Friday, January 27, 2012

A Pilgrim Soul

The Notion of Pilgrim

I want you to envision soul—not the soul of dogma that lives on after death, but the living quality of soul that the refulgent Mr. Emerson proclaimed as the remedy for the dead churches of his day: “...first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore soul.” (Someday I will make a more thorough case for the Unitarians as the first “soul” church.) Specifically, I want you to envision what the Irish poet William Butler Yeats memorialized as “the pilgrim soul” in his celebrated poem “When You Are Old”:

“…many loved your moments of glad grace.
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;”

I’m talking this morning about “the pilgrim soul in you and me”

Pilgrim is a vivid image for Americans. In the popular imagination—New England-centric—the Pilgrims of Plymouth were the first settlers: religious dissenters from a hostile Church of England, who covenanted among themselves, freely if not democratically, as they crossed the Atlantic in search of a free (at least for themselves) home, who wrested a home from a so-called wilderness, and who in gratitude established the Thanksgiving feast. In their quaint costumes, the Pilgrims of Plymouth seem more lovable than their radical Protestant cousins, the dour Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

I’ve long been fascinated by one aspect of the John Wayne cowboy persona—his mature character’s familiar drawling moniker of not buddy or friend or stranger, but of pilgrim. Pilgrim in this regard has a favorable cachet, is a friendly salutation—suggesting, perhaps, a fellow traveler—probably one who’s known some suffering but who is still on a journey.

Whenever I think of pilgrim as a moniker, I think Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of 1974, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which, arguably, had significant impact on the popular understanding of what the condition of a pilgrim might be. Ms. Dillard’s writing in Tinker Creek and subsequent works established her as one of the significant thinkers who bridge the secular and the sacred, demonstrating the secular is sacred. Her writings establish her as a contemporary pilgrim in search of the sacred in the everyday and close at hand.

In recent decades, a more expansive spirituality as contrasted to a narrow religiosity, has recognized pilgrimage as one of the unifying motifs of world religions. Religions have their sacred places and their adherents travel to those places to experience them.

Pilgrimage has become a significant postmodern spiritual discipline. My favorite pilgrimage site/event is the old adobe Sanctuary at Chimayo, New Mexico, on the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe, during Holy Week, when tens of thousands trek to it along narrow highways. A quick search on the Internet brings up a host of businesses that organize religious pilgrimages to sacred places around the world, touching nearly every faith tradition.

And scores of contemporary books have been written about pilgrimages and pilgrims—both as travelogue/tales of discovery (here  is a sub-genre, for instance, of the mid-life crisis pilgrimage of self-discovery) and as more analytical studies of the quest or journey for the sacred.

Mathew Fox, a leading voice of contemporary spirituality, describes pilgrims in apt terms: “Pilgrims are not ‘know-it-all’ people but seeking people. They go on pilgrimage to find something they know they do not have—usually something of the heart. A pilgrim is one who does not have all the answers. A pilgrim is not steeped in righteousness, but in humility, with an awareness that we must all be willing to learn together. A pilgrim seeks what s/he does not have. What his/her country, religion or economic system has failed to give. A pilgrim has looked at the dark side of life. A pilgrim people are keenly aware that they have not arrived, are not yet there. The reign of God still eludes us.

“For the pilgrim, the place one seeks is not to be seized, controlled, owned by anyone. A sacred site is a place of reverence. It is not to be manipulated. One’s shoes are to be taken off. One is to be silent, to listen, to pray, and to open one’s heart. A sacred site can change us, but we do not seek to change it.”

And whenever I think of pilgrims and pilgrimage, I recall the narrative poem of Geoffrey Chaucer, “Canterbury Tales,” dating from the fourteenth century. On their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury the various characters agree to tell each other stories along the way. The stories are entertaining and revealing of the teller. Pilgrimages are often group journeys where diverse strangers discover commonalities and comradeship.

So what are characteristics of a “pilgrim soul?”

Aspects of a Pilgrim Soul

A pilgrim soul has depth. Contemporary commentaries about pilgrims are quick to contrast the pilgrim with the tourist who only brushes the surface of a place, who wants to be entertained rather than transformed. A pilgrim soul wants to be transformed.

A pilgrim soul has an instinct for the sacred that is also a love for Creation, including the most intimate expression of Creation: the Self. A pilgrim soul’s answers to Creation—deep resonating to deep.

