Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The subjugated story of our spiritual life

James Griffith writes in his book, Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms, :
“Reduced to simplest elements, most psychotherapy consists of four steps: helping a person (1) to notice his or her emotional experiences, (2) to find language for them, (3) to have conversations about them, and (4) to make experientially informed changes in perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors that lead to a more gratifying life. What has been too often missing from psychotherapy, however, has been the moral context for this decision making.” P. 148
It is this moral context for the understanding of one’s joys and sorrows that draw people to religious organizations. People want to be “spiritually fed” as people proclaimed in a former church I belonged to that was going through a crisis in the turn-over of church leadership. What does this phrase mean “to be spiritually fed”?

People are not looking for the sociobiological systems of organized religion, they are looking for facilitating experiences that will help them develop, grow, and enhance a personal spirituality which gives their lives meaning. When people are going through difficulties and tragedies in their lives  from where do they draw strength to get through times like these? It is this source from which a person draws strength that is the basis for a personal spirituality. Does a person “have a narrative coherently composed, spoken, and witnessed by others that can be recollected and incorporated into one’s identity.” as Griffith puts it.p.156

What is the narrative which Unitarian Universalism is composing, speaking, and conveying that a person can recollect and incorporate into one’s identity? Is the narrative so muddled, disjointed, and incoherent that the average person can find very little to identify with? With its six sources, Unitarian Universalism attempts to be all things to all people and winds up meaning very little to most people so that it only appeals to a small group of 160,000 Americans.

A vibrant, relevant religion provides guidance for how to live life at important life transitions such as birth, the age of reason about 7, the coming of age in adolescence, in finding a life partner, in bringing up children, in finding meaningful work, in dealing with illness and losses, in facing and dealing with death. Does Unitarian Universalism provide such a moral context? It seems like it does in its seven principles, and they need to be more fully developed into a coherent theology which resonates with people in an empowering way.

And yet if we look at the situation from the point of view of a life long spiritual development model we might find that most people do not resonate with the narrative of Unitarian Universalism because they have not matured yet to the point where the narrative is relevant in meeting their needs.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychologist, is famous for developing his six stage model of moral development. These six stages fall into three categories: pre-conventional when people’s moral decision making depends on whether they will be punished or not, conventional when people rely on a code like the Ten Commandments or the constitution or a code of ethics, and post-conventional when people have a sense of a universal understanding that some societal norms and laws while legal may be immoral. It is this post conventional stage of development which most Unitarian Universalists have attained having grown disenchanted with the pre-conventional and conventional views of the world.

In our culture the story of the post conventional moral context has been subjugated below our conscious awareness and even though we intuit its existence we find it difficult to name our thoughts and feelings let alone connect the dots in a coherent landscape of meaning. Charles is a seeker who comes to visit at a UU congregation and John helps him become more aware of and articulate his subjugated story of his spiritual life.
Charles visited with a Unitarian Universalist congregation one Sunday while “shopping” for a church. Charles was in his 50s and had been raised in a fundamentalist, Bible believing Christian Church and had been married and raised his family in the church. When his wife died at 45 of breast cancer and his two children had left home and married he became more and more an infrequent church goer and at the time of his visit had not been church in over 1 ½ years.

After the service, Charles had a conversation with John who asked him what inspired him to visit. Charles responded that he had not been to church in some time and had decided not to return to his old church because “I don’t believe in most of the stuff they teach any more.” And yet he still felt a need to somehow be connected to a faith community where he would feel respected and accepted even if he didn’t believe what he had been taught for many years he was supposed to believe.

John asked Charles what he would call this “inspiration”, could he put a name to it? Charles responded that we wanted to be honest and truthful about what he thought and felt and no longer have to keep his deeper thoughts and feelings to himself. John responded that it sounded like honesty and genuineness were important to Charles. Charles said, “If we can’t be honest and truthful with each other we wind up being fake and phony and pretending we believe and feel things when we really don’t and I can’t build my spiritual life on that.”

John asked Charles if he had ever felt he could be honest about his deeper thoughts and feelings before? Charles responded, “Oh, yes, when my wife was alive we talked about these things, but never told anyone else. We liked the people at our church and thought it was good for the kids so we continued to attend, but when she died I was devastated and in addition to dealing with her death, I also lost my confidant, the one person I was able to be honest with.”

“And it is your quest for relationships where you can be honest and truthful that has brought here to visit with us today,” asked John?

“I am not sure exactly what I am looking for,” said Charles, “but I think you have put your finger on probably the main thing which has inspired me to find a new church.”

“You are most welcome here,” said John. “One of our seven principles of Unitarian Univeralism is to covenant to promote and affirm a person’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning which means that we UUs aspire to be honest with each other. There are people here from many walks of life and with many backgrounds and I hope you will find what you are looking for and feel comfortable here.”

“Are the coffee and bagels free,” asked Charles with a big smile.

“Free for now,” said John, “but when you join, you’ll pay one way or another” with a big laugh.

