Opening Words: “In the muddled mess of this world, in the confusion and the boredom, we ought to be able to spot something-an event, a person, a memory, an act, a turning of the soul, a flash of bright wings, the surprise of sweet compassion-something where we ought to pick out a glory to celebrate.“
That’s the way Protestant theologian Samuel Miller put it. How would you put it?
Yes, the world is in a ‘muddled mess.’ There’s confusion enough to raise the anxiety level to the boiling point. But we ‘ought to be able to spot something’ that reminds us of the beauty around us, and the beauty within us, beauty in the form of loving memories, or compassion.
Every day we’re reminded of suffering and injustice-our response, appropriately, is a painful sense of compassion. That sense of compassion is the heartbeat of the soul. We’re here to take its pulse, and to restore the soul to health.
Sermon: “Spiritual Personality Types”
I was recently invited to speak to my colleagues about my first 34 years in our ministry. We call it an odyssey, using Homer’s metaphor of Odysseus’s journey home after ten years of fighting the Trojan war. (starring Brad Pitt.)
It’s a great privilege to speak to one’s colleagues for an hour and a half without interruption.
An odyssey, by definition, is a journey home. You have to end in the place where you began, ala T.S.Eliot’s line from Four Quartets:
“What we call a beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy captures the essence of the idea of Odysseus’s journey back home after the war in a poem he titled Ithaca:
“When you set out for Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find them on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, the fierce Poseidon you won’t encounter them,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That many a summer morning, when,
with pleasure, with joy,
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn from the scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is what you’re bound for;
But do not hurry the journey at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor, at last, at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would never set out.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
then you will understand what an Ithaca means.”
In my presentation to colleagues-my odyssey-I followed a time line. Sort of. I had a beginning and a middle, but I wasn’t sure where to end. My story was peppered with poetry, which I hoped would provide palatable seasoning without being too salty.
Tears are salty. What would anyone’s story be without the telling of tears?
We live so much of our lives on the surface of things. What would anyone’s story be without digging down into the depths where the real work is done?
My thirty-four years in ministry have brought tremendous pleasure and, of course, some significant pain. The pleasure is simply the satisfaction of feeling helpful or effective.
The pain comes in a wider variety: the death of people I’ve come to love; the sense of failure-the awareness of my personal limitations; the suffering that comes by being with those who are going through difficult times; the Sunday afternoons when I finally think of what it is I wanted to say that morning and I realize how far off the mark I was. The pain sits in cold storage containers like Baskin Robbins 33 flavors.
Since it is a necessary part of the process, even the pain carries with it a paradoxical sense of satisfaction. So I talked about these things with colleagues who could relate to everything I said.
When I saw that they were getting tired–it was nearly 10 p.m. and they had been sitting since 6:30–I ended, leaving out things that I later realized were important.
Some came to talk with me afterward and one asked, “So, what’s your favorite poem?”
To my dismay I realized I hadn’t included John Ciardi’s White Heron, which illustrates my point about faults and failures. So I stood there with several colleagues and recited the poem, as if I was trying to make up for my mistake in leaving it out. I encourage you to think about this poem and, perhaps, to commit it to memory as a poetic prayer.
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky – then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
-John Ciardi, in “Marry Me”, Rutgers University Press, 1958
The poet who prepared our opening hymn, John Holmes, wrote “O God of stars and sunlight, whose wind lifts up a bird.” I like to think that John Ciardi was inspired to write White Heron by that line from Holmes. We need all the inspiration we can get.
My journey has been “full of adventure, full of discovery,” As Cavafy said it should.
While I was preparing this sermon, to talk about the variety of spiritual personality types, as outlined by Huston Smith in his recent book, Why Religion Matters, I realized that I’ve used poetry the way Odysseus used the Trojan horse. The walls of Troy were impenetrable, so Odysseus and his men hid in that big gift horse so they could open the gates of the City of Troy from the inside.
It occurred to me that poetry has been my Trojan horse. I’ve used it to break through the barrier that so many Unitarian Universalists have built to keep religion out. We have a built in barrier to so much of what is offered in the religious realm. But we have a need for nourishment for the life of the human spirit.
We have a fear of what I would call ‘literal religion.’ Poetry is metaphorical religion. Religious language, at its best, is metaphoric. It’s not mean to be taken literally. Religion that is taken literally often sounds silly, and those who take it literally are often dangerous.
