The Odd Man:  A description of the liberal minister

John Willoughby Cyrus

Berry Street Essay, 1967


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1967


A certain day came and passed for me more than thirteen years ago in which I reviewed my whole other life. Not that I had ever lived my other life, or even tried to live it. The point is that I hadn't, and, more than that, I hadn't even thought much about it. Then, suddenly, on a certain day, without warning, it all came into my mind. It was an entirely different life from the one I had lived and was living. I was in a different profession in another place with a different standard of living. I was thinking other thoughts, and doing and planning very different things. The whole thing was conceptually vivid and real.

Perhaps this has happened to the rest of my colleagues. I have never asked any of them if it has. For me it was both an exciting and a shattering experience. It was both exciting and shattering because it became very clear to me that I would have been happy and fulfilled, perhaps even happier, in my other life. I had always supposed I could do something else if I had to. But I had never thought I could choose to be anything else than a minister. It had seemed to me that I had eliminated every other possibility. Now suddenly it became clear to me that I had never really thought about any other possibility, but had thought only about the ministry. I had no thought on that day of leaving the ministry. But I had supposed that however happy or unhappy, successful or not, I might be as a minister, there was no other choice. I now know for the first time that there was, that, in fact, there were many. I just hadn't looked at them.

Was I wholly integrated as a minister? There is enough emotional inefficiency in the ministry to make any minister wonder. Would I have been better integrated and worked better in my other life? Was I a different person in my actual life than I would have been in my other unlived life, or the same? What was it I hadn't considered? What had eliminated my other life as a real alternative? What had I really not chosen, or chosen against? Had I made a terrible and irrevocable blunder of choice? I was sure there were no certain or complete answers to these questions. I was sure, also, that they were not questions about me only, but questions that attached especially to the ministry. They could be asked, I was rather certain, about all my colleagues.

No one whom I grew up with through high school chose the ministry. I had no college classmate, even, who chose the ministry. My choice, therefore, wasn't easy to share with my acquaintances. It received no real encouragement from my parents, though for them, being church people, it was an acceptable choice. I had to cultivate it alone. Upon reflection it became clear to me in a new sense, in a way I had not fully seen it at the time, that I chose the ministry as an odd man, or odd boy. If this odd choice is often made much later among most of us than mine, it strikes me now as no less odd. I tried to tell myself at the time that it was not odd in the sense that it made me different. At the time, feeling very different from my friends, I wanted not to be different, or not to be seen as different. In fact I was in some special way separate if not different. The separateness was, for me, actual separation in many ways and on many occasions. But that was not the determining matter. My choice was odd, and the more odd when later I moved swiftly and willingly away from my parents' religious and denominational viewpoint and into the liberal ministry. The liberal ministry became for me the oddest choice of all.

The sudden arrival of this awareness of my other life brought me also an excitement that was strangely reassuring. Even if I had missed or foregone another life, the realization that I could have lived it assured me that, after all, I wasn't different, certainly not totally different, from the others. I had chosen odd anyway, not because of difference, but in spite of likeness.

I tried this title on several of my colleagues before I settled on it, and all of them suggested something else. They didn't like the word. This only convinced me, finally, that, as I mean it, it is the right word. It suggested to them such meanings as abnormal, asexual, anti-masculine, queer, strange, or eccentric, I thought.

I have in mind such meanings as occasional, infrequent, unpredicted, accidental, not reoccurring in any sequence. This can hardly be disputed, or, for that matter, objected to. I have in mind the opposite of ordinary or conventional.

What kind of choice is it, though? What does it choose? Why is it made? Three possibilities occur to me. In all of them it seems to me that I see it as the choice of a romantic — if one may use so slippery a word — among the realists. For me it was a choice that had to do with secret and unexpressed feeling and within a highly individualized conception of my life and role. It was moreover an adventurous choice. This was the real secret about it which I could never make clear to anyone, for to everyone among my contemporaries it could only appear to be a choice of a most conventional life, even a dull and restricted life. While to them it would seem most uninteresting, to me it glowed with a potential excitement. At the same time that it was a choice of some kind of moral leadership, which would make it dull and conventional to my contemporaries, it was also unrealistic and impractical. I remember an argument I had with a member of my first church. I forget what it was about, a loan for church repairs, perhaps, but at one point he said to me, "It just isn't good business." I replied, "But ministry isn't good business." "It certainly isn't," he answered, putting a very different value on that judgment from the value I placed on it.

