Spiritual Ancestry, Spiritual Identity, Spiritual Depth

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
February 5, 2017


One of my colleagues in ministry became Unitarian Universalist when he was a young adult.  When he announced his new spiritual identity to his parents, they were astonished as much as they were displeased  They said, How could you do this?  Our family has been Roman Catholic for eighteen hundred years!

His parents had come to the United States from Italy, and it had never really occurred to anyone in their family that they would want to have a spiritual identity other than Roman Catholic.  It was simply who they were.  away from the Catholic Church was also stepping away from the family.  How could someone do that?

The English author D. H. Lawrence had a somewhat different point of view.  he was away from home at school, his mother sent him a collection of sermons about conversion that had been written by the minister at their home church.  In response, D. H. Lawrence wrote:

I believe that one is converted when first one hears the low, vast murmur of life, of human life, troubling one’s hitherto unconscious self.  I believe one is born first unto oneself – for the happy developing of oneself, while the world is a nursery . . . some people seem to exist thus right to the end.  But most are born again on entering maturity; then they are born to humanity, to a consciousness of all the laughing, and the never-ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that comes from the terrible multitude of [people].  Then, it appears to me, one gradually formulates one’s religion . . . A person has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it; and one’s religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification.[1]

In the new member classes that I have been leading here at First Unitarian Church for many years, we generally take a few moments to introduce ourselves to one another.  It has been a wonderful gift to hear so many personal stories.  I have observed that there can be a dynamic tension between the spiritual identity that one inherits from one’s family and the spiritual identity that one puts together for oneself.  Even far into adulthood, those childhood experiences of religious community can bring forth powerful emotional responses.

Years ago, in another Unitarian Universalist church, I heard a child asking her mother about some fundamental religious question.  In true Unitarian Universalist fashion, the mother patiently explained to her daughter that some people believe this, while other people believe that, and still other people believe something else entirely.  The child listened carefully, and then asked, But what do WE believe?

Ten years later, that child would probably be asking the question, What do I believe?  For the moment, however, belief and family and church and spiritual identity were all connected.

Spiritual ancestry can play a very important role in our personal spiritual journeys throughout our lives.  Some religious communities are more insular, while others are more part of the mainstream in the United States.  But if you grew up in any religious tradition, presumably it shaped you and perhaps it even continues to engage you in some internal religious dialogue.  Sometimes we are quite conscious of our spiritual ancestry, sometimes not so much.  Do we just go along with eighteen hundred years of spiritual ancestry?  Do we go through a process of discernment with regard to our spiritual ancestry, sorting through what we want to keep and what we want to set aside?  Do we rebel?  How do we navigate the change from asking, What do WE believe? to asking, What do I believe?  And how do we preserve our personal spiritual autonomy or individuality while being part of a religious community?

Several years ago, I began including an exercise in our new member classes that focused on the diverse ingredients in our personal theological identities.  If you joined First Unitarian Church in the last ten years, perhaps you remember going through this exercise.  I would invite participants to line up along one side of the room.  Then, one at a time, I would describe ten different religious traditions or theological identities and asked participants to step forward according to how strongly they identified with these traditions or identities.  If I described some of the characteristics of Christianity, for example, one person might take two steps forward, while another might take five steps forward, while someone else might remain where they were.  Or if I described some of the characteristics of Buddhism, one person might take three steps forward, while someone else might take six steps forward.  And so on.

Sometimes unexpected things happened.  For example, sometimes people would actually take one or more steps backward to indicate that they had a very negative response to a particular religious tradition.

I no longer use this exercise in membership classes, but I still affirm two lessons that it offered  One of these lessons is that for most of us, our spiritual identity draws from several different sources at the same time.  I cannot recall a single person who remained stationary for nine of the ten religious traditions or theological identities that I described, but then took ten steps forward for one of those ten traditions or identities.  To be sure, sometimes a person identified strongly with one particular tradition, but then also included a little of this and a little of that in their spiritual identity.  More often, people would identify strongly with two or three traditions or identities, while still including a little of this and a little of that.

The lesson that most of us construct our personal spiritual identity by drawing on several different religious traditions at the same time is a very powerful lesson.  It says that these religious traditions, different as they are, can coexist peacefully inside one individual person.  It says that these religious traditions can harmonize with one another rather than contradict one another.  It says that we can adopt a “both/and” attitude toward these religious traditions rather than an “either/or” attitude.  It says that we can appreciate what one particular religious tradition has to offer and at the same time appreciate what another very different religious tradition has to offer.  It says that these religious traditions or theological identities are not inherently antagonistic toward one another.

