For some years now I have struggled with a concept that I have come to call "practical spirituality". The struggle has not been with experiencing practical spirituality, which itself has been an evolutionary process, but how to describe it. What is this thing, I ask myself? Is practical spirituality a philosophy, a religion, a way of life, a cop out, or something like Buddhism masquerading in Western form? How does one adequately define what some might call a prototypical philosophy and others might term as a jangled collection of half-baked notions?
This congregation, among others, has heard my views on religion before. I won't go over too much of that ground dealing with such subjects as original sin, the trinity, and why I am a Unitarian Universalist… I covered all that in the first of this three sermon series entitled Practical Spirituality. Indeed, I believe sometimes my opinions in opposition to organized religions (and especially fundamentalist Christianity), tend to reveal a certain rigidity of tolerance that I find undesirable in others. So, you see, actually discussing this topic is a little intimidating to me. It's kind of like the task of writing a novel or a symphony. This intellectual mountain towers so menacingly that one hesitates to start climbing it.
Still, I feel compelled to ask your indulgence as I bumble my way through a landscape of heretic notions. I dare say "heresy" because it is so sweet a word. It rolls off the tongue with a kind of naughty deliciousness usually reserved only for those things in life that cannot be shared with anyone but your closest friends. Heresy is actually another word for freedom. Putting aside for a moment, it’s meaning, we should celebrate the oh-so-UU-ness of the entire concept of the heretical. Heresy, at its core, cannot exist in the absence of judgment. Otherwise, heresy is simply an unpopular opinion. One person's heresy is another person's liberating truth. So it has been since the beginning of time.
Somewhere along this continuum stands the Unitarian Universalist, who is by nature, by conviction, by choice, and by tradition a heretic. As far as most fundamentalist Christians are concerned, a true Unitarian Universalist is positively drunk with the intoxicating effects of heresy against the faith upon which the Christian church is founded. The very name "Unitarian Universalist" is a sort of insult. A Unitarian is one who believes God is not separated into the trinity of equally divine entities called God, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. A Universalist believes that all people are worthy of the grace of salvation without the need to believe in any particular religion or doctrine. At least Unitarian Universalism is an equal opportunity blaspheming religion to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.
Along the continuum of time and religions the heresy of the UUs can be traced all the way back to the time before the beginnings of the Christian faith from which it sprang. What I call the heresy of the UUs was shared by the Gnostics, who believed, among other things, that we each have within us the capacity for direct knowledge (gnosis) of our God was more important than faith, that the sexes are absolutely equal, and that the world of senses is not our true spiritual home. They also believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, but was part of an elaborate spiritual hoax. There is little wonder why the Gnostics were rendered all but extinct in martyr fashion during the early years of the Christian church.
Other groups, such as the Magis (from whom we got the word "magic") also held similar heretical beliefs and met similar fates.
So, perhaps we should celebrate the progress we human beings have made over time. By way of celebration, utter a few of the great heresies with me. I guarantee you'll feel better, even though you'll most probably have to fight fierce internal, and very deep feelings. Say this with me... "Jesus is no more a God than I am". Say it again, this time with feeling... "Jesus is no more a God than I am". There. What did that feel like? Did it swish around your mind like your first taste of sugar water? Do some of you hearing my voice or reading this text get an instant vision of me as a person seduced by Satan who now seeks to infect others?
Okay, let's try a few more on for size... "There is no such thing as original sin. We are all worthy of God's and each other's love, no matter we've done or what we think. God is inside of each of us, as we are all inside of God every moment we exist. God doesn't need our help with anything. We are all aspects of God experiencing itself. God does not need to communicate with us using ancient writings. There is no good or evil; only the meanings we attach to the concepts. Death and birth are transformations of consciousness. Jesus died and will not 'come again'. There is no such thing as sin." By now you are either absolutely drunk with the heretical intoxicant or you are looking for the nearest exit because you are certain lightening does not need a storm to strike down wanna be preachers.
In any case, I wish you to be either drunk or gone because there is much more to come. This idea of practical spirituality requires that you are free from religious demons that may afflict you. The battle for spiritual freedom is like any other battle. It requires either one of two responses — that you fight or that you run. You cannot see with spiritually clear eyes until you are satiated with the freedom that heresy can provide. That clarity only exists when you win the struggle for spiritual freedom — the struggle for spiritual autonomy.
Paradoxically it is after spiritual autonomy that you can most meaningfully choose a religion as your own. You may take the well worn path or strike out on your own. The point is to be consciously aware of your spiritual actions and beliefs, and to take responsibility for them.
So, is practical spirituality a kind of spiritual binge drinking that requires one to discard religious beliefs before they can be purposefully embraced? No. Practical spirituality essentially means that you should strive to maintain a healthy balance between skepticism, science, an appreciation for and sense of the divine, respect for all religious beliefs and practices, compassion for your fellow creatures, and a constantly direct experience of the God within you. The healthy part comes with an understanding that God is a partner in your unique experience of the world. The God that created the universe may always be relied upon to do the heavy lifting in any circumstance, and most especially in time of need. Sometimes I think we provide comic relief to God but also firmly I believe God uses us to express itself, to communicate through us, and to learn from us.
