When the Spirit Says Do!

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 13th 2013.)

Reading: from “Get Religion” by Peter Morales

Anthem: “When the Spirit Says Do!”

A year or more ago an article by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel went viral amongst ministers on Facebook.  I saw it reposted by a number of my fellow graduates of all denominational stripes from the Iliff School of Theology as well as by Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Apparently she hit a nerve.

Daniel had evidently been on one too many airplane flights where the people sitting next to her had found out she was a minister and immediately needed to explain to her why they don’t go to church.  Now I can imagine this sort of thing happening to people in other professions during air travel — doctors who are asked to look at suspicious lumps, stand-up comedians who endure bad knock-knock jokes, and so forth — but perhaps it doesn’t happen in quite the same way — and quite so predictably — as it does to ministers.

As Daniel explained in her article, “when I meet a math teacher, I don’t feel the need to say I always hated math.  When I meet a chef, I don’t need to let it be known that I can’t cook.  When I meet a clown, I don’t admit that I think clowns are scary.  I keep that stuff to myself.  But everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church — and it’s usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.”

In many cases, Daniel observed, the precursor to someone’s non-church-going testimony is a declaration of an identity that has become so well-known in the last few decades that it has its own acronym: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”.  And while, perhaps as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been genuinely countercultural and shocking to any religious professional to encounter someone openly declaring themselves as spiritual but not religious, that’s hardly the case today.

After all, what religious group is the fastest growing in the United States?  Anybody know?  Yes, it’s the “nones”, by which I do not mean women who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.  The “nones” are those who have no religious affiliation and today they represent about a fifth of the American population.  And, as those of you who took part in last Sunday’s Adult RE discussion know, there’s a strong correlation between age and religious affiliation.  For instance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the “nones” make up between a quarter and a third of the generation known as the Millennials, who were born after 1981.

There are other generational correlations, of course, some of which are amplified by whether people have a religious affiliation or not.  Adults born before 1928 are almost twice as likely to pray every day as Millennials, for instance.  Now the Pew Forum found that age doesn’t make as much of a difference as religious affiliation in some things, such as whether someone believes that the Bible is literally the word of God or not, while on social issues such as prayer in public schools and LGBT rights there are very big differences.  If you enjoy survey statistics, by the way, all of the data is on the Pew Forum’s website.

Now it’s interesting that there’s no particular correlation between the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religions”, and for that matter there are more SBNRs tend amongst Generation X and the Baby Boomers than the Millennials.  Of course, while the SBNRs tend to be, as indicated by Lillian Daniel’s article, something of a source of frustration for religious professionals, the “nones”, within liberal religion at least, tend to be viewed more positively, as potential new members, particularly the younger “nones”.  I know that this is a conversation that’s been going on within Unitarian Universalism — just look through some of the recent issues of UU World, for instance — and I’m pretty sure our cousins at the United Church of Christ have been talking about it, too.  To my mind, though, both the “rise of the religiously unaffiliated”, as PBS titled their three-part program about the “nones”, and the popularity of SBNR, to the extent that it’s become its own cliché, are symptoms of how most people understand — or, perhaps more appropriately, misunderstand  — religion.  And, not to be accused of promoting religious exceptionalism or, for that matter, jumping on the “the nones will save us” bandwagon, but I believe that there’s an emptiness in the soul of our society that Unitarian Universalism is especially well qualified to fill — in part because we’ve become aware of that hunger within ourselves.

Let me back up a bit before I explain what I mean by that.

When someone calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”, what do they really mean by “spiritual”?  I think it’s generally implied as being whatever life attitude is diametrically opposed to organized religion, particularly if organized religion is solely characterized by its worst excesses, such as rigid hierarchy and gender roles, antiquated dogmatism, and all manner of bigotry.  Well, there are plenty of things that are the opposite of the worst features of human nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual.  In her article, for instance, Lillian Daniel jokes about some people’s claims to be spiritual by seeing God in the sunset or in small children, at least when they’re saying cute things about God.  Her point is that spirituality isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or parental oxytocin.

Twenty years ago I may well have identified myself as SBNR.  I came to the United States with a suspicion of religion, not that I really knew anything about religion beyond the vague Anglicanism we’d been taught in school, including the distrust of Catholicism we’d been taught in history classes.  I had a similarly low opinion of what I considered to be religion in the US, which wasn’t based on much more than what I’d heard in the UK about American televangelists.  Similarly, if I had claimed to be “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not sure I could have told you what spirituality was either.

During the five years I spent in graduate school, though, my education included a lot more than physics.  From my Indian class-mates I learned something about Hinduism and Buddhism, and from a girlfriend I learned about Judaism.  Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe religion was bigger than what I’d been taught.  That by itself wasn’t enough to make me want to join a church, but it was at about that time that I converted to environmentalism.

Starting with the Sierra Club I learned about the problems afflicting planet Earth — by which I mean the problems facing human beings, because the Earth, by and large, would do just fine without us — and it quickly became overwhelming.  I couldn’t understand why more wasn’t being done about pollution and species extinction and climate change, and then I learned about the political process in this country and I just got angry.  I shared what I was learning with friends and co-workers, but few of them seemed to care much.

I realized I needed to find people who were motivated to really work on these problems at the same time that I needed to find people, a community, that would help me withstand the weight of my growing awareness.  Actually, I’m giving myself too much credit.  I never articulated such needs to myself, but looking back, I realize they were there, and in my searching there were  two different paths — one following environmentalism and one following science — that both ultimately led me to Unitarian Universalism.

I was skeptical at first.  I never thought that, as an adult, I’d choose to join a church.  (I certainly never anticipated becoming a minister, but life’s funny that way.)  But the people I met at the Unitarian Society of Hartford were generally friendly, they certainly seemed to think and care about the same sorts of things I thought and cared about, and I really was looking for a choir where I didn’t disagree with the words we were singing too often.

After being there for a while, attending services, going to a few potlucks and committee meetings, it was time for me to go deeper.  I became a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program, which is like our Fellowship Circles program here.  The topic of the very first session was “Spirituality” and one of the first questions asked the people in the group what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most of them 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, perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the church building.

I’ve since realized that 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, which I don’t think was the case in our small group, everyone talked about spirituality in ways that focused on human awareness as a subjective experience.  We talked about the basic human urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we might understand them and make sense of the world around us, something that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

Okay, so that’s one way to think about the “spiritual” part of being “spiritual but not religious”.  To claim to be SBNR, then, is to express a distrust of so-called “organized religion”, something that might be based on personal experience or on an awareness of other people’s experiences, where such religion has inhibited spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself.  Step back for just a moment, though, and it’s obvious that any true religion ought actually to foster spirituality.

Let me give you a couple of different analogies, then, as to how I think about this.

In the language of my past career as a research scientist, for example, our lives are like experiments, constantly 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.

The other analogy for the relationship between spirituality and religion occurred to me a few years after that small group ministry experience, when I was in seminary.

I imagined a tree, perhaps an ancient oak that had witnessed the passage of centuries.  I could see its roots, sunk deep into the fertile soil of the Earth, and in the folds and crevices of its trunk and branches I knew that it was providing shelter to countless smaller creatures.  Its limbs stretched toward the sky so that its leaves could better drink of the sunlight that shone upon it.

I considered how spirituality might be like that oak tree.  Growing forth from the eternal mystery of being, spirituality expresses our yearnings toward transcendence, all the while nourished by powers beyond our understanding.  Spirituality does not demand recognition for what it does or is, but quietly encourages wonder, reverence, gratitude, creativity and imagination.

Since I was in seminary to become a minister, my task was clear: to carefully and diligently tend the tree of spirituality.  It would be necessary to fertilize it and water it, yet also prune it as necessary, honoring it even as I remained aware of the limits of my comprehension.  And while some religion might be as mistletoe, sucking the life out of the tree on which it grows as a parasite — effectively creating people who are “religious but not spiritual” — I realized that the task of true religion was quite clear: to be a splendid garden in which magnificent trees of spirituality might flourish.  Those who dwell and work in that garden, then, are both “spiritual and religious”.

Looking back to that time when might have identified myself as SBNR, I recognize now that I was, in fact, neither spiritual nor religious.  I was waiting for the laboratory of a congregation that could provide me with the equipment, tools and co-workers to help me interpret and explain the experiment of my life.  I was looking for a religious garden that could provide the shelter and the nourishment and the tending that my fragile sapling of experience and yearning needed to grow into a real tree of spirituality.

And I’m far from unique in that.  I’m a member of Generation X, rather than being a Millennial, but we Gen-Xers aren’t too far behind the Millennials in terms of being religiously unaffiliated.  And had I continued to think of religion only in terms of that vaguely well-meaning Anglicanism or that laughable stereotype of American televangelism, had I never managed to stumble upon Unitarian Universalism, then I would have continued to be one of the “nones”.

And, really, it’s not surprising that there are so many “nones” within Generation X and the Millennials.  For when they reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s so clearly at odds with what we know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.  Well, guess what?  Unitarian Universalists reject those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

So what’s holding us back?  Why aren’t the “nones” becoming Unitarian Universalists in droves?  Why aren’t our congregations booming the way religious scholars and even the leaders of other religions say we should be?

My friend and colleague, David MacPherson, who preached here a few months ago, has many stories that he loves to tell, but one of them concerns “the nineteenth century newspaper editor, reformer, failed presidential candidate and Universalist lay leader, Horace Greeley.”  I won’t attempt to mimic Dave’s style but Greeley, as he tells the story, “was asked to suggest to a group of fellow Universalists some new device for financially supporting their struggling congregation since the fairs, festivals and suppers they had tried did not succeed.  His answer to them was short but definitely not sweet: ‘Try Religion!’

Well, a century and a half later, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, is suggesting the same thing, that it’s time we “get religion”.  We have “to take ourselves seriously as a religion”.  We have to remember “that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions.”  And we have to understand that “religion is relational because we are relational beings”, that “religion is something we practice together.”

Fredric Muir, who is minister to the UU Church of Annapolis in Maryland, elaborated on that third point in his Berry Street Lecture, delivered last year to the UU Ministers Association and printed in condensed form in the current issue of UU World, when he talked about moving from being the church that worships individualism — or “iChurch” for short — to being the church that embraces deep relationality through covenant as the way to the Beloved Community.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem, the single most effective thing we can do to appeal to the “nones”, to the religiously unaffiliated, to the “spiritual but not religious”, the single most important thing we can do for ourselves, is for us to “get religion”, to actually act like the religion we claim, at our best, to be.  The “nones” are already with us in spirit.  They just need us to show them — and, in many ways, to show ourselves — that religion isn’t only what they’ve rejected, but also what they hunger for.

Let me give you, as I bring this sermon to a close, one specific example of this: social justice.  Many UU congregations — and I know, because I’ve seen it first hand — have a social justice committee that is largely ignored by the rest of the congregation and is made up of a handful of people who each feel very passionately about their own particular cause and who are each trying to convince everybody else to give up their passionate cause in favor of their own.  Two seconds of thought will tell you how well that generally works, and I know because I’ve been there and done that.  And most of the time, attending a meeting of such a committee, you’d have no idea they were part of anything larger, let alone a congregation.  And yet social justice work — really anything we try to do within a congregation, but particularly social justice work — must be grounded in spirituality and nourished by religion if it is to be effective.  To do good social justice work, we need to get religion.

So I was delighted to see another article in the current issue of UU World, right after Muir’s article about escaping from the cult of individualism, about how social justice activism can only be sustained by community, particularly by religious community.  That article is by Tim DeChristopher, the member of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City who is now famous for bidding on federal oil and gas leases at an auction in Utah in order to protect lands near national parks and for that was sent to prison for two years.  DeChristopher writes that “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings.  The greater the risk and sacrifice involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”  “And I’m convinced”, DeChristopher explains, “that the spiritually grounded activism of Unitarian Universalism holds the potential to not only make the [social justice] movement more principled, but also make it more pragmatic.”

And that, if I may finish with a plug, is what J— and I will be talking about next weekend at the Social Justice Workshop we’re running here at the Fellowship.  I urge you to attend.  Why?  Because by our fruits they will know us.  For if the true purpose of religion is to nurture the spirituality of both individuals and community, and if spirituality is that deep sense of connection to something larger than ourselves and something within ourselves, then the result, the fruit of the trees of spirituality, the harvest of the garden of religion, is an active striving for love and justice, spreading the seeds of the spirit that will grow into the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] ours is a religion that nurtures rather than hinders spirituality, recognizing our individual struggles with the mystery of being and yet affirming that we can still […]

  2. […] ours is a religion that nurtures rather than hinders spirituality, recognizing our individual struggles with the mystery of being and yet affirming that we can still […]

  3. […] ridiculous ideas that we’re the religion where you can believe whatever you want or that we’re the faith community with no rules.  No wonder we’re seen as the church of last […]

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