Minding Our P's, Q's, and X's
Joyce Harkleroad Smith
The Berry Street Essay, 1988
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
Palm Springs, California
June 16, 1988
The thesis of this essay is that ministers use and dispense power. The people coming to a religious group are looking for power. We must understand power, its use and abuse, to be effective in our ministry. We must ask questions of the power we use and dispense. What kinds of power are we looking for? For what purposes do we seek power? What are the problems we confront in the use of power?
Ministers are people who are attracted to and bothered by their use of and desire for power. John Haynes Holmes said in his autobiography that when he found he was an effective public speaker, felt the release of power which was going to be a part of the
discipline of my life to control.’1 We might well ask, was it William Ellery Channing's sense of his own growing power that made him discipline himself with study, self searching and an ascetic regime in his early adulthood?2
Societies have used religion as a curb to control or to channel the exploding sexual energies of adolescence. The founding Puritan fathers in Massachusetts Bay Colony did just that when they kept their sons and daughters in a continual state of spiritual self-doubt and servitude by demanding that they search their souls for all their sins. The founders questioned whether their children were among the saved or the damned. These original settlers would not give their children land or allow them to leave home to earn a living and therefore marry. The Pilgrim fathers kept their children working on their father's extensive landholdings using religious injunctions to maintain control- Because many of these men lived to an old age this control lasted well into their children's 40's and 50's.3
Because religion can be used to curb the abuse of undisciplined energy it is sought out for self-discipline by people who sense their own power but want to find channels to make that power useful and constructive. However, religion can also be the means by which blocked or pent up power can be released.
As told by the New Testament scriptures, Jesus resisted the temptations to use his power to rule empires or to prove that he was immortal, but he did not refuse power. He saw with intense clarity that empires crumble and the power of the earth is limited. He chose to serve the ultimate power of the universe which would not crumble or die or rust. His choice is repeated many times as people choose religion as the medium through which to release their power.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell, first woman to be ordained in the United States, writes of being sustained by this sense of power when she was told she could not speak at the World Temperance Meeting. She wrote, ‘There were angry men confronting me and I caught the flashing of defiant eyes, but above me and within me, there was a spirit stronger than them all. At that moment not the combined power of earth and hell could have tempted me to do otherwise than stand firm.’4
Religion may provide justification for our use of power, but it does not decrease our ambiguous feelings about that use. Human history is filled with religious wars, cruel theocracies, torture and persecution in the name of religion so that ethical women and men take heed of the danger inherent in religious fanatical power.
Power, in its definition, seems harmless enough. It means ‘The ability to act,’ or ‘To act to change things.’ All of us want to have the ability to act and most of us want to be able to change things so long as we decide how they should be changed. Power brings up issues of control, issues of conflict and the possibility of coercion. The word evokes such images as a charging line of football players, the surge of electricity, a mushroom cloud of nuclear explosion or dictatorial rule. Our worst fear about power is that it will be used against us so that we will have only two choices: to acquiesce or to die.
This kind of power is the power used by God as told in some of the Psalms and Prophets. Choose God's side or face disaster, death or annihilation. ‘The Lord reigns; let the people tremble,’ Psalms 99 shouts; ‘For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion,’ Isaiah 34:8 proclaims. Jesus may have eschewed earthly power, but that has never deterred the church which celebrates him from doing so and using his image as that of a judgmental figure, destroying the temple, separating the saved from the damned. A most graphic portrayal of the avenging Jesus is a modern depiction painted on the ceiling of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He glowers down at the cowed worshipers bristling with omnipotence and judgment. While Unitarian Universalists do not use such coercive images, the power of which we speak has similar connotations. We talk about a force larger than ourselves which creates and sustains us or one which works through and in us. Whether we define such a force in naturalistic, mystical or supernatural terms, what we are dealing with is awesome. We too fall heir to the kinds of power attributed to priests and priestesses, shamans, preachers, rabbis and gurus. Those figures are conduits of power, the power of the universe or a power beyond. The methods these figures use to convey power differs. The shamans make a mystical journey, priests and priestesses perform empowering rituals, preachers speak the living word and rabbis interpret the sacred writings. The method of conducting power affects how dangerous the conductor, preacher or priestess is perceived to be.
Shamans and priests and to a lesser degree preachers are both feared and admired because they approach or handle the very source of power-the life force of the nether or upper world, the holy of holies, the mystical transubstantiated bread and wine or in the case of preachers the ‘living’ word (which is God?). Rabbis who teach and interpret sacred scripture and gurus who draw out the hidden essence in each person appear less dangerous in their roles.
