Chapter 3:. Rapid Social Change, the Churches, and Mental Health by Bertram S. Brown

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 3:. Rapid Social Change, the Churches, and Mental Health by Bertram S. Brown

The basic question is this: Can religion and mental health really work together? In fact, can any two groups with territorial and tradition hangups work together? The soul is our mutual turf. I intend to discuss the general issue of territoriality and boundaries in a time of social change.

One social force or institution influences another, and it is this interaction that is important in any discussion of community mental health, air pollution, education, welfare, or religion.

The turbulence of a rapidly changing scene surrounds us, and the same forces that are creating turmoil in the cities, on the campuses, and in the local schools are shaking up this infant movement -- community mental health. Like all youngsters, this child is adapting to its turbulent environment and actually incorporating social change as a phenomenon into its way of life and way of thinking. The survival, however, of older institutions, such as the church, depends upon their ability likewise to absorb, integrate, and deal with this phenomenon of accelerating social change.

Predicting social change and creatively rolling with the punches -- has been my bread and butter for the past decade. I have come to believe that this turbulent period of great transition will not last and that we will come into smoother sailing sometime in the foreseeable future. This is analogous to the turbulence of airplanes and missiles as they pass through the sound barrier. If they can survive the shock wave and not shatter into bits, if the pilot understands the wild readings on the instruments, they soon pass into the smoothness and serenity of supersonic flight.

This somewhat optimistic prediction of things to come may not seem helpful for the here and now, because we live in an era of fear, anxiety, and worry, and our question and our text is how can we adapt now and in the immediate future to this rapid rate of social change.

One approach is to loosen our thinking, free up and swing. To use current jargon, we must break out of our professional bags. No longer can we deal with the gigantic problems of today by the seeing with one eye and one point of view. And it is not only a matter of seeing, it is a matter of comprehending; and comprehending means taking it in -- not part of it but all of it, or at least as much as our hearts and minds can absorb. To do that, we must hear as well as see, feel as well as think. To grasp something, we must not only touch it, it must touch us. To do all this, to do our job, we must do all these things all at once and all the time.

Is this multiple level viewpoint, this super-comprehensive approach, this grandiose goal, a task only for geniuses or something that only fools will attempt? It is a task for all of us as human beings, a task for which religion as an institution and clergy as professionals are uniquely equipped in theory if not in practice.

The professionals leading the field and using this multiple simultaneous approach are those dealing with material and money -- the engineers and budgeteers. The current in word for this all-encompassing approach is systems: systems analysis, systems engineering, client systems, the health system. Before we become overly impressed with any one approach, no matter how broad it seems, special caution is due if it promises too much.

Scientists and thinkers have developed a variety of conceptual frameworks -- ecology, for example -- that attempt to intellectually grasp this great need to make sense, to organize complexity; but I think it is a fundamental mistake -- be we scientists, ministers, or otherwise -- to think that only science and engineering and business are attempting to deal with this problem of complexity, simultaneity, and constant change. Art, as well as science, attempts to make sense out of complexity. Drama and poetry, music and painting, all create new beauty as they distill human experience and inner and outer realities.

In brief, social change -- this rapid, turbulent, accelerating scene -- is more than a professional challenge; it is a total human challenge, and to deal with it as human beings, be we professionals or nonprofessionals, we must unashamedly call upon the full range of our human capacities and interests -- scientific, artistic, and religious. Furthermore, we must realize that our full range of capacities is limited by our own heritage. The way we were taught language in the first few years of life limits our ability to conceptualize what other people think. The heritage we have by age six, thirteen, or twenty limits our way of grasping from other places and other cultures. And we must realize that other cultures, such as those of Africa and Asia, offer possible ways of thinking and feeling not available to us, barely seen at the periphery of our consciousness, and yet perhaps the most critical thing that we must take in if we are going to swing with the current turbulence. More and more people are realizing that they must learn to understand the communication process between peoples of different cultures.

The turbulence of social change is rocking the boat in many areas, including religion. Churches increasingly see missions in the streets of American cities; segments of church membership stirring up controversy; urban congregations moving to the suburbs; such issues as birth control, draft resistance, rebellion.

Each organization, be it the American Medical Association or the church, thinks it is going through its own unique identity crisis. The church is just another organization in the problems of our times. Each of the organizations has within it a militant social action group that feels that the time for justice, for equality, for decency, for concern for black Americans and minority groups has come, and either the parent body recognizes that they are right or they threaten to splinter or leave the organization.

On the other extreme in organizations are the methodologists, who feel that no change is needed or possible -- any change is certainly not within the purview of the professional role. They grant the right of concern to citizens and humans but never confuse the issue by considering the possibility that the clergyman or other professional is also a citizen or human being.

In the middle is the large band of apathetic practitioners, who are passive rather than active. But they too feel the buffets of the waves of social change. The majority of mankind has always comfortably sat in the hump of the bell curve, carried along by the extremes as they have their tug-of-war.

Each organization realizes that something must be done -- dropouts must be brought back in, youth must be made to want to come in. Look around and see that misery loves company, and the company may have a lot to teach about what to do and what not to do. For example, we have to be cautious about those who advocate social change or organizational shift not as a responsible and responsive thing but only for personal gain. New groups and coalitions must emerge to hammer out these changes, coalitions that encompass the old leadership and the new members, several generations and many points of view. There will be value in consultations from others who are concerned but are not members of a given group or profession.

Perhaps more fundamental in this difficult and troublesome phenomenon -- social change and a rapidly shifting scene -- is not the social change itself but social change for what? That "what," of course, brings us smack up against the gut issue of values.

No other social institution, with the possible exception of philosophy, concerns itself as deeply with the matter of values as does religion. Religion is based on the respect and dignity of the individual, on self-determination and adequate opportunities for the individual, and it has had as its goal the health of both individuals and society and the improvement of the quality of life.

The concept of quality of life, of course, is one where opinions vary, fashions change, and fads develop. But is there any question that we should strive toward an improved quality of life for ourselves, our families and for all mankind?

Clergymen can offer a dynamism, a commitment to the eradication of misery and the improving of lives. There is no contradiction in helping an individual adjust to a harsh system, and striving at the same time to change that sick system. Too many of us feel that we must be of one extreme or the other. We change the system all or none and have no time for the individual casualties. Or we devote all our time to the individual casualties and pay no attention to the sick system that produces them. Down with these false polarities between the parish minister and community organization, between psychotherapy and community mental health in my own field. These polarities render us asunder.

Our need is to integrate our pieces of the action, to complement our efforts. If we are to deal with social change we must remember that it is a pot in which we are all cooking and that we are going to become the nourishment for the next generation.