The Fundamental Things Apply as Time Goes By: The TransientAnd Permanent In Life And Ministry
The Reverend Khoren Arisian
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
Rochester, New York
June 25, 1998
"Faith founded on knowledge and sustained by freeinquiry must be the spiritual religion of the future.” -Octavius BrooksFrothingham
"... the very variety of views held by Unitarian laymenhas a tendency to contract the range of the preaching, confining it to that heldin common.” -a French visitor to Boston Unitarian churches reporting hisimpressions in an 1897 issue of The Christian Register.
" ... instead of committing ourselves to reasoning, wereally insist merely on the privilege of thinking or not, as we choose.”-Angus MacLean
Wish to thank Forrest Church, a longtime close friend andloyal colleague, for his characteristically gracious and eloquent words ofintroduction, as well as members of the UUMA group who chose to bestow upon methe signal honor, privilege, and, quite frankly, anxiety of being this year’sBerry Street Lecturer, thereby causing me to ponder, intermittently throughout.the past 365 days, what not to say on this concluding occasion of Ministry Day.
In David Hare’s sparkling mid-1990s play Racing Denim, avicar says to his bishop: "You know the situation. It’s fairly desperate ...I wouldn’t say the church is a joke. It’s an irrelevance. It has noconnection to most peoples lives.”
"As a priest,” pontificates his imperturbable Anglicansuperior in response, "you have only one duty. That’s to put on a show ...Hold services ... And lox. k cheerful as you do it.”
Although I’m the most unlikely of persons to put on ashow, I shall, nonetheless, do my best to appear cheerful. I’ve alwaysappreciated what Emerson stated in a letter to Professor Ware followingdelivery- of his historic and provocatively disturbing Harvard Divinity SchoolAddress of 1838: "I shall. go on just as before, seeing whatever I can, andtelling what I see.” That strikes me as neither an admission of humility nor adeclaration of arrogance. It is, in the best sense of the word, modest, a claimthat is frank, straightforward, confident, and therefore likely to be radicaland to generate controversy. It’s not the seeing but the telling of what yousee that can easily get you into trouble, as any prophet, real or ersatz, canattest. Being far more inner-directed than other-directed (a la DavidReisman’s familiar typology ), I plan to tell what 1 see, for whatever it maybe worth.
To be politically incorrect, as Emerson often was in hisown time, allow me to quote former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whowas definitely unpopular with political liberals on both sides of the
On a broader canvas, Susan Vass’s assessment, I find, isaccurate, telling, and cause for concern. We’ve moved, as it were, during thebetter part of this century from Orwellian to Falwellian to Seinfeldian times,none of which are times of excessive truth-telling. Moreover, todayobnoxiousness exists alongside a readiness to take personal umbrage at theslightest intimation that the sacred untouchability of one’s views, howeverditsy, has been brought into question.
The 1990s is really the inaugural decade of the 21stcentury. Vast new forces were unleashed in the vacuum created by the nearlyinstant collapse of totalitarian communism in 1989. Emerging from the cocoon ofthe Cold War, we promptly fell into the Gulf War in early 1991, anuncharacteristically short conflict whose repercussions are still with us andwhich unwittingly heralded the shape of things to come--warfare as a carefullycalibrated and expensive Nintendo game, the sanctified distortion of truth, thecontrol of
The basic point behind the title of this lecture is thatministry, especially liberal religious as opposed to traditional religiousministry, because of the broader, less well-defined scope and parameters of whatwe have to do, places upon us the inescapable responsibility to pay astuteattention to the so-called secular realm, to choose what to imbibe from it andwhat to modify, what to resist in it and what to reject. In any event, we areobligated to interpret it as honestly as we can. As time goes by in thismarvelous, maddening world, things get more and more complicated, events movefaster and faster, so that we need more than ever to have a reliable point ofview, an existential epistemological compass, as it were, by which todiscriminate one thing from another. To evoke Theodore Parker’s familiar anduseful formulation: What is transient in life today, and what is permanent orenduring? What criteria shall we apply in order to make such determinations? Ipropose we ask the same questions concerning our ministry: What is lasting orprimary, and what is transitory and of second.” significance in liberalreligion and in its implementation in the life of the parish and beyond? Ifit’s the fundamental things/the enduring values that apply equally to life andministry, which are inevitably connected, what might they be? In response tothis query, I suspect it will be of far more interest if I present what I havefound has worked for me, in the hope that there may be enough universality toserve as a foil to the thinking and experience of many of you.
Following graduation from Tufts’
It was exactly a year ago that I retired from nearly 40years of this increasingly complex undertaking of ours, well more than two dozenof them as a UU minister and about a dozen as an Ethical Culture Leader. Thesunny June Sunday when, for the lest time, I stepped down from the pulpit of theFirst Unitarian Society of Minneapolis to the warm plaudits of a congregation ofwhich I had long since become quite fond, I experienced an overwhelmingemotional sense of palpable relief, gratitude, and personal satisfaction; lotsof endorphins must have been released! Since that special day, while enjoyingthe freedom to be as busy as I want, I confess I haven’t had the least regretthat I didn’t spend even mace time at the office than I did for 18 years.
In retrospect, I couldn’t be mare grateful for my bifocalprofessional experience in choosing to work in both UUism and Ethical Culture,two philosophically related yet atmospherically different movements of liberalreligion because, given the circumstances when I made the transition from one tothe other and then back again, they dovetailed nicely, providing me theopportunity to continue serving consistently as a humanist liberal religiousleader. Not being one who changes his mind just for the sake of change, I cameearly to regard tile broad and varied heritage of liberal religion and the deeptradition of the humanist way of life with equal ardor, devotion, and delight,finding each to be a natural enrichment of the other. No other way of thinkingor being has ever held the slightest attraction for me. Humanist religion, inbrief, is not an oxymoron.
Let me turn now to some of the fundamentals that I believeapply in our life and work no matter what zeitgeist happens to be dominant atthe moment. To be clear from the outset, the zeitgeist, let me suggest, has tobe respected as a force to reckon with. We do not have to succumb or pander toit, only live with it and, if necessary, outwit it. Whoso would thrive must besomething of a nonconformist-not always, for that would be suicidal, but fromtime to time-which will require creative risk taking and a nimbleness to move inand out of whatever "the system” may be that confronts us with its rewardsand obstacles.
Remember what the Anglican bishop in Racing Demonforcefully reminded his vicar to do above all: Put on a good show. Mostreligion, organized or not, has its legitimate publicly representationalaspects. The issue is whether the theatricalization is subordinate to thesubstance of the religious impulse from which it presumably emanates or whetherit is an end in itself, in which case it is mere entertainment, surfacetitillation. The entertainment ethos has become integral to myriad levels ofpostmodern life: themed parks and restaurants, shopping malls and fantasy decorin cities like
An amazingly well-wrought and appropriately named film, TheTruman Show, reminds me simultaneously of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,George Orwells 1984, and
Actual reality, I submit, remains life’s oxygen,"virtual reality” is its anesthetic. I should think that even as weacknowledge that there’s far more to life than ideas, there’s ultimately noreal authenticity; no life worth living, indeed, no sanity without ideas born ofhuman realities to help anchor, capture, and bring order out of the buzzingconfusions of life’s details into some open-ended scheme of understanding.Authenticity arises out of the encounter with actual reality. We whoserve in an officially noncreedal movement need preeminently to beware gettingsuckered into that aspect of the contemporary zeitgeist that upholds theattractiveness of an un-intellectual—beyond evenanti-intellectual—culture, a culture instinctively suspicious of ideas. WhatI’m implying is, if we wish to model authenticity in a congregational setting,we have to do more than just put on a good show on Sunday mornings or at anyother time during the week. We need not only to have ideas, but also the courageand patience to tease them out and say out loud what we see. l trust that theprimary emphasis in our programming, preaching, counseling, and social ministryis upon being real together, so that we all thrive together in our variegatedselfhood. Real religion is created of clusters of compelling ideas about ourshared human destiny, and it emerges only as its committed adherents strive forauthenticity. The transient means by which we achieve that fundamental end astime goes by are, as Parker agreed, mere farms. Forget that, and we may end upwith "virtual” religion; where "virtuality” prevails, rest assured itbetrays a desire to escape the real world that we feel we are powerless toinfluence, much less to control.
A recent workplace study conducted by the
When queried about what changes they would like in theworkplace, the employees questioned said what they really yearned for was"sacred time,” time in which to reflect without interruption, to considerwhat’s important besides making a living--personal time, private time, time toget back in touch with their own being, their inner life, that which is truly"sacred.”
In a survey of 4,000 male business executives in
Be that as it may, these two reports merely underscore alongstanding, well-deserved critique of modernity, namely, that in the verymidst of material abundance generated by constant industrial, Scientific, andtechnological advance, Something precious in human experience has gotten lost orat least muffled. This was perhaps first noticed in the West long ago by thepoet Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us;
late and soon, getting andspending,
we lay waste our powers.
