Varieties of Unitarian Universalist Experience
by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore January 22, 1994
for the Southwestern Cluster of the Florida U.U.A. District

No religious organization is perfect. What satisfies one person offends another. All are flawed messengers of the truth that life is meaningful and valuable. Unitarian Universalism cannot escape the process of critique which we are often so quick to project on our Christian brethren.

The critique often leveled at us is not new by any means. Its incarnation today is the desire for more spirituality. This desire has appeared in different masks and guises since our beginnings, particularly on the Unitarian side but the Universalists cannot be exonerated either. Hear the words of Emerson speaking to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity a fine Summer day in July, 1838:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had plowed, and planted, and talked, and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, -- life passed through the fire of thought.

This critique by the young Turk Emerson of a fine, distinguished minister in Boston's first generation of Unitarians still rings in our ears today. Our origins do not come from a emotion laden personal revelation to a charismatic leader such as Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. We exist and continue to exist as an intellectual dissent to mindless religion. We put our faith in our minds rather than our emotions. We don't accept the literal truth of the Trinity of God. We dissent from a dualistic view of the world that separates the saved from the damned. We understand the meaning of Jesus' life in human terms. Many of us find the Bible an unworthy source of a faith that a thinking person can accept. We resist any idea that cannot withstand the rigors of the fire of thought.

Let me first say that I celebrate our wisdom tradition. A religious tradition inspired by the intellect has much of great value. But it isn't perfect. The critique heard from Emerson is still heard today: the desire for more emotional religious feeling now going under the title "spirituality."

The feeling sought after, I think, is exemplified in the pietism of the Black Church. U.U.'s seeing the arm waving, the passionate singing, the clapping and have two reactions. The first is to pick apart the often simplistic Christian theology. The second is to yearn for the feeling of confidence and joy the people in the pews express as they sing the praises of their Lord Jesus.

Our U.U. bumper sticker "to question is the answer" leaves us in a disengaged skeptical observer posture in perpetual state of doubt and analytical thinking without a place for rest or thankful praise. This seems fine for those with sharp minds, self-confidence and boundless energy but some of us get tired and disoriented once in a while and wouldn't mind being sheltered by their faith. It would be appealing to have satisfying answers to those eternal religious questions to protect us from the harsh experiences of the real world.

There are times in one's life that for which the conceptual life of the mind may not yield satisfying answers. My mother died in the summer of 1990. She would probably have described her views as religious humanist, not one to follow the latest spiritual fad. She suffered with cancer for many years and toward the end we spoke about her religious needs as she faced her final days. She revealed that she had not been satisfied with her humanistic understandings and found herself spontaneously drifting back to the Methodism of her youth which gave her great comfort and solace. When her convictions offered little comfort, the comfort of the cross was there. On one hand I was happy she had found a way to face her final hours in peace. On the other, I questioned in my heart if my faith would desert me in my hour of need.

Many of us begin our religious journey when we are faced with the starkness of suffering, old age and death. As a victim of childhood, chronic illness, and physical injury, I could not dance carefree in the drunken youthful dream of immorality. I had experienced the real, anguishing feeling that my life could well be cut short. This inclined me toward seeking a greater purpose to my life than personal gain and enjoyment.

The loss of a child, a father, a mother, a sister or brother, a close friend leaves a big hole in one's life that demands one's attention. The experience of great tragedy, the loss of a child's life by one's own negligence, an act of violence against a friend, the devastation of incest or rape, leave deep wounds on the soul. It is often these failures of life to honor human value that place our feet on the spiritual path. How can a loving Parental God let this happen to me? How can I live and function in a world of such brutality?

The life of the mind can be unsatisfying when cut by the cold hard edge of reality. Sometimes answers aren't enough, we seek solace and renewal that comes in a message that can be felt rather than thought. Others leave the safe haven of proven fact because are curious about things mystical and paranormal. Many young people today have experienced altered states of consciousness through mind bending chemicals and are seeking the those same highs without drugs. Some are interested in the different spiritual practices brought to us from other religious traditions or found among the Native Americans right here on this continent.

Whether through personal pain, paranormal experience or curiosity, people entering our churches and fellowships today are looking for more than the intellectual high from hearing an inspiring speaker. And I'm pleased to say that Unitarian Universalism has plenty of room for them. In fact our fourth purpose is to promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning!

The key ingredient missing from our normal stress on intellectual inquiry, laudable as it is, is the component of the personal experience. Sure, one might say to oneself, I KNOW intellectually I am a valuable person - so why don't I FEEL like one? Sure, I KNOW that I should love my neighbor, why don't I FEEL like loving my neighbor? Sure, I know my life is meaningful, why does it FEEL meaningless and empty?

