The Class Atheist

I just love being a Unitarian Universalist. We’ve got such a full spectrum here. The chance to be a part of a community of such diversity is an enormous joy, blessing, and grace. Twenty years ago, Cecelia Ringling (a fictional character whose business is "Tarot and palm reading, past life regressions, and spiritual journeyings") typified what I thought of in connection with “spirituality,” and I was pretty much an Otto (Cecelia's practical-minded, no-nonsense brother), so I saw the Cecelias as interesting, often lovely and wonderful people, but with these interests that just seemed, well, flaky as a good spanakopita crust.

In 7th grade: Year 4 of being the Class Atheist. Oh,
the existential angst of breakfast! My sister Alizon
is clearly oblivious to the unbearability of it all.
It goes back to when I was in fourth grade, and I first heard the word “atheist” – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one. This was a scandal to my classmates in that rural Georgia school. From then on through high school I was “the class atheist.” But, you know, after awhile they got over being scandalized. Apart from a few kids who were hostile, and a few others who undertook to try to save me, my classmates preferred to ignore our differences of theological opinion. If there was a disconnect between us because of religion, looking back, I’d say the distance-making, the wall-building, came more from me than from them. As a child and teenager, my sad heart hardened and chose contempt as its protective strategy. I did not go for “spirituality” – did not use that word for my experiences. Nor did I think in terms of sacred, divine, transcendent. Wasn’t so keen on awe, mystery, or wonder either.

It was several years after college before, very slowly at first, I began to find a place – to want a place -- in my life for transcendent love, inner peace, “all-right-ness,” acceptance, awe, beauty, wonder, humility, gratitude, a freshness of experience; a feeling of plenitude, abundance, and deep simplicity of all things; “the oceanic feeling,” Sigmund Freud spoke of, calling it “a sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.” These are ways of describing the spiritual. In moments of heightened spiritual experience, the gap between self and world vanishes. The normal experience of time leaves us, and each moment has a quality of the eternal in it. There is no better name for this than “spirituality,” and it turns out that it does not require theism or any of the things Cecelia Ringling is into.

Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis sought a way to define spirituality more definitely, empirically, and measurably. Their 240-item questionnaire called the "Temperament and Character Inventory,” includes, as one of the dimensions of character, something they call "self-transcendence" – and I’d call spirituality. Self-transcendence is an orientation toward the elevated, whether that is experienced as compassion, ethics, art, or whether it is experienced as a divine presence.

By orienting toward the elevated, we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed. Self-transcendence means conceiving oneself as integral to the universe as a whole. Self-transcendent individuals are spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled. This self-transcendence, as Cloninger measures it, is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

Self-forgetfulness. Transpersonal identificaltion. Acceptance. Are these qualities on which you'd like to improve your scores?

* * *
This is part 3 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

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