The power behind religious ceremonies can be transferred to the celebrant in the minds of the worshipper. Since that creative power about which religion speaks is unassailable the representatives may also seem unassailable so the power they wield may take on the invincibility of Allah. The Ayotollah Komeni attained this kind of unassailability. Charisma may wrap even Unitarian Universalises ministers in some form of this aura of unassailability although we would be unwise to count on it.
In an important paper by Professor Bernard Loomer given in 1975 called ‘Two Kinds of Power’5 Loomer calls this ordinary concept of power unilateral power. Unilateral power is not necessarily coercive, it may be persuasive. In unilateral power the person who has it changes or influences other people while not being influenced or changed herself. For example God influenced Moses who influenced the Israelites in straight line unilateral power. Coercive power is the ultimate kind of unilateral power. Persuasive power can be just as unilateral. Hitler did not gain power only by coercive means. First he had used enormous persuasive power to gain a following. Jim Jones, in his dementia, used persuasive power to get 900 people to commit suicide, apparently with a little extra coercive power from his assistants. When it appears that persuasive power is not sufficient it is not unusual to revert to coercive power. A familiar pattern in church life is ‘If you don't do it my way I'll take my money and friends and leave.’
Loomer discusses the limitations of unilateral power. In unilateral power the self becomes isolated. Others are not allowed to bring their gifts and qualities, ideas and emotions, imagination and understanding to expand the world of the self. Rigid walls separate the powerful person not only estranging him from others but leaving the self a defended fortress, sterile. King Midas loved two things, his daughter and his gold. When Midas gained the ultimate power he desired, to turn everything he touched to gold, he found that a gold statue of his daughter was not the same as the living child. With the relationship to the beloved child, Midas could grow beyond the narrowness of self.
Loomer says that there is a second kind of power which he calls relational power which accomplishes what unilateral power cannot. Relational power is ‘the ability both to produce and to undergo an effect. It is the capacity both to influence others and to be influenced by others. Relational power involves both a giving and a receiving.’6 As a result we grow larger with relational power. As Loomer says, ‘Our openness to be influenced by another, without losing our identity or sense of self-dependence, is not only an acknowledgment and affirmation of the other as an end rather than a means to an end. It is also a measure of our own strength and size.’7 Note particularly that Loomer says the ability to be influenced is accompanied by the need not to lose our identity or sense of self-dependence. We cannot grow larger if we merely substitute for our own self, another self, no matter how superior.
Prayer and meditative practices are deliberate attempts to allow the self to be influenced or changed without controlling what that change will be. But if prayer or meditation is a total emptying of self, there would be no blending and no growth. Relational power is creative because it is the blending of who we are with the new influence we have allowed to become a part of us.
Adin Ballou had a dramatic experience which he describes in his autobiography8 as the reason that he became a minister. At the age of 19 he planned to take over his father's farm. He was engaged to be married. He went to sleep one night and was awakened to see his dead brother standing before him. The brother, who had planned to be a minister, told Adin to go out and preach the word of God. So insistent was this vision that with great fear and trembling Ballou told the elders of the small Baptist church he attended that he would preach the next Sunday. He did so and thus began a long and fruitful ministry later as a Universalist and a Unitarian minister. The vision certainly influenced Ballou, he made room for it in his idea of who he was, but he did not in any sense ‘become’ his dead brother.
Of the two kinds of power about which Loomer writes we Unitarian Universalists are most comfortable admitting we seek relational power rather than unilateral power. The two powers are not so clearly distinct as Loomer states. The dictator is formed precisely by an attempt to control other people. Sometimes she becomes more cruel. Sometimes he seeks more and more adulation and fawning to feed an increasingly dependent ego. The recipients of the power, influence the dictator, but it is not in the way they wish to do so. Even if the two powers are, in the ideal, distinct, we want both kinds of power in the religious setting. We want beliefs which are so firm that they can stand against adversity. We want to be like the Quaker who picketed against capital punishment outside a prison where a prisoner was to be executed. When a bystander told the Quaker, ‘You aren't going to change the world by picketing,’ the Quaker replied, ‘I'm not trying to change the world, I'm trying to keep the world from changing me.’
