On Being a Technician of the Sacred
Berry Street Essay, 1970
Frank D. Gentile
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
June 29, 1970
Myth—This word is used in various ways.
On the one hand it is used to refer to an untruth which is perpetuated in common folklore.
It is also used in reference to great sagas.
I use it to mean a story, legend, saga which embodies a projected truth about the nature of things.
I use the word deliberately because for me no other word adequately refers to what I am trying to say.
I believe fundamentally we all live by myths—some more true than others—none of them fully true.
Religion, wrote Clifford Geertz, is
1) a system of symbols which acts to
2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by
3) formulating conceptions of a greater order of existence and
4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
His definition is very useful to me. It is in line with what I have thought a religious community is, namely, the application in the microcosm of our myth of the macrocosm.
From high school on, I have felt the inadequacy of the Judeo-Christian myth. My life has been made more difficult than it might have been because at the same time I have felt pulled to a religious vocation.
I grew up in a small town in Vermont with a community Baptist church to which my sisters and I went. My parents were not religious in their practices.
As a young man I found myself drawn to the ministry, particularly the preaching aspects of it. I resisted on the grounds that I was unfit for it primarily because I had a ready, frequent, and undesirable (as it seemed to me) use of God Damns, Jesus Christs, and Hells. I believed this rendered me unfit for the ministry. But Ah!—the use of them gave me so much relief.
Notwithstanding that, however, during the summer between graduation from high school and entry into college, I allowed myself to become persuaded by our minister’s wife that I could go into the ministry. She suggested that in all probability just deciding to do so would help me with my problem.
Well, the ministry isn’t any kind of vocation for the person who wants to stop cursing. As you know, the provocations and frustrations can only reinforce the already well-tutored and practiced sinner.
Nevertheless, I pursued the robe, and in my second year in college became a stated supply pastor, as I was called, for two small rural Methodist churches in Maine. During this period at Bates College I was reinforced in my liberalism through the teachings of Dr. Zerby who had been a student of Mead and Weiman at the University of Chicago. The minister of what amounted to the college church, a Baptist church, Dr. Vernon was also liberal. In due course I went off soberly and with high expectations to Union Theological Seminary from which, without a degree, I departed in 1948 full of the realization that there was no place for me in the Protestant ministry.
I left determined to go into education. My wife and I returned to Vermont. There we met some people developing an adult education program in the state. One weekend at Marlborough College, in the spring of 1948, my wife and I participated in a Group Dynamics Workshop led by some people from Boston University and MIT. These people had been involved in the development of the National Training Laboratories at Bethel, Maine, in 1947.
If you think Moses was high when he went to the mountaintop, you should have seen me that weekend. Thought I didn’t come away with stone tablets, I had met Fred Miller from All Souls in Brattleboro, and Tim Pitkin, President of Goddard College, an old Universalist. I realized there was a religious community for me after all, and what’s more, there in the To-Group model and the study of Group Dynamics were the tools for the development of a truly free, participatory religious community.
Since I believe in starting at the top and working my way down, my first job with the Universalists was as Executive Secretary of the Vermont Quebec Unitarian Universalist Convention. It was mostly Universalist. The board that hired me had a special project in mind, namely the development of some small liberal discussion and study groups around the state. In addition, I had the usual problems of ministerial placements and the like.
I was also the treasurer and in the process of carrying out the duties of that office, it became my sad responsibility to report to the board that they didn’t have the money they thought they had for this project. Why they didn’t have this money is too long a story to go into here. Needless to say, my term of office was a brief one year.
It was long enough, however, to confirm my belief that there was indeed a possibility of a pulpit for me, and I was determined to go back to school and finish my theological degree. After being accepted at Harvard I sought a part-time pulpit around the Boston area. I admit I wasn’t too happy about going back to seminary. I had experienced that once before, but I thought this was the way I should go.
Unfortunately for my plans, I did not secure such a pulpit, even though there seemed to me to be many small, struggling Universalist societies needing my counsel, wisdom and leadership. Just why I didn’t make connections I don’t know. It would be ego-building to say that I was too liberal or radical. The truth is, I was undisciplined, outspoken, somewhat raucous. Perhaps this is why I did not register on their minds as the savior of one of their societies.
