Friday, May 01, 2009

How does Unitarianism bring about spiritual transformation?

We often talk about "Unitarian beliefs" when we talk about Unitarianism, which is somewhat ironic given we're non-creedal. I often think we're not entirely sure what non-creedalism means. Anyway I'm starting to think that it's the wrong sort of question. I'm more interested right now in what techniques Unitarianism offers for spiritual transformation. There are different ways of asking this: How does Unitarianism help me to walk closer with my God? How does Unitarianism liberate me from my suffering? How does Unitarianism dissolve the illusions I have built up in my head and help me confront the Really Real? These are the deep questions a religion must eventually deal with, and I worry we're not very good at dealing with them, which is the reason for our failure.

Yet the Unitarian tradition I believe does offer some spiritual guidance on going deeper. I've identified a few of these ways below, in no particular order. These techniques may not be unique to Unitarianism (indeed most spiritual techniques are universal) but they are distinctly Unitarian, though overlapping with much else.

Look within
The Unitarian tradition has often said that the Divine is within: "the realm of God is within" Jesus said. What this means, crucially, is that there is not some book or teaching its necessary to get hold of to understand the nature of reality. Truly looking within (deeper than the superficial ego) we can find God. Someone can go a whole life without hearing the gospel or the dharma and still "get it." Although for most of us, having teachers helps, but only in pointing us back to ourselves.

Communion with nature
Whether in the form of Transcendentalism or paganism Unitarians have always found God in the natural world (or found that God IS the natural world). Going to church doesn't make you a Unitarian, you have to go to the forest too. This is one of the most reliable ways to receive spiritual refreshment and transformation.

"All truly profound thinking becomes religious" said Albert Schweitzer. The struggle to work things out, to explore religious questions, to explore the universe is itself a spiritual practice. Doubting may even be more spiritually useful than believing, as doubting suggests a process, while believing is a static state of affairs. The divine is found in deep thinking.

Loving the world around you
This spiritual insight is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, though it isn't always acknowledged as such by Unitarians. "How can you love God without loving your sister? You can't." Whatever highfalutin spiritual techniques you have, even if you spend hours meditating, it's all for nothing unless it leads to love for others. Love for others is a spiritual practice, and it deepens other spiritual practices. Love extends beyond the purely personal to include the political.

Spiritual transformation is brought about by a process of integrating every part of the human self: the soul, the mind and the body. You should not leave your doubting mind or your sexual body at the door of the church as you do something for your soul. All parts of ourselves need to be accepted and integrated. It is spiritually harmful to deny a sexual orientation or a doubting mind.

It is only by truly and deeply listening to the other (and not just to ourselves) that we can hear the voice of God. A process in which we speak honestly, and are heard, and listen fully to an other creates a place where we meet the divine. This is a challenging process that we're not always good at. But perhaps this is a spiritual practice that we need to take on more fully.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another excellent post. Well done and blessings to you, Stephen.

8:45 am  
Blogger Glen Marshall said...

Stephen, I notice you twice speak of "spiritual practices". Are you using the word practice in its everday sense or the much in more freighted sense introduced by Alisdair Macintyre and used in Neo-orthodox and Post-liberal circles?

I only ask because when you speak of "techniques" it grates on me somewhat. To me the ward has connotations that I find far too clinical, instrumental, dehumanised. The notion of practices (as developed by Macintyre et al) however is far richer.

If you are familiar with stuff, fine, if not it might be worth checking out.

6:34 pm  
Anonymous Tim (in London today, not S Manc) said...

Kudos to you for putting that together. Unitarianism is not the only liberal religion any more (nor ever has been) but your piece shows how Unitarians are uniquely placed to deal with the most fundamental issues in life. On a personal level,I think you show how Unitarianism still has a certain edge over the emerging Progressive Christian movement, which I also identify with a lot, but is considered by some to be a threat to (or the nail in the coffin for) Unitarians.

You really should get your tract/essay made into a professionally produced leaflet, and/or use it as the basis of something wider.

10:04 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

"Techniques" may not be the best word. I remember some of Macintrye's stuff that I was directed to through Bryan Stone's book. It might get back into that stuff when I get around to rejoining LKH library as an external user... but there are so many unread books on my bookshelves right now that I want to catch up on those before I pay to belong to a library.

2:57 pm  
Blogger jef jones said...

I want to say all sorts of complicated things about all this! but really all they add to up is I think you're really onto something with these last two posts. I worry that we Unitarians have become very focussed on making our faith into accessible soundbites. I think people come to us for depth, for divine truth and connection, and for ways to get more of this in their lives. The ways that you suggest aren't necessarily difficult but they aren't necessarily easy either - dialogue and thinking and love are challenging - they require some commitment, openness to transformation, to being moved in powerful and life-changing ways. People are coming to distrust easy answers -easy money, easy fuel, easy food, easy faith, easy sex - these are all letting people down. Of course we should be accessible but there are plenty of other people out there trying to buy people's souls with slogans. We have something more profound, loving and powerful than advertising: God.

4:37 pm  
Blogger Jacob Krueger said...

Hello Stephen, I just came across your blog after checking out your profile in The Unitarian newsletter.

You've made some really excellent points. I think too often people believe that in order to have a sincere and rational liberal religious experience means losing the functional side of spirituality--that is to nurture and develop our relationship with (God/Nature/the Divine/the Human Spirit).

I don't know too much about the differences between Unitarian Universalism and European Unitarianism, but I'm hoping to learn more now!

1:58 am  
Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Excellent post, Stephen!

My only comment is in regard to this sentence: "Going to church doesn't make you a Unitarian, you have to go to the forest too."

I do like the "feel" of that, but the truth is that most people go to work five days a week, putz around or recreate on the sixth and seventh, run busily from this activity to that in many of the off hours, and only "go into the forest" in any literal sense two or three times a year.

Of course, we all know exceptions, people who make the forest a priority. But they're unusual. So it becomes all the more important to find a way to see the whole in each constituent part - "to see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour," in William Blake's words.

Breslaver Hasids have, as part of their spiritual practice inherited from Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, spending an hour a day in nature - davening (praying) to be sure, but also just being. But they interpret that practice in such a way that they don't have to leave the city to do it. Parks work well for this. But when a park is at an impractical distance, simply being outdoors in the presence of as many things as possible not made by human hands works.

In a sense, the "forest," like the divine spark, is within it. We can see its reality no matter where the exigencies of our lives force us to spend out time.

But it definitely does help to be in an actual forest occasionally.

2:57 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Thanks everyone.

Paul: "the forest" for most people will be their garden. I live in a flat and don't even have that. There is, however, a small stream that goes past my building that is a good place to pray. You don't need much: air, sky, green.

9:04 am  
Blogger Jaume de Marcos Andreu said...

"Communion with nature" is, for most Western people, a substitute way for expressing our inability to adapt to a new society and a new time. If you need to go to the woods to find spirituality, then you have a problem, because God is everywhere, yes even in the slums of the mega-cities or in our streets and squares. But most importantly, it is within us as you say in the video. So wherever you are, there is God for you. Nature is optional.

12:11 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Oh yes! Excellent post.

9:09 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Just posted a review of this post and The Unitarian Life on my blog. (Also posted a book review on Amazon.)

11:23 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Thanks Yewtree!

2:39 pm  

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