A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on February 9, 2003.

I used to hate the word spirituality. It was a word I tried to avoid at all costs. Perhaps I avoided it because I didn't understand it -- probably because it seems to mean many things, and something different to almost everyone. If it is true that if you ask 25 UUs what Unitarian Universalists believe, you will get 26 different answers; it is even more true that if you ask ten people what "spirituality" means to them, you will get fifty or more answers. So it is hard to put a finger on what is this spirituality so many are seeking. It has come to be something of a garbage word, possibly signifying just about anything from astrology to Zen Buddhism.

I guess part of my resistance to using the world spirituality is because of some of the meanings it seemed to hold for people -- meanings which did not speak to my experience. For example, to some spirituality is the equivalent of accepting Christ as Lord and Savior. Traditional notions of spirituality deal with a nonphysical realm of the world separate from earth and its inhabitants -- a realm full of gods, spirits, ghosts, and the like. It is the unashamed belief in gods, goddesses and spirits. In that sense, it seems to me to be merely a new way of saying the same old things.

But spirituality has also become a mantra for pagans, wiccans and assorted New Age religions, who use it to refer to some transcendental spirit or figure which is understandable to them but not available to the rest of us who don't buy into their particular views. If you ask them to try to explain what spirituality means to them, a sort of celestial glaze comes over their eyes and they talk about a spiritual experience and expect you to share and believe it with no further explanation. I resent it when persons or groups try to claim exclusive knowledge and ownership of something which they say is wonderful, and don't make it accessible to everyone.

I have also noted that the word spirituality is often used to describe everything lumped into the category New Age: i.e. crystals, guardian angels, channeling, entities, various divinations, magicks, out of body experiences, and so on. As a rational humanist, I guess I have difficulty with this depiction of spirituality, and if that is how people are going to hear the word, I don't want to be accused of using it for that meaning.

The spirituality peddled in bookstores and at retreats and on TV talk shows tends to be kind of wispy and misty and rich in appeal to narcissism. The "very spiritual" people who hold forth in these venues are not the kind of folks who join with others to build homeless shelters or carry out works of love; they despise organized religion, preferring personal evanescence, and they don't play well with others. Now I know that one's religion is supposed to be a very personal thing -- didn't Jesus say that we should pray alone -- but I don't think he meant that our practice of religion, or spirituality, should remove us from being involved in society. Rather, I think he wanted us to contemplate the state of the world, so that we can more effectively enter into it. It is not about us as individuals; it is about how we move and live and serve in the world around us.

I sense, too, that, for some, "spirituality" serves as a form a escapism. It appears not to be grounded: not grounded in the real world; not grounded in what we know in our time, about the nature of the world and the nature of the universe. It seems, often, to be a retreat into some pristine, past world, the past world of the Native American, or of some other world religion, or what have you. And it seems to me that an authentic spirituality requires us to boldly and bravely face our world, the world of our time, the world as we know it today -- to face it and embrace it.

I also find that some who use the word use it to express their disaffection with organized religion. They'll say, "Well, you know, I'm not religious. I don't go to church or synagogue - but I'm very spiritual! I think this might mean: "I have had a bad experience with organized religion, or I think it is all suspect or even evil, but I enjoy feeling a sense of awe beneath the stars by myself." Or maybe it means, "Institutional religion bores me, does not engage me, leaves me cold and I have had to find a 12-step group, or a Course in Miracles, or a Covenant group or study of angels class, or some other non-church group in order to fulfill my spiritual needs."

I don't buy this one. I believe everyone is religious in some way. Many experts have studied the religious impulse which is apparently embedded in our very being. Yes, we find different ways to express it and nurture it; but it is there. And, the very fact that these church-avoiders seem to have a need to find some other kind of group to fulfill their need for spirituality tells me that the human urge to be a part of something beyond themselves is also very strong. For many, it is quite apparent that these "alternative" groups have become the equivalent of church -- we even hear people say that their 12-step program is their church; its teachings their religion.

So you can see why I have hesitated to use the word spirituality in the past -- and, indeed, why I still have some problems with it. I am not the only UU minister to have these reservations. Many ministers have made fun of the spirituality which is running rampant through our congregations. As Ron Knapp said, we are no longer "God's frozen people," as we were once accused; we have thawed out completely and are flowing, willy-nilly, all over the place. To mix metaphors, he said, "we are like the person who climbed on a horse and rode off in all four directions at the same time."

Still, I began to realize that to completely deny or ignore the word put me in the same category as the atheist who, because he could no longer believe in the anthropomorphic, all-knowing, all-powerful Father God who sits on a throne in Heaven and interferes in everyone's daily life, declared himself to be an atheist and to completely deny any existence of any kind of god, and refuse to use god language for any purpose.

I remember attending the Bragg symposium at the All Souls UU church in Kansas City a few years back, and being in a session with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the leader of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Somehow we got on the topic of god-talk, and for two hours, the distinguished and opinionated rabbi held forth about how there is never, ever, under any circumstances, any reason whatsoever to use the word God. There is always an acceptable substitute, he said. Some of us tried to suggest that, sometimes, in order to be able to communicate with others, we need to use common language; that we could put our own meaning on the word, but we should not give it up completely because we don't like someone else's meaning. NO, he yelled, that is taking the easy way out -- there is no excuse for a rational person to use irrational words, and on and on and on. By the way, after that painful session, I was perusing the shelves of the bookshop and I saw his newest book -- the title was Humanism Beyond God. I had to buy it.

Thinking back on that experience one day, I realized that perhaps I was being just as dogmatic about the word "spirituality" as Sherwin was about the word "god." And, I knew that there are many other interpretations of it than the ones that bothered me; many other meanings people ascribe to it. So I decided to revisit the word, to see if I could discover some meanings that spoke to me; some experiences in my life that aren't really religious (at least in the traditional sense), but might be ...well, spiritual.

Here is some of what I discovered. You might call it my "Spirituality Beyond God" -- or without God. It might be the best word to describe an indescribable happening like a sunset, the smell of a rose, walking alone in a quiet wood, being in love, or the feeling of awe when we see or experience something wonderful, or beautiful. I think it is how Laurel Clark felt when she looked out the window of the Columbia, and drank in the glory of what she saw. Maybe it is how we connect with the divine -- whatever made this universe and everything in it.

I think maybe spirituality is the feeling of connection we have to each other and to the all. It is the idea that we are never alone really, that no matter how isolated and atomistic we might feel, we are part of a vast interdependent web of being; we are a small, but important, cog in the wheel of life. We are never actually separate from the very ground of existence, and what moves one part affects us all.

I think spirituality is being in touch with the very core of our being. It is also a striving toward that which brings us meaning and wholeness. It is a stance toward life; an attitude which originates within the self. It is not derived from any particular practices or beliefs or inherited habits or social pressures. To attain spirituality, a person must be alert to the inner voice. We speak of spirituality in art and music and literature, by which we mean that the artist, writer, or composer had a more intense inner awareness of what surpasses ordinary life; they were able to see beyond the mundane and within the spirit of a thing.

Richard Erhardt suggests that spirituality is about how we live our lives. He asks: "Are we focused or scattered? Are we present in the here and now or are our attentions drawn elsewhere? Are we continually challenging ourselves, our world views, our attitudes and outlooks? Or are we so afraid of being challenged that we hold on frantically against the tides of change? The spiritual question is really, are we tossed about by every single wind that blows our way, or are we grounded firmly and calmly where we are? A person who is in touch with his own spirituality may say that there is an inner strength that keeps her centered and whole when all around the world is trying to pull us into fragments." (1)

There is another way in which spirituality is about how we live our lives. It is the way Sharon Welch suggests brings us into engagement with the world around us, opening up avenues for activism and service. It is using our experiences to provide the connections with other people and with nature that motivate us to work for justice, honoring that nature, and serving others. Sharon wrote: "I don't believe in God. I know of no concepts symbols, or images of God...that I find intellectually credible, emotionally satisfying, or ethically challenging in the face of evil and the complexity of life. I do know, however, of spiritual practices that do change our lives, that help us to see where we are wrong, that propel us to work for justice, that provide a sense of meaning and joy...You don't have to believe in God in order to serve God." (2)

The notion that spirituality is somehow independent of and opposed to the natural world seems to me all backward. My experience of the spiritual dimension of life comes out of my engagement with the natural world and my, albeit limited, knowledge of how that world works. It reminds me that just outside my normal range of vision there is a world of truth which I seldom see, but which influences my life daily and wholly. The spiritual dimension is that which serves to deepen, broaden, amplify my understanding of myself, of others, and of the world which is our material reality. It helps bring together the different aspects of life which it is all too tempting to try to keep separate. It reminds me that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of seeing, other realities which have the possibility of changing us as we cannot deliberately change ourselves.

I would add that spirituality provides meaning and values without a god telling us what is right and wrong. It may be a substitute for being godly -- or maybe it is the same thing -- being goodly! "Spirituality," says Kierkegaard, "is the power of a person's understanding over his or her life." Matthew Fox reminds us of the tension between mysticism (awe) and the prophetic tradition, the struggle for justice. We must always balance that tension so that spirituality does not become an escape from working toward justice, or from the trials of living in the world.

Spirituality begins where life begins. It is not something we can escape, if we take its meaning literally. According to Mr. Webster, it comes from the Latin root, spiritus, meaning breath, related to the Latin spirare, the verb form, to blow or breathe. Indeed it might be related, says Webster's, to the old Norse word fisa, which means to break wind (perhaps that word had a different connotation back then!). In other words, it is like breathing -- we can't live without it. We may not always be aware it is happening, because it is so much a part of us, but we do notice when it stops! Spirituality may be thought of as a kind of holy breath, without which, of course, we cannot live. When we lose our spirit, or become "dis-spirited," we enter into a frightening dimension -- depression, perhaps even suicide.

Like breathing, spirituality is not something we can start and stop at will. One of the things that bothers me still about spirituality is that people expect me to "give" it to them. UU ministers often hear parishioners say that they want "more spirituality in our services." To a point, I can sort of understand what they are saying. Spirituality is a kind of code word for deeply felt emotion. To want more spirituality in services is to want to feel more in services...feelings of connection, relief, forgiveness, belonging, contentment, joy. Sometimes it is also a code word for the use of historic rituals and art forms such as prayers, litanies, special holidays, flower communion, bells, sacraments, choirs and hymns, vestments, candles -- in short, everything sensual and colorful.

Now I have no problem with most of these things being part of our common worship -- in fact, I use most of them. I think they help bond us together and give us a common grounding. But spirituality, it seems to me, is unrelated to the church or to organized religion. David Bumbaugh puts it this way: "We form our circles, and we hold hands and light our candles and chalices and we practice our rituals not because they induce the spiritual dimension, but in an effort to remind us that there is such a dimension to life. When the spiritual invades the mundane, that is a gift of grace., for as has been said, 'the spirit bloweth where it listeth': it is at the command of no one." (3) Sometimes a spiritual experience may actually happen in church, but when it does, it is not the result of planning and organizing.

Part of what I like about Unitarian Universalism is that it makes no demands and raises no expectations about what a person will experience in one of our worship services. Farley Wheelright, one of our most admired older ministers, wrote: "As far as I am concerned, our practices have nothing at all to do with creating spirituality. Quite the contrary, it either happens to us or it does not. Nor do I believe that one's spirituality is rooted in disciplinary practices, either liturgical or faith. Most liturgy and all faith are subject to laws, ritual, obedience to external power that others have at one time or another imposed on us as truths by which to live, die and inherit eternal life. Spirituality does not show up just because it is 11 o'clock Sunday morning, or when we practice it like a golf stroke, or when the trumpet calls Mohammedans to prostrate themselves before Allah. Spirituality is bred in the bones and defies translation or definition." (4)

I agree. For me, insofar as spirituality exists, it does so when it becomes the better part of a good person's life. I don't believe it can be packaged in piety, or in meditation, isms, dogma or definition. Spirituality has no necessary connection to religious faiths; it has everything to do with humanity. If my Unitarian forebears were any example, their spirituality shone in their charity, their integrity, their willingness to do what they believed was right. Spirituality is that indefinable something which we all feel but cannot manufacture. It is truth and love, ethics and morality, peace and justice, the source of light and love. It is, ultimately, life -- life in its entirety; life as it is experienced in every way.

  1. Rev. Richard Erhardt, "A Vision of Spirituality," First Days Record, January 1998.
  2. Sharon Welch, "Spirituality Without God," Meadville Lombard Newsletter, 21:1, Spring, 2002.
  3. David Bumbaugh, First Days Record, January 1997.
  4. Farley Wheelwright, "Oh no! Not Spirituality Again," First Days Record, October, 1997.