Not Another Sermon on Spirituality

By Larry Sherber

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2007 July 29.

I know what you are thinking: "Not another sermon on spirituality. Secular humanism is more fun and interesting and easier to understand. I've been working hard all week. It's Sunday morning. I want to relax my mind, enjoy the company of my friends. I want to be entertained. I'm a UU. I want to deal with earthly problems like love, tolerance, and justice. Thinking about spirituality is too hard, too deep, too challenging. It makes my hair hurt!" Sorry guys. This is a church, dammit, and we need to either talk about spiritual matters every once in awhile or get involved in some other mountain church ritual – say…snake handling. I just happen to have some snakes out in my car. Either we all handle snakes this morning or we discuss the exciting, scintillating, life-changing world of spirituality. Let's have a show of hands. Who's for snakes? Then spirituality it is!

I know that for us UU's it seems like dealing with spirituality is hard work because, unlike most religions, everything is not spelled out nice and clear for us. But try to look at it this way: I am not preaching the Gospel, or any other gospel today and I promise we will not arrive at any absolute truths about the spiritual world. So any thoughts or comments you have, no matter how little the effort behind them, no matter how shallow they might be, will not only be accepted, but respected by your open-minded, liberal thinking brothers and sisters.

Some of you have heard myself and others speak in this church about a hip, cool, contemporary philosopher named Ken Wilber. It was his writings that inspired today's sermon, so please don't credit me with too many original thoughts. Heck, at my age most original thoughts are just repeats from an earlier time that I had already forgotten. But, regardless of where these ideas originate, they might even generate a few of your own.

Let's face it, most of the world's religions each think they own the ultimate truth and leave no room for spiritual evolution. The arrogance of it all! Today's cultural views on spirituality will change many times in the next thousand years as human thought, knowledge, and understanding of our existence grows and evolves. Look at the changes that have taken place over time: from worshipping magical gods, then idols, and finally the mythic gods of today: Jesus, Yoweh, Allah, Buddha, etc. Can we honestly believe that no more changes will occur in the future? Trust me: in a thousand years Catholic priests will be practicing polygamy, Jews and Muslims will be eating pork on Yom Kippur and Ramadan, Southern Baptists will be voting Democratic, and the world champion heavyweight boxer will be a Buddhist. Even death and taxes are not certainties. Someday there will be a world where afterlife and reincarnation are understood realities and death, as we know it, will be ancient history. Someday there will be a world that not only won't have taxes, it won't have any monetary systems at all – not even Coca Cola stock. The only certainty is that there will always be change. If everyone keeps this thought in their spiritual minds, fundamentalism will cease to exist – then maybe we can all get along. As religious liberals it is our duty to tolerate and respect all religious and spiritual traditions, at the same time keeping our own views in perspective.

Unfortunately, it seems that science has hijacked all ultimate truths and conservative, conformist, and mythical thinking has co-opted the world's great religions. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. have all taken religion hostage, refusing to even allow the possibility that spirituality is ever growing, ever changing, ever evolving. People, don't be a part of this. Think and say: "This is what I believe in today – this is what makes sense of the world for me now. This is how I explain the meaning of existence and morality in this moment." Keep an open mind – allow others to be in their spiritual world – but know this: time changes everything, even belief systems.

Let's take a brief look at the history of spiritual development on our planet. The early stages of human development were purely egocentric. We used our instincts to survive. Spirits, separate from bodies, dominated the spiritual world. Then came paganism where gods were invented to explain the unknown, often connected to nature: sun gods, fire gods, etc. They had all the power and control and you better not anger them or things could get ugly. Finally, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deities started springing up in the world. All knowing, all powerful, and always present – sometimes loving, sometimes vengeful, often demanding, these gods spawned the premodern religions that exist today. These religions usually have some kind of prophet to help humans connect on a more personal level, and a strict set of rules. What my friend Karl Marx called "the opiate of the masses." They are very ethnocentric, the "us vs. them" mentality. "Don't believe in my god – you're going to hell" or, at the very least, not going to heaven. A bumper sticker I saw the other day says it all: "my god can beat up your god." Simultaneously, the spiritual traditions of the East were developing. The goal was to reach a higher state of being – free from bodily pain, emotional pain, and all other earthly realities, mainly through meditation: Nirvana, bliss, enlightenment, etc.

