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[Chalice] This Mad World[Chalice]
on its Way to Nowhere

Presented March 4, 1979, at the Burlington, Iowa, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship by Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.

A number of years ago, almost two thousand to be accurate, just when the Roman Empire was at the height of its glory, just about the time when a child was born in Bethlehem and given the name of Jesus, at just about this time, a Poet whose Roman name was Horace wrote of his generation: "We are the degenerate descendants of fathers who in their turn were degenerate from their forebears."

Horace speaks, of course, for humankind in all ages, not just that historic past. It is a perpetual tendency of human beings, present even in ourselves, to view the time of our own living as filled with terrible threats to our existence, and to consider time that is past as being more congenial to human life.

Today is always the day when we are digging ourselves out of the ruins of yesterday, and at the same time laying plans for tomorrow. At times our plans appear to be based on the hope that we may return to yesterday, and that tomorrow will be as it was before today's threat came upon us.

We go about this in the most rational way, even though it may also be, at the same time, utterly unreasonable. An illustration or two of how a perfectly rational approach or statement may at the same time be unreasonable may be helpful.

A few years ago, when our atomic scientists had successfully put together and tested the first hydrogen bombs, we were soon advised that they were "dirty." So efforts were set in motion to clean them up, and before too much time had passed, a few more years, the news was given that the scientists had been able to perfect a "clean" hydrogen bomb. To be sure it was not perfectly clean, but about ninety-five percent clean, possibly even ninety-six percent. This was cause for much rejoicing, for now we had a bomb almost as clean or pure as Ivory Soap.

In every step and stage of this move from the dirty to the clean hydrogen bomb, the language was utterly rational even if cloaked in official terms which are the basic rhetoric of rationality.

The quantitative improvement sounded so convincing that we tended not to notice that the human meaning of the hydrogen bomb had not really changed at all. The sheer unreasonableness of the bomb itself as a war-making device continued to have close to a hundred percent rating.

A second illustration offered itself in the discussion at the recent meeting of the Burlington School Board concerning a budget cut eliminating a program related to the desegregation of schools.

All agreed the program had been successful. It had been entered into two years ago with the acceptance of Federal and state programs. Presumably the School Board at that time recognized a need for such a program, and were also aware that the state and Federal funding was of a temporary nature. Now, two years later, the effectiveness and value of the program has been established, but the School Board was not willing to adjust the budget to provide for its continuance.

This was approached in the most rational way. The position would be abolished, the program ended. It was a matter of dollars. Anyone could understand this. That it is humanly unreasonable to close down a successful program which was achieving the purpose intended, a purpose recognized as eminently desirable, came to attention during the often vigorous presentation of those persons whose children it had greatly helped.

Now it is true that these persons and these families are in that most misunderstod of groups in our community, the Blacks and the Spanish-speaking families; those to whom we designate the term "minorities," a loose euphemism at best, carrying within it a host of negative conotations.

My point is, of course, that the School Administrators and Board both spoke and acted in a thoroughly rational manner, but that their action was in fact unreasonable.

The unreasonableness was in the human sense of the word.

In the heat of the discussion, the Board was accused of practicing discrimination; an accusation that Board members quickly denied. It is one thing to end a program and a position which served these "minorities," but it is quite a different matter to have it said that this was discriminatory. For it moves the issue from both a rational and a reasonable consideration to one of emotion. The emotion of the person charging discrimination is immediately matched by the emotion of those who deny it. Nothing is more hidden within oneself than discriminatory practice. Practiced in a variety of ways, it is not consciously acknowledged, but is concealed behind a variety of rational explanations, none of which are reasonable when weighed in terms of human value.

Among us there may be differences and disagreements with these illustrations and my observations. They are certainly open to both. However, the heart of the issue has to do with the distinction between what may be rational and what may be reasonable.

It would be a great day when we deal with issues on both levels, so that the consequence of decision is considered in terms of human effect.

William Barrett, professor of philosophy at New York University, once wrote a volume titled Irrational Man, and at one point he makes this observation:

"The collective effort to master nature, to have power over things, requires that man have power over other men, and it ends by thinking of those persons underneath as things, for it has long since discarded all categories that recognize the humanity of the person."

This is the most necessary and the most difficult task each one of us has, to recognize the humanity of persons with whom we have a relationship, immediate or remote.

This recognition goes far beyond what we may casually realize or otice. For there are some rather unpleasant aspects to being human. The Greeks realized this, and gave expression to it in the Greek drama, by the introduction of what were called The Furies, the inward passions of life. They could not be bought off, then or now; not even by modern tranquilizers or sleeping pills. They are in our human lives and must enter into whatever understanding we have of human beings. For those are truly part of the wholeness, if not the holiness of life. If it were not so, if we were not creatures of sudden passions, we would not be able to experience the sense of the sacred at all. Søren Kierkegard, that remarkable theologian and philosopher of Denmark, was right on the mark, as his titles -- Fear and Trembling or Sickness Unto Death -- suggest. For each of us has known the ache and shudder of fear, the joy that is shadowed with regret, the raising of the hair on the back of the neck in dread, the tingling of the flesh in awe; the effect of the Furies that do indeed inhabit us.

As this is true of yourself, so it is also true of all persons whom you know or may meet or may never meet. This is altogether and necessarily present in the humanness of persons.

