Renewal of Spirit, Openness to Life

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, October 14, 2018



Eight weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It was the first in a series of eight sermons on the sources that are enumerated in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a democratic organization whose members are the congregations of our tradition, whose decision makers and shapers are the delegates of our congregations. This is the second in that series.


In those introductory observations, I pointed out that the statement of the sources was not a history of the lineage our movement. Lineage is too reductive a model. It is not a matter of tracing our DNA as much as tracing the influences on the spiritual growth and contraction of our movement through the encounter with ideas, practices, and inspirations that transcend the boundaries our religious ancestors might have set for themselves at any given moment in that family story of our tradition.


I said that when I first became a Unitarian Universalist, I knew about the seven principles and more-or-less understood them but that the sources did not settle in to my mind so easily. I organized them and thought of them as list of nouns: 1) Direct Experience, 2) Prophetic People, 3) World Religions, 4) Judaism and Christianity, 5) Humanism, and 6) Earth-Centered Spirituality, or Paganism. This simple list is exactly how that living compendium of worship resources gathered by the Unitarian Universalist Association named the WorshipWeb classifies our sources. This reductive list does little or nothing to direct action or to establish ethical lives in an ethical society. It is not normative. It’s like saying, I got my eyes from my Great-Grandpa Bunting and my baldness from Great-Grandpa Myers, yet it is nothing at all like saying, I learned to struggle against racial injustice and fight sexism from my world history teacher Mrs. Sears and to value human diversity from my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Newell. And while my eyes may be a good feature and my baldness a mildly annoying one, these tell nothing at all about my character. And from long ago our movement adopted a little motto, a catchphrase: “Deeds, not creeds.” For us it has always been about how any list or belief translates into action, not about our family tree for its own sake.


The first-listed source of our tradition named in our association’s bylaws is:


The living tradition we share draws from:
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 that create and uphold life.[1]


The lyric poetry of the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, developed in collaboration with Unitarian Universalist composer Rev. Jason Shelton for their 2006 Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata, approaches this first source with short, out-of-breath lines, including these:


Dew on the lily,
gem in the lotus
Star in the summer sky,
Thundering mountain,
altar of fire,
Tear in the loving eye.

Holy the mystery;
holy the journey;
Holy the hour of prayer.
Blessed and merciful;
blessed and generous;
Sacred as simple air.

Source of all, again renew
Life more abundant,
life more true.
Summon these moments,
sudden and few;
Joyful and tender;
spirit of wonder…

In the beginning,
on the horizon:


Direct experience that is named in the first source is grounded in the natural world – but not in any scientific sense that requires rigor, replicability and peer review. Don’t worry. That comes later in our statement of sources. This, though, does not have to do with explaining but with basking in the inability of explanation to capture the fullness of human experience. Nor does it have to do with explaining through age-old approaches accepted as bedrock fact. It has to do with “letting the mystery be,” to use the words of Iris Dement’s song:


Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they they all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go
When the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain
And so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be [3]


Those are questions traditionally answered and served up with certainty by many religions. It is the stuff of systematic theology, that would define origins and destinations, the nature and workings of what is higher and more powerful, the meaning and value of traditional religious words. And on the fundamentalist extremes of the spectrum, it has often been substituted for knowledge derived from the scientific method. At other places on the spectrum of knowing and understanding it serves to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, making it an ever-shrinking portion of what humanity relies on. But at other areas of this thing called mystery isn’t about explaining, about tying down, but about using the human penchant for figurative language and imaginative thought to create something that can be rested in without knowing.


My friend Albert, now deceased, was an Episcopal priest. He often said that he didn’t consider it very important whether one used the religious language – or thought the religious thoughts – of his tradition. He didn’t care whether one phrased their comprehension of the incomprehensible in the language of theology, in all the “ologies” of Christian tradition: ecclesiology, soteriology, pneumatology, eschatology, missiology, hamartiology – all those words that Christian theologians and seminarians through the centuries have used to organize their thoughts about what they didn’t know at all – in any scientific sense – but which they had an intuition about. The nature of sin and salvation, the nature of God and angels, the work of the church, the nature of spirituality. All that stuff had been lashed to the deck, and as the lashings came loose through the centuries when confronted with the great sea storms of history, they were secured again and again to provide a reliable statement of the mystery.


But while Albert valued all that and found meaning in the ancient formulations of creed and prayer book of his tradition, he didn’t take it literally and would say that it doesn’t matter if someone believes quite that. But it was important – to him – that people believe in The Transcendent. Capitalize that: The Transcendent. That which is beyond everything known. But I was contrarian at heart – especially when it came to ways of organizing and controlling reality and the place of people in it. So I would drive him up the proverbial wall by saying, “I don’t believe the transcendent exists; I don’t think that it is a thing. I believe that the transcendent is what people call their direct, unmitigated experience of the immanent.”


