(This lay sermon was delivered by Henry Lewis in July, 2005 at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County, Connecticut, USA)

This morning I would like to delve into matters of religion and spirituality. The reason why I use the word 'delve' is because I am reading Bill Moyers’ book On America wherein he describes a cartoon showing two guys who are talking in a diner out west in California. One says to the other, “Have you ever delved into the mysteries of Eastern Religion?” And the other answers, “Why, yes. I was once a Methodist in Philadelphia.”

So this morning I suggest we delve into the subject of spirituality.

I’m sort of an expert on part of the subject. Specifically, I’m the world’s only expert on my personal opinions about spirituality.

What's Your Score?

Although, I must say that even there my credentials are in doubt, because I answered a questionnaire on the Beliefnet Internet website. The folks at Beliefnet offer several quizzes for enlightenment and entertainment. One was designed to tell me what my spiritual type is. On the high end of the scoring, if you get between 80-100, they say you are candidate for the clergy.

I scored 37. This identified me as a Spiritual Dabbler. Their description of a Spiritual Dabbler is one who is, I quote: “open to spiritual matters but far from impressed.”

Beliefnet has another questionnaire that is helpful if you are seeking a denomination that is in accord with your religious sentiments. Or, if you are already affiliated, it will let you know if you are in accord or out-of-sync with your denomination. I took the quiz and I was comforted to learn that I fit in with Unitarian Universalism.

So I stand before you as a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Dabbler.

I’m trying to develop a personal definition of spirituality. There is no shortage of definitions out there; the least useful of which are in any given dictionary.

Here’s where I’m at now: I believe there is something in us that drives us to deal with spirituality as a motivating human condition. Maybe something in our genes, or something to do with the way body chemistry works. I don’t think it’s the old ‘nature versus nurture’ conundrum. At this point I believe it may be nature and nurture. More and more medical practitioners are paying attention to mind/body functions. Perhaps that’s a promising area of research.

In fact, the authors of Soul Work: A Field Guide For Spiritual Seekers say that "For the most part, conventional medicine operates under the assumption that the body, mind, and spirit work independently of one another, although this there have been some advances in Western medicine in terms of acknowledging the interrelatedness of body and mind."

I like to think of spirituality as having positive connotations. Mystery, maybe. Perhaps the comforting mystery of meditation. Faith, maybe, but it must be a faith charged with hope, and the expectation that the more I search the closer I get to guidelines for exemplary living.

The authors of Soul Work: A Field Guide For Spiritual Seekers say that the search for soul or spirit can find resources in psychotherapy, spiritual practices, bodywork approaches, and creative arts therapies. ( I should not that the authors’ belief is that the path to the soul, spirit, etc. leads to a connection with the Divine, with a capital “D.” They publish “Common Boundary” magazine which is devoted to increasing consciousness and opening doors to an experience of the Divine.)

They say, “In an earlier, less secular era when philosophers, theologians, and poets had ears and spoke to our hearts, the soul had a central place in our worldview. The idea of a non physical essence, a vital force, a piece of God residing deep in our beings is virtually universal and has for centuries animated notions about preexistence, immortality, heaven and hell, reincarnation, karma and transcendence. Although not often experienced in a visible or tangible way, its reality permeated the lives of our ancestors.

With the emergence of modern science, societies have placed more emphasis on the external, rational world. Many of the spiritual beliefs and rituals that once connected us to the mystical, invisible realms, which in turn infused meaning and purpose into our everyday lives and thus fed our souls, have been lost.

The Road Less Traveled

Psychology, which in many ways has preempted philosophy and religion as the authority on how we should live, has for the most part concerned itself almost exclusively with improving the self, coping with crises, and bolstering self-esteem. Accordingly, the soul, our point of connection between spirit and self, which urges our participation in the sacred, has been neglected.

They go on to note that there appears to be a popular craving for spiritual healing. They quote Bill Moyers, in a 1994 speech to the Religion Newswriters Association, saying that “something is happening in America that is worthy of the sharpest reporting and analysis we can bring to it.” What he was referring to was an explosion of interest and participation in ways to connect with the invisible mysteries of life, to the inner world that feeds our souls.

Note: “. . . the demand for religious and spiritual titles (books) jumped by more than 300 percent in just two years. (June 1993 to June 1995). It’s not a coincidence that the all-time bestseller in the history of the New York Times list comes from this genre. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled appeared week after week for a record-breaking thirteen years and sold more than six million copies. The book . . . acknowledges the relationship of spirituality to psychotherapy and its role in our lives.”

Today, Gallup polls have found that 96% of Americans believe in God and that ‘virtually everyone prays at least in some fashion.” Nearly half of those who believe in God say that God speaks directly to them through scriptures, intuitive impressions, or other people, and one-third of Americans report having had a spiritual experience that changed their lives.

“Often the first stage of a spiritual journey involves learning a spiritual discipline or practice, one that trains awareness and helps us overcome the compelling distractions of everyday life.”

“. . . the winter 1997 Trends Journal predicted that the concept of success would increasingly be “measured by an acquisition of inner peace, spiritual growth, creative development, and a deepening respect for and commitment to family, friends, and community.”

Quoting from SOUL WORK: “This phenomenon has been noted and studied by religious scholars, and as University of Chicago professor Martin E. Marty, who have tracked the movement away from institutionalized religion to more diffuse and individualized expressions of worship. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof calls this phenomenon the ‘privatization of religion, entailing a movement not only away from formal religions toward individually crafted belief systems and rituals but also from adherence to dogma toward an emphasis on trusting one’s own inner experience.’”

They further say, “For the most part, people do not join religious communities, ashrams, Zen centers and the like because of familial roots or theological fine points. They join primarily because they feel that a particular path will help them develop an active, ongoing spiritual life. They do not want sermons about God and guilt; they want a religious experience. Practices such as chanting, contemplative prayer, qigong, meditation, scripture reading, Sufi dancing, tai chi, yoga – all of which derive from ancient religious traditions – provide ways to help practitioners focus attention on and develop a relationship with a force beyond themselves.

“Marty sees this ‘craving for experience’ as part of a larger ‘wholeness hunger.’ Thus, whether disappointed by their childhood faith tradition and searching for another spiritual home or wanting to stay within their tradition but desiring a deeper connection to its spiritual roots, many area pursuing a host of different avenues to the Divine.

Spiritual "Gropers?"

Norman Lear (a well known TV producer – All In The Family etc.) had a name for spiritual seekers – and he considers himself one – ‘gropers.’ In a 1993 speech at the National Press Club, he said, “I am a groper, searching every step of the way for a better understanding [of the inner life]. And because I am not specifically attached to any synagogue, I suppose you can call me an ‘unaffiliated groper.’

“According to a 1996 survey cosponsored by the Fetzer Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, there are now twenty million “gropers”, a group the researchers call “core culture creatives.” These are Americans who are “seriously concerned” with psychology, spiritual life, and self-actualization, and who are active advocates of women’s issues, social concerns, and ecological sustainability. They are part of a larger group labeled cultural creatives, an American subculture made up of nearly 25 percent of the population (or 44 million people) who value spirituality, personal development, authenticity, relationships and diversity.”

So I am a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Dabbler or, perhaps, an affiliated groper.

The Unitarian and the Nun

That’s why I’m interested in Joan Chittister’s thoughts on spirituality.

I first saw Sister Joan when she was interviewed by Bill Moyers. Their interesting conversation focused on the media’s moral responsibility to report accurately on the social, economic and political injustices plaguing our society.

Her credentials for general all around wisdom are impressive. I’ll share just a few. She is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, where she was prioress for twelve years. Here’s a list: Social psychologist with a doctorate from Penn State University; Regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter; Author of over 30 books; 11 honorary degrees and awards, and recognition from countless organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality, especially for women, in the Church and society. Currently she is co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, which facilitates a worldwide network of women peace builders, particularly in Israel and Palestine. And there’s much more which I will share with you later if you wish.

For years, Sister Joan, as a Benedictine nun, was rigidly obedient to the traditions and rituals of her Roman Catholic Church. Then, at one point, she had an epiphany and began raising questions about the politics of the institution, especially the lack of involvement of women in positions of importance.

She wrote,”. . That day . . . was the day I began the conscious, perilous journey from religion to spirituality; from the certainties of dogma to that long, slow personal journey into God. That day I began my own correcting match with God, which no catechism, no creed could mediate. From then on, I realized I would have to dare to ask the questions no one had ever wanted me to ask.” And she continues her belief that her spirituality, guided by The Gospels, brings her to and into God, with a capital G. And when she gets logical answers to the questions she asks, she speaks out.

Referring especially to the exclusion of women from the priesthood and the major rites of her the church, she writes: “Those who claim to be keepers of the faith want a faith far smaller than a woman’s soul can stand, or the faith itself support. They (and we know she means the male hierarchy) claim to maintain a tradition, but they fail to recognize that the tradition they have in mind is more political than theological. . . . The system never changes because the people with the power to change it know that they would stand to lose power if they did. So they say they can’t change it because it has always been that way. And the circle goes round and round.“

She has said, “As the wag wrote, ‘a conservative is a person who believes that foolishness frozen in time is preferable to foolishness fresh off the vine.’”

