Beyond Spirituality

Carl Scovel

Berry Street Essay, 1994

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Fort Worth, Texas

June 23, 1994

 

            I am grateful to Berry pickers Laurel Hallman, Tom Wintle, and Lucy Hitchcock for selecting this slightly overripe grape for the pressing.  May it yield a decent juice if not a heady wine.  For it is an honor to address my colleagues on matters of ministry, especially in the long tradition of this lectureship, more than 1,700 miles from the corner of Federal and Berry Streets in Boston.  It has been more than 174 years since Channing, in 1820, first addressed this conference on reason’s role in receiving revelation.  Since then the world has changed so radically that we think more now of survival than of progress, more about avoiding evil than achieving perfection, and more, perhaps, about our souls than either reason or revelation.

 

            Or so, at least, I address you—my peers whose business, like mine, is soul business, and who choose to stand at the uneasy boundary between the divine and the human, the holy and the humane.  For there on that boundary we are constantly tempted in our loneliness to domesticate the divine, to make it easy, common, saleable, eventually irrelevant.  As colleagues we face another danger—namely, to share with each other only the tales, technology, strategy, and sociability of our trade, and sharing only that, leave each other lonely in that one realm which has touched us most profoundly—the realm of the soul, the realm of the spirit.

 

            Let me tell you of a dream I had last fall.  I dreamed I was at this conference in Fort Worth, sitting on a hill at dusk or dawn, the whole sky suffused with pale orange light, a purple mist among the valleys.  Sitting on hundreds of other hills as far as I could see were my colleagues, each alone, upon his hill, her hill, each contemplating the others.  And that was my dream’s sense of where we were.

 

            I realized on waking that this dream reflected my concern about this lecture—namely, that I would not be able to communicate to you what has touched and moved me most deeply as a Christian, that I would end up either talking to myself or groping for some banal commonality as a ground of discourse.  I even thought most briefly of calling Rudi Nemser and telling him to find another speaker.  But a call, as you know, is a call, and so I begin with where I think we may all begin—with spirituality.

 

            But what is it?  What is spirituality?  Note my definition, please.  As I hear the word being used, it speaks to me first of all of an individual yearning for and reaching for some experience and some conviction of that which is greater than self, yet fulfilling of self.

 

            I do not use the word "spirituality” to describe behavior patterns, such as lighting candles or a chalice, praying, meditating, sharing concerns. Spirituality, the yearning and reaching, may lead to behavior patterns, but I hear it used to describe the motive force for behavior.  I hear it as the primal, inchoate, diffuse need, often indefinable at the onset.

 

            When someone comes to see me and say something like, "I’m not sure why I’m here.  My life seems to be going pretty well.  My job’s OK.  I seem fine with my spouse (or partner).  I just feel like there’s something I’m missing,” when I hear that, I have a strong sense that we will end up discussing spirituality.  The speaker’s very vagueness at the outset betrays the seriousness of the enterprise at hand.

 

            I called spirituality an individual yearning and groping.  As you know, it is more than that.  It is a movement.  In the last decade we have seen in our country a growing interest in and desire for rituals, reading, retreats, workshops, disciplines, and conversations which enhance the life of the soul.  We’ve seen this in our won churches and fellowships—in requests for sermons and classes and explorations dealing with "something more.”  More than what?  More that what Enlightenment humanism and Victorian optimism and scientific so-called certitude have been able to provide.  And we as ministers, often ill-equipped by tradition, training, experience, and assumption, we are being called upon to respond to these inchoate requests for "something more.”  Spirituality is a public as well as private desire, a collective as well as an individual need.

 

            But let us be clear.  Let us not rejoice too soon in this wave of spirituality.  Let us remember that the longing does not per se create faith; the desire itself does not bring fulfillment; the hunger does not automatically lead to fullness.  The longing, the desire, and the hunger must be focused and answered with some form if they are to grow in the life of the spirit.

 

            It’s like music.  Almost everyone can enjoy music and create music, but there is no generic "music.”  To enjoy and create one must focus on a form—folk, jazz, rock, showtune, choral, string trio, symphony.  The need for music must be answered through specific forms.  And so with spirituality.  To go deeper, we must focus.

