by Rev Dr. John Alexie Crane
NB: My friend Lex is gone now, but his work is always relevant.
Reality: that vast entity out of which the sun, the earth, life, and humanity emerged; out of which you and I recently emerged.
Whatever moves human creatures to make churches so monumental in form? I have thought a lot about this. It took me years to figure it out. Of course, in traditional, supernatural religion, the understanding of its people was (and for many still is) that church is where one goes to find the way to eternal life; but the motive lies much deeper in us than this ancient, stated belief.
Churches have taken on such extravagant form because religion, actually, is a cultural expression of the biological drive in all creatures great and small to live long, to survive, and to be fully alive.
The possibility of cultural evolution emerged from the early human invention of language and supernatural religion. Its intellectual components, such as beliefs, doctrines, dogma, and theology are important, but are not of ultimate importance. The intellectual component in religion is only a small part of each one. It actually involves the whole being: thought, yes, and also feeling, awareness, intuition, impulse, drive, will. It involves the whole person in an intimate relationship with the whole of reality, past, present, and future.
Religion’s essential function is to empower human life; to provide meaning, purpose, structure, and a functional understanding of reality — a world view. Religion, whether organized or individual, is a major source of human energy.
Huston Smith concisely expressed this insight in the introduction to his classic work on world religions. Smith said, “…religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos can pour into human existence.” [p 20 in The Religions of Man]
The threat of death has loomed large in human awareness, of course. For most humans it generates an abiding, primal fear. The traditional religions that were formed in the ancient world (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) had as one of their tacit aims the task of mitigating this crippling fear. If people lived in constant fear of death, they could not be fully alive.
The beliefs about heaven and hell and reincarnation have been (and continue to be) a highly creative invention in cultural evolution. These beliefs have enabled millions of people to deal effectively with the disabling anxieties inherent in human existence – have empowered them for living.
Human nature is such that uncertainty generates anxiety, makes people uneasy, uncomfortable. For many, uncertainty is intolerable. It is much the same with the threat of death. Awareness of death is an insistent presence in our lives. It generates intense fear when we experience it as an immediate threat, and even when no threat is apparent, it creates a persisting anxiety.
In addition, human nature is such that each individual has a compelling need to feel an assured sense of their own personal worth. Even further, our minds are such that we have been drawn into an intimate relationship with the whole of reality, past, present, and future.
These characteristics of human nature played an important role in defining the form of religion. Each of the world’s traditional religions met several urgent needs implicit in human nature:
1. The need to dispel uncertainty;
2. The need for a sense of worth, both as individuals and as species;
3. The need to deny the reality of death; and
4. The need for a significant image of the whole of reality – a world view.
Have you ever noticed that, quite often, there is a disparity between what people say they believe, and the beliefs that appear to actually govern their actions? The beliefs people profess in words are only rarely the factors that determine what they do in life. Which suggests that in both organized and individual religion there are stated beliefs, on one hand, and effective beliefs on the other. These two levels of belief are seldom identical in any given individual.
The things we say we believe emerge out of the intellectual level of ourselves; but our effective religion emerges out of the depths of ourselves. William James used the poetic phrase, the twilight depths of personality, to describe this phenomenon, which he saw as the source of “all our outer deeds and decisions.” Joseph Campbell, noting the same phenomenon, described it in equally poetic language as “our own most secret motivating depths.” Other scholars have pointed out that our deepest and most effective beliefs are those on which we act without question, which we simply take for granted.
The meaning of the word “truth” (like the meaning of God and of reality) has become wonderfully murky in the past century. All three terms are problematic, are confused in meaning. We will explore the concept of truth now. What it means; the various kinds of truth. For example, there is revealed truth, objective truth, subjective truth, and ultimate truth. (Ultimate truth? Truth is what we know about reality. Reality is where we live, the context of our lives, the source of our being. If we knew everything about reality, we would possess ultimate truth – but, of course, we do not know everything).
There is another kind of truth, and it is highly relevant to an understanding of effective religion, as distinct from stated religion. Call it “transformative truth:” that is, truth that transforms and enhances the quality of our selves, of our lives, of human existence as a whole.
Many Unitarian Universalists in the 20th century have lamented the undeniable fact that the movement lacks certainty, that it offers no clear answers to the questions raised by existence. Which is indeed the case. Scriptural, revealed, traditional religions do have definitive answers. Our kind of religion does not.
It does not because it is rooted in a tacit and highly significant assumption that transformative truth is found not in words, not in sacred scriptures or professed beliefs, but in ourselves, in each living human being.
That is, UU religion is experiential in form rather than scriptural. It’s rooted, not in ancient scripture, but rather in the unique experience and awareness, the deep inwardness of each person. The truth we seek is truth that is progressively realized, in community, in each living individual. We are tacitly aware that the location of consequential religious truth is within each of us.
We trust that transformative truth will take form in individuals in community, who are at the same time, in communion with the wisdom of all ages and traditions. We tacitly assume that living truth is found not in words, but in ourselves. In each living self, here and now. We ask our people to learn from each other, to learn from the wisdom of the past as well as the present; but, ultimately, to trust their own experience, insight, and intuition.
It is our commitment to individual realization of transformative truth that leads us to conclude tacitly that truth is always greater than any verbal statement of it. This insight was expressed centuries ago in China in the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” Which is to say, the truth that can be expressed in words, is not transformative truth. As a result, an unspoken Unitarian/Universalist maxim is, “Beware of final answers.”
Because of this concern for transformative truth, each of our congregations at its best resonates with the larger fellowship of other UU congregations and resonates, within itself, as a caring, compassionate community. At its best, this community supports, stimulates, affirms, and offers love to its people as they continually seek to enlarge their understanding and awareness of reality. The gathering of the community in worship, that is, in search and in celebration of truth, is a life-affirming act, and the space where it occurs is a holy place.
Religion is a very old human invention, dating back no doubt into prehistoric times; and it has loomed very large indeed in the development of our species. It has played a major role in the cultural evolution of humanity. Religion enabled us in the beginning to emerge out of the primordial darkness into the light of consciousness.
In the beginning, religion contained everything that a people knew about the world and themselves set down in it. It combined science, philosophy, social order, morality, ethics and law. It was the initial effort of humanity to relate consciously to the world; and it was life-giving in this regard.
Cultural evolution began with religion. Culture began to replace instinct, impulse, and drive in shaping human activity, in shaping human nature indeed. Religion enabled a new line of evolution, one that has carried us very far from where we started.
A couple of lines from a 19th century poem have lingered in my mind for many years, lines that remind me to take the long view in considering cultural evolution. “Each age is a dream that is dying / Or one that is coming to birth.” Which is to say that, at any point in history, there is an old established mode of understanding reality that is in decline, even as a new world view is beginning to emerge.
Taking the long view of cultural evolution, until the 4th century of the Christian Era, the Greco-Roman world view was dominant in our culture. From the 4th century CE through the 17th century, the Christian world view was dominant. Then, after the 17th century, the world view of science began to emerge as a radically different way of understanding the world; and it has over time become dominant in our culture.
To be sure, the Greco-Roman and Christian world views have by no means been erased from human consciousness. They live on in many individuals and institutions, as well as in the culture as a whole; but almost all young people now growing up in the culture are trained to look at the world through the eyes of science. Many of our people as a result are convinced science is providing us at last with the final and ultimate understanding of reality.
As a matter of fact, most humans in every time and place tend to regard the then prevailing world view as the final formulation (or nearly final). This failure of perspective, failure to take the long view, has been and still is a blight on human life. Social scientists in the past 100 years have named this blight ethnocentrism: the conviction that the world view of my people, the one I absorbed from them as I grew up, is the only true world view.
As a result, Greco-Romans fiercely persecuted Christians; and Christians, on gaining ascendancy, persecuted pagans, heretics, and unbelievers. Today, enthusiasts for science (a great many of them) including many Unitarians and Universalists regard the Christian world view as barbaric, heretical, and certainly worthless to any right-thinking person.
In reality, all three of these world views — Greco-Roman, Christian, and science — have effectively provided people with a life-orientation, and the Christian world view (as well as that of science) continues to function in this way for millions of people all over the world. Each meets the need for a functional world view; and a world view must meet this subjective need or it is useless.
Why is this? Because we humans are so constructed that a functional world view is essential for us if we are to be empowered for life, if we are to be energized to live. For most people, past and present, if a world view is to be effective, it has had to be seen by those who hold it as superior to all others.
So it is a fact of life (at the present stage of cultural evolution) that “every age achieves certainty. The character of any age is determined by the source of its sureness… We perceive our own certainties to issue from a reliable knowledge of the world…” We achieve certainty because in reality, “certainty derives from need rather than from knowing, is always available in the amount required, and so tends to be a fixed quantity in human affairs…. Each age has been able to recognize the certainties of the past as mistaken,” often as absurd. [Allen Wheelis, The End of the Modern Age , p 83]
Einstein was both a brilliant scientist and a profoundly religious individual. As far as I know, he was not a member of any organized religion, but his articles, essays, and speeches repeatedly reflect extraordinary religious insight.
This is evident in an observation Einstein made about the self. “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he or she has attained liberation from the self.” [My World Picture, 1934]
Whatever in the world does he mean? Liberation from the self? We have always been taught that we should, throughout our lives, make every effort to be ourselves fully, not be liberated from them. We have been told we should be striving always to develop our native talents, win recognition, status, wealth, become a person, a self of importance; and, at the same time, that we should scrupulously avoid pretending to be what we are not.
This is true, without doubt. It is reciting the obvious. Almost everybody understands this. Surely it is wise and creative for us to be ourselves; and it is crippling for us to feign an identity that is not actually our own, to pretend to be what we are not.
But there is a level of understanding beyond this. Seen from another perspective, there is a sense in which not being ourselves is a major goal in human life. Einstein was speaking from this perspective.
Transcending the self is central in mystical religion (as opposed to traditional religion) in all cultures of the world. The aim is to transcend the self that we acquired casually as we grew up in a particular family, in a given society, at a given point in history.
This arbitrarily created self contains thousands of conceptions and misconceptions, and the misconceptions among them separate us from reality. Yet, almost everybody in any society, holds an unswerving conviction that these errors give them an understanding of the world as it actually is.
The great teachers of religion in all times and places have taught the insight that Einstein expressed in the sentence: “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he or she has attained liberation from the self.” Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tse, Socrates, and dozens of other great teachers have also tacitly expressed this significant understanding. As one sage put it: “Until we lose ourselves, there is no hope of finding ourselves.”
The incessant destructiveness, the conflict, persecution, violence, and warfare that has persisted in our species has been produced by people who were being themselves with gusto, being the selves that their society brought them up to be. Being themselves faithfully and blindly. It has gradually become clear to me that enough of us must rise above this naive level of existence to make possible the creative transformation of human life, of cultural evolution. We must transcend our selves.
Let’s take a look at a few of the distortions of reality that have plagued western culture. Cursed it. For centuries its longstanding world view instilled in its people a firm conviction that, in reality, women are inferior to men and should therefore be subservient to them. Women, it followed, should be excluded from any responsible positions in public life. Generation after generation of our people grew up certain that this notion was a real fact about women.
It has taken us 150 years even partially to transcend this crippling, ages-old image of reality. Think of the suffering and deprivation, the self-suppression generated by this distortion. Similarly, we are just beginning now to transcend the notion conditioned into our people that homosexuality is a violation of natural law as well as the laws of God. Science for many years taught that homosexuals were mentally ill, and needed to be healed by psychotherapy. Religion taught that homosexuality was a grossly sinful abomination. As a result, millions of homosexuals have grown up in an agony of self-doubt, having to grope their way through a cloud of shame to some degree of self-acceptance of their real identity. Similarly with the long-held, widespread conviction about black people and Jews.
The comedian-philosopher, Will Rogers, observed once that “it ain’t what we don’t know that hurts; it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
Societies also teach their people that, in reality, it is noble to kill and die in the service of their nation. Many veterans of World Wars I & II who experienced actual combat, who saw, heard, and smelled battlegrounds before, during, and after the event will testify to the madness of war — maiming, death, destruction, and waste on an unthinkable scale. Seen first hand, the insanity of war is painfully manifest. Yet, for centuries, people all over the world have been conditioned to regard war as a kind of glorious outdoor sport, as a hallowed human activity; and, of course, as a major instrument of national or tribal policy.
Every world view, including that of science, including our own, though accepted in its time as certain knowledge, has misconceptions of reality lodged in it. Every world view is, of course, imperfect. These distortions often have a devastating impact on the lives of those who have been conditioned to see their own cherished world view as an accurate image of reality, a certainty.
For example, a major component in the now dominant world view of science and the western world is rationalism: the theory that reason is the only valid basis for action or belief.