Littlewe see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, asordid boon…
We are out of tune; …
Wordsworth was clearly unsettled by the sheer pace ofeveryday life as it was picking up even as early as the end of the 18th century,its gathering political turmoil presaging a new world of unrelenting change andmaterialistic pursuit that is now with us in spades. What Wordsworth foresaw wasa weakening of the un-self-conscious connectedness that for ages human beingshad forged and enjoyed with the teal world and in organic human communities. Inlight of today’s bustling economy more and more Americans are paying their ownspiritual price through being overanxious, overworked, over-scheduled, downsizedand reengineered, substituting, for example, short-term networking for lasting,nurturing friendships. I’m reminded of TS. Eliot’s definition of Hell: "aplace where nothing connects.” When things/people are not connecting, aspiritual problem, if not crisis, is brewing.
Yet another Gallup poll, this one in May 1998, reportedthat folks these days are consequently seeking solace not so much with oneanother as through vague, unanchored, once-over-lightly therapeutically orientedspiritualities characterized by an overwhelming preoccupation with self.Moreover, ethical depth/biblical depth/philosophic depth—whatever be the typeof depth at issue—is lacking, according to the poll’s findings. This sort ofspirituality, associated more perhaps with outer-directed than inner-directedpersonalities, mirrors the disconnectedness of our time rather than helping ustranscend it. If surface is equated with depth, a proposition we noted earlier,then much of today’s spirituality reflects that equation—a spiritualitywithout ontology, sometimes born less of authentic religiousness than ofpseudo-religiosity; often too, it is a spirituality without ongoing community tosustain it.
So it is that I find myself in total agreement withclassical scholar Edith Hamilton, who concluded that for the ancient Greeks (whoof course didn’t know they were ancient), the rational and the spiritual wereperceived, in their depth, as one and the same, simply different forms of oneanother, both being natural human properties. For a religious humanist likemyself, the sacred is the felt, selectively shaped depth of the secular; thetimeless can only be found in the timely, and transcendence is projective fromwithin. In short, if the secular is cavalierly dismissed as bankrupt, so is thespiritual. Once you start separating the one from the other, you lapse intometaphysical dualism again. We UU’s do have a doctrine of the sacred, thoughwe dare not give it an exclusive name as being collectively representative ofour diverse membership. That unofficial, unexpressed doctrine is, at bottom,what Emerson described simply as the divinity of human nature.
I’m therefore convinced, contented, and inspired by thenotion of the inherent sufficiency of human nature, despite its myriad flaws, tochart its own course ad e adequately on this earth. Shakespeare, in whoseluminously unsurpassed plays and sonnets religion per se is practically absent,manifestly operates on the assumption that our human nature is in the endfundamentally sound, more healthy than not. The framers of the AmericanConstitution made no less a bet cm human nature when they crafted thatmasterpiece of democratic self-governance, the first of its kind in the history,of the human race. Last but not least, Vaclav Havel, in his searching Harvardcommencement address of 1995, openly confessing dismay with humanity’s currentloss of awareness of its own spiritual life, skewered the arrogance of all formsof anthropocentrism and upheld the need for us to respect that which is morethan us, namely the great world that starts at the tip of our noses. The worldisn’t "Out there” somewhere; it’s as close to us as our breath. Call itreality, nature, the cosmic order, of which we, all people, are part. Eschewbondlessness, urged Havel, knit new relationships across differences; build theKingdom here and now, one might add.
Admittedly, sometimes "Hell--is other people,” asSartre tells us, and as was pedantically but still effectively presented in thelast episode of Seinfetd: Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine, obnoxious to theend, packed together in a prison cell, can barely took at each other--notexactly the beloved community! Not until they transcend their self-absorptionwill they behold one another in the fullness of each other’s being.
By the same token, not until Prime Minister Netanyahu andhis supporters fully treat Palestinians as morally equal to Israelis will therebe any peace in that small, combustible comer of the planet. Not until we as aspecies treat nature as morally equal to our own personal needs will we stopabusing the earth. Not until UU’s see their society or church as morally equalto themselves will annual budgets be fully funded. Not until heterosexuals ceaseto treat gays and lesbians (Senator Trent Lott, are you listening?) as morallyequal to themselves will homophobia approach its end. Not until whites andnon-whites become colorblind to one another will the overt marks of race ceaseto be a significant cause of division, estrangement, and hatred. Jasper County,Texas, where a black man was chained to a pickup and heartlessly dragged to hisdeath in June of last year, is still not far away.
