Humility and Confidence

What do we do with people’s different understandings about God and the religious battles that go along with it? I believe we must begin by affirming that difference is real. People—in the same town and all over the world—think differently about the idea of God and have different experiences of God. That is real, and we can choose to fear it, or we can choose to welcome it, explore it, and even celebrate it.

But what does that do to our ideas about truth and reality? We might ask, for example, “Can God both exist and not exist at the same time?” That isn’t logical. But the truth is: both kinds of human experience exist! There are humans who experience or affirm God and there are humans who do not experience or affirm God. There are humans who experience or affirm certain images and ideas of God, and reject other images and ideas of God. We must take into account that all of our understanding about God comes through our human experience.

When my images and ideas about God began to change, something opened up before me. I embarked on a journey that demanded a deeper humility and a deeper confidence. I needed humility to recognize the incompleteness of my spiritual experience and the validity of truth beyond my understanding. I also needed to have confidence to claim my own experience as valid, whether or not others agreed with me.

I believe that each person’s experience is valid, at least in part, and the fullest truth is that which is weighed in community with the experience of others. This is one reason why I later chose to find a home within a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community that welcomes diverse beliefs. There is a Hebrew proverb: “Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God.” To live within a diverse spiritual community, we must cling more strongly to an open heart, than to specifics images and beliefs about God.

Heart StoneWhat this means for me is that the real God might be everywhere—hidden within each person, in each plant or animal, in each sunrise or stormy day, in the ordinary and the spectacular alike. Or God might be no where at all. It means that revelation is continuous and always unfolding. It means that words and images like God or Spirit or Mystery are metaphors trying to describe what is indescribable. The Sufi poet Rumi said,

“Just remember: it’s like saying of the king, he is not a weaver… words are on that level of God-knowing.”

My colleague the Rev. Forrest Church has said:

“The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”

Quote from The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, translated by Coleman Barks, p. 77.

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Reverence

There is another challenging aspect to embracing a spirituality of experience. It is not only a matter of paying attention to our own experience. It is also a matter of being open to the experience of others. How do we affirm each other’s spiritual experience when that experience may be very different from our own? How do we bring individual spiritual experience into the cauldron of community? If we approach these questions in a merely logical way, we can come up short.

For example, those of a skeptical nature might find it challenging to understand the experience of someone who relates vivid encounters with non-physical beings: gods or angels or spirits. If you do not experience such beings, you might find it inexplicable that others might. It might contradict everything you know about the world. Could there be such a reality, beyond the reach of our ordinary senses? I am not going to ask you to believe in it, but to take into account the possibility that some people may experience it. There are times when experience—our own or that of others—goes beyond our rational understanding.

Some cultures tend to be more at ease about such phenomena. I have a friend who is Puerto Rican. In her culture, one of the ancient traditions brought from Africa is called Santeria. When my friend opens her awareness to experience the larger reality, images from her culture come to life. She sees the spirits of Elegba and Oshun and Oya, with vivid colors and songs that others in her culture also report. These spirit beings interact with her and have been very significant in her life. Who is anyone to say they are not part of reality, when a whole culture affirms and cherishes them?

I am not saying we should not bring our reasoning to bear on our experience. My encounter with people of other cultures has made me more appreciative of the mystical elements of reality, and ironically, also more skeptical. It has taught me how our cultural context shapes our experience, even at what we imagine to be the most intimate and personal levels. If, as a child, I felt held in the loving arms of Jesus, was that reality, or was that an image shaped by what I had been taught to expect? Or could it be both?

When I was twenty six, I learned how my religious tradition had been shaped by the dominance of men in my culture, and I became suspicious of images of God that excluded the female. These male God images had been influenced by the assumptions and values of those in power. I had received no cultural mirror in which to imagine divinity in a feminine way.

So there is a paradox. Our experience of reality is shaped by our cultural context. This can affect our lives in both positive and negative ways. There are times when we need our rational understanding to be able look critically at experience. Experience is the essence of spirituality but it is not infallible. We must measure spiritual experience by the values and thoughtfulness with which we should measure all parts of our lives.

But there are times when our reasoning may be confounded. Let me tell you another part to the story. My Puerto Rican friend fell in love with a white woman who was a cynic about spiritual matters. Her passion was the work of social justice. However, when she entered a relationship with my Puerto Rican friend, her cynicism was challenged in an unexpected way. She began to see Elegba and Oshun and Oya in her inner imagination. She said to me once, “Those Puerto Rican spirits don’t care if I don’t believe in them. They show up whether I want them to, or not.”

There is so much about reality that is mysterious and hard to explain. We rely on our experience, and the experience of others, to give us evidence about the world. If we acknowledge our own experience, our own inner reality, then we must acknowledge the inner reality of others. That leaves us open to dimensions that might be difficult or impossible to measure. So while I would never ask anyone to believe in the unproven, I do invite you to keep an attitude of reverence for all that is unexplained in yourself and in others.

The poet D.H. Lawrence describes it this way:
This is what I believe:
…That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest
into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me,
but that I will try always to recognize and submit
to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.

Clearing

 Quote from D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature:. (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 26. Excerpt was first published in English Review, December 1918 in the article “Benjamin Franklin.”