Einstein argued that rationalism is a catastrophic misconception. “By painful experience,” he said, “we have learned that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of social life.” He goes on to explain: “Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for humanity, producing, on one hand, inventions which liberated us from exhausting physical labor, making life easier and richer; but, on the other hand,… making us slaves to our technological environment, and – most catastrophic of all – creating the means of our own mass destruction… A tragedy of overwhelming poignancy.” [p148 in Ideas & Opinions]
Western religion and science, as well as western thought generally, have been dominated by the fiercely destructive delusion that there can be only one true world view. Christianity and science alike have been blighted by this almost universal delusion. “My religion is the only true religion; ” or, “only reason and science present us with a true understanding of life.”
Our species must transcend this delusion if it is to survive and continue its cultural evolution.
Both science and religion are valid world views, in that each, in its own way, generates a life-orientation; both empower human life. At the same time, like all world views past and present, both science and religion contain distortions of reality, both are seriously flawed. As a result, it is crucially important that we, both as individuals and as a culture, transcend the personal selves that have had these flaws conditioned into them.
Chief among these flaws is the widespread assumption that there can be only one valid world view. This conclusion derives from need, not from knowing. A glance at the diverse cultures of the world makes plain that the number of functional world views is actually very large.
It is surely clear that in actual everyday life in our society, almost everybody makes use of a blend of religion and science (in varying proportions) in order to create in themselves a functional world view at this point in history.
The Christian world view served western culture well for centuries. That is, it filled its essential role in human life by providing structure and meaning for the people of our world. It continues to serve in this way for millions around the world today. Respect for the dignity and worth of every individual requires us to respect the belief systems, the world views that are precious to others, that empower them for living. We must break the habit of belittling the beliefs of others, no matter how radically they may differ from our own. It is damaging behavior we should oppose, not beliefs differing from our own.
The meaning of the word ‘God’ has grown increasingly blurred over the course of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, there was a commonly held understanding that God was a supernatural being, the creator and ruler of the universe — an all-powerful, all-knowing, unseen, male person. He required veneration, worship, and obedience from all human creatures. For centuries this is the image of God our people held.
However, during our lifetime the word has become wonderfully murky in meaning. Many people still see God as an infinite source of meaning, love, and comfort; but for many others the idea is repugnant. For others it’s incomprehensible. Many are just uncertain whether God exists or not.
But the conception of God as creator and ruler of the world was dominant in the religious tradition of our culture. As I grew up I was taught this old idea, but I found from the beginning that it baffled me. It was not until I was in my twenties that I came to understand that this ancient idea was not actually God, but simply our culture’s long accepted conception of God. That it was in fact an idol: was an image of God made by the hands, heads, and hearts of humanity.
What I want to discuss now is not any particular conception of God’s nature, but rather that reality to which the word ‘God’ points our attention. I cannot, of course, describe God’s nature, but I think I can tell you where to look for God, where to seek experience of God. If you happen to be one of those who find the word irritating, I understand and sympathize; but I would like to ask you to be patient with my attempt to shed some light on this ancient, widespread, and significant idea that has loomed so large in our cultural evolution — both creatively and destructively.
First of all, I think I should confess that I am an atheist. I do not now (and never did) believe in a supernatural God, the God of western culture. But there is an odd twist here. I am an atheist, and I also love God. This, to be sure, is a somewhat unusual theological position, so I do not want to insist that you adopt my understanding in this regard; but I want to share with you how it looks to me.
I do not believe in the idea of God as defined by western culture. I could not. However, I have developed a profound interest in what I have come to see as that entity to which the word directs our attention. Its basic meaning: natural as opposed to supernatural.
In addition, I should confess also that I have developed a distrust of belief in general as a source of guidance in life. I try to keep my beliefs to a bare minimum. When I observe humanity past and present, it is apparent to me that beliefs can be (and frequently are) exceedingly destructive, especially religious beliefs.
As Joseph Campbell points out in The Power of Myth, belief in God actually is more of an obstacle than an asset to experiencing God. He quotes Carl Jung who observed tartly that belief in God “is a defense against the experience of God.” Belief and faith are required not in God but rather in your culture’s or church’s or your guru’s conception of God. As one thinker put it [Francis Howgill], “people substitute tradition for the living experience of the love of God.”
I have for many years now had an intimate relationship with God that matters deeply to me, that is central in my life; but I don’t find any need for either belief or faith to sustain this relationship.
It is apparent to me that everybody has some knowledge and experience of God. However, because of the generally accepted meaning of the word, they may not connect the experience with the word. A telling clue for me about where to look for God came in a single sentence: “The more we understand individual things, the more we understand God.”