 

            And precisely here we hit the problem.  We encounter the threat of spirituality.  Unfocused spirituality is easy, mild, harmless, eclectic, almost entertaining.  Focused spirituality is a threat.  For then it becomes real.

 

            Focused spirituality threatens our place in our familiar communities—families, workplace, neighborhood, and church, especially church.  I think of the woman who came 300 miles to me for baptism; she did not wish, she said, to hurt the feelings of her local fellowship.  I think of a colleague who wears a cross concealed from the congregation.  I think of another colleague, recently returned from a retreat, who said to me, "Of course this retreat puts me at odds with some of my people.  And I’m here to serve them.  What do I do now?”

 

            As people grow in the life of the spirit, they become clear on what is essential, more centered on the simple power of the soul and less subject to manipulation.  And their change can be a threat to others who sense the change and react in irritation and disease.  We see this often in the families of some recovered alcoholics.  We can stand almost anything except a loved one’s new life.

 

            As the diffuse potential of spirituality comes to focus in a form, what appeared as mild and even appealing may seem like a threat both to the person and the group.  The grower begins to see what he or she might lose—the illusion of control over his or her life, the comfortable quilt which has excused so little transformation, the identity of victim, half-competent, or cripple which has left them an irresponsible bystander on the road of history.

 

            When the woman with the flow of blood went out of her house to look for Jesus, and when Bartimaeus, the loud, blind beggar, called Jesus to come, they were both taking a risk.  They were getting ready to surrender not only their disabilities, but their identity as disabled people.  They were trusting Jesus to heal them.  Small wonder he said to them, "Your own faith has healed you.”  To grow in the life of the spirit is to change one’s identity and one’s direction.

 

            And so we encounter resistance to growing in soul—in ourselves, and in others.  We encounter it in subtle and not-so-subtle ridicule: in misrepresentation of what soul-life means, in outright opposition ("Look, if that’s what you want, fine—but find another church.”).  I have come to understand the frequent opposition to Christianity among us as something more than bad memories of Baptist preachers, as more than legitimate anger with the Christian right, as more than reaction to Christian arrogance and cruelty.  This opposition is also resistance to spiritual growth itself, and in some societies this opposition is institutionalized.

 

            A member of my church and I some years ago made a presentation on prayer to a UU conference group.  I later asked her how she read the audience’s response to our presentation.  She answered, "They were warm, sincere, and kind but we were in an area that was very uncomfortable for them.  I saw an expression: ‘What are they talking about?’  We were alien.  I wanted to tell them that I used the Jesus prayer (the Orthodox "prayer of the heart”) but I just said ‘mantra’.  I felt sorry for them because they were truly looking for something more.”

 

            As I approach the thesis of this lecture, I must state now two assumptions which contradict our historical attitude toward faith, but which, I believe, are essential to an understanding of what lies beyond spirituality.

 

            My first assumption is this.  Belief shapes experience.

 

            Yes, I know.  For centuries, or at least since Emerson, we have assumed that "experience” is the raw material, the data, the facts which form our understanding of what is real.  We have assumed that experience shapes belief.  We have believed what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, and how we react to those sensory observations is the basis for each one saying for herself or himself, "this is true” or "this is not true.”  That’s been our assumption.

 

            But it seems to me that what we perceived and how we respond to it depends upon what we assume.  For example, two people find themselves stuck in traffic on the Tobin Bridge at 6:15 p.m. on Friday afternoon.  One curses, fumes, gets red; his blood pressure and pulse rate and respirations per minute rise; and when he gets home, he rants and raves about the idiots who clutter up the bridge.

 

            Another driver sits in that same traffic jam, shakes her head, laughs slightly and says, "Well, here we are again!” and turns on NPR.  Same traffic, heat, immobility.  Same situation.  Two totally different experiences.  Why?  I suggest to you it is because we see in these two people two very different belief systems.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the second was a Buddhist, or at least a praying Christian.

 

            Psychiatrist Phillip Kavanaugh in his most helpful book, Magnificent Addiction, has this to say:

 

It may surprise you to discover that the most powerful system in our bodies, the one that controls all other systems, is actually the belief system.  More than anything else, more than what we eat or drink or (even) feel, we are what we believe….Proof of the power of our beliefs has been around for centuries but there is increasing scientific evidence that beliefs profoundly affect every bodily system, particularly the immune system which influences our resistance to illness and our ability to heal.

