Miracles

One of the first things to be discarded by the early Unitarians, as reason was adopted as their guide, was their belief in miracles. They celebrated the wonder of the natural world, but decided that healing and prophecy and other supernatural events found in the Bible were imaginative stories from a more superstitious age. And it all makes sense: those events were not a part of their own lived experience.

However, there are many mysterious aspects of our human experience. More recently, even scientists have grown curious about healing, extra sensory perception, and other phenomena that seem to defy logical understanding. As the orderliness of Newtonian physics gave way to the strange chaotic properties of matter and energy encountered in Quantum physics, people began to wonder if spiritual mysteries had been cast aside too soon.

It has been difficult to use the scientific method to sort out the very subjective realm of spiritual experience. If some people can experience God, does that mean all people should be able to do so? Are there spiritual methods and practices that should consistently produce a spiritual experience? Buddhist and other forms of meditation have had an appeal for skeptical thinkers because meditation is a practice offered in the manner of an experiment. It is a method, not necessarily linked to particular beliefs, and anyone can try it out. But this is not to say that results are easy to measure.

I believe when we move beyond religious dogma that tells us we must believe certain miraculous things have happened in the past, we can move toward a thoughtful openness and curiosity about the inexplicable experiences of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Let me tell you a story from my life. It is actually a rather simple story, nothing big or dramatic. But it taught me something about miracles.

In the spring of 1986, I was living at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp in upstate New York. At that time of year, there were only a few of us there, staying in an old farmhouse on land near the Seneca Army Depot. We were there to protest nuclear weapons, but this story is not about a prayer for world peace. At that time, my lover was living in western Massachusetts, and I missed her. I didn’t have a car, or much money. My prayer was a wish that I might find a way to go visit her.

The camp was a crossroads of sorts, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have visitors. Peace activists from all over would stop in for a day or a week. Not so many during the winter or spring, but still a few. In my prayer, I was conscious of my wish to see my love, and I remember imagining someone coming like a knight on a white horse to carry me to Massachusetts. Quite a small prayer.

The very next day someone drove into the driveway. The visitor was driving to Massachusetts in a white pickup truck. It would have been enough to get a ride, which I did. But the white pickup truck was an added ironic touch that still sends goose bumps up my arms. So whimsical and tender a response. 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

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The Limits of Mystical Experience

Rainbow in Branches DSC03269I come from a peculiar perspective on the topic of spirituality, because I grew up with a father who is a mystic. He later described to me his own pivotal experience of God. He told me he was lifted to a state of bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, that he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

When I was growing up, this God lived in our house like another member of the family. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation that someone was there listening. The other side of this story was that my father was far from perfect—he could be dogmatic about his experiences and beliefs, and critical of his children. He got angry and sad and frustrated and disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, he was and is a good and loving man. But once I grew up enough to form my own opinions, I realized that spiritual experiences were no guarantee of emotional compassion, or accuracy in the search for knowledge. Just because my father could have a spiritual experience, did not mean he was always right.

The biggest challenge for me in this regard came when my journey took a very different turn than my father’s. Our family had become involved in the Catholic Pentecostal movement, which in many ways was a very empowering and spiritually nurturing community for a teenage spiritual seeker. But during my last years of college, the Pentecostals were shaping themselves into a more institutional structure, and I found myself repelled by their hierarchical and sexist understandings of community. Where the Spirit seemed to be leading them was very different from where I felt the Spirit was leading me.

My great helper through that time was a woman professor of the Bible, who taught me about scholarly interpretation of sacred texts and the dangers of fundamentalism. I have talked about that in another post.  But I learned, then, that we cannot abandon mind and intellect, as we search for spiritual experience. We’d like to think that people who have spiritual experience will be always compassionate and wise. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

Our experience of the larger reality, the great Mystery, is mediated by our human limitations and our human failings. We must keep our eyes open. Spiritual community can be used to hurt and to oppress, as well as to help and uplift. Spiritual conviction can be used for destruction as well as for compassion. Jesus once said that you can know a tree by its fruit, and the apostle Paul wrote, “The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We too must pay attention to the fruits that are borne by spiritual experience.

Eventually, my own spiritual and intellectual journey led me out of Christianity, and I became a part of the feminist revival of the Goddess. On the one hand, it could be said I was rejecting everything my father stood for. But on the other hand, the essence of the gospel message—the message of liberation for the downtrodden—had opened a door for this next stage of my journey. And it was a similar journey to his—a journey of being called beyond the familiar, into a new experience of reality; a journey of trusting this inner calling and conviction more than outer definitions.

Even though my father and I are worlds apart in the details of our spiritual expression, we can still sometimes find a deep connection because of the inner core of our spiritual journeying. My relationship to my father teaches me about the complications of searching after spirituality as experience. We must trust our own experience, we must honor the experience of others, but we must weigh everything according to our deep values.

Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?

The Unitarian side of my church’s heritage partly developed in response to what it saw as an excessive focus on “feeling after God” in the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century. During the Great Awakening, revival preachers were traveling across the countryside stirring people into a frenzy of religious devotion. Salvation was marked by conversion experiences of great emotional intensity. The underside of this fervor was a pessimistic theology that claimed that all human beings were inherently evil and destined to eternal damnation. Salvation was seen as a literal rescue from this horrific fate. An emotional conversion experience marked you as one of the saved.

By contrast, the preachers who were my forebears mistrusted this approach of salvation by catharsis. They advocated a religion based on reason and character, and believed we might participate in the process of spiritual growth. God, they said, would not despise our use of the intellect which he had given us. Reason and character have remained hallmarks of our faith.

Unitarianism became known as a religion comfortable with words, mistrustful of emotion. Yet from the beginning there were Unitarians who worried about the coldness of such a reasonable approach. Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “the father of American spirituality,” complained about it:

“Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origins in heaven?… The test of a true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul…”

Is it possible to find a faith which charms both the mind and the soul? Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?

Sunset Crescent MJ DSC09452

Emerson quoted from “The Divinity School Address” in Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism