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Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Talk

                        by Ronn Smith 10/7/07

What Is Spirituality, and How Can We Recognize It?

When asked to define spirituality, I was reminded of St. Augustine who wrote, "What is grace? I know until you ask me." Spirituality is more easily felt than expressed, as in welcoming a newborn baby or saying our last goodbye to a loved one. I’ve sensed it hiking up a canyon in the fall colors, listening to a Rachmaninoff concerto, or stumbling into a differential equation that just fits some natural phenomenon. I’ve seen it in a toddler’s curiosity and the selfless acts of a Good Samaritan. I feel it in my marriage. I see it in the hands and faces of this faith community.

Koylu Mustafa said, "The definition of spirituality is "extremely mercurial. If a word means everything, it means nothing." Despite its many connotations, I will argue that spirituality is innate to the human condition and therefore an important part of our vocabulary. The search for meaning is rarely a solitary exercise. We can better engage others in this quest if we agree on the terms of engagement. Experts say even our private thoughts are constrained by words and how we define them. To that end, I will define spirituality as the awareness of a meaningful connection with the sacred whole. It is a commingling of the self with something greater. That something is sacred because it speaks to our most cherished ideals; communion with it is meaningful because it enlightens and empowers us.

This definition raises several questions: Is spirituality separate from physical reality? Is it continuous or intermittent? How does it differ from religion? How can we recognize it? Is it diminished or enhanced by suffering? And perhaps the most troubling question: Is spirituality a quality of the universe or a quality of human nature? Is it out there or in here? I think it’s the wrong question. These are two views of the same reality. If you hold up one finger and look beyond it you see two, flat and blurry images (one formed by each eye). But if you focus on your finger those images coalesce into a single image that has definition and depth. The distinction between right eye and left eye disappears. When we are spiritually in tune, the external and the internal merge; the question no longer matters.

Carl Jung said the human psyche is by nature spiritual. He spoke of the collective unconscious as the union with a reality larger than oneself. Psychiatrist Gregory Frichionne proposed that the human experience consists, at its core, of a desire for attachment amidst the reality of separation. He said we feel apart from larger life, from purpose, from the Holy, and we seek connection. A baby’s first response to the world is a cry of separation from its mother. So much of our experiences that follow resemble that cry. Spirituality is the sense of attachment to larger life amidst our daily feelings of separation. Frichionne says those moments are rare, but magical.

The father of Religious Humanism John Dietrich said, "There is an energy which springs from the heart of humanity. What it is we do not know." But he said this energy is as real as the air we breathe, and it produces real results. The word "spirit" originates from the Greek word for breath. The act of breathing, like spirituality, is normally unconscious but life-giving. The air we breathe is shared by all living things, just as spirituality arises from our interconnectedness with the world. Evolution and DNA research point to the common ancestry of life; relativity asserts that even space and time are interdependent. Yet, hatred and war attest to our insistence on separation. Physicist David Bohm said, "Ideologies that tend to divide humanity originate in the perception that things are disconnected and independent." I would offer as an example, the destructive notion of selective salvation.

In America we find hostility to the word "spirituality" from both Christian fundamentalists and secular humanists. Each response reflects a mistaken linkage between spirituality and belief in the supernatural. Southern Baptist President Albert Mohler scorns the emergence of spirituality as an alternative to historic Christianity – an alternative that he says promises higher values and meaning "without the demands of doctrine, revelation, and obedience." Something is terribly wrong when one person’s meaning is predicated upon depriving others of meaning. He goes on to say, "I have more respect for a clear-headed secularist than for someone who espouses this kind of mind-numbing relativism." I can only assume that he also respects devout Catholics, Mormons and Islamic fundamentalists since they submit to his criteria of doctrine, revelation, and obedience. Never mind that he has said Catholicism is a "church of lies," or that Islam "kills the soul." At least these people will face eternal punishment knowing they have the respect of a high-ranking Evangelical.

I can’t help but contrast the smugness of Dr. Mohler with the vision of the Dalai Lama, who says the key to developing a moral compass is not belief in a particular god, but "faith in the goodness of human nature." Mohler shows no faith in our potential to live by high ethical standards without his brand of Christianity. Yet, you and I know people of all persuasions who prove him wrong. Ethical values transcend doctrinal claims to truth. In fact, religious claims sometimes lead to unethical behavior. The great philosopher of religion, Will James warned, "Truth tied to a claim becomes suspect and ignores the greater truth that underlies it."

At the other extreme, atheists and secular humanists have no more use for the word "spirituality" than fundamentalists. Some of them feel it is dishonest for non-theists to even utter this word. UU Minister Gail Seavey points out that these critics have fallen into the trap of "modernist dualism," living totally in the rational, objective world, assuming the spiritual world is founded on fantasy. Despite early attempts by humanists like Dietrich to reform religion and to revere spirituality, secular humanists have endeavored to purge both words from their vocabulary.

Leigh Schmidt, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, criticizes the contemporary American interpretation of spirituality "in all its new age quirkiness and anarchic individualism." He says, "The social costs of such disjointed spiritual quests [are] evident not only in the fraying of church life but in eroding commitments to public citizenship, marriage, and family." I don’t agree with his diagnosis; to my mind social decay stems from the abandonment – not the redirection – of spiritual concerns. But I like his remedy. Schmidt does not advocate rejecting the word "spirituality" or equating it with consent to religious doctrine. Rather, he points to the ideas of 19th-century transcendentalism, which he credits with dissociating spirituality from theology in a way that stimulated creative thought and social activism.

Against the backdrop of religious orthodoxy and the industrial revolution, Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller redefined spirituality to mean any human experience in which a person feels one with that which transcends him or her. Emerson rejected a theology of miracles and the supernatural. He believed that every person could perceive these higher states of enlightenment in the same way people perceive time and space. He lamented how religion had subdued the spiritual impulse, saying "Luther would have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door at Wittenberg," had he foreseen that it would lead to "the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism."

History suggests the world still needs religion. The challenge is to distinguish between religion and spirituality without forcing a choice. World religion expert Huston Smith admitted, "Religion is like a cow; it gives milk but it kicks!" Yet, he argued that spirituality needs the "traction of religious tradition" to make it accountable to a community and keep it from becoming a purely self-centered quest.

Religious beliefs tend to focus on symbols, which Will James defended. "The gods we stand by are the gods whose demands on us [reinforce] our demands on ourselves and on one another." Most of us need symbols of the Holy, but devotion to these symbols obscures the ideals they represent. If we imagine religion as the cradle of spirituality, obsession with this cradle neglects the living thing inside. The cradle should serve as a support structure in which to awaken, nurture and exercise our spirituality. Will James said that spiritual excitement will often fail to be aroused until certain intellectual beliefs (rooted in religion) are touched. "We should treat those beliefs with tenderness and tolerance as long as they are not intolerant themselves."

This tolerance is the hallmark of progressive religions, where symbols and creeds are subordinate to deeply-felt principles. Christian scholar Marcus Borg speaks of spirituality as a relationship with God, a "journey of transformation" in which God is an experiential reality rather than an article of belief. The UU model entertains many beliefs but one set of core values that we regard as self-evident and sacred. Rev. Forrest Church said, "Many windows, one light." Just as more windows let in more light, we welcome any beliefs that might amplify these shared values.

Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber says the word spirituality is confusing because people use it to mean three different things. I prefer to think of them as different dimensions of the same meaning. The first dimension refers to moral maturity. The second dimension deals with the search for truth and meaning. The third dimension applies to extraordinary peak experiences or non-dual states of consciousness. Remarkably, Wilbur echoes early Unitarians who saw the spiritual in the highest Good, the highest Truth, and the highest Beauty. To these I would add the highest Mystery, which encompasses wonder, uncertainty and suffering.

Authentic spirituality dissolves those conscious boundaries between the self and the cosmos. Certainly it entails goodness, truth, beauty and mystery, but spirituality really begins when we cease to be observers of these qualities and become unwitting participants – being the painting as opposed to seeing the painting. To quote Emerson, "This deep power in which we exist…is the seer and the spectacle, the subject and object are one."

Dualistic thinking fosters a separation between the spiritual and physical worlds. But between these domains I see more symmetry than dichotomy. In pursuit of material reality, humans parse the world around them into smaller and smaller elements, seeking the fundamental building block of matter. On the other hand, the quest for spiritual reality involves the aggregation of ever larger constructs, hoping to encounter some all-encompassing principle, purpose or divine being.

Each approach is useful in its own context. Biology has deconstructed life from organ to cell to DNA molecule. Think of the medical advances alone, that have arisen from this process. And physics has deconstructed matter from molecules to atoms, to protons and quarks. The resulting technological revolution touches every waking moment of our lives. But we also know that medicine and technology have unleashed ethical dilemmas they are ill equipped to solve. Hence, the spiritual part of our search seeks to integrate all our ideals and aspirations into an eternal whole, an absolute reference frame from which to resolve questions of value.