There is a related insight in Joseph Campbell’s assertion that “an intense experience of mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience.” He is referring to the experience of God. An “intense experience of mystery.” The problem is, when we begin to describe God’s nature in words, we lose sight of the direct experience. We focus on our clear, definite, verbally stated belief in God instead. Actually, Campbell added, the word God is a symbol that points to and invokes the presence of the ultimate mystery of being, to the immense whole of reality, the interdependent web of all existence. This intimate relationship must be experienced directly with one’s whole being: thought, yes, and also feeling,intuition, non-verbal awareness.
It is a fact of existence that our lives are totally dependent upon a vast reality which we know only in part, the rest being shrouded in mystery, and yet to which we are intimately and inseparably related.
A Harvard professor of world religions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in a few concise sentences, pointed our attention toward this natural understanding of God. Smith said in one of his books [Questions of Religious Truth]: “any statement is the word of God insofar as it is true.” This is so, he added, because “God is truth… Wherever truth is found, there is God. And wherever truth is stated, there God is speaking.” Which raises the question, what is the relation between truth and reality?
Every day, each day of our lives, we move about in reality, in the real everyday world. and as we do so we take experience of it into ourselves where it accumulates in some form, whether biochemical, electrical, or symbolic (or all of the above). The result is, when we have lived for 20, 30, 40 years, we come to contain a vast store of experience of reality, encoded in some form in our own being. God is truth, and truth is what we know about reality. Within ourselves, in our culture, in human substance. God is that immense and mysterious reality out of which we emerged, and in which we live and move and have our being.
It was a knowledge, an understanding of this same reality that our long ago ancestors were seeking when they created supernatural religion as a means of incorporating God into human consciousness and in an intimate relationship with that awesomely mysterious reality.
Truth is what we know about reality. The result is, “the more we understand individual things, the more we understand God.”
In one of his books [Ideas and Opinions], Einstein made a clear, concise observation about what he saw as the future development of religion. “The religion of the future,” he said, “will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology.” It should take in “both the natural and the spiritual,” and “it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things as a meaningful unity.” Or, as he put it elsewhere, the “experience of the universe as a significant whole.”
Einstein here was describing concisely in words the world view of mysticism: “the experience of all things as a meaningful unity.” This line of thought had long been central in Asian religion, and when American thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau first discovered it in mid 19th century they responded with enthusiasm. It was a radically fresh perspective for western thought.
Eastern religion was rooted in an awareness that, although humans habitually perceive the world as made up of distinct and separate objects and events, in reality all are an integral part of an immense and unified whole. The nature of the human mind made it necessary for us to subdivide the whole into discrete parts, giving a name to each part. All the things we see separately, however, are actually one, a unity, a significant whole – the interdependent web of all existence. Reality: that vast entity out of which the sun, the earth, life, humanity, and ourselves emerged.
Immersed as we are in our social conditioning, we lose sight of the that vast unity in which our lives are rooted. The human invention of a world divided into discrete parts was necessary, as it made possible communication among us about the world in which we lived. Humans could then develop a shared understanding, and this was of course, of extraordinary importance in human development.
At the same time, a liability accompanied this high asset, in that we then lost awareness of reality as a whole. The world as we describe it in words is, of course, an abstraction, not the actual reality of the interdependent web. What we say is, inevitably, more abstract than what we see or what we understand within ourselves.
It was, by the way, the Unitarian transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau who were among the earliest to introduce this Eastern line of thought into organized religion in America. That was over 150 years ago. However, it has been almost entirely eclipsed in the 20th century by the remarkable advances of the rational-scientific line of thought. Mysticism is regarded with disdain by many (if not most) people in the west today, including most Unitarian Universalists. However, many have a muddled sense of what the word means.
Before we make an effort to understand mysticism in relation to our commonly shared experience of the world, here is a description of a mystical experience in some detail. It’s an entirely subjective experience, and all subjective experiences can be, of course, only roughly described. When we tell someone we are afraid, for example, the words we use do not begin to give a full description of our inner state. They serve only to point attention to the abstract notion of fear. Others get only a general idea of what’s actually going on inside us.
“The experience of all things as a meaningful unity” is a profoundly moving experience, and like any subjective state is impossible to express fully in words. Since the extraordinary success of science with objectivity in the past century, and its resulting rise to dominance, subjective experience has become disreputable. It is true, of course, that such experience can be hazardous. It can separate us from reality; as also can objective experience, as we will see. However, seen from the perspective we have begun now to examine, there is a subjective experience, mysticism, which puts us in touch with all things as a significant whole. Though entirely subjective, it’s an experience known to people in all times and traditions.
Consider a verbal description of a mystical experience seen through the eyes of a boy named Abel. He’s about eight years old. The experience occurs in children as well as in old folks; indeed, I suspect it occurs more often for youngsters and their elders than it does for those in between ages where we tend to be heavily absorbed in the demanding stage of life of getting and spending, striving for recognition, status, wealth, security.
Abel’s family had just moved from one part of a good-sized city to another part, so the area was new to him. The new house was on high ground, and looked out over a very large land area on which nothing had yet been built. There was little vegetation on the land, as the soil was poor, and it appeared to have been partially bulldozed at some time in the past, with dirt being trucked away to other places. There were scars and gashes, as well as heaps of rubble and an occasional clump of weeds.
Toward the north side of the area was a fair-sized hill about forty feet high, and its sides were steep, rising to a plateau at the top. It appeared to be partly natural, partly man made, created more by accident than design.
On a cold cloudy gray afternoon in the fall, when Abel got home from school, he dropped his books off at home, and then felt an urge to explore his new neighborhood. When he went outside, he found himself drawn to the hill visible in the distance. He was dressed lightly for school; but as he walked away, he noticed the air, though still, had grown colder. He was wearing only a cotton sweatshirt and pants.
When he reached the foot of the hill, looking up, he was moved by a mildly eerie feeling, a sense of isolation. The sky had darkened further, and it had gotten increasingly cold. There was no breeze. The world was still, quiet, gray. The cold had become a presence. As he stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at its steep sides, bare of grass or brush, eroded by rainfall, Abel felt it was asking to be climbed, to be conquered. He knew it would be a challenge, but, even so, he felt called to the task.
He started the climb cautiously, working his way up the slope, and the higher he went the more demanding it became. He felt a sharp fear that he might slip and fall. This moved him to struggle harder. Then, he noticed an occasional snowflake falling lazily in the still air; then many more and more rapidly. By the time Abel reached the plateau at the top, and stood on its edge looking out at the world, the large white flakes fell gently, densely, concealing the gray sky, as well as the entire world below him.
He was breathing heavily from the effort of the climb, and he could feel the intimate touch of the cold air on his now warm and lightly clad body. The snow fell so thickly that he could see nothing but the swirling flakes falling all around him. His breath made clouds of vapor as it drifted away from him.
Then, all at once, as he took a deep breath, his spirits lifted, soared, and there swept through him an intense awareness of being fully alive and in touch with, an inseparable part of the immense world that he knew stretched away, unseen, on every side around him and below him. He experienced an exhilarating blend of all-embracing awareness, of being alive in a vast world, set down in it, at one with it. And it was bliss.
It was, as Einstein put it briefly, “an experience of all things as a meaningful unity,” as a richly “significant whole.”
Understanding mysticism is difficult, I know. This is not because it is so complex. It is, in fact, simple in structure. It is far less complicated than Catholic or Protestant theology. What makes it so hard to grasp is that it is buried in confusion and misunderstanding. People approach mysticism with preconceptions and prejudices that cast a murky cloud over the phenomenon.
Mysticism is not concerned with the supernatural. Miracles are part of popular religion, not of mystical religion. God is not necessary to mysticism, though many mystics do describe their experience in terms of a relationship to God or Allah or Brahman. Buddha is an example of a major mystic who did not. Mysticism does not involve having visions or hearing voices. It has nothing to do with the occult, ghosts, extra-sensory perception or out-of-body experiences. It is not concerned with spiritualism or clairvoyance, telepathy or precognition, though it is often muddled in many people’s minds with these phenomena.
But aren’t fundamentalists mystics? On the contrary. They are fervent believers. Mystics have little enthusiasm for believing as the Way. As one mystic put it: “For the convinced believer, understanding or direct contact with reality is exceedingly difficult.” For mystics it is understanding and “direct contact with reality” that matter above all. Fundamentalists are intense believers: their religion is defined by a system of traditional, verbal beliefs, not by mystical awareness.
Much of the confusion about mysticism is generated by the fact that mystical experience is not at all intellectual. It is not rational even. Not analytical. It is non-conceptual and non-verbal.
Well, for heaven’s sake! If it is not rational is it not necessarily worthless? This is an assumption many UUs fall into because of their overpowering attachment to the rational mode of understanding.
We have so far been looking largely at what mysticism is not. Now let’s consider what it is. In the rational approach to the world we divide it into many parts (large and small): cells, molecules, teeth, toes, towns, beans, butter, birds, iron, oxygen, sand, sunshine, and so on. We divide reality into parts, and give each part a name, a handle by which we can hold it in our minds and manipulate it.
Mystical awareness does exactly the reverse. And therein lies its value.
From the perspective of mysticism, we are capable also of grasping reality within us when we set aside all concepts, all cultural conditioning, all verbal formulations, all beliefs, theology, philosophy, and ideas; and then develop a direct, non-verbal awareness of the world, others and ourselves as a unity, as one, as a living whole.
The mystical experience at its peak is an intense, sweeping, intimate awareness of the whole of reality, and ourselves an inherent, inseparable part of it all. It is an experience of all that is as a meaningful whole. This is the core of the mystical mode of apprehending the world.
It is a mode of synthesis, of integrating, unifying, making whole. Instead of grasping the world in our minds, as we typically do, by breaking it down into small parts, naming each part, the mystical mode puts it all together, nameless, including the self, into one vast, rich, unified whole, radiant with meaning.
Central to mysticism is an awareness that follows from the act of throwing off the limitations of abstract, verbalized truth, of socially accepted conceptions of the nature of things, and then making direct contact with what is, experiencing not words, not ideas only but the whole itself, as it comes to be contained within us, in our accumulated experience of it. It is an awareness (deep, full, sweeping) of the unity of all that is, and of the self as an intimate part of this wonderfully complex interdependent web.
What is this unity, this whole of which mystics become so intensely aware. Some mystics call it simply the One. Others say reality. Or ultimate reality. Or God. Allah. Brahman. We must not let the names put us off, confuse us. What the words are pointing toward is reality. What is. The widest context of our lives. That vast totality out of which we emerged, and in which we live and move and have our being.
Why would this subjective experience be of any use to us? It enables “the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos” to flow through us. It puts us in intimate relation with reality. It enables us to transcend our socially defined selves.
The conception almost all of us have of reality is the one we learned from our people as we grew up. This is how it is in every society: American, Russian, Chinese. As we grew up, we learned that reality was thus and so. In our society, we learned that it was made up of atoms and sub-atomic particles, that women were inferior to men, that war (though regrettable) was essential to civilized life, and that our major life goals should be success, security, and productivity. We learned to think, feel, and strive in the patterns we learned from our people. As they did in their time.
Almost all human beings live in a world created by words, ideas, values, rituals, myth, and/or the mass media. These elements together make up a framework of orientation, a world view; and most people are convinced that theirs is the only true one. All of our activities, our thoughts and feelings, the very shape, texture and quality of our lives are defined by this ambiguous and tangled collection of ideas, images, assumptions, and values. This framework of orientation is so close to us, so taken for granted, that it limits our freedom to see the world in any other way.
It is as though we were early in life hypnotized to see, feel, think, and behave in certain ways, and, like hypnotic subjects, we dutifully do as we have earlier been instructed to do. Mystics call this “the trance of everyday life.” It is a serious problem because, as it turns out, many of the instructions we have been given in this trance are destructive and self-destructive.
Mystical awareness can help set us free from hypnotic captivity to the basic, taken-for-granted assumptions of our society. This kind of awareness of the undivided whole may expand and complement our rational understanding, in order that we may rise above the insistent pressures of the contemporary world view that is now moving our species toward extinction by weapons of mass destruction, world-wide pollution of the environment that supports our lives, and/or over-population.
It is a basic understanding in mysticism that reality as we have been conditioned to perceive it is seriously, destructively distorted, and that much human suffering is the result of people taking for granted that these distortions are a valid image of the real world.
As mystics see it, life as it is ordinarily lived is often out of touch, out of harmony with reality, and that this is why there is so much misery and destructiveness on earth. Mystics propose that we escape the hold of our social conditioning upon us, not let it totally determine any longer the way we understand the world and ourselves. That, in short, we achieve self-transcendence; that we rise above the limitations of the self created in us by our society.
We should not abandon the rational-scientific mode of understanding, of course. It is essential to us. It is not that the mystical way of viewing the world is superior, and that we should adopt it exclusively. We need to apprehend reality in both the rational and mystical modes, if we are to be intimately and objectively related to this immense, complex, source of our being – of which we have only limited and uncertain knowledge.
