In his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838 Emerson complained about poor or uninspired preaching. Then he offered the young ministers some reassurance. He said, “I am not unaware that when we preach unworthily it is not always quite in vain; there is a good ear in some that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment.”
He put at least some of the responsibility on the listener.
I like his assertion — that the purpose of our time together today is to ‘draw supplies to virtue’’ that the central purpose of sermons, readings, singing, listening to music and sharing some silence is about helping us to leave here better prepared to live a good life; to be a good person. It’s as simple as that; and as profound.
Here we are in the Hall of Philosophy – philosophy, the love and pursuit of wisdom.
I was thinking about these pillars, like the pillars on which our Unitarian Universalist religion stands: freedom, reason and tolerance…
Then I thought about the pillars of my own philosophy…the important values on which my life stands, the things to which I aspire, always feeling somewhat inadequate, never feeling satisfied in the degree to which I’m accomplishing them. I would put names on these pillars: compassion, kindness, service, dignity.
What about you? What names would you post on the pillars that hold up your life?
Spirituality for the Skeptic — Introduction:
Robert Solomon wrote a book he called Spirituality for the Skeptic, which provided food for thought as well as a title for this sermon. He subtitled his book ‘the thoughtful love of life.’
That’s really his definition of spirituality: ‘the thoughtful love of life.’
He opens his book by saying, “Let me begin with a confession of sorts. I have never understood spirituality. Or rather, I never paid much attention to it. When the subject was introduced, I made a convenient excuse to leave…expecting what followed to be platitudinous if not nonsense.”
“I was conflating spirituality and religion, and the very worst of religion at that.”
Later he says, “Spirituality, I have come to see, is nothing less than the thoughtful love of life.”
“…spirituality is by no means limited to religion much less sectarian, authoritarian religion.”
“Spirituality embraces love, trust, reverence, and wisdom, as well as the most terrifying aspects of life, tragedy, and death.”
Sermon: Spirituality for the Skeptic
I’m a skeptic. I’ve always been a skeptic, but in the early years I kept it to myself. I was a secret skeptic. After all, if I told my parents I didn’t believe in the tooth fairy I’d miss out on the coin that replaced the tooth under my pillow; if I admitted that I didn’t really believe in the Easter Bunny there would be no basket of candy, and I loved those little yellow marshmallow chicks.
Then there was the big one – Santa Claus. No kid in his right mind announced the death of Santa! Childhood would be destroyed if I had admitted that I didn’t believe that all those toys would fit down the chimney – furthermore, we didn’t even have a fireplace. But we got the toys, so who cared. I had older brothers who let me in on the big secret – that the real Santa was none other than our own parents.
Then there was church. I loved church. I loved the stories about Jesus. I loved the Bible – I mean my Bible, the one they gave me at the end of the third grade. It had my own name on it in beautiful gold letters. It had colorful pictures of Jesus and the other guys; and maps that showed where they lived. And it was holy; I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it was special…they said it was ‘the word of God.’ That sounded pretty special to me, so I treated my very own Bible with special care, always putting it back in the box to keep it safe.
Every Sunday I got a gold star, and at the end of the year I got a special certificate for perfect attendance. In the sixth grade I won the contest for memorizing the most Psalms and I got a silver ID bracelet.
In the seventh grade I got a Sunday morning paper route, and I lost the ID bracelet and pretty soon my Bible wasn’t holy anymore and by the time I got to high school I became an out-of-the-closet skeptic, arguing with my Catholic friends about God and about going to confession and having your sins removed with some prayers…and about the idea of heaven and hell and so forth.
I still liked the church (the Congregational Church, which was ‘my church.’) In college, when I gave up the Sunday morning paper route, I started attending church again, and I liked listening to sermons. There was a particular sermon about doubt, and how it was good and necessary to question and to doubt, and the minister quoted those famous lines from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I stopped being childish.”
By my senior year in college I was married and planning on a career in teaching and my minister, with whom I felt very close, encouraged me to consider ministry, and I was interested, but I confessed just how much of a skeptic I was – that I didn’t believe that God sent his son Jesus to be sacrificed for the sins of the world, and I didn’t believe in the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus and so forth, and he told me I sounded like a Unitarian, but I didn’t tell him what I thought when he told me that he believed all those things in a literal way.
I’m still a skeptic. The word is from the Latin specere, to look at, to examine.
It’s likely that you’re a skeptic, too, or you wouldn’t be here with the Unitarians in the Hall of Philosophy today.
We Unitarians are often defined by what we don’t believe: we don’t believe in a Trinitarian God; we don’t believe that there’s a God who created hellfire and brimstone to punish non-believers; we don’t believe that the Bible was written by God – we don’t believe that the stories in the Bible are intended to be taken literally…and so forth.
We’re often asked what we do believe. And we try to come up with the ‘elevator answer.’ That’s the quick explanation you’d give to someone who asks when you’re on the eleventh floor and you have to answer by the time you reach the lobby.
We ministers are more likely to be asked what we believe at the wedding reception, or the memorial service reception.
