The Church: Salient or Subordinate?
Dorothy T. Spoerl
Berry Street lecture, 1964
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
San Francisco, California
May 9, 1964
Last winter in exploring the possibility of studying the process by which children come to identify with the church, I asked the fourth and sixth graders in one of our large suburban churches to make maps for me; We had first discussed the wide variety of maps that are possible, and then the simple instructions were given: "Make a map showing the places which are important to you.” Not one of the children in these two grades included his church on the map, only one included any church at all!
The director was disturbed, the teachers were sure the instructions were not clear, and even outsiders protested. "It would never have happened,” seemed to be the consensus, "had the task been carried out in a New England village where the church is geographically central. These children had to come too far to get to their church.” Yet the fact remains that "these children” were at the church, itself, when they drew the maps; and that the maps contained many places further removed from their homes than the church, such as their summer camps, spots where memorable vacations had been spent, the riding stable many of them used. It seems rather clear, whatever the reasons may have been, that at the time of drawing the maps the church had not seemed to them an important place.
The thought of continuing this study of the process by which the church does become important to the child (using many other approaches beyond the one described above) is still perseverating, and eventually I hope to start the experimentation that may yield hypothesis which can then be checked against more objective data. In the meanwhile, studying the literature, I have become increasingly impressed with the importance of this whole question of what is relevant and important to whom and why. I am sure you are aware of the increased frequency with which the concept of identification has been appearing in philosophical, educational and psychological literature. Indeed, identification, together with creativity, seems to be vying for top priority in the academic mind.
You may remember Abner Dean's long series of cartoons of the vague, almost amorphous creatures, who in a wide variety of situations, a few possible and most of them ridiculous, keep asking the same plaintive question: "What am I doing here?” It is one of the basic questions of human kind, whether it be the child discovering his own self, the adolescent in what Erikson has labeled an Identity Crisis, or the adult still searching for answers to the nagging problems of our time. Problems which have reality at all levels of development, the nature of which is clearly expressed by this brief series of phrases from Schactel, "the posing of man's eternal questions, Who am I? What is this world around me? What can I hope for? What should I do?” These are, of course, the questions of one who is searching for his own identity.
Helen Lynd has expressed this in such terms as to point the direction in which I would like to carry our thinking this morning,
THE COURSE OF IDENTIFICATION
To attempt to outline the course of identification in a few minutes is to court the danger of superficiality. Yet to review it briefly may act as a spur to our thinking.
It is assumed that the child is born with no sense of self, but that slowly he begins to distinguish that certain things in the environment are a part of the totality which is himself. These fingers, these toes are a part of me (of course he does not verbalize this), those fingers, that cheek, are the other. Slowly he learns such concepts as mine and not mine, more slowly ours and not ours. He begins to test reality and to comprehend that he is an individual among other individuals. He begins, still slowly, to extend his identifications beyond the strictly personal and beyond the home, first as he meets the members of his extended family, and then as he sorts out those people who "belong to us” and those people who do not.
This latter extension continues as he grows and explores the neighborhood, showing a vast increase at school age. He begins to realize the meanings of race and nationality, of social class. The differences in standards and values between one group and another are sensed. At first the meanings are largely verbal, and then slowly the concepts deepen and the identification with one's own race, nationality, social class, religion become deeply imbedded portions of the total identification.
With adolescence comes the deepening of the struggle to know "Who am I” and "What does life mean” as the adolescent is forced to the developmental tasks of his age, most particularly the choice of occupation and the conscious establishment of a philosophy of life with all its values, attitudes, aims and dreams. Erickson reminds us that this identity crisis of adolescence poses real dangers to the development of identification, for forced to make identifications too specifically and too soon one may grow into the dead end of "identity diffusion” with its collection of many identities for many purposes but no central core of identity for the whole of existence, or "identity foreclosure” where a consciously formulated but tentative identification becomes permanent both from the pressure of parents and others, and the desire of the adolescent not to change what he has already expressed. Erikson suggests the great need of a "psychosocial moratorium” for the adolescent, an opportunity to play with alternative ideas without being forced to make decisions, a chance to change, and change again, while he is still in the process of search. Such a moratorium, he points out, the Young Man Luther found in his years in the monastery, but our current civilization offers few places for this quiet contemplation of the future and the working through of one's identification.
Nor does the resolution of the identity crisis of adolescence solve once and for all the identity problems of the individual. The adult, too, as he extends his identifications and changes his values and his goals and his dreams, is constantly faced with the necessity of answering the same questions as to who, and what, and why he is, the questions in brief of the ultimate meaning of life. Erikson calls this final identity crisis the "integrity crisis” where one "focuses . . . on what takes . . . a lifetime to gain a mere inkling of the question of how to escape corruption in living and how in death to give meaning to life.”
It should by now be obvious that the problems of identity are closely akin to the problems of religion; and that that religion which cannot help the individual, as he works his way through all of the identity problems of his existence, is not fulfilling its function as a guiding, integrating and motivating force in living. My chief concern, at the moment, is the problem of the final and adult forms of the search for significance, more specifically how in this search we help the individual to identify with the "greater aspects of the world” of which Lynd has spoken. A few older, but, to my way of thinking, still significant studies occur to me, and I would like to share them with you.
In his book, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, Allport discussed a series of criteria useful in judging the mature individual. One of these which I have always found helpful is the concept of extensions of theself. As infants all are ego-centric, but, as one begins to grow and develop, the concern for other people begins at times to outweigh the concern for oneself. When this happens one is developing an extension of the self, and these extensions both deepen and broaden the personality as they are intercepted to the core of personality. Not only other individuals, but a variety of factors can be evolved as extensions of the self: one's politics, the organizations to which one belongs, one's family, and above all one's life work. When the concern is sufficient so that the welfare of these other persons or organizations take precedence over concern for the self, and when one is as elated at their successes as over his own, then true extensions of the self have occurred. This is a psychological function through which many things can become important to the individual. There is no limit to the extent of coverage which these may involve, certainly they can encompass the world. Whether they could come to include the universe we have not, as yet, had an opportunity to discover. And surely it is not difficult to envision the role the church might play in giving opportunity for these extensions to occur, both in its program of religious education for children and youth and in its overall program of education for the total church.
Some thirty years ago Charlotte Buehler presented an interesting paradigm of the course of life in her book Der Menschlichen Lebenslauf als Psychogische Problem. Starting with a base line which delineates the constricted environment of the new-born, or of the about-to‑die, she shows how the curve of the course of life rises between these two points to a height which is determined by the variety and strength of individuals, institutions and events which become significant to the individual.
The first rise in the curve is dependent on the child's realization of himself as an individual, as a person separate from others, and then as a person who is part of an immediate and then an extended family. Then the curve continues to rise with each additional identification (she does not use this term), first with the peer group in the neighborhood, and then the more extensive acquaintanceships of the school years. As each new contact and experience is added to the life the curve rises higher above the base line. One's occupation adds another increment, as does one's marriage and the subsequent children one may have. There are also increments which come from one's identification with community, state, nation and possibly for some (again she does not mention this) with the total world or even the universe. Further steps upward result from one's membership in institutions, the lodge, the political party or the church.
Now, varying with the type of individual with whom we are concerned, there is a period of leveling off when no new identifications or commitments are made, yet most of those already in existence are kept active. (The discontinuance of childhood friendships may start a downward curve, but for most these are replaced by others.) Then, varying in time from individual to individual, begins the gradual drop in the curve, for some rapid, for others gradual, for a few scarcely perceptible. This drop involves the moving away of friends and acquaintances with whom one does not keep in touch, the death of parents, siblings, one's own marriage partner or children. Beyond these personal decrements there are also other factors pulling the curve back toward the base line once more. One's retirement from business, the growth of one's children so that they are no longer dependent, the losing of interest in the multitude of organizations of which one has been a part.
It is largely in this latter part of the course of life that vast individual differences are seen. There are those whose occupation is such that activity continues far beyond the time of retirement; there are some who never waver in their loyalty to, and work for, the institutions with which they were concerned, and still others who keep the level of the curve high with a continuing concern for what have been all through their lives avocational interests. For some, however, the drop in the curve is tremendous, leading to almost insoluble problems unless help is received. Certainly there are implications in Buehler's whole description of the course of life that have deep importance for those of us who are professionally engaged in helping individuals in the search for significance in their living.
A special example of the drastic downward curve, although not a part of the Buehler presentation, comes from another German study. This was a study of the contrast between the meaning and the meaninglessness of life, published in 1938 as a monograph under the title Uber Sinn and Sinnlosigheit des Leberts.This study was carried out by investigating the problems of as many as possible of the unsuccessful suicides in Vienna over a period of time. One fact of paramount interest to us emerges from this monograph. The primary cause of these suicidal attempts seems to have been the feeling that life has become meaningless. People variously reported that they no longer found satisfaction in their work, or their children or spouses no longer needed them, or that nothing that they did seemed to be of significance. In other words they were suffering from what in our current terminology would probably be described as "anxiety arising out of an identity crisis.” Again, it is clear that had there been someone, or some institution, able both to recognize their problem and to help them in their dilemma, they might not have felt the full impact of meaninglessness in so devastating a manner.
THE CRISIS OF MODERN MAN
What then, we ask, is the crisis in which modern man finds himself, which leads to a life which has lost its significance, where one's extensions of the self have atrophied so that the course of life is dropping rapidly toward the nadir of birth and death? Getzels suggests that this crisis for modern man is essentially a loss of his identity:
Having lost faith in religion, forsaken social causes, given up a sense of his own ultimate worth, modern man is spiritually a displaced person. He has suffered this loss in meaning . . . because he has suffered loss in identity. For identity is the coherent sense of self, the awareness of who one is and what one is becoming, that provides us with the sense of wholeness and integration with the universe and makes conscious choices of right and wrong possible. It depends upon a stable set of values and upon the conviction that one's actions and values are harmoniously related.
It would seem that the solution to this kind of loss in meaning and in identity ought to be less difficult than it really is. Make new friendships, one might say, as the old friendships drop away; do not allow retirement to be the end of one's involvement in the work one has been doing; (yet how many people have worked a lifetime in occupations where there never was a real involvement?); keep plenty of avocational interests, and so on. All this is well and good if life has sufficient meaning for the person that the doing of these things adds to the meaning, but where interests value systems, commitments have been lost or atrophied so that nothing one does seems any longer to have value, these bits of advice become clearly the platitudes which in essence they are.
Others have sought what seemed to them an equally simple solution through faith in the psychoanalytic approach. Let a man come to face himself as he really is, these people will tell us, and find the values and the identities which he no longer recognizes. Then he will emerge once more seeing meaningful relations and regain his conviction that life is valuable, that he is worthwhile, and that he has things to do in a world which he once more understands and finds important. Removal of his repressions, his anxieties, will bring his ultimate values back into focus.
Allen Wheelis has considered this possibility in his The Quest for Identity and found it wanting for these reasons:
Nowadays the lack of identity is more often secondary only to the collapse of institutional absolutes —of goals, values and ideals. . . . In this condition adrift and without compass, lacking even a sense of destination — more and more people seek through psychoanalysis an answer to the question, "Who am I?” It is known to expose deeper feelings, to unmask pretenses, and hence it becomes plausible to assume that it will uncover, also, one's true self. This asks too much of a procedure ... It could uncover an identity provided such were hidden, but cannot create one that is lacking. It could expose a pattern of values, a philosophy of life, provided such were repressed; but these things are not likely to be found in the unconscious. It is usually the other way round: a sense of identity, a pattern of values, a philosophy of life — these are the agents for the repression of other elements of mental life.
Later in the same book he adds:
Modern man cannot recapture an identity out of the past; for his old identity was not lost, but outgrown. Identity is not, therefore, to be found; it is to be created and achieved.
IDENTITY AND THE CHURCH
By now it is not difficult for you to guess what it is that I am trying to say. I would at least hazard the suggestion that there is an institution which might well be able to help in this process of creation and achievement of a sense of identity, which could be uniquely able to help individuals in their search for significance. And I think you already know that I believe this institution might be the church. I do not believe that it is the church as it is presently constituted and functioning, but unless we come to so organize our work and our programs as to be able to do this for our people I am not sure that I see just why the church as an institution should continue to exist.
My starting point in thinking about this phase of the problem is the paragraph from which I have taken the title of my remarks:
As a result a given American at any moment located himself in society by a complex of reference points. He was a German, but also a Lutheran, a Republican, a farmer, a Mid-westerner, a reader of the Volkzeitung and the Tribune, a Mason, and a member of the Turnverein. Not all of these affiliations were purely ethnic, although there was an ethnic element in most of them; and not all had equal weight in his existence. Whichwere salient and which subordinate depended upon the particular configuration that established the individual's identity (italics mine).
What makes a reference point salient or subordinate? Handlin's statement suggests the possible criteria of the weight it has in an individual's existence, and the configurations which establish the individual's identity. (To go back for a moment to the children with whom we started, the church obviously lacked weight so far as their existence was concerned; it was a subordinate element in the configuration of their, existence.)
Perhaps we could examine the meaning of a salient organization by considering a possible series of questions with the focus of our attention on the organizations (most specifically the church) to which an individual belongs:
Why does he attend? From a sense of duty, because it is the thing to do? Because his friends attend? From some vague sense that it is "good” for him? Because of possible economic advantage, i.e. one "meets the right people”? Or because the organization is so meaningful to him that he feels a definite loss from nonattendance?
How does the organization relate to the rest of his life? Are its attitudes, values, meanings, activities self-contained? Or do they give direction to the events of living outside of the organization?
Does the organization truly provide the values he is seeking from it? Or does he attend, and then leave with a faint or strong feeling of frustration that he did not quite find what he was looking for?
What is the emotional quality which comes from the act of belonging? The psychological factor which most frequently ties anything to the central core of the person is emotion. Is the interest in the organization highly personal and individual, or does it touch upon the universals of existence so that it has an enlarging rather than a constricting effect upon the individual?
Is the organization parochial, concerning itself only with the greater good of the selected few, or is it inclusive so that the ultimate values, if realized, would affect society as a whole rather than some single segment?
Recall once more, if you will, a portion of Lynd's comments with which we began our discussion:
Such search for significance includes identifications, but identifications beyond those of one's immediate situation in space and time. It involves, also, efforts to expose the repressions and contradictions of present society, to find seeds of wider values in them and to engage in active efforts to change society in the direction of fuller realization.
The reference point which is salient, which has weight for the individual or the group, is involved with this search for significance. It must be deeply meaningful, relevant to the whole of one's existence, provide genuine values to the individual, and have such an emotional quality that it is at the same time both highly personal and inclusive of the totality of existence.
Each human individual has deep lying needs for such an organization which can integrate his living, help develop his values, and give the motivational strength which can carry the ideals and dreams over into the actions of everyday existence. I am suggesting that the church, more specifically our liberal church, ought to be a salient organization for its members. But I have deep reservations, and feel sure that you share them, as to whether or not it is, at this time, such an institution. What we need to examine is the question of what should be done in order to be able to achieve such salience. And in the examination I am raising problems, not offering solutions, because only deep corporate study can achieve solutions.
In tabulating the responses to the questionnaires for the Commission on Religion and Race I was struck by the churches and fellowships which gave such answers as these (and they are direct quotations): "We are slow to involve ourselves as individuals.” "We are too busy getting our fellowship started.” "Our influence has been behind the scenes.” "We act only as individuals to avoid trouble for the group.” "Our problem is one of survival.” One wonders to what extent the comments might not have been the same regardless of the nature of the problem under consideration.
These same faults of being busy, tending not to involve ourselves, working for survival, along with many others, permeate every aspect of our Association. The problems are basic at the level of continental headquarters, at the district level, and in almost every church and fellowship from the largest to the smallest. We become so busy with the housekeeping details, the letter writing, the filling out of questionnaires, the programming of the single event, the exigencies of the day, that we do not have, or take, the time to focus on the relative importance (the weight or salience if you will) of each of the separate portions to the overall task to which we are committed. This total task could be, but rarely is, to help each individual in his search for significance so that the relationships between the varied parts of his existence come to a focus in a liberal frame of reference from which he will make his basic decisions, judgments and choices. We must at all levels rise above the need to keep the organization functioning, and become more fully aware of what it is functioning for. And this something for which it is functioning must stand out in our minds defined with clarity.