And she meant that very seriously. For years she has been harassing the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially the leadership in Rome, including the Pope.

In one of her regular columns in the National Catholic Reporter she wrote that it helps to get good news in the media once in a while. She listed several items, including this: “Its good news, too that a pope who, as a cardinal, insulted other major religions of the world, now insists that he is open to them.” In the same column she noted the good news in Kuwait; that women got the vote there last May, and that a woman was appointed to a cabinet position for the first time in the 400 year history of the country. She wrote: “That’s good news. For them. But it raises some embarrassing questions for us. You see, the problem is that they did it themselves. Before we were anywhere on the horizon they began to wrestle with the issue. We didn’t even have to bomb them to make it happen. And, interestingly enough, you may notice, the country we did bomb (Iraq) “to spread democracy” doesn’t have it yet. Not really. Not independently. Not nonviolently. Not wholeheartedly.”

One more example of her challenging rhetoric: This from one of her books; Becoming Fully Human: “Everywhere I go these days, people talk about being confused. Let me see if I can get it straight. The government prepared the country for war with an ‘enemy’ who never attacked us. And we allowed this, presumably, because someone else whom we cannot capture did attack us . . . and the people we have decided to attack may attack us in the future. Right”

I especially noted her definition of war: She said, “Over seven centuries ago, people began to recognize that war was an attack on the innocent by the ruthless for the sake of the privileged.”

And so on . . her writings are rich with her commentaries on both secular and religious matters. Her latest book is “Called To Question: A Spiritual Memoir,” and I turned to it for her viewpoints on spirituality. She says:

“Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart. It seeks not only a way to exist, but also a reason to exist that is beyond the biological or the institutional or even the traditioIt lifts religion up from the level of the theoretical or the mechanical to the personal.

“It seeks to make real the things of the spirit. It transcends rules and rituals to a concentration on meaning. It pursues in depth the mystical dimensions of life that religion purports to promote.

“When we develop a spiritual life that is beyond some kind of simple, unthinking attachment to an inherited canon of behaviors, the soul goes beyond adherence to a system to the growth of the soul. Spirituality seeks to transcend the functionaries of religion to achieve an intimacy of its own with the mystery of the universe. Spirituality takes religion into its own hands. “

Further: “religion is such a conundrum. We learn love there and turn it into piety rather than justice. Going to church is ‘religious’; ‘doing justice’ is political! Maybe that’s the point; maybe the really religious person must in the end give up religion and cling to spirituality – to the essence – instead.”

The Mole Inside the Catholic Church

I consider Sister Joan’s views on spirituality worthy of consideration, even though I did wonder why she stays within it. As she continues her criticism of the Roman Catholic hierarchy she seems to feel that it is better to work from within, but if they throw her out, so what? In her journal she writes: Indeed the time has come: women everywhere are prophesying. But are they talking to anybody but themselves? Is anyone listening at all? And if so, why do so many churches, boards, governments still look the way they do? And why and how does the Catholic Church still believe that God talks only to men, is configured only in men, is mediated only by men? Why is the church as sexist as the men who preach this male God? And why do we – I – continue to align myself with an institution so closed, so heretical, so sinful? Because Jesus stayed in the synagogue until the synagogue threw him out, that’s why.”

In closing, I affirm and promote, as we say in our Unitarian-Universalist principles, Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Many of the people I respect insist on defining the goal of our spiritual search as God, or whatever one may call God. I don’t see the point of giving a name to the goal, because it is (in the framework of our present knowledge) ephemeral. Maybe science will find that gene or chemical process that defines our need for spirituality. Then we might have reliable ways to satisfy the need; or we may find that feng shui, or quigong, or chanting, or Sufi dancing, and so forth, are necessary tools after all.

In the meantime, as a Unitarian-Universalist Spiritual Dabbler and sometime groper, my search goes on. I’ve already told [family friend] Jean Renjillian that Betty (the Author's wife) and I want to attend the program Building Your Own Theology next fall. I hope I’m on the road to self-actualization; if so, it's about time.

Postscript: by the time the author's church presented the "Building Your Own Theology" program, Mr. Lewis had been hospitalized with terminal cancer. Although he never resorted to what one would construe a conventional "peace with his creator," he was very upbeat until the very end.

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