Three possibilities, I said, occur to me to explain it. The first is that one chooses the ministry in order to protect an odd individuality. I shall have to use the word odd now without any more apology or explanation. Insofar as he seems to be different from others in his interests and values, and therefore separate, does he seek to protect this unlikeness by robe and pulpit and ordination, which is a setting apart? The church once gave sanctuary, and still does to confidences. Why not to one's own? Yet all these, at the same time, give him a central and respectable position in the midst of a community. Thus, he may insist on himself, yet be accepted, even honored, formally. The pulpit stands at a distance from the pew, however minimal. Does it, therefore, establish a kind of untouchability for its occupant, a right to be the odd man? If that right is protected, then he can initiate those gestures and actions, those ways of relationship, which will draw from people the judgment that he really is human, though separate, though odd, after all. Perhaps he could not compete in the ordinary world of work.

The second possibility is that one chooses the ministry in order not to be something else. He finds a threat in ordinariness, and in his own ordinariness. The threat may be no more than being ordinary, being undistinguished. If he is, as Whitman said of himself, "stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine," he may wish to disguise the coarse, to exhibit only the fine. He sees in the ordinary only facelessness and namelessness. I saw my contemporaries receding into the undistinguished, murky, moral and commercial background of a little town.

The third possibility is that one chooses the ministry in order to be something that another choice wouldn't allow. In a sense the liberal ministry is an unbounded occupation. The scope of interest it allows is unlimited. He can even conceivably manage to be a full time dilettante student, reading anything and everything that attracts his mind. A colleague once said to me, "What's better than being paid to read?" Here is an intellectual freedom that almost nothing else offers. But in a more pointed sense he may choose the ministry in order to be something that another choice wouldn't allow. Are there certain questions of philosophy and belief that haunt him? He can live out this preoccupation while other men must be confined to their occupations and can afford only to be haunted by such questions. Are there values, minority values, perhaps, which transcend the market place and the grind of living for which he wants to live and which he wants to express vividly? He can deal primarily and full time with these instead of secondarily and half time. He doubts that he could follow these to the end as a lawyer, a banker, a doctor, an engineer, a business man. He might lose them among other demands which those callings and professions make.

While these three possibilities may sound similar, they are different. Let me suggest their difference with three words. The first is for protection, the second for distinction, the third for self-affirmation. And though the third has the most positive meaning, I suggest that all three possibilities apply to most of us.

I have said nothing about a service motive, a determination to live for or work for others, or a determination to put oneself in the service of a great cause such as truth, or love, or the free mind. I do not mean that such a motive is not present — I think it usually is — but it is unreliable and it cannot be measured either as to its authenticity or its strength. No one knows whether he can serve others or a cause that includes others. The whole service motive is a little embarrassing. It compromises humility. Rather than an all-determinative motive or an over-riding purpose it is a vague disposition which is an element in the oddness of the choice. One is not aware that others are looking first of all for some way to serve others or for something to serve. It is a kind of life or a style of life that the choice of the ministry points to. The motive of service simply makes the problem of self-definition more difficult and more important. It increases the concern of the self to know what it is choosing.

There is, however, another important ingredient in the three possibilities I have proposed. It is an impulsive rejection of all three. If the minister chooses to protect an odd individuality, there is also a strong wish not to be protected, to scorn protection. If he chooses not to be ordinary, there is also a strong wish to be ordinary. And even if he chooses to be what otherwise he could not be, there is a strong wish not to try so hard for this special self-fulfillment. This is really a footnote to suggest the element of internal stress which is contained in his choice.

Once we are engaged in the liberal ministry the oddness of the choice confronts us, I think, again and again in almost every aspect of our careers, in almost every act of the ministry. I wish to emphasize that it is not only the choice that is odd, but the occupation as well. Having made an odd choice, we proceed to do odd things. We seek to comprehend the universe, though not as science does, to determine how it bears upon man's place in it. Not, of course, as an antagonist of science, for we attempt to assimilate what we can from science. But we seek to comprehend it as a whole in some poetic or philosophic concept which we hope can make a convincing claim on truth. I assume that a scientist can work all his life without having to say or even think anything about a whole of the universe, though such may be an assumption or an implication of his work. I mean that it need not preoccupy him intellectually or emotionally. And I should think that he need not be concerned especially about whether such a concept bears upon what he does. Indeed, how does it bear upon what he or anyone else does? We assume a connection — excepting those who assume no connection, which is an assumption of equal magnitude and presumption — that is important. We try to communicate it both rationally and emotionally.

It is not that no one else is interested in such a comprehension of the universe and man. The oddness lies in our passionate persistence about it, and in our inability to be content with any formulation of it. Other men and women think about it, dismiss it, reach a working concept, or simply leave it open for further consideration, and go on living. Their tolerance for it is low compared with ours. To us it has a life-and-death importance. But others go on living, often better than we do, without insisting on coming to grips with it.