 

            Kavanaugh then cites in support of this statement, one study of twenty-five women in a farming community in Idaho and how they recovered from cancer, taken from a book entitled You’ll See It When You Believe It.

 

            Please understand that when I say "belief,” I do not mean something only thought of said.  I do not mean mental assent or verbal articulation.  By "belief” I mean (in the New Testament sense of the word) that which is assumed and practiced as real, an assumption to which one entrusts oneself and one’s life.  That is belief, as I understand it, and in that sense I reiterate my first assumption:  belief shapes experience.

 

            And now the second assumption.  Community shapes belief.

 

            Again, I wish to contradict Emerson—this time on his understanding of individualism, even though at points I accept and celebrate it.  But we have overstated his case and what worked for America’s bard on the boards of America’s lyceums and in his secluded home in Concord does not with equal force apply to us who live and work in the midst of intense cities, towns, neighborhoods, congregations, and the global village.

 

            Yes, we know the individual can shape the community but we also know that community does shape the belief of its members.  In certain communities it is difficult, if not impossible, to believe certain things.  Put it another way: faith is collective as well as personal.  Communities tend to perpetuate certain systems of belief and exclude others.

 

            Edwin Friedman has shown us the powerful effect of family systems on their members for good or ill.  And he has shown that thedestructive power of those systems continues to do harm until certain members of the family become aware of that power and counteract it.

 

            If we are to grow in faith, if we are to go beyond the initial stages of spiritual exploration, we must identify the constructive and destructive faith systems in our own religious communities—in our churches and fellowships—in our professional alliances, in our Association.  We must know and name these systems.  I will identify two.

 

            The first is denominational conformity.  I refer to an implicit and at times explicit assumption that to be able to claim the name Unitarian Universalist one must make certain kinds of statements and perform certain kinds of actions.  Even without the reminders of my UU Republican friends, I know that time and time again our continental resolutions and local conversations assume a single-mindedness on public issues which I can hardly call liberal.  Time and again in our Association people have initiated legislation to force congregations into certain types of behavior.  Recently a colleague spoke of his church as the "local franchise.”  (We’re getting our polity from McDonald’s!)  The past chair of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee assures the delegates of the Living Tradition ceremony that his committee will protect them.  May we all be protected from such protection.

 

            A recent visitor to our church says to our parish administrator, "You don’t have a flaming chalice, do you?”  "No, we don’t.”  "All right, but you do believe in the seven principles, don’t you?”

 

            And I wish I had a dollar, just one dollar, for every time that I or one of King’s Chapel’s delegates to GA or one of the guides at our church has been asked the inevitable question, "How can you be a UU and still be Christian?”  My response to that question is, "Why, in 1994, are we still being asked this question?  Let’s get on with it.”

 

            I abhor any semblance of denominational conformity not just because it stands against the legacy of Channing, Emerson, Parker, Ballou, and the whole history of a freely gathered association of churches and fellowships; but I resist such conformity because it lodges within the minds of clergy and laity and becomes the silent, unseen, unheard censor murmuring in tones too low for consciousness, "You may think this.  You may not think that.”  And I’d say the same thing if I were speaking to Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, or Methodists.

 

            Second, I warn against professional conformity, the reduction of our role as religious leaders to a mere technocracy.  I am uneasy with the argument that we as clergy are just as good as lawyers, doctors, and professors.  Of course we are.  We’re just not paid as much.  So what?  I am uneasy with the bureaucratization of our lives.  I am uneasy with any action that does not take seriously our call.  First of all, we were called to this work, and unless we grow in that call throughout our years of ministry we become sad and profitless technicians.

 

            Where then do I lead with all this prolegomena?  To what I call the Great Surmise.  Let me approach it this way.

 

            Some things we do not surmise, but know.  We know that we are finite, have an end.  We know that behind every discovery and disclosure lies a mystery.  We know that there is energy and order in this universe, the principle which Heraclitus (in 500 BC) named "logos.”  We know that there is fate; one person falls victim to cancer and another does not; one village is swept away by flood, another stands.  And we know that we are free to make decisions and act, yet our freedom is circumscribed by genes, fate, destiny, and history.  These things we know—mystery, energy, order, fate, freedom, finitude—but together they do not constitute a faith.

