Friday, June 22, 2007

Spiritual Writing: My GA Talk

[This is the text of my 15-minute segment in the Spiritual Writing workshop organized at the UU General Assembly by UU World magazine. I was on a panel with Meg Barnhouse, the other columnist on the UU World website. Meg, who has written five books and has made musical CDs, is much better known than I am, so we packed the 200-chair room to the point that the organizers had to keep reminding people not to sit in the doorway.]

Before I get started, there's something I should tell you. About 20 years ago, the female characters in the comic strip Eyebeam described a chronic condition that I immediately realized I suffer from. It's called Male Answer Syndrome. The main symptom is a compulsion to answer any question you're asked, whether you know what you're talking about or not.

The worst case I ever saw was my college roommate. When people asked Mike for directions, he always gave them – even if he had never heard of the place where they were going. To this day whenever I'm lost, I remember Mike and I never ask for directions.

I thought I should tell you this, because a few months ago Kenneth Sutton asked me: "What makes writing spiritual?"

So here I am.

What makes writing spiritual?

I once led a discussion at my church on the question "What is spiritual?" It didn't work out very well. The second person to talk – probably another Male Answer Syndrome sufferer – looked spiritual up in the dictionary and answered the question for us. Where can a discussion go from there? Who were we to pit our authority against the OED?

I don't want to repeat that mistake today, but if you're going to talk about spiritual writing, you do need at least some working notion of spiritual, so I'll tell you mine. To me, spiritual isn't a type of subject matter, it's a frame of mind. This really comes through in Zen, where they might teach you to practice archery or calligraphy. Are those things spiritual? Well, no. But you can do them – like you can do almost anything – in a spiritual frame of mind.

What frame would that be? The best way I can think to describe the spiritual frame of mind is that it's an engaged humility. You're totally absorbed in whatever you're doing, but not in a dominating, controlling way. When you do something in the spiritual frame of mind, you can get so far away from the sense of your own place in the spotlight that you feel privileged just to be present – even though you are the person doing the thing that you're present at.

So: spiritual writing. Well, almost any writing can be spiritual to the writer. It's like archery or calligraphy. You could be writing the most formulaic murder mystery. But if you hit that point where the story takes on a life of its own and the characters start saying what they say rather than what you tell them to say – that's a spiritual experience. That's engaged humility. You forget that you're writing the story – it's just happening and you feel privileged to be there.

But notice: It's the process that's spiritual, not the product. The reader just sees a murder mystery.

So I think I'd rather reserve the term spiritual writing for pieces that are intended to be spiritual for the reader. A good piece of spiritual writing should invite the reader into a state of engaged humility.

The night sky may not be a piece of writing, but it has that effect. On one of those cold, clear nights in the desert, the sky goes beyond just being engaging. It's arresting. You can't stop looking at it. And it's also humbling, because there's too much of it. You can't look at all of it. You're just a finite being in a Universe that might as well be infinite.

But again, spirituality is in the process, not the product. It's not that the night sky itself is spiritual. Rather than being engaged and humbled, you could look at the night sky and experience a sense of pride in your ability to identify all the constellations. Instead of being humbled by the whole, you could cut it into pieces and master each one by knowing its name. There's nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn't call it spiritual.

And that, I think, is a lesson for writers. If the Creator of the Sky can't force a spiritual response from people, neither can you. You can invite readers to dance, but you can't sweep them off their feet.

Now, spiritual writing as I've just described it is very different from religious writing, where you write about religion or about religious concepts like God or karma or the UU Principles. Sometimes the two overlap, because some religious concepts are so big that they're like the night sky. You're engaged by the concept, but you're humbled at the same time. Even as you grasp a piece of it, you realize that there's so much that you're not grasping, so much that's just on the edge of your comprehension, and probably even more that is outside your field of vision completely. That's when religion becomes spiritual.

But some religion and some religious writing is downright anti-spiritual. Because it's not about humility at all; it's about mastery. You can cut God up into constellations and name them: God is omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent. God is a character in our book, and the book has rules that He has to follow. And so we can hold God to His commitments, because we're the ones in control.

Another anti-spiritual kind of religion promotes humility, but it's the humility of a slave rather than a saint. Instead of engaging you, it beats you down: Don't look up at the night sky. It's too big for you. You wouldn't get it. You'd just be confused. I, the author, have been specially chosen and specially trained to look at the sky, and I'll tell you what you need to know. Listen to what I say. And the first thing I say is: "Don't look up."

On the other hand, writing that opens up new vistas of consciousness can be spiritual, even if it has nothing to do with religion. Three hundred years ago reading Newton could be a spiritual experience. The idea that the same law made your fork fall off the table and kept the Moon in its orbit – it was so big. Everything you'd ever thought seemed small by comparison.

Now finally we get to UU spiritual writing. To me that means spiritual writing that has some UU religious content, and not just a UU author. It doesn't have to be a dissertation on the seven principles, but it should be informed by a UU sensibility. Meg Barnhouse's essays, I think, are good examples of what I mean: It's not like the words Unitarian Universalism appear on every page, but it's no surprise when you discover that the author is a UU. My writing, I think, comes in the other door: It's obvious when I'm writing about UUism, but I only occasionally get spiritual with it.

Some of the challenges of spiritual writing are the same for UUs as for anybody else, and some are unique. Like any other kind of religious writing, UU writing can be anti-spiritual. Sometimes we go so far in our efforts to demystify religion that we destroy any sense of awe and wonder. The Universe becomes something to master, and humility goes out the window. Or we can beat people down by telling them that their subjective engagement with life is just idiosyncratic and not worth paying attention to.

One special challenge is a UU audience's distrust of authority. There are no spiritual experts in UUism, so you can't just say, "Listen to me." To a certain extent you have to be like the early sea-faring merchants when they dealt with skittish tribes. They wouldn't barge into the village and try to make a sale in sign language. Instead they'd lay some of their merchandise out on the beach and back away from it. In time the natives would come and inspect it and leave some of their own products in its place.

So you don't go to a UU audience and say, "You should think this." Instead you say, "This is how I look at things. These are my experiences that lead me to think this way." Then you back away. Slowly, your readers come out of the jungle.

The place where my religious writing gets most spiritual is when I present a vision of how things could be. But I always have to be careful to put it forward as my vision, not the UU vision. If readers want to make it their own vision, they can pick it up off the beach.

On those rare occasions when I do say something directly, maybe because I don't have time to do anything else, I try to make it non-threatening by wrapping an amusing metaphor around it – like seafaring merchants and skittish tribes.

A second special challenge – I wish I had an amusing metaphor to buffer this one – is UUism's impoverished religious language. This really hits me whenever I read evangelical stuff. I get language envy, because they can very quickly and simply communicate things that would give me fits. Several years ago I saw a piece on 60 Minutes about a Christian couple who adopted and raised kids that nobody else wanted. They had like 26 of them. And when the reporter asked why, the wife said very plainly (as if these things happen every day) that this was the work God had called them to do. That was all she needed to say. Evangelicals all over the country knew exactly what she meant.

If that woman were a UU, she could explain for half an hour and still leave questions. She absolutely could not say that this was the work God had called her to do. "God? God Who?" UUs don't have a religious terminology that everyone understands.

We also don't have a canon of stories and characters that we can take for granted. If I were talking to an evangelical audience about friendship, I could just say "David and Jonathan". I wouldn't have to tell the story. They'd know it well enough to figure out for themselves how it applied to my talk. But what UU stories does everyone know? That lack of common reference impoverishes our ability to communicate. (Actually, for the Star Trek fans out there I can make this point in three words: Darmok at Tanagra.)

As a UU writer, you get around the poverty of our language by grounding your points in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and making metaphors out of experiences so common that almost everyone can identify with them. (And also, occasionally, by using pop culture.) Religious words, if you use them all, need to come late, after the everyday metaphors fix their meanings. Just now, for example, I talked about the night sky before I ever mentioned God.

Meg's pieces make good examples of this UU style. She almost always engages us by starting in some totally mundane place like a laundromat or a diner or a county fair. And she's in a role we all recognize: she's a mother or a daughter or somebody trying to do a hard job. The religious content arises slowly, and the humility in these pieces comes from realizing that even the most ordinary situation has depth. Even the most mundane setting opens outward to the infinite. If I were really aware, what might I see in this room? It's a humbling thought.

I wanted to close by reading a poem that captures this same kind of dualism between ordinary experience and themes so vast that they become spiritual. It's "First Lesson" by Philip Booth. I don't know whether Booth was ever a UU or not. I know the poem because Laurel Hallman used it in her Berry Street Lecture, which is in the volume A Language of Reverence. As Hallman notes, the poem has not one word of religious language in it. Superficially, Booth is just talking about teaching his daughter to float. But the deeper themes are there also. Listen:

[I then read the whole poem, which would not be fair use to publish online -- Hallman didn't publish it online either. But I did find it here. How the Poemhunter site deals with copyright issues I have no idea.]

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