How can the God that created all things need us in any way? Perhaps it is because God's work is never done. In a perfect universe there should never be perfection. In a perfect universe nothing can be preordained. Absolute free will for all beings is the only thing that makes sense in a universe of infinite possibilities. A God that destroys, rebuilds, learns, loves, experiments, grows, shrinks, laughs, cries, and creates is the best kind of God to inhabit the dynamic universe of all things. What better way would there be for a perfect, omniscient, omnipresent being to honor, appreciate, understand, or change anything unless it is constantly connected to all its parts and to all possibilities of experience?
Practical spirituality, therefore, is comprised of several important core principles. First of all, there is an acknowledgment that all creatures share aspects of universal consciousness. That universal consciousness can be called God, if you will, but I think that misses the point of how wonderfully non-human and all-pervasive consciousness truly is. Under this definition one can understand how levels of consciousness work in any situation. For example, the experiences of both a tiger and human involved in a life and death struggle are equally important, or valuable to universal consciousness. One animal may be vanquished by, or consumed by the other, but the life force, experiences, energy and unique expressions of that being persists. Inanimate objects, under this definition of universal consciousness, deserve our respect and careful consideration precisely because they share the universe with us and have an effect upon our lives and perceptions.
Another principle of practical spirituality is that we are all in intimate and constant partnership with God. We are joyfully aware of this when we make love with someone who also loves us. We are aware of this symbiosis when we are brought to tears at the beauty and magnificence of nature. We know this when we survive an accident that seems impossible to have survived. We have no doubt about this partnership when we need to feed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread and some fish.
A core principle of practical spirituality is integrity. Integrity is actually a rather simple thing that gets twisted up for us. Lack of integrity is often confused with sin, the first definition of which in the Bible is "that which is inconvenient to God". No doubt you've heard the expression that someone is "out of integrity" when their dishonesty effects themselves and others. I like to think that integrity is being in "flow" with a universal consciousness that cannot be anything but true. Because we have free will it is possible to cut ourselves off from that truth, and by doing so, temporarily stray from that which is most convenient to our walk with the truth of universal consciousness.
It is, however, instructive for us to leave integrity for a time. There are periods, spanning decades for some, when we need to explore our boundaries. We stretch the limits of our relationship with God by being "bad". We engage in destructive behavior. We cheat, we lie, and we do mean things. We hurt ourselves and others. We behave in ways we don't like others to behave. We judge others harshly for doing things that resonate in our own hearts. We indulge our senses, we lust after people and things, and we become trapped in the materialism and illusions of the world. In short, we give in to what some call our "human nature". When they say we "sin", I say we simply forget. We forget how wonderful it feels to live in harmony with our higher nature. Hopefully at some point we become tired of the extraordinary effort it takes to exist happily outside of the flow of our God nature. That is when another strong principle of practical spirituality kicks in... that of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes in different flavors. There is self-forgiveness, and forgiveness of others. There is forgiveness for the past and present, as well as forgiveness for future actions. Whatever flavor you choose, forgiveness is one of the most powerful and transformative of all experiences. It is in forgiveness that we come extremely close to the truth of the divinity we share with God.
My first wife surprised me when she announced after three years of marriage she could no longer keep secret the fact that she was a lesbian. She thought marrying me would change her but found that was not the case. She wanted a divorce so she could be free to live her life truthfully. Needless to say, I was devastated by this news. It put a lot of things into perspective, though, such as why we were not having sex and why she spent so much time with one of her women friends. I got to a point where I could not sleep with my wife, so I would stay up all night and sleep during the day when she was at work. I would go out in the dead of winter with an overcoat on, walking for hours, but completely numb to the cold.
I got way out of integrity at that time of my life. I wanted to hurt someone as much as I had been hurt. I felt betrayed and violated. I resolved to use someone else — anyone to satisfy my sexual needs. I felt I was owed the company of a "real" woman. I could not stand the way I felt and the things I thought, but I could not help myself. In a state of profound hurt and confusion I found myself in back of a department store spontaneously saying the Lord's prayer. When I got to the part where you say "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" my life instantly changed. From that moment I went in the extreme opposite direction. I forgot about my own pain. I understood my wife's pain as well. She was astonished the next morning to find the new me who told her I would wait as long as it took for her to decide what she needed to do.
The lessons I learned about integrity and forgiveness during that time of my life were profound. I learned it was easy to turn away from the God within me in a desire to harm someone else when I was hurting so much. The ferocity of those feelings that are so contrary to my beliefs was truly frightening. Equally powerful was the healing I received from being able to forgive both myself and my ex-wife. That brought me to another principle of practical spirituality... that of removing the ego from situations I find myself in.
I had heard the saying you should "let go and let God" before. During the time of the divorce from my first wife nearly everything in my life went terribly wrong. When I was living in a house that was about to be foreclosed, had pawned my wedding ring to buy food for my cat, had spent an afternoon in a welfare line for food stamps only to be rejected for not having enough of an emergency situation, and was literally counting the beans I would cook for dinner I learned about getting my ego out of the way of God's ability to perform miracles. When I stopped feeling sorry for myself I gained compassion for others. That compassion was a great gift. It caused me to understand, for the first time in my life, that I am no more special than any other person. When I let go of my egoistic desire for possessions, identity, status, and security I gained a tremendous insight into how universal consciousness works to provide us with exactly what we need to learn about life at exactly the right time. I am now thankful I was able to heal by letting go of my ego and celebrating the miracle of life itself.
There are other important aspects of practical spirituality, mostly having to do with creativity, being satisfied, living in the moment, honoring yourself and others, taking care of yourself, and so on. Those are subjects for other times; the fodder of other sermons. As I stated before, this concept of practical spirituality is constantly evolving for me.
For now, I wish to focus on why it is so important to embrace the concept of heresy. The dictionary defines heresy as "1 a religious doctrine or opinion rejected by the authorities of a church as contrary to the established beliefs of that church. 2 opinion or doctrine opposed to what is generally accepted as authoritative". When reading that definition, I realized that I've been a heretic most of my life. I was a heretic when I didn't even know I was one!
Most Americans are steeped in our traditions of independence, self-reliance, the power and importance of the individual, and democratic principles. We value skepticism, intelligence, reason, science, and education. Most of us embrace the theory of evolution because it both makes sense, and is supported by scientific evidence. There are a host of related characteristics which make us uniquely American; that which defines us as new creatures on the world stage. However, I would argue that most Americans who might describe themselves as religious are, in fact suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance. I say this because those same people will go to a church that warns against seeking an independent spiritual path, uses authoritative governing structures, demands allegiance to doctrines that are fundamentally irrational, and many times discourages questioning of those doctrines.
I'm not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with this state of affairs. Living with this dichotomy seems to work fine for most people. I am simply suggesting there are very good reasons why we, as a society, appear to be so schizophrenic when it comes to spiritual matters. The powerful differences between established church doctrines and the, if you will, "American Religion" have caused many of us to experience deep emotional and spiritual distress. We have not had a way to identify the problem because churches and the religions they represent take the high ground of God's authority. The meme of God's authority vested in the church is, indeed, deeply planted in our collective psyches. It is powerful enough to render otherwise perfectly intelligent, rational people into babbling idiots when it comes to discussing important spiritual, moral, and ethical matters.
I have come to realize that one of the great missions of my life is to invite other heretics to recognize the insidious tyranny of religious doctrine. Doctrine is any system of beliefs taught as truth by a group or organization of people. I categorically reject religious doctrine because it is antithetical to my fundamental belief that God can best be experienced by, for, and through each individual human being. Anything else is simply a poor facsimile — an interpretation that is sadly misinterpreted as the real thing. This is the crux of my heresy. The high ground of God's authority resides uniquely in each individual person. Every person is an expression of God's purpose, God's divinity, God's grace, God's perfect imperfection, God's child, God's mother, God's father — and we are all partners in the work of creation.
I would submit that much spiritual suffering we've experienced has at its core a notion implanted in us that our actions and thoughts make us incapable of perceiving the one true God. Indeed, our very sinful nature makes us unworthy of God's grace and love, and we can only find salvation in humbling ourselves before God, admitting our wretchedness, and religiously following a rigid path to grace and enlightenment. I ask you, who came up with these ideas? They are certainly not modern notions. The people who originated these ideas lived thousands of years ago. What did they know about anything? Their ideas about the nature of God were informed by their understanding of the universe... and so should ours.
Spirituality, practically speaking, should be informed by what we understand about the universe. We know God is not likely to exist in "the firmaments", we know the face of God is found in both the macrocosm and microcosm that most of our ancestors had no clue even existed, and we understand that a better model of human government is one where we are all equals, not to humble ourselves before anyone.
My life's mission is to shout the good news that we can embrace a "God-in-us-as-we-in-God" paradigm. That paradigm makes sense. It is evolutionary, and it is more relevant than the old "We-sinful-outside-unworthy-God-removed" paradigm. Humanity has made such shifts, such as monotheism largely replacing pantheism before. We should not feel guilty about stepping on the toes of those who have wrested spiritual authority from us. What makes religious doctrine more true than your own, personal experience of the divine? Shouldn't we seek to directly experience the God within us rather than to define the quality of those experiences within the context of external doctrines?
My call for what I term "practical spirituality" is not a solicitation to join a new religion. Consider this call — this invitation — as one from a person who makes observations from a heretical frontier. I ask you to become drunk with the intoxicant of heresy, exorcise your religious demons, and achieve spiritual autonomy from religious forms. See universal consciousness, or God, as your partner to be not obeyed, but honored; to be not feared, but welcomed; to be not unworthy of, but to be always loved and embraced by.
Strive to maintain that healthy balance I spoke of between skepticism, science, an appreciation for and sense of the divine, respect for all religious beliefs and practices, compassion for your fellow creatures, and a constantly direct experience of the God within you. I believe we will then live more truthful, richer, deeper, and satisfying lives. And I sincerely believe the world will be better for it.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!