Spiritual Dabbling or Depth?


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One of the great advantages of being a UU is that we can choose spiritual practices that are meaningful to us.  It’s easy for us to try a little of this, and a little of that, and not experience the growth that can happen with a commitment to depth.  But is there a benefit from the kind of openness we have to so many different spiritual experiences?  How can we build on this as a strength that leads to growth?


Spiritual Dabbling or Depth?” March 15, 2020

Rev. Nancy O. Arnold All Souls Church UU Brattleboro, VT

Even without an international pandemic, our lives are complicated. We may not necessarily be able to do what we love most. Normally, we try to create a structure for our lives that includes “down time” in which we can pursue what is most important to us. For many of us, being in a religious community such as this – especially in these times – is part of what sustains us.

I have been a Unitarian Universalist for more than forty years. In that time, my sense of identity as a UU has changed several times. I arrived being an agnostic, shifted to atheist, then deist, and now a humanist mystical seeker. As the years progressed, I found myself pursuing new avenues of sustenance. Women’s spirituality groups, classes in yoga and energy work, and daily journaling these were all done outside of the church. Why? Because inside the church – the Society, the Fellowship, the Congregation, whatever it was called – the emphasis remained on doing good works, and intellectual stimulation, not on cultivating spiritual well-being. Anything remotely spiritual had to take place during the one hour of worship on Sunday morning.

As a lay leader, the most spiritual experience I had occurred when I was away from the church at New England Leadership School. It was there that the daily offerings of worship, Credo groups, and leadership work in fellowship with other UUs helped me know what was possible for us, not just for me. It was striking that I had to leave my home congregation to experience such deep connection. Because that kind of spiritual encounter remained inaccessible in my home congregation, I embarked on a career in ministry. My intention was to learn how to integrate a depth of spiritual experience into the life of the congregation.

So I went back to school. Unfortunately, Divinity School didn’t teach any of that. I still had to create opportunities for spiritual growth outside the program. In a way, my seminary education was good preparation for parish ministry. My own spiritual nurturance still takes place outside the congregation – with one very important exception – the human connection I experience there.

InChallenge of a Liberal Faith, George Marshall describes:

Unitarianism (as) an inner-directed faith, (one that) build(s) values and standards from within outward, creating an internal fortress for survival. It helps people face more realistically the issues of life, struggle, despair and defeat. At the same time it encourages greater joy through freedom from fear, in living a rich, full life on this earth, which is all the Heaven (and Hell) it promises.1

Those who are drawn to a UU congregation are seeking ways to live in the here and now with integrity. We are seeking companions for the journey. We are seeking lives that have meaning.

The challenge for us seekers, is that sometimes we are so intent on the search, that we don’t recognize the meaning when it appears. We continue to dabble in the spiritual quest, rather than go deeper into the life of the spirit that holds our peace.

Unitarian Universalism lends itself quite well to spiritual dabblers. It is an evolving faith tradition. Unitarians and Universalists both had their roots in Christianity, and specifically in liberal Protestantism. Unitarians believed in the oneness of God, and considered themselves liberal Christians. Universalist doctrine affirmed that a God “whose nature is Love,” would not condemn anyone to hell. Universalism affirmed a latitude of individual opinion in matters of theology. By the time the two religions consolidated in 1961, they had both shown “a growing ambivalence toward the[ir] liberal Christian heritage…”2

The ambivalence for Unitarians had a long history. It started with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker in the 19thcentury. The Humanist-Theist controversy in the first half of 20thcentury focused on whether Unitarianism should be God-centered or human-centered. In the 1940s, when Humanism became the predominant “theology” for Unitarians, “those on the theist end of the spectrum… felt the need to defend Unitarianism’s roots as a biblical faith.”3So in 1944, “the Unitarian Christian Fellowship (UCF) was founded.