Utopia isn’t in the cards, but we can always progress abit despite many a backward turn. Conscience is still the driving force behindreason. A little defiant hope could help, too. Victor Frankl, founder oflogo-therapy, who emerged from the concentration camp with his spiritintact--because, to quote Emerson, he did not "shun the rugged battle of faithwhere strength is born”--passionately believed and taught that we humans havethe power within ourselves, with one another’s help, to grasp life’sinherent excitement and unconditional meaningfulness. That’s what’s sacred!That’s what’s fundamental.
When it formally appeared as an organized entity in theearly 19th century, liberal religion represented a new dispensation ofhumanity’s ubiquitous spiritual impulse. The phrase liberal religionemphasized unprecedented freedom of thought regarding the spiritual life and theinfinite worth of this sphere of time, space, and history, what Wordsworthhailed as "the world, which is the world of all of us, the place where, in theend, we find our happiness or not at all!” Liberal religion was like a genusthat in time would spawn a number of species exhibiting similar characteristicsand attributes. However, our UU version of liberal religion being noncreedalsignifies that in today’s eclectic, neo-romantic transitional era, thevarieties of UU faith will tend in the future to be more basically divergentfrom one another than in the past. We’ve long since gone beyond thetraditional philosophic/theological categories of rational Christianity,transcendentalism, universal theism, religious humanism, naturalistic mysticism,and the like. Now there’s also Wicca, neo-paganism, earth-centeredspirituality, Buddhist UUism, and so on. Two critical questions arise: Are wefirst of all secular liberals drawn sporadically to a nonsectarian spiritualquest in our spare time, or are we essentially a religious people who thenpractice our religion according to the democratic tenets of congregationalpolity? More precisely, are we UU’s first, or is our primary identificationsomething else, having perhaps little to do with what’s historicallyrecognizable in the liberal religious tradition? Because liberal religion hasfew, if any, barriers, any of us can enter it easily and eventually graft ontoit whatever description suits our personal preference. If UUism sooner or laterbecomes what everybody affiliated with it conceives it to be, then it will haveindeed become a complete postmodern phenomenon. At that point we wilt havestopped heeding the call to continue the fundamental directives of our history,and mere transience will have triumphed. The choice is ours.
Born in Boston in 1932, from the age of 71 grew upreligiously in the First Unitarian Parish in Dorchester. The church’slong-time minister was Robert Stogy a wonderful pastor and gifted organiser whobecame a close friend of the family my earliest mentor. First Parish was asettled liberal Christian church, founded its 1630 by the Puritans and whichtheologically converted to Channing Unitarianism in the 1820s.
When I reached high school, Bob Storer asked me toparticipate in a Christmas pageant. He’d write a somewhat different scripteach year, drawn inevitably from Judeo-Christian history. He assigned me therole of the prophet Isaiah. As I studied and memorized the text, practicing itvocally, I could feel the power of Isaiah’s analysis of the religious andpolitical predicament he was addressing. Isaiah wasn’t foretelling the futureso much as telling people what was really going on in the pr sent beneath theostensible surface of events. No wonder he—and others like him—got intotrouble. If people want the truth, they usually prefer it "slant,” as EmilyDickinson famously put it in one of her poems—not straight. Prophets, asopposed to poets, "tend to be blunt, uncompromising, and supremelyannoying.”
On the night of the performance, standing halfway up thestairs of the magnificent burled wooden pulpit that practically reached theceiling, and wearing a role a white one at that, for the first and last time in.my life, 1 not. only spoke Isaiah’s words, I momentarily became Isaiah.Imagine that! Unbeknownst to myself, I was on my way to becoming a Unitarianminister. I systematically devoured the rest of the prophets, from Amos toJesus. What impressed the about the Nazarene wasn’t just the extraordinaryintensity and urgency of his personality but that, unlike his predecessors, hewas the only one to take full responsibility for his own words and not considerhimself merely a mouthpiece for Yahweh: You’ve heard it said of old, but I sayunto you. When philosopher and historian died in Berlin died in November 1997 atthe age of 89, his longtime friend and admirer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., said ofBerlin that he "had the marvelous quality of intensifying life so that weperceived more and thought more and understood more.” To intensify life, aswe’ve seen, is to sound its depths, not mirror its surfaces. For Berlin, ideaswere great educational forces that ,are key to our hopes, insights,tribulations, and the trigger to action. That’s what the prophets did--theyintensified life via them behavior, their tenacity, their words, and, above all,their ideas about what religion and ethics meant in everyday life. I realizeanew that what 1 actually must have tried to do in my ministry was to explicateand intensify the humanist way of life in liberal religion throughout mypreaching, teaching, programming, and social outreach advocacy. I firmly believethat as a rule, the fundamental things that apply as time goes by will notemerge unless congregational life is religiously/ethically/spirituallyintense—not ‘lite,’ not just a show. As former Ethical Culture colleagueJoseph Chuman puts it, "The questing for personal fulfillment too often drivesout the imperatives of social ethics and the need to pursue the mandates ofreligious conscience. Most ominous is the blunting of religion’s propheticedge…” I heartily agree. In effect, Joe is talking about the need forintensity without which moral authenticity and prophecy are not possible.
A news item in the June 1, 1998 issue of Newsweek quotes anNYU student who witnessed the sudden hailstorm that hammered the city one daythe week before, flooding eight subway lines and leaving 300 residents withoutpower. "In New York City,” she said, "You’re so disconnected from naturethat it’s easy to forget that nature is omnipotent. It was like, all of asudden, ‘Barn!’ Out of the sun comes these giant balls of ice.”
The 19th century, which expired not in 1900 butduring the Great War of 1914-18, was the last century when people were still inregular unselfconscious contact with the natural world, its extravagant beautiesand perils. In our day that connection ho-as largely snapped, immersed as we arein our urbanized life of dazzling comforts, high culture, and concrete.Nonetheless, it’s useful to be freshly reminded that Emerson’s uniquecreative audacity consisted in part in connecting the individual’s direct,tactile embrace of nature, including its flora and fauna, with the ethical basisof the drive for social justice and social reform. Emerson’s passionateidealism was born of an entirely new faith that he founded, a faith outside theboundaries of any world religion, a faith that tied individual destiny to thesources of renewal in nature. Transcendentalism propelled Emerson and manyothers into the anti-slavery cause. In the 1850s, he angrily dismissed theFugitive Slave Act as a "filthy enactment,” disobedience to which hepublicly advocated. He was especially drawn into the 1854 Boston trial ofescaped slave Anthony Bums, which instigated the much more physically activeparticipation of Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Emerson somehowunderstood that how we treat and involve ourselves with nature and the way wetreat and involve ourselves with other human beings are profoundly related, theimplication being that nature and people and individuals of all colors andcircumstance are morally equal to one another and that together we bearresponsibility for social justice and what today we call ecologicalresponsibility for the earth. In such an interpretive framework, nature becomesa great equalizer.
I submit that the best, though not the only, key tounlocking our past is to seek out that conception of liberal religion thatstarts with a profound, sustained awareness and understanding of the cosmicorder and how our human nature relates to it. History doesn’t happen in avacuum; it rakes place in nature, It’s not an accident or a minor thing thatJesus, apart from his religio-political program, had a reverent appreciation ofthe natural world. Remember these moving words from Matthew’s gospel: "Whichof you by being anxious can add one cubit to (your) span of life? Consider thelilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and soI say unto you, that even Solomon in ail his glory: was not arrayed like one ofthese.” The gospel statement suggests that because nature embraces history andtherefore everyone’s personal life, perhaps we can learn something importantfrom that immediate source of our being. Robert Redford’s movie The HerrseWhisperer attempts exactly that, presenting how exquisitely sensuousrelationships can transpire between people, between people and animals, betweenpeople and nature, arid the anxiety-free mental balance that can result when itall comes together. A coherent, well-lived life can he a thing of beauty notonly if we’ve located ourselves historically and ontologically, but also inthe natural order.
In his spiritually charged novel Dr. Zhivago, BorisPasternak continually reaches beyond transience to the depths of the humanspirit, the simple fundamentals of life that perennially apply. When we comeupon Lara near the end of this passionate, harrowing tale, we find her walkingalone from the rail station to the estate of the rich industrialist Kologrivovat Duplyanka. It’s the summer of 1911.
Lara walked along the tucks following a path wornby pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and closing hereyes, tack a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse aroundher. !t was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book.For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth tograsp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its rightname, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth our of love far lifeto successors who would do it in her place.
Life’s "wild enchantment,” calling things by theirright name—Apollo and Dionysus combined! What a recipe for developing aliberal religious movement -not just a denomination or association--of truephilosophic character and prophetic intensity! Worth thinking about, wouldn’tyou say?
The Reverend Khoren Arisian is minister emeritus of theFirst Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and president of friends of ReligiousHumanism.