"On the Boundary—A Christian Perspective”

Judith L. Hoehler

Berry Street Essay, 1976


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Claremont, California

June 21, 1976



            One of the metaphors frequently applied to Unitarian Universalists—both by us and by others attempting to describe our movement—is the metaphor of "the boundary.”  We see ourselves variously as standing at the cutting edge of intellectual endeavors, as being on theforefront of religious innovation, as being that boundary where theists and humanists meet and find a compatible togetherness.


            These boundary metaphors are not just the product of our search for U-U identity over the past few years.  Rather, these metaphors have been around for a long time—ever since Moses Stuart, the foremost orthodox biblical scholar of the early 1800s, responded to Channing’s Baltimore Sermon with the charge that "Unitarianism was a half-way house on the road to infidelity.”


            As we did with the label "Unitarian,” hurled in disdain upon the liberal clergy of Boston at the turn of the last century, so we did with Moses Stuart’s insult.  We appropriated the term for ourselves, and eventually made of it a hallmark of approbation.  Thus in so recent a publication as the April ’76 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, James Luther Adams describes Unitarian-Universalism today as a "border movement attracting people who have just left a traditionally oriented church or who have been unconnected with a church”[1] and therefore are entering in, as if at a border crossing.


            Why do we Unitarian Universalists find this imagery of "the boundary” such a felicitous one?


            Is it because we like to think of ourselves as daring innovators, as stalwarts of the avant-garde?  Perhaps, however, instead of being harbingers of tomorrow’s truths, we may simply be guilty of hybris, that Greek sin of pride which Leonard Mason dissected so eloquently in last year’s Berry Street Conference.  As Leonard pointed out, hybris inevitably leads to nemesis.[2]  And our nemesis is that we have become faddists—momentarily seduced by every new idea.  Gone is the depth of scholarship and acuity that characterized the radical thinking of such early Unitarians as Henry Ware.  Ware’s debate with Leonard Woods on the depravity of man covered four years and five volumes.  Known as the "Wood ‘n’ Ware” controversy this debate, according to historian Sidney Ahlstrom, constitutes "one of the best theological discussions of human nature in American church history.”[3]


            A look at contemporary theological literature leads us to the sobering conclusion that no Wood ‘n’ Ware debates are going on today.  The radical religious writing is coming, not from Unitarian Universalists, but from the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations: authors like Gustavo Gutierrez, Raymond Panikkar, Mary Daly, Hans Küng, Letty Russell, Ian Ramsey.


            In the realm of theological discourse, we are not currently "on the boundary.”


            Perhaps then we cling to this metaphor for emotional reasons.  Not to be on the boundary means that we have to be a little into something.  And once we start to move from the boundary toward center, we begin to separate ourselves from whatever is on the further side of the boundary.  This was the dilemma in which Simone Weil found herself.  Torn by her profound devotion to Christ and the deep religious and aesthetic satisfaction she received from the Catholic mass, she could never bring herself to become an official member of the Roman Catholic Church.  In one of the letters to her friend, Father Perrin, she wrote, "When I think of the act (of joining the church), nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of unbelievers.”[4]


            The anguish over separation pervaded much of Simone Weil’s life.  A brilliant intellectual, she strove mightily to identify with human suffering, whether it was among her students or with her fellow workers in the Renault factory in southern France.  Later, when working for the French provisional government in London, she ruined her health by refusing to eat more than the daily ration of food available to her people in Nazi occupied France.  A Christian mystic, she saw her vocation, wrote Andre Gide, as standing "at the intersection of Christians and non-Christians.  She thus,” in Gide’s words, "becomes the patron saint of all ‘outsiders.’”[5]


            Could it be this that prompts us Unitarian Universalists to hug the boundary—this passionate unwillingness to separate ourselves from all sorts and conditions of humankind?


            I suggest there is a third reason for our attraction to the boundary.  This reason in more basic than either our illusion of being on the intellectual frontiers or our desire to identify with outcasts.  It is our fear of commitment.  To walk the boundary is not to have a foot permanently on any territory.  Perhaps a passage from Paul Tillich will illustrate what I mean.  In 1966, Scribners published a revision of Part I of Tillich’s Interpretation of History, which had been written thirty years earlier.  The revision was entitled On the Boundary—an Autobiographical Sketch, and it opened with this paragraph:


...The boundary is the best place for acquiring knowledge.  When I was asked to give an account of the way my ideas have developed from my life, I thought that the concept of the boundary might be the fitting symbol for the whole of my personal and intellectual development.  At almost every point, I have had to stand between alternative possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither and to take no definitive stand against either.  Since thinking presupposes receptiveness to new possibilities, this position is fruitful for thought, but it is difficult and dangerous in life, which again and again demands decisions—and thus the exclusion of alternatives.[6]


