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The Need for Meaning

A few weeks ago a study group, I am told, was announced in our San Francisco Unitarian Church to discuss Nietzsche’s question, “Is God really dead?” Forty persons were expected. Four hundred came. In the context of tragedy unparalleled in history, people seek meaning for life. Whatever else that surprising attendance signifies, it seems clear that many people have come to a new level of attention- they are attempting to cope with life with and enlarged understanding and greater sensitivity. The symbols of the space satellite and the high speed computer do not satisfy those men and women who reject total manipulation in a technology age.

I am persuaded that the encouragement of responsible dialogue is the basic goal of our religion, a dialogue which assists us and our congregations to discover meaning and a program for man while he is yet alive on this fertile, glorious earth. There is a plethora of literature, of drama, of television and film describing the powers which would destroy us. In the daily press we find primarily an emphasis upon dehumanized man, his perversions and failures. Some, like Robert Frost and Albert Camus, resisted by retirement from the fray, while Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin and Ionesco join in a chorus of near despair of man’s ability to redeem his life from destruction.

It is our task as liberal ministers to report, if we believe it to be so, that there is more than alienation and the absurd, more than illusion and despair. Those of us in this profession of ours who meet human frailty and despondency every day of our lives are quite conscious of the forces that undermine the human will, but we refuse to accept the prevailing silence about those forces that create new confidence in life. We may not employ Nietzsche’s arresting formulation that God is dead, but we do know that man is a meaning-questing animal when not drugged, trussed and imprisoned by a culture that holds him in vile contempt – a culture preoccupied with shaking the last coin from our pockets, and with little else. Professor Herbert Shore at Brandeis University echoes my conviction when he declares that “Death can never be the avant-garde of an advancing civilization, the vanguard of mankind, or we would all be marching to the crematories together crying out, ‘it is absurd.’” And while he is speaking primarily of the nihilistic and neurotic writers of this century, I would add that the religions from which we have emerged, especially Christianity, have been equally guilty of proclaiming Death as the way of life, and are losing their grip on mankind as a consequence. I hold Billy Graham and the Vatican as responsible as the grave-bewitched men of letters for compounding the crime of human desperation. It is our task, as liberal ministers, to speak of more than violence, decay, and man’s inherited ineptitude. As Dr. Shore pleads for more voices like those of Berthold Brecht, Sean O’Casey, and Haldor Laxness, men of light and hope, I would plead for voices such as we once knew in our own active ranks – Theodore Parker, Anna Garlin Spencer and John Haynes Holmes.

It is for us to say that meaning will be found, if it be found in time, by a recovery of lost dimensions of human joy and creativity, by a dismissal of irrationality as central, by a recovery of courage in the resources of mind and emotions as worthy of cultivation. Striving and struggling are indeed a part of our capital as men and women, as are song and poetry and human love. If we believe, as many of us do, that over the centuries a set of values has evolved which deserves employment, then we should declare those values. Then we should insist that man is inviolable, that he must not be driven off the stage by those who have lost faith in those values.

The role of the Liberal Minister

I am saying that you and I, as ministers, have a role of vast importance today because we do not believe that life for man is bereft of meaning. Self-knowledge, even terrifying knowledge about the depths of man’s evil designs against himself and others, leads to more than guilty exhaustion. Analysis of ourselves and our fellows is not enough, cleansing as it often turns out to be. We need not be prisoners to our therapists.

The men and women whom we meet in the course of our ministrations are blocked by despairs, griefs, surrenders to conformity around them. They, too, far more than we often realize, cherish the human values which we know have been discovered and implemented during the course of human history, and they seek ways and means of escape from the many inhibitions our society raises against them. Ours is a social system which all too often chokes self-confidence and courage. Hence, the necessity for some supportive voices which can restore a man’s self-respect and initiative. We can, in a culture obsessed with futility, restore in individual lives a balance by speaking boldly of man’s rationality, his moral and emotional powers which are so real that they have taken him through incredible crises many times before. This is no fiction, and it is our privilege to say so.