An observer might conclude, using Kohlberg’s model of moral development,  Charles has grown past the conventional stage of moral development which had served him very well for all the years of his life up until his 50s. The death of his wife, the one person he states with whom he could be honest, has created a vacuum in his life and he is looking for relationships in which he can be honest and truthful to further his spiritual development. This development requires cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual support. When a person has matured to a post-conventional stage of moral development this kind of support is difficult to find in an institutionalized organization and rarely in a church which meets the sociobiological needs for attachment, peer affiliation, kinship recognition, social hierarchy, and social reciprocity, but these sociological functions come at the price of normative compliance which is threatened by the movement for the development of a personal spirituality.

Charles, developmentally, is at the stage where the development of a personal spirituality is taking precedence over normative compliance and he is looking for relationships which will provide this understanding and validation. He may have found it in a religious denomination which supports a free and honest search for truth and meaning within the context of covenantal relationships. These relationships are very precious and something not usually found in more conventional church organizations. Jesus says in Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” When Charles lost his wife to death and his two children moved on to form families of their own, he is freed from householding concerns and begins to search more consistently for a spiritual understanding and experience for his life. He has come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Will he find what he is looking for there?   Will he be helped to find a vocabulary to name his experiences? Will he be offered the opportunity to connect the dots of his experience in a coherent way? Will the story of his spiritual development be thickly developed over time so that it is able to be articulated by himself and recognized and acknowledged by others?

When the subjugated narrative of the Unitarian Univeralist faith is surfaced, storied, conveyed, and lived, the post conventional faith will move the American people, and people of the world, to a more mature spiritual level, and we will come to love and respect each other at unprecedented levels recognizing that our spiritual interests are universal. May it become so………                          


  1. Dave, another great article. There are many "Charles" among us, and I consider myself one. While I like my congregation, I find most of the "small talk" pretty superficial. I wish that we had more substantial discussions of the spiritual ideas you raise. I wonder what opportunities UU congregations provide for these more intimate discussions?

  2. I wonder how your ideas apply to Life Span religious development in young people? Developmentally they must go through the pre-conventional and conventional stages of moral development before they get to the post conventional or can you train young people, let's say from 7-18, that the post conventional ideas apply? Curious about people's thoughts about this? Thanks for your consideration.

  3. I went to Bible study and they kept telling me I was wrong about what I thought. At the end I could tell they didn't want me to talk anymore. I found a UU church and they let me talk and I always feel welcome. They told me the UU church was not a real church because they don't believe in Jesus, but I told them I like it because they listen to me.

  4. Coherent narrative or a muddle?

    No and yes.

    But then it's every person for him/herself according to 4th principle.

    Is there any help? Sometimes from sermons, but outside of that there does not seem to be helpful traditions and history, but then again the denomination is only 51 years old.

    Give us 2,000 or 3,000 years and then we'll see where we are at.

    Otherwise look for the universal and perennial themes which come from the 6 sources, stir them up, bake them at 450 degrees for another 50 years and maybe we'll have something more edible.

  5. The idea what our interior spiritual lives gets subjugated by most organized religions is a sparkling insight. However, the major world religions also have a mystical tradition which eventually seems to honor their mystics although they are often attacked and persecuted at first. Mystics and prophets manifest at a post conventional level while, by definition, most of the religion's adherents function at a conventional level. Being post conventional can get you killed, but then later on posthumously they become revered.

    Perhaps UU does not have a mystical and prophetic tradition because it, for the most part, is already post conventional in the sense that there is no creed or orthodoxy to deviate from. It is hard to be heretical as a UU because anything, pretty much, goes anyway as long as it is in harmony with the seven principles.

    The story of Charles is a good one and I would guess is similar to the stories of the majority of UUs who were brought up in different denominations. Perhaps the growth of Unitarian Universalism will depend on its efficacy in helping people develop a rich, coherent, meaningful interior spiritual life. If it can do that it will grow, if it can't it will die out like any other social "movement".

    I appreciate your thoughtful articles which are very helpful in stimulating my thinking about these matters and provide the ground work for talking about more substantive topics with my fellow UUs.

  6. One of the difficulties that UU has is the lack of a shared vocabulary. Because we draw from 6 sources it is difficult to name things because someone will always object to the naming if it does not fit for their preferred model of theological concepts. This creates the archetypal Tower of Babble where people find it difficult to talk with one another about conceptual ideas without a commonly agreed to nomenclature.

    If we can't agree on what to call things we will have difficulty communicating and if we have difficulty communicating we will have difficulty developing a rapport that is based on mutual understanding and trust and without mutual understanding and trust you can't have much of a fellowship or conventional relationships.

    The UUA could do the denomination a huge service if it was to develop a glossary of terms but I suspect that with its history of supporting free thinking coming up with a glossary of terms that could be agreed to would be like herding cats, next to impossible, and yet it would be a worthwhile endeavor that would provide a coherence that is missing from the current conversation.

    We can hope and pray.......

  7. Candy:

    Any church that excludes people saying that unless you believe this what we believe, you will go to hell, is not a real church, but a cult. You are blessed to have seen through their coercive brain washing tactics and stayed true to yourself.

    You go girl!

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