The Method Is the Message
Angus H. MacLean
Dean Emeritus, St. Lawrence Theological School
Minister of Education, First Unitarian Church of Cleveland
Published by the Unitarian Universalist Association
THIS IS A RESTATEMENT of the main contention in an address given before the
Universalist Sabbath School Union of Greater Boston at its centennial dinner
meeting held in Arlington Street Church, October 29, 1951. It cannot be called a
revision of the speech, for a speech is tied down to a specific occasion and
speaks out of a particular context. I can never make that speech again, but
since people continue to ask for it, I have endeavored to liberate what I
believe to be the kernel of continuing interest from its original context, and
to elaborate where greater clarification seemed necessary. I tried to preserve
the original text to some degree, but much of it seemed out of keeping with the
style and feeling of the new material. So why not leave that speech to time
except as it naturally fits into the present need?
Despite the popularity of "The Method is the Message" some readers had doubts
of the thesis implicit in the title. As one of my friends said, "it can't be
true. The method of delivering a sermon is not the sermon." So what? I was not
speaking in absolutes, and I was concerned in a very special way with the
communication of ethical values. Beyond this, I make no defense. Anyway, the
surest way to miss some truth is to defend what one has already said. I would
simply like to say it more dearly.
I claim here simply that the effective method of teaching values is itself
the living exercise of such values. We could say this in very old-fashioned
terms. There is nothing very novel in saying that one who hopes to influence
others had better practice what he preaches, but there is something worthy of
note in the relationship I find between values and their communication. Enough
to justify a restatement.
The contention that method can have value content, curriculum content, if you
like, should be of special interest to a faith that has abandoned credal
finalities and moralistic fixities and judgments in favor of what is called
"Openness." If this openness be emptiness, we haven't even a myth to cherish. It
is worthwhile to digress a bit to talk about this openness.
The struggle for openness has been a long one, and has issued from something
basic in many older faiths. Few, if any, of the greater faiths failed to advise
that men seek the truth continually, and never to pride themselves on having
arrived. Moreover, people of any worth have always taken their private liberties
with creeds to suit their personal needs, authoritative creeds, notwithstanding.
There has always been this touch of individual modification, and also a touch of
anxiety lest what was taken as truth be in part error. We have this feeling much
more openly and freely expressed in modern Christian theology-in the emphasis on
the God who stands in judgment of the Gods, in the idea that any formulated
interpretation of reality restricts the reality it represents, and may stand in
the way of fresh interpretation. There is here an implicit call for continuous
search and reformulation that is not adequately answered by the idea of
continuous Biblical revelation.
Openness seems like a requirement of human nature. Man cannot seem to contend
with reality without recognition of the limitations of his powers of discernment
in one way or another. Over a hundred years ago, Theodore Parker was dedicating
a career to the recognition of human nature and needs in the formulation of
theology, an effort which made openness most necessary. This necessity rests in
the nature of human perception and in the uniqueness of individual experience as
well as in the nature of truth itself. The sciences, especially psychological
and anthropological sciences, have greatly accentuated the need for openness.
Therapists regard man as redeemable by love and understanding and in part by the
freedom to give the imprint of his own personal uniqueness to his faith, and in
being free to question the most basic assumptions. So, the elusiveness of "The
truth" and the uniqueness of individual perception, as well as man's emotional
needs, require openness.
Apart from the fact that the healthy individual's faith varies, man's nature
requires that he be treated in certain ways. Were this not so, justice and love
would not have been. We do not know enough of one another or of life to live by
law and finality and dispense with the cushioning of love and respect. Without
love and forgiveness, and the sustained search for truth, man tends to destroy
himself and the societies he creates. Even if we did possess a much larger body
of demonstrated truth, man, at his best, would refuse to make fences of its
boundaries. He explores heaven and earth, and makes answers for his questions
even when he knows he does not have demonstrable knowledge. He sings his hopes
even to the point of defying much that is disheartening in the unhappy world in
which he lives. He becomes dramatist, poet, and mystic, and crosses the borders
of the "known," sensing truth, and, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost,
hearing "the sound of meaning" in answer to his need.
So, I argue, openness in religion as in all fields of experience, is required by
the nature of things. Theologians who talk about the "given" had better find a
place in it for this. Whatever the "human predicament" may be this belongs to
But what is this openness? Something to be welcomed or an inescapable
something to be feared? Does it mean that we liberals despairing of historic
doctrines walk without truth, and face the coming years without historic ties?
Does it mean that tomorrow I shall wake up to find that the gospel I preached
yesterday isn't worth a plugged nickel? Man recoils from such a degree of
tentativeness, and not just because he is afraid of the new or too fond of the
old. He needs historic roots, and if he is to be transplanted every morning, or
divested entirely of historic soil, I wouldn't give said "plugged nickel" for
his chances of survival. Man will just not go on without something that carries
from today to tomorrow. He'll go back to the old certainties and absurdities
first. What I am saying, is that unless this openness is itself a life-giving
kind of content we are as badly off as we ever were.
The issue is a serious one for us, for one of the big words in our open-ended
faith is confidence. Upon what can confidence rest? In an ever changing society,
in a world of emerging truth, in an expanding and maybe eternally creative
universe, what are the grounds of confidence? Can it be merely a tentative
experimentation with truth? If history gave us nothing, wherein our roots and
confidence? The physics I learned in college wouldn't get me through a high
school course today, and I had a very distinguished physicist for a teacher.
What ties him to his predecessors and his successors? What are the grounds of
fellowship in science? There is an expanding body of truth, of course, but would
anyone dare say any of it would never need reformulation? There are methods of
ascertaining truth that are truths themselves, and are among the most important
truths in the world. And may not this be even more true in religion? The way we
set ourselves in fellowship for the quest of truth is more significant than many
of the conclusions we must tentatively hold about life's origins and meanings.
Knowing how to live or to acquire wisdom is the first requisite of human wisdom,
and certainly one of the rare gifts a culture can make.
There's another point that helps to clarify the main contention. The nature
of the truths that have stood the test of time, and which we share with all
great faiths endorses this contention. The "eternal verities" are so called
because they have been found to be, not conclusive on the nature of life and the
universe, but trustworthy clues to happy and enlightening living: to love both
God and man - to love life and the creatures who share it with us. How often has
this wisdom been declared! Love is the fulfilling of the law. It transcends law,
and justice too. If we love not man we cannot love God, so the tradition says.
Love is the great redeemer. We owe it to others though their sins be ever so
scarlet, though they be guilty as all get out. And why, but to make it possible
for them -- the faltering, the troubled and confused, and the wrong doer to be
restored, and to bind all men in fellowship. Love says nothing but that this is
the way man should be treated. And how ministers and others who have so treated
him can testify to the power of this way of life! It is a clue of address to man
and all his personal and corporate problems. A way of living with anybody or
everybody. And if we can't accept this as truth, there is no such thing as
We have the opposite also stated in the admonition not to put our trust in
horses or war chariots. Here is a profound distrust of the way of violence.
Violence is not the way, according to the persistent experiences of the wisest
It is also said in this tradition that man can gain the whole world and lose
his own soul. So, it says, "put not your trust in riches." This is a road block
to halt the feet of those who are eternally tempted to enter one of the worst of
life's blind alleys.
"Do to others as you would have them do to you." In the long run, the
traditional words imply, this is the way that is best for you and the other. It
rests on the assumption that one respects himself.
The great body of our common faith is made up of such insights, and not one
of them tells us that Heaven is up or down, or so many cubits this way or that;
they do not say that God is three "persons" or one, and is or is not, nor do
they say when the world was created or what happens when we shall shuffle off
this mortal coil. They are wise ways of living, laden with the victories and
defeats of the human spirit throughout the centuries. In the broad sense of the
word, they are principles of method. They suggest what I have in mind; namely,
that attitudes and procedures that have. caught up the best fruits of human
experience can be seen for what they are, the central stabilizing factors in our
faith, as indeed in many faiths.
If our faith cannot produce a blueprint of human origin and destiny, or a
reasonable "plan of salvation" spanning eternity, it can perhaps, find a no less
significant, and a much more empirically founded, wisdom in processes of living.
With these and by these we can be open-minded about many things that without
them would overwhelm us.
A friend's response to an expression of this idea in a conversation was this;
"You don't know where you're going, but you're on your way." His sarcasm was
closer to a great truth than he realized, a truth greater than his own
certainties about destinations. The liberal is beginning to discover that he is
more in tune with natural processes than are his maligners. He has been accused
of not knowing where he stood, or of walking precariously and uncertainly in the
middle of the road with Christian orthodoxy on his right and communism on his
left. It is true that his genius is only partly articulate. It becomes clearer
everyday, however, that he is much better off than he who stakes his life and
soul on such convictions as that the earth is flat, that Jesus rose from the
dead and disappeared in the clouds, or that a certain prelate has been appointed
by the sovereign power of the universe to be his spokesman on earth. Such
so-called truths cannot be supported for long by experience, and must find
support in authority and coercion of one sort or another.
In a very good article appearing in the Journal of Religion, William
Christian puts it nicely in these words, "The liberal has a problem on his
hands, but he is not in a dilemma. The liberal is not the man in the middle of
the road, but, instead, the man in the middle of a journey." Our faith may not
know the end-all of life, but if it has assurance of direction, it has what
matters most. To many this faith of ours hasn't arrived or matured. It, no
doubt, needs maturing, but in a sense it will never arrive because nothing in
the universe ever arrives. It does arrive, in another sense, because the
universe is always arriving. The kingdom of love arrives in the act of love, the
reign of justice in the act of justice, the era of freedom in the exercise of
freedom. Our wisdom is that of direction, and this is in great measure the
source of- confidence. We shall always have to deal tentatively with many
things, but we rest on assured principles of operation. It took us a long time
to abandon the effort to build permanent and unmodifiable theological houses for
the human spirit on life's way. Well, here we are, on the way, in the middle of
a journey, and that is where our spirits belong. In a universe in which change
is basic and universal, where can we find security and historic continuity
except in modes of address to life?
Disencumbered of dogmatic fixities that cannot permanently represent the
realities of experience, and retaining the real grounds of spiritual confidence,
a faith can more speedily appropriate pertinent new knowledge and revise its
formulations of truth. Moreover, its devotees can more easily know when they
leave the realm of "facts" and have to imagine and speculate, and have to use
art and symbol to guide their reaching spirits and accommodate themselves to
life in total terms. They have wings then, and know they have left the ground.
As sojourners in the stratosphere of the mind and spirit they will not get their
visions too confused with their science, and can consequently share what they
experience without attempting to impose it upon others as the only kind of
genuine religious experience. And sharing can replace the tendency to exact
assent. I feel strongly, despite a lot of fear of symbols among us, that
liberalism should have saved the integrity of the symbol for us, and enable us
also to enjoy the mystical reaches of religion which to so many of us are now
out of bounds.
Let me say again, that although we have difficulty in being certain about the
nature of man or God, or in even finding grounds for hope for the peace of the
world, we have discovered assured ways of addressing ourselves to life, and
these should be recognized as being at the very heart of our religion, and of
our religious education efforts.
It may seem by now that I have taken a long way round to facing actual
teaching situations we find in our homes and churches. But I hope it will prove
to be the shortest way. I have labored so far over the message of the church
because I believe the appropriate methodology is implicit in that message. I
have really been hinting at teaching relationships necessary between persons as
they face the mysteries of life and death. To teach the great learnings of
humanity; that love is the greatest thing in the world; that justice for all in
the long run serves all best; that whenever goodwill rises to dominate the
councils of men, they are drawn together, and that they are separated by
suspicion and fear and greed and domination; that man's nature requires freedom
for growth and that without it he degenerates or fails to develop his powers;
that man can find his own way with serenity of spirit and leave others to do the
same without breach of fellowship; that we can accept wisdom from any time or
culture and have fellowship with people who differ from us. The business of
communicating such values becomes, in a contingent sense, as important as the
values themselves, and if one pursues this business far enough he will find out
that the living of values and their communications are inseparable.
I shall leave this idea in its boldest form. Such values as we are concerned
with cannot be communicated except as they are set in operation, given life, in
the human relations in which teachers and taught are involved, that they cannot
be, that they have no existence except as forms of human relations. Love exists
only when someone is loved. Freedom exists when relations worthy of that name
govern communication and action between persons. Such values are communicated
only when "live," if I may borrow and somewhat distort a TV term. This is why I
have so often said that a faith which is so largely a faith of dynamic ethical
and intellectual values, should make method the heart of its curriculum.
