From The Fragmented World
I’m currently conducting a seminar on Wednesday evenings on the theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. Put simply, Wieman’s theology was based on his question, “What is it that can save [humankind] as nothing else can?” By “save,” he meant transform. And his answer was, essentially, that what saves us is a form of human interchange in which God (or, in Wieman’s terms “Divine Creativity”) participates to transform us. To oversimplify, what transforms us is relationship – connectedness. As the novelist E. M. Forster summed up the task of humanness: “only connect.” Relationship transforms us from what Transforms us from the fragmented state in which we live in a fragmented world and transforms us toward a state of wholeness – wholeness that is the “original intention” of our being.
Every once in awhile I like to refer to my doctoral dissertation. I like to do that because, as many of you know, once that beast is born it slinks away, hardly ever seen again. It could be that I will literally never see it again, because some time last year I loaned my only copy to someone I haven’t heard from since. I’ve lost his name and address. (If you happen to be that person, please be in touch.)
The purpose of that dissertation was to come up with a rationale for the existence of a non – traditional religious community – non – traditional in that its purpose is not to worship and glorify God or to preach salvation in Christ – a religious community in which, in fact, many of its members are skeptical of the very existence of God in any recognizable form. The dissertation was important to me, not only because I wanted to graduate and get to be called “Doctor” without having to go to medical school and spend my life doing disgusting things to people, but also because in those years, the early 70s, I found myself in the profession of ministry with no satisfactory concept of why.
In short, the purpose I suggested was to help people meet the needs described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on their journey toward self – actualization. Self – actualized people, no longer acting out of their own neediness, would then turn themselves and the work of the congregation toward making a difference in the lives of others.
That worked for me for awhile; in fact, I actually structured the entire program of the congregation I was serving at the time according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That program did provide a rationale for why we did what we did in that congregation. As I moved on, however, literally and religiously, I found that rationale to be spiritually unsatisfying to me. It was then that I discovered the theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. That theology provided me with religious purpose for the life and work of religious community and with a spiritual purpose for my ministry. “Human beings,” said Wieman, “are made for transformation.” Why are we made for transformation? Because we are born into a fragmented world that, from our birth, fragments us.
Are we fragmented beings in fragmented world? The empirical evidence for our lack of wholeness is everywhere before our eyes. Just take a look in any bookstore: shelves and shelves of books, tapes, and videos on how to achieve peace of mind, how to live with or without anxiety, how to pick up the pieces, find happiness, and deal with the myriad addictions that express our brokenness and pain.
The evidence of our fragmentation is also a priori (self evident experientially), which is to say that we are either well aware that we live fractured and in pieces or we would quickly come to that conclusion if we looked honestly at our lives and how we live them. In his book Habits of the Heart, a book based on hundreds of interviews with young adults, Robert Bellah writes: “The people of our time reveal a paucity of the language of connectedness, an inability to articulate the values of relatedness, which renders their situation precarious.” Bellah and his colleagues point out that we have lost what they refer to as “the second language,” that language that describes our relatedness and our responsibility for the common good.
Note that Bellah states that this situation – the loss of even the language of connectedness – is not merely unfortunate. It is precarious: precarious because if we lose our sense of relatedness, deny, disregard, or forget our connectedness, we are alone. Alone in the mall at high noon. Alone on the Interstate at rush hour. Alone in our homes among partners and family. Human beings alone are in danger. And human beings alone are dangerous.
Out of the sense of unrelatedness, in disconnect, we lose all trace of compassion: that is, we cannot imagine ourselves in the place of others. We act without regard for others. We act out of rage. We forget love. We become inhuman. In one way or another, we die. And what can save us? What can deliver us out of this fragmented world, help restore our own fragmented selves, and turn us toward the restoration of the world?
It was Henry Nelson Wieman’s Great Notion that God is that which acts to restore us to wholeness, closer to our “Original Being.” Such restoration is achieved when we enter into a quality of relationship, a quality of person – to – person interaction he called “Creative Interchange.” And this, I believe, is the purpose of religious community: to be that context in which the disconnected connect, to be what has been called “The Ark of Salvation,” the place of restoration, the place of deliverance from and hope for the fragmented world. That has a “gospel” ring to it. That’s a vision I can get passionate about. It’s what was missing in my days of dissertation writing and purpose – seeking.
Yes, I had come up with a reason for an institution’s existence (and thus a rationale for my own clerical posturing), but there was precious little spirituality in it. There was no passion in it. It was, in retrospect, an academic response to a spiritual problem. It might have been a rationale for a perfectly valid secular institution. But it was not a rationale for a religious institution.
My colleague Phillip Hewett wrote, “From the fragmented world of our everyday lives, we gather together in search of wholeness.” I’m convinced that the religious community is successful when it seeks to serve that purpose, responding to our search for wholeness, and that we are successful in the religious community when we join the gathering for that purpose.
