Active Religion’s Passive Voice

Roy D. Phillips

Berry Street Essay, 1985


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Atlanta, Georgia

June 17, 1985


In a sermon delivered in Arlington, Virginia, our colleague, Judith Walker-Riggs, made this observation:

Most of us…are not very good at…receiving.  We are middle-class, valuing looking after ourselves.  We are Americans, most of us, citizens of a country which…in its very basic documents (lauds) independence.  We have no creed, no must-be believed ideas.  We perceive…ourselves as the makers and the givers, and don’t like it much when we are the needers and the receivers.

Our hymnal, like those of most churches, is chock full of songs urging us, pledging us, to help them, to save them, to improve them.  Here are we to save the world!  Try to find one hymn about the beauty of being helped: Here are we to be helped, to receive from them.

Fascinatingly one-sided, isn’t it.  Sort of ignores reality, if you know what I mean.  The reality that as infants we only survived by receiving…the reality that in old age we will only survive by receiving…the reality that…NOW, we only survive by receiving.

If we want to teach about giving, it seems to me we need also to teach about the value, the virtue, the goodness of receiving.

(Judith Walker-Riggs, a sermon: "Who’s Afraid of the Good Samaritan?”)

My topic is receiving.  My title is "Active Religion’s Passive Voice.”  My intent is to lift up the value, the virtue, the goodness of receptivity.  But as Judith Walker-Riggs suggested in her sermon, receptivity goes against the grain of much contemporary liberal religious teaching. 

My old copy of the Century Collegiate Handbook helps me to define my terms here and to suggest my direction.  In the handbook’s section on the terms of grammar, a verb is identified as "a word or word group which makes an assertion or asks a question.”  Verbs usually express action (Winds blow.), but they may express state of being (It is true.  She sleeps.).  The handbook then distinguishes between transitive and intransitive verbs.  And then it discusses the "voice” of a verb.  Voice tells whether the subject performs or receives the action expressed by the verb.  The active voice, it says, shows the subject as actor; the passive voice shows the subject as acted upon.

The subject as acted upon—this is my theme.  The passive voice tells that the subject receives the action, is acted upon.

"Active Religion’s Passive Voice.”  Receptivity, activism and religion.  I want to understand better how activism and receptivity fit together.  I know they do.

I remember a poster, or was it a magazine cover?  I saw it years ago.  It presented this message:

"Don’t just do something,” Buddha said.  "Stand there.”

Many people have identified two primary varieties of religious experience:  the contemplative and the activist.  I don’t think that’s quite it.  "Don’t just do something”: do not merely act; "Stand there”: enter the state of non-action.

Some people, discouraged with outwardly activist religion, have given it up in favor of busying themselves with inwardly activist contemplation.  That’s not it.  "Don’t act; wait there.”  Two Zen couplets (Zenrin) work upon us to illustrate this. 

This one:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

And this one:

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection;

The water has no mind to receive their image.

And this too, from St. Matthew’s Gospel:

Why take ye thought for raiment?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.  They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.[1]

Don’t just do something.  Contemplation can be more than doing.

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection, yet the reflection is cast.  The water has no mind to receive their image, yet the image of the geese is received and moves across the water as they fly.  Without willing or intending it, the thing is accomplished.

The Zen poem is working upon us.  It is trying to entice us to experience without intention, without activity, to allow that image of the geese to move, on its own, across the water within us.

Contemplation can be inner activism.  It is more of doing—do your meditation, go on a quest, search within.  I am speaking not of activism—outward or inward—but of passivity, of what Judith Walker-Riggs was touching upon and pointing to in her sermon: "The value, the virtue, the goodness of receiving.”

But I am speaking of receiving as a mind-set, receiving as a mode of experiencing—not simply receiving help or gifts from other people.  I am speaking about moments of passive receptivity, of letting be, letting come, of non-striving, of no-mind.

