My Spiritual Journey
(Based on a talk given at West Grove Unitarian Church, Cardiff UK on 19 March 2000)
And so on to Wales, Land of my Fathers, yes, and of my Mothers, and to my meeting with Unitarianism. I must confess that even by the time I was baptised, by full immersion, into the Waldensian and Methodist Church, in 1992, the ecstatic suspension of disbelief in a personal God occasioned by my experience of conversion was already wearing off. I discovered the ideas of theological non-realism and the Sea of Faith movement, the theology of Don Cupitt.
So to this spiritual Irish stew letís add a dash of Matthew Arnold, from Dover Beach (1865):
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Does that express the feelings of this church? Not even a roar, perhaps, but a melancholy, long, withdrawing whimper? A candle flickering out as the world moves on to more exciting things? Oh no,
†ďDo not go gentle
into that good night
... Rage, rage against the dying of the lightĒ -
Ö in the words of that other Dylan, this time your very own Dylan Thomas.
Matthew Arnold was depressed at the thought of the end of the Christian era, which he, like so many conservatives, saw as a Golden Age. But, while studying for an MA in Literature with the Open University (the reason for my return to Wales), I discovered another poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, who was positively overjoyed at the thought of the end of Christendom, and gloated over it in his Hymn to Proserpine. In this poem he voices the prayer of the last pagan, the apostate Emperor Julian, who, before his death, in the year 363, looks forward to our time and tells the new Christian Gods:†
All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire shall ye pass and be past;
Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings.
Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,
Though these that were Gods are dead, and thou being dead art a God,
Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,
Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.
The throned Cytherean was Venus, the Goddess of Love and of Nature. From Swinburne (though not only from Swinburne) I learnt the beauty and value of the pagan tradition, of what we have lost and suppressed in our acceptance of the image of the transcendent male sky God:
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,
Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,
And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.
For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,
Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,
White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,
Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.
For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she
Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.
And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,
And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.
The worship of Venus, the Goddess, involved a joyous acceptance of biological life, of this beautiful earth and its treasures, and of our physical earthly existence, an ecological awareness, which we are only now learning to recover. For too long Christianity looked to the next world, considering this world as mere dust, and this life as only a training ground in preparation for an eternal life beyond the grave. But we are moving on from that now, and learning to reconcile the masculine and the feminine, the yin and the yang, the transcendent and the immanent, the spiritual and the material. Matter, you will remember, is only the shifting shapes of Spirit, energy temporarily coagulating in the illusion of solidity.
In his poem ďHerthaĒ Swinburne gives us a different view, presenting another aspect of the Great Goddess, as the Mother of all things:
I am that which began;
Out of me the years roll;
Out of me God and man;
I am equal and whole;
God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the soul.
Before ever land was,
Before ever the sea,
Or soft hair of the grass,
Or fair limbs of the tree,
Or the fresh-coloured fruit of my branches, I was, and thy soul was in me.
First life on my sources
First drifted and swam;
Out of me are the forces
That save it or damn;
Out of me man and woman, and wild-beast and bird; before God was, I am.
But what thing dost thou now,
Looking Godward, to cry
"I am I, thou art thou,
I am low, thou art high"?
I am thou, whom thou seekest to find him; find thou but thyself, thou art I.
We are back in Advaita Vedanta: Tat Tvam Asi: That Art Thou, duality is an illusion, the self is not different from Brahman: and in fact Swinburne was one of the first British writers to be influenced by the East, through the translations of his good friend, the outrageous explorer Richard Burton. Swinburne, like Nietzsche, was a prophet of the Death of God, and he saw this process as a liberation. He saw humanity emerging from a dark age of theism, in which we had made God in our own twisted image. And there was, I felt, a lot of truth in this critique.
As for me, I was now somewhat lost. What I was looking for, a faith which could encompass all these different traditions, which was based on deeds and not creeds, just didnít exist. So I decided that I would have to invent it. But listen to this: hereís the experience of Kay Montgomery, quoted in The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide:
"I invented Unitarian Universalism. All by myself. I know numerous other people who have done this as well. I did it on buses, travelling up and down Livernois Avenue in Detroit. I was seventeen or so, a working class Catholic, living with my parents and attending a Jesuit college about ten miles away. The Jesuits would have been astonished [...] Each day that bus went within half a mile or so of a Unitarian Church, but I didnít know that and, if I had known, it wouldnít have meant a thing.
A decade later in another city, long after I had left ďThe ChurchĒ I stumbled on a passage in a book that described Unitarian Universalism. I was astonished: This thing I had invented actually existed Ė a richer version than mine, a version with a religious, intellectual, and cultural tradition I couldnít have imagined, but still, identifiably mine. And then there was the experience so many of us have had Ė of coming home".