            From twenty years in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, first as minister’s wife, then as DRE, and now as pastor, I have become increasingly persuaded that by and large we religious liberals find it difficult to commit ourselves to anything over the long haul.  We embrace a new idea, or a new social action project, or a new personal liaison with the excitement and enthusiasm born of novelty.  But then when it comes to the point where serious wrestling with the complexity of an issue must be done—when, in Tillich’s words, "life…demands decisions, and thus the exclusion of alternatives…,” we cop out in the name of openness to new possibilities.  But where does this openness lead us?  Only to new possibilities—never to depth.  Depth requires commitment; commitment requires pain, suffering, hard intellectual labor, self-sacrifice—all of which, paradoxically, lead to self-fulfillment.  When we are unwilling to make longstanding commitments, we are relegated to the shallow living and shallow loving exemplified in Fritz Perl’s famous prayer:


I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you and I am I

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.[7]


When you adopt this philosophy, you exclude yourself from any profound love.  Love involves commitment; commitment involves pain.  "The more people we love, the more pains we bear”[8]—for spouse, for children, for parents and grandparents, for the whole network of extended family, for friends.  Without the pain, there is no love and no joy.  As Reinhold Niebuhr has noted, "dancing and song come out of the same sensitivity that tears come from.”[9]  To cut oneself off from being dependable, to enter into relationships by chance and then to move on when the going gets tough, to assume no responsibility for another’s welfare, as the Gestalt prayer advocates, is to insulate oneself not only from the passion and the pain but also from the love and the joy in life.


            We have seen that non-commitment is a characteristic of the boundary situation—for Tillich, for Simone Weil and for us.  Yet a religious stance assumes some kind of commitment.  Can we, therefore, use the metaphor of the boundary?  Does it have any positive significance?


            It will be my argument tonight that the metaphor of "the boundary” is meaningful only if used in conjunction with the metaphor of "the center.”  One cannot be on the cutting edge without being on the cutting edge of something.  As Tillich went on to say in his autobiography, "Life cannot stand only on its own boundaries; it must also live at its center, out of its own abundance.”[10]


            The question becomes for us as religious liberals: what gives us our abundance?  What is the center on which we stand and from which we sally forth to the boundaries?


            The question of the center is the question of faith.  It is the prime question with which we, as professional religious leaders, should concern ourselves.


            But that presents us with a dilemma.  In 1820, when William Ellery Channing organized the first Berry Street Conference as "an informal advisory body for the Unitarian Ministers of Massachusetts,”[11] the clergy all talked the same theological language.  They could advise one another on matters religious because they shared the same faith.  They were, in Channing’s words, "ministers…who are known to agree in what are called liberal or catholic views of Christianity.”[12]


            Tonight, one hundred and fifty-six years later, that uniformity of language and symbol system is gone.  Our centers of faith within the UUA are many, from Christian to naturalistic theist to nontheistic humanist…and many points in between.


            The reason this diversity presents us with a dilemma whenever we want to talk about that which is ultimately real is that the basic premises of any faith are unprovable.  For example, I say that I believe in the biblical God who lays a claim on my life and to whom I must respond.  You say that this God is an extension of my imagination and has no existence apart from my apprehension of Him.  I cannot prove the radical otherness of God any more than you can prove the otherness in any aspect of reality.  All faith statements fall into this category; we cannot prove them.  We can only affirm what we believe.


            Does this mean that each of us operates on blind faith?  Not at all.  Rather it means that, after bringing to bear on the question of God all our critical intellectual powers, all our emotional understanding, all our knowledge of what the Judeo-Christian tradition says about God, the answer of "yes” or "no” is still a leap of faith.


            How then does a person move into a faith stance?  What prompts her or him to take that leap?


            Since the metaphor of the center is crucial to my essay, I want to spend a few minutes examining how one arrives at a center.  By religious center I mean those beliefs that are basic to a person’s faith.  I refer to those convictions that are the presuppositions for all the theologizing and philosophizing a person does in exploring the meaning of existence.


            There are at least three ways of arriving at a faith.  These ways are applicable regardless of whether one ends up a Christian, a Muslim, a nontheistic humanist or a Mahayana Buddhist.  Because my experience has been in the Christian faith, the concrete examples I use will be drawn from that context.


            The first way of arriving at a faith is through a revelatory experience.  This is what happened to the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.  Although the Book of Acts describes this incident as a sudden conversion, it was not an experience without preparation.  Paul was a devout rabbi, a scholar of the Scriptures.  He knew the tradition out of which the followers of Jesus came; he no doubt had engaged in extensive debate with them since it was the custom for the early disciples to go to the local synagogue upon entering a town or city and there to proclaim Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.  In other words, Paul was already acquainted, through his persecuting activities, with the figure who addressed him in his vision.  Thus we see that a peak experience—a revelatory event—does not happen in a void.


            Neither, however, is such an experience a direct result of preparation.  It is revelatory precisely because it is unexpected.  It points to a dimension of reality hitherto hidden.  Furthermore, a revelatory experience is self-authenticating.  The person to whom it comes does not doubt its validity.  The validity is given in the experience itself and constitutes thereafter an integral part of the person’s faith assumptions.


            Not all conversion experiences are as dramatic as St. Paul’s.  Many more seem to happen quietly, in the midst of anguish when one has no pretenses and no strength left and feels he or she can bear no more.  Then it is that truth is revealed.  This constitutes the second way of receiving a faith.  It comes at that time when one has been stripped of all defenses.  Those symbols and stories from a person’s past which have healing power break through.  Then it is that one is aware of the presence of God, of being sustained, forgiven, accepted.


            An example of this second way of arriving at a faith center was given at the Mass Bay District Annual meeting earlier this spring.  I was attending one of the morning workshops entitled "Who or What is God.”  The discussion was lively but there was a wistfulness to many of the comments, a kind of "I wish I could believe in something…” refrain.  Finally, a member of the UU Christian Fellowship spoke up, a man who had lost a child under tragic circumstances a few years earlier.  "Hasn’t any of you,” he asked, "ever hit rock bottom, ever come to that point where you had no strength to go on—and then been given the strength?  Then known that you were being supported by a power greater than your own, a power of love and healing?”


            The skeptic in each of us responds to any such statement by hypothesizing that the strength was within the anguished person all along.  It just needed a final heroic push to the surface.  But what we think is irrelevant.  The experience did not happen to us.  For those saints and sinners, past and present, who have testified to this kind of revelatory disclosure, the strength came from beyond themselves; it was a gift of grace.


            Fortunate are those whose call to faith is crystallized in a single, self-authenticating event.  But the people who have this kind of experience are relatively few compared to those who arrive at their faith stance by a third way.  This third approach is best described as a pilgrimage.  It is a long, steady progression from the boundary to the center.


            The pilgrimage is marked by several characteristics.  First for the Christian is the growing awareness that the biblical myths and stories identify accurately the agonies and complexities of human existence.  One begins to empathize with the biblical image bearers and to recognize that their concerns are our concerns.


            Who has not, like Cain, asked, "Am I my brother’s keeper?”


            Who has not, like Moses, tried to get out of a difficult task by making excuses?  "Why me, Lord?  Pharaoh won’t listen to me.  I’m not eloquent.  Besides, I stutter.”


            And when the excuses have been to no avail, who has not, like Moses, cried "O Lord, send, I pray, some other person!”


            Who has not, like Miriam, danced for joy?


            Who has not, like Job, stood in bewilderment before inexplicable suffering?


            Who has not, like the childless Hannah, yearned for that which she did not have?


            Who has not, like Peter, let down a friend?


            Who has not, like Jesus, failed?


            The significance of faith stories does not lie only in providing image bearers with which a believer can identify.  Far more importantly, the stories and myths are the vehicles by which a faith is transmitted.


            This insight into the importance of stories comes from the work being done in linguistic analysis.  It is by telling the faith stories that we see what the faith is all about.  If I say to you: Jesus is the revelation of what it means to be fully human, you are hearing an empty abstraction.  That statement is meaningless until it is fleshed out by the Christian stories.  If instead I had told you the story of the Good Samaritan, or the story of Dives and Lazarus, or the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman, you would have seen immediately what was involved in the Christian view of being human.


            As Paul Van Buren has pointed out, if you want your children to know about Thanksgiving, you don’t give them the statistics of how many Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower.  Nor do you collect facts about the founding of Plymouth Colony.  Instead you tell the story of the Pilgrims and the Indians at the first Thanksgiving feast.  "The story is not the same as facts and not the same as critical history, but it can do something which neither of the others can.  It can give Americans a way to tell about the origin of their country and about themselves all at once.  Stories are appropriate to celebration, and celebration is important to being human.”[13]


            I might point out, parenthetically, that one of the reasons Unitarian Universalists have such a difficult time at Easter is that they have no stories to celebrate.  Abstract principles like the rebirth of spring are not made of the stuff which calls forth spontaneous religious exultation.  As Philip Rieff has observed, "Abstractions will never do.  God terms have to be exemplified…Humans crave their principles incarnate in enactable characters, actual selective mediators between themselves and the polytheism of experience.”[14]


            Ian Ramsey went so far as to say that Christian theology should concern itself primarily with telling the Christian story over and over again in a variety of ways until, in Ramsey’s phrase, "the penny drops,” and an act of disclosure takes place.[15]


            Whereas the first characteristic of the Christian pilgrimage is a deepening appreciation for the faith stories, the second aspect is a growing allegiance to the God which the stories reveal.  The way in which God is apprehended varies in different historical periods.  Different aspects of the God/human relationship are emphasized at different times, depending upon the thought patterns and social milieu of an era.  But for the Christian any specific formulation of the divine-human encounter cannot contradict the essential character of the Biblical God—that is, of a God who acts in history; of a God who demands justice and righteousness in human affairs; of a God who is faithful and compassionate; of a God who becomes incarnate in the depths of human service; and, above all, of a God who is holy—that is, who cannot be domesticated by human effort, whose ways are often shrouded in mystery.


            Given these characteristics as guide posts, there is ample room for the input of contemporary insights and new knowledge.  Gordon Kaufman has pointed out in his recent book, God the Problem, that man becomes aware of God’s acts "only a posteriori, as creation gradually moves onward through its historical course and man learns to discern the several phases of that movement in his science and history.  There is here, then, place both for the most rigorous application of scientific and historical methods to the analysis and interpretation of (past) experience and also for faith that the temporal movement of the whole, including the particular developments of our individual lives, is under God’s providential care.”[16]


            In other words, Kaufman is saying that all reflection on how God acts in history is done after the fact, and not contemporaneously with God’s acting.  Discerning God’s movement in history is the result of reflection upon the past.  This is how the Bible was written.  The pivotal event of the Old Testament is the Exodus.  It is still celebrated as the highest holy festival of the Jews—the commemoration of the escape from slavery, the years in the Wilderness, and the entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan.  Yet this event was not recorded in writing until 400 years later, during the time of the Monarchy when the religiously sensitive raised the question as to why Israel enjoyed such prosperity.  Then it was that, looking back over their past, they fashioned together from their many tribal stories the covenantal history of the mighty acts of Yahweh who had brought them up out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey.


            So, too, with the New Testament.  There the central event is the resurrection experiences of the disciples.  Everything in the Gospel accounts—the Christmas stories, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracle stories, the parables, the teachings, the passion narratives—all were written down by those who believed in the Risen Lord.  The early Christians, recalling the life of Jesus after their experience of Pentecost, saw the hand of God at work in ways they had not imagined during Jesus’ earthly ministry.


            As Kaufman pointed out, the significance of becoming aware of God’s acts only a posteriori is that we can use to the fullest all the current tools of scientific inquiry and historical criticism to examine our religious experience.  This allows us, for example, to take the Noah story and compare it to the older Gilgamesh Epic.  The differences between the two are as illuminating as the similarities.  What did the early Hebrews prune from their flood story that the Babylonians did not—and why?


            Present historical scholarship allows us to recreate the ethos of an era and thereby better understand the cultural conditions which influenced a person’s perceptions.  For this reason I can both remain an ardent feminist and benefit from the theological insights of St. Paul.  I simply recognize that Paul was a child of his times and was absolutely wrong about women!


            I cite these examples to show that on the pilgrimage of faith, the growing allegiance to the biblical God does not rule out the vigorous use of contemporary knowledge.


            In addition to involvement with the biblical stories and with biblical theology, the person on a pilgrimage toward Christian faith needs participation in a worshipping community.  Religion is more than a set of beliefs; it is a way of life.  Therefore, it has to be shared with others who are attempting to travel the same way.  A living faith requires communion with a living God, and this is done in the community of the church.


            Here, then, in broad strokes, is the pattern of conversion that is far more common than either the disclosure experience of St. Paul or the unexpected recognition of being sustained by love at the raw edge of anguish.  Rather than being able to point to a specific event and say, "From that time on, I believe in God,” most Christians arrive at the certainty of faith through the more circuitous route of the gradual recognition of the healing power of the biblical stories, the gradual recognition of the increasing claim upon their lives of the moral imperatives of the Christian faith and a gradual increase in awareness of the workings of the Spirit of God in the life of the worshipping community.


            One may have started out with a stance similar to that of the Spanish philosopher Unamuno.  Unamuno wrote: "To believe in God is to long for His existence and further, it is to act as if He existed; it is to live by this longing and to make it the inner spring of our action.”[17]  That is a good enough place to start for someone who wants to see what the Christian faith is all about.  But it is not the end of the pilgrimage.  In the end, one arrives at the quiet certainty of C. S. Lewis, whose autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is the most lucidly written chronicle of the gradual road of conversion from atheism to Christianity that I have encountered.


            I have taken you on this rather lengthy digression from the boundary to a center in order to illustrate what I mean when I talk about being centered in a specific faith.  By now you can see that I do not mean merely believing a set of abstract concepts.  The dynamic of faith is far more complex than intellectual assent to a series of propositions.  In fact, I strongly suspect this to be one reason we have such difficulty with UU identity.  All that currently binds us together as Unitarian Universalists are a few abstract principles such as freedom of belief, openness to new truth, tolerance.  These are all admirable principles; but first of all, they are not unique to us as Unitarian Universalists; and secondly, they are a one-dimensional manna that will not sufficiently nourish our multi-dimensional lives.  As Jack Hayward pointed out in his perceptive article, "The Uses of Myth in an Age of Science,” the early narrative-style myths of transcendence have been superseded by the abstract transcendence myths of contemporary science.  "One feature of the intellectual history of the West,” writes Professor Hayward, "is that it has gradually demythologized its discourse by converting mythical transcendence models (concrete narratives of gods and people) into abstract transcendence models (general principles underlying systems of thought).  In this process, scraps of myth continue to remain, even in modern discourse.  I shall argue,” continues Hayward, "that in many respects a more concrete, narrative-style transcendence model may be better suited to modern sensibilities than the abstract transcendence models we habitually use.  In short,” concludes Dr. Hayward, "demythologizing has proceeded far enough.  It may now be time, even while guarding the critical intelligence, to consider remythologizing.”[18]


            The problem with remythologizing in religious matters is that I’m not sure it can be done.  It often presupposes that we deliberately set about constructing myths to serve as archetypal images of reality as we perceive that reality today.  But we still have not gotten away from intellectual abstraction.  We have first to abstract the reality we want to portray in the myths if we are going to create these myths.  This presents no problem in the scientific discipline which is carried out on the level of abstract concepts.  We can and do construct models that reflect scientific reality as it is conceived at any given moment.  But when we move into the religious realm, we are dealing with a different dynamic.  The healing power of the myths and narratives of the great world religious stems from the fact that these sacred stories grow out of the life experiences of historical peoples.  The stories come from the warp and woof of the fabric of ongoing communal living.  They contain wisdom distilled from a people’s suffering, reflecting upon and responding to the experience of the holy.  It is because of this organic growth that the narrative-style myths and stories of a religious faith are more effective vehicles for the disclosure of religious truth than are models consciously constructed upon abstract values.


            In the first part of the essay this evening, I argued that the metaphor of the boundary is meaningful only if used in conjunction with the metaphor of the center.  I then went on to discuss some of the dynamics of one such center within our movement, the faith stance of a Unitarian Universalist Christian.  In the final section, I wish to return to the boundary because no vital faith can ignore the boundary between itself and alternative possibilities of commitment.  Only by constant interaction with new insights and new knowledge can a faith purge itself of those elements which are archaic and transient and speak afresh to each new generation.  For the Jewish and Christian faiths, this involvement in the world is essential because their adherents believe that God works in and through history, in and through men and women to bring about the kingdom of righteousness and peace.  For the nontheistic humanist, too, involvement in the world is essential because this is the sole arena of human activity.


            The two boundary issues I wish to focus are drawn, first from the human potential movement, and secondly, from the interaction of psychology and religious.


            The so-called "human potential movement” or personal growth groups which have burst onto the American scene in the past few years need no elucidation out here in California.  Many of them originated here but by now are familiar to those of us as far away as Boston.  The May 1975 issue of the Washingtonian magazine listed twenty-three such groups in the Washington, D. C. area alone.  I refer to therapies such as EST, Gestalt, Arica, Scientology.  These groups all differ from one another, but they also have several things in common.  They are eclectic—that is, they borrow freely from one another and from outside sources in putting together their programs; they have their own jargon—EST takes ordinary words like "space,” "validate,” "being” and gives them a meaning peculiar to its own philosophy; Gestalt speaks of the "primal cry;” and they all promise salvation—that is, human fulfillment—to their adherents.


            Now these three characteristics are also shared by the Christian church.  The church is eclectic.  Grounded in the Hebrew understanding of God, the church synthesized Greek thinking into its theology in the first century.  Henceforward, the church feely adapted what it considered to be the best from the surrounding culture into its own belief structure so long as these new adaptations did not violate its central message.  The church, too, has its own peculiar vocabulary—words like sin, grace, judgment, Christmas, Easter, psalms, minister, priest, communion, mass.


            And the church also offers the hope of salvation, the promise of human fulfillment.  It is at this point—in the understanding of human fulfillment—that the profound antithesis between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the current human potential movement is clearly seen.


            It is seen in two ways.  First, it is seen in the understanding of the social nature of humankind.  The personal growth groups stress that each individual is responsible only for his or her own welfare.  Take, for example, their answer to the present world crises.  Sensitive persons cannot help but be deeply troubled by the seemingly insoluble problems of world hunger, poverty, and violence.  Anyone who reflects on the enormous inequities which now exist among peoples is confused and guilt-ridden.  How can one attain any serenity in these troublous times?  The answer of the growth groups is simple: turn in upon the self.  Let the outside world take care of itself.


            Some of the tenets of EST, for example, are: "The world is perfect, each of us is all-powerful, shame and guilt are merely arbitrary notions, truth is identical to belief, suffering is merely the result of imperfect consciousness—how like manna all of this must seem to hungry souls,” comments Peter Martin in his article, The New Narcissism.  "For if we are each totally responsible for our fate, then all the others in the world are responsible for their fate.  And if that is so, why should we worry about them?”  That’s their problem, not mine.[19]


            Lost from this philosophy is the recognition of the interdependence of humankind.  Much significant work has been done in psychology recently in the area of attachment and loss.  The studies of such men as John Bowldy are finding that attachment is essential and ineradicable in humans.  People of all ages are at their happiest and most productive when they are confident that standing behind them are one or more trustworthy figures who will come to their aid.  Biologically, psychologically, culturally, humans must be attached.  The totally independent self is an intellectual abstraction.  We depend on the reliability of certain attachment figures for our life as selves.  Attachments are the stuff of which humans are made.  This modern analysis of human selfhood, unlike the approach of the growth groups, is radically social.


            This, of course, has always been the biblical insight.  From earliest times, the Judeo-Christian tradition has pointed not only to the interdependence of humans but to the moral quality that is demanded of the self in this interdependence.  For the Hebrews, God was a moral God who demanded right living as an indispensable part of obedience.  The Ten Commandments was unique among the religious codes of its time.  Whereas the covenants of other peoples dealt only with ritual observances—with what constituted the proper ways to offer sacrifice and to pay homage to their gods—the Hebrew Decalogue had only three commandments which dealt specifically with the worshipper’s relationship to God.  The remaining seven deal with the people’s relationship to one another.  Honor they father and mother…do not steal…do not commit adultery.  These are rules of moral human behavior.  Their inclusion in a religious covenant meant that the Hebrews conceived of their relationship to God as integrally tied up with how they dealt with each other.


            This Hebraic understanding is basic also to Christian thought.  In the Gospel imperative, love of self cannot be disassociated from love of God and love of neighbor.


            The rejection of human interdependence and, therefore, of responsibility for the welfare of others leads to another flaw in the doctrine of self-fulfillment espoused by the current personal growth therapies.  And that is how they view the purpose of self-fulfillment.  Why should we seek self-fulfillment?  The obvious answer appears to be that self-fulfillment is an end in itself—that beyond that, there is no teleological direction.  However, in actual practice that’s not how it works.


            Assuming that the self has achieved integration, freed itself from the crippling parent and child voices from its past, integrated its attention and awareness to live in the present, what then?  The answer we get from those involved in the human potential movement is that one is then free to enjoy existence, to do what one chooses to do, what one feels like doing.  Inevitably, however, this leads to hedonism—to pursuing what brings pleasure and avoiding what brings pain.  But to avoid pain is to avoid involvement with the hungry, the impoverished, the diseased, the imprisoned.  It is to avoid lasting personal and moral commitments because these put demands upon the self, and demands can be painful.


            How much more profound is the answer the old Westminster catechism gives to the question of what the self should seek.  What is the chief end of man? asks the catechism.  The answer is: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.


            Here, too, we have the motif of enjoyment—but it comes as a result of a different kind of self-realization from that sought in the human potential movement.  It comes through the self-fulfillment that lies in giving of the self in service to others.  It comes, not in avoiding pain, but in bearing pain.  Suffering, in the Judeo-Christian heritage, has always been recognized as the unavoidable way of approaching the near side of God.  Isaiah sees Israel as the suffering servant; at the center of the New Testament story stands the Suffering Christ and the Cross.


            Now the Jew of the Christian is not a masochist—he or she does not seek out suffering for the sake of suffering.  Rather, when tragedy comes, as it does to all of us, the religious person, informed by the stories of the faith, trusting in the trustworthiness of God, bears the suffering confident in the hope that there will be a happy issue out of all the affliction.  What this happy issue is, is unpredictable—it often is not what the believer had in mind.  But the end result of any suffering is more than a resolution to a problem.  It also includes a chastened, more sensitive and less dogmatic outlook on life.


            Perhaps an example will illustrate what I mean.  Our oldest daughter is a Down’s syndrome child.  Not infrequently when a doctor delivers a mongoloid baby in one of the area hospitals, he will ask me to visit the mother.  One day I received an unusual call.  A Roman Catholic woman could not stop crying.  She was convinced that the baby was a punishment from God for her sins, and nothing her distraught husband said would convince her differently.  I knew how I would have handled this situation had the woman been Protestant.  But I also knew that, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I would carry little authority with a Catholic in her condition.  So I called the local monsignor.  "Tell her she doesn’t know her Catholic theology,” he said.  "According to church doctrine, these children cannot commit mortal sin.  They are looked upon as special gifts of grace from God, not as punishment.”


            To those of you who have had no experience with Down’s syndrome, the monsignor’s answer may seem a rather highhanded way of dealing with tragedy.  But as the mother of a happy, healthy retarded teenager, I identified with the answer immediately.  Through the early months of anguish and despair as first our family, then the relatives and finally the neighborhood came to grips with mental handicap, we became aware of the humanizing effect this child had on everything around her.  She was indeed a special gift.


            This realization, born out of suffering, accounts for the outcry which came from the parents of retarded children last year on learning that some doctors at Yale, by deciding not to perform a life-saving operation, had allowed several Down’s syndrome infants to die.  I remember my anger was instantaneous and white-hot.  I realized later it stemmed from two sources.  The first was fear for my child.  If doctors could allow retarded babies to die for lack of an operation that they would have performed had the infants been normal, how far were we from the Nazi decision to eliminate those persons who, in the view of the state, were not socially useful?


            The second source of my anger was the ignorance of the doctors in not recognizing the value of what society considered a less than perfect human.  But then I realized I probably would have acquiesced in the doctors’ decision eighteen years ago.  The difference between me and the Yale medical team lay in the insight gained through the suffering and joy of involvement with a Down’s Syndrome child—a suffering I would not have embraced voluntarily.


            This example highlights a major flaw in the human potential movement.  That flaw is the failure to recognize how absolutely essential it is for the self to make long-standing commitments to centers of power beyond the self.  Had we been unwilling to commit ourselves to the welfare of our Down’s syndrome infant, we would have missed whole realms of experience "(among them, the awareness that a human being is not defined by IQ).


            The boundary encounter between the human potential movement and the Christian faith illumines not only basic flaws in the former but also shortcomings in the preaching of the latter.  The Christian church can be faulted for emphasizing only one aspect of the biblical understanding of self.  Stressing the sinfulness of humankind, the Church has often failed to encourage proper self love.  Yet the Bible speaks of the Imago Dei, of the goodness of creation, of radical freedom, of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  Underlying both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is the affirmation that men and women have worth—that as selves, they are important.  The current appeal of the human growth groups is due in part to the failure of the church to make clear the biblical understanding of the worth of the self in the Christian drama of guilt and redemption.


            Let’s take a look at the nature of human fulfillment from another vantage point on the boundary, this time on the boundary between religion and psychology.


            In 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book, The Denial of Death.  The New York Times called it a "brave work of electrifying intelligence and passion, optimistic and revolutionary, destined to endure.”[20]  I consider it must reading for anyone in professional religious leadership.  Although it is interlaced with rich insights from many sources, the book is primarily an examination of the thought of Otto Rank.  Rank is the least known of Freud’s colleagues but is of a stature equal to Jung and Adler.  One of the major theses of the book is that humans are motivated by the terror of death.  All their frenetic activity, their symbol systems, their neuroses, are aimed at denying the one truth that they cannot escape-0-the truth that they are finite and mortal.  Herein lies one of the strengths of the Christian faith, for, as Becker notes, "Christianity too creature consciousness—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.”[21]


            Since denial of death is fruitless, how can the self deal with the terror of its own impotence and annihilation?  Only by sacrificing itself to that which is greater than the self.  Becker points to the universality of transference in the psychoanalytic experience as an example of the fundamental need of the self to transcend itself if it is to find freedom from the fear of death.  The question then becomes whether the object to which the self gives its allegiance can provide this freedom in meaning.


            The Christian answer to this question is that ultimately God is the only worthy recipient for self-sacrifice.  Becker does not give this answer.  Thus he serves as an excellent example of the kind of dialogue that takes place on the boundary.  Let me illustrate by presenting a passage from Becker and then commenting on it.  Becker here is discussing Rank’s thesis:


            Nietzsche railed at the Judeo-Christian renunciatory morality; but as Rank said, he (Nietzsche) ‘overlooked the deep need in the human being for just that kind of morality.’  Rank goes so far as to say that the ‘need for a truly religious ideology…is inherent in human nature and its fulfillment is basic to any kind of social life.’  Do Freud and others imagine that surrender to God is masochistic, that to empty oneself is demeaning?  Well, answers Rank, it represents on the contrary the furthest reach of the self, the highest idealization man can achieve.  It represents the fulfillment of the Agape love-expansion, the achievement of the truly creative type.  Only in this way, says Rank, only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least fetishized level, can man conquer death.  In other words, the true heroic validation of one’s life lies beyond sex, beyond the other, beyond the private religion—all these are makeshifts that pull man down or that hem him in, leaving him torn with ambiguity.  Man feels inferior precisely when he lacks ‘true inner values in the personality,’ when he is merely a reflex of something next to him and has no steadying inner gyroscope, no centering in himself.  And in order to get such centering man has to look beyond the ‘thou,’ beyond the consolations of others and of the things of this world.