Religion that is taken literally is idolatrous, and idolatry in all its forms is dangerous. Idolatry is deeper than bowing down to graven images, false gods. It’s a kind of spiritual arrogance where we come to think that we know more than we can possibly know. We know very little about the Big Questions. But we know enough about Life to be challenged for the duration of the one we’re living.
Tremendous harm and destruction is done in the name of religion every day. We won’t revue them now, but we’ll acknowledge them.
Literal religion deprives many thoughtful, sensitive people of having access to that thing we loosely call spirituality. Our spiritual nature is strong, however, and it won’t be completely suppressed.
Spirituality is the essential connection we make to that which is beyond language, yet deep within all forms of human expression. It’s at the heart of music, painting, sculpture, architecture It lifts us above the mundane and in a non-verbal but discernible way it gives us hope and courage to carry on. “What lifts the heron we praise.without a name.”
We praise the music that lifts us above the mundane. Who can explain the beautiful, moving elegy that Ed Thompson wrote in honor of the lives of Keith and Scott Coleman who perished in the World Trade Towers. Lois and Richard Errante’s presentation of that elegy moved us into a place of prayer.
This is a long introduction to brief comments about Huston Smith’s assertions in his recent book, Why Religion Matters, with the subtitle, The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.
In a chapter about Spiritual Personality Types he says,
“I used to think that the most important religious differences are those between the great historical religions-in our day, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their likes. Increasingly, however, I have become convinced that there is a deeper set of differences that cuts across these institutional lines. In every sizable community one finds atheists who think that there is no God, polytheists who acknowledge many gods, monotheists who believe in a single God, and mystics who say that there is only God.
“These four ways of slicing the religious pie (if this expression may be excused) are not explicitly articulated in the ways theologies are. Yet the differences between the four spiritual personality types (as I am calling them) run deeper than theological differences, for they are grounded in human nature, whereas theological differences, being historical, come and go.”
What type are you? Have you done the Myers Briggs test that tells you your Jungian type? Are you predominately a thinking, feeling, intuitive or sensing person?
Each of us is all of those things, of course: we all think, feel, intuit and sense-and we change as we grow, as we absorb the shocks that life delivers, and as we celebrate the joy. So, I think, are we all of the spiritual types that Huston Smith outlines.
When we read the morning paper, and we stop to think about what we’re reading, who can help from being an atheist? When we see the infamous photographs, when we listen to politicians who claim that God is on ‘our side,’ or, more specifically, that God is ‘directing them’ to make war, who isn’t alarmed and repulsed?
On the other hand, when someone tells me they’re an atheist I like to ask them about the God they don’t believe in. Is it the one who calls people to fight wars, promising to be on their side?
Does anyone really believe that? Unfortunately, they do. It seems to me rather offensive as well as primitive and dangerous. But is that the only concept of God available to you?
We’ve talked about the evolution of the concept of God in the Bible, beginning in the book of Genesis-the God who simply says the word and everything is created, and who rests on the 7th day.
After Genesis, the book of beginnings, comes Exodus, the book about the journey toward human freedom. The voice of God ‘speaks’ to Moses out of the burning bush-the bush that is burning but is not consumed-a metaphor for the energy we call ‘human awareness’ and, more specifically in this case, of ‘human compassion.’ (“I have seen the affliction of my people and have heard their cry.”) God the Creator, who became the angry God who destroyed cities and finally the world, bringing the flood, becomes God the ‘Conscience.’
This change, or ‘evolution’ of the concept of God in the Bible suggests the need for each of us to evolve, spiritually, religiously, so that we see these stories as the myths and metaphors they were meant to be, so that our lives can be influenced by them, not ‘controlled’ by them.
The book of Job is a poetic expression of human suffering, presenting a God that speaks ‘out of the whirlwind,’ or the chaos of our lives and reminds us of the grand scheme of things, the order of the cosmos. The Biblical portrayal of Job reminds us that we need to remain humble in the face of the Grand Creation. The voice that came out of the whirlwind reminded Job that he didn’t ‘teach the eagle to fly, give the horse his strength,’ etc. What is, is.
So, we’re all atheists when we bump up against somebody else’s god or gods, but we need to hold on to something that is deep within us, even if it is, as Ciardi said, ‘without a name.’
(Let me insert a note, before going back to Huston Smiths spiritual personality types. Jonathan Kirsch recently wrote, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. The book jacket says:
“Contrary to conventional wisdom of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world of classical paganism was not steeped in sin. In fact, religious liberty and diversity were core values of classical paganism, and it was monotheism that introduced the terrors of the true belief, including holy war, martyrdom, inquisitions, and crusades.”