In those days, Bob Cummins was the General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America. One day I went to see him and told him of the difficulties I was having. He said, "Well, you know you don’t need to go to Harvard. You can go another route—do as I did—go to some university and get yourself a Master’s Degree in Religion.” Then I found out there were some pulpits in Ohio he had been trying to fill. At that point the Cincinnati and Columbus pulpits were open, both of which were next door to fine universities, but before I could get to them they had ministerial candidates.
At this point, however, a church in a small village in western Ohio became open. Emerson Schwenk, who had become a close friend, told me that if this church was open, grab it for it would be a great place. We went to Eldorado, Ohio, and after our first Sunday there they were ready to have us go back to New York City. My wife smoked openly and so did I. It developed they were somewhat scared of the fact that they thought we were both from New York City and we wouldn’t fit in the rural community. After we spent the week there though, they discovered that I was indeed a farm buff and in spite of our sinful ways, we were rather intelligent, free, and outgoing. Of course, they didn’t have as big a choice of ministers as the Massachusetts churches did. So we settled there.
I never went back to seminary—never got a Master’s Degree in Religion. But Eldorado was a magnificent experience, for this was indeed a liberal congregation. Following nearly four years there, I then became minister of the new congregations which had grown out of the First Church in Detroit. It was a church which took fellowship in the AUA and the UCA at its inception.
I have been there fore seventeen years. What have I been up to?
The discovery and implementation of a conception of the universe which could be worshiped by that microcosm—the congregation of Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church of Southfield, Michigan.
It seems to me I have been a technician of the sacred. I took this term from an anthology of primitive poetries from Africa, America, Asia, and Oceana, edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and entitled by him Technicians of the Sacred. "Being a Technician of the Sacred” means, as I have now come to believe, that my primary responsibilities are to enable the individuals and the congregation as a whole to celebrate those sorrows and joys, those crises and achievements, those public and private paradoxes, which come to man, within the religious framework which is held to be sacred by the minister and the religious community of which he is a part.
I have struggled many times to leave this vocation since becoming a stated supply pastor to those Methodist churches in Maine. There are many things I can do which would bring satisfaction, abundant bread, and some security, but I am not able in fantasy to secure the satisfactions which this vocation has brought me. Now that I am able to handle the twin compulsions which I think every minister has in him, I find myself more and more involved and committed than ever, in spite of the great crises which I believe face the formal religious institutions in this decade.
One of the major struggles I’ve had all during my ministry has to do with the question of being an administrator, or the chief executive of the corporation as it were. Most of my professional life I have felt miserable about the inadequacy of my chief executing ability. My interests, my concerns have been mainly toward the ministering end of the curve. It was only two months ago that I figured out why a minister in a Unitarian Universalist society is finally doomed to failure as a chief executive. To be a chief executive one has to have the power of selecting and rejecting the personnel under him who are doing the work of the organization. In a Unitarian Universalist society about the most a minister gets to select may be his secretary and that’s hardly being a chief executive since most of the work of the organization must be done by members of the society in a volunteer program.
If a minister appears to be successful as a chief executive I suspect that his ministerial functions in a liberal church are short-changed. I know that if a minister obtains the conditions where he picks all the board and committee members that are necessary to carry out the work of the society, he is certainly in conflict with the general ethos of the church’s congregational polity.
The kind of ministry I’ve practiced and advocate is at times a very painful, stressful one. Using the T-Group model as I have, recognizing that I too must be willing to be open, must be willing to be known as well as willing to know others, has time and time again brought me face-to-face with myself. Sometimes this has been ecstasy, but other times agony. I know that this would not be as difficult for some people as it has been for me.
Yet, no matter how easy we are with ourselves, we are all complicated enough to have something else we can learn. Perhaps the chief values I had been promoting and practicing at Northwest Church for fourteen years. Was there a consistent core to my thrust?
You will remember my weekend at Marlborough College and the discovery of the T-Group model. I found that I have been relatively consistent in the application of this tool, that many of the programs we have at Northwest Church involve the T-Group model. I realized further that one set of polarities has been consistently utilized in understanding what was needed and what was happening in the world and at Northwest Church. That polarity was the individual versus the group.
My stress has been that the group exists for the benefit of the individuals, but the individuals cannot benefit from a group that does not have cohesiveness and responsible, disciplined participation. To advocate "As not what your country can do for you, etc.,” is to urge an unreal course upon the participants of any group and carried to its extreme, of course, this would lead to a solid state condition.
On the other hand, to say that all the individual need do is to ask what his country can do for him is to invite and create a situation in which the country or group has less and less to offer him. The ultimate of this, of course, is anarchy.
Consistently, in conflicts within the church between the creative and the financially conservative, the cautious and the incautious, I would say, "We all need each other.” I remembered that the most prudent, thoughtful, and carefully planned man in our congregation bragged about the creative things that were done at Northwest Church by people who just drove him frantic when they began to discuss money. And I was well aware that many of our creative people could not have provided themselves a community in which to have the opportunity of creation.
My next question was: What life condition does my age know the most about? As I looked around me I realized the basic foundation of our technologically affluent society is what I would call the "interdependent process.” Our supermarkets are remarkable examples of it. There are many other illustrations. I began to think that all life, all things, exist in an ultimate condition of interdependence. That for me is God. If worshiped—by that I mean ascribing worth—I would find instruction for my daily living, chastisement, peace, discomfort, wholeness, transcendence, moral insights, all conditions generally identified with great religious experience.
I remember reading somewhat after this an article in the Saturday Review entitled "The Fragile Breath of Life.” It was a store of life origins based on the availability of oxygen. It went something like this: Life must have originated in small, still ponds at least 30 to 40 feet deep. The depth was necessary as a shield against the lethal rays of the sun. Stillness kept the first simple life forms from the surface of the waters and death. As these organisms produced oxygen, ozone began to accumulate above the water. One day enough ozone shield existed so that life could rise above the water and leap to land. Life spread and oxygen increased. At certain critical oxygen supply levels, quantum leaps in life complexity and species variety erupted. Finally enough oxygen was available for the great leap to mammals and primates. Life is a story of interdependency.
As I see this God, in whom I and all things move and have their being, it has these two facets—first, the independency, the uniqueness of the individual thing, whether it is a person, a dog, a block in a wall, a tree, a planet, a galaxy, with its need for the utilization, the exploitation of its potential. The other facet is the complete dependency that every single independent unique thing has upon its parts and that of which it is a part. A block can’t become a wall without other blocks, a single human organism does not exist, the species of man does not exist alone, the planet earth is in a solar system in a galaxy, in what else, who knows. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman or tree or planet. We are on the one hand universally dependent, and on the other hand uniquely individual.
I don’t find the word interdependence or the phrase, the interdependent process, very felicitous to the tongue, yet I have increasingly found it is a mythological theme that makes possible "a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
I am a technician of the rituals and the symbols which become the vehicles for the worship of God in that microcosm, Northwest Church.
Gradually I have come to see that what is sacred is what man declares to be sacred, what he sets aside to revere, to value. It does no good, I think, to say that all life is sacred or that the universe is sacred. But what does count is the conceptions of the Universe and life which man, that beast with the overload of neocortex, declares to be holy by his acts, values, rituals, and symbols.
To declare the universe or life sacred is a presumptuous, as well as useless, act. The universe and life "are.” Declaring them to be sacred or holy does not make it possible for us to worship them in any meaningful way. It is the same difficulty I’ve had with Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life theme. What does it mean to have reverence for life? Does it mean being glad that one is alive? Sometimes I am very glad to be alive and other times it is quite a burden.
Does it mean one never kills? Then what makes man’s killing less desirable or natural than the lion’s kill, or the big fish’s kill, or the virus’ kill? Does it mean that when we kill, our killing has to carry the same quality of attitude that the lion’s kill does? Does survival require death?