Then the modern age emerged, and along with it science, demanding some proof to back up the claims of these mythical based belief systems. When no reasonable explanations came forth, they were dissed by the scientific world. Unfortunately, this left a void in many of our lives. I know that for me, and a whole bunch of other confused individuals, science just can't explain all of our questions concerning the meaning of life and existence. We need some form of spirituality to give us completeness in our lives and neither science, religion, nor Eastern spiritual traditions by themselves have the answers. To further confuse the issue, postmodernity came along and debunked everything with the philosophy of cultural relativity. What's right for a Christian in Texas is not necessarily right for a Muslim in Baghdad or a Buddhist in Tibet.

Why have organized religions and spiritual traditions been practiced, for the most part, in the same way for thousands of years? The scientific world is continually evolving and gaining new knowledge through research and new technology. Cultures and societies are also changing, sometimes very slowly, but changing nonetheless. Examples: gladiators no longer fight to the death in the Roman Coliseum, government approved, institutionalized slavery no longer exists, and smoking is rapidly becoming unacceptable in our culture. Major societal changes have occurred since the birth of our nation. We have gone from an agrarian society in the 19th century, to an industrialized society in the 20th century, to a service oriented society in the information age of the 21st century. But world religions and spiritual traditions are still based on books and practices that are hundreds and thousands of years old. The New Testament isn't exactly new, is it?

One could argue that the main function of religions is to explain the things we don't understand and to give us comfort in situations where science doesn't have the solutions. Instead of going through the difficult, frustrating, and sometimes impossible search for the answers to life's difficult questions, most people almost instinctively insist on definitive answers here and now; not manana, today! Tell me what to think and how to behave and I'll be happy – oh, one other thing – if I screw up, give me a quick, fairly painless way to be forgiven. Human beings can't stand not to know or not to be forgiven. As Unitarians, most of us agree that traditional religions actually do work for a lot of people; doing a lot of good and giving a lot of comfort (if you can forget: the inquisition, the crusades, polarizing religious fundamentalism, religious terrorism, Northern Ireland, Shiites vs. Sunnis, Israelies vs. Palestinians. I could go on but you get the picture. On the other hand, reaching enlightenment through years of meditation is a laudable goal – no wars, torture, or genocide required. The problem for me is that it sounds a little one dimensional. Nirvana usually comes with a price; personal health and relationships are often sacrificed when becoming one with the universe. I like hiking, exercising, enjoying good food and wine. I like having close, loving relationships with my kids and grandkids. I like having a significant other, good friends, and community, like we have right here in our church. Dealing with the problems from these relationships is an important part of my human condition. I'm not ready to give all that up yet.

Of course there is some good news. A few religious and spiritual traditions are learning to integrate their positive aspects with practical daily life, producing a healthier, more well-rounded existence. A westernized form of Buddhism, started here in the U.S., uses meditation and Buddhist thought to better its followers' jobs and relationships. There is a substantial and growing movement among American Evangelicals to support and act in environmental matters, such as global warming. And that is the main point of today's presentation. Spirituality can evolve, just like science and culture. Even Bob Dylan, after taking all those drugs, realized it: "The Times They Are A'Changin'." Because most world religions and spiritual traditions remain resistant to this evolution, we, as UU's, have taken on the burden of accepting these changes for the rest of the world; our cross to bear, so to speak (no pun intended). You remember: We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," our 4th principle. How can change take place without searching in an environment that is free from strict dogma and conformist pressures? So, with open minds and open hearts we can and must tolerate every person's spiritual and religious beliefs today, with an eye to a future that will bring each of us closer to a spiritual life, no matter what form it takes, that will complete us as human beings.