Perhaps the pursuits of material and spiritual reality will remain equally elusive. At each extreme our insights come from the after-image. No one has actually seen an electron; we infer its presence by its effects on the visible world. Some people also infer the presence of an invisible God from their observations of the universe. Both require a measure of faith. Perhaps the dichotomy is an illusion – an artifact of being caught between the infinitesimal and the infinite. Might they point toward the same ultimate truth? In his book, "The Universe in a Single Atom," the Dalai Lama speculates on the striking similarities between modern science and Buddhist thought.

Peter Morales summed up this idea of unity. "Ultimately, my spirituality is being fully alive. It isn't my spiritual life, it is my life. All of it." Like Morales, I propose that we reject traditional dualism and the fragmentation of experience that goes with it. Spirituality does not so much isolate the sacred from the secular as render the secular sacred. When a bolt of lightning pierces the night the world is really no different, but for that instant we see it clearly.

Like the lightning, our connections with the sacred are ephemeral but powerful. Emerson said, "Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual." Yet he insisted there is a depth in those brief moments of illumination that make them more real than all other experience. Will James corroborated Emerson, "We are separated from [the sacred] only by filmy screens of consciousness. When they drop away, we experience the Spirit. It is real and it produces effects in the real world."

Spiritual encounters are normally involuntary and sudden, as the poet William Blake expressed:

He who bends to himself a joy

Doth the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses joy as it flies

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

How do we recognize spirituality? In his book, "Four Spiritualities," Richardson says it is manifest in "a quality of connectedness to life and cosmos, an integrity and wholeness." In my observation spiritual people grasp the big picture; they display a sense of proportion that engenders humility. But is there a more tangible measure? I believe spirituality is manifest in one’s actions as surely as one’s countenance.

Some speak of spirituality as a two-stroke process: the "upward stroke" of inner growth from being more in tune with the universe; and the "downward stroke" of improving the physical reality around oneself as a result of the inward change. R.W. Trine said, "To recognize our own divinity, and our intimate relation to the [whole], is to attach the belts of our machinery to the powerhouse of the Universe." Spirituality transforms people and they, in turn, transform their surroundings. The downward stroke follows the upward stroke inevitably, as in the book of John. "When the spirit of life increases, and the power comes and strengthens that soul, no one can any longer deceive it with works of evil."

Rev. Marilyn Sewell said, "Only one kind of religion counts today… the kind which is radical enough to engage in the world's basic troubles." Spirituality does not retire forever to solitude and prayer. It engages humanitarian and environmental troubles. The Dalia Lama says the highest spiritual ideal of Buddhism is "to generate compassion for all sentient beings and to work for their welfare."

Quite often, deeply spiritual people have lived with profound ambiguity and endured intense suffering. Jung stated that "doubt and insecurity are indispensable components of a complete life." In a recently published letter, Mother Teresa confessed, "I am told God loves me -- and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." Still, she was driven by this divine injunction to serve others. Her faith and devotion to the downtrodden appear all the more admirable in view of her doubt and despair.

Renowned Russian novelist and converted Christian Leo Tolstoy mourned, "The meaningless absurdity of life…is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man." Tolstoy’s redemption from melancholy and suicide was a longing for God – unsure, yet hopeful like the infant’s cry of separation.

The poet Yeats saw our oneness with Creation as the final answer to ignorance:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;

Through all the lying days of my youth

I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;

Now I may wither into the truth.

In his award winning book, "Learning to Fall," Phillip Simmons documents his own slow death from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He describes waiting in his wheelchair outside a hospital. He watched people being carried in, bloody and unconscious. He saw families come out arm in arm, faces strained and "shoulders slumped under the weight of worry." He says on another day this scene would have left him downcast. But in this moment the hardship he shared with these "fellow travelers" broke through his ordinary awareness and made his fleeting life seem part of something larger and unchanging. He says, "When we sense the nearness of death and feel its rightness equally with birth, then we will know the measure of the eternal that is ours in this life." Such a generous spirit reveals "the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering" (Wordsworth).

Despite my attempts to define it, spirituality remains mostly an enigma to me. Do any of us really know what life is about? Can we be sure that what we call "spirituality" is anything more than an evolutionary adaptation? I cannot. But this mystery is what gives me goose bumps – the prospect of cultivating compassion from a cold universe, of beholding beauty from chaos, of molding meaning from futility. Like Sisyphus pushing a stone repeatedly up the mountain, only to have it fall back. Whatever the form of ultimate reality, I agree with Camus: "The struggle itself is enough to fill [anyone's] heart." At its finest, the human spirit upholds life – all of it – without expecting any reward. It marshals the courage to persevere against the void of the unknown. For spirituality to endure, as Will James surmised, perhaps it needs nothing more than "possibility and permission."

copyright by Ronn Smith


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