(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Saint Augustine was a fourth and fifty century theologian who had a big impact on Christian and western thinking. He saw the world in strictly Manichean – or good versus evil – terms. There is a constant battle between god and the devil, he taught. As a part of that, people are born with original sin inherited from Adam and Eve. We are born selfish and egocentric. In later life, however, we can choose to follow god and be born again into goodness over sin.
John Locke, the 18th century philosopher, directly rejected Augustinian belief in original sin. He said we are born as so-called blank slates on which our environment, parental nurturing, education, and choices we make all figuratively write onto us who we are and how we act. His was an attempt to bring psychology into more modern times by rejecting the supposed influence of god.
Today, understanding of human motivations has in many ways combined Augustine and Locke’s ideas. We are not born with original sin, but we are born instead with genetic imprints that help determine who we will be. As we mature, other influences can modify and even change our disposition and ways of thinking and acting. In other words, we can grow.
Much of the inquiry into how inherited genes play a role in our personalities and sense of right and wrong touches on the unconscious part of ourselves. That is the part of us that we have no awareness even exists. We often think, act and speak in ways that we do not cognitively decide. We unconsciously do them, in our own unique ways. These actions are often determined by what our genes have programmed into us: for instance, to be extroverts or introverts, calm or agitated, empathetic or indifferent.
But, as I said, such genetic influence of who we are is not absolute. Just as someone may have inherited addictive tendencies to alcohol and drugs, that does not take away one’s ability and even need to purposefully change negative behavior. In other words, we are born with a mindset and personality at least partly influenced by genetics, but we can also re-program ourselves in ways we choose. Once again, we can grow. And for the sake of my message today on the Third Unitarian Universalist Principle, I believe we choose if and how we will spiritually grow.
For me, spirituality is defined by inquiry and understanding of forces greater than us. And such forces are not just those that seemingly defy scientific explanation, but also include the great forces of which I’ve just spoken – those of life purpose and inclination toward doing good. In many ways, all forms of spirituality concern trying to understand one’s place in the cosmos. Who am I? Why do I exist? How am I connected to the wider universe? What does it mean to be ethical?
I believe definition of the word “spiritual” has been hijacked by religions who generally define it as having to do with matters of the spirit – things that are in the realm of the supernatural. One cannot be spiritual, such thinking goes, unless one believes in spirits, gods, or goddesses. Unfortunately, some Atheists, Humanists and Unitarian Universalists have accepted that religious definition of the word and thus, for them, spirituality is a dirty concept because it’s not based on reason and empirical proof. But it shouldn’t have such a definition – at least in my opinion.
Spiritual growth is, as I earlier alluded, about gaining more and more awareness of the role we are created to play in life and the world. That, indeed, is a subject I don’t believe science can ever answer but it IS reason based. I do not believe, as some scientists suggest, that everything is randomly created with no underlying purpose. If that were so, then we might as well live as if nothing mattered and we can thus do as we please with no ethics to follow. Existence, in my mind, has meaning and it is the human effort to seek what our purpose is that defines what is called spiritual growth.
Reverend Rob Hardies of All Souls Unitarian Universalist church of Washington D.C. says spiritual growth is an expansion of the soul. It is, he says, how we move from being mostly self-focused to being outwardly focused. And that is finding our purpose in life – to serve not the self but all of creation.
Our soul, what I believe is the unconscious self, gradually comes to understand the universe does not serve us, but rather we serve it. We are each but one small cog in the totality of everything and our role is to fit within its machinery to serve, care, love, and collaborate with all of the other parts.
We begin life concerned with our individual needs primarily because infants are mostly helpless. But as physically grow, and are no longer helpless, we can then re-program ourselves to instead spiritually expand – or grow – such that we perceive our individual needs as minor, compared to the needs of all things – and so we seek to serve others. As Reverend Hardies put it in his elaboration on the Third Principle, “We need souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. We need souls that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity. Instead of fight or flight, we need a spiritual posture of embrace.”
Reading the Third Principle, we see not only a guide for individual thinking, but also congregational life as well. It provides a clear purpose for the existence of this church and others like it. I have heard a few people denigrate this place as kind of like a country club or social club – and I hate to repeat that criticism because it is so wrong. This place is expansive in its outlook. It exists not just to embrace one another, but everyone else too.
