Spirituality Boom

The five Unitarian Universalist ministers that serve congregations in Westchester County all embarked on a pulpit rotation on Sun Mar 29.
  • I went from White Plains up to Mohegan Lake.
  • Mohegan Lake's minister, Rev. Karen Brammer, went down to Hastings-on-Hudson.
  • The Hastings minister, Rev. Peggy Clarke, went up to Croton-on-Hudson.
  • The Croton minister, Rev. Sarah Lenzi, is due to give birth to twins soon, so she was not in any church on that Sunday morning, but I understand that she nevertheless wrote a sermon which was read in the morning service in Mt. Kisco.
  • The Mt. Kisco minister, Rev. Michael Tino, filled my pulpit back in White Plains.
We decided that we would all address the same general topic: One hundred years from now, where is Unitarian Universalism?

Rev. Brammer spoke about a hoped-for shift from individualism toward community orientation. We’re going to need that in the new climate-changed world that’s coming – and Unitarian Universalists today are planting some promising seeds for the fruit we will need in that future time. Rev. Clarke has also been thinking about the big shift we’ll all need to make. She notices that every 500 years or so a revolution in human thought occurs. We create new ways of being. She senses that we are now on the verge of another Great Turning. And, along lines similar to Rev. Brammer, she sees that the modern turn to the “I” has run its course and it’s time for us to live into a “We” – and UUs can help our nation do this. I haven’t heard what direction Rev. Tino or Rev. Lenzi took.

I found myself reflecting on what exactly is it that our congregations do – and how will we adapt to changing needs.

One of those changes is that the stuff we used to get only in church – spiritual experience and spiritual understanding – is now being provided in various ways through lots of other channels. In particular, UU congregations have offered that experience and understanding without a lot of dogma. There are lots of ways today to get spirituality without dogma. Disney World, for example.

Some years ago, Rev. Christine Robinson – who serves our Congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico – described a trip to Disney World with her then-teenage son, who prevailed upon her to try the "Journey to Mars” ride. She writes:
“With some anxiety, I strapped myself in to my little cockpit and watched instructions flash in my little window. And then, with much rattle and roar, we were off. It was only 2 gs, but it was impressive. My little window flashed instructions during take off and then switched to an outside view of Mars, which was getting rapidly bigger. There was the inevitable volley of asteroids to dodge, and then, it was time to turn around to land. In my little window, I saw the red planet edge off, and then the vast darkness, and then I saw Earth rise in space, my beautiful, precious home. My son was right. It was totally worth it....I’ve been to Mars, and I have looked back to see my home from space, and I was touched to the core of my being. I know that the Spirit blows where it will, but I hadn’t expected to have a religious experience at Disney World, and it was abundantly clear that it was no accident that I’d had it. They put that little iconic picture of Earth in my window on purpose, and they hoped that it would do just what it did.” (Robinson, "Imagineering Soul," The 2008 Berry Street Essay)
Disney offers spiritual experiences – more or less on purpose. That’s not so much what they did when they started Disneyland in 1955 or Disney World in 1971. We have seen a cultural shift toward all manner of sectors of society recognizing the importance of and seeking to provide something meaningful, something with heart...a spiritual experience. The times they have a-changed.

One manifestation of this shift is an increased willingness to simply notice that emotions matter. Medical schools, for instance, now notice this. They didn’t used to. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel went to Harvard medical school in the early 1970s. During his first two years, he writes,
“I was painfully and repeatedly reprimanded for a peculiar interest of mine: spending time learning about my patients’ life stories and inquiring about their feelings during patient interviews.”
Siegel’s supervisor told him,
“You know these questions you are asking about the patients’ feelings, about their lives? This is the work of social workers, not doctors. If you want to ask about those things, why don’t you just become a social worker? If you want to be a real doctor, you need to stick to the physical.”
“The medical system of that time was focused almost exclusively on data and disease.” Times have changed.
“Medical School has changed, and many programs today give at least some attention to notions such as empathy and stress reduction in student physicians and the importance of seeing the patient as a person.”
It used to be mostly pastors that were pastoral – nowadays much of the healthcare field is at least somewhat pastoral.

Many hospitals now offer pain management with something developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is Zen – stripped of some of the formal religious trappings, but not of its spiritual content. As a Zen practitioner myself, I think this is great. It’s also fascinating to me how spiritual practices and messages have become so mainstream in supposedly secular culture.

The environmental movement has come to be a spiritual one. University of Florida professor Bron Taylor labels “green religion” the view “that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation.” Beyond green religion is what he calls dark green religion. For dark green religion, it’s not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment. Rather, in dark green spirituality, nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care – not simply because it is God’s creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself. Dark green spirituality shows up in movies like "Avatar" and – Disney again -- "Pocahantas," and "The Lion King." Taylor predicts that
“eventually [traditional] religions are likely to be supplanted by naturalistic forms of nature spirituality.”
* * *
This is Part 1 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 2: Only in Congregations
Part 3: The Future of Liberal Religion

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