“Breaking a long-lived taboo, God Against the Gods reveals the dark side of monotheism and the bright side of polytheism and shows how the world we live in today-including the horrors of 9/11 and the war against terrorism -is rooted in the oldest tradition of monotheism.”)
Huston Smith posits four categories to identify spiritual personality types: atheist, monotheist, polytheist and mystic. He suggests that our ‘type’ determines our ‘world view.’ Our type is the eyes through which we see and understand the world, and the way we interpret things that are told to us by politicians, newspaper editors and television anchors.
I’m reminded here of Johari’s window-a notion in psychology that we can and should discover all the things about us that make us who we are.
Johari’s window consists of four panes of glass. One represents things we know about ourselves that others know. The next window represents things we know about ourselves that others don’t know. Then there are the things that others know about us what we don’t know. And, finally, there are things about ourselves that neither we, nor others know.
As I look at the four categories put forth by Huston Smith as ‘spiritual personality types,’ it occurs to me that each of us can be any of those, depending on the circumstances.
When I read the morning newspaper I become an atheist. When I sit outside on one of these warm spring mornings with a cup of coffee, listening to the birds, watching the squirrels, taking in the trees, I become a ‘believer.’ Pantheist, perhaps.
If you get lost in a piece of music from time to time, you’ve entered that mystical state where there’s no distinction between you and the music. In this mystical state, all is God. There’s no distinction between me and you. We’re all mystics, from time to time.
Rumi put it nicely: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there’s a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas. Language. Even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.'”
If we’re dragged into the field against our will, and someone tells us about their god, or the gods who told them to drag us there, we all become atheists. God can’t be imposed on us. The God in us needs to be exposed of our own volition, as symbolized in the myth of Moses at the burning bush.
The history of all the religious wars has done tremendous destruction to the human spirit and causes us to be naturally skeptical.
We’re monotheists when we have some sense of awe in the face of the Creative Force that has ‘made us,’ and all things. “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture,” the Psalmist says.
Smith points out that polytheism is much more prevalent than we usually realize. Aren’t the various saints to whom people pray like lesser gods, but gods, nonetheless? What does it mean to believe that Jesus is a god to whom one can pray? Or to believe that you can pray to Mary, who will intercede on your behalf? Polytheism trumps monotheism again and again.
Smith reminds us of the pervasive power of spirituality. He also suggests that our spirituality type-the lens through which we view the world-gives location to our sense of authority.
Remember the story of Jesus doing various kinds of ‘work’ on the Sabbath? He was asked, “By what authority do you do these things?” He answered, in essence, that his authority came from within himself. He located spiritual or religious authority ‘within.’ He said, “Is man made for the Sabbath, or is the Sabbath made for man?”
The locus of authority is significant. The soldier who refuses to participate in torture, for example, who is willing to disobey an order to commit some atrocity, like the slaughter in Mi Lai in Vietnam, locates authority within.
The ability to refuse to obey an unlawful or immoral order has something to do with the person’s spiritual personality type, whether there’s a theology or religious teaching behind it or not.
“The power to resist coercion reflects what psychologists call internal locus of control, or the ability to determine one’s own destiny. People at the other end of the scale, with external locus of control, are more heavily influenced by authority figures. They prefer to put their fate in the hands of others.
“If they fail a test, it’s the teachers fault; if they do poorly at a job, it’s the boss’s fault,” said Dr. Thomas Ollendick of Virginia Tech. “They put the blame for everything outside of themselves.”
Smith says, “In the noted experiment 40 years ago when Dr. Stanley Milgram showed that most people will deliver a lethal does of electricity to another subject if instructed to do so by a scientist in a white lab coat, a minority still said no.”
“These people are rare,” said Dr. Elliot Aronson. “It’s really hard for us to predict in advance who is going to resist by looking at things like demographic data or religious background.”
“People are more likely to break from a group if they have an ally. The more you feel support for your dissent, the more likely you are to do it,” said Dr. Danny Axsom.
Smith reminds us, “Socrates had his daemon, who advised him what not to do (though never what he should do.)”
So, what’s your spirituality type? When are you a theist, polytheist, atheist or mystic? What informs your moral, ethical life?
Sam Miller says, “Sometimes the world feels like a ‘muddles mess.’ We ought to be able to spot something.to pick out a glory to celebrate.” We’ll close with Anne Sexton’s suggestion for finding glory in the ordinary, every day world, in a poem she titled, Welcome Morning:
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry ‘hello there, Anne’
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean, though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
to a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So, while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter in the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,