It should be obvious that when I speak of method I have not in mind a bag of
tricks by which we hope to transfer something from one mind to another. In a
teaching situation, whether in home or classroom or elsewhere, values always
become active, that is, some kinds of values. These are the ones that tend to be
communicated, no matter to what values we give respect and reverence by way of
mouth. A parent may tell a child day or year in and out that he or she loves him
and that he should be grateful, but if the parent's relations with him are
characterized by constant scolding, spankings, and irritation and threats
without any real sharing of life with him, how can he know that he is loved?
It's a real question whether or not he is. Even parents can be too immature to
love anyone, and if so, all the dutiful efforts will not disguise the fact.
The capacity to give and receive love comes from subtle living situations
which may be helped by preachments in harmony with them, but can never be
replaced or cancelled out as teaching agencies by preachments of any sort.
How often we have said that the home is a most powerful teaching agency in so
far as basic value patterns are concerned! This power roots in the fact that the
values expressed between the stove and the sink, the nursery and the bath, and
between the soup and the nuts, are the ones that are absorbed by the young as
ways of living. What occasions worry in the family, or joy and happiness? Whence
the drive for family enterprises? What feelings are expressed? What restraints
applied and how? What are the parents' responses to all that invades the home in
newspapers and TV in the way of value expressions? Such are the teachers.
Look at a school situation in which children are guided in the study of the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the USA, and made to
memorize poetry in praise of the American way of life, and at the same time, are
never permitted to question a teacher's statements or offer an opinion, and are
denied even the simplest elements of self-government. What happens to the effort
to teach democracy? A school may succeed in getting a child to love America, be
it right or wrong, but it can still fail to teach democracy, even when the books
are of the finest. Without the experience of what the literature represents the
teaching is fruitless. Democracy has no existence except as an attitude and
organization with which the young can address himself to life. Whether the
teaching be good or bad it carries the values inherent in teacher-student
relations be they acknowledged or not.
What does all this suggest as to what the teaching situation should be like?
We see at once, I hope, the inadequacy of merely directing a stream of cherished
words at children. And that statement calls for another digression if I am not
to be misunderstood. Along with direct experience comes appreciation,
reflection, inquiry, insight, imaginative play, and devotion. And these require
words, concepts, ideas, principles, etc., to help identify, evaluate, and
simplify experiences to make their fruits more available for meeting new
experiences. Words are so important that we should have little capacity for
thought, for moral self-direction without them. Knowledge and ideas and insights
enrich and illumine experiences, skills implement them, and devotion ties them
together and elevates them to the level at which a reaction to such a simple
thing as a flower may involve Heaven and earth and all the mysteries, joys, and
tragedies in which one is personally involved. What Robert Burns does to the
mountain daisy or the timorous mouse illustrates enriched experience. It is
impossible to think of his reaction without his contact with the soil, without
the pains and frustrations of life, and the sadness and joy of human relations,
and all that played directly on his sensitive soul. So let no one suspect that I
suggest disrespect for verbal communication.
I am interested in a process through which the learner directly experiences
value, and as a result is in a better position to learn and use words and
concepts. I am also interested in a process that makes assets rather than
liabilities of the child's restless energy, his activism, his consuming
curiosity, his love of fun, his tendency to dramatize life, his constructive
impulses. The child's nature is in harmony with the process by which "live"
values are communicated.
I am interested also in a process by which attempted teaching and learning
are not in conflict (There is nothing I observe more frequently in our church
schools than this conflict) Such conflict is born of the failure to live the
values with children which we wish them to acquire. So I am interested in the
kind of teaching situation that uses a child's learning energies. Such a
situation will permit a significant percentage of time for work with hands, for
talk, and free movement whenever any or all of these are called for by the task
in hand. It will be a place in which teacher and child can respond to each other
in value terms; where one can think freely, where the teacher loves his or her
charges and exercises patience and understanding; where much is expected, and
life exciting; where a teacher confronts realities, ranging from the grass frog
or angleworm to the mysteries of time and eternity, along with the child; where
a wisdom-communicating relationship exists.