But as the Third Principle implies, congregations importantly exist to encourage spiritual growth within themselves. And that is a too often overlooked function of what we do – and where many of our priorities and planning should focus. Are we mutually expanding each other in our spirituality and awareness of our role in the world? Do we encourage, enlighten, support, and celebrate spiritual growth and change both in ourselves and in each other? Do we come together to relate as collaborators and friends in the great purpose of living? Importantly, do we measure or success not by numbers or money, but by changed lives? Boiled down to one essential question, does this place help people spiritually grow for the better? I believe we do – and not just by social justice work or serving those who suffer. By living in community, by interacting with and figuratively embracing each other in gentle and kind ways, we are spiritually growing – and we grow each other too.
John Newton, who wrote the internationally well-known hymn “Amazing Grace”, exemplifies in many ways what I speak of in terms of being born with an immature predisposition toward, but later growing into someone who better understands the meaning of life.
Newton was notoriously rebellious and profane in his early years. His father got him a job, at age eleven, working on a ship in the hopes the rigorous life would help mature him. It did not. He was so rebellious as a teenager and ship crew member that he was punished by being forced to join the British Royal Navy – again hoping that would teach him respect toward others. It did not. He deserted the Navy and then joined on as a crewman on a slave trading ship. That ship encountered a severe storm that nearly sunk it. And Newton, in a desperate, bargaining prayer, called out to God to save him and, if so, he would change his ways. The ship was saved and Newton began his path to becoming a Christian.
But his change was only gradual. He evolved in his thinking about self, God, and slavery over the next several years until he eventually rejected slave trading. Returning to England, he became involved in a church. His change of ways, passion, and interest in religion were such that he was soon noticed by well-known clergy and politicians. He was ordained as a Minister and joined forces with William Wilberforce, the English politician who led the effort to abolish slave trading and slavery itself. Soon thereafter, he and an associate composed a hymnal in which was the song “Amazing Grace” – one which he admitted was largely autobiographical. The hymn quickly became famous – especially in the U.S.
It’s opening line, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” was and still is interpreted by many as Newton’s confession for his responsibility helping trade in human life. In one of his sermons about the hymn, he said, “Sinners are blinded by the god of this world until mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired.” He religiously stated my premise for how people spiritually grow. We’re born immature and self focused, but many of us can and do change for the better to become people who make a positive difference.
Of course, Newton understood his epiphany in light of Christian theology. But while he explains his growth being due to God, it is better understood from the perspective of learning and changing not in some sudden salvation experience, but gradually and with dawning awareness that genuine meaning and goodness is defined by how we learn to treat others.
During the campaign to end the slave trade, Newton was a contrite and vivid explainer of its horrors. He wrote a widely distributed pamphlet that detailed how Africans were captured, forced into chains, and then barely kept alive during the ocean crossing to the Americas. In one passage, he described what he did on his ship when a slave revolt broke out. He commanded a canon filled with small pieces of sharp metal and fired it point blank at the crowd of slaves – many of whom were children and severely sick captives. Such descriptions in the pamphlet were sincere confessions intended to inform people about the terrible cruelty of slavery and the slave trade. It was a major factor in changeling public opinion and passing the law forbidding the slave trade.
While my own path of spiritual growth went away from God and Christianity, his story nevertheless echoes patterns of my life. I did not reach a semblance of my current beliefs until I was in my forties and I am still on a path of learning and betterment. Much of that comes from a dawning awareness that I am flawed and that Ministry for me has been a gift – not as a way to earn a living, but as a way to see all of my imperfections contrasted against the ideals I encourage. I’m still learning how best to serve and love any person- especially those I disagree with. And I choose my message topics to improve myself as much as anyone else. For me, stating a belief is one way to be reminded to practice it.
A few weeks ago, one of the members here, seeing me help clean the kitchen, asked why such work is a part of being a minister. I responded with something I’ve learned as a minister: never ask someone to do something you yourself are not willing and happy to also do. That states a spiritual ethic I believe. We are all ministers, none higher or better than another – and we are each called to grow and change for the better precisely so we can do our share to improve the world. Beyond that, ministers – and thus all of us – are to be servants with a humility that recognizes serving is highly valued. It’s not lowly or demeaning in any way. Ultimately, spiritual growth is to ask yourself if you are regularly making an important and good difference in the world – or not? Is there more peace, giving, service, and kindness in your home, workplace, church, and / or neighborhood because of you? Even more, are such qualities increasing in you – because you perceive where you lack and thus seek to grow?
Every member of this congregation believes in making the world better. But the key to doing so is not just in the doing. It is also in the becoming. And that, in a nutshell, is what we do and what the Third UU Principle is all about. Individually and collectively, Unitarian Universalists pledge to continually, continually! expand their souls to become spiritually enlightened people. That means, for me, to always be trying to be others focused with kindness, service, and empathy to all.
I wish you each much peace and joy.