Spiritual Development

a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, July 25, 2021

A required part of every Unitarian Universalist minister’s training for ministry is Clinical Pastoral Education (abbreviated as CPE), chaplaincy training and practice, most often offered in a hospital setting. In my CPE experience, I served and learned in two St. Louis hospitals: Barnes Jewish Hospital, a massive training hospital and trauma center, and Christian Hospital Northeast, a community hospital.

Early in the program, my CPE supervisor posed the question to us, “What do the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ mean?” Over my 15 months of CPE, this question popped back up many times. But after a few weeks of my fellow chaplains and me voicing our opinions on the word from Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Fundamentalist Protestant, Pentecostal, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist perspectives, after weeks of thinking we were getting nowhere and only disagreed with each other, our supervising instructor – a liberal Lutheran minister with a doctorate in ministry and decades of education and experience as an interfaith CPE instructor – he gave us a perspective that allowed us to better understand each other and to serve patients and families across the massive and tiny dividing lines that separated us. In its expansive, inclusive sense, he told us, spirituality is about making, finding, receiving, and sharing meaning. Everything is spiritual.

I know plenty of Unitarian Universalists for whom the word is a stumbling block. Coming from backgrounds that posited some kind of literal body, mind, spirit, and soul split that can never be fully bridged in life, many Unitarian Universalists know that if that is what spirituality is about, they have no need for it. Have you ever said or heard a Unitarian Universalist say, I don’t have a soul, or I don’t have a spirit, so spirituality and being spiritual are meaningless to me? It is a good-faith rejection of a theology that didn’t work for them. Nevertheless, the word is meaningful in framing our approach to reality. And so it was helpful in that interfaith setting to think of spirituality in terms of meaning.

In this eighth sermon in a long series reflecting on the ways this Fellowship’s documents frame our purpose, vision, mission, and commitments, we take up the fourth bullet point of our mission statement, which reads:

It is the mission of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship of Waynesboro to: build our fellowship into an essential resource for liberal religion in the Valley by providing for the spiritual development of adults and children.

And there’s that pesky word “spiritual.” This portion of our mission gives us a reason for doing and something to do. The reason: to build our fellowship into an essential resource for liberal religion in the valley. The action: providing for the spiritual development of adults and children.

Though it is not our main focus this morning, the reason given is important. It is outward focused. Rather than merely focused on taking care of ourselves and our own, this point sets its sights on the Shenandoah Valley, our larger neighborhood. It is also expansive in that it presents our Fellowship as one locus of liberal or progressive religious thought and action in this area, and not as the only locus of religious and spiritual liberalism and progressivism. We may be in a unique position of having fewer internal struggles against reactionary forces than some religious bodies around us, but we are, nevertheless, not the only game in town. We rightly should see ourselves as a resource, a spring of fresh water serving all who would drink, rather than a fortress aimed at protecting what is ours against hostile forces of conservatism and reactionism. This mission focus is about pouring ourselves out for the growth and betterment of the whole region rather than for ourselves, primarily.

So how does our mission statement direct us to work toward this goal? By “providing for the spiritual development of adults and children.” We specify adults AND children because it is too easy for adults in this room to concentrate on ourselves rather than seeing the children in their programs next door – or this summer on the lawn – as two different groups with us focused on our own needs and interests here and seeing the children as an afterthought, sometimes, rather than an integral part of this community.

But what does the phrase “spiritual development” mean for us? Development suggests that there is a natural progression. We speak of childhood development to say that childhood is a process, from less developed to more developed, in which an infant grows and becomes able, in proper progression, to hold their head up, babble, crawl, walk, speak, develop a personality that enables their interaction with those around them, and learn, grow, and mature. Sometimes, something happens to make it difficult or impossible to move through the full progression with east. But we understand progress through the stages to be normal and desirable.

Spiritual development, then, suggests a natural process through experiences that prepare us for some next stage. And the physical development model suggests that we might expect there to be experiences that prevent or make it difficult to move on to the phase that ideally would come next in the progression. And just as a child who is confident in the motions of their body will skip steps on a stairway or jump from a retaining wall, a porch, or even a roof, spiritual development, too, involves at least some skipping of steps at times.

What are these steps that we make our way through in spiritual development? Well, since, like my CPE cohort in St. Louis, every group that distinguishes itself from others has some difference of understanding about what those steps are and how to progress toward fuller development, it probably works best for a pluralistic group such as ours not to define it too sharply or prescriptively. Spiritual development may have different details for me than for you, and our approaches taken together may be different from our conservative neighbor. Still it is helpful to look at a model – one of many – that shows what spiritual development may look like. For that purpose, I turn to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again, this is not the only model. It is illustrative, though, of what it means to progress through steps toward self-actualization. It is structured around the development of the individual, but it at least suggests that communities as a whole might also develop spiritually. And Maslow is useful in conceptual terms because so many of us have at least some exposure, while some more recent models are less familiar.

Remember the pyramid that traditionally illustrates Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? It is divided into five horizontal bands that, from bottom to top are: physiological needs, safety needs, love and social belonging, esteem needs, and, at the apex of the pyramid, self-actualization. The basic concept is that one must be able to satisfy the needs at one level before being able to progress upward in the direction of self-actualization. You have to have sufficient access to air, water, food, sex, sleep, health, clothes, and shelter before you even begin to worry about security, let alone love and belonging. Of course, we know that the infant’s basic needs are tied up with the security and love provided by its protecting adults. The division is not absolute. Still it helps to think, what is more basic. Air, water, food, sleep and shelter are a baseline, the bottom level.

Maslow later expanded his Hierarchy to include a need to know or understand, aesthetic needs, and, above that original peak of self-actualization he placed the need for transcendence. YMMV. Your mileage may vary, as you see on the web. This is not a matter of absolutes. But for the greater part, you have to have physical needs met before you’re going to be able to worry about the arts and sciences, and certainly before you are able to become the best you that you can be – which is the core idea of self-actualization.

And so, poverty, hunger, domestic violence, international conflict and such represent needs unfulfilled, and which left unfulfilled will normally keep one from becoming that better versions of oneself that often times feels only theoretically possible. Difficulty fulfilling needs lower on the pyramidal diagram can lead to self-defeating coping mechanisms. We can get stuck, rather than progressing to our potential.

We are a religion of deeds, not creeds. So with a framework like Maslow’s, we realize that providing for the spiritual development of adults and children means doing what is necessary to change the conditions that hold them back from bringing the potential buried within into flower. Feeding the hungry. Tutoring the poor. Working to change systems that hold people down into systems that maximize individual and community potential. If we are going to provide for spiritual development, we have a lot of work to do – not alone but together with other liberals and progressives in the Valley. This is not a program of teaching the right way to see the world and one’s place in that world. Rather, this part of our mission calls us to become deeply and intimately involved in changing the conditions of life that hold us and others back from reaching our potential. And it has to go beyond our walls and be intimately entwined with the life of the community.

Amen and Blessed Be.