The Pastoral Side of History

Darryl Dyke comments on facebook:

My tiny campus-town back in Maine has a transient population of young people and a well-educated, stable group who stay in the frigid North for what can only be called spiritual reasons (it certainly isn't the money or the growth potential). It is a warm-hearted place to both raise a family and to retire.
When I ask, I'm told they want that covenant of extended family, as Louise says, those instant families, Sunday dinners and warm memories for their kids. Throw in social witness and some after-school homework, etc, and maybe we can forget some of the old-school metrics of success. I've seen enough growth-for-growth's sake.
Tell me more, before I return, I will listen and learn.

I think that if you ask lots of UU's, you would hear the same thing. What they want is actually quite modest -- a warm and comfortable circle of friends, a good place to raise children, enough shared values and perspectives to make social interactions supportive. Many UU congregations do that well for the people who are there. After all, we have the people who want what we have to give. The ones that want something else are somewhere else.

But why do people want what they want?

In an individualistic, ahistorical culture, people's desires appear to them to be their own, springing up unbidden in their consciousness. Freedom consists of being able to act on their desires, within the limits of the social order.

One of the tasks of religion is to help people get their desires into perspective. One task is to help understand the consequences of their desires on others. (This is the effect of a gas guzzler on the climate) But another is to help people understand where and how their desires come from, what led to them. Freedom is not being the unreflective pawn of one's own desires, to have some perspective on them.

We are used to the psychological dimension of pastoral care -- suggesting to someone that perhaps they are projecting their father onto someone else, suggesting that they try to free themselves from compulsive thoughts that arise from their personal experiences.

I think that social historian is also one of the roles of pastor. For example, whenever we find ourselves trying to explain white privilege to someone, we are engaging in the pastoral application of social history. We are asking to them to consider how the whole history of this country (indeed the world) has shaped how they view the social order, other people, themselves.

We are all pushed and pulled by the history of our time; it is the idolatry of individualism that hides that fact from ourselves. Our work as pastors is to help people see themselves as part of a larger whole -- you could even call that whole, the interdependent web.

I am interested in this question:  In 1961, at the GA of merger/consolidation, the delegates sang "As Tranquil Streams" as a theme of merger. The last verse is "Prophetic church, the future awaits your liberating ministry; go forward in the power of love and proclaim the truth that sets us free."

What happened to that movement? What transpired to all of us, our parents and our children, so that now 50 years later, it is the default position that a UU church is a smallish circle of people, covenanted to intimacy, 'an instant family', a comfortable circle.  What is the social history of our people for the last 50 years that such a conception of ourselves is our safest aspiration, what we think our members really want.


  1. Clyde Grubbs12:06 PM

    One of the questions that Grace Boggs prompts us to ask ourselves is how do we sustain ourselves as social justice activists over the long haul. The most common answers is 1) develop a sustaining vision and 2) develop a sustaining community. (We get by with a little help of our friends (who share common values and purpose.)

    Boggs is radical humanist and her circle of friends are comrades who share her vision and her life work. Relgious communities can (and do) provide 1) vision and 2) sustaining community. It is a lonely, dehumanizing society so a visioning, articulating community that sustains its folks is ideal.

    Communities seldom remain balanced. Some UU communities are so much into social justice that they neglect the love and support and people burn out. And today most communities swing toward the support group and sustain no vision into the wider world. It takes leaders to maintain the balance between the extroverted and introverted tasks.

    Have we swing to far? To fatal quietism? Maybe. Maybe not.

    When we new to the ministry some said we were too political and not "spiritual enough."

  2. Yes, and...
    "Tranquil Streams" used to be called "Our Kindred Fellowships" back in the blue Hymnal (1). I'm finding much in this song to guide my hunt & peck here. Thanks, Tom for pointing me to it.
    I didn't envision a timorous huddle of meek individuals, huddled around "This Little Light," but rather a warming, revitalizing, encouraging circle of kindred hearts.
    As Clyde points out, a social code, a lifeless creed, won't sustain our human needs for what is, indeed, the long haul. Social activism is prophetic- we trust in the future more when we know there are others to carry on the struggle when we cannot.
    On the obverse, we need to bring witness of the liberating ministry- to tell inspiring tales around the fire, yes, but to also bring comfort.
    It can be tiring, doing the justice work. It can feel lonely and individualistic, too. So can DIY spirituality. UUs should to be wary of a "social code that fails to serve the human need." Those needs are not all "out there."
    (1)"Hymns for the Celebration of Life" UUA, Beacon Press 1964

  3. Anonymous9:53 PM

    I like this post a lot, Am in Chicago for the 2014 Meadville Lombard Convocation. The final verse of "As Tranquil Streams" is apt. First, Second, Third year students
    and 28 prospective students. Where will these new ministers take us?


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