Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spirituality and the Humanist

This is the text of a sermon I gave at my home church, First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, on August 15.

This talk comes out of a lunch I had with one of our congregation's more outspoken Humanists back in June. He said something I had heard from a number of Humanists over the years: He didn't care for all this talk about spirituality in our UU churches, because he didn't know what the word meant and he sometimes suspected that it didn't mean anything.

Does "spirituality" mean anything? He's in good company there, because the pioneer Unitarian Humanist, John Dietrich, preached a sermon in 1929 called “What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?

just as your money may degenerate into a most deceitful piece of paper, scandalously suggesting a hoard of gold or goods that does not exist, so the word may become a delusive phantasy of the idea for which it once stood; and the feebler or the more dissipated the intelligence of a person or a generation, the greater the chance that mere words will pass as coin. Such a word preeminently is "spirituality." While no one is able to define it or has a concrete idea of what it means, yet it suggests at once an unction, an exaltation of emotion, a superiority which are associated with hardly any other words in the English language.

Now, I've also been involved in the polar opposite conversation, with people who complain that UU churches are not spiritual enough, but instead are head-centered, wordy, lifeless. They claim to be looking for a kind of depth that they don't find in Unitarian Universalism.

With apologies to John Dietrich, in general I don't find these spiritual seekers to be of “feeble or dissipated intelligence.” What's more, they seem to me to be expressing a sincere desire, and to believe that they are talking about something when they say spirituality.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are talking about something. Deep feelings often get attached to words, but that doesn't prove that the words mean anything. Christians, for example, feel deeply about the doctrine of the Trinity. But Thomas Jefferson was not impressed:

the ... paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself.

In other words, if you can't even hold an idea in your head, how can you have any opinion about whether that idea is true or false? You may feel quite sincere while you say, "I believe in the Jabberwock." But if you have no notion at all as to what a Jabberwock might be, then Jefferson would say that you are deceiving yourself. You have trained yourself to feel sincere about a collection of words, but you aren't actually talking about anything.

Ruining the conversation. Avoiding that talking-about-nothing problem is what definitions are for. So the first thing a Humanist might request in a discussion of spirituality is a definition.

I've seen that happen. At a church I used to belong to, the weekly discussion group devoted a session to spirituality. The first person to talk was a retired engineer. He opened a dictionary, read the approved definitions of spirituality, and wondered which of these meanings we would be discussing.

The conversation never recovered. Nothing throws cold water on a spiritual discussion like opening a dictionary. A dictionary is to spirituality as cold iron is to fairies or kryptonite is to Superman.

Now, why would that be? Two obvious explanations present themselves, the first being the one Dietrich was pointing to: Insisting on definitions kills a discussion about spirituality because the word doesn't really mean anything.

But there is a second possibility: Sometimes a topic gets framed so badly that the discussion just can't continue. I would guess that this has happened to most of us at one time or another. You're in a room with a group of people, and so many poisonous assumptions have already been baked into the conversation that there's just no point trying to sort it out. All you can do is back slowly away until you get to the door, and then run.

I'd guess that most of you know what I'm talking about, but you still may not see how pulling out a dictionary could create such a hostile environment. Why are spirituality and dictionaries so irreconcilable?

Taking the plunge. I don't know how to answer that question without going ahead and doing exactly what that engineer wanted. I'm going to hazard my own definition of spirituality – not with the idea that this settles the topic once and for all, but just so that I can explain why looking for a definition can be so problematic.

So here's my best shot: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.

Now, that's probably not what you were expecting, so let me take a little time to point out the features of this definition. First, it is compatible with Humanism. There are no supernatural assumptions. You can seek this kind of spirituality with or without any gods or souls or spirits or afterlives.

Second, by defining spirituality as an awareness I've places it on the subjective side of things. Nothing is spiritual in and of itself. It can only be spiritual to somebody.

So spirituality is not a place like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, where other people can go, but for some reason they can't tell you where it is. And it's also not an activity like meditation or prayer or chanting or drumming. Any of those practices might raise a person's awareness of the gap between experience and description -- we'll get into how they might do that in a minute -- and so they might be spiritual activities for that person. But for someone else they might not be.

Another reason spirituality varies from person to person is that everyone is different in both the capacity to experience life and the capacity to describe it. And both capacities change as you learn and grow.

Sometimes as you learn and grow, experiences that used to be indescribable become describable; they used to fall into that gap and now they don't. For example, a stone-age tribe and a meteorologist experience a thunderstorm very differently. For the tribe it might be a deeply spiritual experience that evokes awe and wonder, while for the meteorologist the storm may be a simple application of a well-understood theory.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates how sunset over the river had once been an enrapturing experience for him -- until he was trained as a riverboat captain.

But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face ...

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights

He goes on like that for some while, interpreting every little detail, and then wistfully concludes:

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.

In other words, a once-indescribable scene became instead pregnant with information that was very describable and quite useful – but not at all spiritual. Sunsets had not changed, but Twain had.