For many years I have been interested in hypnosis, in trance states.  My ministry and my personal life have been changed dramatically—the way I work, the way I live—since I began studying the world of medical hypnotist, Milton Erickson.[2]

I remember sitting together with ten or twelve other students in Erickson’s tiny parlor in Phoenix, Arizona in August of 1979, six months before he died.  He told us stories, told us stories within stories within stories.  One by one, each of the students dropped into a trance.  His words washed over us; we did nothing with them.

There were moments, natural breaks in the stories, when we would return to waking consciousness, slowly all at once, lifting our heads, opening our eyes, blinking back into active consciousness.

In one of those moments, I remember I asked him a question about theory, about his understanding of why stories worked so profoundly upon people, to comfort them, to arouse them, to change them.  He said people were the most important thing, not theories; and then ye used my question as another occasion to launch into telling elaborate stories, spoke about someone’s mother who had one eye that drifted to the left and whose father had one eye that drifted to the right.

He was in a trance state himself as he gave his responses, as he told his stories.  I remember my confusion and frustration with his non-answer to my question about theory; it seemed like rambling, perhaps senility.

Yet later that day, as evening came on, I fell into a state of gentle rapture and later I found myself walking alone through the streets of Phoenix till very late at night, marvelously sensitive to what was around me—palm trees, darkened houses, mowed lawns, night flowers, the stirring of night creatures; I was gently at peace.  Eventually I returned to my motel, and sat outside in the midnight desert until it was finally time to go to sleep.

I awoke early the next day with a strong urgency to write.  I began sketching out notes for the rudiments of a theory of why stories work so profoundly upon people.  Only later did I realize that in all this, night and morning, I was receiving from within the answer to the question I had asked outwardly of Milton Erickson the day before.  Undoubtedly, his response, which had disappointed me at the time, had set my unconscious to the task of developing an inner answer to my outwardly addressed question.

Note what was happening: I was receiving the answer from within myself.  My experience was that of being the recipient, of receiving.  I was, certainly, active that morning.  I had located a pad of paper; I had sad down at the motel room desk; I had taken up my pen and had begun to write.  But experientially I was writing down what I was receiving as the sun was rising.  I was inwardly not so much an actor as I was a person being acted upon by fragments of ideas which were visiting me.

As I have suggested, contemplation itself can be active.  I invite you, therefore, to set aside the traditional polarity:  activist versus contemplative—and substitute for it the more accurate polarity:  "active” versus "passive” or "volition” versus "receptivity” or "will” versus "grace.”

George Leonard, author of Education and Ecstasy and The Ultimate Athlete, also wrote The Silent Pulse, a book on rhythm in music, in physics, in human relationships. In an appendix in that book he introduces the concept "soft eyes.”

For most of us in this culture normal vision entails focusing the eyes on specific formal entities, giving them shape, cultural meaning, and name.  This kind of seeing, which I’m identifying with the term hard eyes, is basically analytical, having the effect of separating figures from the ground in which they may be said to exist—creating "objects” and drawing sharp edges between these objects.  Seeing with hard eyes is a positive act; it requires reaching out into the world.  With hard eyes we can read the fine print.

Hard eyes are appropriate for many, but not all, situation.  The visual mode I’m calling soft eyes provides an alternative.  This mode is receptive rather than positive, synthesizing rather than analytical.  It involves letting the visual world come in rather than reaching out to bring it in.  With soft eyes we tend to perceive a whole field of vision in terms of the energy and motion that make it up, rather than perceiving the collection of discrete objects that exist within it.  There is less than the usual distinction between figure and ground.  With soft eyes, peripheral vision is enhanced, the depth of field appears to be greater, and colors seem remarkably vivid.