The other lesson that this exercise offered follows closely after the first lesson.  The other lesson says, If these religious traditions and theological identities, different as they are, can coexist peacefully within one person, perhaps they can also coexist peacefully within the same congregation.

As Unitarian Universalists, we draw inspiration from several different sources.  In fact, the by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association formally state six different spiritual or theological sources that have inspired us.  They are:

Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;

Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

How can one single congregation accommodate all these diverse theological understandings?  And how can one single congregation affirm the diverse cultural traditions associated with those theological understandings?  I would begin to answer those questions by saying that diversity is both a fact of life and an achievement.  One the one hand, people are different.  Even though we may be variations on a common theme, we are nevertheless different.  On the other hand, when a congregation or some other community can intentionally and respectfully include a spectrum of people, it does not happen by accident.  It is an achievement, and it may take some extra effort.

If you are a person with hard edges to your religious identity, a person who is open to just one way in religion, a person who has disdain for other religious identities, someone who has no patience with other points of view, then you will probably have trouble in this Unitarian Universalist congregation and in most other Unitarian Universalist congregations.Thinking back to that spiritual identity exercise that I used in our membership classes, if you are a person who would emphatically take ten steps forward for one particular spiritual identity, but then take no steps forward for any other spiritual identities, you will probably have trouble in this Unitarian Universalist congregation and in most other Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And from the perspective of a spiritual leader, I can say that it is difficult to build up a Unitarian Universalist religious community among people who have hard edges to their religious identity.

My personal religious identity is simply Unitarian Universalism.  I have been reluctant to claim a religious identity beyond that.  I have been reluctant to say that I am a humanist Unitarian Universalist, or a Christian Unitarian Universalist, or pagan Unitarian Universalist.  There are some times of the year, particularly Easter, when the Christian tradition speaks very powerfully to me.  There are some times of the year when earth-based spirituality feels very, well, natural.  There are some times of the years when the prophetic voice of Unitarian Universalism speaks to me and I want to place myself in that tradition.  are some times of the year when I appreciate the disciplined insights of religious humanism.  But I have not been willing or particularly interested in identifying strongly and exclusively with one or another of these sources.  I certainly have not been interested in being combative or factional or confrontational within our Unitarian Universalist family.  For me, the sources of our Unitarian Universalist faith have been fluid.  I have found them useful in different proportions at different times.  I do not think of them as mutually exclusive or inherently antagonistic toward one another.

As a worship leader, I try to include something for those who believe in God, for those who do not, for those whose cultural background is European American, for those whose cultural background is African American, for those who draw spiritual sustenance from the natural world, and so on.  I may not be able to include something for everyone every Sunday, but over the course of several Sundays I hope that everyone feels affirmed and included in one way or another.  More generally, most Unitarian Universalist ministers have discovered that if they only appreciate or validate one particular perspective, they may find it difficult to accommodate a variety of parishioners.  Most Unitarian Universalist ministers have found that having some intellectual humility about their own tradition is essential to be able to reach out and serve others.

Some might say that you only get to the depth of what a tradition has to offer by committing to it, which means taking the time to see what it can mean for your life, which means setting aside your interest in other traditions.  Some will say that it really takes a lifetime to explore even one religious tradition, never mind becoming acquainted with several different religious traditions.  Some will say that if you explore a religious tradition deeply, you will not have time for the insights of other traditions.

Maybe.  One person who was part of First Unitarian Church for many years stepped away from our religious community to become a Buddhist monk.  Another person who was part of First Unitarian Church for many years stepped away from our religious community to return to her roots in the Jewish tradition.  The Scottish writer George MacDonald offered this observation:“Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.”  Could it be that we Unitarian Universalists miss out on spiritual depth because in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we are always skimming around on the surface and never taking the time to go deeper?

Maybe.  But the Catholic monk Thomas Merton found that when he visited India, he found that he had more in common with the Buddhist monks there than with most of the people in his own Christian tradition.  So in his case going deeply into his own religious tradition turned out to be a bridge for connecting with people in a very different religious tradition.

It may be that my sermon this morning has raised more questions than it has answered.  Sometimes that can be a good thing!  But in this time of travel bans based on religious identity, in this time where so many express disdain or disrespect for any religious tradition other than their own, we Unitarian Universalists may have something to contribute with our willingness not only to tolerate different spiritual understandings, but a willingness to reach out in a spirit of appreciative inquiry.  May we practice our own Unitarian Universalist faith tradition with a spirit of generosity and humbleness, both among ourselves and in the larger community.

© 2017 by David Herndon

[1]D. H. Lawrence, quoted in John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church, Our Chosen Faith:An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (Boston:Beacon Press, 1989), pp. 9-10.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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