Jane Goodall, a remarkable scientist, made an observation that illuminates this need for both the rational and the mystical perspectives on reality. “There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. Most of us peer through but one of these windows. And even that one,” she said, “is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity.”
Mysticism has been an element in UU religion for at least a century and a half, though it has been eclipsed by our strong drive to create a religion shaped far more by reason than by tradition. Which was a demanding task, requiring considerable effort and attention. It was also, I think, a significant contribution to the cultural evolution of our species. Indeed, it is apparent to me that the seven UU Principles, adopted after lengthy, denomination-wide discussion in 1985, represent a consensus among us on a working hypothesis for promoting the creative cultural evolution of humanity. An hypothesis for enhancing the quality of life of our species.
This consensus emerged in 1985, not only out of widespread study, reflection, and discussion in communities of our people in churches all over this continent, but emerged also out of 200 years of exploration in community of the contents of western culture, as well as, in addition, study of the accumulated wisdom of other cultures. It is a largely rational religion that has emerged out of this centuries long quest for wisdom. It was a demanding achievement, requiring courage, commitment, energy, and sustained attention. However, as Einstein observed, rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of society; nor does it suffice to solve the problems of religion, of human existence as a whole.
As Einstein pointed out, [Ideas and Opinions, p 148] an exclusively rational world view, while strikingly productive in many ways, also has a catastrophic downside. It is, he said, “making us slaves to our technological environment, and – most catastrophic of all – creating the means of our own mass destruction… A tragedy of overwhelming poignancy.”
Rational thinking alone is not enough, Einstein said. What else is there? There is mysticism, and it alone also is not enough. What is required of us now is that we find our way, through further communal reflection and discussion, to a world view that transcends the limitations the others contain. Rationalism has become the dominant philosophical principle in both UU religion and in western culture as a whole. Rationalism is “the theory that the exercise of reason provides the only valid basis for action or belief.”
I have been aware for some time that our movement as a whole contains the elements of rational mysticism, contains both the rational and the mystical modes of apprehending the world. However, in the 20th century, we have tended to equate mysticism with superstition and the supernatural, as do people generally. Only a few UUs have been willing to apply the word “mystic” to themselves. This is highly regrettable because it fails to do justice to the essential nature of mysticism and to the full identity of the Unitarian Universalist movement.
The UU form of religion is essentially a rational mysticism; and this is, in fact, its most valuable characteristic. We have managed to create a form of institutional religion which continually brushes aside all verbal formulations as the final statement of truth, and instead remains deliberately, consciously, and reverently open, knowing that the truth that matters most is not that which can be stated on paper, but that which lives in the self, the inner nature of each living human being. Transformative truth. Truth progressively realized in the present in each living individual — in community.
However, the remarkable achievements of science since the turn of the century have led UUs to be embarrassed by the mystical dimension of their religion. Now the time has come to celebrate it, to welcome the vastly expanded awareness and understanding it can bring us. It will enable us to contribute to the creation of the transcendent world view we now require in order that the human species may survive and flourish.
As a matter of fact, both the rational and mystical dimensions are evident in the most recent statement of principles and purposes of the denomination. The statement reads in part:
“The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
• Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces which create and uphold life;…
• Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science…”
Direct experience of transcending mystery; and also the guidance of reason and the results of science. Both the mystical and the rational are present in the most recent statement of our principles and their sources. In addition, the statement also asserts that UU congregations affirm as two of the things that matter most: “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
These are mystical characteristics. Mystics turn away from the teachings of established tradition, and set off on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. They live with an intensely heightened awareness of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The identity of UU religion is rooted in its rational mysticism. It is an exceedingly rich combination of perspectives. Let us cease to be embarrassed by the mystical dimension in our movement, and instead celebrate it, cultivate it. Let us accept and affirm, as Einstein put it, “the experience of all things as a meaningful unity.”
And let’s continue our communal quest for wisdom, as well as for the transcendent world view that will enable our species to grow in real understanding as the culture evolves.
There is a brief passage in Hebrew scripture that sums up the aim of our kind of religion: “Get wisdom and she shall preserve thee. Love her and she shall keep thee. For wisdom is the principal thing, and with all thy getting, get understanding.”
Yes. Grow ever more deeply intimate with that immense and mysterious reality in which we live out our lives.
(Lex Crane is a retired UU minister, a veteran of WWII, an author, a thoughtful commentator on reality, and a friend.)