We would like to be a Theodore Parker, willing to be jailed rather than be changed by a society which supports force if necessary.9 In retrospect we prefer his use of unilateral power to Channing's more relational stance. Although Channing abhorred slavery, it was late in his ministry that he was willing to speak out against the weight of opinion of his Boston Brahmin church members who preferred slave owners to Abolitionists.10 Did Channing, who wielded relational power, or Parker speaking with unilateral power win more converts to the anti-slavery movement? Both were helpful in their own ways. Both kinds of power are a part of church life as well.
In his insightful book, Generation to Generation, Rabbi Edwin Friedman argues that leadership, to be effective, involves actions which may appear to be unilateral. He argues it is necessary to define ourselves and our positions clearly and resist attempts of others to change that self-definition. Only in this way will the leader allow the congregation to define themselves and become fully functioning (i.e. powerful). By not being reactive, by maintaining a non-anxious attitude and at all times staying in touch with the congregation, the leader works, not to change people, but to maintain her own self-definition. Perhaps what appear as unilateral actions in Friedman's concept of leadership is similar to Loomer's self-dependent person. Friedman's concern is that the leader not lose his boundaries in an undifferentiated group. Such a group, Friedman suggests, is more prone to anxiety and discourages the use of imagination.11
What kind of power do people seek from religion? They seek intra-personal power, personal power and group power. As one of my congregation said, ‘I come to church to have a quiet hour to sort out what is happening in my life.’ The inner tension between needs, demands, emotions and ideals creates conflicts in many lives. The power religion can bring deals with these intra-personal strains, the strains that make us pound our pillow or cry in the middle of the night. Religion can help congregants sort our priorities, understand emotions, gain self-acceptance and find direction. Religion can give them the motivation, energy and support, the power to act out their ideals. Religion can help them to relate to parts of themselves which were not or are not honored by family or work experiences. On the intra-personal level the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance is balanced by the spirit of challenge and idealism. Out of the power of wholeness comes the power to change both self and others. By no more participation than being present in a worship service the individual's boundaries have become permeable and growth within is possible. This may be happening to the person who is so quiet that no one even knows her.
Personal power is sought through the relationship to other people in the church community. Here is a testing ground to try new skills, new behavior, new influence. The desire for friendships, intimate relationships, which is relational power, is one of the strongest attractions which churches provide yet our love of unilateral power, the power to influence what is happening in the church community, the desire to make changes or keep things the same often comes in conflict with desire for relational power. In our church's emphasis on the individual, our emphasis on how a dedicated individual can change things (for the better of course), our fear of compromising our principles, our love of being purists, we are encouraging people to exercise unilateral power and setting ourselves up for win/lose confrontations. Conflict is a natural part of a church in which people are encouraged to use their persuasive power, but when we become purists not allowing others to influence us the conflict can break the community. Many a church has allowed one or two purists to hold the community hostage to their demands to have their way as the price of membership. I remember an occasion when the purchase of a baroque organ was the price of keeping one piano accompanist. The organ sat unplayed most of the year, and the accompanist soon afterward took a year off in another city.
Ministers can have conflicts with their congregations over both relational and unilateral personal power. One of the most bitter disappointments a congregant may feel is that the relationship he has to the minister is not as close as he would like it to be. One of my most severe critics in one congregation was a woman who was most friendly and helpful when I started, but who within a year complained that I had not been open and friendly with her. Hers was a major voice of attack against me. The intimate relationship she desired did not happen.
In a different congregation, however, I had a direct open conflict with a board chair over who was in control. The issue was about my doing pregnancy counseling in the church office when abortion was still illegal. He said he was not against the counseling, but was afraid of the church's legal liability and I should do it in my home. At one point in a private conversation he said, ‘You know I can get you fired,’ as a means to persuade me to his viewpoint without taking it to the Board. My instinct told me he was wrong. Fortunately for me, my instinct told me right.
While many people come to churches looking for intra-personal or personal power, there are others who come recognizing that alone they have little power to change society, but together with others they can make a difference. They come seeking group power. There are two types of people who come for group power: those who want to join in currently active programs in the church such as, feeding the hungry, peace activities and social outreach; and there are those who come wanting the church to back their programs. Both kinds of members are valuable additions to any church. The latter group, however, is likely to want to use unilateral power both within the church and in confronting the problems outside the church. Our challenge is to use their energy and to help them learn more skills in relational power. To integrate them into the life of the community may be difficult especially if the church does not adopt their agenda or adopt it in the form they want.
