16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 07/24/2011
Today is your lucky day! By the end of this sermon, we’ll have defined spirituality once and for all!
And I am kidding not only because I don’t have an ultimate definition for spirituality, although I have come across a working one that I’d like to float by you in just a minute.
I’m also kidding because the very nature of spirituality is contrary to definition. Right? Spirituality is one of those concepts that is tricky to grasp. There are a million definitions floating around, and none of them may work for you – or all of them do. Like I said, tricky. Tricky and mysterious.
Which is problematic for Unitarian Universalists, oftentimes. Unitarian Universalists have a reputation for dealing with mysterious concepts by wrestling them to earth. Discussing them at great length to enhance understanding. Studying and defining. Maybe even voting on them, like we did 25 years ago with our Principles and Purposes. Voting words like “God” in or out of what is possibly our denomination’s lexicon of spirituality, the Seven Principles. Debating for hours whether we should say “our” Judeo-Christian tradition, or just “the”.
These sorts of definition-seeking conversations, luckily for all of us, don’t happen all that often here at SCUU. I hope that is because we all have a sense that there is nothing that kills spirituality, nothing that sends the Divine scurrying into the shadows more quickly, than wordsmithing.
But I suspect that perhaps another reason we don’t spend much time debating spirituality is because the concept really is a slippery fish. We live in a modern world, and in the modern world, we learn about things through study and examination. I will go so far as to point out that many of you are in fact scientists by profession, and when you want to learn more about something in your professional lives you’ve always got the scientific method to fall back on.
What to do with a concept that just doesn’t respond to greater definition, more intensive study, more vigorous debate or a stronger methodology?
What to do with a concept that instead requires experience, and practice? And further, what do we modern people do, what do we scientists do, when that which we learn and experience through our own spiritual practice becomes harder and harder to define at all?
This past issue of the UU World Magazine, which many of you should receive at home now and again, has an interesting article by Doug Muder called “Beyond Words: The Spirituality of Humanism.” In the article, Muder shares several stories about the dampening effect that definitions can have on a truer understanding of things spiritual. He warns of a danger in reducing all that there is in the universe to just that which we can understand. One of his examples comes from Mark Twain, and Twain’s experience of the Mississippi after training to be a river boat captain.
[A] day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face. . . . Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising.
[Twain] goes on for some while, interpreting every detail he sees, and then wistfully concludes:
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.
Muder says: “That once-indescribable scene was now pregnant with highly significant information, but it was no longer spiritual. Sunsets had not changed, but Twain had.”
How many of us have had this same experience, where things we once found mysteriously holy were revealed by study to be common and everyday? How many times has the mandala of creation turned out “just” to be the periodic table of the chemical elements? Did it change, or did we?
Muder bemoans the traditional UU attempt to define spirituality because, unlike with other topics of study, defining spirituality diminishes our experience of the holy, rather than enhancing it. Muder wants us to remember that spirituality isn’t “known” in our heads like multiplication tables or the Pythagorean theorem. It’s experienced somewhere else in our bodies, in our hearts or our guts, and is known not using our words or our equations or even our brains, but is understood and practiced using some other part of us entirely – a part of us no less real, but probably significantly underdeveloped.
Knowing this, Muder does a clever thing in his article: He creates a definition of spirituality that encompasses this paradox, the paradox where we want to define what is essentially undefinable. Muder’s definition of spirituality is this:
Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.
Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.
I love this definition.
Muder himself reports that “the best test of a definition is how it illuminates common usages. Bad definitions make everybody sound stupid or crazy. Good definitions tune in meaning like a fine radio; static goes away, and you can hear what people are saying.” Well, good job, Doug – your definition makes many things about religious seeking clear to me.
There are so many people who have been frustrated or stymied in their search for spirituality, in their search for the holy or the divine in the paradoxical midst of their mundane, profane existences. They ask for direction – where is the spiritual? How can I be more spiritual? - and are given a variety of answers that don’t work in their own lives.
Ask for favors from a white haired man who lives in the sky? Take a long walk through a forest? Listen to a song – really listen to it, hearing all those notes blending together? All of these could be paths to the spiritual, to the holy – or maybe they aren’t the ones for you.
Instead of collecting other people’s spiritual practices, why not focus on where the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe is for you? It honestly varies for every person. Doug Muder himself makes the point that his definition puts spirituality “on the subjective side of things. Nothing,” he says, “is spiritual in and of itself. It can only be spiritual to somebody.”
So don’t worry so much if what works for me or for your dad or for your best friend growing up doesn’t so much work for you. The important thing is not to stop there. The important thing is to keep up the work, the work of being aware of when you have that gap between what you are experiencing and your ability to describe it – because in that gap is where the holy lives.
Christine Robinson is a minister out in Texas whose thinking I admire quite a lot. I attended a lecture by her one time, where she suggested that people can come to our Unitarian Universalist faith carrying a great deal of religious shame. Shame, the sort that makes it hard to follow an individually inspired spiritual path. She writes:
Four out of five Unitarian Universalists came to Unitarian Universalism after a childhood spent in other faith communities. We left those communities because we no longer believed what they taught, and we often left wounded and bewildered by our experiences. If we were led to feel that our inability to believe what we were taught was due to a flaw in our nature, we brought with us a burden of shame… Far too many people who later became UUs were not told, when they didn’t feel God’s presence in their lives, or didn’t feel it any more, “That happens sometimes” - which is the truth of the matter - but “What’s wrong with you?”
But Doug Muder says that “spirituality is not a place like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, where other people can go, but for some reason they can’t tell you where it is. And it’s also not an activity like meditation or prayer or chanting. Whatever activities,” he writes, “whatever activities raise your awareness of the gap between experience and description are spiritual for you—and not necessarily for anyone else.” No need for shame, in following your own path, your own call. You can, indeed, find the periodic table of the chemical elements very, very holy. It can surely be your burning bush.
The shame that Christine Robinson describes, shame we may have carried from the religious experiences of our past, or from our lack of religious experiences stemming from our misinformed but perfectly understandable attempts to define and study the spiritual rather than just experience it – that shame is unnecessary, rendered moot, if we use Muder’s definition of the spiritual. Everyone has a gap somewhere between something they have experienced and their ability to describe it. And that gap is truly, as Muder has pointed out, it is truly where the holy dwells.
But there is another, simpler way of describing what Muder defines as spiritual, that gap between what we experience and how we can describe it. It even comes in one short little word, and that word is this: Awe. Awe.
And in fact, that feeling we have when we are at a loss for words because our experience is so far removed from our ability to name it, that feeling has a word, too: Awestruck. When we encounter Muder’s gap, we are awestruck.
Think of events in your life, experiences you have had or even have regularly that leave you awestruck. When you lie out and look at the stars, and realize their very light is thousands of years old. When the whole congregation hung on every word of that song that time. When your wife or your friend went into the hospital merely round, and then somehow emitted a whole new human being.
Sure, maybe later you found words to describe it, words straight out of Doug Muder’s “bad definition” description, words that really did make you seem stupid or crazy. “Uh, you know, when the baby was born, I couldn’t believe it. It was like, uh, I never loved anyone so much before, and, uh, I never experienced anything like that before. I mean, it was like I was connected to the baby, and the baby to me, and the whole world was connected, you know what I mean? And there was a lot of love, you know, I loved the baby, but more than that, I felt like the baby was made out of love, which it was if you think about it, but I never thought of it like that, you know?”
Well, yes, we know, but not because of what you just said, right? We know because we have also been there, we have also had times when we found ourselves living right there in between what we were experiencing and what we could describe. We too have dwelt right there in a state of awe, in a place that could not be put into words. And what was important to our growth was that experience, that dwelling in awe. Being able to describe it – ever – is nowhere near as important as the experience itself.
Muder writes that “Spiritual seekers don’t want to talk about words and definitions; they want to talk about the experience of having no words. And they want even more to stop talking and invoke a situation that they will have no words to describe.” Spiritual seekers want to dwell in a state of awe. Hence spiritual practice – all the sitting and the praying and the churchgoing. Spiritual practice is to rest in a state of awe.
In the end of Muder’s article, he addresses an interesting question about his own proposition. “If I’m right,” he writes, “about what spirituality is, then what is the value of it? Drumming or chanting doesn’t feed the hungry or promote justice or even make money. So why commit time and effort just to raise your awareness of what you can’t describe?”
And Muder, as Unitarian Universalist Humanist, has an interesting answer. Muder says that he engages in spiritual practice “because [he] believe[s] the Undescribed is where new ideas come from. My creative process,” he writes, “is to stare into the gap between experience and description until something crystallizes out of it and becomes describable for the first time.”
I like this definition for its scope and universality. I think he is right that creativity dwells in the holy space of the unknown, the Indescribable that we can perceive but can’t yet know, may never know. I know it’s a creative space that I personally try to access for direction on how to live and for paths towards what is right and for information on what my sermons should be about, among other things.
But mostly I dwell in the gap between what I experience and what I can describe because the alternative is so flat, the prospect is so grim. Live in a world made up solely of what I can describe, what I can know? How tragic it would be if all the world had to offer what was one limited, flawed, biased person like me could understand and articulate?
“The unspiritual life,” Muder writes, “which like most people I fall into from time to time, isn’t the skeptical or scientific or fact-based life. It’s the life in which experience and description seem identical. I don’t notice anything I don’t have a name for, those things don’t have any relationships other than the ones I can define, and those relationships don’t evoke any emotions other than the ones I can list…
Fear of such a life is what drives people into spiritual practice, or maybe even sends them to a UU church looking for spirituality.”
Did that fear send you here to us? Are you looking for something you can’t define and aren’t sure how to find?
Then let me ask you: Where is the gap in your life between what you can experience and what you can describe? Spend all the time you want answering this question. Let the notion roll over you all day long, let it percolate in the back of your head as you do all the things you usually do. Where is it, when is it that you find that holy gap between your experience and your knowledge? That time, that place, is worth your noting.
And when you find it, when you find the gap, when you experience awe, don’t define it in your head, or write it down, or ask someone else if they see it, too. At least, don’t do any of that right away. First, stay there. Experience it. Seek it out and stay put, right there in that holy space, right there in the paradox, where the mundane becomes holy and the words no longer fit. And see what happens to you. Expect the unexpected, is the advice that I have for you.
I wish you well.