Using soft eyes entails not just adopting an alternative visual mode, but also entering an altered state of being.[3]

In George Leonard’s view, the mode of perception he names "hard eyes” is characterized by active reaching and shaping, while "soft eyes” is a more passive way of perceiving, of interacting with the external world.  Leonard demonstrates that this way of interacting is neither docile nor esoteric.  He speaks of its application in sports.  "A football quarterback,” he points out, "must be able to perceive the entire flow of a pass pattern rather than fixing his eyes on one receiver.”[4]  Whenever it is more important to perceive patterns and motion rather than focused snap-shots, the soft-eyed mode of perception is most appropriate.  George Leonard recommends that when we watch top performers in sports events, we should note that they often have a peculiar look about them; they are in an altered state—in the mode of soft eyes, perceiving patterns and the flow of events; they have a relaxed, seemingly vacant look in the midst of hectic action.  The performance of these players is often superior.  Their soft-eyed stance to the world external to them gives them a great advantage.

A corresponding stance can be taken to the events which occur in our inner world.  Such a receptive mode of functioning in the intellectual realm was alluded to and celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his essay, "Intellect,” he wrote:

Always our thinking is a pious reception.  Our truth of thought is…vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence.  We do not determine what we will think.  We only open our senses, clear away as we can all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see… (T)he moment we cease to report and attempt to correct and contrive, it is not truth.

If we consider… (which) persons have stimulated and profited us, we shall perceive the superiority of the spontaneous or intuitive principle over the arithmetical or logical.[5]

In this essay, Emerson speaks of the movement of the psyche, of the mind, as "an unfolding, like the vegetable bud.”

You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has a root, bud and fruit.  Trust the instinct to the end, thought you can render no reason.  It is vain to hurry it.  By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.[6]

The vegetable metaphor is helpful.  Clearly his intent is to urge patient trust of a process which proceeds on its own.  If we actively force the bud open, there will be no flower or fruit.

I am interested in Carl Jung’s similar use of a vegetable metaphor.  He referred to the unconscious mind as a human being’s "vegetable life.”  This image invites a particular stance toward the unconscious.  "Vegetable” connotes "growing on its own.”  It suggests that we should wait; that we trust; that, when the time is right, we gather.  Again receptivity is here being advocated.

The vegetable metaphor, suggestive of receptivity, of gathering what grows on its own, brings to mind a hymn of the kind Judith Walker-Riggs’ sermon called for.  It appears in Hymns for the Celebration of Life.  It is Unitarian Frederick Lucian Hosmer’s poem using harvest-time as an image which advocates subliminally, in the singer or the reader, the stance of receptivity:

I walk the unfrequented road

With open eye and ear;

I watch afield the farmer load

The bounty of the year.


I filch the fruit of no man’s toil—

No trespasser am I

And yet I reap from every soil

And from the unmeasured sky.


I gather where I did not sow,

And bind the mystic sheaf,

The Amber air, the river’s flow,

The rustle of the leaf.


I face the hills, the stream, the wood,

And feel with all akin;

My heart expands; their fortitude

And peace and joy flow in.[7]

Surely here is a model of a liturgical piece which advocates something other than volitional activity—a hymn which celebrates receiving:

"I gather where I did not sow…

I face the hills…

…fortitude and peace and joy flow in.” 

Carl Jung’s use of the term "vegetable life” for the human unconscious suggests to me that the very term "unconscious” may be inadequate.  The symbolism of the "consciousness-unconsciousness” polarity is certainly useful for suggesting that there are processes operating within us of which we are unaware.  Something is missing, however; something else needs acknowledgement.  It relates to this matter of active versus passive.  I propose, then, that we speak not solely of the "conscious and unconscious mind,” but that we also differentiate between the "spontaneous mind” and the "deliberative mind.”

The spontaneous mind is the creative unconscious.  The spontaneous mind is to be distinguished from the deliberative mind, from what Theodore Roszak[8] and others have named "objective-manipulative consciousness,” that mode of mental functioning which Roszak contends has been most highly regarded in our time in the western world and beyond the western world.  The deliberative mind—objective-manipulative consciousness—corresponds to George Leonard’s actively shaping "hard eyes.”

We may choose other names for these, but it is important that we find a way to express (and thus more fully to notice) the fact that in our experience there is a spontaneous functioning, an inner kaleidoscope which turns continually and conjures new patterns.  We can block this out of our awareness or we can foster within ourselves an attitude of receptivity to it.

A therapist once asked me how many hours I thought we dream each night.  I guessed something that had to do with REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep and the like.  She said "No.”  She thought we dream twenty-four hours each day.  The kaleidoscope turns continually.  We tune it out.  We can tune it in.

My thesis is that over the millennia and across cultures one of religion’s primary functions has been and is to advocate that we become ever more receptive to the spontaneous mind.  Much of religion’s symbolism presses us to open ourselves to the activity, the creativity of the spontaneous mind.

Minnesota poet Robert Bly has translated forty-four of the poems of a fifteenth-century Indian, Kabir.  Kabir’s spiritual orientation was shaped by Moslem, Hindu and Sufi influences.

The tenth poem in Robert Bly’s version expresses this receptivity to the unconscious, the spontaneous mind. 

Between the conscious and the unconscious,

   the mind has put up a swing:

all earth creatures, even the supernovas,

   sway between these two trees,

and it never winds down.


Angels, animals, humans, insects by

   the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;

ages go by, and it goes on.


Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,

   and the secret one slowly growing a body.

Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and

   it made him a servant for life.[9]

"Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing.”  Carl Jung speaks of personal and spiritual development as involving "a long and continuous series of transformations which have as their goal the attainment of the mid-point of the personality.”  In his essay on "Individuation,” Jung wrote the following: 

If we picture the conscious mind, with the ego as its centre, as being opposed to the unconscious and if we now add to our mental picture the process of assimilating the unconscious, we can think of this assimilation as a kind of approximation of conscious and unconscious, where the centre of the total personality no longer coincides with the ego, but with a point midway between the conscious and the unconscious.  This would be the point of new equilibrium, a new centering of the total personality, a virtual centre, which on account of its focal position between conscious and unconscious, ensures for the personality a new and more solid foundation.[10]

Jung, thus, contends—does he not—that the more fully developed person has "put up a swing” between the conscious and the unconscious.  His concept of attaining the midpoint between the two can be expressed, he says, in Lao-tzu’s concept of the Tao or in words of St. Paul.  The Tao, he says, is "the Middle Way and creative centre of all things;” St. Paul’s words: "Yet not I live, but Christ liveth in me.”[11]

I contend that the "unconscious mind”—when understood in the sense of my term "spontaneous mind”—symbolizes a creativity which is operative within us but has a life of its own.  We cannot control it.  We must allow it to be, trust it to be and attempt to cultivate a passive receptivity to its creative working.

Somewhere along the way I figured out what the breathing exercises so important in Yogic meditative practices—what those breathing exercises are all about.  You spend months and years learning to breathe in through one nostril and out through the other, to slow breathing, to pace it, to manipulate it, to discipline it.  And the paradoxical intent of such discipline is to show you at last—to show you with world-shattering, mind-set shattering impact—the momentous truth that all along you had missed:  that you do not breathe; that the fundamental experiential truth is, rather, that breathing happens in you.  You do not ultimately control it.  The truth is not "I breathe.”  The truth is, rather: "I am breathed.  Something beyond the controlling self is at work within me, something beyond within me, some ‘It’ is breathing me, some ‘Thou.’  The Beyond is within me; when I am awake, when I am asleep, it breathes itself through me.”

It breathes me.  And beyond this:  It lives me.  It is for me to develop a full receptivity to its life within me.  When I can do this, I will live as an integrated person, I will be at one with myself, I will live deep, I will know that I am intimately, organically rooted outward in a reality larger than me which contains me, which breaks through me, breathes through me, flows through me.

Openness to the beyond, the beyond within.  This is not cultivated enough among us.  Instead we are pressured to keep our eyes hard-focused on a publicly agreed upon external world all of us hold in common.  We are urged to pay attention—that kind of attention.  No navel-gazing!

Think about that: "no navel gazing!”  Navel gazing:  a term used to refer to the wasted time spent by a self-involved narcissist.  In our age, contemplating one’s navel is seen as a great waste of our energy.  Yet, for one moment truly contemplate your own navel.  It is a bodily symbol of our contingent nature.  Your navel—contemplate it.  It is scar tissue from your first primal connection.  When the umbilical cord is cut, no person is on her own, his own.  Dependent no longer on the identified individual mother, the newborn begins the unmediated direct dependence on a nexus of other:  community, culture, traditions, ecosystem, the plenitude, the mystery of being.

Were we to allow ourselves to engage in navel-gazing, we might be more aware of our continuing status—no matter how much we give—our status forever as receivers.

Many of the symbols and practices of religion, I contend, have as their subliminal intent the cultivation of an open receptivity toward the workings of the beyond outside ourselves and the beyond within.  Typically, religious symbols advocate trust toward (faith in) the beyond, whereas conventional wisdom often urges caution.  For example, when psychotherapy names the workings of the unconscious, spontaneous mind—names them the "id”—it is issuing a warning, urging caution about the inner working of the psyche.  Religion urges trust of the spontaneous mind by its reference to "the presence of the Holy Spirit within you.”

In Peter Shaffers’ play Amadeus, when anguished Antonio Salieri heard Mozart’s Adagio in E-Flat from the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, it seemed to him that he was hearing the very voice of God.  Later when Salieri studied some of the manuscripts of Mozart’s music, he saw what looked to him like clear copies, but he soon realized they were first drafts (first and only drafts).

They showed no corrections of any kind.  It was puzzling—then suddenly alarming…What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music completely finished in his head.  And finished as most music is never finished.[12]

These words from the play by Peter Shaffer are dramatizations of what Mozart himself has reported of his own inner experience as he created his music.[13] In the play, Salieri spoke of the music Mozart heard in his head as the voice of God sounding within him.  I am not satisfied that such naming of the creative process proves the existence of God.  It suggests to me, however, a useful approach to religious symbolism.  It suggests, too, that we might well cultivate within ourselves as receptivity to the creations of the "spontaneous mind.”

I have never seen a theological interpretation of the discovery by German chemist, Friedrich Kekulé, of the structure of the benzene molecule.  Yet his discovery is a classical instance of passive, receptive creativity.  He has wrestled with the problem of the structure of the benzene molecule but could not figure it out until he dreamed of a snake holding its tail in its mouth.  Intuitively he knew this was his answer—the carbon atoms took a ring, not a chain formation.  A theological interpretation of such a dramatic inner experience would perhaps echo words William Blake wrote in two 1803 letters to Thomas Butts.  Blake was commenting upon a poem he had recently completed:

I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will.  the Time it has taken in writing was thus renderd Non Existent & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all producd without Labour or Study…I may praise it since I dare not pretend to be any other than The Secretary(.) (T)he Authors are in Eternity.[14]

Blake’s poem came to him.  He did not work it into being.  He was the recording secretary.  He wrote down what he received.  The Authors were in eternity, beyond him, beyond his control.  Whatever else it means to say, "The Authors are in Eternity,” I take it to mean, at least, that the creative unconscious, the spontaneous mind is the source of the poem.

Brenda Ueland, member of The First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, highly regarded writer, editor and teacher of writing—and something of an eccentric—died this year in her nineties.  She wrote a book in the 1930’s entitled If You Want to Write…  A second edition was issued by The Schubert Club in St. Paul last year.  I have been intrigued by the book because it offers sketches for something I have wanted to see: a theology of writing.  Ueland refers to William Blake throughout her book, and she recalls Blake’s assertion that, "Imagination is the Divine Body in Every-(one)…”  She says the creative impulse is within each person but

the ardor for it is inhibited and dried up by many things:…by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.[15]

Ueland says her theology may not be very accurate but that, to her thinking this creative power "is the Holy Ghost…It is life itself.  It is the Spirit.”[16]

I have no problem with Brenda Ueland’s theology; indeed, I find it exciting, very helpful.  Some will wish she had not used a theological term; they will suppose that any number of secular terms would do as well.  Perhaps so, but in looking for synonyms, not just any word will do.  In this case, there are several crucial characteristics of the creative experience which must not be overlooked.  Saying "Holy Spirit” acknowledges the otherness of this creative power within us, acknowledges that we do not will it, that we do not control it, but that it visits us; insofar as it comes to us from within, it comes from the beyond within; it is not ours; it is greater than we are; it comes as a gift; it is sacred, a higher power.

Unitarian Brenda Ueland is echoing Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his essay, "The Oversoul,” he wrote:

I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events that the will I call mine.  As with events, so it is with thoughts.  When I watch that flowing river…I see that I am…not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come…(T)here is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases and God, the cause, begins….(There is a) deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is…accessible to us….Every moment when the individual feels himself invaded by it is memorable.  It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur.  The soul’s health consists in the fullness of its reception….When it breaks through (the) intellect, it is genius; when it breaths through (the) will, it is virtue; when it flows through (the) affections, it is love.[17]

Emerson’s emphasis here is clearly on the importance of receptivity to the creative impulses beyond the consciously willing self.

Gregory Bateson, anthropologist, philosopher of mind, communication theorist, has studied a wide range of phenomena.  Among them are: schizophrenia, design in the structure of plants and insects, and play in humans and other animals; he has written on evolution, epistemology and cybernetics (systems-thinking).  In 1971, the journal "Psychiatry” carried an article by Bateson on "The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.”  He summarizes the article’s thesis as follows:

(1)that an entirely new epistemology must come out of cybernetics and systems theory, involving a new understanding of mind, self, human relationships, and power; (2) that the addicted alcoholic is operating, when sober, in terms of an epistemology which is conventional in Occidental culture but which is not acceptable to systems theory; (3) that surrender to alcoholic intoxication provides a partial and subjective short cut to a more correct state of mind; and (4) that the theology of Alcoholics Anonymous coincides closely with an epistemology of cybernetics.[18]

Bateson holds that the error the alcoholic lives out in his or her life is fundamentally a philosophical error.  The alcoholic’s philosophical error is the same error built into Western culture’s characteristic view of world and self.

Bateson sees the error as a set of disastrous dualisms, the dualism between the persona and the environment and the dualism between the self’s conscious will and the personality’s subliminal remainder.  The alcoholic views his conscious willing self as captain of his soul.  The experience of defeat—"hitting bottom”—can be a shock, a spell of panic which provides a favorable moment in which change is possible, though not, by any means, inevitable.  The panic can bring with it the realization that the willing "Self,” as ordinarily understood, is only a small, improperly delimited segment of a much larger field of interlocking processes.

Consider the first two of AA’s Twelve Steps: (1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.  (2)  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Bateson’s article suggests that together these first two steps of the AA program make a giant step into a new concept of self and world.  The surrender of the AA member—given expression in the first two steps—is fundamentally a letting go of the belief that the conscious willing self must or can be all that is operative in any situation; it involves, too, a new willingness of the person to become open and receptive to healing realities beyond the conscious will.

I have heard Unitarian Universalist alcoholics complain of their difficulty with belief in a Higher Power.  I respond that whatever else the concept may signify, referring to a Higher Power is admitting that "I am not the highest power.”

This can be a most significant turning point, the opening up of the too-narrow self to forces and persons and groups beyond, as well as a radical receptivity to inward feelings and thoughts—healing realities which formerly were closed out.

Here in Bateson’s thesis we see again the affirmation of receptivity as a fundamental life-stance which is healthy and healing.  This is not a matter of active willing, but a matter of being able to move into the mode of passive receptivity.  "Turn it over to a higher power,” says the recovering alcoholic; "Let go and let God.”  Much of the emphasis of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, Bateson contends, attempts to counteract the tendency in the culture which is lived out in the life of the alcoholic—the tendency to live in the mode Theodore Roszak and others have referred to as islanded objective-manipulative consciousness.  Bateson holds that the Twelve Steps work because, in effect, they encourage living and conceptualizing life-experience in terms which are appropriate to a healthier systems-view of the self and its environment.

The language, the symbolism most prevalent and most acceptable today within Unitarian Universalist circles—in our written material and in the material we use in our worship—is the language of islanded objective-manipulative consciousness, language which evokes the image of a solitary self or of solitary humanity pitted against an alien or a neutral environment, solitary and doggedly determined to carve out singular meaning, solitary and responsible in the extreme for making over society, for rescuing humanity, for saving civilization, saving the planet.

Some who use such anthropocentric language might claim that they do not really intend to suggest the grandiose self-concept for humanity which their heroic imagery evokes.  But when the word "rational” is used, many people will have trouble hearing it in such a way as to include non-rational, irrational, suprarational.  The speaker may truly be thinking all of these when the word "rational” is uttered.  Many hearers, however, will understandably miss these intended connotations.  Similarly when the word "human” is used, the speaker may intend to evoke a sense of a nurturing and challenging environment and of our lives as part of a system which continually flows into and out beyond the human.  Many listeners cannot hear in the word, "human” or "humanistic,” the cosmic connection, reference to humanity’s embeddedness in a suprahuman nexus, which the speaker may intend.

So too, the speaker may speak words of action and responsibility and, in using them, may intend to evoke a sense of the creative possibilities there are in shifting into the mode of passive receptivity.  Many hearers will not be able to hear the language of active responsibility as carrying, as well, a connotation of passive receptivity.

I do not contend that theistic imagery is the only language which evokes an immediate sense of the polarity self-nonself, activity-passivity, volitional-receptive, but I do contend that theistic language does indeed evoke a systems-view of the self.  With all their other problems, theistic hymns and other liturgical material do offer imagery which does what Judith Walker-Riggs called for: provide words about the beauty of being helped: "O God our help…,” "God send us…,” "Now Thank We All Our God,” "A Might Fortress is Our God,” "Praise, O My heart, To You, O Source of Life.”

There are many challenges open to us as we begin the development of a new hymnal for the generation to come.  One of these challenges, I am convinced, is for those who do use theistic imagery to begin vigorously exploring the use of feminine imagery for the Mystery of Being.  The present collection of materials—we can now notice—is (however unintentionally) blatantly, unwholesomely, almost exclusively masculine in its imagery for the Mystery, for God.  I believe that we need both masculine and feminine imagery for the Mystery.  A second challenge—among all the others: musical, liturgical, whatever—is for those who refuse to use theistic imagery to notice how heavily our existing liturgical material of a non-theistic variety is weighted toward pledging us to help others, to save others, to improve others, toward us as actors, toward us as always responsible.  This challenge I issue calls for the development of hymn texts and other liturgical material which will help to correct the existing imbalance in spiritual tone specifically by the creation or discovery of non-theistic materials which express the reality Judith Walker-Riggs names: "that as infants (and in old age) we only survive by receiving…the reality that…NOW, we only survive by receiving.”

Some will protest that to speak of receiving—as I have been urging we do—will encourage a self-centered, self-involved life stance.  It seems to me that, instead, it will take more seriously, more honestly, less grandiosely, our status as beings who oscillate continually between dependence and independence, between waking and sleeping, giving and receiving.

Furthermore, some will fear that if we urge people to be more trusting of the spontaneous mind, we will be allowing and encouraging licentiousness and violence—will be unleashing us all to be murderers and rapists.  On the contrary, I contend that, while there certainly are murderers and rapists in this world, we are not they—certainly not the vast majority of us.  Let the murderers and rapists be guarded.  We ought not to mute our spirits because there are evil persons and processes in this world.  Most of us, I believe, are more likely to become dangerous to ourselves and to others when we bind ourselves in, when we tone ourselves down, when we mute and restrain ourselves.

This is the question, however, I suppose.  Is it the "id” or is it the presence of the Holy Spirit stirring in us?  I have given my answer.  My answer, I contend, is continuous with the teachings of our own tradition, which has spoken of the spark, the touch of the divine within each one.

When, in my ministry and my personal life I say "God,” I am evoking a sense of another, not me.  At the very least, I am announcing to myself that I am not the be-all and the end-all. I am reminding myself that I have my existence as a gift in the presence of a vast otherness—shadow and light—an otherness which creates, sustains, challenges and transforms my life in continuance.

When I pray I am allowing forces deep within to find expression.  Long ago Jacob Trapp write:  At times…”an involuntary prayer…is likely to rise to consciousness from depths beyond our control…The heart asks, and this, a hundred thousand years ago or now, is pre-theological.”[19]  Prayer addressed to a "Mysterious Other”—it seems to me—serves much of its function in merely being addressed at all.  "Thou.”  "You.”  "Not me!”  The very fact of addressing, aiming a prayer to a reality beyond the willing self may be prayer’s primary power.  When I pray I acknowledge my existence as contingent, as embedded in a vast system beyond my control and I intentionally move myself into an altered state, into a mode of open receptivity to impulses beyond my conscious willing self.

I say with Brenda Ueland that the creative impulse within is the Holy Ghost.  I say with William Blake that the authors are in eternity.  I say with Lao-tzu that heaven mates with us and we are to learn to be the receivers, to surrender to the energies flowing into us.

When I say this, I am saying there is a wisdom available to us—around us and within us—a wisdom which is greater than we think.  We can trust the unconscious, can trust the events of the world outside ourselves—trust them to work amazingly, creatively upon us, for us. 

In all this I am saying, too, that in our lives and our work we are loci of creative impulses whose origins are lost in the mystery beyond us.  We are to do the bidding of this creativity.  We are to await its visitations receptively.  Its truth and its mercy are struggling within and among us—between spontaneous impulses and articulated image, between pencil and paper, between felt need and intelligent, skilled action—struggling within us, seeking birth out into a waiting world.


[1] Matthew 6: 28-29.

[2] For an introduction to the work of Milton H. Erickson, see:

Haley, Jay (ed.). Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy: Selected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1967).

 Zeig, Jeffrey K. Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy.  (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1982). 

Lankton, Stephen R., and Carol H. Lankton.  The Answer Within: A Clicical Framework of Ericksonian Hypnotherapy. (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1983).

Erickson, Milton H., and Ernest L. Rossi.  Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook.  (New York: Irvington, 1979).

[3] George Leonard, The Silent Pulse (New York: Dutton, 1978), pp. 185-6.

[4] Ibid., p. 187.

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Intellect,” Essays (New York: Harper Colophon), pp. 231-2.

[6] Ibid., p. 232-3.

[7] The Unitarian Universalist Association, "I Walk the Unfrequented Road,” Hymns for the Celebration of Life (Boston, 1964), #277.

[8] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1969.)

[9] Robert Bly, The Kabir Book (Boston: Beacon, 1977), p. 11.

[10] C.G. Jung, "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious,” Part 2, "Individuation,” Two Essays On Analytical Psychology (New Jersey: Princeton/Bollinger Paperback, 1972), p. 221.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Peter Shaffer, Act I, Scene 12, Amadeus (New York: Harper & Row, Harper Colophon, 1980), p. 45.

[13] My reference for this is found in The Creative Process, Brewster Gheselin, editor. (New York: New America Library-Mentor edition – 1961), pp. 44-5.  The original reference, cited there, is from "A Letter” in Life of Mozart written by Edward Holmes.

[14] David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1982), pp. 728-30.

[15] Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write… (St. Paul: The Schubert Club, 1984), p. 10.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Oversoul,” Essays (New York: Harper Colophon), pp. 188-211.  This arrangement is based on a composite by Arthur Foote in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, #347.

[18] Gregory Bateson, "The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism,” Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 309.

[19] Jacob Trapp, Lecture II, "The Paradox of Prayer,” The Inward Way, The Minns Lectures, 1957 (Boston: First Church, 1957). pp. 10-15.