I do not believe that this is currently true for us. It is not true in our program of religious education where we have been so busy with techniques, with programs, with conferences, and with materials that we have not yet really taken time to clarify our thinking about the nature of the unique and individual goals of our program. We do not know exactly what it is for which we are educating our children. It is not true in our program for youth, where we have not adequately tried new forms and approaches that might fit the changing needs of our times. Many of us who come up through youth organizations into the ministry know how salient an organization this can be. I suspect that this is equally true of our women's organizations, our laymen's league, and our local churches and fellowships. Until we know clearly, and with the capacity to communicate, the ends we are seeking we shall miss the mark of ultimate achievement.
THE CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH
I would like to suggest briefly several areas in which the liberal church must rethink, reevaluate, and reorganize its activities before it will become the organization which can be salient in the lives of its members. I leave the actual thinking, evaluation and reorganization to the future when we have really articulated our purposes and goals.
One such area is the worship service as it is currently constituted. In most of our churches, I am convinced that we have stayed too long in rigid and obsolete patterns which are no longer applicable. Each of us I am sure has struggled hard and long with the responsibility that falls on us to produce a meaningful, worshipful, motivating service once a week which will lead the people to commitment to purposes which can be salient in their living. In varying degrees we have succeeded and failed.
I do not know when the general forms of worship most commonly used among us were established, but in the considerable number of our churches and fellowships I have visited I have found little of variety and still less of inspiration. Opening words, a hymn, carefully chosen readings, perhaps some responsive readings and a prayer, another hymn, a sermon, a hymn and a benediction. Sitting in the pews and listening with a critical ear, I have been, more often than not, struck by the lack of meaningful participation on the part of the congregation. The words are read apparently without thought and more importantly without feeling; and carefully chosen though the readings may be, the lack of focused attention on their meanings is patently obvious.
Has the time come for us to seriously examine the Sunday service and ask many questions about it? Is it accomplishing the integrating, motivating, significant purposes for which it is intended? Can we do this largely on the level of verbal and musical participation (even with a new hymn book); or must we (as we have all long suspected) make a really concerted effort to seek new forms, new experiences, new rituals and new symbols that will give the deepened meanings which alone can make the church salient in the lives of its members? Unless we ask these questions, and then find the answers, we are going to remain a subordinate and peripheral segment of the lives of most of our members.
Another area of tremendous need is for a sustained program of adult education, integrated to the program of education for children and youth, which meets the genuine needs of the people. Personal search, at least so it seems to me, must be carried on in a fashion which is more intimate and individual than the congregational assembly on Sunday morning. We need to discover what kind of groups will prove most effective. We need to discover what the felt needs of our people are, and then ask ourselves if we are the organization which should minister to these. We need to discover what problems can best be examined in the congregational setting, and what problems belong in small group discussion, and when and where the need is for individual confrontation in personal interview with the minister. How varied must our programs be, and through how many kinds of techniques must we work, if we are truly going to "expose the repressions and contradictions of our present society” and particularly if we are to "engage in active efforts to change society in the direction of fuller realization” at the same time that we are helping individuals so to enlarge the focus of their identity that true involvement in both the exposing and the engaging emerges?
Perhaps most importantly of all there is the question of meaningful and effective social action. If all of our churches were to be closed tomorrow, I sometimes wonder how noticeable the impact of that event would be? There must be action which involves the individual, but it must at the same time involve the church so that both the involved individuals and the community at large identifies the church as the institution which has helped the individual to accomplish these things.
Have we really developed for our membership that concern with the welfare of the total community which would make them demand an opportunity for significant action in some of the areas of "repression and contradiction in our present society”? I am intending to name only a few; you are as aware of them as I, at least you should be if you either heard or read Stephen Fritchman's Berry Street Essay of last year! Do our people realize that the fair and equitable resolution of the conflict between labor and management, or the crying need to feed all the children of the world and their parents as well, and the genuine establishment of equal opportunity to develop human potential for everyone, or above all the establishment of world peace are not just illusory dreams? Have we made clear to them the basic issues involved in each of these problems so that they have a clear and rational understanding of what has to be done, and of why it must be done? Have we implemented this rational understanding with a foundation of emotional concern so that they care whether these things be accomplished or not? Have we answered this concern and care by offering opportunity for meaningful personal participation in activities that will have an observable and cumulative effect? Have we helped them to understand that these things are all a part of religious experience, and that no genuine religious experience is possible if it does not also include them?
