From the moment I first encountered it, I’ve liked the crisp, vivid and memorable language of this Fellowship’s mission statement. Our stated purpose is “nurturing spirit, transforming lives and leading change.” Each one of those active verbs sets off resonant ripples of meaning in my mind: Nurture. Transform. Change. They seem deeply connected, interwoven somehow, almost like convertible terms. These three verbs may dance together in many different creative and intersecting ways; in these reflections I want to focus especially on the language of “change,” since that happens to be our Soul Matters theme throughout the month of November.
It has been said that “the only person who really likes change is a wet baby.” However much we may pay lip service to the idea, when it comes to the actual process of changing, we run up against all kinds of resistance and rationalizations for the status quo, whether that is at the level of individual psychology or of social systems and institutions. Change is difficult. Biological and organizational systems seem to be hard-wired toward homeostasis, a condition of dynamic equilibrium that always seeks to reestablish itself whenever it is disrupted or disturbed. What, then, makes change possible?
At the level of the individual self, there is a well-known paradox, first articulated by the psychotherapist Carl Rogers, which states that only when someone feels truly and fully accepted as they are,can they really begin to change. The sense of deep self-acceptance comes first; any therapeutic healing and growth that may occur is built upon and presupposes that fundamental level of felt trust. Psychological growth always involves a delicate balance between support and challenge, safety and risk.
I think that this powerful paradox is embedded and expressed in the third principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association which affirms and promotes: “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” [my emphasis] In our congregational contexts, acceptance goes far beyond mere tolerance; it implies an active and ongoing interest in, engagement with, and commitment to the spiritual growth of the religious ‘other’ (who just happens to be sitting in the ‘pew’ next to us on Sunday morning).
The distinctive religious pluralismthat characterizes Unitarian Universalism shows up not just between congregations, but within each one of our congregations. In La Crosse, e.g., we gather as an eclectic mix of thoughtful people with differing ways of imagining the sacred; people who use a variety of languages to name and describe our experience of the holy; and with many diverse practices and personalized ways of ‘nurturing spirit’ in our lives. This felt edge of difference and diversity is where the sense of risk and the challenge lives, along with the potential for change and transformation.
If someone feels that their particular ‘language of reverence’ isn’t accepted or welcomed or respected in any given community, they will keep quiet — depriving that congregation of their unique insights and questions — or they may seek another community where their voice will be liberated. Fear of being ridiculed, attacked, or misunderstood; fear of hurting a friendship through one’s own speech, or of exposing one’s own uncertainties — faced with these risks and these challenges some UU congregations pull back from the possibilities and default to a practice of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ when it comes to sharing our religious differences. We don’t want to step on any toes, and we certainly don’t want to argue, least of all about religion! What a supreme irony, though, if we end up feeling unable to share our deepest beliefs and convictions and questions in our own community of faith as a result of this don’t ask/don’t tell peacemaking strategy.
Because I recognize these fears, I understand the reluctance to talk about religion, even ‘in church.’ It’s one of the three topics it is forbidden to discuss in polite company, right? The philosopher, Richard Rorty, called religion a ‘conversation stopper.’ To bring up the topic at a Princeton cocktail party was to call down upon the room a shroud of sudden silence, save for the clinking of ice cubes in glasses. But a church is not a cocktail party; the whole point and purpose of gathering in religious community is to support one another’s spiritual development. And we can’t do this without talking to one another. So we each use different language to describe our spiritual journeys? How interesting!
I sometimes think that one of the reasons that people hold back from deeper religious dialogue is the suspicion that it may require them to change somehow. And they’re right about that.
Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Unitarian theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, already pointed to this process — which he called ‘creative transformation’ — as ‘the source of human good,’ his functional equivalent for ‘God’ — though it doesn’t require a supernatural being to bring about. But it does require a whole-hearted human willingness to enter into a process not knowing how you will be changed by it. This holy uncertainty runs counter to a deep strain within Western philosophical and theological thought, which imagines God as the changeless ‘Unmoved Mover’* and which celebrates the self-sufficient, autonomous, invulnerable knowing human subject, immemorially summarized in Descartes’ famous motto, cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.” Certainty based on detached objectivity rather than engaged subjectivity became the ideal form of knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong; the Cartesian cogito has its place and its power, but when it comes to building human community, I much prefer the creative paraphrase (which amounts to a subversive deconstruction) offered by the theologian, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: Respondeo etsi mutabor, which means, “I respond, although I will be changed.” Human relationships that are truly transformational rather than merely transactional are like chemical reactions where two or more substances come into contact, and all are changed in the process. Our souls are enlarged and transformed in relation with others whose perspectives are different than our own.
I’ll spare you all the jokes about how many Unitarian Universalists it takes to change a light bulb, but I do know that the answer has something to do with being willing to change. My vision of a vibrant and thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation is one where people feel free and are willing to engage in lively, energizing, respectful, responsible and creative dialogue about the things that matter most, in a spirit of genuine compassion and humble inquiry and discovery. In that atmosphere of radical hospitality, new wisdom and compassionate insight emerge out of the conversations themselves. I often say that a congregation is a conversation. Everything depends on the depth and quality and honesty and skillful means by which that ongoing dialogue proceeds. Cultivating such transforming conversations is itself a spiritual practice, a learned discipline. My hope is that this Fellowship is a place where such conversations are grounded in our mission to ‘nurture spirit, transform lives, and lead change’…beginning with ourselves.
In good faith,
* A wonderful exception is Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names” (#23 in our gray hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition), with its lovely line: “young growing God, eager still to know / willing to be changed by what you’ve started…” Also, the Unitarian Universalist philosopher, Charles Hartshorne defined God as the ‘Most Moved Mover,’ in a deliberate criticism aimed at the classical Western conception of the impassible Deity.