The thirst I think we Unitarian Universalists have neglected in our congregations is for the experience of the truth of our ideas. Knowing that something is true often doesn't satisfy us, we want to integrate that truth into our being.

I remember watching a friend named Cheryl juggle three balls. I could see that it was true that two balls could be kept in the air in a constant flow of motion as one was being held in one hand then the other. As I attempted to learn to do it from her I was struck by the seeming impossibility of what I was trying to do. My attention had to be focused on a ball in the air while the free hand was catching a ball and the other hand was throwing one up. It confounded my mind's ability to conceptualize the movements of my awareness. Three things were happening at once, overwhelming my thinking ability. I knew in my mind it could be done but I hadn't integrated the experience into my being. But with repetition and a training method, I began to discover that I had a peripheral awareness that kicked in and assisted me in catching a ball I wasn't watching. I experienced a new form of consciousness I didn't even know existed.

In a microcosm, this is the missing link of a religious path defined only in conceptual understanding. There are a vitally important components of consciousness that need to be experienced as well as conceived. Another favorite example of mine is the centrifugal force exerted by the wheels of a bicycle. It is very difficult to balance on a bicycle at rest. But if the bicycle is moving, it exerts a lateral force which resists tipping from one side to the other. You can't see that force. You can feel it if you hold a spinning wheel and try to move it sideways. Yet even though one sees many people riding bicycles, the mind resists the idea that the bicycle that tips over so easily at rest can be ridden until it is experienced for the first time, . My experience as a child was akin to a religious revelation when both training wheels no longer touched the surface of the playground. The world is full of these kind of experiences which feel like a conversion, a radical reordering of reality that catalyzed by personal experience. And our fourth principle encourages us to go out and find discover these truths for ourselves.

The fourth principle is pretty radical as religions go. This principle affirms the ability of the individual to search for and discern truth and meaning. Most other religious traditions assume the devotees cannot think through and understand the nuances of the divine ways without submitting to a higher authority. The devotee's link to greater and greater awareness, connection, and salvation is by faith in a guru, a priest, a tradition, a sacred text, a rite or ritual which will be the vehicle of truth and meaning. Revelation isn't open to all but dispensed at the discretion of a priest or master. Interpretation is not an individual matter. Conformance to doctrine is the rule.

Nevertheless, I believe the path of surrender does have great value for many people. There are many people in this world who are not able to think for themselves. They need to be told how to live healthier, and happier lives. If one is lucky enough to meet a saintly person, one can gain great assistance in one's spiritual growth by having faith in that person's teaching. As I studied some of the great Christian mystics in seminary I got a little weak in the knees and thought, well maybe, just maybe I could be a Catholic. Then I attended a service with my Irish Catholic mother-in-law. My mind and heart fled for the door.

For whatever reason, we Unitarian Universalists feel compelled to make our own way to the divine. The religious path is hard enough without adding another layer of resistance to usually racist or sexist, irrational and regressive thinking. Often the pure teaching is good, there is much of great value in the Koran for example, but the cultural context colors and distorts the message of the prophet. The best path of awakening for each of us is the one that attracts us and holds our attention.

Unitarian Universalism affirms the uniqueness of our individual religious needs. Each of us understands the depths of our spirit differently. We each have different interests, abilities, passions, and questions which to use the words of Emily Dickinson, nibble at the soul. To follow the questions that capture our attention and fill us with energy will surely be more satisfying than, as Emerson put it, the purely spectral.

The problem though, has been that Unitarian Universalism has pointed us to the experiential horizon and left us to cross the terrain without a road map. We have no mutually agreed upon spiritual practice which we teach for experiential learning. If we get lost in the forest , no one is there to show us the way out. If we discover gold in the hills, no one is there to tell us that we have only discovered pyrite, fools gold. If we are taken in by a charlatan and thieves, no one is there to show us their true colors. You're on your own.

We need to educate ourselves about how to cross the spiritual terrain as we push beyond our known limits of experiential and intellectual understanding. I see three frontiers today for the development of paths of experiential learning within Unitarian Universalism. These frontiers demand not one path but a selection of paths toward the same goals. Many fingers point toward the moon, the goal, but the moon must remain the object of attention not the fingers, the methods, that point the way. The method is a raft we can use to cross uncharted inner rivers and may be left behind when we have crossed to the other side as we pursue the grail of awakening.

First, I see a need in our churches and fellowships for experiences of devotion and praise. Many of us have had such an experience on top of a mountain, watching one of the great Florida sunsets, or while sailing through calm, clear waters. There are concrete ways to cultivate the feeling of these experiences indoors as well. The experience of gratitude for the unchosen, unearned gift of life can cultivate one's sense of personal value. The feeling that our lives are valuable is of great importance, especially when the world neglects us.

We need access to this emotional affirmation of our value which does not require the self-negation or humiliation demanded in some traditional churches. The authentic experience of devotion creates a safe atmosphere to allow our boundaries to expand and encompass all that is - with affirmation. The experience of devotion fills us with value and meaning as it gives the tangible feeling of connection with the pulse of existence. Praise and thanksgiving is a spontaneous response to the feeling of devotion. Praise and devotion are not the exclusive province of regressive fundamentalist traditions. They are a human experiences of reality that can be consciously cultivated. Many people feel access to these experiences in song. Our new hymnal is a giant step in this direction. For many the performance of live music on Sunday morning can fill us with the feeling of praise. The experience of devotion can be practiced and brought inside using a number of techniques which do not violate the sanctity of reason that even an atheist can accept.

The second experience I'd like to mention today is the experience of incarnate truth, the truth revealed through our bodies. If you glance down now, you will notice you have a body with arms and legs connected to you neck. Your body is not just a recalcitrant servant of the brain gradually falling into disrepair. It has much to teach us about the meaning of life. In the process it can also teach us much about maintaining good health. It never ceases to amaze me how important a well maintained body is to a feeling of well being. We must become astronomers in our own universe, observing the bodies' habits and peculiarities, finding the way to balance its many needs, desires and aversions.

You may be surprised to learn that many experiences of consciousness are experienced in the body before they are recognized in the mind. An awareness of one's moment by moment changes of postures, breathing, muscle tension, nerve and intestinal activity, and skin sensations can teach us a great deal that the normal conscious mind doesn't notice. Unfortunately it often takes a bout of ill health to discover the treasures of experiential wisdom inside this bag of skin.

The last need I'll mention today crying out for attention is the need for experiences of service which open the heart.. We live in a time of increasing fear and suspicion of the unknown other. Our television set can show us their faces being arrested but it cannot reveal their character. I see a growing distrust, a growing desire to isolate ourselves rather than opening to connection with the other and finding out who they are.

The Unitarian Church in Oakland, my religious home in California, provided space for a homeless shelter during the winter months. Members of the congregation volunteered to serve breakfast to our guests so they would have at least one decent meal that day. It allowed the members of the church a point of contact with the reality of the homeless people. Some were difficult to deal with. Yet others touched our hearts. I remember particularly well one fellow who always helped in the kitchen - a caring soul whose inept choice of deceitful companions cost him his home. Others in the shelter inspired us with their dedication towards making a new start in their lives. We were making a big positive difference in their lives.

In the absence of the experience of the humanity of inner city youth growing up in a culture of nihilism, trying to find meaning in a pessimistic hopeless world that seems only to be getting worse and worse, we can decide write them off as human waste. In the absence of the understanding of the exploitation of colonialism and its damaging effects on the character of the people of Africa; In the absence of the campesino's experience of grinding rural poverty farming depleted soils, we can dismiss them as casualties of their unchecked reproduction.

An authentic experience of service to others reveals our common humanity in a way that opens our hearts and hands. The experiential connection to the other through personal contact can open the experience of connection to the whole of humanity. An experience of connection also called agape, or transpersonal love.

The first commandment ,to love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength, originates in an experience of this expansive love. It is a feeling of connection with all of humanity - even all of creation - even all of the universe. In our U.U. religious tradition, the path to this experience of transpersonal love is often found in social action and service. It can also be found through the inward experience of one's body. In can also be found in experiences of devotion and praise. It can also be found while reading a great book, trying to express one's experience as a line of poetry, holding a brush to a canvass, and playing a musical instrument. There is no limit to the number of doors that open the way of the spirit of love.

Today I'd like to share with you some of the ways people today are finding satisfying religious experiences within Unitarian Universalism. U.U.'s are already seeking to address this need for experience at the grass roots level. Especially the younger U.U.'s are joining our congregations with heads already full of ideas, seeking experiences to sort out fact from fiction.

Today women and men are gathering separately to explore their spiritual needs that center in their sexual identity. Women's worship circles and retreats are springing up across the continent. The women are experimenting with ritual to gain an experience and feeling of connection to the sacred in themselves and those around them. In the communion with the sacred, they seek to find their inner access to transformative power. From this spiritual connection to their inner source, springs insight, energy and direction which can then be used to heal the brokenness of our society.

Men are gathering in groups to find ways to affirm their maleness in a world where women are slowing gaining power and demanding more of their turf. Men seek to find positive ways to redirect their destructive energy as spiritual rather than military warriors who bring wholeness to the individual and justice to the broken of our society.

Many in our congregations are attracted to Earth Centered Spirituality also known as Paganism. Rather than raising a prayer to a monotheistic deity, they sing praises to their Mother Earth. In the personification of the forces of nature as deities and in the experience of ceremony and ritual, they find a sense of connection to the planet and affirmation of their human value not found as a drone in the skyscraper beehive working their fingers down to the bone on a computer keyboard.

Those who like to sit and ponder are attracted to the experience of meditation. They sit quietly concentrating their minds and watching the dance of existence on their inner stage. In the stillness of their inner peace, the subtle aspects of reality become easier to witness. A profound understanding can be gained by just sitting still and seeing things as they are.

A retired minister in California, Harry Scholefield, has taught an interesting form of meditation that begins with finding an inspirational poem, memorizing it and repeating the poem from memory as a prelude to a meditation period. The words open new inner vistas of meaning as they settle into the recesses of the mind.

Others who like to move rather than sit still are holding hands, lifting their voices and moving their feet to the Dances of Universal Peace. An American Sufi Master living in San Francisco, Sam Lewis, was inspired to take sacred phrases and turn them into dances which make one's whole being, heart, voice, body and soul an expression of devotion and praise. If you have trouble with depression, let me tell you, it is hard not to feel uplifted and energized after doing the Dances of Universal Peace.

Some want to move their bodies a little slower using tai chi. This ancient martial art exercise uses the body to discover a sense of balance and centeredness in motion while creating movements of great beauty. We have a tai chi master in our Fellowship in Port Charlotte, Scott Huss, teaching and I am really enjoying the self discovery of finding my balance, the middle way with his guidance.

And there are many others I don't have the time to discuss this morning including many of the activities under the rubric of the New Age. The point I'm emphasizing today about all these groups is that they are vehicles for experiencing the holy and sacred. This is a wonderful time in our history of great religious freedom and exploration. There are many paths available for experiencing the sacred and many teachers showing the way to inner knowledge.

I expect by now at least a few of you in the audience might be feeling that these groups don't belong in our midst. If someone wants to worship trees and dance naked in the moonlight while beating a drum, let them form their own church. And indeed people are doing that. We as Unitarian Universalists can not cast our lot with any of one of these new ways of worship. Yet we can gain great benefit for ourselves by giving them shelter in our midst.

For we have something important to offer these new experiential paths of inner growth. What we have is the treasure that has been the bedrock of our tradition since our beginnings. We can protect the seekers from self-deception by encouraging them to reflect on their own experience and be guided by their own inner light rather than blinding following a teacher or tradition. We can help the seeker separate the wheat from the chaff and take the parts that nourish their own growth.

I believe we can have it both ways. We can have nourishing religious experiences without abandoning our rational self reflection. We shall know the truth of our experiential learning by its fruits. Our challenge is to be like an explorer and inquire beyond the limits of what we now know experientially and intellectually.

For me this path has been through insight oriented meditation. At intensive meditation retreats ten days of silence and sitting still witnessing the processes of consciousness calmed the turbulent surface of my mind calmed. In this tranquil mental space, I experienced the transition when a religious precept becomes a witnessed reality. Sometimes we must see and feel things for ourselves, especially in things of the spiritual realm, before we can believe them.

From experiences like these in different settings, I have been evolving a vision of a U.U. spiritual retreat I'd like to create that incorporates the silence of meditation, the interpersonal development of group psychology, and the vocal, bodily celebration of earth centered ritual and dance into an energizing experience of spiritual renewal. I feel today we are well positioned to take the best of these different traditions and synthesize a retreat experience which will satisfy many people's desire for more spirituality within a Unitarian Universalist context.

The goal in all this experiential learning is to gain an unshakable awareness that the divine dwells within us wearing our face, thinking our thoughts and using our words as you and you and you and you and me. The divine dwells in all that the eye can see. We are all an expression of life's enthusiasm for creation. May we realize our divine nature and willingly engage in the unfolding process of the divine!

I am very grateful this morning for your invitation to share some of my excitement about the prospects for spiritual renewal and awakening within the varieties of Unitarian Universalism.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.