It is easier to learn how to use relational power between individuals and groups within the church than to use it in group power outside the church. Taking a stand on an issue outside the church can give a sense of identity to a congregation provided the issue has wide support within. Theodore Parker melded together a disparate group of people with his optimistic individualism and his stand on abolition. A. Powell Davies attracted opponents of repressive McCarthyism in 1950's Washington, D.C. Such a stand held as unilateral power diminishes the awareness of differences within the congregation but makes it hard to be open to the opponent's viewpoint or sympathetic to them as people. In the use of group power few people are willing to use relational power. Witness the violent stand off of Arab-Israeli life and the Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict. The use of group power can also split a church community internally. Our denomination has been caught in that kind of power conflict over whether we were Christians, whether we were Theists and on such issues as Pacifism and Black Power. During the Vietnam War those who supported American involvement in the war often felt rejected by a large group in their churches, and politically conservatives continue to feel this way because they feel they are a tiny minority.
Whenever we use our power either unilaterally or relationally, conflict is a real possibility. When power is believed to be a scarce commodity the conflict will be harder to resolve. In unilateral power, power is limited. If you change me, but I cannot change you, my power is limited. We do have some limited power positions in the church. Not everyone can be president or board member or preacher. The silent Quakers try in their organizational forms to prevent unilateral power by allowing anyone moved by the spirit to speak and by making group decisions by consensus. What they can not change, however, are the inequalities in verbal ability, in willingness to speak or differing degrees of persuasiveness. Even though our own organization sets up positions where unilateral power can be exercised, the people in those positions can use relational power. When relational power is used it lessens the belief that power is scarce and that conflict must result in someone winning or losing. By using relational power conflict becomes a door to incorporate a larger share of ideas and actions into the life of the community.
Our personal style affects whether we seem to be acting unilaterally or relationally. I watched two quite different styles of leadership when I worked at the Unitarian Universalist Association, that of Eugene Pickett and William Schulz. Both men used relational power. They revised their ideas, opinions and plans with input from a variety of sources, yet because they did this with different styles, the perceptions of how unilateral or relational their power was, was different. Dr. Schulz would take the idea and on the spot revise his own thoughts incorporating the ideas presented into a new plan which he immediately shared. On the other hand, Dr. Pickett would listen, affirm the person and at some later date use what seemed appropriate to him. Of the two styles I perceived that Dr. Schulz was actually more influenced by other people's ideas or opinions than was Dr. Pickets yet Dr. Pickett appeared to most people to be more open to persuasion.
We ministers exercise power in the familiar five areas of the church. We have preaching power, protagonist power, pastoral power, probity power and priestly power. In the five ‘P’s of ministry we use our power differently. In preaching power unilateral power seems to be pronounced. Herman Melville in Moby Dick reminds us of that with his delightful scene of Father Mapple climbing a rope ladder into the pulpit and pulling the ladder up after him. He evokes two images. The pulpit is a ‘self-containing stronghold… with a perennial well of water within the walls’12 and it is the prow of the world ship, ‘the pulpit leads the world,’13 Melville reflects. These images speak as though the life of the congregation or of the surrounding world had no formative power on the word preached. Not only would such a view of preaching be foolhardy in a church where people can vote with their feet whether to support the church or not, but it also neglects the fact that the hearing congregation shapes the sermon as greatly as the speaking preacher. Roy Phillips reminded us that the sermon heard is not the sermon preached.14 Channing may have learned this as a boy. He and his father attended a fire and brimstone sermon depicting eternal torment for sinners among whom were numbered most of the congregation. The boy was greatly shaken, especially when he heard his father comment to a friend, ‘Sound doctrine, that!’ Yet his father showed no evidence of the young Channing's fears. The boy concluded his father did not believe the predictions.15 Quite possibly the father and son did not hear the same sermon.
We can be sure that for the congregation, preaching, so far as it has power, is relational. They will find in it what (if anything) is of value to them. When people demand powerful preaching they usually want some evidence that the life blood of the preacher is poured into it so that it stirs them to respond. Knowing that the sermon wields relational power as much as, or more than, unilateral power helps center the preacher's attention on the congregation and its needs rather than some esoteric interest of the minister or her ego needs.