 

            We also know that spirituality is not simply the product of fear, frustration, or bad digestion.  We know that our yearning for meaning and fulfillment is given in our very being.  So!  Follow that yearning, need, reaching to its source, to our creation, to our createdness and surmise with me, if you will, that this yearning, this reaching, this need, is no accident, no psychic atavism, but a reflection of that reality from which we come.

 

            The Great Surmise says simply this:  At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return.  And this is the supreme reality of our lives.

 

            This goodness is ultimate—not fate nor freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny.  And with everything else we know in life, the strategies and schedules, the technology and tasks, with all we must know of freedom, fate and finitude, of energy and order and mystery, we must know this, first of all, the love from which we were born, which bears us now, and which will receive us at the end.  Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness, to know it without reserve or hesitation.  "Too much of a good thing,” said Mae West, "is wonderful.”  Sound doctrine.

 

            Do you see how the Great Surmise stands all our logic and morality on its ear?  Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict—not even survival—is the aim of life, but joy.  Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

 

            And therefore, the symbol of the kingdom, the realm of the universally elect, is neither a lecture, nor a workshop, nor a demonstration, nor the revolutionaries mounting the barricades.  The symbol is a supper, from which no one shall be excluded, save by choice.  Where does most radical church action begin?  With the church’s attempt to feed people—either meals or ideas.  This gospel, this good news, begins with the faith, in Auden’s words, "that God will cheat no one, not even the world, of its triumph.”

 

            And this is the good news, the gospel of apokatastasis, which we find the writings of Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Lactantius, Julian of Norwich, John Donne, William Law, Kierkegaard, and in lovely, lonely John Murray, stuck on the New Jersey coastline (What a fate!) ‘til he agreed to preach "God’s everlasting love and kindness.”

 

            This proclamation of God’s unconquerable love lies at the heart of the teachings of that Protestant theologian, held to be the liberal nemesis par excellence, Karl Barth, who argued that even unbelief could not prevail against God’s grace, and that this world is no cesspool but the theatre of God’s glory.

 

            We find this gospel in Robert Capon’s novel, Exit 36.  He writes:

 

OK, then, Universalism.  What should it be aimed at?  Individuals?  No, because if you do that you turn it into a half-truth…namely that the individual human will has nothing whatsoever to do with the ultimate universal feast.  God will force you into a wedding garment whether you like it or not…which…won’t wash.

 

So don’t aim at individuals.  Aim it at the constitution of the universe.  Then it becomes the whole truth.  Nobody is outside the Mystery of Reconciliation.  Everyone is pre-destined to the Party.  But everyone has a choice of how to attend the Party.

 

…The difference between the saved and the damned is that the saved are willing to step out and explore what God remembers, while the damned insist on hanging around in what God has forgotten.

 

            These are among the testimonies to God’s love that I have read.

 

            But what changed my life and moved me to speak today and brought me down from my private Olympus was my own discovery, or the divine disclosure, that I, who trusted least, could trust this love, that I, who believed so little, could believe it, that I, who wished to be above all self-sufficient, could receive it, that in my own imperfect way I could even sometimes live a little bit of it; and that I could do this, not because I was good, moral, clever, or wise, but because that love, that good intent at life’s own center, was beginning to transform me, not as I expected (God’s other name, after all, is surprise) but most surely and most steadily.

 

            This comes perilously close to arrogance of the worst sort, and I know it, but I would not be faithful to the love that has been faithful to me if I did not acknowledge this power and this acceptance, and its initiative in my life even if (God forbid) I should betray it tomorrow.

 

            I have discovered with the psalmist that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

 

            What I have read in the texts and what I have believed and received I have also seen and heard in the lives of others:  in the strange old cynic who died full of peace; in the young man with AIDS who fed us on his faith (he didn’t need our help); in the lives of countless parishioners who became free from self-doubt and repression and began to live their own souls’ journeys; in colleagues who shared with me their spirit-struggles and victories; and yes, even in those who denied their spirituality, and lived in wrath and sadness after that denial.  From them all I learned.