The easy answer I use is that we believe in freedom, reason and tolerance, hoping it will suffice. But who among us doesn’t believe in freedom, reason and tolerance.
They often want to know what makes ours a religion, if in fact it is a religion, since we have no creedal statements and make no theological pronouncements.
A few weeks ago I did a funeral for a 93 year old woman who was ethnically or culturally Jewish. She grew up in a household that was opposed to religion. Her son told me that she was an adamant and outspoken atheist. But as he talked about her I had the sense that she was a rather spiritual woman, though she wouldn’t use the term.
So I did the service, using lots of poetry. During the reception a couple approached me and thanked me, saying it was ‘just right,’ and one of them said, “We were talking about the service and we felt it was very spiritual.”
I responded, with a smile, “Yes, and it wasn’t religious!”
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” they said.
Spirituality has a religious feeling without the trappings of traditional religious language. I try to find the balance between religion and spirituality in poetry, music and all the arts, and in Nature.
Religion, in its generic sense, is the life long process or reconnecting – which is what the word religion means literally. It’s expressed nicely in Donald Babcock’s poem The Duck:
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.
He’s got religion because of his connection with the ocean, with his immediate environment – he’s connected to his essential duck-self. He’s not trying to be like the sea gull, who always has that ‘raucous touch about him.’
He’s got religion; but I wouldn’t say that the duck has spirituality.
Whitman makes a distinction between spirituality and institutional religion. He says, “I HEAR it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions; But really I am neither for nor against institutions; (What indeed have I in common with them?—Or what with the destruction of them?) Only I will establish in the Mannahatta, and in every city of These States, inland and seaboard, And in the fields and woods, and above every keel, little or large, that dents the water, Without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument, The institution of the dear love of comrades.”
And in his signature poem, Song of Myself, Whitman says:
“There is that in me–I do not know what it is–but I know it is in me.
I do not know it–it is without name–it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death–it is form, union, plan–it is eternal life–it is Happiness.”
Mary Oliver opens her latest collection of poems, Thirst, with a poem she titled Messenger – another word for an ‘angel.’ She says:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Spirituality is a poetic term; it’s not about being irrational or anti-intellectual, but it is about freeing oneself from being tied down to the purely rational, intellectual. It’s a delicate balance.
The great 19th Century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker said, “As a master the Bible is a tyrant, as a servant I don’t have time in one life to find its many uses.”
As a master, skepticism is a tyrant, and moves from healthy doubt to full-blown cynicism – dismissing the possibility of human dignity, assuming that everyone is motivated by selfishness.
As a master, spirituality is a tyrant – oppressive us with the idea that all our thoughts should be elevated; that we should live fully in the here and now, every moment.
It’s all about balance, of course. We cherish our ability to question, to doubt, and I would not suggest otherwise; we embrace the use of reason, even in our religious understandings. We need hold on to a healthy skepticism, aware that it can go too far.
I’ve found the balance in poetry;
The Sufi poet, Rumi, said: “The Great Religions are the Ships/Poets the life Boats. Every sane person I know has jumped/Overboard.”
For me, spirituality comes in special little moments; it comes in waves. It’s like the firefly’s glow – you see it, then it’s gone. You can’t capture and hold on to it. It’s like the colored-sand mandala the Buddhist monk’s make, carefully crafting it and soon after it’s completed, it is swept away. (Like a sermon; once preached, then gone!)
Spirituality is an out-of-the ordinary moment of feeling connected: to another person, to Nature (or God, if you prefer). It’s about losing the sense of separateness, at least for a fleeting moment.
It’s about moving from one stage of life to another, embracing the changes.
Stanley Kunitz, in a poem he titled The Layers, says:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.…
I am not done with my changes.
Spirituality is not about belief; it’s not about God – it’s not about theology, or an afterlife…it’s not other-worldly…though ideas about God, belief, an afterlife might help stimulate or support this thing we call spirituality.
The kind of spirituality I mean is experienced by that skeptic, the agnostic, the atheist, as well as the believer.
Spirituality is not dogmatic – it doesn’t try to tell anyone else what they should think, feel or believe. It’s highly personal; as personal as the love of beauty; the love of music; the love a parent feels for a child – not always, of course, but in those moments of amazement when you realize the miracle that’s going on…
Spirituality is closely related to the emotional aspect of life, but it’s not limited to the emotions – it’s not emotional, but it may provoke or ‘stir up’ the emotions.
Philosophy, the love of wisdom, literally, has a spiritual aspect.
Spirituality is about Nature – the wonder of it all – but it’s not supernatural. Spirituality has to do with being fully in the here and now, so it’s not constant, it comes in waves.
It’s an aspect of family and friendship, when family and friendship are liberated from the competitiveness or the struggle for control that are often present in family and in friendships.
Spirituality is about that sense of awe that’s closely related to religion, expressed so perfectly in John Ciardi’s White Heron with which we’ll end:
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.
The Summer Day; Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Otherwise: Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
from Otherwise, 1996
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn.