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[Chalice] Spirituality and the Humanist [Chalice]

Presented November 7, 2010, by Dr. Douglas Muder

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This talk comes out of a lunch I had last June with one of the Humanists in my church, a retired physicist named Ellery Schempp. UU churches have a way of collecting interesting characters, the kind of people that cause you to say, "You'll never guess who goes to my church." Well, Ellery Schempp goes to my church. Now, the events that made him one of those you'll-never-guess characters happened a long time ago, so let me remind you. In 1956, Ellery attended a Pennsylvania public high school that required students to read ten Bible verses each day in homeroom. One day, Ellery himself got in trouble because he didn't bring a Bible to homeroom, he brought a Quran. He did that not because he was Muslim, but to make a point. Well, seven years later his ACLU lawyer made that same point to the Supreme Court in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp. The Court agreed with Ellery 8-1, and that's why school-sponsored Bible readings are unconstitutional. That's Ellery Schempp.

So last June over lunch he said something I had heard from a number of Humanists over the years: He doesn't care for all this talk about spirituality in our UU churches, because he doesn't know what spirituality means and he sometimes suspects that it doesn't mean anything. He's in good company there, because in 1929 the pioneer Unitarian Humanist, John Dietrich, preached a sermon called "What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?" Here's what he said:

[J]ust 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, [and] 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, where people complain that UU churches are not spiritual enough, but instead are head-centered, wordy, lifeless. These people claim to be looking for a kind of depth, and complain that they don't find it in Unitarian Universalism. With apologies to John Dietrich, in general I don't find these spiritual seekers to be of "feeble or dissipated intelligence." They seem to me to be expressing a sincere desire, and what's more, they 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.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, said this about that hallowed Christian word Trinity:

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 as 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 word, but you aren't actually talking about anything.

That 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 an 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 John Dietrich's: Insisting on a definition kills a discussion about spirituality because the word doesn't really mean anything, or means something different to every person who uses it. 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. And since we just finished an election campaign the experience may even be fresh in your mind: 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. But even if you know what I'm talking about, you still may not see how pulling out a dictionary could create such a hostile environment. Why are spirituality and dictionaries so irreconcilable?

Taking a shot at a definition. 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 demanding 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. The only other time I've presented that definition I had a blackboard to leave it on for the rest of the talk, so maybe I'd better repeat it: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.

Now, that definition probably doesn't resemble anything you were expecting, so let me take a little time to point out its features.

First, my definition is compatible with Humanism. John Dietrich would have nothing to complain about. There are no supernatural assumptions. You can seek this kind of spirituality with or without believing in any gods or souls or spirits or afterlives.

Second, by defining spirituality as an awareness I've placed 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.

It's also not an activity like meditation or prayer or chanting or drumming. Any of those practices might raise some individual'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. 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 and not spiritual at all.

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 to-morrow; 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. Sometimes knowledge will cause you, to appreciate the indescribable depthsof something 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 ... 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 training had done the reverse: It allowed him to experience counting as something strange and wonderful. As a mathematician, Hamming could imagine a Universe in which every kind of thing had to be counted in its own way: one set of numbers for sheep, another for stones, another for loaves of bread, and so on. But in our Universe, there is only one set of counting numbers and they work for everything. Isn't that a miracle?

Now that I've explained the definition a little, let's think about whether it's 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. In each case, the spiritual quality has a lot to do with indescribability. 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 -- you don't have to believe in any particular "spirit" to be spiritual -- 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, 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.

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.

So anything about a situation that I usually put into words - even just words in my own head - has 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.

Now, if I'm right about what spirituality is, what is the value of it? What is the value of meditating or chanting or a Japanese tea ceremony? By themselves, activities like that don't feed the hungry or promote justice or even make money. So what's the value of being aware of the difference between what you can experience and what you can describe? For me, the main reason to seek out spiritual experiences is because that gap 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. And 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 had an important idea, but you have to wait a few seconds before you know what your idea is. It's like the ship coming across from the Undescribed has docked, but you haven't unloaded it yet.

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 in which you appreciate the value of facts and logic and evidence. None of that is unspiritual. No, an unspiritual life is one in which experience and description seem identical. For me it is best summed up by a rhyme the students of Oxford's Balliol College used to recite 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.

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 will never run out of mysteries.

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 sixth century BC, was writing about a lover who was far away when 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 coined bittersweet. She is thinking of someone she loves, but can't see or 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.

©2010 Dr. Douglas Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Douglas 2010. Spirituality and the Humanist, /talks/20101107.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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