Protagonist power, what is usually misnamed prophetic power, is undoubtedly the most unilateral of all our powers. The Catholic priest, Daniel Berrigan, who has given much of his life to protagonist power speaks of the necessary ingredients of being a protagonist. In an interview for the Boston Globe in 1988 he said, ‘I see God in the lives of people, in their sufferings. I yell out if I see people treated in a blasphemous way. One has to resist indifference to suffering. If you're on a high wire, you have to keep moving. That's passion. You also have to remain poised or else you fall… The paradox is the requirement of the high wire… I care about the controversy around me. I can't ignore it. I've seen friends walk away from me… A way of coping with the world and one's self is to be patient.’16 Patience, poise and passion, three ingredients to be a protagonist. It is clear that there is also pain in being a protagonist. Friends may reject you. That hurts, but it does not change your view of the world or of yourself. The fact that the world does not change does not change you either, you just learn patience if you are to persist. The relationship is to that which you call God, most high, and being true to that relationship requires unilateral power in other relationships. A basic issue in the use of protagonist power is whether poise and passion will be diminished if you allow yourself to hear alternate means of alleviating suffering.
Pastoral power is relational power. Perhaps that is why some ministers find pastoral duties the most difficult. Visiting a woman twisted with arthritis in a nursing home, counseling with the parents whose child has committed suicide, talking with the executive who has lost his job involves us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Emerson was so ill at ease with a dying man that it is reported the man told him, ‘Young man, if you don't know your business, you had better go home.’17 How often does the minister receive more than she has to give at such a time? Emerson's discomfort may have been a more honest sharing than traditional words of comfort expected by the parishioner. Even the casual pastoral visit, often neglected today, can be the source of relational power in ministry. It cements community and feeds content for sermons.
Probity power, sometimes called the teaching function of ministry is again relational power although it is often treated as unilateral power. In the church situation imparting a body of information such as history of religion or scriptures or organizational theory is less important than helping others draw out meanings and understandings and make it part of their own lives. Participatory education is relational with both teacher and student learning. As in preaching, what is learned may not be what we thought we taught. I remember in my Methodist upbringing that Dr. Root, the minister, taught us a series of right answers before we were baptized. I got a high. score on the easy test. I do not remember the questions or the answers, but I do remember that Dr. Root only knew personally the few children whose homes were in the best part of town, and that did not include me.
What we want to do with probity power is teach the loveof learning, of knowledge, of truth-seeking not in order to establish some intellectual elitism, as we sometimes have, and not because knowledge can help control the world and our lives. Knowledge has been a tool of unilateral power in all parts of life including religion, with its secret rites, healing and languages. Knowledge which is used for that purpose is not the religious knowledge we need. Knowledge which springs from curiosity and wondering and whose possession creates delight is the religious quest for knowledge. Accept ye be as little children seeking delightedly the curious reality of this world, ye shall never attain an acquaintance with the gifts of heaven.
Priestly power appears to be entirely unilateral power. Is that why we Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable with it? Grace is conferred by a ritual. Catholic Extreme Unction given to the dying purifies the person to enter heaven, the marriage sacrament makes two people one, Jewish fasting and atonement on Yom Kippur absolves the observer of a year's sins. The unilateral power comes from outside given through the ritual. It is a unilateral power which invests the temporal with the spiritual. Our Unitarian Universalist marriage ceremonies say that the church blesses what has already occurred. Our memorial services remember the deceased but do not facilitate the passage from one world to another. There we are all dressed up and no place to go! If we use priestly power at all, it comes not in ritual but in theology. When we teach or preach the presence of the holy in the world we are performing a priestly power. No ritual is necessary because the holy and the worldly are not separated. To inspirit matter through a ritual is unnecessary with this theology. Logically, Emerson might have refused to give communion because God was already present in each person although this was not his argument. What priestly power we have is in recognition not in ritual. Recognizing the presence of the holy in others is also one of the rationales for practicing relational power.
As ministers and congregations with power the question we face is to what purpose will we put that power? What will we try to influence? How shall we try to change ourselves or the world? What high wire act shall we with passion, poise and patience perform?
The questions are so much easier than the answers. Is that why we immortalized with a bumper sticker the aphorism ‘To Question is the Answer.’ Although questions are not the answer, they are important. But what questions?
Wallace Stevens, the American poet, was born in 1879, early enough to be taught the Protestant Christian beliefs by parents who had few doubts, but his adulthood spanned 1900 through the mid 1950's when such beliefs became intellectually unrespectable. In his poetry Stevens struggled with a desire to believe when there was no God in whom he could believe. For himself he found this answer: ‘In an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent, or if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting… are… a compensation for what has been lost.’18 If Stevens is correct that there is an indifference to questions of belief this is of genuine concern to us. To question belief or to disbelieve both are vital active involvements with the issues of religion. An indifference to the question of belief is in a different ballpark. It was such an indifference which allowed scientists to work on the atomic bomb as an interesting question putting down thoughts of the moral implications until after the bomb had been exploded. It is indifference which led to the ennui of the 1950's and 60's, it is indifference which feeds the drug use culture of the yuppies, muppies and ouppies—young, middle-aged and old upperly mobile people of the 80's. Indifference to the question of belief sucks away power or passion, poetry or patience leaving an empty husk.
The 1950's were a time many people rushed back to questions of belief thinking that any belief would do. As Powell Davies said in one of his sermons at the time: ‘It was immediately after this (the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima)… that scientists became moralists and cried out to the world of its moral peril unless the new, drastic measures of destructiveness could be controlled by the constraints of the morality and the admonitions of religion… Science was said to be now in favor of religion-any religion…19
The 1960's became a romantic reaction to the establishment and the late 70's and 80's saw a turn to fundamentalism. Both the 60's romanticism and fundamentalism were a change from indifference to exploration. One was an individualist, ‘do-your-own-thing’ move, and the other a rigid conformity to a small group's beliefs. These polar swings from anti-establishment individualism to fundamentalist rigidity are attempts to break with the indifference to questions of belief, but both are essentially unsatisfactory responses because of their separatist nature. The romantics of the 60's separated themselves in small family-like communities trying to live off the land in order to be free of corporate involvement and its sins. It was and is a quaint idea, quaint because it can only happen in our relatively sparsely populated land, with a legal system which protects private property and where the free access to jobs prevents failure from being a matter of life and death. While millions of people worldwide have been fleeing subsistence farming for hope in the teeming cities of the developing countries, our affluent youth and those caught in mid-life change were running the other way.
The fundamentalists who are very popular because they give explicit answers to the questions of belief also separate themselves as a group by making their answers yes or no answers. The type of power they wield is absolutely unilateral. Their certainty and rigidity provide no room for others who disagree and no room for growth within their own understanding of those answers. Their interaction with the rest of humanity must be through conversion or conquest. To keep from being influenced by an unsympathetic world they must wall themselves off from those they cannot change.
Separatist answers to questions of belief have always been dangerous because of the possibility of armed conflict inherent in them, but in the social and political world created by the Second World War such separatist beliefs have repercussions on a worldwide scale. Even without the nuclear bomb or space exploration the ramifications of that global war would have been to make us a global village. With atomic power and space ventures the term is not a wishful goal, it is an everyday fact. When we Unitarian Universalists added recognition of the interconnected web of existence to our Principles and Purposes, we were not on the cutting edge of ideas, we were merely acknowledging the obvious. Today most of us know more gossip about what happens on the West Bank of Israel than about our next door neighbor. From stock market crashes to ozone layers, our individual decisions are affecting each other worldwide in life and death ways.
If the only way in which we can face questions of belief in today's world is individualistic romanticism or separatist fundamentalism we are headed toward a catastrophe. Either we will find a unifying belief to force on a disparate world similar to the way Constantine used Christianity to shape his empire and squelch freedom or we will have ever escalating battles among the competing true believers unwilling to live side by side peaceably influencing one another and changing continuously. Neither of those possibilities is an attractive one.
Fortunately the questions of belief are not only the province of fundamentalists or individuals. The questions belong to us and to other religions who are open to exchanging our viewpoints and reshaping our answers. The definition of Unitarian Universalism I prefer is not that we are people who ask questions (everyone does that), but that we are willing to entertain at least three answers to every question asked.
What are the questions of belief to which we give many answers? They are the familiar basic philosophical questions which can be narrowed into the magic number three. First, ‘Why is there something and not nothing? Why do we live, not why do we die.’ The reason we wonder why we die is that death brings us face to face with the fact that we have not used this extraordinary gift of life as well as we might. The second question is ‘Why do we have awareness? Does that awareness give us a distinct place and/or purpose in our universe?’ and third, ‘What acts and attitudes are better than others? How do we make priorities in life?’