A pilgrim soul seeks to experience life first hand. The pilgrim soul’s restlessness and yearning is really zest for experience.

A pilgrim soul is curious and often takes a simple and even mundane act and makes an adventure of it. In this regard pilgrim souls are not turnpikers in a hurry to get to a destination, rather they are shunpikers apt to take the blue highways of life to squeeze experience from the journey.

A pilgrim soul is teachable and perhaps fears most of all the conservative sin of “a foolish consistency.” Again, a pilgrim soul’s curiosity is not for mere entertainment but for knowledge that may transform—leading deeper into the depths. A pilgrim soul pays attention to other pilgrim souls—hearing the stories and telling them, too, like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims.

A pilgrim soul is ever growing. Because the pilgrim soul plumbs the depths, her or his experiences are mottled: the tragic marbles the excellent. A pilgrim soul is etched with a quiet wisdom—is truly soulful. Being a pilgrim soul is not a matter of youth or mid-life but continues to death. A pilgrim soul becomes richer and richer.

A pilgrim soul is companionable because he or she first at peace with his or her own self. Yet a pilgrim soul is also her or his own best counsel.

A pilgrim soul is beautiful and useful, as Life is beautiful and useful. A pilgrim soul abets Creation rather than uses or consumes it.

Discover the pilgrim soul in yourself.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Away from Religion; Toward a Philosophy of Life

Rembrandt, Philosopher's Meditation
Proving and Holding

Here’s an historical sketch about the first Unitarian sermon and the beginning of Unitarianism as a distinct religious denomination.

The prevalent, progressive intellectual outlook of the 18th century was The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason.  What we now proclaim as American Exceptionalism was the product of an intellectual elite--yes, an elite including the likes of Jefferson, Washington, and John Adams,--an elite well versed in Reason’s way and thoroughly steeped in Greek and Roman Classicism. 

Included in this intellectual elite of the emergent American Republic was a certain group of liberal clergy within the traditional New England Church, mostly Harvard educated and Boston-centric.  Their influence rippled through the Boston congregational establishment.  These liberals gained control of the Divinity School at Harvard in the first decade of the 19th century.  In reaction, all the conservative ministers abandoned Harvard and the Boston churches, retreating to Western Massachusetts’s newly minted Williams College and then to Amherst college to build a new base, from which a later generation would try to recapture Boston.

For twenty years, between 1805 through 1825, the liberals within the old Puritan church establishment, evolved into a denomination.  The name they took on, Unitarian was originally intended by the conservatives to be a term of derision. In 1825 the fledging liberal New England Churches joined together in The American Unitarian Association.

The turning point for this emerging denomination occurred several years earlier and can be narrowed down to a day and hour in an 1819 sermon given by William Ellery Channing in Baltimore at the ordination of a fellow minister.  This so-called Baltimore Sermon was titled “Unitarian Christianity” by its author. When Channing delivered the Baltimore Sermon, he was the preeminent liberal minister; his pulpit  the influential Federal Street Church in Boston

Channing was a persuasive liberal preacher, distinguished for his presence/demeanor as for his reasoned rhetoric. As the acknowledged leader of the Boston liberals, he had long resisted becoming what he called a sectarian, that is, he didn’t want to tear the liberals who rallied around him from the traditional New England congregational establishment

So, it was a major event that Channing publically declared that the so-called Unitarians were a distinct sect.  That he did so in “faraway” Baltimore cast it as an event of national import.

I still enjoy reading that long ago sermon.  It was a bold declaration offering not only the attributes but also justifications of the new Unitarians.  It’s first among the three important documents of 19th century Unitarianism.  14,000 words in length, it took Channing an hour and a half to deliver it.  It is said that Channing could be heard only by the first three pews. Yet in publication, the sermon became an instant and long running “bestseller.” Through 1830 it was the single must published piece of literature in the country.
As with all sermons of that era, it was preached from a Biblical text, a verse from 1 Thessalonians attributed to Paul:  “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” 

I maintain that its scriptural verse (“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”) has been and continues to be Unitarianism’s (now Unitarian Universalism’s) foundational and fundamental) orientation. It continues to be my orientation to all that is presented to me as truth, especially regarding Religion.

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

Dr. Suess’s Counsel

Here’s a more whimsical expression of Unitarianism’s proving and holding, from the inimitable Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel, who once gave an unforgettable and short commencement speech at Lake Forest College:
My uncle ordered popovers 
from the restaurant's bill of fare. 
And when they were served, 
he regarded them 
with a penetrating stare . . . 
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom 
as he sat there on that chair: 
"To eat these things," 
said my uncle, 
"you must excercise great care. 
You may swallow down what's solid . . . 
BUT . . . 
you must spit out the air!"
as you partake of the world's bill of fare, 
that's darned good advice to follow. 
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. 
And be careful what you swallow.

My Critical Odyssey

I first studied history, expecting to write and teach it in university.  Generally, I learned that what we call history involves the organization and interpretation of surviving information.  There is no one true history, but a multitude of possible interpretations serving the historian and her audience’s point of view.  My early discipline of History honed my analytical/critical skills.

In my early adult years a skill set relating to my study of history and the essential orientation of Unitarianism came together, informing me when I began to study theology.  Forty years later, I've not been dissuaded.

I first look at any particular religion as embedded in its historical time and place.  I also put all religions into the larger context of Comparative Religion that looks at religion in terms of commonalities—as human phenomena.

I have delighted in what now seems a lifelong journey into Religion, less from a spiritual yearning or quest, more as an ENLIGHTENED UNITARIAN charged to prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.  On this journey, I’ve gained considerable knowledge about a variety of historical faiths as well have come to an understanding of from time immemorial.  In recent years, I have self-identified as a Religious Naturalist, and advocate Natural Religion, while continuing to function with an historic liberal Protestant church and denomination context.  To be fair, my sense of Natural Religion bends more to the natural sciences, such as, psychology, than it does to traditional revelation.

In the last decades of the 20th century I grew into a postmodern perspective that includes the notion of deconstruction, that all attempts to create a system of belief inevitably falls prey to critical analysis—being taken part.  Systems are time bound; and systems are subjective.  Ever-advancing knowledge and an outsider’s point of view cannot be accommodated to make any system universally true.  Postmodernism has made me an ever-more radical Unitarian who proves all things and holds fast to that which is good.  Again, I look at Religion as a human phenomenon.

Having spent a lifetime studying them, I have a lover-of-knowledge’s fascination about organized religions.  For example, the millennia-long conflict among the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is a crucial aspect of the world’s immediate future that I actively strive to understand in historical terms and contemporary global dynamics.

And I am studying up on Mormonism, an area of interest way back when, when I studied ante-bellum American history.  Mormonism was one of several enthusiastic religions that followed the course of the Erie Canal’s construction from Albany to Buffalo in the 1820s, a wide swath that earned the region the name of the Burned Over District.   Why my renewed interest?  It looks like Mitt Romney, a respected/influential leader in his Mormon church, will get the Republican nomination for President. His practice of Mormonism will be scrutinized.

A few weeks ago, the NY Times presented a lengthy article on Mr. Romney’s Mormon commitments in Massachusetts, affirming that his Mormon identity is integral in his worldview.

Several years ago, I presented a sermon series on world religions, in part, acknowledging this congregation’s historic interest in world faiths. The leading personality of the epochal World Parliament of Religions (1893), Swami Vivekananda of the Krishna Society spoke here twice in his first brief American sojourn.  In the mid-twentieth century the congregations’ minister was Sunder Joshi, a respected lecturer on World Religions.  During Sunder’s tenure six great paintings, representing six great world religions filled the wall behind me.

My sermon series focused on my approach to world religions, looking not at similarities rather at an “essential truth” each major world religion gives me, for example, Social Order from Confucianism, Justice from Judaism, and Compassion from Buddhism.

As I was putting this sermon series together, I realized my personal perspective on Religion was shifting away from theology/religion and toward what is more properly called a philosophy of life.

A Philosophy of Life Orientation

Throughout my career I’ve striven to keep a practical perspective, that is, how does my counsel relate to two overarching concerns for each and for all: meaning and happiness. That’s what a philosophy of life is concerned with. As a result, I have a growing appreciation for developing personal philosophy of life as compared for a striving to build a personal theology. (This goes against the UU grain a little, since one of the keystone UU adult curricula is called “Building Your Own Theology.”)

To my mind, a philosophy of life recommends a constant testing, a trying out through one’s own life arc and experiences.  A philosophy of life relies on Wisdom.  For me, Wisdom points to a broadly human consensus—a conventional sort of wisdom readily recognizable and affirmed.

 In contrast, a theology has in it the notion of faith, which includes a cluster of attributes such as commitment, trust, and hope without proof.  Theology is religion’s way of knowing, which from an objective perspective makes it easily deconstructed by new knowledge, by other subjective perspectives, or by essential flaws in its tenets of belief.

In my latter years, I’m advocating a philosophy of life over religion and spirituality.  Once again a philosophy of life relates to meaning and happiness.  And it’s also true that a philosophy of life can operate in addition to or to supplement one’s religion, though I also maintain that a philosophy of life can also replace a traditional religion in our postmodern context.

One of my favorite contemporary public intellectuals is William B. Irvine who teaches traditional philosophy at Wright State in Ohio; he has become a contemporary voice for Stoicism, an ancient, influential philosophy of life.  Stoicism’s aim is the achievement of tranquility by taking negative emotions under control.  Professor Irvine speaks not to fellow professional academic philosophers but to an ordinary, albeit intellectually upscale audience.

In October, I spoke to Stoicism via Irvine’s fine recent book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. I mentioned that Irvine fell upon Stoicism while he was seeking, at midlife, a philosophy of life to order his living.  He wrote: “I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.
“Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment -- or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn't good. …
“I mentioned above that the benefits to be derived from practicing Zen are uncertain. Stoicism, by way of contrast, does not dangle before its adherents a moment -- maybe -- of life-transforming enlightenment. Instead, it provides a body of advice for them to follow and a set of strategies for them to employ in everyday life. The strategies in question are easy to use.
Irvine offers a cogent description of what a philosophy of life is: “a body of advice to follow and easy to use strategies to employ in everyday life.”  I add that such philosophies of life are a constant proving and holding.  The proof is in the pudding, with the pudding being one’s progressing life.
One of my foundational/favorite philosophy of life is the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, the testimony of an Agnostic Realist, a Jew living in the yeasty era of Greek hegemony following Alexander the Great’s death, circa 300 BCE, who finds the meaning of life in enjoyment of the gifts of life through Wisdom.
If you want to consider the possibilities of developing a disciplined philosophy of life, I recommend my guide to Ecclesiastes, Wisdom for the Ages.  I have a couple of websites where you can access more information about this carpe diem, seize the day, approach of an ancient and influential text.
Also look to William Irvine’s materials from his personal website.  It includes a link to a compelling video of a lecture by Professor Irvine regarding a Stoic’s outlook on aging.
You are already familiar with various philosophies of life:  Thoreau’s Walden is a philosophy of life that pares life down to its essentials; William Channing Gannett (our first minister) and his famous essay “The House Beautiful” is a philosophy of life on how to make a house a home.  The collected works and aphorisms of Emerson converge in a philosophy of life that urges “Trust thyself.)

I’m going to end with a brief philosophy of life that is often called “My Symphony,” by William Henry Channing, a nephew of William Ellery Channing:  You can follow along in our hymnal, Reading #484.

To live content with small means.
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
    and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy not respectable,
    and wealthy not rich.
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently,
    act frankly,
To listen to stars, birds, babes,
    and sages with open heart,
To bear all cheerfully,
    do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual,
    unbidden and unconscious,
    grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.

And what is your symphony?

Friday, January 6, 2012


The name of our denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association is awkward.  It has an embarrassing abundance of syllables—16 (17 with The), way too many for contemporary marketing sensibilities.  The customary acronyms or shortened forms don’t do much for me.  How about for you: UU or UniUni?  To the unitiated, these sound bytes might suggest a cult, while doing no justice to the tradition behind the contractions. They also tend to exclude those not in the inner circle.

And then ciphering out the whole name might seem on first hearing contradictory: Unitarian—One; Universalism—All.  One/All!  Is one/all oxymoronic, a self-contradiction, like jumbo shrimp?

When each part of the name stands alone there is often confusion with other religions. Unitarian gets confused with Unity (a new-agy Christian offshoot).  This congregation was founded in 1886 as the Unity Church of Hinsdale—a mission church of the Unity Men, radical Unitarians of the Midwest whose motto was “the Unity of all things.”  Unitarian also gets confused with Unification (the Korean cult of Sun Yung Moon).  Universalism conjures up the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, which since the 1950’s has ordained anyone who applies to be a minister, able to perform marriages.  (Whenever I read the marriages chronicled in the Sunday New York Times, I’m astounded/amused by the number of officiants identified as Universal Life Ministers.