At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, Universalism ranked “among one of the largest six or seven denominational groups in America.” A report by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal explored the evolution of Universalism. From being “a church and a movement unified by a fervent belief in universal salvation” it became a movement that “gradually acquired a broader meaning.” It became a “’universal church’ (that was) characterized by acceptance of an ever-widening variety of religious beliefs… The irony is that as Universalists attempted to expand their circle of faith, the number of their adherents continued to decline.” 4

To the UUA consolidation in 1961, Universalists brought the belief “that there is one God, whose nature is Love,… who will finally restore the whole family of [hu]mankind to holiness and happiness.”5Unitarians brought to the union a fervent belief in “…the free exercise of intelligence in religion.” They believed that “in the long run the safest guide to truth is human intelligence.” Unitarians affirmed worship as a necessity “to strengthen the individual’s grasp of the highest spiritual values of which they are aware.”6

Into their worship services, Universalists integrated rituals such as Communion. Unitarians brought disagreement about “the wisdom of maintaining that definitely Christian tradition, and (other) traditional forms of Christian worship.”7The result has been worship – that many long-time Unitarians cannot even bear to call “worship” – that is often devoid of ritual. The “highest spiritual values” are to be communicated via the sermon, which for some is the most important part of the service. So we talkabout spiritual practices, but rarely do we incorporate them into our communal worship. The communion cups and service from many former Universalist churches are rarely used now, if at all. In the Akron church we rinsed them off only once a year for the Maundy Thursday service before Easter.

Our spiritual practices tend to be as individualistic as our theology. Many of us go to “the woods” to be recalled to our best selves. We don’t come to worship at a UU congregation. We come to see our friends, to get re-fueled for the next week, and perhaps to be reminded that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Our youth and young adults experience a very different worship. Their worship is – “participatory, vibrant, sensory, vulnerable, and somewhat unpredictable.”8That rarely happens in our “adult” congregations. As many of our congregations focus on providing services that are more “worshipful,” they eliminate things that are difficult to contain – things like Sharing of Joys and Concerns. As a result, congregations often lose the spontaneity that made their time together a service of the living tradition.

The life of the spirit is much more fluid than what many of us have come to expect from our congregations. In the course of doing the workhere(in the physical space), we may neglect the work here(in our hearts). We get caught up in the business of considering options for the future, and how we’re going to meet all our expenses. We may forget that we are not human “doings.” We are human beings. And, we are not human beings learning to be spiritual. We are spiritual beings striving to be fully human.

We choose to come to this place for communion with other seekers who desire spiritual depth in their lives. But too often, what we offer each other in our congregations, are committee meetings, fundraising, and the opportunity to dabble in spiritual practices – privately.

That being said, I will tell you that for many years, my own spiritual practices were mostly solitary ones: walking in the woods, or on the beach, either alone or with a friend, a daily yoga practice, journaling, bicycling, and preparing worship services. Over the course of my 70 years, I have also tried running, Tai Chi classes, meditation, Synergy, and Reiki. Most of these have not become spiritual practices.

Since retiring from parish ministry, I have more wherewithal to be in the spirit with others – in yoga class, in Sunday worship, and even in the Stewardship campaign for which I volunteered this year.

My morning walk is the longest practice I have. It dates back to 1980, when our family acquired a dog. When the dog died six years later, I still found myself out walking every morning. Everywhere I’ve lived since, that practice has held. An important part of the walk is to “visit” a body of water – even if it’s just a stream. Even the smallest patch of water brings me back to my childhood home, where we lived a few blocks from the beach. Being “at home” is how I describe my own sense of well-being and spiritual connection.

The feeling of being “at home” is not something that can be manufactured. It comes from deep within, from a place of self-acceptance and knowing that we are where we need to be.

I suspect that most of us want to be connected to something beyond ourselves. Human, divine, animal or natural “something” or “someone” does not really matter. What does matter is that we are on this journey together, each doing the best that we can to live ourselves into human being-ness. I do believe that we are here to be seekers. If we are being true to ourselves, then the journey continues at least until death.

If we assume that most of us are here because we want a greater connection than we could have alone, then why is it so difficult for us to offer each other a depth of experience that fuels us spiritually?

