Some of you know that in September of last year I was 6000 miles away in Transylvania, visiting sites that are sacred to our Unitarian Universalist religious history. There were many fascinating learnings but none were as surprising as this: that there’s no church shopping there. People go church shopping here all the time.
But not there.
Why? The short answer is: “ethnicity trumps theology.” The spirituality of a Transylvanian Unitarian is experienced primarily as a dynamism between and among people. It’s about sacred architecture, music, prayer, scripture, stories, seasonal celebrations, and other ways that people publicly manifest divinity—all expressed with a unique Hungarian ethnic style.
If you don’t like your local Unitarian church, well, you just stop going to church. You don’t check out the competition because the competition is Romanian in ethnicity and you can’t make the switch like it’s merely changing clothes. Remember: ethnicity and spirituality go together. To switch is more like getting a heart transplant. The change is that radical. The change would amount to erasing your spiritual identity, losing God.
This is why I am asking a perhaps strange-sounding question this morning. WHERE is spirituality? Not WHAT? The WHAT we’ve already explored in previous sermons:
Spirituality is: vital connection to the Whole, of which a person is just a part;
Spirituality is: following your bliss, allowing the joy to overflow in creation and wonder;
Spirituality is: peace in the midst of pain, grace in the midst of chaos;
Spirituality is: showing up, paying attention, speaking one’s truth, letting go of results.
But the question now is: WHERE does all this happen in our lives?
The reason my head exploded when I came into contact with Transylvanian Unitarianism is because I had taken for granted something that is as seemingly self-explanatory as the statement, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I had taken for granted the idea that spirituality is essence and interiority, versus “externals” like doctrines and traditions and rituals which are like clothing that can be changed out, but the internal essence stays the same….
And it’s not like I’m making this up out of thin air. Listen to what the Psalmist of the Hebrew Bible sings:
(10) Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
(16) You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
(17) My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
From no less an authority than the Psalmist of the Hebrew Bible, we get a very clear sense of the WHERE of spirituality. Not the three-dimensional space where burnt offerings take place, but in the space of one’s private heart.
I am not here this morning to say that this is a wrong picture of things. There are, in fact, all sorts of “spiritually transmitted diseases” (yes, you heard that right) that are bad bad bad, and the good news is that they can’t survive a healthy dose of interiority. Of passionate inwardness. Of solitude.
Here’s two “spiritually transmitted diseases” that writer Mariana Caplan Ph.D. talks about:
Faux Spirituality: Faux spirituality is the tendency to talk, dress and act as we imagine a spiritual person would. It is a kind of imitation spirituality that mimics spiritual realization in the way that leopard-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of a leopard.
Ever seen this STD in play?
What about this one?
Group Mind: Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Individuals and groups infected with “group mind” reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group.
But thinking and feeling for yourself—grounding yourself in your authenticity—engaging in interiority, passionate inwardness, solitude—purifies the heart, and you know what? A purified heart is impervious to STD’s like Faux Spirituality and Group Mind.
God, create in me and in all of us a pure heart.
But now I’m going to drop a “but” on all this. But: remember the Transylvanian Unitarians, for whom church shopping is unthinkable. Inner thoughts and feelings—inwardness, solitude—can’t possibly be all there is to spirituality.
Perhaps what is external is more essential than we know…..
One way to grasp this is to realize that, when inwardness is the only place we expect spirituality to happen, we tend to become vulnerable to other kinds of STDs.
It happens because inwardness is a space of private individualism. Inwardness is a space that is clear of the influence of others. Inwardness is just about me, myself, and I—and perhaps God, too, depending on your theology….
And so, here’s a kind of STD that can be caught: Thwarted Genius. Our Transcendentalist forbearers spoke constantly of the genius potentials that lie within every person. The truth is, genius requires outside help and time to be developed, but the Thwarted Genius STD rejects this. And so: one manifestation of this STD is impatience towards and dismissal of religious ideas and practices that don’t instantly work for you. If a spiritual idea or practice doesn’t seem to connect you to your native genius and give it easy expression, well, something must be wrong with it! Throw it out!
The logic makes as much sense as a beginning figure skater saying, Well, the fact that I can’t do a quadruple lutz right now must mean that quad lutzes are impossible and figure skating is a complete sham!
Another STD that exclusive devotion to inwardness makes us vulnerable to is Unconscious Group Mind. Through spiritual inwardness, which is a rejection of religious doctrines and traditions and rituals and other externals (the burnt offerings, right?), we think we have escaped the pressures of the crowd. But the fact is, there’s always some kind of crowd exerting some kind of pressure. What about the crowd that is the culture beyond the religious externals we are rejecting? So here’s how this often plays out: fast-food spirituality. The culture around us says, Fast is good. You deserve it. You can have it! And, without dropping a beat, we take that on for ourselves. Monday we explore shamanism. Tuesday it’s yoga. Wednesday it’s Sufi dancing. The religions that are the origin of these practices tell us that spiritual transformation takes time and work. There’s nothing fast-food about it at all. But we don’t hear that. It doesn’t gibe with the group mind of the larger culture that we’ve unconsciously taken on.
This is the Unconscious Group Mind STD. We think that inwardness has protected us from all bad external influences that will taint our authenticity, but the reality is, no.
No, what is needed to create immunity to ALL the nasty “spiritually transmitted diseases” out there is a spirituality that is both internal and external to the person. We need the pure heart, but we also need the analogues to the ritual of burnt offerings that the Psalmist critiques. We need inwardness, but we also need the sacred architecture, music, prayer, scripture, stories, seasonal celebrations, and other public manifestations of the Divine.
Vital spirituality is something that happens as much in the three-dimensional space between people as in the no-dimensional space within the individual heart.
My experience with the non-church shopping Transylvanian Unitarians reminded me.
Beloved community is simply too big to fit inside any individual heart. It needs a building that helps fulfill the mission and doesn’t block it. It needs bylaws. It needs books. It needs symbols and rituals. It needs a history. It needs heroes.
“The end,” says Dr. King, “is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”
And so, as Unitarian Universalists, we engage in our version of burnt offerings. We light the chalice to dedicate ourselves to our high values. We say the Seven Principles and Six Sources to remember who we are. We recount our history of seekers and searchers like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Ralph Waldo Emerson so we can be inspired to be our best selves. We act together for justice and for peace. We do all this, and more, because our religious externals widen our individual vision and renew our individual strength. They coach us so we can develop our genius spiritual potentials and express them in our living. They help the heart resist the sway of the crowd with its fast food mentality.
Thwarted Genius: Begone.
Unconscious Group Mind: Get back, Jack.
You know, you will never hear me say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Because religion is a part of the spiritual. Unitarian Universalism is part of the spiritual. It’s just spirituality as it plays out in three dimensional space, joining hands with the spiritual that takes place in the inwardness of the heart.
I need Beloved Community as much as I need a purified heart.
Both are needed to transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age….
“And God stepped out on space,” says James Weldon Johnson in his beautiful and powerful poem, “The Creation.”
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around…
But God then doesn’t then say, Well, I have everything I need inside my big old heart. I am a “bowling alone” God, after all, just like every good old American. So all I need is my private road to bliss. All I need to do is meditate. All I need to do is just get centered in my solitude.
No. God says—and the Transylvanian Unitarians really get this—
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
We co-create with God when we create, together, Beloved Community. Buildings and books, bylaws, symbols and rituals, history, heroes.
Intensely, powerfully, in this way, the beautiful work of spirituality goes on.