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Five Venues of Spirituality

—-May 4, 2003—-


Spirituality is not easy to define.

Webster’s Unabridged 2nd Edition defines it as “Quality or state of being spiritual.” This is not very helpful. Moreover, it violates the first rule of dictionary making, which is to avoid using a word in its own definition. While spirituality is difficult to define, it’s one of those things we know when we see it. I would say that spirituality is that experience which fully and deeply engages the senses, emotions and mind and which is in some sense informed by awe or mystery.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the opening of the 20th it was popular to attend something called a “seance.” This was typically held in a darkened room and people assembled around a table. Some sort of chant or appeal to the spirits was invoked and, eventually, the table moved! This caused great the excitement among the participants.  Sometimes there was a ‘medium’ present—a person through whom you could make inquiries to persons ‘on the other side.’ It was not done easily, the medium would report that there was much background noise or static. But eventually contact would be made, the question posed and an answer reported.

This is what I call the Plugger’s Spirituality.

There are endless examples. When I was a boy it was not uncommon, when visiting a friend’s houses, to see among the friend’s toys something called a ‘weegie board.’ The weegie board had the letters of the alphabet, some numbers, and other inscriptions. With the board there was an object resembling a computer mouse. The idea was for two persons to work together to move the weegie around the board and to make note of the stopping point. After several such efforts, an attempt was made to make sense of what was written down. With a little imagination a resulting message was inferred and believed to be predictive. Rather like reading tea leaves.

Currently, there is much interest in “the Bermuda triangle,” where it is believed ships and airplanes go and never return. And then there have been sightings in New Mexico, near an air base, of flying saucers, believed to be space craft from distant civilizations. They have been photographed and there have been reports of abductions and other strange goings on.  Repeated denials by the Air Force are believed to be a cover up. And the true believers write books and hold regular conventions.  If you think Plugger’s Spirituality to be a fringe phenomenon, I have to tell you that it has in fact a very large constituency. Last year, a Gallup poll found that half of all Americans believe in ESP, more than forty per cent believe in demonic possession and haunted houses, and about a third believe in astrology, clairvoyance, and ghosts. Ronald Reagan was a client of an astrologer. Time Magazine in 1993 reported that 69% of Americans believe in angels and 46% believe they have a personal guardian angel.  And, when I was growing up, I was careful not to step on the cracks (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”).

We are astonished by these behaviors, primarily because of a general belief in human progress. We believe that education and the advances of science can overcome the prevailing superstition. This illusion rises naturally from the obvious advances our species has made in technology, which is an artifact of our culture, not our biology. What is not so obvious is that as a species we have not changed in any significant way biologically in the course of our tenure as a distinct species. Homo Sapiens is little over a hundred thousand years old, not nearly enough time for significant evolutionary change. Thus, we have essentially the same intelligence as those ancestors who were chipping arrow heads and doing paintings in the caves of Dordogne and Lascaux. We are the same people. Through the mechanism of culture we have made rapid advances in tool making and much more. But we’re physically and mentally unchanged. And today most of us are just as superstitious as our ancestors.

There is a second venue for spirituality which comes closer to what we think of when we say “spirituality.” This spirituality is to be found at the margins of our knowledge. I am going to divide this venue into two parts, 1) beliefs that are subject to change with the advancement of knowledge, and 2) beliefs that fall in the area described by philosophers as “unknowable.” What is interesting is that our ancestors had essentially the same sort of response to phenomena in both these categories.  As an example of the first category, many of us have ancestors in Northern Europe, in England, the Scandinavian countries, and Germany. Confronted with the impressive phenomenon of thunder, and having no rational explanation for it, these ancestors made one up.  It is characteristic of our species that in the absence of a reasonable explanation, one is invented. Moreover, once invented it is no longer seriously questioned. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” The answer was that thunder was unleashed by a god. His name was Thor. Notice the pronoun. In patriarchal cultures our gods are male. In matriarchal cultures they are female. This brings to mind Omar Khayam who, in one of his verses, has the pots on a shelf talking among themselves. And one of the pots wonders “Does the pot the potter make or the potter the pot?” Today, meteorologists can tell us in exquisite detail just how thunder occurs. So we no longer need Thor.  However, we still celebrate Thor—every week. On Thursday.