Sophistication can also work the other way, causing you to appreciate indescribable depths that the ordinary person takes for granted. Consider this curious little quote from the mathematician R. W. Hamming:

I have tried, with little success, to get some of my friends to understand my amazement that the abstraction of ... counting is both possible and useful. Is it not remarkable that 6 sheep plus 7 sheep make 13 sheep; that 6 stones plus 7 stones make 13 stones? Is it not a miracle that the universe is so constructed that such a simple abstraction as a number is possible?

Rather than making mysterious things seem ordinary, Hamming's mathematical sophistication had done the reverse: allowed him to experience counting as something strange and wonderful.

Testing against common usage. Now that I've explained the definition a little, let's think about whether I've gotten it right. The best test of a definition is to see how much of the common usage it makes sense out of. Bad definitions make everybody sound either stupid or crazy. Good definitions are like getting a radio station tuned in right: the horrible static goes away, and you can hear people talking.

I've been comparing this definition to common usage for a while now, and it seems to work pretty well. Think about the everyday experiences that people call spiritual: music and art, for example. Both have a lot to do with the indescribable. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Another experience people describe as spiritual is being out in Nature. And again, it has an indescribable quality: Anything you say afterwards – even the pictures you take – don't really capture it.

Because this definition implies no doctrine or dogma, it makes sense out of the people who say that they're “spiritual but not religious”. Spiritual seeking isn't a theology or even a search for a theology necessarily, it's a search for a certain kind of awareness.

Religion, in fact, can be anti-spiritual if it's too simple-minded. If a religion claims to describe everything that needs describing, if it wraps God up in a neat little box and leaves no room for mystery, it's not spiritual.

Ruining the conversation, part II. So now I think we're in a position to understand how a bad or careless or premature definition might wreck the whole spirituality conversation. If people are trying to raise their awareness of the things they don't know how to put words around, then demanding that they use words very precisely and stop using words if they can't explain what they mean – that pulls in exactly the wrong direction. The spiritual seeker doesn't want to talk about words and definitions; he wants to talk about the experience of having no words. And more than that: he wants to stop talking and invoke a situation that he will have no words to describe.

Spiritual practice. And that's what I think is going on in the so-called spiritual practices – the things people do to seek a spiritual experience.

Consider, for example, what happens (or doesn't happen) in a sitting meditation. Sitting meditations are designed to flatten out all the things you usually describe in a situation, so that they're not worth describing any more. When I'm in a sitting meditation, I'm

  • not accomplishing anything; I'm just sitting there

  • not talking or listening to anybody

  • not moving; meditation positions are designed so that (once you master them) you can stay in them for a long time

  • either not watching anything or watching something that doesn't move

  • breathing in a regular pattern; the same way each time

  • not intentionally thinking about anything or fantasizing anything

Anything I usually put into words about a situation – even just words in my own head – have been dialed down to zero. My internal narrator can't find anything to say other than, “Nothing is happening. Nothing is happening. Nothing is happening.”

So whatever I do experience during meditation – and there is always something to experience – falls right into that gap between experience and description.

The Value of Spirituality. Now, if I'm right about what spirituality is, what is the value of it? Why meditate or chant or perform a Japanese tea ceremony, even if it does raise your awareness of the indescribable aspects of your experience? You're not feeding the hungry or promoting justice or even making money. So what's the value in it?

For me, the main reason to seek out spiritual experiences is because that gap between experience and description is where all my creativity comes from. My creative process – and I won't go so far as to say that creativity works this way for everybody, but I'll bet it does for a lot of people – is to stare into that Gap of the Undescribed until something crystallizes out of it and becomes describable for the first time.

If you've ever worked in mathematics or the sciences, you may recognize this experience: You work on a problem for a long time, and then you suddenly have a eureka moment, like Archimedes in his bath. Now, if you watch those moments carefully, you might notice this: There's actually a period of time, usually just a few seconds, after the eureka, where you still don't know what it is you've discovered. You know you've solved it, but you have to wait a few seconds before you know what your solution is.

It's like the ship coming across from the Undescribed has docked, but you haven't unloaded it yet.

The unspiritual life. Another way to appreciate the value of spirituality is to imagine the unspiritual life. It's not what you might think. The unspiritual life is not the the skeptical life or the scientific life or a life where you appreciate the value of facts and logic and evidence. None of that is unspiritual.

No, the unspiritual life is best summed up in a rhyme the students of Oxford's Balliol College made up about their college master, the 19th-century scholar Benjamin Jowett.

I am the master of this college And what I know not, is not knowledge

The unspiritual life, which (like most people) I fall into from time to time, happens when I forget that there is any more to life than the things I can describe. Nothing seems to exist other than the things I have names for, those things don't have any relationships other than the ones I can put a word to, and those relationships don't evoke any emotions other than the ones I can list. Because what I know not is not knowledge.

That's the unspiritual life, and the fear of it is what drives people into spiritual practice or maybe even sends them to a church like this one looking for spirituality.