We try to comprehend the soul, the total person, not as science does usually, but by its claim to have meaning in the world. Again, it is not a matter of our being anti-science. We are as eager about a new scientific insight into personality as anyone, and more eager than most. Yet our interest remains on the poetic and philosophic side of the matter. We are likely to insist that a human life has meaning even in the face of the view that the question of meaning is meaningless itself. (Is this, we might well ask, just the problem of the meaning or relevancy of the ministry in disguise?) Of course, individuals have the experience of feeling and thinking that their lives are meaningful or meaningless. But the answer to their sense of meaninglessness is very often something they must do. For us it is a concept of the totality of the person, and while they are not uninterested in such a concept — consider Easter Sunday attendance especially — what they want most is the practical resolution of a conflict, a real way out of a real dilemma, in order to get on with living. We who are most persistent after such a concept are, at the same time, the most consistently dissatisfied with what we find. This, I suggest, is an odd way to be. Why can't we just go on living like everybody else, as everybody else must? But to go on living is for us to go on persisting in asking questions and seeking answers which others haven't time for because they have to go on living, too.

We try, furthermore, to judge history and society by some moral or ideal goal even though, it seems to me, history gives us a good many warnings against such judgment, and thus we try to stand above it and outside it, though, apparently, almost everybody else is immersed in it and overwhelmed by it. We see ourselves in the prophetic pattern. Certainly no one can say the prophet wasn't an odd man. Why should one certain "dresser of sycamore trees" and no other invade the city and speak in anger against its established wealth? No one likes being swallowed by history and society. But isn't this the normal, the ordinary way of survival? One accepts one's place in the world, does what the world wants, and gets paid for it. If the place of many is to be destroyed, that scarcely invalidates the willingness of the far greater number to take life as it comes and do what is expected.

I am impressed by the inability, or the lack of disposition, of able and capable people, especially in our affluent society, to sustain social or political protest. They may believe with real intelligence that we are fighting an unjust war, or are laggard in pressing the cause of human rights, or that we are hastening the destruction of human life by doing nothing about birth control or air and water pollution, but they can't afford to live with a sustained anger or outrage at such things, nor to give half their time to organized protest. They have to go on living, and they have to summon the morale to do that with a modicum of cheerfulness, interest, and hope regardless of what happens to such great issues of their time. They pass their judgments on events and trends, and then leave them for more immediate and important obligations. Not so for us. Such judgments are part of the nourishment and content of our lives, and though we may do little more than they about them, such judgments are always in our minds.

Most of us, I suppose, know Harry Golden's story about Ed Cahill in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a wonderful comic irony on the liberal minister as the odd man. I can't consider it a tragic irony, not, anyway, as Golden tells it. The County Ministerial Association was segregated, so Cahill applied for membership in the Negro Ministerial Alliance instead. At about the same time the white group voted to desegregate, so Cahill asked the Negro group to delay acting on his application so that he as a Unitarian might not be an obstacle to the desegregation of the white group. When the Ministerial Association did desegregate, the Negro Alliance went over in a body, and Ed was left alone and unorganized, in Golden's words, "the first white man in history to be segregated by both whites and Negroes." There he was, exercising a judgment on history and society according to moral goals, and being very generous about it, too, the oddest man in Charlotte. It's a parable for all of us.

If these three elements of his theological interest make the minister the odd man — I think they do in his passionate and persistent preoccupation with them while for others life goes on —consider also that he insists on talking about them regularly and everywhere. It may well be true that the way to success in the ministry is never to talk about religion or politics. If so, my colleagues do not seek success most of the time. This talking role is a large element in their oddity.

There are other odd men in society. The artist is, especially in the kind of freedom he insists on. Often the scientist is. The professor sometimes is. Certainly the overt rebel is. So, in my small home town, was the junk dealer. To all these the minister bears a likeness which may not, however, be apparent to him or to them or to others. All have in some special way set themselves apart. Why, then, isn't the minister one of these instead of a minister? The difference is, in part, that he is a man of words, and that, especially, he is a man of words who uses words primarily in the midst of a proper and respectable institution, the church, which sets him up and honors him as the odd man.

Precisely in the performance of his role in this special setting he proves himself the odd man. He takes up the responsibility of expressing love for the universe and man, and recommending it to other men, yet he judges the behavior of both universe and man. He takes up the challenge of preserving hope for both the universe and man which, perhaps, isn't very logical, and isn't always possible for him or anybody else. And he sets himself above tradition, especially as a liberal, as well as above science, in all these undertakings.

Here is the evidence of a strong drive for some kind of superiority, but in a direction and in a situation which are sure to humble him if, indeed, they do not lead straight toward self-defeat. For all that, he expects to survive rather well in his odd position. Is he a man who wants to live "in the worst way"? That is, who wants terribly to live but who insists on the most difficult terms for his own survival? If he does not, in truth, really want to die?

There is no doubt in my own mind that he seeks and pretends to have a most intimate acquaintance with the world and people inasmuch as he searches for their inner reality, for the humanness of their experience. And I have no doubt that the minister does touch the world and people in the most sensitive and concealed places. In this assumption of a most confidential relationship with people and the world he is in a position requiring the utmost exemplary life but which offers the utmost, privileged opportunity for violating the relationship he assumes. Thus he reaches for more, expects more, requires more than any other person, and stands to fail as much as or more than any other person, and more often.

I raise the question seriously whether the liberal minister is the most subversive man in society, especially so in that he lives his subversive life within a proper frame of public respect. At the same time that he is subject to a most critical judgment in his professional conduct, he is also partially exempt from ordinary judgments and suspicions, so much so that people like to express surprise and pleasure at their discovery that he is human. They do not, however, expect him to be too human. In fact, he rejects models, laws, creeds, philosophies, theologies, standard beliefs, and even conventional morals in that he attempts to keep thought fluid and moving. He is the ultimate heretic in that so far as possible he does only what he chooses, and is a law to himself. He is, moreover, largely his own boss. Social Security insists he is self-employed.

I often come near to feeling at home in the limited society of one Unitarian congregation. By and large I feel very much at home there and an uneasy and a little uncomfortable in any other. In any long ministry — I have in mind more than ten years, and I have had two of these — the minister has the chance to select his congregation and to teach it how to listen to him and how to treat him. So I am much at home in my own familiar place. But sometimes it suddenly seems to me that I am a wild man. Not an impostor, but wild. It does not seem to me that I am wild in what I actually do, in my behavior or in how I expect to go on behaving, but in what I ask and expect of others. I suspect that I want them to be wilder than I succeed in being. For isn't it subversive — and wild — to want people to unmake their minds and make them up again, to want them to be more human than they are, to propose to extend their awareness of the world and themselves, to ask them to make difficult decisions and judgments which they might quite successfully avoid, to want them to live more eagerly, more hopefully, more determinedly, than they do? It seems to me this is wild, wild in the sense that Robert Frost says a poem must have wildness in it.

Now all this is preface — and it may also be cliché — to something I want to say about the liberal minister as the odd man. Neither do I know that what I want to say is anything unsaid, but I suppose we realize our own minds and thoughts as fresh even when they aren't. I know that the ministry puts me in a relationship to the world which I have insisted upon but which is also doubtful to me. It is a relationship in which there is always something unresolved between [what] the ministry is as well as with what and who I am. If so, it will speak for you as well as for me.

In his book entitled "The Mind As Nature" Loren Eiseley has an extended piece of autobiographical reflection which has led me into a special kind of reflection on the liberal ministry. His mother was a deaf mute and his father, who in his youth had been a ne'er do well, itinerant, Shakespearian actor, was a wage earner who came and went late and early. They were orderly, practical, and unreflective people who, necessarily, had little conversation and who had also no extensive reading interests or experience. The boy Eiseley, growing up in the peaceful but silent house, was a dependable boy who had regular chores at home and did them, who was steady in his school attendance, who went to bed early and got up early, and, apparently, in all ways fitted peacefully into his parent's life. Nothing in his boyhood pointed to anything different from his parent's life. But his adult mind developed an intense imaginative and scientific interest in nature and man, as any of us knows who has read The Immense Journey or The Firmament of Time. This interest came to him like a revelation of something about himself, a revelation of a sleeping life or a sleeping mind, whose processes he had been unaware of in his boyhood but which processes had been at work, growing and waiting secretly until the time they would be stirred into active command of him. His mind, therefore, was much more than what he used as a boy, and was as much a part of nature as of himself.

I am not sure that I have given an adequate suggestion of his meaning, but I am sure you would find his little book mysterious, appealing, and full of insight. And I am not about to suggest that the liberal ministry is the expression of yours or my sleeping boyhood mind. Instead I want to propose that this unused, or sleeping, or waiting mind belongs to every man, and that the liberal minister sets himself to represent it and awaken it. This is not, I think, a Freudian concept, and it is not easy to relate to Freudian concepts. It is much closer to Thoreau's simple statement that we are only half awake. It is closer to Walter Cannon's definition of consciousness as the focus of attention. It is precisely the idea of an unused mind, a mind that we have just not got around to yet, and might never get around to rather than a repressed mind. It is what isn't lighted up, but is perfectly accessible to light and is therein like the roadsides outside your headlights. It is like my own other life that I had simply overlooked and left behind. I suggest that the liberal minister sets out to represent this unused and sleeping mind of every person. Here, he says, is your unlived life. What makes him the odd man is just that he tries in this respect to be representative of man, to represent all of man to men, even his odd dimensions. It is this breadth and depth of consciousness he tries for and gives his loyalty to that makes him odd.