Hippocratese was a Greek physician who founded Western medicine. His oath is taken to this day by doctors upon entering into practice. He wrote “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”

The second category of spirituality, also at the margins of our knowledge, consists of those mysteries that are unknowable. As I suggested, we have responded to both categories in the same way. That is, in the absence of a reasonable explanation, one is invented. An example of such a mystery in the unknowable category is this question: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Nothing would be logical. Something is inexplicable.  And yet, there is something, and quite a lot of it —a whole universe full of it. Interestingly, it is all made of the same stuff. It all comes from offthe-shelf materials found in Mendeleev’s table of elements. As Carl Sagan put it, “we are all made of star stuff.”

But the question is, where did it all come from, or has it always been here? The answer devised by our ancestors was, once again, that it was created by a god. And, the answer, once again, typically is examined no further. However, if we were to question it, we would ask “Where then did the Creator come from, or has he always been here?” You will notice that this question is very similar to the first question—in fact, it is really the same question. And the original answer simply begs the question and contributes nothing to our understanding. However, since our need is for an ‘answer,’ it satisfies. And, so far as it goes, and to the extent that it provides comfort and satisfaction it should be respected. However, our ancestors did not stop there. They proceeded to reason that if our universe is the work of a Creator, there is nothing to prevent him—there’s that pronoun again— from intervening in our affairs whenever he wishes.  From this came the practice of negotiating with the Creator on matters of concern to us, either as individuals or as a community. These negotiations often take the form of prayer. For example, an individual might say, “Lord, get me through finals week and I’ll go to church regularly.” Communities also negotiate. Native American cultures undertook, whenever there hadn’t been enough rain, to put on a dance with appropriate chants imploring the Great Spirit to come through. In nearly all cultures, communities were prepared to make offerings to get the intervention they desired. Grain and fruit would be brought to the altar. Later this morning a basket will be passed around for your offering. And this practice derives directly from our ancient ancestors who felt the need to provide offerings to their gods.  In important cases they might slay an ox and put it on the altar. In really serious situations they would sacrifice a person. In extremis tribes would sometimes sacrifice their king. And in many of these stories, if the community survived, the king would be reported to have been resurrected. Abraham, who is the original point of reference for all three of the world’s main religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—presents a notable example of human sacrifice. In Genesis 22 we learn “Then God said, ‘take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.’” Later, God intervenes and tells Abraham that he was just testing his faith In their negotiations with their Creator, the Aztecs selected the most beautiful from among their children, dressed them in the best available attire and then killed them in order to propitiate the Creator. After a battle, the Mayans would assemble all the enemy captives in the town square and then kill them—as a thank you to the Creator for leading them to victory.  As recently as a few hundred years ago, in Western Europe, it was the custom when building large public works—a wall or a dam or a bridge—to leave a cavity into which a child was placed. The cavity was then sealed. This sacrifice was made to insure that the bridge or other structure wouldn’t fall down. There is a memory of this practice in our children’s subculture, in a game. It is useful to know that the children’s sub-culture is not received from adults. It is received from other children. In the game “hide and go seek” investigators have been puzzled by a phrase that is used, “allee allee oxen free.” Since children say the phrase and do not write it down, no one knows properly how it is spelled. It is received purely as oral tradition, the mechanism by which all of our history was received before the invention of writing. Along with the game, a song is sung. I won’t sing it, but the words are “London bridges falling down, falling down. London bridges falling down, my fair lady-o.” At this juncture a child, who has been running the gauntlet, is ‘captured’ and thereby selected.  And one of the most wide-spread and populous faiths on earth has, as its central event, a human sacrifice.