Suppose we try to be more specific, then, about life and the universe, and say that our god is the sun, and therefore we worship the sun. We sing praises to it. We render petitions to it. But what in fact has become sacred? The rituals we use, the symbols, the holy places in which the worship takes place—these become the sacred things. What is sacred is the myth, the conceptions, about the sun which enable us to explain, to organize the chaos of the experiential data which impinges upon us from the day of our birth.
The worship of the sun myth with appropriate symbols acts "to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
With such a myth, seasons of the year can be controlled, for we know how to plant, cultivate, and harvest. More, we are able to protect ourselves from the tumult of the chaos of existence. What is sacred in worship is not the sun or life or the universe, but the conceptions and constructs of rituals and symbols which this particular species of the animal kingdom, man, creates. For the sun is no more important to man than it is to the trees, to the birds of the air, to the beasts of the land, to the fish of the sea.
In taking even a cursory look at the history of religious we see that it has been the myths, symbols and rituals which have affected men in their moods, motivations, and decisions. People have all worshipped god or gods, but people have not died for the sun, or the bull, or the father, son, and holy ghost. People have died for their conceptions of what the word symbol, god, signified to them.
Thus Catholics burned Protestants at the stake and Protestants beheaded Catholics. Thus Muslims put to death "non-believers” and go to death, because, to die in the service of Allah is to go to glory.
It is when people look at the killing, the bigoted side of man’s religious history that they sometimes think the best thing we could do is get rid of religions, that there would be less conflict in the world. It is, of course, a strange paradox for institutions to have religious myths proclaiming so much love and reverence, and on the other hand to find these institutions practicing murder and mayhem. I noticed, though, that the human species can find any number of reasons to kill, commit mayhem, and indulge in bigotry. Without religious myths there would still be enough provocation.
I have toyed with the idea that there will be a day when we pass beyond religion, and I’ve certainly read the writings of many who believe the same thing. I do not believe, though, that that is the direction in which mankind is going. What I think is happening is that various myths are being desacredized (to invent a new word) because they are incapable of incorporating the new data and experience of mankind. In some cases they are falling in the face of new myths of education, of science, or of technology. In most cases I think they are being rejected because they are no longer held sacred by the rejecters.
Nor are they being replaced by obviously superior religious myths. By superior I mean a myth that successfully incorporates the data and experience of our days into a new truth of the macrocosm. A good myth is synergistic in its nature, for it produces more than the sum of its parts. We could ay that the present world myths are the opposite of synergistic, for their core truths end up less than the sum of the parts we are now able to bring together.
I don’t know if it will be possible again to develop a mythological store about creation of the world, the nature of the universe, life and man, in the fashion of the past. Without such a story it may be difficult to develop symbols and rituals which, through the reenactment of the story, enable the worshipper to affirm the truth of the myth. It may be that we shall have to settle for a mythological theme rather than the full-fledged story. Around this theme appropriate symbols and rituals may be developed.
This is the direction in which I am moving at Northwest Church. The mythological theme of interdependency has been expressed for several years without our recognizing this fact. We have had some rather elaborate usages of the group process in the church school and in the adult program which in fact grew out of this unacknowledged mythological theme.
For example, in 1955 we began a Small Groups program which was calculated to establish living cells within the larger Northwest community. Several of these original groups still continue to exist. Their theme was to allow us to get below the froth line. Each group was independent and, except for the value it had for the individuals participating in it, had no responsibility to the larger community. New groups have been organized on the same basis for fifteen years.
Usually the groups have met once a month and with a wide variety of programs—from supper and discussion to trips to the theater and discussions, to nearly all-night bull sessions.
At about the same time we went to a two-hour Sunday program, both for the adult service and the church school. This program for the adults consisted of a formal meeting followed by coffee and then study and discussion groups for the rest of the two hours. These groups have varied from freewheeling groups of ten to study groups around social concerns, plays, novels and male-female relationships. In addition, there have been various adult education activities.
Since 1966 we have had a program of sensitivity training groups, and this year a training group in personal religious viewpoints.
On top of all these activities have been the committees of the Council responsible for Religious Affairs, Religious Education, Social Responsibility, Denominational Affairs, and on and on.
Then there is the Board, responsible for finances and the care and maintenance of the property. Finally, there is all the activity around the church school involving many teachers and helping adults. We are a small congregation of 250 members.
This seems like a lot of activity, and yet I came to the conclusion last fall that with all the activity and all the discussion the conflicts centering on Religious Education and Sensitivity Training Groups had a lot to do with the fact that most of us were not very conversant with our personal religious myths, mythological themes, values, religious viewpoints. It is difficult for us to come to any agreement on what the purposes and values of the church school are and how they can be furthered without Northwest Church, as a community, coming to some kind of consensus on its mythological theme.
A belief in freedom isn’t enough. Freedom does not answer the whole question of what the church school is about any more than it does for the church. We may want to be a free religious fellowship, but the freedom itself does not turn out to be sufficient for gathering people together in a vital community.
Time and time again I have heard some people say, "I just want my child to be free in the classroom.” It is hard for me to see what the point was of having him in the classroom when he could be at home free, thought perhaps in his parents’ hair. The same may be said for adults.
The traditional rationalistic individualism of Unitarian-Universalists is simply not enough for a mythological theme of sufficient proportions to represent the macrocosm in the microcosm of a religious community. It will not support the superstructures of ritual and symbolism which are really the only tools we have for worshipping the truth we have created in the mythological theme. The theme of freedom has validity only as a part of a more all-encompassing theme.
As a result of the exploration of the conditions at Northwest, I offered to the congregation a new program for next year. It is being received with enthusiasm and some antagonism. The goal of the program is to make it possible for those people, who wish to, to make a vigorous exploration of the religious perspective.
To do this, I propose to use the T-Group model. Groups will meet once a month for three hours and will consist of twelve participants plus two co-leaders and me. We propose to have seven groups plus the leadership group. Already 95 people have signed up to join the fourteen people in the leader teams. Now, we have a problem of too many.
When I asked people if they would be willing to be leaders in such a program and take the training necessary for it, I had only one turn-down. Within the congregation there is a core of resistance to the program because it sounds like sensitivity training. This scares people—and I think for good reason. Even thought we are going to focus on religious values, rituals, and symbolism, they know that if we do something besides scratch the surface we will get some fundamental aspects of ourselves. They know, too, that I believe man’s needs are not for more and better Bridge games, country clubs, adults education programs, wider and longer highways, philosophical bull sessions. I believe the need is for small communities of people in which the individual may find the support, the discipline, and the challenge to allow himself to become known to himself and others.
Our individual needs are to be loved and respected. Being unable to allow ourselves to be known makes it impossible for us to be loved and respected either by ourselves or others. Increasingly our needs as people of a technological, affluent society are going to be met best in small communities whose very structure symbolizes, ritualizes and affirms a mythological theme about the macrocosm which establishes "powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting motivations in men” and increases the "aura of factuality” around the concept of their interdependency.
Through this worship the individuals in the community must be able to find that the data and experiences which come to them in a chaotic state may be the better organized and utilized for the enrichment of individual uniqueness and the strengthening of the community in which the uniqueness may be expressed.
A society attempting to base itself merely upon unique individualism ignores the overwhelming reality of hierarchical systems in life and the universe. The result will be a mosaic of unique individuals. Mosaics are particularly vulnerable to disruption and collapse. A mosaic is a construct of man which may have its place in a limited aesthetic expression but does not exist in any natural form outside of the human construct.
In the living processes at least, no matter how unique an individual organism or part is, it is still a part which looks in two directions—to the parts of which it is made up and to the larger whole of which it is a part. A good exposition of this can be found in The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. In fact, he coins a word for this phenomenon. Instead of calling a part just a part, he calls it a "Holon,” indicating its Janus-faced outlook. A holon is not just a part—it is a unique entity.
I am convinced that a large part of the difficulty that the Unitarian Universalist denomination has rests in our continued attempt to operate as a mosaic rather than in some kind of hierarchical system. There is no better illustration of it than the General Assembly—a mosaic of 1,000 societies, in actual practice 1200 to 1800 unique delegates.
In the years since I have been a Unitarian Universalist, I’ve reveled in the freedom and independence that’s been mine, but, too, there has been a brooding dissatisfaction which I now believe is endemic to a situation in which the shin bone is not connected to the knee bone, the knee bone is not connected to the thigh bone, and so on.
Reveling in the independence makes it easy to forget my dependencies, which are very real. I cannot be a minister without a congregation. I cannot make a community without being part of a community.
It is a lesson that our societies have largely not learned. They know there can’t be local Unitarian Universalist societies without individual members. They are all striving to gain those members. Somehow they think that they do not have to look in the other direction to the larger whole of which they are a part. Societies need the commitment of individuals, but they do not often recognize that they, too, must be committed to the larger community of Unitarian Universalists.
I know the temptation I’ve had when I’m displeased with what Boston does, or the district does, or the General Assembly does, or somebody else does. My temptation is to think in terms of withdrawing into that little cocoon, Northwest Church. This is called pouting, one of the big personal sins I have had to deal with far too often. In spite of temptation, though, I knew I am connected to the shin bone and I am connected to the thigh bone. Without these connections I cannot exist.
Persuading you to accept the mythological theme I have been working with is not the goal of this paper. Primarily I wish to have you know that I believe a minister is a technician of the scared. That this is his fundamental task as a minister, priest, or rabbi. In the religious perspective a mythological theme with related symbols and rituals is necessary. The clergyman’s primary responsibility is to his congregation. The congregation’s primary responsibility is to the individuals who come to that community of worshippers.
Here I want to deal with a controversial matter. The mythological theme of salvation by relevance as we’ve heard it expressed in our denomination and in other Judeo-Christian groups is inadequate for a religious community. Let me be specific. At Cleveland we brought into being the New Jerusalem with shouts of great joy. No matter that there were some prophets of doom in our midst; the New Jerusalem was here. I now realized that my note on the Black Affairs Council was wrong. It was right on BAWA and later right on the Chicanos. But it was wrong on BAC. I voted "yes” on the BAC and "no” on BAWA and the Chicanos.
The BAC vote was wrong because the appropriate function of a religious society is not that of a social work agency, political party, labor union, or united community chest. Its proper function is the worship of God. My observations of myself as I have attempted to become involved in social action through the church and my observations of Judeo-Christian groups trying to achieve relevancy for the church through social action programs is that social action is what I, as a minister, have turned to when my sense of the sacred has been dulled. When I’ve had an inadequate sense of direction in the religious perspective—it’s been because I’ve been short on adequate mythological theme about the macrocosm. It doesn’t matter that the myths are shattered in our culture. What does matter is that I, a technician of the sacred, must be searching for a developing such a mythological theme for myself. Perhaps I shall have to live with ambiguity for some time, but I must not allow myself to become deluded by the idea that activities in other fields are in fact appropriate substitutes for the worship of God.
Frank Gentile, citizen, must be relevant to his larger society in which he lives as a unique individual dependent upon it. But Frank Gentile, minister, must be primarily related to his religious community.
The fact that individual Unitarian Universalists have to function as citizens to upgrade the common life of our society without their religious institutions becoming political parties or social work agencies is not a handicap but a source of strength. Unitarian Universalist history is replete with examples of how to do it.
Bellows and the Sanitary Commission, Holmes and the NAACP are examples of Unitarian Universalists concerned with the larger welfare and enlisting the aid of their fellow citizens in working for improvement. Working outside the religious institution enables that institution to do its task within the religious perspective, thus supplying deep clear springs from which the worshipper may drink. Social action is no substitute.
What I and the religious community worship as sacred provides the ground upon which I and the members of my religious community may walk in our daily round. As a technician of the sacred, it is my task to explore and share my discoveries, to help others explore and share their discoveries of the God in whom we all live, move, and have our being.