Spirituality

The topic of the first Fellowship Circle I ever attended was “Spirituality”.  I’d just been recruited as a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a congregation with a proud Humanist tradition, and in some ways it was something of a bold choice of topic by the program’s directors.  On the other hand, the beauty of Fellowship Circles is that people are asked to simply share what is in their hearts while everyone else listens with a loving mind; absent any fear of being questioned or diminished, such a topic is as natural as any other.

One of the first questions for sharing asked participants what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most people in the circle were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, in part perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the Meeting House, but in most people’s sharing there was also an ambiguity of what it was, exactly, to which they were feeling connected.

Certainly a deep sense of connection to either (or both!) something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, though, maybe the vagueness of “something” comes more from an instinctive recognition of indescribability.  Picking up on this in his article in the Summer 2011 issue of UU World, Doug Muder defines spirituality as “an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.”  His intention is to present spirituality in a way that focuses on human awareness as a subjective experience, offering the sort of “big tent” inclusiveness that is the hallmark of Unitarian Universalism.

Now it’s become something of a cliché in American culture for people to claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.  The subtext is a distrust of so-called “organized religion” that ultimately inhibits true spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself, when of course any genuine religion actually ought to foster spirituality.  I like Muder’s definition for its emphasis on a basic human need — the urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we may understand them and make sense of the world around us — that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

To use an analogy from my past as a research scientist, our lives are like experiments, generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

As such, each Unitarian Universalist congregation has promised to affirm and promote each person’s “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”.  Each one of us, after all, has different experiences, conducting a different experiment in what it means to be alive, and each of us has different tools that we prefer to use to find meaning in our lives.  Sometimes, though, the tools we’re already using are not enough, and we find ourselves in that gap between awareness and describability.  As unsettling as it may be, if we’re willing to spend time in that gap — if others in our religious community are willing to support and encourage us in that state of spirituality — then that’s the place where we’ll deepen our understanding and expand our vision.

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