So, in this venue we are talking about theology. The word means ‘knowledge of God.” And theology is the locus of some of our most important spirituality. But, as we see, its history is pretty barbaric and bloody. Communities continue to fight over theology to this day.  People in Northern Ireland kill each other almost daily. And yet, the difference between their religions is very small. The difference essentially goes back to Henry the VIII who, unable to obtain a divorce by petition to the Pope, simply established his own separate church—the Church of England. There is no serious theological difference between the two faiths.

However, fortunately, religion is not confined to theology. Much of religion is devoted to ethics. And this is our third venue.  Most of the Ten Commandments deal with ethics—the ‘Though Shall Nots.’ Six out of seven of our Unitarian principles are devoted to ethical issues. The words of Jesus—and indeed of all the great teachers of humankind—are devoted to ethics, not theology. The Jefferson Bible is comprised of the ethical teachings of Jesus.  Buddhism is entirely confined to ethics. There is no theology. William Ellery Channing, founder of the Unitarian movement in America, believed that religion all came down to love, the foundation stone of all our ethics . Here, in ethics, we find, I believe, one of the most profoundly meaningful settings for our spirituality.

The fourth venue for our spirituality is a set of uniquely human behaviors. Interestingly, they are behaviors that contribute nothing to our survival, to our defense against predation, or indeed to any of the critical needs of humanity in the biological sense. That is certainly because they are cultural rather then evolutionary acquisitions. We sing, we dance, we draw, paint, sculpt, we tell stories, and we act out stories in theater. These are the arts. Anthropologists believe that the cave paintings were central to ceremonies of a spiritual nature that were involved with the hunt. When I was a young man, a collection of Vermeer paintings on tour were shown in San Francisco. I remember coming into a room and seeing this incredible painting, about five feet tall and eight feet wide, depicting an artist at his easel. The painting conveyed not just people and things, it depicted almost palpably the very air in the room. It was, for me, a profoundly spiritual experience.  And who can deny the deeply spiritual quality of listening to Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart?

The fifth venue for our spirituality is found in our relationship with nature—and our appreciation that we are an integral part of nature. Some of this morning’s readings deal with this. A back-packing journey in the high Sierra can be a spiritual experience of a very high order. It is not altogether necessary to climb a tree during a high wind, though John Muir certainly took his spiritual experiences seriously. Incidentally, John Muir was influenced in his love of nature and his convictions about conservation by the writings of a Unitarian—Henry David Thoreau.  To stand, for example, in a grove of living Sequoia Giganteas, trees some of which are older than Christianity, and some of which were saplings during the Golden Age of Greece, is a deeply moving and spiritual experience, one that gives a salutary sense of perspective about one’s own importance in the scheme of things.  Nature is not only a source of spirituality in its own right, it is the medium through which science, knowledge and art have emerged.  As Unitarians, we probably are not significantly represented in the Plugger’s spirituality ( although I may occasionally lengthen my stride to avoid a crack in the sidewalk). At the margins of our knowledge we have reservations about those truths in conventional wisdom which are not adequately tested. As for theology as a venue, we are divided. Some of us, like Forrest Church, first minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manhattan, are deeply committed to a creatorcentered theology. Forrest I found, when I met him, has a nice sense of humor. He likes to refer to his mother as “The Mother Church.” Others of us are Humanists and find theology not only not helpful but distressingly barbaric.  What unites us all as Unitarians in this venue is our conviction that the authority for our belief is our individual conscience.

So, in summary, as Unitarians, we certainly embrace the ethical teachings of all religions and find them deeply significant for our spirituality. We find spirituality in the arts and in nature. Nature is our temple.  Thus, while some of us Unitarians may be theologians and some of us Humanists, all of us are ethicists, artists, and naturalists.  The next time someone asks you ‘what do Unitarians believe?’, tell them, tell them about the Five Venues of Spirituality.