My experience was very similar. I had actually decided to call this thing Universalism, but before announcing it to the world, which I wasnít sure how I was going to do anyway, I thought I had better check that someone hadnít patented the name, as it were. So I connected to the Internet, went to a search engine - one of those sites that will find you whatever you are looking for out of some 500 million pages - and I typed in ďUniversalismĒ. AndÖlo and behold! I found it! I found that what I was struggling to even imagine already existed fully-grown (or at least growing like a green shoot) out there in the world. Of course, I leapt up and tumbled down the stairs, losing my pyjamas on the way, and rushed out into the street naked, shouting ďEureka! Eureka! I have got it! I have found it!Ē
Well, almost. Thatís what I felt like doing. O Yes:
Grace, how sweet the sound,
I was lost and now Iím found.
So just a few words now on what it means to me, and where I think we Unitarian Universalists should be going. In the Unitarian Church I have found Air, the clear air of high thoughts, Earth, the warmth of human companionship, Water, the life-giving spiritual tradition flowing on through the centuries. And a little candle flickering in the darkness. But very little Fire. Not the fire of passionate Faith, the kind of faith which when it is just the size of a mustard seed will allow you to move mountains, and which would bring in the crowds, which would fill this church to overflowing. And this is our big problem as rationalists, agnostics, people of a liberal faith which is hardly any faith at all. How can we have a strong faith without having to submit to voluntary and self-induced lobotomy? How can we have faith at all with no beliefs? Or at least with no creeds. Well, that is the key: we have no creeds, but we have beliefs, beliefs in certain core values and belief in believing, faith in faith, which is not of the head but of the heart. It is not a question at all of what the reality is like outside of these four walls.
We all know that if you run down the stairs and out of the door you are very likely to get run over by a car or a bus. And thatís scientific knowledge. Thatís reality. But itís not what religion is about. Religion is not about the nature of reality. Iíll repeat that: Religion is not about the nature of reality. Itís not about whether an omnipotent, omniscient being actually exists or not. We donít know that, perhaps we canít ever know that, but in any case thatís not what itís all about. Itís about inner space and not outer space, about how what happens in our inner space can then influence and even totally transform the world. Faith is of the heart not of the head. Itís not an opinion about the world out there. Itís a way of being, a way of embracing life: joyfully, lovingly, selflessly.
And from that realisation, from that experience of conversion and of finding faith, comes inevitably a mission. A burning desire to transmit this joy, this understanding, this feeling of liberation, to all the other suffering souls in the world. And this is the one true religion, the one true faith. But it has no content, or perhaps it's content is Wu, Shunyata, emptiness, or at the very most Love, a love which passeth all understanding. Itís not a better club to clobber your neighbour with, itís not an insurance policy to sell. True Religion is poetry, metaphor. It is Art. There are no creeds, no dogmas. And, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the Mission is the Message. There is no content, except Love and everything that follows from it, which is the Mission itself. This dream of the unity of humanity, the breaking down of all barriers, the Caravan of Love, the Realm or Republic of Heaven: this is the Mission. Our Mission. And it is one and the same thing as Unitarian Universalism. In our case in Britain, Unitarian as a denomination and Universalism as its philosophy. And it is also, in my humble opinion, at least potentially, what Jesus dreamed of while he wandered the hills of Galilee twenty centuries ago. It is the Gospel that he preached.
So I want to say to you in conclusion: You may feel that you are the past, but in fact you are the future. You may feel that you have nothing more to offer, but you have the most precious gift of all, the Golden Heresy of Truth, the radical evangelical message of unconditional love. And we are all agents of this divine transformation, ushering in the 'Kingdom of God' (speaking poetically, metaphorically, of course).
We are secret agents of the Overmind Underground
Working in the darkness for the love of the light
Searching for the other souls who have heard the word or found the sound
Gathering on the highway to the end of the night.
And we are also, in the final analysis, followers of Jesus Christ, not because he was the only Son of (an imaginary?) God, not because he died for our sins, or some such Gobbledegook Ė some such 'Hobgoblinery', we might even say, though John Bunyan would be turning in his grave Ė but because Jesus of Nazareth was the first Universalist. This is still, despite it all, his movement. This is true Christianity, this is the Good News, this is the Gospel Truth, because it is the teaching of unconditional love, of the breaking down of barriers to the meeting of hearts and minds, the cessation of all conflict and contention in the Holy Sanctuary of the Human Heart. It is the Missionary Order of the Inner Light. And even if that light shines in the darkness and the darkness understands it not, yet the darkness cannot put the light out, and the light will continue to shine until the day dawns for us all in the Republic of Heaven.
A short meditation to conclude:
Split the rock and watch the waters flow
Fling down the staff and see the serpents go
Itís a crazy game, a mad magicianís show
And itís all around us bouncing to and fro.
So letís come back down to the only truth we know,
To the love within, to that warm eternal glow
And pass it on out, and let the feeling grow...
HOME†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† LIGHT OF THE WORLD