Thursday, August 21, 2014

Encouragement to spiritual growth runs down hill

Unitarian Universalists are not known for their spirituality especially their mystical spirituality. The closest they can come to mysticism is probably their identification with the transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. So when we consider the third principle and ask ourselves what it means to encourage spiritual growth in our congregations, usually other than airy fairy, psychobabble, communing with Mother Nature kind of stuff, UUs are lost.

UUs have a history of embracing science and intellectual pursuits and have been skeptical of an exploration of what’s within feeling more comfortable with exploring externalities, the phenomenon outside ourselves in the world. And yet as it says in the Perennial Philosophy:

“For, as all exponents of the Perennial philosophy have constantly insisted, man’s obsessive consciousness of, and insistence on being, a separate self is the final and most formidable obstacle to the unitive knowledge of God. To be a self is, for them, the original sin, and to die to self, in feeling, will and intellect, is the final and all-inclusive virtue.” P. 36 If this is the goal of spirituality, if we are to agree with what has been taught for ages by the world’s religions, how are UUs taught to shift their perception from “me” to the all?

Jesus tells us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first step of 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous is to recognize that our lives have become unmanageable, and step two involves coming to understand that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. It might be argued that 12 step programs are more spiritual than are our contemporary mainstream religions in the sense that they require a recognition and acknowledgement that the path to serenity and recovery is not in continuing to advocate for and tenaciously protect a unique sense of self, but rather to rise above the ego, to transcend the limiting sense of our mortal body and personality by joining with what Emerson called the “Over-Soul”. One of the slogans of the systems view is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and so, one might ask, what is this system that we human separate selves are a part of?

One of the definitions of enlightenment that resonates with me is the idea that our consciousness is raised to the point where nothing it life is excluded from it. In the 60s we referred to this state as “cosmic consciousness.”

If we, as Unitarian Universalists, are to encourage each other in our spiritual growth, how do we help one another develop a cosmic consciousness?

As a former Catholic I was taught to pray on my knees, to fast, to do other bodily mortifications that would make me more aware of the greater good like giving something up for lent, etc. Muslims fast during day light hours during Ramadan, Buddhists sit in a purposeful pose on a meditation cushion when they meditate, etc. These physical disciplines have the purpose of increasing awareness by eschewing the physical bodily comforts in favor a spiritual altered state of consciousness.

Now days people pursue these altered states of consciousness through drugs, exercise, work, sex, and adrenaline inducing “extreme sports” whether participating or just watching.

What does Unitarian Universalism have to offer in helping people move from a self centered pre-occupation with pleasure to a mystical state of bliss with the transcendent? Various UUs draw from the six sources, and UUs practice many different techniques and rituals as taught by various traditions, but when one considers what Unitarian Universalism has to offer uniquely its own even if integrating practices from other traditions, it seems that one is left empty handed and in a limbo.

One woman told me one time that she was drawn to the UU principles and fellowship but missed the Catholic rituals, liturgy, prayers, and other practices and finally resolved the two attractions by alternating her attendance at both a UU church and a RC church.

I think that many UUs, finding the tradition lacking, do a similar thing maintaining a participation in a UU church but also participating actively in other faith tradition practices. Perhaps this is good thing and should be encouraged, but it seems also fragmenting and distracting. This has been difficult for some congregations who struggle for an identity when there are factions within congregations of people who prefer one type of religious expression more than another such as Christian and Buddhist, or Jewish and Humanist, etc. Perhaps part of the appeal of Unitarian Universalism is that “the movement,” as some people call it, has no unique identity of its own, but is a hodge podge of interreligious gobbledygook as pastors and worship committees try to keep everybody happy.

The point of describing this state of affairs is to come back to the question of how is a UU congregation to encourage spiritual growth in its congregation when there isn’t even any agreement on what “spiritual growth” looks like, consists of, and needs for nurturance.

Unitarian Universalism is a very small denomination with very few churches and if one preferred a UU church with more of a Christian orientation, or a Buddhist orientation, or a humanist orientation, or a earth centered orientation, it is very unlikely that a person could access such a church within several hundred miles unless one lived in a major metropolitan area that had three or four or more UU churches.

As one considers this state of affairs, it becomes apparent that Unitarian Universalism in one congregation can be different in emphasis, focus, and culture than another. While there are some elements of Unitarian Universalism that are common threads in these different cultures, are these common elements enough to hold the congregations together in a meaningful tradition? The numbers of participants seem to say no. The membership of UU has been stagnant, if not diminished slightly, over the last few years, and given the consistent rise of the population, the percentage of the United States population who identify as UUs has grown smaller. Is it fair to say that whatever UU congregations are doing to encourage spiritual growth in their congregations isn’t working at least looking at the numbers of customers buying the product and services being offered for sale? Of course, it could also be argued that it’s the quality of the spiritual lives and growth and not the quantity that matters.

At any rate, let’s start with the basics. What condition is your condition in? What is your interior spiritual life like and do you feel and think it is nurtured and encouraged in your congregation, and if so, how? If a survey were actually done, I would hypothesize that what people will report as most helpful to their spiritual growth is the fellowship, but I could be wrong. However, I hypothesize myself that the key ingredient in a congregational culture facilitating spiritual growth is the holiness of the pastor. Those who play the key pastoral roles in a congregation are the spark plug that ignites the engine of congregational life and sets the tone, focus, and culture within which people thrive, stagnate, or destruct. The pastor needs a lot of support and certainly can’t do it alone just like a quarterback needs a good team to run the plays or an orchestra conductor needs talented and skilled musicians in the orchestra. But encouragement to spiritual growth starts at the top and cascades down through a congregation for better or worse, health and sickness, good times and bad, until the relationship between the shepherd and the flock is disrupted or terminated.


Are holy men and women being ordained into UU ministry? How are these pastors inspired, encouraged, and nurtured? Therein, perhaps, is the key to rejuvenating a stagnating denomination.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding essay! Should be widely read, reflected on and considered. As pointed out, UUs are not known for their spirituality and it starts with the leadership. Are there holy people lighting the way? Forest Church is the only person who comes to mind as I write this.

    At any rate, bravo for an argument well stated.

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