Today, another perspective on the use of religious language in our Unitarian Universalist churches, this time from lay preacher Bruce Arnold, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, New Bern, North Carolina.
Mr. Arnold argues that avoiding certain aspects of religious language does more harm than good, particularly in a congregation that aims to welcome a greater number of people into their midst. He offers a challenge to his fellowship, to reach deeper into what it means to be a religious community and engage with that depth.
Note: I am always looking for more good material by our lay members, not just ministers or historical figures, but these pieces are hard to find. If you’ve written, or heard, something that you think belongs on this site, please drop me a line!
A Rose by Any Other Name
by Bruce Arnold
Words have power.
They say sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you. They are wrong about a lot of things. Over and over, my domestic violence patients have said that the bruises heal and the broken bones knit up, but the cruel words last forever.
Words have power.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword. They are right about a lot of things also. During World War II, when Churchill warned Josef Stalin against conflict with the Pope, he replied scornfully “The Pope! How many divisions does he have?” The Soviet Union no longer exists. John Paul II left the papacy stronger than it had been in a century.
Words have power.
Talk about power: In May of 1961, John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech about putting a man on the moon, at a time when we had not even worked the bugs out of the Atlas rocket. Just over 8 years later, Neil Armstrong fulfilled that promise, with stirring words of his own.
Words have power.
Religious language has a particular power to move the human heart. Religious language has been used to incite hatred and start wars. It has been used to heal divisions, and to express the most sublime sentiments.
Within the Unitarian church, religious language has become a ticklish subject. Recently, one of our presenters found it necessary to give a little explanation for using the word God. Well, he was joking, kind of. Humor often hides difficult truths. Whether he was joking or not, no one was surprised by the remark.
I found, last summer, that when I used the word God in a presentation, there were some people whose minds snapped shut and they heard nothing more of the rest of the sermon. I was not using it in any supernatural or superstitious sense. Comments were made afterwards that indicated that, not only had they not heard what I said, they substituted their own meanings, things I would never have said, and proceeded to disagree with them. I invited them to read the text, which was posted on our website, and then we could talk more, as I believed that further consideration of what I actually said would allay their concerns. So far as I know, none has yet. As I say, it is a very ticklish subject.
We have to come to grips with certain things. I have heard many say that they would like to see our Unitarian church grow and prosper. If this fellowship is going to create a vibrant presence within the community, one which attracts and integrates people of different views, then we are going to have to be able to meet people’s needs for spiritual nourishment. And to do that, we are going to have to act more like a church.
I want to talk today about the word “sacred.” This is one of those religious terms which can cause some people’s minds to slam shut. It does not have to be that way. There are religious traditions in the world which are not based on the supernatural, which nonetheless recognize valuable meaning in the concept of sacredness. Neither Buddhism nor Taoism are theistic in any way, and yet they have their own, deep sense of the sacred. One definition I found while researching this sermon said “worthy of veneration.” There are many things that are venerable, without attaching divinity to them.
I often like to refer to the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, because he understood these things so well. Jung was responsible for disseminating a key concept, which is embodied in the word “numinosity” or “numinous.” It kind of sounds like the word “luminous” and I suppose there is a connection, in a poetic way. We often connect the idea of light with spirituality. In my own Quaker tradition, the Inner Light or the Light Within is a central principle, the idea that everyone has a connection to a source of cosmic wisdom which they can turn to for comfort and guidance. In Genesis, God’s first words were “Let there be Light”, and there was light. Why does Light come first? Because it has this universal spiritual flavor. In Buddhist paintings of the various saints and bodhisattvas, who are not gods, they nonetheless have a kind of halo around their heads and bodies. So in some way there is a connection between the luminous and the numinous.
We have all had experiences of numinosity. A few months ago, Duncan Harkin led a service in which we talked about our peak experiences. Many people told a story of something that had happened to them, a time in which they transcended their usual daily thoughts and concerns and felt connected to something larger, or deeper. These are numinous experiences, as Jung defined the term. He used the term “numinous”, because he was a scientist, and did not want to use words that had a certain value placed on them. He wanted to remain objective. Yet, in his personal communications, he was clear that these peak experiences, these numinous moments of transcendence, were what is meant by the word “sacred.”
I recognize that, all too often, words such as this have been used to exclude. If I say that “This is sacred”, then I may also say that “That is profane.” If I define what is sacred very narrowly or rigidly, then I may call profane many things which are of great transcendental importance to others. Anyone who has ever had a moment of consummate, ecstatic, sexual union in the arms of someone with whom they are deeply in love knows very well that this is one of those transcendental moments, a truly numinous experience. Yet many religious traditions would define this as profane. I call this narrow, rigid, and exclusionary.
Just because the word “sacred”, then, has been put to such perverse purposes does not mean that we should discard the concept. We may open it up. We may make it more inclusive. We can re-define it to include those experiences which are not strictly controlled by the church, the clergy, the liturgy, the tradition.
Not only can we do this, we must. If we do not drink from the very deepest wells of living water, if we do not share that living water with those who come into our orbit, we are short-changing both them, and ourselves. If we do not do this, then we have become a social club. That’s fine, but let’s not pretend to be a spiritual fellowship. Such dishonesty is corrosive. We owe ourselves, and our community, better.
I know there are agnostics and atheists here. I am not saying that they have to believe in something which would violate their integrity. In my view, asking someone to violate their integrity is destructive of the sacred. I am suggesting that we fling wide the gates, and open up the walls, and throw open the windows, and let many things be sacred which are not always seen that way in other places or times. I say, it is either all sacred, or none of it is. Could we proceed on that basis?
Atheists and agnostics can, and do, have those transcendental moments. I know that they, too, thirst for union with something that is bigger or deeper than themselves. It is no mistake that Carl Sagan, a well-known atheist, called his hit TV series “Cosmos.” Who doesn’t want that cosmic connection?
When people come here for the first time, they may not know exactly what to expect, but they do expect to find a church. Whether they would voice it this way or not, they want to be nourished. Fellowship is part of that nourishment, and we have that here. But people are also looking for the numinous, even though they have never heard of that term. They want an encounter with the sacred. No church will appeal to many, if it does not provide this. No church will be a church, if it does not provide this. It may be something, and that something may be good, but it will not be a church.
Whether we use the word “sacred” or not is neither here nor there. It is a perfectly good word; I think we should work on it. But this is not about using a certain word. It is that, when people walk through the door and sit through one of our services, they should have had at least a brush, a hint, a glimmer of the numinous.
Without this, you may be certain that this will remain a small group of those who just happen to fit in well with the current cast of characters. This is not a recruiting strategy. The purpose of a clique is to remain small and tightly-knit. This is not a bad thing, but I have heard people talk about wanting to grow and reach out into the community. Well, if you truly want that, then you have to do the things that makes that possible. Today, I am suggesting one of them.
Source: “A Rose By Any Other Name” by Bruce Arnold, lay preacher, delivered January 15, 2006
at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, New Bern, North Carolina.