            Man is a ‘theological being,’ concludes Rank, and not a biological one.  In all this it is as though Tillich were speaking and behind him, Kierkegaard and Augustine; but what makes it uncanny in the present world of science is that these are the conclusions of the life work of a psychoanalyst, not a theologian.[22]



            In this passage, Becker points to the values that are found in the Christian answers even if, at the last, he does not personally affirm them.  (Instead, Becker settles for belief in a life force, a "forward momentum of life.”[23])  Wrestling with Becker enables the Christian to see more clearly the configurations of human despair, sin and guilt.  It also gives insight into new ways of telling the Christian story.  Informed by Becker’s analysis of the human dilemma, the Christian can emphasize those elements in the Gospel story that speak directly to the problems Becker raises.


            In the encounters at the boundary, revelation and meaning can break through and touch each participant in his or her center.  But meaning does not break through if one lives only on the boundary.  Flitting from dialogue to dialogue may be intoxicating.  But it is not enlightening if there is no center to provide the criteria for judging what is valid in the boundary struggles.  Conversely, the insight which breaks through on life’s boundaries needs to illuminate something.  It needs to purify or reinforce a basic faith-commitment or it is useless.


            It is this dynamic of boundary and center that I have attempted to explore this evening.  In summary, let me re-emphasize that the center must be more than a set of concepts.  It must provide myths and stories that meet our complex needs.  It must supply moral imperatives.  Most importantly, the center must disclose that which is worthy of our self-sacrifice.


            For the Christian, the center is the God who is revealed in the suffering and triumphant Christ.  It is this center which gives the Christian the courage and the hope to live compassionately and creatively on the boundary.



[1] Karez, L., quoting Dr. Adams in her article, "Unitarian Heritage of HDS visible in continuing non-sectarian spirit here,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. VI No. 7, April 1976; p. 2.

[2] Mason, Leonard, "Hybris and Humility,” the Berry Street Lecture, 1975; Journal of the Liberal Ministry, Vol. XV, No. 2; Fall 1975, pp. 3-16.

[3] Ahlstrom, Sydney, A Religious History of the American People, Vol. I; Image Books, London: 7th edition, 1973; p. 17.

[4] Weil, Simone, Waiting on God; Fontana Books, London; 7th edition, 1973; p. 17.

[5] Gide, Andre, back cover quote on Waiting on God, Ibid.

[6] Tillich, Paul, On the Boundary; Chas. Scribners Sons, New York; 1966; p. 13.

[7] Perls, Frederick, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim; Bantam Books, New York; 1972, p. i.

[8] Niebuhr, Reinhold, "Sorrow and Joy According to the Christian Faith,” Great Preaching Today (ed. A.M. Motter), Harper & Bros., New York; 1955; p. 127.

[9]Ibid.; p. 129.

[10] Tillich, Paul, Ibid.; p. 42.

[11] Ahlstrom, Sydney, Ibid.; p. 397.

[12] Forman, Charles, "Elected Now by Time,” A Stream of Light (ed. C. Conrad Wright); UUA, Boston; 1975; p. 30.

[13] Van Buren, Paul, "Post Morten Dei,” an article appearing in Christian Empiricism by Ian Ramsey; Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1974, p. 245.

[14] Reiff, Philip, from an article, "The Impossible Culture: Oscar Wilde and the Charisma of the Artist,” quoted in Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 266.

[15] Ramsey, Ian, Religious Language; MacMillan Paperbacks, New York; 1963, p. 20.

[16] Kaufman, Gordon, God the Problem; Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1972; p. 146.

[17] Unamuno, Miguel, quoted in Kaufman, Ibid.; p. vii.

[18] Hayward, John, "The Uses of Myth in an Age of Science,” New Theology No. 7, ed. Martin Marty and Dean Peerman; MacMillan Co., London; 1970; p. 62.  Professor Hayward’s article was first published in the June 1968 issue of Zygon, a journal of religion and science published by Meadville/Lombard and the Institute of Religion in an Age of Science.

[19]Marin, Peter, "The New Narcissism,” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1975; pp. 46-7.

[20]New York Times Book Review, quoted on back cover of Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death; The Free Press, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York; 1973, paperback printing #10.

[21] Becker, Ibid.; p. 160.

[22] Becker, Ibid.; p. 174-5.

[23] Becker, Ibid.; p. 285.