A father was confronted by his five-year old son with the question, "if God
made everything, who made God?" So he asks me what answer to give him. My answer
was for the father. I told him that the verbal answer he might give would
probably have little significance, but that taking advantage of the relationship
the question differed for facing life's mysteries together was the only
effective answer. The boy has not only a physical universe which he wants to
understand but a need of a psychic cosmos in which to feel at home. Live with
him on the edges of the immensities and mysteries and if you have any wisdom
he'll get it."
It was with all this in mind that I so often urged the greater and wiser use
of arts and crafts and enterprises of all sorts in the teaching of religion. I
fully appreciate the psychological value of creative play and free expression,
but what I always had mostly in mind was the natural human setting for living
the values we talk about.
Arts and crafts and other forms of interesting work have been discredited to
a degree by their superficial use and abuse. To assume that their use
necessarily means a lowering of standards or a drop in the seriousness of
teaching and learning is nonsense. If a teacher "muffs" it in the workshop, the
only value a conventional classroom can have for him is that it provides a place
in which to conceal his incompetence.
The subject matter may be what you -please at any time. The Joseph story on
the 8 year old level, The Drama of Ancient Israel at a more advanced age,
etc., but since our methods communicate the values implicit in them, such
matters as love, the ability to reason, the experience and appreciation of
freedom, mutual tolerance and understanding, justice, etc., must be taught by
being used all the time in all the classes and all the courses. If anything was
ever worthy of being called the "core curriculum" this is. In my years of work
with seminary students I always felt that when a student understood what I meant
when I said a good teacher always has a dozen irons in the fire, he was in the
way of becoming a teacher. A teacher lives a dozen things while he talks of one.
There comes a time when the child will need to study democracy, freedom,
love,-and liberalism as units of subject matter, but if we leave the teaching
until such - time we're too late with it. Freedom, love, and reason are the
values with which we work on subjects and problems. We work not only to get at
truth; we work with truth.
If we let our minds range over the values we say we covet for our young, and
think in terms of their non-verbal classroom expression, the truth should not
elude us. If we really want a child to be free in spirit, we'll help him
exercise his thinking freely. Nothing needs greater emphasis. The prevalence of
one way, teacher to class, use of words is among my most discouraging
observations. How we love to preach! What in the world can we mean by freedom
when we cannot sense its absence in what we do? And what of other factors
conducive to good thinking? For instance, knowing of the tricks of the mind;
knowing something about matters on which we freely express opinions-which
reminds me of a recent observation.
was invited to attend a class on what was called a "discussion" day. The
teacher was a public school teacher of long experience. When she clapped her
hands to get attention, I had my misgivings. Then came the discussion. It was
lively, universal, and pertinent to the matter in hand which had to do with
Hebrew History. Then the teacher evaluated what had happened. She complimented
all on the eager participation, and on the production of some good ideas and
interesting theories. "But," she said, "we just didn't know enough about what we
talked about. We had ideas but no way of knowing whether they were right or
wrong. Before our next discussion session we'll think out our questions in
advance, do some reading for answers, and then perhaps we'll have a really
worthwhile discussion." Compare this sort of thing with a little preachment
about needing information to be able to think rightly!
How, since we are still on the question of thinking, is a person to acquire
awareness of the role of his own wishfulness in thinking? How does he acquire
willingness to be openly identified with what he really feels and thinks? Same
All this applies as much to the enterprises of a church as to the classroom.
If a church's work is limited to giving good verbal counsel and it is in no way
a corporate response to the world's ills, it quite likely doesn't mean what it
says, and will not teach anything better than what-it does mean and which its
And now as I conclude, may I offer a prayer that no reader will be tempted to
think that I disregard or play down such matters as subject matter and
instruction and other concerns that are not under discussion in this paper.
Let me close with a story told by Wm. E. Engbretson in an article on "Values
of Children in Childhood Education," I think it is worth passing on. Old Zeph
was a 19th century Yankee storekeeper in a crossroads village. He provided a
home for his nephew Caleb. Caleb earned his way by running errands and doing
chores within the ability of a twelveyear old. The family lived above the store.
One morning a too early customer heard the following conversation:
"Caleb, lad," called Uncle Zeph from upstairs, "have ye sanded the sugar?"
"Yes, Uncle Zeph."
"And have ye larded the butter?" "Yes, Uncle Zeph."
Zeph: "You're a very good lad! Now come up and join us in prayer."