 

            Sadly but truly even the hells of this earth show darkly and inversely God’s good intent, if only because we know such places to be hell, to be such gross perversions of our created goodness.  In its own curious way, this whole earth, through praise or perversion, testifies to goodness at its center and our freedom to choose it or lose it.

 

            And yes, I find this in the faiths of other great traditions.  Oddly it is only after my own immersion in Christian scripture, sacrament, and society that I could identify with and feel enthusiasm for the faith and worship of non-Christians.  Time and again my own tradition gave me points at which I could identify with theirs, and as a Christian I can sense divine benevolence within the Torah, the Tao, the Five Pillars of Muslim wisdom, and the Eightfold Path, as I do most deeply in Christ’s ministry and death, renascence, and life within us as the Holy Spirit.

 

            Where then, in what direction, does the Great Surmise, the source of our own spirituality, point us?  For those of you who have heard me with reserved judgment, I invite you to explore that Surmise as a possibility in your life, in your parish, in history, and in the very structure of the cosmos.  For those of you who feel touched and moved by the presence of divine love, I say that we must follow its call.  We must know it and name it.  But first we must receive it.

 

            We must therefore abandon our role as ministers, forget that we are preachers, pastors, leaders in our town or city, set aside all identity, even as liberals, UUs, parents, and children, and to open ourselves to that one relationship which is most intimate, empowering, and accepting—our relationship with the holy.

 

            Two things are necessary for that.

 

            First, we need some discipline.  We need some practice or practices of body, mind, and spirit which help us put away our addictions and idolatries, which clear our heads of cultural illusions, which clear our souls, and empty them to be that place of holy consciousness where we may meet, as friend and guide and healer, the divine in our own lives.  We need some discipline, some practice.  I don’t know how one can move beyond the first stage of spirituality without the focus forced and formed by discipline.

 

            And, second, in order to receive this relationship we must be nourished by a community of faith which believes in the Good Intent and celebrates it.  That community might be our own church or fellowship.  More likely it is not.  And if it’s not, that’s no one’s fault—not theirs, not ours.  After all we are here to serve our people.  They are not here to serve us.

 

            And so it’s both legitimate and necessary to seek our center in another place—at a retreat house, with a director, a master or mistress of meditation, at an evening service in a black church, through Orthodox Easter, at Passover with friends or family, in Buddhist chanting or silence.  Somewhere where we must come as recipients and be nourished by divine benevolence.

 

            First we receive and then, to complete the circle, we share, we name, we profess.  That’s not easy in either a pious church or an angry fellowship.  It’s not easy, but if we do not share what has been most nourishing and precious to us, how can we call ourselves ministers?

 

            We must share our faith with each other as colleagues, and we must learn to share our faith.  We know how to talk about fund drives, preaching, counseling, stress, sabbaticals, angst, our lives, our loves, our failures.  Could we learn, I wonder, how to talk to each other about our faith, that stirring at the center of our soul?  Could we share on that level of intimacy and be strengthened by such conversation?

 

            I think of the significant conversations I’ve had with my colleagues—with Libby, Sue, Deane, Laurel, Barbara Merritt, Bob Doss (God bless him), with Ruppert and Roy, and Bob Senghas on Buddhism (at the Rochester G.A.), with Robbie and Janne—how much these people gave me in our discussions of faith.  And are not such conversations part of our ministry to each other?

 

            For the aim of all this, the aim of moving beyond spirituality, is transformation.  No head trip, no heart trip, no success trip, no status trip, but to be transformed.  The aim of love is to help us become the one we were meant to be, to live the life that is our life, to give the gifts that are our gifts, to become incarnations of the love that shaped us.

 

            Beyond spirituality lies the Great Surmise, a life lived in witness to the inherent love at the heart of all creation.

 

            No contemporary has written of this better than Trappist Thomas Merton, who died in Bangkok during a visit to the Far East.  A few days before his death, at the end of a conference of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian contemplatives he spoke ex tempore this prayer and with his words I will close my address.

 

Oh God, we are one with You.  You have made us one with You.  You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us.  Help us to preserve this openness and fight for it with all our hearts…Fill us then with love and let us be bound together and (when) we go our diverse ways, united in the spirit which makes you present to this world…a witness to the Ultimate Reality that is love.  Love has overcome.  Love is victorious.  Amen.