Bad spirituality. I wouldn't really have done justice to this topic if I didn't say a few words about bad spirituality and where it goes wrong. Bad spirituality tries to defend the gap between description and experience by shutting down the progress of description: Don't learn to pilot a riverboat, because you'll lose the sunsets. Don't let Galileo look through his telescope, because he'll screw up the mystery of the Heavens.

The mistake here is believing that mysteries are a finite resource that might get used up. A lot of Humanists hate to use the word faith, but I think it's appropriate here: I have faith that the mysteries we can experience are infinite and our powers of description are finite. We'll never run out of mysteries.

Bittersweet. I want to close on a more upbeat note, by giving you a very concrete example of spirituality.

Every now and then, something new comes over from the Undescribed. Something gets named that never had a name before, and now we can talk about it.

Those can be some of the most significant events in human history. Most of them are lost, but we do know one very important one: The Greek poet Sappho, sometime in the early 6th century BC, was writing about a lover who was far away. And she coined a brand new word to describe her feelings: glukupikron – literally, sweet-bitter, or as we say in English today, bittersweet.

No Greek – and possibly no human – had ever named an emotion quite that complicated before.

The image I want to close with is of Sappho just before she coins bittersweet. She is thinking of someone she loves, but can't talk to or touch. And she realizes that she can't describe the conflicted way she feels. It's bad, but it's good. It hurts, but she doesn't want it to stop hurting. In the whole Greek language, there is no word for that. So she just sits there for a moment and feels what she feels, without any words.

And then she has a eureka moment, when she realizes that she has thought of a new word to capture that strange new feeling. But there's a gap – a second, maybe two seconds, when she still doesn't know what word it is.

Those couple of seconds, I imagine, were a deeply spiritual experience.


Heather said...

Thank you. This is beautiful.

kimc said...

Golly wilikers. I have been asking people to define what they mean by "spiritual" for years. And I've rarely received any definition at all, let alone a good one. Dictionary definitions have been useless and annoying. This is great! You've done it again!

Anonymous said...

Lovely, and useful. Thanks.

This reminds me of the last few lines of Denise Levertov's poem "Contraband". In case you haven't seen it:

The tree of knowledge was the tree of reason.
That's why the taste of it
drove us from Eden. That fruit
was meant to be dried and milled to a fine powder
for use a pinch at a time, a condiment.
God had probably planned to tell us later
about this new pleasure.
We stuffed our mouths full of it,
gorged on but and if and how and again
but, knowing no better.
It's toxic in large quantities; fumes
swirled in our heads and around us
to form a dense cloud that hardened to steel,
a wall between us and God, Who was Paradise.
Not that God is unreasonable -- but reason
in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, a polished cell
reflecting our own faces. God lives
on the other side of that mirror,
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't
quite touch ground, manages still
to squeeze in -- as filtered light,
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard
then lost, then heard again.

Anonymous said...

Here's another link on the Zen (Chán) huàtóu that just came across my desk. What I think is relevant here is the idea of inquiry into the origins of thoughts - crossing that gap of creativity in reverse.

In Chinese, if you wish to inquire from someone, “what is your problem,” or “what do you want.” you might say, “what is your huàtóu?” When a thought begins to take shape, this is the beginning of a sentence. However, what is the source and location of an budding thought? This is what is sometimes called the ‘great matter.’ To discover the source of any thought—this is a huàtóu. It is the beginning of a phrase, or a problem. or a problem. To work on a huàtóu is the method of dwelling upon the origin and root source of the phrase. This “dwelling upon” includes the effort of study, deduction, understanding, observation, contemplation and quiet deliberation upon the huàtóu.

Roger said...

This is wonderful. Thank you!

Unknown said...

@epfrancik--so our problem is that we reason too much? Or that we reasoned too much before? I'm trying to stay calm here, but I don't think that is or ever has been our problem as a species. Most of our wars and atrocities have been justified on the basis of unreasonable beliefs, and it's not reasonable behavior to destroy the ecosystems of the only habitable planet you have.

Brian J. Gates said...

Thank you. I really enjoyed this sermon. I've struggled for years trying to understand what spirituality is to other people. The word hasn't meant much to me lately.

I think my word for what others call spiritual has up until now been art, which has a somewhat flip definition, but not entirely so, that tries to capture its ineffable aspect--"Art: I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it!"

The only tweak I would wish to make to your definition of spirituality is to replace the "is" with "embodies."

I'm not sure why I'm drawn to the word "embodies" so much in that context, but I am. Maybe because it recognizes an unavoidable incompleteness to the definition, in so few words, of such a widely-used word, but even more so, I think, because it captures some of the magic of the process with a curious spirit-related metaphor... the contrast of "fleshing things out," etc.

I do start to get twitchy when I think of connotations of spirit with possession or even with that spooky word incarnation. A more comfortable word than "embodies" might be "entails."

Could spirituality be the tail that is wagging the dog of something even bigger or stranger than we usually conceive of in the word? (In my chosen obsession (possession?)--science fiction--we would call it the "sense of wonder.")