Part of the difficulty stems from the “union” of two very different religions. In 1961, when the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed, only the business arrangements were handled. There was no attempt to articulate a shared theology. In fact, there was an “intentional avoidance of theological issues.”9

I believe that we are the beneficiaries of that avoidance. Without a shared theological grounding, it is very difficult to create meaningful spiritual rituals or practices. We do dedicate babies, honor the coming of age of our youth, and celebrate weddings and lives well lived. But for everyday spiritual practices, many of us go outside the Congregation. Theological questions are left for the individual to address.

Inside the congregation, we acquaint ourselves with spiritual practices that draw from the sources of our Living Tradition: wisdom from the world’s religions, Jewish and Christian teachings, humanist teachings, and spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions.

Outside the Congregation, we may even dabble in some of these practices. If one is fortunate enough to establish a practice that has depth, then too often that person stops attending services. I’ve heard more times than I care to count that “the church doesn’t meet my spiritual needs. I get my spiritual needs met by walking in the woods, through my twelve step program, or in the experience of meditation.” I find that sad, and a bit disheartening.

One of my colleagues reports a visit with a man who had stopped attending the church. The man welcomed the minister into his home. They sat by the fire chatting about what was going on his life, and why he had stopped attending services. The man didn’t feel as if he belonged. “Too many new people, too many changes,” the man said. “I don’t know anybody anymore.” At one point, the minister got up and moved one of the burning coals to the side of the fire. The coal’s light and warmth burned out as the conversation continued. After awhile, the minister got up and moved the coal back into the fire, without saying a word. Soon the coal glowed as if it had never left. The next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter, the man appeared in church.

In our UU tradition, we do not have a creed that unites us. We do not have very many spiritual practices in our services. What we do have is a shared commitment to be in relationship with one another.

We will probably never agree on what a congregation should be. We may have differing theologies. We may even have a depth of spiritual practice that has nothing to do with this congregation. What we offer is the warmth of community, respect for our individual and corporate spiritual practices, and we offer companionship on our journeys.

What I want to suggest to you is that simply being here, in intentional relationship, can become a meaningful spiritual practice for you. For any of us. For all of us.

I was first drawn to a UU congregation because I was seeking something that was missing from my life. As a minister I try to help congregations become communities that care for their members and that walk together with a common vision.

My own evolution has brought me from seeking a community of like-minded people in which I was accepted as I am, to seeking a religiouscommunity whose members covenant with each other to grow their souls in a spirit of love and cooperation. I want to be a part of a congregation that believes it can make a difference in the lives of its members, and in the greater world community. And then I want the congregation to act on those beliefs, in spiritual practice.

A UU young adult said it best I think:

You share what deeply moves your soul and I’ll come and participate. Then I’ll share what deeply moves my soul, and perhaps you’ll come and participate.10

That’s the beauty of Unitarian Universalism. And our ritual practice. We are walking this path separately, and together. Let the flame from this hearth offer you the depth of spirit you seek. And when it doesn’t, move in a little closer and the people here will warm you – until your own light burns brightly once again.

1George N. Marshall, Challenge of A Liberal Faith, 1975 (Boston: Church of the Larger Fellowship).

2The Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Engaging Our Theological Diversity(Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), p. 22.


4Ibid, 21-22.

5Ibid, p. 24, citing Article II. Winchester Profession of Faith.

6Ibid, p. 26, citing Unitarians Face a New Age, 33.


8Ellen Carvill-Ziemer, “Ellen’s Story” told at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, December 10, 2006.

9Commission on Appraisal, p. 27.


Closing words by Alla Renee Bozarth

…be awake to the Life that is loving you and sing your prayer

Laugh your prayer, dance your prayer, run and weep and sweat your prayer,

Sleep your prayer, eat your prayer, paint, sculpt, hammer and read your prayer,

Wash, iron, vacuum, sew, embroider and pickle your prayer,

Compute, touch, bend and fold but never delete or mutilate your prayer.

Learn and play your prayer,

Work and rest your prayer,

Argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,

Swim and hunt and cook your prayer,

Digest and become your prayer,

Breathe your prayer,

Be your prayer.