Any organization which could motivate its constituents to think deeply on these problems, to see in their solution the ultimate applications of the principles of liberal religion, would almost automatically become salient in their daily living. Yet it frequently happens when these problems are discussed, or when possible solutions are contemplated, that there is someone whose immediate reply to the ideas, the dreams, the goals is the charge of "Dreamer! Utopian!” or (and this seems even worse) who replies with the suggestion that the new roof, the paying off of the mortgage, or a new carpet for the chancel must come before we concern ourselves with these things.
If I may quote Helen Lynd once more:
Realism that excludes the longer enduring purposes of men and men's unrealized dreams is less than full realism. Dreams need not be illusions. We can constantly attempt to distinguish between futile utopianism and the possibilities of the future implicit in the present. Insistence on what are called realistic limits has always meant that they are assumed to be narrower and more rigid than they potentially are. History may be viewed as a process of pushing back walls of inevitability, of turning what have been thought to be inescapable limitation into human possibilities. The utopianism of one era has repeatedly become the basic norm of decency for the next. Some of the developments that make discovery of identity more difficult at present — the simultaneous impact of different cultures and perspectives, the exposures to world-wide instead of to more localized events — also extend the range of selectivity. Instead of lamenting, as a threat, the disintegration of mans traditional values and the lack of clear definition with which our historical period presents us, we may attempt to understand and to use the very conflicts and ambiguities o the time to open the way for realization of new possibilities.
What she says of our times, applies with equal clarity to the liberal church. Somehow we must come to see "the possibilities of the future implicit in the present.” But we can only do this by a genuine search to which we give our best thought and our greatest effort. The reward would be a salient institution, functioning to integrate the lives of its members, and effective in solving many of the problems not only of those individual but also of the communities and the world in which their existence is fulfilled.
Schactel, Ernest. "The Development of Focal Attention.” Psychiatry, Volume 17, November 1954, page 20.
Lynd, Helen M. On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York, Harcourt, 1958, pages 254-255.
Trying to understand . . . brings us back to a paradox the paradox that the more
fully one is aware of his own individual identity, the more fully he is also aware of the immensity of the universe and of his place in it. For some individuals it is deeply
true that without a sense of potential significance in the world, a sense of oneself
is impossible. The recurrent attempt to affirm a principle that has no immediate result,
no measurable pragmatic outcome, is an affirmation of possible meaning in life, a reaffirmation of significance.
Such search for significance includes identifications, but identifications beyond those of one's immediate situation in space and time. It involves also, efforts to expose the repressions and contradictions of present society, to find seeds of wider values in them and to engage in active efforts to change society in the direction of fuller realization. One of the sources of pride in being a human being is the ability to bear present frustrations in the interest of larger purposes.
Search for significance takes on more hope the greater the aspects of the world
with which we can identify. People differ markedly according to whether they regard the possibility of wider identifications as a threat to or an enlargement of themselves.
 Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther. New York, W.W. Norton, 1958, pages 260-261.
 Allport, Gordon, W. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1937. Chapter VIII.
 Buehler, Charlott. Der Menschlichen Lebenslauf als Psychologische Problem. Leipsiz, Heizel, 1933.
 Andics, Margareth. Uber Sinn und Sinnlosigheit des Lebens. Vienna, Gerold and Co., 1938.
 Getzels, J.W. From review of Wheelis and of Lynd quoted in Benne, K.B. "Education in Quest for Identity and Community.” Bode Memorial Lecture, 1961. Ohio State University, Columbus, page 11.
 Wheelis, Allen. The Quest for Identity. New York, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1958, pages 172-173.
 Handlin, Oscar, "Ethnic Groups in American Society,” Daedalus, Spring 1961, page 229.
 Lynd, Helen M. On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York, Harcourt, 1958, page 219.