It is this knowledge absorbed into our consciousness until it is indelibly a part of us which demands that we move beyond rationality to reasonableness; that we move beyond the so-called "facts" of any case, to the lives which are vastly more important than the rational fact-finding mechanism and its conclusions.

A very serious, possibly tragic and calamitous error which abounds in our present culture, is the failure to understand truth as embracing much more than objective maters. Each one of us is a repository of many objective truths carefully taught to us through the years, but we are also the possessors of subjective truths, never taught us in any systematic way, but which find expression in our behavior. It is what you are rather than what you know. Subjectively, the truth is you, and it is from this and of this truth that the religious awareness is awakened and given expression.

The madness of our times originates in our dependence on if not reverence for the truths we call objective and denial or blindness to the truth which lies within us and is subjective.

We listen for the numbers and follow a law that we have invented for ourselves which is the Law of Larger Numbers. Where the mass is, there is truth; that is the judgement made by this law. The quality of the mass is not considered. The numbers are played for us as if they were the keys to the understanding of our present and of the future. It is a game as ancient as numerology or astrology. Hardly an hour or a day passes without another set of numbers being placed before us. By numbers we measure the economy, by numbers we measure the battlefield, by numbers we tell the toll of workers -- employed or unemployed-- and even of those who are poisoned but are still at work.

In recent months a man in Southern Illinois, with a very successful business behind him and with a great deal of money available to him, bought up large sections of old strip-mining areas and proposed to develop a number of small villages to which unemployed workers and their families might come from the cites of Chicago and East Saint Louis to begin a new life on the land. He proposed to develop an area in which some villages would have vineyards, others would raise sheep, and still others plant orchards. With initial aid from the agricultural schools of the state, the training and learning of people to make use of lives and land would be a model for testing such a program.

This was reported in the newspapers of Illinois communities and was dismissed as "a visionary scheme." Strange, it is not, that what has in fact been a workable plan for use for human beings in all centuries, including our own in other countries, is dismissed among us as a dreamer's journey?

I suspect this is because the Law of Numbers was not invoked. There was no suggestion that one or five million persons would be involved. A few hundred only at first, the future to rest upon the success of the test.

Henry David Thoreau would have understood; Arthur E. Morgan would have understood. But the newspaper editor whose mind is set on some great corporation opening a new plant in his city does not. The Law of Numbers is enough to blind the eye and numb the imagination. As it did Hitler with his marching millions and warplanes to blacken the sky and the earth.

Barbara Ward, British writer and for many years one of the more articulate spokespersons for sanity, set down in a paragraph the perspective that might replace the Law of Numbers saying:

"The most rational way of considering the human race today is to see it as a ship's crew of a single spaceship in which all of us, with a remarkable combination of security and vulnerability, are making our pilgrimage through infinity. Our planet is not much more than the capsule within which we have to live as human beings if we are to survive the vast space voyage upon which we have been engaged for hundreds of millennia -- but without yet noticing our condition. The space voyage is totally precarious. We depend upon a little envelope of soil and a rather larger envelope of atmosphere for life itself. And both can be contaminated and destroyed."(1)

We must notice our condition, the condition of the human self which each is, and the condition of the spaceship we occupy with some billions of other selves, quite like us in every major respect. To notice this condition, the delicate balance between life and death of a planet, may be too much for those of us who have two eyes that have always seen things as they were. For we have great difficulty in imagining them as they are and will be.

It might have been better were we born cross-eyed, as Buckminster fuller was. Says this master planner and designer, the inventor of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion automobile, who has conceived of cities housed under tetrahedral domes:

"I was born cross-eyed. Not until I was four years old was it discovered that this was caused by my being abnormally far-sighted. My vision was thereafter fully corrected with lenses. Until four I could see only large patterns, houses, trees, outlines of people with blurred coloring. While I saw two dark areas on human faces I did not see a human eye or teardrop and human hair until I was four. My childhood's spontaneous dependence only upon big pattern clues has persisted."

To see the big pattern, to see our lives in the pattern of the planet; to reassess what is madly taking place in terms of that pattern; to discover the utter madness of rational plans unmodified by the reasonableness of human need. How desperately we need to achieve such insight and put it to use.

It is questionable that any one ever achieved or achieves a perfect balance, but it would be a mark of sanity to make the effort and bring about at least an uneasy equiligrium.

Reason, the rational effort must always be brought into reference to the wholeness of mind and body, the wholeness of sensation and thought, of hate and envy, of pain and love.

Let me take a moment or two more to suggest certain consequences of the recognition of the wholeness, or if you will allow, the holiness of this intricate but united scheme of humanity on earth.

The first is to recognize your own past in every archeological dig the world around, whether in the Mississippi Valley, in New Mexico, in Saudi Arabia, Africa or China. These speak to you of the roots of your own being, and as you are, so were they. Know this by absorbing this knowledge into your own head until it is a steady element in all your thinking about the living connection of your existence.

The second is to see yourself in every other person, and to realize that the quality of life, whatever it may be, and no matter how you estimate it, enters in and affects the quality of your own living.

Jesus became what he is just by the manner and degree that he accepted the lives of those around him as a part of the wholeness of his own.


1. Ward, Barbara. Spaceship Earth. p. 15.

©1979, Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Brigham, John W. 1979. This Mad World on its Way to Nowhere, http://www.uuquincy.org/talks/19790304.shtml (accessed December 11, 2018).

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