The Reverend Dr. Davidson Loehr (retired)
When I was in high school in the Fifties there was a lot of emphasis on “exceptionalism.” Not the nation, but we students as individuals. Lots of testing, lots of special programs, lots of praise and consciousness of obligations of the intellectually endowed to serve the nation . . . or whatever. In a class of 500 I scored in the top 1%, which I thought was pretty special until I got to college and realized that everyone there was in the same top bracket. At least I got a full-tuition scholarship out of it, but — alas — it didn’t lead to being in the top 1% of American incomes. (One percent of 323.1 million people is still 3 million people. Surely there are many fewer billionaires than that, altho now we discover that Trump has been bluffing all these years.)
The directive to be brilliant was internalized by me, though I suppressed it for a while by marrying a man considered and commanded to be brilliant. The trouble with brilliance is that one is not really in control of it — the social context is crucial (small pond means even a small frog can shine, but even small ponds dry up) and even then happenstance can keep one out. I went to seminary (which amounted to the backdoor of U of Chicago Div School, surely a key to brilliance) expecting everyone to be brilliant, but most turned out to be fairly pedestrian. The Div School faculty included world class scholars and some of the students were stunningly intelligent, but being smart and educated is not all there is to brilliance.
One of my classmates has been more gripped by this “brilliance” thing than I have. (I know when I’m licked.) Davidson Loehr comes to mind now partly because of the Vietnam consciousness. Among his several career-attempts (mostly successful -- for a while) was being a war correspondent’s guide and combat photographer during that war. As a Marine he had graduated from officer’s school which was finally to him a certification that was at least very special. Beyond that, he had once been targeted by a sniper in a tree but a convoy guard had shot the sniper before he could pull the trigger. David kept the unfired bullet in his desk because when he was given the bullet out of the sniper’s gun, he was told it had his name on it. This sort of thing goes over very well in seminary.
Among other skills, like photography, he played the piano and sang in a rich voice. When I gave up being brilliant and decided to settle for narcissistic, I once persuaded him to sing both versions of the Ave Maria (Schubert and Bach/Gounod) as part of my vespers — we each had responsibility for an occasional Friday night vespers. I can’t remember what the sermon was. No one nailed me for self-celebration, which I needed badly in my state of mediocrity. If one can’t be brilliant, why not be scandalous?
David wanted to be the minister of the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, MI, whose pastor, David Rankin, he considered the cock of the walk. When Brent Smith got there instead, he was upset, but then Brent left in two years and he smiled. W. Fred Wooden is there now, along with others, and my eyebrows are up. This is a very large free-standing church, ambiguously liberal Christian and flirting with the UUA, a denomination once considered brilliant. Loehr settled for Kalamazoo. 1986 - 1995
This is their official account of his ministry. “Davidson Loehr attracted large congregations. He began to include children regularly in a portion of the Sunday morning service. A scholar and gifted writer and speaker, Davidson played an active role in debating community issues. People's Church Presents appeared weekly on Cable Access TV. In 1991-92 the church began holding two Sunday morning services. Adult education classes were popular, as were discussions, open to the public, of televised presentations on religious topics. Congregational dissension resulted in the resignation of Dr. Loehr in 1995 and the departure of several members who formed the UU Community Church.”
Then he went on to the Austin, Texas, UU Church where the Austin Chronicle reported in 2000: “The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin has undergone changes in recent months. During December, its senior minister, Davidson Loehr, was dismissed from the church. For many the dismissal process was unfair, upsetting, and wrong. While many others felt the dismissal was fair. Many remain distressed over the dismissal. Others are happy.” Brilliant but iconoclastic clergy in iconoclastic institutions are liable to be explosive. In this case, the precipitating cataclysm was the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Loehr sided with those who believed the CIA had something to do with it and that explosives had been planted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEhQBAVX9hQ
Here he is. He’s on Facebook. I'm not. We haven't been in contact for decades.
In seminary Loehr made the Meadville faculty so angry that they threw him out. He was brilliant enough to march over to the U of Chicago Divinity School and continue to a traditional Ph. D. He was narcissistic enough to demand that I quit Meadville in solidarity with him. But I was too mediocre to hack Div School and knew it. HE knew it. He just wanted company in his disgrace. But he wasn’t all that disgraced anyway. Langdon Gilkey and others were his champions. He was an excellent carpenter and had made many friends that way.
So I’ll have to wait for brilliance to be thrust upon me. All I wanted was to go back to Montana, and I did that. He’s had one book published. America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Sep 15, 2005) by Davidson Loehr, Paperback $2.97(42 used and new offers)
David’s old hero, John Wolf has just died in his Nineties. Many considered him brilliant. He had one church in his whole career and people are rumored to have given him sports cars in gratitude. He’s in the Tulsa Hall of Fame, but not the Texas Hall of Fame. Fame is always comparative. He ran Meadville from behind the scenes, which is why David considered that seminary and was admitted. But Wolf never split his church. David always split his church — his inner uproar always prevailed. But he nevertheless survived, so maybe Marine Officer’s School was worth something after all.
So what is brilliance? What good is it? Who defines it, certifies it, prepares someone for it? Who even cares? I no longer expect to find out. Now I think in terms of “fittingness,” which is not about the three Middle Eastern Abramic religions so determined to dominate by being “best.” Fittingness is a kind of Taoist thought. Ecological.