Monday, December 13, 2010

Trust Thyself: Personality and Religious Orientation

Ingenuousness and Self-Trust

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance” is one of the foundational documents of the American experience generally and of Unitarianism specifically. It contains a number of memorable phrases, including these words:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chao and the Dark.

Emerson’s transcendentalism maintained that humankind and Deity had a shared identity—that at the very least, the spark of the Divine resided in the human soul. In “Self Reliance” Emerson clearly called for every person to accept her or his time and place, yes; but he also called for every person to obey their indwelling genius—a genius that he believed to be Divine in nature. (Ingenuousness was a transcendentalist aim: to be true to one’s own genius.)

Now, I don’t buy Emerson’s theology, because I maintain that, rather than being made in God’s image, god is made in our image—at least the image of the best of the human condition, its stirrings and strivings. But, in "Self Reliance" I think Emerson got it right on two counts.

First, he argued that we accept the external circumstance of our lives,--what Emerson called the place Divine providence has provided for each of us. I think that this notion of acceptance also includes acceptance of the unique person each of us is. Second, in telling us to “trust thyself,” he speaks to not only the rightness of self, but also adequacy of self. This is acceptance with the fullest measure of self-appreciation or self-respect.

Emerson was a philosophical idealist, much influenced by what in his day was called German Idealism, particularly the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The term Transcendentalism was taken directly from Kant’s philosophy.

We’ve drifted away from philosophical idealism's notions of pre-existing forms realized in the great categories of truth, beauty, and goodness. More than not, today, we're thorough materialists. Nor are we likely to talk about humans being cast in the image of God, either. Today, our understandings of the human condition are rightfully drawn from advancing thought, in particular, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience. As I said, we bend toward materialism, not idealism.

Still, I find myself continually echoing Emerson: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” In fact, if we aren't true to our intrinsic self, our true inner nature, we have neither roots nor branches. We flounder about. We can never be satisfied living a false life. (Of being, yes, disingenuous.)

Personality and Religious Orientation

Relative to being true to self, certain traditional spiritual outlooks emphasize the role of personality in one's religious spiritual life.

I first began to think about the role of personality as realized in what we secularly call psychology when I first studied Hinduism and learned of the various yogas. A yoga is a mental or physical spiritual discipline that a devotee is naturally drawn to. By diligent practice of a yoga a person progresses toward enlightenment. All yogas intersect in the same end. There is hatha yoga--the physical discipline of controlled breathing and postures. There is raja yoga--the mental discipline of meditation. There is karma yoga--the discipline of will and action (dharma) as timelessly elaborated in the Bhagavad Gita as explicated by Krishna. There is bhakti yoga--the discipline of worship of a god such as Shiva, Vishnu, or Krishna. There is jnana yoga--the discipline of knowledge through the mind's intellect.

I've long seen these various yogas as psychologically sound with many possibilities of accommodating this personality or that personality--whatever personality--within the larger grace of leading the practitioner to the same goal.

Subsequently, I became familiar with the spirituality of the First Nations People of the Plains, as introduced in 1973 by a self-described mixed-blood raised among the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, Hyemeyohsts Storm in the book Seven Arrows. Storm wrote of the Medicine Wheel. In the beginning of this influential, groundbreaking, and now classic book he described the Medicine Wheel:

Among the People, a child's first Teaching is of the Four Great Powers of the Medicine Wheel.

To the North on the Medicine Wheel is found Wisdom. The Color of the Wisdom of the North is White, and its Medicine Animal is the Buffalo.

The South is represented by the Sign of the Mouse, and its Medicine Color is Green. The South is a place of Innocence and Trust, and is for perceiving closely our nature of heart.

In the West is the Sign of the Bear. The West is the Looks-Within Place, which speaks of the Introspective nature of man. The Color of this Place is Black.

The East is marked by the Sign of the Eagle. It is the Place of Illumination, where we can see things clearly far and wide. Its Color is the Gold of the Morning Star.

At birth, each of us given a particular Beginning Place within these Four Great Directions on the Medicine Wheel. This Starting Place gives us our first way of perceiving things, which will then be our easiest and more natural way throughout our lives.

But any person who perceives from only one of these Four Great Directions will remain just a partial man. For example, a man who possesses only the Gift of the North will be wise. But he will be a cold man, a man without feeling. And the man who lives only in the East will have the clear, far sighted vision of the Eagle, but he will never be close to things. This man will feel separated, high above life, and will never understand or believe that he can be touched by anything.

A man or woman who perceives only from the West will go over the same thought again and again in their mind, and will always be undecided. And if a person has only the Gift of the South, he will see everything with the eyes of a Mouse. He will be too close to the ground and too near sighted to see anything except whatever is right in front of him, touching his whiskers.

There are many people who have two or three of these Gifts, but these people still are not Whole. A man might be a Bear person from the East, or an Eagle person from the South. The first of these men would have the Gift of seeing Introspectively within Illumination, but he would lack the Gifts of Touching and Wisdom. The second would be able to see clearly and far, like the Eagle, within Trust and Innocence. But he would still not know of the things of the North, nor of the looks-Within Place.

In this same way, a person might also be a Golden Bear of the North, or a Black Eagle of the South. But none of these people would yet be Whole. After each of us has learned of our Beginning Gift, our First Place on the Medicine Wheel, we then must Grow by Seeking Understanding in each of the Four Great Ways. Only in this way can we become Full, capable of Balance and Decision in what we do."

The Medicine Wheel metaphor helped me realize that one's Beginning Place, a strong and original orientation or first nature, could also be a negative influence in attaining the goal of Wholeness or Balance.

Jung’s Personality Types

This resonated with the notion of the Shadow I had already learned from Carl Jung's archetypal/analytical psychology. "Own your Shadow” is a mantra of Jungian psychology.

The Jungian notion of the life-long psychic journey through the archetypes to the true or whole Self, what he called the process of Individuation, gives good insight into the religious journey. It gives incredible depth to the aphorism "Trust Thyself."

What has persuaded me about the practical value of the Jungian scheme is an uncanny Personality Inventory, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator that uses Jung's psychological types to hone in on an individual's distinct personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) uses four categories of paired attributes to come up with 16 different personality types. First used in 1942, the MBTI is now well established, extensively field tested and tweaked, and usually uncanny in describing personality traits and in predicting behavior, even religious behavior.

The four categories of the MBTI relate to·

  • how a person faces the world either as an Extrovert or an Introvert;
  • how a person’s perceives the world either through the Senses or iNtuition;
  • how a person processes those perceptions by Thinking or Feeling;
  • and how a person acts on the world either by Judging (convergent conclusions) or Feeling (divergent conclusions.)

Here's a chart showing the sixteen personality types and the percentages of those types in the general population: [see illustration at head of sermon]

Now, the MBTI is valuable in generally navigating the world. It gives very helpful information regarding relationships--personal, work, social, and so on. And thanks to the insight and research of a UU ministerial colleague, Peter Tufts Richardson, it is an essential resource for anyone who is intent about her or his religious orientation and life journey through the ages and stages. Richardson's 1996 book Four Spiritualities has taken the two cognitive (mental) categories of the MBTI to describe four basic spiritual orientations. The cognitive functions relate to how we perceive the world either through the senses or though intuition and how we process information through thinking or feeling.

Peter Tufts Richardson talks about these four spiritualities he identifies in terms of a journey, to impart a sense that these are not hard and fast determiners, but more fluid influences, themselves shaped by the journey. The four spiritual journeys are

  • the NT's journey of unity, 12% of the population
  • the SF's journey of devotion,38% of the population
  • the ST's journey of works, 38% of the population
  • and the NF's journey of harmony, 12% of the population

1FrFrom Jungian psychology, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and especially Richardson's Four Spiritualities I find a persuasive argument:

First, we each have a native—inborn—way of relating to the world, perceiving it and acting upon it. That way has implications for our spiritual nature relative to our religious experiences and their ongoing effects. We cannot help but be less or more true to our native spiritual way, however, awareness and intentionality can magnify this dimension of our being.

Second, there is not a one size fits all spirituality. Indeed, spiritual orientation is varied and significantly different. There is not one right way. Each way is appropriate.

Third, we can all learn from one another and even experiment with the practices of other personality types. I think that this speaks to a certain malleability that is the mark of a wise quester. (In Native American spirituality, this involves travelling around the Medicine Wheel. In Jungian psychology it is the process of Individuation.)

Fourth, and generally regarding your religious journey: Know your spiritual type. Be true to it. But don’t cling too tightly. All else will fall into place as your journey carries you forward.

An Opportunity to Know Thyself

Thanks to Norah Blackaller, who is trained in giving and interpreting the MBTI, you have the opportunity to discover (or for those who've taken it before, to reevaluate) your personality type in a special three week UCH seminar. The first week the inventory will be administered and Jungian personality type theory generally explained. The second week your results will be illuminated relative to the sixteen categories--how your specific type relates you to the world and how you interact with other types and they with you. This second part is usually full of ahas--startling little moments of self-realization. The third week, when you have knowledge of your personality type, I'll explore with you Richardson's scheme of Four Spiritualities. You'll learn how your personality type bends you to a certain spiritual journey and what the aspects of that journey are. (There is a small fee of $20 for the MBTI test materials. And there's a signup sheet with a handout regarding the MBTI at the visitors' table in the Living Room.)

If you are a quester, and who among us isn't? I maintain you must know and trust thyself. This January you have the means to know thyself, and you’ll be given the encouragement to follow thy particular path—thy spiritual journey. I hope you'll take advantage of the opportunity. What a good way to begin a new year!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Natural Religion: True to Nature and Human Nature

A UU Odyssey

I came to Unitarian Universalism in the autumn of 1969 in Burlington, while a graduate student in history at the University of Vermont. The UUA, representing the coming together of the historic Universalist Church of America and the historic American Unitarian Association, was a mere eight years old. It was still seeking to give substance to its merged identity. The Unitarian way/style prevailed over Universalism, a once thriving denomination that surely had pushed Protestantism toward the notion of a loving God, but which had experienced both an identity crisis and decline in the first half of the 20th century, as mainstream Protestantism generally accepted its theological centering principle that “God is Love.”

Fortunate for me, I did my internship in 1976-77 at one of the more historically important Universalist churches, First Universalist Society in Syracuse, New York. (It was in Syracuse in 1960, at a meeting known within the friendly confines of UUism as the Battle of Syracuse, that merger was hammered out and agreed upon). Interestingly, the venerable minister of First Universalist Society Syracuse had opposed merger.) When I arrived in 1976, First Universalist Society had a liberal Christian bent, with a controversy roiling a little beneath the surface about serving communion in the worship service; it had only recently been cut back from a bylaws mandated eight times a year to once a year, and not on a Sunday, but on Maundy Thursday. When I finished that yearlong internship, I had a good sense, through firsthand experience, of the Universalist tradition.

My first church was First Unitarian in Youngstown, Ohio, a congregation once noted for training ministers before they left for larger congregations and livelier cities. A minister from the early 1950s, then president of the UUA, Paul Carnes returned to Youngstown to preach my ordination sermon in 1977. Though Youngstown had become a remnant congregation in the wake of the unrest of the 1960s, the downturn of the steel industry, and a tragic murder/suicide of the most recent minister and his wife, it had three distinct layers (though thin) of members drawn by the appeal of different ministers from Carnes era of the 1950s and after—a rational/humanist, a vaguely theistic/Christian, and a poetic/mystical strata.

In 1983, I came here to the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, a congregation established in 1886 that had an ethical-basis, world religion, and humanist history, consistent with the radical Unitarian legacy of the Western Unitarian Conference, specifically Chicago. The Western Unitarian Conference had initiated the World Parliament of Religion and became the center of Religious Humanism. Since the 1920s, UCH’s identity has been definitely and at times defiantly humanist.

About Religious Humanism: there was a Great Disillusion following the War of 1914-1918, including disillusion with traditional religion. Religious humanism had its beginning in the post WWI era, summarized in the famous “A Humanist Manifesto” of 1933 that spoke of a new natural religion that denied the authority of all supernatural religions and looked to human meaning for its values. Several Unitarian and Universalist ministers were among the prominent 34 endorsers, including Walter Mondale’s half brother Lester, who was at the time minister of the Evanston Unitarian Church. The most famous endorser was the philosopher/educator John Dewey.

Religious humanism gained a stronghold in 20th century Unitarianism. And by mid-century, during a post-war period of vigor and growth Unitarianism had a predominant humanist identity, including this congregation. In 1983, before I arrived, I was advised that Hinsdale Unitarians do not sing hymns with God in them,

I had found a great deal of inspiration in Unitarian humanism while I prepared for the ministry in the early 1970s. I was especially fond of poetic-like writings of a host of ministers, but in particular Ken Patton a mystical naturalist humanist. (In the late 1940s, he had helped inveigle Frank Lloyd Wright, a quasi-member of the Madison WI congregation Patton led, to design the famous prow front Madison church. Patton left Madison in 1949 for the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston to create a church and program for a syncretic “Religion for One World.” Patton later headed up the commission that prepared the UUA’s first hymnal in 1964, Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Some of his hymns and readings have survived in our current hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, published in 1993, though rewritten to conform to a gender-neutral standard. (For example, "Man is the Earth Upright and Proud" became "We Are the Earth Upright and Proud.")

One of the handiest ways to measure the course of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is to compare the content of the two hymnals. The 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life represents the high tide of humanism, while the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition reflects the influences of feminism (note the degenderizing of 1964 hymns), a return toward theism, and a new spirituality. The signature hymn in the more recent collection is a paean to the new spirituality, aptly titled, "Spirit of Life."

So, in the course of my forty-one years of involvement with UUism, thirty-three as a UU minister, I’ve lived through an era when religious humanism peaked and began a gradual decline within UU’ism. Humanists have even begun to feel marginalized.

A Decline of Religious Humanism

The most recent edition of the UU World has a lead article about the generational shifts taking place in UUism that speaks humanism’s decline in our midst:

The generation that is now in young adulthood has grown up with an expectation—or maybe just a hope—that would have been foreign to me as a boy: Somewhere, someone ought to have a wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to.

As that generation shows up on the doorsteps of UU churches (with their toddlers in tow) what kind of Unitarian Universalism will they be looking for?

Nowhere in the Unitarian Universalist movement is the generational issue more serious and central than among the Humanists. The generation that remembers the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and founded institutions like the American Humanist Association is dying off. They started or led many congregations during an era when Unitarianism (and then Unitarian Universalism) was almost synonymous with Humanism. But they lived long enough to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s energy (first the energy of young ministers and later of UUA leadership) focused elsewhere—promoting spirituality and reclaiming a language of reverence that many Humanists found meaningless or perhaps even sinister. Now UU Humanists of all ages worry that Humanist history is not taught in our churches and the Humanist legacy is in danger. (Doug Muder, “Reclaiming Krypton”)

I have been a religious humanist throughout my ministry, often employing the phrase “The Church of the Human Spirit.” But religious humanism is no longer a primary identity. A larger understanding has subsumed it. As I’ve cobbled together my own religious/spiritual outlook, I’ve increasingly placed myself in the larger context of Natural Religion and use the phrase The Religion of Nature and Human Nature in describing my orientation.

Humanistic Religious Naturalism

William Murray, a well-seasoned, humanist colleague who also served as a recent president of one of our two UU seminaries shares my mature point of view. A few years ago, he wrote, “A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists, a religious humanism informed by cultural developments and recent discoveries in the natural and human sciences and grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism, a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.”

I’m going to continue with Bill Murray’s seasoned and evolved sense of what he calls a new humanism. It coincides with my own sense of religious naturalism and my notion of a Religion True to Nature and Human Nature. Murray has written, in a UU World article "Reason and Reverence:"

I believe a viable religion of the twenty-first century, [a religious humanism…grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism] must include the following five characteristics:

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. …

[Fifth and] finally, the religion of the future must affirm those values that help to make our lives more fully human. … Becoming more fully human involves the transformation of the mind and heart from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as part of a larger sacred whole and to a deep commitment to the human and natural worlds. It is about the transformation from a shallow life of fear, greed, hedonism, and materialism to a meaningful life of love and caring, gratitude and generosity, fairness and equity, joy and hope, and a profound respect for others.

Humanistic religious naturalism promotes an ethical life in which one thinks and acts from a larger perspective than one’s own egoistic interests, a life that affirms the worth and dignity of each person, a life filled with wonder and reverence for the extraordinary magnificence of the natural world and human creations. It includes gratitude for the gift of life itself and the capacity to enjoy it.

To be fully human is to develop and use our minds but not neglect our emotions and intuitions. … A fully human person has both an open mind and a warm heart as well as a social conscience. …

The grounding of religious humanism in religious naturalism makes it possible to affirm a perspective that includes these five characteristics and thus qualifies as a religion for the twenty-first century. As the late Carl Sagan wrote, “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” Humanistic religious naturalism is just such a religion. I believe it is emerging among us today.

A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature

My own point of view coincides with the point of view of colleague Bill Murray, what he calls humanistic natural religion, though I find that phrasing a little awkward. These days I’m content with the descriptive Natural Religion; and if, I’m pressed I add "A Religion True to Nature and Human Nature.”

We’re at a threshold regarding the future of religion thanks to relatively new sciences, especially Neuroscience and Evolutionary Biology/Psychology. The religious humanists proclaimed it in the 1933 “A Humanist Manifesto,” that there is one reality: Nature. We human beings are one with Nature. We have a religious and ethical instinct, a desire to discover meaning and a drive to fulfill purpose, one, significant descriptive of Human Nature—timeless and universal.

I believe the great task of a relevant religion in these days is to create compelling, coherent new, scientifically sound stories that tease out meaning and purpose—stories that appeal to our reason and evoke our emotions, true to ever and rapidly advancing science and redolent with what we have come to call religious experience. Human Nature thrives with the meaning and purpose Religion provides.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bill Murray: the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

That future is now!