I wrote that last statement almost automatically (you know, like “channeling”) and I had to leave the keyboard and think for quite awhile about what I meant. The religious community is successful when its over – arching mission is helping to restore persons to wholeness. And persons are successful in religious community when they come to it seeking wholeness and restoration. After sleeping on that thought, I concluded that I mean that the religious community is probably not successful when transformation – restoration to wholeness – is not its mission.
It would follow that the religious institution is not successful if it has no over – arching mission, no driving passion for any purpose at all. And, believe me, that is not unusual. Many a congregation has lost all sense of purpose other than its own perpetuation. My corollary conclusion out of the night is that persons are not going to be “successful” in religious community if their purpose in being part of that community is not to engage with others in the process of transformation, of seeking wholeness and the restoration of the world.
The disconnect may not be as obvious but it is as actual as if one were to join a model railroading club thinking it was the garden club. The dissatisfaction in the misidentification and misuse of the higher purposes of religious community will be as palpable. One who joins in religious community out of a driving love for model railroads, out of a passion for whales and their salvation, or out of a sense of personal powerless, is going to be dissatisfied, and the community that gets enmeshed in needs that are inappropriate to its religious purposes is going to be dissatisfied – and fractured.
Too many religious institutions exist as a broken promise, particularly too many liberal religious institutions, which can more easily lose track of their reason for being. The promise held out to the world is in the so – called infrastructure. We use the language and the lexicon of the religious: hymns, sermons, Vespers, ministers, Sanctuary, and so on. And the buildings, while many may not have steeples, do, here and there, make an attempt at religious form. There is a promise of the religious that is often not fulfilled for the newcomer as the congregation goes about its business, having long since lost track of what its true business is.
Jesus asked, “If your child asks for bread will you give her a stone?”
Persons approach a religious community for many reasons, with many needs, with many expectations. Some of those reasons, needs, and expectations are inappropriate, and the institution cannot meet them and invites pain all around if it makes that attempt. Religious community cannot succeed in us where our life ambitions failed, where our parents failed, where love failed, where expectations of ourselves failed. Where religious community can succeed is in mustering itself, gathering itself together, organizing itself, its power of assembly, its power of people, money, and place, to help restore to wholeness the fragmented souls and the broken who await beyond the doors.
Now I do not mean to suggest that those who have come here and those of you who are newcomers here have come as a broken – down, busted – up mess. Our fragmentation is more subtle than that. We come together out of a society whose institutions fail to set before our children values that are embracing, compassionate, and responsible. We come together out of a culture that more and more degrades the good, the true, and the beautiful. We come together infected with a national ambition that would destroy the air, bury the earth in concrete, foul the water – a nation with little sense left of what Bellah called “responsibility for the common good.”We come together out of a culture in which we feel less and less related, in which the language of connectedness, if used at all, feels foreign, forced, or false. Something precious, still, within us – something Wieman called “original” – feels more and more lost.
Whatever impulse brought us to these doors, through whoever’s intervening angelic invitation, I believe that it is out of this fragmentation that we approach the promise of the religious – hoping, daring that its promise will be true. In these days approaching our Celebration Sunday (a day in which we make our commitments of support) we are being asked to consider what difference this congregation makes in our lives.
It’s a worthy consideration. I’ll just ask that we consider this also: that the differences a religious community can make are determined by what differences we ask it to make and by what differences we empower it to make.
If we allow ourselves to embrace the notion that we come to each other as fragmented souls out of a fragmented world, seeking wholeness, and seeking the will to create the possibilities of wholeness for others, then together we can provide the presence, the place, and the financial resources to do that work.
As you think about the differences this congregation makes for you, my request is that you search not only your wallets, your budgets, or your stocks, but that you search what I choose to call your “souls.” You may find here a pleasant respite from a busy week. You may find an opportunity to embed the kids for an hour or so and talk with grown – ups. You may find intellectual stimulation.
But I ask you to “search your souls” to find those places, those moments of relation, those “times of meeting,” caring, and compassion that help restore the lives we bring here out of the fragmented world. Consider that prayerfully, quietly, and spiritually, and when the commitment cards are distributed next week, we won’t have to worry about the success of Celebration Sunday.
You may find here an opportunity to have more control over events than you have in your daily lives. These are all differences that this and a lot of other institutions can make.
I close with some words by Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Unitarian Universalist Starr King School for the Ministry:
Your gifts – whatever you discover them to be – can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power, the strength of the hands, the reaches of the heart, the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry, bind up wounds, welcome the stranger, praise what is sacred, do the work of justice or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door, hoard bread, abandon the poor, obscure what is holy, comply with injustice, or withhold love.
You must ask this question: what will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.