Here is a recent service I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. I borrowed many ideas and insights from other UU ministers who had presented on the same topic, so much of this has just come through me to be shared at our congregation. In any case, I hope that it helps you explore your own spiritual experiences and the meaning you make.
Reflections on our first source:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
I was recently invited to speak at James Bowley’s religious studies class at Millsaps College to introduce them to Unitarian Universalism. After sharing some information from our New UU class, including a little history, theology, and our principles and sources, he opened the class up to questions. There were a few timid questions offered. The final one was a young woman who asked, “What are your sacred texts?” I replied, “All of them.” Confused she replied, “no, but I mean…,” as I quickly added, “Yes, really, all of them. We welcome wisdom from wherever we find it.” I repeated this several times, but I’m not sure I convinced her.
But indeed, we welcome wisdom wherever we find it—and we find wisdom everywhere! We have listed six specific sources. The first five were written in 1984 and the sixth was added in 1995. Recently, as required by our bylaws, the UUA has considered revisions to our principles and sources. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with them. Instead it is our intention to ensure we stay current and relevant—not trapped under the tyranny of history.
The results of the proposed revision left our principles largely unchanged; however, they suggested major changes to the way our sources were described. Instead of the current list of sources, the revision suggested that we change them to a few descriptive paragraphs. The proposed revisions generated much discussion about the relative merits of adding more description compared to the slightly more poetic language we use now. After great discussion and division, the measure was narrowly defeated at General Assembly, our faith tradition’s annual national gathering where congregates gather to make decisions about our future direction. Despite the defeat of this proposal, I’m sure the denomination will continue to explore future revisions to determine the best way to articulate our principles and sources, so it is particularly relevant that we understand them as they are to be able to better contribute to that process in the future. To help us become more familiar, I will be doing a series on the sources to allow us to explore them in greater detail.
I have a second story to describe why I think this is important. Some of you may not remember a former member, Ronni Mott; however, most of you probably read the Jackson Free Press. In a recent issue, they focused on religion and in that issue Ronni Mott made comments about her experiences and in particular the depth in our beliefs:
In 2006, I took an Internet test on a whim: “What religion are you?” Fully prepared for even this innocuous test to pass judgment on my lack of Christian faith, I was surprised when it revealed the answer: 74 percent Unitarian Universalist.
“Well, well,” I thought, and immediately began my due diligence. I had never heard of Unitarians outside of “A Prairie Home Companion,” where Garrison Keillor often makes gentle fun of the sect and its preference for sheet cakes. What I found was a Christian-based denomination, which advocates tolerance for all faith traditions and a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
I began spending Sunday mornings at the little church on Northside Drive, politely making my beliefs known, and politely listening to others. The church made it a point to bring in speakers of diverse faiths, from Judaism to Buddhism to atheism and humanism, and its congregation didn’t refrain from taking stands on social-justice issues including a woman’s right to choose and the death penalty.
For about a year, it was engaging and fun. Then, it began to feel a bit flabby. I wanted to debate theology, not to simply nod my head in polite acquiescence to viewpoints I didn’t agree with. My questions felt more and more strident, and I grew frustrated with the UUs insistence on civility above all else. I felt like Barbra Streisand in “Yentl,” wanting desperately to know “the truth” but prevented from a rousing debate with other believers.
About the same time, I began a yearlong yoga teacher-training course, and something had to give. What gave was my participation with the UUs.
Now I take issue with her characterization. I don’t take it personally that she did not find what she was looking for here. And to be honest, her complaint about us being “too civil” is a pretty rare accusation to have ever been made against us. I myself can remember a time when no one would have said that about us. In this day of great incivility, I am somewhat honored by the fact that we have learned to speak our truth without an argument. Furthermore, I wish her well on her journey, as she seems to have found herself in the yogic tradition. We have been fortunate to allow many people to come here, ask questions, and find answers for themselves that draw them onward to another path. We are pleased to offer this possibility to the community. However, her main contention was that we did not have a strong theological position of our own. Rather we talked nicely about any and all perspectives. I couldn’t disagree more strongly—our statements of principles and sources do have very definite and thoughtful theological underpinnings that are unlike other systems of beliefs and help us understand how we approach the world and come to our personal theologies. A great deal of effort went into the writing of these statements, and they decidedly wanted to express our unique perspective as a questioning rather than an answering faith tradition.
First, our theology is represented in our seven Principles which describe how see ourselves in relation to others, to truth, and to the universe. They bridge from the individual to the ultimate on how we are with other beings. Specifically, they are written in a mirrored format with the first three principles discussing us as individuals within small, interpersonal relations while the last three deal with us in our larger societal relations encompassing the whole universe. The first deals with how we view every individual, as having inherent worth and dignity. The second addresses one-on-one interpersonal relationships, with justice, equality, and compassion. The third looks at how we are in congregations, accepting one another—not just tolerating them—and encouraging them to grow. And mirroring back the fifth addresses how congregations relate among each other and with and within other groups to which we belong, using a democratic process and respecting individual conscience to guide us. The sixth addresses how we relate as countries and nations, having a goal of a world community with peace, liberty, justice for all. The seventh, the flipside of the first which deals with the micro, deals with the macro of how we view the whole of the universe as an interdependent web of which we are a part. The fourth, and central point of our principles, describes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning – it is our central task, it is what we do in the world. There is a wonderfully, rich theology bound up within those principles, crafted with great care by our predecessors.
Likewise, our Sources share how we view the world. Instead of relations, our Sources share how we view the evolution of theological history. They proceed through the pathway that people have come to know truth over time. They begin with individual’s attempt to grapple with the mysteries of life through direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which some call God and others don’t, but is affirmed in all cultures, and which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. Then some individuals came to unique insights, or prophesy, that they shared with those around them, moved by passion and courage to share words and deeds of these prophetic women and men challeng[ing] us to confront powers and structures of evil not with anger or violence but with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. Over time, the teachings of prophets have become codified into religions, attempts to answer the questions of life and to guide people on how best to live—wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life. We then turn to the specific religions—Judaism and Christianity—that Unitarians/Universalists come out of which still are foundational to our understanding of the world and our approach to it—Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. In the twentieth century, our growing emphasis on rational and scientific understanding led us to embrace the wisdom of Humanists—teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. At the end of the twentieth century as our science helped us better understand the world in which we live and the historical values of our ancient past, we gained a growing awareness of our interdependence with nature and developed a hunger for meaningfulness that led us to a new spiritual awaken based on nature and informed by science—spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. This awakening of spirituality based on the natural world leads us back to our original source as we grapple with the mystery of life. Indeed there is much to be gained from digging deeper into the ways that we come to know.
Today, I would like us to dig a bit into that first Source, the most basic and personal way that we come to awareness—Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. So what does this first source mean to us? It is the most confusing source to explain. The short and glib answer—God. It reminds me of a joke I once heard:
A Unitarian is stuck by a blinding light. The booming voice of God asks, “And who do you say that I am?” The Unitarian replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.” And God said, “Say what?”
But really if you look deeper, it is rich in meaning. Direct Experience has to do with who has authority of religious experience:
Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig wrote in her sermon on this source:
“Going all the way back to Emerson and the Transcendentalists in the 19th century, our liberal tradition has said personal experience, what we feel in our own hearts, the struggles that we live through, is the most important authority in religion. If religious scriptures say one thing but our heart says another, we go with our heart every time. If a religious leader, like a minister preaching from a pulpit, says one thing but we find we can’t accept it, we go with our understanding of the truth, every time. You don’t have to believe everything I tell you. This is the spirit of freedom and personal responsibility which we have inherited, and which I hope will always be at the core of our faith.”
Rudolph Gelsey wrote about the choices we make as Unitarian Universalists:
“If there is a conflict between religious dogma and individual conscience, individual conscience comes first.”
The starting point of our spiritual understanding is always what we feel and believe in our deepest self to be true because it has come out of our life and our experience. The movie Shadowlands chronicles the life of C.S. Lewis from a secluded and comfortable don at Oxford writing about Christian life and how to grapple with the faith to a man, confronted with a loving relationship in all of its messy wonder, with a brash New Yorker who spoke her mind and upset his English calm, to her slow and tragic death from cancer laying waste to his life. At her funeral and again at his faculty gathering, he is confronted by the typical words of supposed comfort from his religious tradition, some he even wrote. He rails against the hallowness of them—the inability of them to match up to his personal experience. He is quoted as saying “Experience is that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” That is the experience to which we refer, the kind that smacks you with a power beyond your daily life and forces you to examine your deepest beliefs about life.
Transcendent Mystery & Wonder is a nod to our deeply personal mystical and spiritual understanding. William James says the characteristic of mystical experience is that it resists being put into words. You can’t describe it fully, not really. But still you can try.
Now, many here may reject this notion of mysticism. In fact, I’ve heard more than once, people declare “I’m not spiritual.” Well, maybe that’s because they have a very limited definition of what “spiritual” is. Being spiritual doesn’t mean going into a trance, although that may be one way someone has had a spiritual experience. There are many other ways that people have encountered and can encounter the spiritual in life—watching a sunrise, looking at a newborn, watching someone die, seeing a smile on the face of a friend, seeing a new shoot break forth in a garden, looking at a work of art. Rabbi Michael Learner defined spirituality as: “an experience of love and connection to the world and to others…awe, wonder, and radical amazement in response to the universe and a consequent unwillingness to view the world merely in instrumental terms”. Mystical, spiritual, or “peak” experiences, visions, moments of awe, inspiration, wonder, whatever we choose to call them can be common occurrences if we are open to them.
Affirmed in all cultures speaks to the universal nature of belief. Anthropological evidence shows that humans have been spiritual for at least 60,000 years, clear back to the Neanderthals. A recent book by Dean Hamer, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, proposes that religious experience is integral to our species. Using the measure of transcendence and genetic studies, he explores the link between spirituality and our genes. The “Self-Transcendence Scale” find three essential components of spirituality (self-transcendence) including: (1) self-forgetfulness, which is the experience where you lose track of time and space, (2) transpersonal identification, which is the ability to feel a unity with all things, and (3) mysticism, which is the fascination with things that cannot be easily explained. He examined what people report as peak spiritual experiences and found that people report similar sensations: (a) a sense of wholeness and unity with the universe—a connection to everyone and everything, (b) transcendence of time and space including a loss of the sense of boundaries of the physical body, (c) an openness to emotions and an overwhelming positive mood such as a deepened sense of joy and/or peacefulness, (d) an appreciation of nature and the environment, and (d) an increased tolerance for others, for change—a willingness to try new things and a shift in values. Although his results are controversial as to their scientific merit, his conclusions may have the truth of literature. He finds that spirituality has much to offer us as a species. For example, by blurring our sense of self, spirituality allows us to become members of a cohesive group. Spirituality also provides us with an innate sense of optimism. It alleviates anxiety and gives us a sense of purpose beyond ourselves. This can keep us from being incapacitated by the thought of death, and drive us to want to keep on living. His findings fit with several studies that have shown that spiritual practice actually improves health and extends life. The implication is that spirituality just plain makes us feel good. If we feel good, we are more likely to reproduce; thus, this gene or genes would have been evolutionary advantageous, and would have been selected for. Viewed in this light, being spiritual is uniquely human, and spiritual experience is as ancient as our species. Of all the creatures on earth, we are the only ones who can find meaning in anything from the most mundane to the most complex. What a gift—while other animals outperform us many ways, our specialty is to be the makers of meaning.
But as Hamer noted, “Our genes may predispose us to believe, but they don’t tell us what to believe in. We must distinguish between having certain beliefs and the act of believing. That act of believing, the ability to believe, is the great gift of human kind.”
Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s book Fingerprints of God sought to take this further step. Her purpose was to find evidence—or fingerprints—of the Christian God in scientific studies of the brain. She concludes that science might be pointing to a God who hard-wired us to be able to communicate with him; however, Hagerty, steeped in the notion that Christianity is the ultimate and only truth, struggles mightily with the inescapable conclusion of the brain studies she uses as evidence: spiritual experience is strikingly similar across cultures. The brains of Buddhist monks, Franciscan nuns and Sufi mystics all look the same on scans. Hagerty ultimately admits that “Genetics—and science in general—cannot referee between Christianity and Islam, or Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.” Again, as Hamer stated, “Our genes…don’t tell us what to believe in. …the ability to believe is the great gift of human kind.”
A renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. The upholding and valuing of life is particularly important to our faith tradition as we do not necessarily hold any promises of an existence beyond the life we know. Those who know me well, know I am usually late to everything. In fact, I am usually a reliable 10-15 minutes late to everything—everything, that is, except movies. It may be because of the power of stories for me. They have been good friends since my childhood. But I think it may also be the very limited timing of access. I just cannot watch a movie if it has already started. The limits, then, give meaning to the experience. Likewise our awareness of the limits of our life…our awareness of our impending death gives meaning to our present life. As a child, I was often reminded of the saying: Life is like a quarter. You can spend it anyway you want, but you can only spend it once. We may believe many different things about what happens when we die, but we know we are alive and we know we will die to our present form. That makes this life significant. It is our direct experience of this human condition that compels us toward that which transcends our own lives and gives us a sense of meaning about what happens to us here. We can find answers to the questions in life from any of our sources; they provide answers about evil and suffering, happiness and purpose, but none are as powerful and transformative as those insights we come to ourselves—like a thunderbolt, a crystallizing moment when all things come into perspective and we see ourselves and the world and all of humanity and our place within it. In the words of Richard Gilbert “In this fragile moment of time is the culmination of all that has been and the promise of all that shall be.”
These experiences create a transformation in us that in turn makes us more alive. As Rev. Buehrens said:
“Each of us has transforming moments. Not all of them are soaring. Many are painful, breaking through our defenses to raise challenging questions of us, just as we so often have questions of life. In such moments, we can sometimes receive life once more as a gift, not as a given. When we do, when we are more open to life’s unfolding questions of us, then we can identify more deeply with others, with those who are also challenged. We can commit (or recommit) ourselves to join with them to serve justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly together before the Mystery that gives us all life—and to do so even in the face of death.”
I have experienced these personal transformational experiences. At the age of 19 years, I experienced what some might call a religious awakening or a rebirth. For me, I experienced this as a casting off of the religious beliefs I was given as a child. Up until this point, I had struggled for years with the frustration of failing at the rules that I had been given, which I believed I must follow to be acceptable in the eyes of God. Walking across the lawn of my college campus, I once again questioned, why do I continue to fail to follow the rules I had been taught? Like a thunderbolt, the answer came: If I do not live it, it is because I do not believe it. If I believe it truly, deeply, I would follow it. But if I am constantly having to remind myself of it, it is not a part of my core beliefs of how I am in the world. Not once have I ever had to remind myself, “Now today, when I go out, I need to remember—don’t kill anyone.” Probably because that is part of my core beliefs. Some of the other, stuff, maybe it just wasn’t all that true for me. This realization helped me shed years of guilt and an oppressive view that led me to undervalue myself.
I have recently found, at the age of 38 years, a growing awareness, another spiritual awakening, a new rebirth. This time it is more of a taking on of religious beliefs. This has been more of a gradual process, but I indeed, I again have had a crystallizing moment. This one came not from a specific question, but more as a phrase that has come to me during my meditations. It is that we are all children of God making our way to perfection. As a person that considers myself as a non-theist, I don’t even really know where that phrase comes from or exactly what it means. But it encourages me to see each person even those who piss me off as a person of value, a person of worth, that I should treat with the dignity and the compassion that a child of God deserves. More is the realization that I can’t expect perfection, completion, wholeness from someone on the path, in the middle of her/his journey—as long as we are on the path, the meaning of our lives are not set and there is always room for growth and transformation. It tells me that my role is to help them get better and for me to accept their role in helping me be better.
Each of you have your own experiences, I know, which are just as significant and beautiful and powerful. As we come to the end of this service, I’d like to invite you into a time of silent reflection on the moments in your own life when you have touched mystery and wonder, when you have felt renewed and deepened and opened. These are your gifts, and they are holy. Let us be in silence together.