Kind of like the question of near-death experiences, the memories of people who were clinically dead and then resuscitated. Are they an objective description of what comes next or are they a formulation of the way the chemicals and electrical impulses of the brain experiencing death and resuscitation? Is there a beyond? Is there something that transcends space-time? My friend Albert needed a sense that there really was something beyond, even though it can never be tied down and understood. And in those discussions, I needed the human organ of perception and cognition to be open to experience what it experiences whether there was something more or not, objectively speaking. The experience was the experience, and from the experience thought and symbol and metaphor coalesced beyond explanation even regarding whether it was real.


But experience, is unreliable and can be manipulated, whether through spiritual practice, calming internal storms through meditation, building habits of thought and belief by repetition of creed or building up of learning, or chemically through legal or illegal drugs. We know that mental illness such as schizophrenia can provide experiences that have no basis in the world but exist only within the brain. Experience in itself does not equate to reality. A friend of mine who used to be a Trappist monk and now lives at the edges of Unitarian Universalism, described mystical experiences that were destructive, things he thought of as meaningful even though they inhibited his ability to live life in the monastery or in the world, but after hospitalization in a mental health ward, he found the delusions that had controlled his life lifted through a regimen of the proper medicine.


From Aldous Huxley’s experiments with mescaline to Timothy Leary’s experiments with mushrooms and LSD, to Native Americans’ religiously altering consciousness with peyote to the mystical manipulations of consciousness, we know that the “oceanic experience,” that transcendent sense of being beyond boundaries, this sense of oneness with everything or with God, is one that can be shaped and induced and does not correspond with hard reality otherwise observed.


The word transcendent in our first source also points us to Transcendentalism within the history of American Unitarianism and beyond it. Some of the big names in our 19th-century heritage were great lights in the Transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry David Thoreau. Margaret Fuller. Amos Bronson Alcott. Louisa May Alcott. William Ellery Channing. Theodore Parker. Walt Whitman. As an outgrowth of English Romanticism, Transcendentalism centered the experience of the individual and raised nature up to a locus of spiritual importance, a place where the transcendent can be encountered. Think Thoreau’s Maine Woods or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.The Transcendentalists were not content with what they felt as the coldness of rationalist Unitarianism. They believed in intuition as giving access to new knowledge not derived through science or strict logic. They believed that what was essential was in the individual, not in the slavish devotion to old teachers and their schools of thought. They did not oppose science but placed primary value on the individual. Just as the Romantic movement morphed and waned, Transcendentalism waned but reemerged within 20th-century approaches of the newly joined Unitarian and Universalist traditions.


Direct experience or the acceptance of direct experience as a meaningful part of making sense of reality and our place in it is, historically, part of our spiritual DNA. Transcendentalism’s elevation of the individual and of nature map to 20th and 21st-century secular American values as much as to Unitarian Universalism specifically. But in our statement of sources, we are given not just strands of our DNA with reference to our narrative heritage. Rather, we are also given a justification, a reason why this is a part of the puzzle worth keeping:


The living tradition we share draws from:
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 that create and uphold life.[4]


Yes, mystery. Yes, experience. Yes, the importance and validity of the individual apart from any structures of organization, power, and meaning. But with a purpose. Our tradition grows from renewing our spirits and opening ourselves to the what is beyond, what is greater, what is not easily understood or cannot be understood at all, what is beyond our limitations.


The Unitarian Universalist movement is part of a social, political, and theological history that we can trace as including Transcendentalism, American individualism, modern and postmodern experimentation with the contours of consciousness, a moving beyond the limits of any single system for receiving meaning, beyond the self-understood closed nature of the system. But that is not enough. Experimenting and experiencing reality within the confines of our own minds is not enough, just as science and learning and reason are not enough. We renew our spirits in openness and through openness, as we imagine our earliest ancestors doing. We grow in connection and community through intuition, not just through learning of science or creeds. Thus, we come to Life. Beyond. Transcendence. And Direct. True, unhindered experience of the immanent. The oneness of everything and the unity of the individual with the whole. In the words of Kendyl Gibbons:


Summoning duty,
touch of compassion,
Keeper of song and flame;
Struggle and silence,
praise and thanksgiving,

Truth beyond every name.
In the beginning,
on the horizon:


Our first source is traced through our spiritual DNA but is not our DNA. Our first source, through which we find renewal is openness beyond knowing. Through this we are renewed.


Amen and Blessed Be.








© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley