Thursday, June 24, 2010


Don Browning was one of the first professors who made an impression on me at the U of Chicago Div School. In fact, that impression has remained so strongly that I used his ideas about what a family is when I was cowriting “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.” He was my quintessential model for the “stays put” person who is totally reliable and faithful and yet will reach out a disciplined mind without limits.

That first class was about the ethics of pastoral care. I’m not sure we were even aware of what pastoral care WAS -- I don’t think many people are very aware of such a thing. In fact, I run across ministers who have very little consciousness of it. Preaching, obviously; community-building, right. But pastoral care -- it happens quietly and discretely because of its very nature dealing with private matters and it’s exceedingly difficult, sometimes pushing the pastor him or herself over into needing some care, or at least advice.

When people come to a minister for help -- and all the standard sources say, “Go your minister when you are in trouble,” will he or she have anything helpful to say? And what are the self-management rules, both in terms of good mental health and in terms of the specific faith context of that religious tradition? Secrets plague every church (sometimes deeply historical) and all ministers. Leaks, imagined leaks, unjustified rumors, sensitive information -- sometimes the most mundane facts like pledge amounts, but sometimes explosive material like pedophiles. The media uses the device of privileged confession even outside the Catholic context where it arose. It is a legal concept that’s not the same from one state to the next.

So the first lesson Browning had to give us was the difference between going by rules and going by principles. Rules: the Ten Commandments. Principles: the Golden Rule. It’s the diff between the Old Testament “Do as I say,” and the New Testament “Do as I do.” Once you internalize this difference, which some would say is the distinction between ethics (principles) and morality (rules), what’s next? Situation ethics. That is, looking at a dilemma from a plenitude of angles that gathers in many specific facts for consideration. Murder might be as evil an act as there is, or it might be a great mercy or even save the world. Woe to a mistake in judgment.

Too many people say they just “feel” what’s right. The famous English conscience. But it’s only habituation to a particular social context and what is “done” there. Sometimes “ethics” is just demanding what you want.

So we looked at reasoning out what should be done by beginning with original concepts: God is the creator. God is good. The world is a suffering and broken place. Why does God allow that? It’s called “theodicy,” an irresolvable contradiction with which any theist must find some kind of peace. (“You’ll get paid back in heaven.” “It’s only an illusion.” “You don’t have the big picture.”)

Or you can be teleological (it’s not the same as theological) by arguing towards what you think final outcomes will be or what you want them to be. (“This world will end and a better one will come.”) Then the problem is predestination -- the idea that God already knows everything that will happen and is making it be that way, so why struggle against what is wrong or painful? This point of view can lead to cynicism, fatalism.

Another option is finding someone you really admire: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Gandhi, Thoreau, et al and then reflecting on what they would do, given their life evidence. Note that their final consequences were not always pleasant.

Browning especially focused on hospital issues: birth and death. Ethical decisions in hospitals have dire and immediate consequences. One cannot simply retreat to the idea that the least expensive option should be activated, though that’s what actually happens in many cases. And what about the comforting and invigilating of the actual medical staff? What happens to their faith?

Overlapping my years (‘78-’82) Browning (‘77-’83) was the Dean of the U of Chicago Disciples House. His denomination was the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The word was that he got to know each student individually and well. There weren’t many of them, but when you add that to his constant writing, teaching and participation in panels and conferences, it was rather remarkable. Not all professors take an interest. Not all can cope with that much work, but he had a steady dedication to what needed to be done.

I didn’t have a personal relationship with Browning, who was only five years older than myself. (He died of cancer, but I don’t know what kind.) He was close to Martin Marty who remembered me years later at a conference in Helena, but a little more formal. He had a “gimlet gaze” that was intimidating and maybe he was more dedicated to the definitively Christian context. As far as I know, he never served a congregation (Marty did.) but he consciously took the Div School as his congregation and extended concern to all of them. He didn’t condemn or exclude or label -- he was simply circumspect. One of his obits says he was a major movie fan. That’s one subject area where I could have engaged him.

Such a person comes along in one’s mind, a wise adviser for life. I hadn’t been launched on my first ministry more than a few weeks when the first person came to me with a nearly unsolvable problem: his sexual abuse of his own child. His solution was suicide, so what good was my advice? From some angles he might have done the right thing. The family -- which had long been shattered -- was not my problem: I was my problem. Browning rarely addressed sexual matters in class, concentrating more on the nature of marriage, parenting, and human growth. (He was fond of Erikson’s stage theory of maturation.) And yet his calm, meticulous sorting of every angle was invaluable to me.

In a scattered, shattered, contradictory world Browning wasn’t just a theorist: he lived his work by providing an example. No one who has attended a major university like the U of Chicago would think he was able to duck out on crisis or human tragedies. Some of his work was at the attached hospital where the casualties of Hyde Park and environs were brought: a ghetto rife with violence and inequity. The murder rate right in Hyde Park is high, Third World people preying on the privileged intellectuals, which is in itself an uncomfortable situation mostly solved by gentrifying, a whole other category of ethical problems. It’s not an accident that this environment produced President Obama, who reminds me of Browning.

Over the years I’ve often sold books that I thought weren’t useful any more. I have never sold a book by Don Browning.

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