by Kevin M. Carson
A Sermon Given at First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, March 26, 2017
The intensely personal mystical experience of religion
In our Unitarian Universalist Association, the long process of ministerial formation leads to what we call “fellowship.” After completing a Master of Divinity degree and an internship at a congregation and some other requirements, you eventually have an interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, where they ask you lots of questions to see if you are ready to be a minister. Each candidate submits about an eighty-page packet of materials to the committee before the interview, and among the required materials are a number of short essays on specific topics. One of the short essays I had to write was a response to the question: “What is the theological context of your call to Unitarian Universalist ministry?” In other words, how would you describe your personal theology, and why do you feel called to ministry? With the diversity of beliefs within our liberal religious movement, I imagine the committee receives a wide range of responses to this question. Some UU ministerial candidates identify strongly with a single spiritual tradition – Christian, Buddhist, or Pagan for example – but most of us are more like the majority of the folks in our pews on Sunday morning. For most of us, our initial answer to that question would probably be: “It’s complicated.” As seekers on a lifelong spiritual journey of discovery, it is hard to label or categorize the many influences we have encountered on the way. You probably wouldn’t be sitting here in a Unitarian Universalist church if you didn’t have ongoing questions, and very few easy answers, as to what life is all about.
But of course, a ministerial candidate can’t get away with simply saying, “It’s complicated.” After all, if you have completed all the work to prepare for ministry, you really should have a better understanding of your own theology before you are unleashed on the world. In my “theological context” essay, I described how I really have three theological contexts that I draw on depending on the situation or question. One is Religious Naturalism, which reflects my understanding of the science behind the cosmos, and how we human beings evolved from this Earth and remain part of her. Another is Christian Humanism, which is how I describe the source of my ethical and moral foundation – firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the idea of building the kingdom of God on Earth. My third context is Mysticism, and I will speak much more on this in a moment. I will probably explore this idea of multiple “religious identities” some Sunday in the future, but the reason I am telling you about this today is that, in my essay, I went on to say that, if I had to choose only one answer to this question it would have to be mysticism.
So, what do I mean by mysticism? It is an intriguing word that seems to imply something magical or even occult. Perhaps you think I fancy myself to be some sort of wizard. The truth is far more mundane I’m afraid, but there is an undeniable sense of something sacred and spiritual in my use of the word. The Oxford Dictionary offers two definitions for mysticism:
Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
Belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
I don’t believe either of these definitions is sufficient, or really describes my use of the word in broad enough terms, but I can appreciate the conundrum the authors faced in trying to pin down a definition. Any talk of mysticism eventually bumps into the limits of language and begins to sound vaguely mysterious – you may end up wandering in that “dreamy confusion of thought” the Oxford folks warned us about. You reach a point when, for example, the ancient author of the Taoist sacred text, the Tao Te Ching, says something like, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.” Mysticism is ultimately about intuitive understanding, when words fail to convey what can only be experienced. I think the two important characteristics of mysticism these definitions are trying to capture are: a sense of “union [or unity] with the absolute,” and the relationship between “self-delusion” and “self-surrender.” So, having admitted that words are insufficient for revealing the heart of mysticism, and can even be a barrier to a deeper understanding, let me risk continuing on with my sermon.
I choose to embrace the label mysticism as my primary “theological context” because it reflects my experience of a sacred creative unity that pervades everything around us, and I am comfortable naming that sacred unity “God.” More often, I prefer to call this reality the “Sacred Mystery,” since it acknowledges how little we can say about the sacred with any certainty. Every part and particle, and every moment of the cosmos, reveals the reality of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” that we lift up in our Seventh Principle, and it is good and holy. Since I imagine everything that is, or was, or is yet to be, as held within this sacred unity, it makes more sense for me to talk about other aspects of my theological identity – which are more focused on the secular world – as secondary. To call myself a mystic also reflects my understanding of that first spiritual source we draw upon in our Unitarian Universalist tradition: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” I am convinced that we can and do have direct experiences of that transcending mystery, if only in glimpses, perhaps during prayer or from the awe and wonder we encounter in nature, or at other times when we are most aware of our full humanity.
When I come to Chester to preach, I usually travel on Saturday and spend the night, but sometimes I drive up early on Sunday morning. One Sunday morning last March, just over a year ago, as I was driving up, I was listening to the program On Being on WGBH, and the guest was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. The program was a rebroadcast of a 2014 interview by the host Krista Tippett, and the topic of the program was “Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God.” Rabbi Kushner is a Reform rabbi, and a long-time student of the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah, in the lineage of his late teacher Rabi Gershom Scholem. Scholem is credited with revitalizing interest in Kabbalah in the twentieth century. There are many varieties of Kabbalah that range from a practical focus on ethics to the very esoteric. Some forms are centered on contemplation, for example, while others search for coded messages contained in the text of the Torah. There are some forms that have a doctrine of reincarnation, and others that focus on the feminine aspect of the divine. It is hard to generalize about the practices or beliefs of the Kabbalah tradition, but at its heart, Kabbalah is a search for understanding the relationship between the created world and the mysterious, infinite divine. In Kabbalah, all being is rooted in the Ein Sof, the Holy Oneness of Creation.
About half-way through the interview, Kushner was attempting to articulate the nature of mysticism, and here is how he described it:
“It’s a handful of smoke. Yeah, it’s real hard to talk about. But it’s the most important thing to talk about. My suspicion is, and I don’t know who … said that ‘whatever it is that makes religion religion, mysticism has more of it.’ It seems to be freeze-dried, it seems to be intensified, focused. It’s the name of the game. It’s the very center of what we are talking about. Because, to be sure, mysticism is intensely personal, and that’s what it always winds up doing for people.”
I love Kushner’s analogy of mysticism as an intensified, “freeze-dried” experience of religion. If you have ever eaten a freeze-dried strawberry, and tasted the explosion of flavor, you can appreciate what he was trying to say. In terms of religious experience, it is the difference between a Sunday morning worship service – even a great one – and a moment of real epiphany, a moment when you feel an overwhelming sense of unity with the world, or the undeniable presence of something holy. It is in such moments that the delusion of a duality between our notion of being an individual “self” that is something apart from the sacred unity is shattered. This is the surrender of “self” to “no-self” that so many spiritual traditions have discovered in their more mystic forms. It is the emptiness sought in Buddhist contemplative practices, and the experience of divine union and the Christ Consciousness for Jewish and Christian mystics. For the Religious Naturalist, it is the recognition of our “ecological self” – the recognition that our own “being” extends beyond our physical bodies in an inseparable relationship with the Earth’s living systems, and even the inorganic processes that sustain life.
I believe that small mystical moments abound in our lives. They need not be profound experiences that forever alter your path in life, but they might be. Small mystical moments may present themselves in the most ordinary situations. We just need to learn how to recognize them. In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified four characteristics of a mystical experience. First of all, it is transient and unpredictable. You cannot summon a mystical moment by force of will; they come and go as they please. The second characteristic is that you are the passive recipient of such moments. A mystical moment takes you by surprise. As Rabi Kushner says, “You don’t have the experience, it has you.” The third characteristic James identified is that there is an intellectual component to the experience. It has what he called “a noetic quality” that leaves one with a flash of insight, revelation, or illumination. But sharing this insight is problematic, because the fourth characteristic returns us to the familiar conundrum: a mystical experience is ineffable – words fail to fully describe the experience. Try as we might, it is impossible to fit a mystical experience into a purely rational container, and this is why we need a religion that allows us to explore the meaning and the sheer mystery of the sacred moments we encounter. Rationalism is not enough.
We Unitarian Universalists are such a diverse lot that I am wary of generalizing about the spirituality of Unitarian Universalism, but I believe it is fair to say that our tradition has a long history of holding reason in tension with the experience of “that transcending mystery and wonder.” We are guarded and suspicious of feelings that are unprovable, preferring reasonableness in our search for truth and meaning. But, even as we use reason as a tool to probe the mysteries of existence, our exploration often ends in feelings of piety and awe – feelings of wonder that hint at profound spiritual truths. Reason is important, but we have kept the door open to trusting our intuition, cultivating what the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called a “sense and taste for the infinite.” Our faith today is a celebration of Transcendentalism and religious individualism, even as we hold on to the great spiritual traditions of the past and explore their wisdom for guidance for living in our own times. We embrace science and reason and spirituality as complementary aspects of what it means to be fully human, and this is our great strength. I agree with Rev. Tom Owen-Towle who characterized Unitarian Universalists as“bona fide mystics” because “the substance of our faith points to an ineffable yet undeniable connection with sacrality, both mysterious and sustaining, … [that] our lives are embraced by a mystery that is gracious and trustworthy, and our human fulfillment lies in surrendering to it.” It is the same sentiment Emerson expressed in the excerpt from The Oversoul which we read together this morning. Our experience of religion is holistic. It is intensely personal but at the same time intensely unifying.
Many people are understandably anxious these days about politics, and the damage that we human beings seem so willing to inflict on our earthly home, but I believe humanity is slowly awakening to a confluence of science and spirituality that can and will change everything. More and more people are learning the story of how our universe came to be what it is, and there is an undeniable “freeze-dried,” mystical quality to this new understanding as Kushner described. I hear echoes of Emerson when contemporary scientists wax poetically about nature and the universe, when for example, cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “The deep truth about matter … is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.” Friends, if that doesn’t inspire awe and wonder, I can’t imagine what would!
With our embrace of reason and the importance of the individual experience of religion, I believe our faith is aligned very well with this global awakening. But in our individualism, we must avoid the pitfall of becoming what Rev. James Luther Adams called a “purely spiritual religion.” In an essay Adams wrote in 1946, he cautioned that,
“A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality which demands the community of justice and love. This sham spirituality, far more than materialism, is the great enemy of religion.”
It may be tempting these days to retreat from the world and simply navel-gaze while the world around us burns with injustice, but to ignore the practical demands of religion would be a great moral failure. Once we recognize the hidden unity in the world, and our illusion of isolation is shattered, once we see the suffering of others as if it is our own, we are compelled to act to alleviate it. Or, you could look at from the other direction. In one on his books, Rabbi Kushner wrote, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” Perhaps it is all of this brokenness and discord that we share as human beings that opens our eyes and instills this “gnawing suspicion” of a hidden unity, and moves us to heal the world.
In this year that has already been fraught with discord, brokenness, contradictions, and plenty of anxiety, it is my wish that all of you allow yourselves the grace of quiet time – time to listen to the still small voice within, time to nurture your inner mystic, time to acknowledge the “gnawing suspicion” of a hidden unity that brings a “peace which passeth all understanding.”
Krista Tippet interview with Rabi Lawrence Kushner from 2014, “Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God,” rebroadcast on the WGBH program “On Being,” March 10, 2016, transcript available online.
Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
James Luther Adams, A Faith for Free Men (1946).
Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799).
#42 “Morning, So Fair to See”
#123 "Spirit of Life"
#92 “Mysterious Presence, Source of All”
#298 “Wake, Now, My Senses”
Opening Words from the poem “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, -- both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
#531 “The Oversoul”
“A Common Destiny” by David H. Eaton
All living substance, all substance of Energy,
are united and share the same destiny.
those we love and those we know not of
are united and share the same destiny.
this unity we share with
our Brothers and Sisters,
Flowers of the field,
Volcanoes and Moon Beams.
Birth—Life – Death
Unknown – Known – Unknown
Our Destiny: from Unknown to Unknown.
I pray that we will know the Awe
and not fall into the pit of intellectual arrogance
in attempting to explain it away.
The Mystery can be our substance.
May we have the faith to accept this wonderful Mystery
and build upon its everlasting Truth.
“hymn to the sacred body of the universe” by Drew Dellinger
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs
For one instant
to dwell in the presence of the galaxies
for one instant
to live in the truth of the heart
the poet says this entire traveling cosmos is
“the secret One slowly growing a body”
Two eagles are mating—
clasping each other’s claws
and turning cartwheels in the sky
grasses are blooming
consciousness blinking on and off
all of this is happening at once
all of this, vibrating into existence
out of nothingness
foaming into existence
transcribing the ineffable
Arising and passing away
arising and passing away
23 trillion times per second—
when Buddha saw that,
16 million tons of rain are falling every second
on the planet
and every drop
is your body
every motion, every feather, every thought
is your body
is your body,
and the infinite
curled inside like
invisible rainbows folded into light
Every word of every tongue is love
telling a story to her own ears
Let our lives be incense
like a hymn to the sacred
body of the universe
my religion is rain
my religion is stone
my religion reveals itself to me in
Every leaf, every river,
every creature trapped in the gears
of corporate nightmares
every species made extinct
10 million people are dreaming
that they’re flying
junipers and violets are blossoming
stars exploding and being born
I am one
we cry petals
as the void
You are the dark
that holds the stars
That spun the whirling,
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs.