Meaningful Revolution

This is why we need to violate the maxims: why we should upset the applecart, let the bull enter the china shop, cry havoc in church. Our governments I both hemispheres find themselves trapped by their own intransigence, but this is no reason why we should commit the same folly. We know today about the resources of man, and how he can recover from his aberrations. There is no man more free to speak of the restorative powers of our species than a Unitarian or Universalist minister, if he will keep his wits about him. As you may gather, I am weary indeed of the celebration of apathy in our culture today, and I see no reason for denying that I am an agitator for change- wholehearted, drastic and immediate. If man is to find meaning – and I believe he can it will come by releasing imagination to work on real issues.

It was Ignatius Loyola, or Plato, or Karl Marx (you may take your choice, or take them all), who said that no amount of self-analysis can sustain virtuous conduct unless one brings about constitutional changes in the social order and providers the kind of institutions that are conductive to human development. This brings me to the second half of my subject. If we truly wish to help ourselves and our congregations to a greater awareness of their full dimensions as human beings, we will do them great damage unless we indicate to them the ways and means of changing the social order so as to place man at the center of the enterprise. Self-knowledge does generate humility and modesty, but it also, happily, generates powers of cooperation, mutuality and sacrifice for the larger good.

Commitment and Participation

When we come to the transformation of our social order into one in which man may survive and find meaning as homo sapiens, if not homo angelicus, we ministers can have many things to say – things often more welcome to our listeners’ ears than we might expect. I remember the astringent warnings of Lewis Mumford in earlier days, warning that the average American, when he thinks of social change, reaches for a party to join, a cared to sign, a subscription to write. Mr. Mumford referred to these tropisms as “mechanisms of vicarious atonement for actions long unperformed. But, “he added,” what is really called for is the opposite: withdrawal from extraneous activities as the first step toward conscious, directed, passionate commitment and participation.” If I understand Mr. Mumford, I would agree that no man is worth anything to his church, his party, his club, his union, his nation, or mankind generally without self-examination (which calls for periodic detachment). But to me the most tragic figure of this century is the uninvolved, the withdrawn, the defeated, the apathetic man. It is true that never before have so few men made such fateful decisions for so many people who themselves were so helpless. Dictatorships are but one evidence of this fact. Enormous armies and highly drilled technicians living beside loaded bombers on dozens of airstrips at this moment are also evidence. There is nothing heroic about dying in a struggle about which one has no iota of choice as he enters it. We need to restore, not decrease, the sense of significant and rational involvement. In hundreds of liberal churches I sense a mounting effort to restore a sense of participation by people, emotionally as well as rationally, in achieving the destiny of their nation and their world.

Masters of Destiny

Twenty years ago the late C. Wright Mills wrote a book review in the course of which he said, “If men in the large were as snarled as the ethicist and religionists make them out to be, there would not be any human action and we should all probably starve.” Mr. Mills had then, and much later also, a very skeptical opinion about organized religion as he found it in America. I often share his assessment, but I find happy exceptions.

In his article Professor Mills pleaded for less utopian and messianic preaching or writing, and a far greater concentration on acquiring the knowledge and the power to remake the social orders which trap us, and he warns, “We must learn to manage ourselves, lest we be managed by alien beings.” – and he could have added, by digital computers.

This indeed is our task if we are to alter the climate and the institutions about us. Mr. Mills was one of the many men I honor greatly who asked again and again why there was so little social anger by people facing cruel chance and death. Men are more than political animals, to be sure, but there are times when they must, above all else, be political, or they will lose everything. If this be such a time, then a concentration on other features of the self, at the expense of the political, becomes monstrous irresponsibility. I believe this is such a time.