The answers we give to these encompassing questions vary for individual, historical, cultural and environmental reasons. We ministers fill our sermons with answers we have discovered, inherited, created or had revealed to us. But no matter how good our answers, how satisfying they may be, we must never stop asking the questions because no answer is final, no discovery is complete, no revelation is ultimate. We have a sacred duty to keep alive the questions and counter both indifference to those questions and any attempts to make rigid answers into a final orthodoxy. This is our mission as a church and as ministers.
While we are helping people find power in their lives and keeping alive the questions of faith, providing some answers and stimulating others to find their answers, there is one other factor at work, the X factor. X in mathematics stands for the unknown. Whenever we think that we have attained some control in our lives, become powerful, whenever we feel that our answers to the questions of faith are pretty satisfying we are likely to be hit by the X factor. The X factor may come in attractive or painful packaging. For instance, you are called to the church of your dreams and you find you are pregnant! You shepherd your church through a consideration to offer Sanctuary to political refugees, win the issue and have such continued opposition that no one has won. A friend is diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. She uses meditation, prayer, acupuncture, hypnosis, massage and a wide supportive community and four weeks later a second biopsy reveals no cancer. A baby strangles on a Venetian blind cord.
The X factor is the joker in the pack of cards that life deals us. X may be the ‘chaos’ factor out of which some scientists now believe new learning occurs.20 It may be the ingredient in serendipity, in inspiration. The X factor keeps us on our toes, vibrates our antenna, activates our compassion. It is partly the X factor to which we keep ourselves open as we practice relational power, that unknown which changes us, shakes our complacent world and surprises us to joy. As Wallace Stevens said, ‘That the unknown as the source of knowledge, …is part of the dynamics of the known does not permit of denial… We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical… it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known.’21
As we who minister mind our P's and Q's, our power and our questions, it must ever be in the presence of the unknown. Only then may we be true to our calling, only then are we likely to fulfill our mission.
1. John Haynes Holmes, I Speak for Myself. The Autobiography of John Haynes Holmes, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1959, p. 30.
2. Jack Mendelsohn, Channing, The Reluctant Radical, Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 19 71, pp. 43-44.
3. Emory Elliott, Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England, Princeton, N.)., 1975, pp. 34-37, 63-87.
4. Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography, The Feminist Press, Old Westbury, N.Y., 1983, p. 80 (quoted from Blackwell's speech at the Fourth National Woman's Rights Convention, Cleveland, Ohio. Oct., 1853). Gilson ms p. 273 and History of Woman's Suffrage edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Mathilda Joslyn Gage, Rochester, N.Y. 1881.
5. Bernard M. Loomer, ‘Two Kinds of Power,’ D. R. Sharpe Lectureship on Social Ethics, October 29, 1975, Criterion, Winter, 1976.
6. Ibid., p. 20.
7. Ibid., p. 21.
8. Adin Ballou, Autobiography of Adin Miou, Porcupine Press, Philadelphia, 1976 (First Edition, 1896), pp. 61-62.
9. Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1936, p. 242.
10. Jack Mendelsohn, Op. cit., pp. 258-259.
11. Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation, The Guilford Press, New York and London, 1985, pp. 224-234.
12. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, The St. Botolph Society, Boston, 1892, p. 42.
13. Ibid., p. 42.
14. Roy D. Phillips, ‘Preaching as a Sacramental Event,’ Transforming Words, William F. Schulz, ed., Skinner House, Boston, 1984, pp. 32-33.
15. Jack Mendelsohn, Op. cit., pp. 22-23 (from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing, D.D., Robert Brothers, Boston, 1880, pp. 61-63).
16. Daniel Berrigan, Interview by Marian Christy, ‘Conversations,’ Boston Globe, pp. B15, B18, Jan. 17, 1988.
17. Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography, The Viking Press, New York,
1981, pp. 154-55 (quoted from James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1887).
18. Wallace Stevens, quoted on ‘Voices and Visions;’ Television Program, WCRB,.:` Boston PBS (Richard P. Rogers, director; Jill Janows, producer; Corey Shaff, ed.,:, Robert Seidman, writer), New York Center for Visual History, 1988.
19. A. Powell Davies, ‘Science and Religion’ preached June 14, 1953, The Mind.
and Faith of A. Powell Davies, William O. Douglas, ed., Doubleday Company, Inc.,
Garden City, N. Y., 1959, p. 239.
20. Bruce Bower, ‘Chaotic Connections,’ Science News, Vol. 133, No. 4, January:
23, 1988, pp. 58-59.
21. Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous, Samuel French Morse, ed., Alfred A. Knopl New York, 1957, p. 228.