is something like the wind – you know not where it cometh or whither it goeth. It has a mystery about it that is as great as anything which Man calls into attention. There are sense im­pressions; there are bodily processes; there are mental activities; somewhere along the line there are moods, there are feelings, values are identified.  Ideas grow out of data, and somehow or other, there are convictions, a course of action. Man identifies something that is sacred – he would give his life for it. A man who sips his cup of hemlock is more free than those who had passed judgment upon him. Though one be crucified upon the cross, the light which is brought from the engulfing darkness has taught people in the intervening 2,000 years that he had something that made his fellow men say "It's almost Godlike!" And, "if God ever had a Son, surely it was He."  It is difficult to identify the element, yet you know it when you see it.  Someone is gentle, is patient, he is loving, he is forgiving, he knows how to be loved,and he knows how to seek forgiveness: there is a certain rudimentary unity, a sense of integrity (Paul called it the fruits of the spirit), it is the presence of something which prevents a person from being defeated in the presence of conditions that the world names defeating, of something able to bring a light out of darkness. This is the religious experience.

So far as it relates to the church, to the services of worship, it regis­ters on two very different levels. On the one hand, there are the day to day, the ordinaries of life –people coming with their little ethical questions. Don't mistake me when I designate them as "little". They are not little, they are very important – but I distinguish them from my second point. Little insights, and little examples enable a person to make choices, make judgments, and live day after day, week after week, what we call "a very religious life". But, I submit to you, it is possible for people to attend mass, to heed the mes­sages in what may be called a popular sermon, for many years, and use these as the means of hiding themselves from the great reality which is the religious search. There is a certain hunger people have to be told sweet things, to be reassured that nothing is basically wrong, that Man doesn't need to be changed very much, that in a moment he will awaken and discover it was all just a bad dream. Religious festivals may be the means of keeping him in a state of insensitivity. There is no minister in a pulpit who is not begged by his congregation to say that nothing is basically at fault!

Now, on the second level, and what I am leading up to as my true concern, there is the soul's fierce struggle, and this is something that is of another nature altogether. The Greek tragedian knew it was not the exceptional person who was so marked, that all people born into the world carry heavy burdens, loads that might crush a giant, that there is no way to change the circumstances of much of life, and that day by day the pattern of life must unfold, far from the heart's sincere desire.  They also knew that it was the exceptional person, the Hero, who was able to stand up and read the record as it should be read. The Greeks knew nothing of the things we speak most of, of "happiness" and "success", in which you are able to stand up, and masterfully meet and change the circumstances of life, coming out the victor. The Greeks knew that in thegreat and ultimate encounter, you don't change the circumstances to come out the victor, and that happiness and success do not deserve much place in the vocabulary of the greatest terms of the human search. The Greeks knew this. I would submit to you that the Church and religion is but another name for Manwho sees in life elements over which he has no control, no real resources for dealing with anguish and with suffering.  The lasting allegories of the past have told us of these, and herein the minister must become sensitive in his insights. All of the intellectualization in the world will pass over what is seminal. I would assure you that though there is much in science, much in our rational nature, that is required in the paths of life, in this area intellectualization does not have a very central role. 

Let me remind you of Jacob wrestling all night with an unknown adversary, and thereafter spending the rest of his life limping as a result of the encounter; something in his nature was changed. Or, remember Job, or St. Paul.  You may find reason to take issue with much that St. Paul said, but after all, the conflict of "the spirit and the flesh" are probably as good a description as anyother to identify the hemispheres of one's life that are in constant conflict. One need not use the term "demonic" and "evil spirits", yet Man seems con­stantly gripped with something which is just as compelling, just waiting to spring its trap.

I don't know why, but, in the religions of the world I would not know where to detect one which has ever permitted God to have much respect for Man. Man feels that in some way he has betrayed Creation. He feels that Man has the keys to eternity within his hands. The possibility of opening or closing the gates of Heaven are his. Some sort of judgment is always imminent, and Man has written back into his myth, into his legend, something about the great voice, the great eye, the great finger pointing suspiciously at Man – and Man is always the betrayer. The living myths have said this because Man deeply believes it. He writes into his myth and into his legends and into the religious literature what he knows his Gods must say. You and I know that God couldn’t say anything that Man doesn’t let Him say. Man is always searching himself, and there is a sense of guilt that is almost primordial.  Some would say differently, and deny that it is Man who reads disapproval into God's judgment of Man. They may talk about "revelations". Revelations are a common­place of experience if you mean the source of great art, great poetry, great music,great insight, deep wisdom. But, "revelation" doesn't apply any more in the field of religion than it does in these other fields. It isthe legend, the myth, that is the carrier of wisdom, and though I would not want to defend the point in your presence this morning, I would say that the living mythology of the Greeks is more profound than the great philosophy of those whose names are better known. It is in metaphor, it’s in myth, it’s in the legend, that youfind the noble tradition of Man who struggles with something over which he has no control. I submit to you, that this is the scope in which the Church isto be saved or the Church is to be lost. Again, may I repeat, the little ethical preachments we may choose to give week after week, can be the means of hiding Man, everlastingly, from the deep searches in which he must engage.