Historically Unitarian has social cachet (its roots are Boston Brahmin after all).  And it has a certain cultural notoriety and will show up in those lists that circulate now and again, offshoots or variations of the classic “how many so-and-sos does it take to screw in a light bulb.”  (I’ll let you figure out the punch line of how many Unitarians it takes—a hint, it involves a committee.) Arguably the best known joke regarding Unitarians involves the proverbial pearly gates and two signs:  one sign reads this way to heaven, the second sign reads this way to a discussion about heaven.  Recently departed Unitarians invariably head toward the discussion about heaven.  The second best known joke, arguably, is Mort Sahl’s rhetorical question,  “What do Unitarians burn on a lawn—a question mark? 

Unitarians are relatively well known in New England, particularly in Massachusetts and in the Boston orbit, which for many Unitarian Universalists is still the Athens of America.  Universalists, though some loyalists still cling to the identity, are hardly known at all, anywhere.  I don’t know any popular Universalist joke.

Unitarian Universalism is a merged denomination.  Merger was effected in 1961 when the Universalist Church of America joined with the American Unitarian Association.  The separate denominations shared some similarities, though there were also differences of substance and style—including significant markers of class.  They both had their origins in the American Enlightenment and emerged in New England at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century.  At their beginnings, each had a Unitarian Christology—that Jesus was special but not part of Trinitarian Godhead; each extolled freedom of belief and conscience; and most importantly each eschewed the notion of a creed.  Each evolved doctrinally throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The famous quip that still goes a long way in discerning the differences between the two traditions claims “the Unitarians thought humankind too good to be damned by God, while the Universalists thought God too good to damn humankind.”

One of the hot trends within our denomination these days involves writing what are called “elevator speeches.”  Imagine you’re on an elevator and a fellow rider asks you about being a Unitarian Universalists.  What can you say in fifteen or twenty seconds?   

American culture, among its many aspects, is a religious marketplace.  Some contemporary observers argue that the proliferation and vigor of religion generally, in American culture, is a consequence of competition among the many possibilities—that there is at the very least a product branding that distinguishes religion from religion, and that branding sets denominations apart and appeals to religious seekers/consumers. 

A few years ago our Association launched an ad campaign, thoroughly market tested, around the phrase “The Uncommon Denominationsm.”  (When I first heard of it a few years ago, I flashed the 7-Up campaign around the notion of the UnCola!)

A famous and effective marketing campaign of the 1950s used the line “Are You a Unitarian and Don’t Know It?”  This slogan is the one we used when we placed ads in local papers for our “open-houses.”

I have discerned a yearning among my younger and/or new ministerial colleagues for what is summarized as UU Identity.  Toward this end they have elevated the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  No one is yelling, “Let’s make these seven principles a creed,” but many seem to want something to at least hang a hat on.  (The Association is a free gathering of a thousandsome kindred liberal religious societies across the country; the Association has no hierarchical power over the independent congregations; yet the Association promotes even as it serves Unitarian Universalism.)

In the larger perspective, then, the problem of ambiguity—what Unitarian Universalism as a denomination stands for as well as identity for individual Unitarian Universalists—has been a result of the defining features of our liberal religious way: freedom for the individual and independence for the local society, that is, congregation. Unitarian Universalism is many things suspended in an ever-progressing context.

What I love about Unitarian Universalism is its richness—a complex history that has led to an easy eclecticism—that I find on target for a world on the fast track of globalization, but even more on target for a wonderful human heritage I can claim, in any aspect, as my heritage.

A decade ago Jeff Briere, then our intern, and I wrote 101 Reasons I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Jeff and I each wrote 50 one paragraphs sketches about aspects of our liberal religious tradition. It recently has been published as an ebook, and among the niche category of UU books has had success in the UK as well as the States. It is the briefness of the paragraphs and their variety that makes it effective and creates a pointillist portrait of our complex heritage.

In a similar way, what we’re going to do today, sketching our own personal elevator speeches will not only help us hone our descriptions, it will illustrate the richness of our point of views.

Here’s, my elevator speech:

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, liberal religious community of kindred spirits. We value reason, freedom of belief and conscience, as well as respect for one another and for other religions. Character—personal integrity—matters, perhaps most of all. We seek a just and equitable society, not for some but for everyone. And we will continue to progress from generation to generation. We’re never finished.