I have seen my relationship as a minister to my father's life in this way. He was a small town merchant and a traveling salesman; but first he was a small town school teacher, one of few college graduates in the town. He quit teaching after six years and two babies, believe it or not, to make more money. He didn't make any money, but he always remained a little nostalgic for teaching. I felt that he had put his real life, his important life, to sleep and had stopped its growth. I identified the values of the ministry with the values of teaching, and felt that I was more his son, though we disagreed strongly about religion, than I would have been if I had gone into the hardware business. On the other hand, I find I still have a special fondness for hardware stores.

No liberal minister, I am sure, thinks of himself as conventional man. This is another way of saying he is the odd man and chooses to be. Conventional man is, no doubt, a wide and inclusive category, its limits relative to the definitive point of view. Whatever conventional man is, the liberal minister, I suspect, sees him as an over-specialized man, over-specialized in his adaptation to a limited view of life, his mind focused upon the limited interest of what is called "making a living." If there is a Pharisee in the liberal minister, this is revealed in his silent prayer, "Thank God I am not conventional man."

Whether or not this is a superior pose, the liberal minister sets himself to express both an incisive and an inclusive view of experience which reaches beyond this middle consciousness of man, and to bring this view into full attention. As a theologian he tries to make clear a religious vision, a view of the universe and of human life that is not immediately apparent or immediately attended to by his fellows. Is this not, in fact, an appeal to them to bring their full perception of the world, their total response, into play? He represents all men to parochial man; he represents the world to the national point of view, the universe to the earth-centered view. He calls the whole man to be present to the partial man.

Are we not always asking men and women to give their attention to profound and simple experiences? We want them to return to and renew elemental experiences they have lost and forgotten. And are we not also, at the same time, warning them against oversimplification of complex social situations and personal conditions? We want them to extend their intellectual and feeling comprehension beyond this middle range where issues are easily settled. And we are not always encountering in others both the hunger for a whole life and the resistance to a whole life, and appealing to them to resolve this conflict? Thus, it seems to me, the liberal minister is always knocking at the door of the unused mind and the unengaged heart. He represents the inarticulate in every man, the self imprisoned in the social shell, the expansive man held in, the whole man in disguise before his fellows. He represents a range of awareness, conscious or not, that lies round the constant attention of the practical life.

If he does this well, then he lives out intensely, and gives expression to the silent struggle of the conventional and practical man with his "sleeping life." He represents all of man to every person.

I hasten to add two conditions to this description of his role. I do not mean to suggest that a conventional life is not an authentic life. No part of the range of human interest and experience is more or less authentic than another. The liberal minister struggles with it not because it is conventional but because it is limited, and also because it is often highly successful. The minister, therefore, invites conventional man to explore his real limits, his further limits rather than his conventional ones. He must do this, I think, fully realizing that a conventional life is often lived better than his own. My own review of my other life made this point to me. What I had rejected as lacking in value suddenly was revealed to me as very attractive and appealing. I lost a little self-protective self-love in that moment.

Moreover, the liberal minister cannot engage in this role as the conspicuous example of man fully awake. He engages in it as not a whole person, but as a needy person, perhaps needier than most others, himself seeking new dawns. He knows about awakeness, and is odd in his persistent effort to achieve it, but he doesn't achieve full awakeness either. Only so has he a right to be "a learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest." I recall numerous conversations with a physicist, a Unitarian, in which without condescension he tried patiently to make somewhat clear to me what he knew about the world. We were, in fact, congenial friends with about ten more years of life on his side than on mine. And I often had the thought after our conversations, "There is something I know that he doesn't, but there is an enormous amount I don't know that he does."

This realization checks my wildness, and makes me hope I merit the respect which I receive. It is an odd profession to say to men and women who know a great deal about living, "Don't renounce or reject your lives; just live more than you have." If I have found any reconciliation of this role to myself, it lies in the fact that this is what they want me to say. They see themselves in my oddness.

What the minister must try to do is to evoke in men and women an authentic religious vision for their lives, trying to awaken to those qualities without which life is barren and clarify to them those loyalties without which life is a betrayal.