Growing up, my spiritual life had a single story. That is, my spiritual life had only a fraction of the truth or one perspective. My mother was an ultra-Catholic and my father couldn’t have cared less. So Catholicism won out in our house. The single story was dogma. Jesus was the son of God, he died for our sins, was killed, rose again, and would someday return to take me to heaven where I would live in the clouds with no worries forever and ever. If ever one of us in the family would stray from this single story my mother would say, and I quote, “That's blasphemy!”
I knew what blasphemy was before I memorized my home address. There wasn't a gray area in this single religious story. There was no chicken or egg line of thinking allowed, and there were no other possibilities, period. This made my growing extremely difficult.
At the age of 12, realizing I was gay, I had to decide and declare to myself that I would simply need to accept that I would be alone in life and would be just fine. That is what my single religious story told me. There wasn't an alternative in that single story. As I grew older and started to question, to engage all that was forbidden, and create my own religious story, I waited for God to reject me or, even worse, condemn me. I literally would look up into the sky looking for the disappointed and vengeful eye of God. I would actually physically cower as a way to possibly avoid punishment. I had to accept that I was a spiritual failure, that I was not worthy and if I was condemned, I deserved it. The culture raising me reinforced that.
Some time ago I listened to Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk about how our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story we risk a critical misunderstanding. When talking about being Nigerian and how the West thinks of Africans she says, “If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.” She goes on by telling us that “to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." And so regarding Adichie’s experience with how the West experiences Africans and how my and our spiritual experiences are reduced to a single story, we realize that our location is not the only story or the only truth. Our view and belief or the view and belief of the other is not the only, not the correct or most logical way of thinking. Perhaps through the evolution of our stories and fluidity of our Unitarian Universalist theologies we realize that we do not own the truth and that others that make such a claim are sadly mistaken.
This understanding of the pitfalls of the single story will help us to consider an article in the New York Times written by op-ed columnist Frank Bruni. Bruni holds up Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and best-selling author who famously took a buzz saw to major world religions and whose new book is an example of an atheist evolving from his single atheistic story of godlessness to the consideration of godliness. Bruni writes, “Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists. He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.” In Waking Up Harris describes when that evolution happened. It happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” Bruni asks the questions had Harris at last found God? Is Waking Up a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?
Hardly. Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom raised publicly in America, where religion is such sacred and protected turf, where God is on our currency and at our inaugurals and in our pledge and, unfortunately, is being written into legislation as a way to exempt the worshipful from standards that apply to everyone else. Bruni writes, “That [chicken or the egg] question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? ” Another way to ask that question is: Is the faith really an elaborate attempt to explain and romanticize the feeling of transcendence, rather than a bridge to it? “Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?” asks Bruni.
Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.” But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced, willed one, because as he writes in his book he had felt similar exaltation and rapture at his desk, or while having his teeth cleaned,” or in other circumstances where he had slowed down, tuned out distractions and focused on the moment at hand. In other words, there are many ways of flight from commonplace worries, many routes of distraction. “They include prayer, but they also include meditation, exercise, communion with music, immersion in nature” writes Harris.
If you’d like to read Harris’ book I have it here available to you. It’s a worthy read as is the book by Greg Epstein, Good Without God, also here available to you. We can surely identify with the growing number of people around the country and the globe who are increasingly comfortable claiming that they aren’t finding the comfort they desire, or as Bruni writes, “the truth that makes sense to them,” within organized religion.
Twenty percent of adults in our country fall into that category. That’s significant. Interestingly, of that 20 percent, one out of three labelled themselves atheists or agnostics. However, more of these people had a belief in a higher power. Bruni reminds us that they aren’t “looking for a church, but may want some of the virtues — emotional grounding, psychic grace — that are associated and sometimes conflated with one, and that many Americans are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety,” and says, “In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.” Harris brings that to them — a guide to spirituality without religion.
Recently, however, part of Harris’ evolution to finding himself between godlessness and godliness, between faithlessness and piety, is his understanding of what a mistake it is to forget the goodness of religion and only harp on the cruelty done in the name of religion. In an interview Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.” Harris, Bruni, and Epstein advocate for “unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science” equal with the loyalty to any seemingly divine word.
How do we live then as Unitarian Universalists falling somewhere, everywhere, on the spectrum of spirituality and our view of organized religion? Where do we fall as the self-described nonreligious on the spectrum of godliness and godlessness? Do we believe that we can evolve, like Harris -- one of the most noted atheists of our time -- experience transcendence and slide up and down the scale, or do we really and secretly believe we own the truth?
We’re friends here. We can share that we may, as religious liberals, think that we’ve cornered the market on the truth and that the Christian sitting in front of us, the Muslim sitting next to us, or the earth-centered pagan in the next row is lost and simply need to find us, find the real truth. But it’s like a family secret — it’s gauche to talk about or claim our ownership of the truth. Instead we may outwardly reject that.
These are challenging questions and ideas for sure. The real truth is that there is more to understanding reality than science and secular culture generally allow. How we pay attention to the present and recognize and be open to transcendence largely determines the quality of our lives and the quality of the lives of those we serve, support, and advocate for.
Spirituality remains a great hollowness in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other protective postures that reasonable people strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. We know the single story doesn’t serve us well. These postures may serve some of us well, but not in isolation and not in the place that denies the evolution of one’s own spirituality or the acceptance of another’s. Let us be open to sliding forward and backward on the spectrum, open to the fluidity of our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Let us live as authentic Unitarian Universalists working not only for freedom, reason and tolerance for others, but also for our own minds and spirits. May it be so.
Between Godliness and Godlessness, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, April 12, 2015.