Productive insights can come from everywhere. No tradition has exclusive claim. They happen in the Catholic Mass; they happen in the Funda­mentalist revival; they were present in the ceremonials, the rituals, of primi­tive man; they will still come in ways not now known. Each one, in its way, the means of introducing Man to the deeps of the religious search.  And, again I say, there is a high tide, and a low tide. One day it is rich and the tradition is able to nourish; the next day it is administered by mechanics.

It is my opinion that today we have a world of people who are bordering close to the threshold of anxiety. The wise little preachments, and the bits of ethical idealism, do not touch the spot. The question, "What must I do to be saved?" is not a carry-over of an antiquated theology. People who are really raising the question of "what must I do to be saved?" are leaving our churches and they are going to men trained in the natural sciences, men who are psychiatrists, men trained in clinical psychology. These are the men who are hearing people with a feeling of inner desolation raise the question, "who am I?"; where am I going?"; "what are my values?"; "why do I fail?". Here is the soul's fierce struggle! These are religious questions! Let me describe them further. Something about that person prevents him from being or feeling loved. You get close to him, and you observe a person in eternal war. He doesn't know much about his own emotional life, he holds other people at arm's length, he surrounds himself with booby-traps, the subtleties of self-deception. When another gets close, there is an explosion! "You did this and that to me!" These people are in all professions, all walks of life. I am frightened –  I repeat it again, I am frightened at the mass of people who are going to Churches, when the priests they meet there are people who haven't the slightest conception of what is taking place inside most of them. The priests do not even know about their own "wars".

In a thousand subtle ways the Minister can communicate the range ofhis concern. It's easy to identify the aberrations in our political, social, or educational order. It’s easy to form lectures, go here and there on this crusade and that, sit on Boards. I am not belittling them, do not misunderstand me. These institutions had better hear a prophetic voice in the Church. But, what I am also suggesting, is that the Minister who does not know the meaning of"conversion", or of "the salvation of the human soul", or the "mystery of the new birth", or "the transformation", the unification of the person, or the overcoming of something which is basically neurotic, is going to find himself in hot water in the days we have ahead. The tide is not yet full. What we are seeing is the first faint ripple of a tidal wave that is on the way. There is a fundamental falseness about our lives today. Just as when one has eaten something that is poisonous there isa constriction of the stomach muscles, so the neuroticisms of our day are but another way of indicating that something about the person is being constricted and people are being made ill. The statistics on divorce and delinquency; the various things people take refuge in; what we mean by our famished search for prestige, success, and power; our inability to gear our economy to anything but war; our fear, almost, of having our Secretary of State come home with tidings of peace; all indicate something of the depth of the confusion with which we are all obsessed

The people who are filling our Churches are coming with a hunger that I think it is easy for us to under-estimate.  Man has always been this way in a sense. But, today, if he is not fed in the Church, our Ministers add to the destruction of the Church. There is something about Man that he shares with all nature, a certain compulsion to grow. A seed, a plant, an animal grows and goes through a cycle of life, and Man shares with all nature this process.  But he is more complex. He has a psyche, and in the process of growth, the psyche unfolds. Much of one’s growth is biological. We see it, and in a sense it camouflages other things that get stunted which are not seen by the eye. One does emerge from infancy, grows in height and weight. One looks very much like an adult. It happens that Man has within him another order, and so far as I know it isshared by nothing else in nature, and that is a fundamental fear of growth; a drawing bask, a fear that growth involves him, in things he doesn't know how to encompass. At this point comes ''crisis". If the crisis comes early enough, and deep enough, it can be traumatic. This is all common knowledge. One may spend one's whole life and never get out of it, never over­come it. To use the terms loosely, if propulsion in growing is a life instinct, then the shrinking-back is not too unlike what has been called the death instinct.  You see this most plainly in the adolescent. From childhood, the youngster is fed on codes, creeds, beliefs, his language, everything his parents know to give him, and then begins the period in which the child begins to draw back. He pulls down the blinds and stands at arm's length from everyone. During this time he is asking himself, "what do I mean?", "What is sacred to me?" "What do I want to become?" "Where do I want to go?  "What is my destiny?" This is crisis! This is what Eric Erickson calls the "Identity Crisis" in his book which I would recommend to you, a study of adolescence, called "Young Man Luther". It is but another way of describing what the religionists have referred to as "original sin" – Man confronting the limitations within himself, Man confronting what the older theologians called his own sinful nature.  While I would not want to defend John Calvin, (I think the whole system of Protestantism would have been different had he gone thru an analysis), nevertheless, what he is speaking about is something which is indigenous to human experience. One never lives beyond an identity crisis. Each new experience brings up again the need to put the pattern of life together.

I think that today the religious struggle, the soul’s fierce struggle, has to do with something over which the mind has almost no control. The unfolding of the depths in people must not be relinquished to men trained in biology, chemistry, and other of the natural sciences, although they are important fields. May I assure you, that with the growth in dimension of this sort of crisis, the Church is going to cease to exist as a significant movement in our culture,unless it, in some way, comes to grips with the whole problem, finding means whereby minister as priest is able to adequately answer the question, "What must I do to be saved?". 

The liberal minister does not occupy an enviable position. I think there is no pulpit in America which is filled with a higher type of person than are the Unitarian and Universalist ministers.  I believe there is no minister who has ever had a more difficult assignment. The central symbol of our Church is Man, appointed by his fellow men in the role of their spiritual leader. It hasn't been difficult for us to see that Man is a prophet. I submit to you that the time is at hand when the liberal Church is in need of a minister who is also priest. In this respect he is ministering in a way that doesn't have much to do with the ethical admonitions of the most eloquent preachments, but in terms of a kinship and under­standing, a relationship giving people what they do not find anywhere else – a companioning of their search. The liberal minister does not have the defense of doctrines and codes (your work would be easier if you did). You become the doctrines; you become the codes; you become the dogmas, and don't think that you don't! You become the embodiment of your tradition; you become symbolic of all the bifurcations, the hostilities, the loves, the hopes, the dreams of your congregations. People who do not believe in the Passion story of the New Testa­ment, nevertheless, in some way, need to see it enacted in their own Parish, involving their own minister. There are many ways in which a minister may be crucified, and sometimes he doesn't have all of the eternal powers to bring him out of the grave. The resurrection is more difficult! It’s part of a projected ritual--you fall heir to virtues you do not possess, you are seen to possess vices that are not your own. You become symbol of something that is deep. I beg you, do not become apologetic of the symbol of a Man who is leading his congregation, a Man who has no final statement in a scripture, in a legend, in a doctrine, in a dogma, or in a myth. Without these, it requires a greater strength than would be necessary if you had them to support. But, as liberals, here is where you are.

If you forget everything I have said to you this morning, I would like you to remember this story. There was a young man in the University who came to see me a number of times some six or eight years ago. He married, and I was given considerable credit by him for helping him to find some adjustment. His brother came to town and made an appointment and called. He sat there and I sat there,and nothing was said for maybe five minutes, and then he said, "No, I can't do it, it is not as simple as I had anticipated". I still said nothing and waited for him to say what he wanted. Then, thinking perhaps I could devise a means of encour­aging him, I said, "Now, I do not know why you have come, but suppose it was to be your privilege to visit the wisest man who ever lived, what would you say to him?" He promptly answered, "I wouldn't say anything", and then I was a bit more embarrassed. "Well now", because it looked as though I was trying to tell him that I was really posing as this wisest man, I shifted the story, "Supposing just by some chance you were to leave here and go some place and meet somebody who really was as wise a man as any who lives today, what would you ask him?" "Iwouldn't ask him anything!"  And then I was embarrassed!Almost in defense, "What would you do?" What he answered chilled me to the bone. "I would just watch him, I would just watch him."   I submit to you, that as ministers, you have a unique role in the soul's fierce struggle. People don't always know what you are talking about in your sermons they don't know how to listen, but they do know howto watch! They can deify you, they can tear you to shreds. The people whocome to your church are looking for the important things, they are motivated by the soul's deep, fierce search, and you are going to find that you are implicated. You are involved in all the tangled riddles of their life. They can build you into the image of a giant, and they can cut you to pieces in more ways than you have of dreaming. Your whisper is like a shout. Don't under-estimate what is takingplace. As a minister you are being watched! I would suggest that in your religious role, you are not meaning much to your people until you are up to here in trouble.

They watch your face, they watch your family, they watch your children, they watch your wife, they watch what takes place when you stumble and the way you recover yourself. And they do this, because in some way this interprets to themtruths they do not know otherwise how to hear. These the ear may not hear. The soul's fierce struggle!

In conclusion, may I reiterate. We are living in a period of great tension. This tension is not an aberration. In part it isthe symptom of something that is coming to birth. In part, it isthe price that has to be paid for tomorrow. This is not momentary. It will begin to settle down –  you will see people filled with more anguish than you ever thought possible. We are living in a day in which one world, the world our ethical concepts have been geared to, isa world that died long since, and the new world has not yet fully come to birth. It isa period that is as important in its dimension as the discovery of fire, or of the first simple tool, or of the written language. All of this converges, and man is in some way spiritually feverish. I can well believe that every institution of religion has the eyes of people turned upon it. They may not be attending the services, but they know what istaking place there. More people in your community have evaluated you than you have ways to know. If the minister stands up nobly and with dignity, if he is not caught with his defenses low, if he is able to deal with the mystery of his own life with dignity, he is saying to people something they deeply need to learn, to hear and to see.

The intensity of life will increase, the agony is going to increase, and the suffering will grow. There is no one of us who should be willing to turn one finger over to assuage it. What we want is not a cessation, if anything, it should be an intensification, until through fire, something is cooked out of Man that isfatty, and soft, and flabby. I think we are living in the most magnificent period in the history of the world. Do not under-estimate the price you are going to have to pay to minister in these days. Do not oversimplify the tangles in personal life, and the religious search which will become yours. But, in some way, may there be the strength to see tomorrow born, and in the centuries to come, may other generations look back and find in us a faith that was indomitable, a hope that was not eclipsed –  and in some way may we be given the strength to endure.