Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2014 Daniel Harper. The reflection was delivered by Brooke Bishara on the same date. Reflection copyright (c) 2014 Brooke Bishara; used by permission.

Reading — from Mysticism: Holiness East and West by Denise and John Carmody,

“[C]onsider Lao-tzu, reputed author of the Tao te Ching. Grappling with the Way, he found his reason clouding. All around him moved bright, busy, and certain people. They seemed clear about what they were doing, about who they were and what was happening to them. He alone seemed to feel overcast, dull, and not at all certain. They more he searched, the less he found. The long he studied, the less he knew. It is easy to picture him trekking off into silence: the Tao that could be told was not the Tao. However, painful though his dissociation was, hard as his alienation struck him, he was in love with the Tao and so was willing to suffer for it. Life without the Tao would have been no life. Clarity without reality and depth would have been horrible.”

Reflection — Brooke Bishara, worship associate

A mystic is one who seeks direct experience of ultimate reality. The mystic senses that the divine is always present, but also that in our “normal lives” we are only dimly aware of it. The mystic wants to come closer, to connect, and know the truth intimately.

About ten years ago, I had a mystical experience. It started as I was painting a picture to express a painful feeling from the past. With black paint, I painted the top half of a face along the bottom edge of the paper. It almost looked like the face was peeking just above a window sill at me. The face had a sad expression, with a hat pulled down close to its eyes. In the act of painting the image, I was allowing an old feeling of shame that I had held for a long time to be expressed. I asked the spirit for help with this feeling, and suddenly I received a surge of energy through my arms and into my chest and head. It tingled like electricity, and it was so strong that I got up from the desk and lay down on my bed. I stayed there for about a half an hour, feeling this tingling current of energy radiating through my body. I was fully awake and consciously thanking God for this gift, and for the love being shown to me. I was deeply changed by the experience.

The next day, when I had to get up and go through the regular motions of my life and work as a teacher, my eyes were open a little wider. I was awed by what had happened to me. I wanted to tell my colleagues and students, but I knew it was not for telling, not yet. Mostly, I wanted to reassure the people around me that there is, indeed, an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. As years have passed, and I’ve told this story a few times, someone once suggested that the feeling was a release—the energy of that old emotion leaving my body. Someone else suggested that it was the holy spirit coming in to me to heal what was hurting.

I do not worry about finding the right explanation. Nor do I expect to ever have that experience again. But it has become a touchstone of my life. Though my mind cannot explain it, that experience opened a pathway in my heart that can never be closed.

Sermon — Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

In her reflection, Brooke has given us one of the best short descriptions of a mystical experience that I have heard. She brings out several typical features of a mystical experience: that it is an experience that is difficult or impossible to put into words; that it changed the person who had the experience; that such an experience gives knowledge of some deep and abiding force or presence in the universe; that such an experience ultimately cannot be explained, nor explained away.

I wanted to talk with you about mystical experiences this morning because such experiences lie at the very core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition; more specifically, at the core of the Unitarian half of our tradition. Unitarianism began to arise in North America at about the time of the Revolutionary War, and although the movement later came to be known for affirming that Jesus was not God, it started out as a movement that asserted the free will of individual human beings: in the late eighteenth century, the movement that became known as Unitarianism reacted against the then-dominant Calvinist notion that human beings not only are depraved, but that human beings have little free will and can do nothing to further their own salvation. So the early Unitarians said, in effect, that we human beings do have a fair amount of free will, and that each of us must take responsibility for living the best life possible.

By the 1830s, a number of Unitarians were refining that basic argument further. One person in particular — a man who had been a Unitarian minister but who left the ministry to become a full-time philosopher, writer, and lecturer — made a strong case for individual responsibility and free will in a famous essay titled “Self Reliance.” That person was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, and who had himself been affected by his own mystical experiences. Emerson said that any person could apprehend the ultimate reality directly. You could call that ultimate reality “God,” or you could call it the “Oversoul,” as Emerson sometimes did; the name was less important than was the truth that we all have direct access to this ultimate reality. We don’t have to go through priests or clergy; we don’t have to read certain specified scriptures, nor do we have to engage in specific religious practices like prayer. We all have direct access to this ultimate reality — no strings attached.

Of course, this kind of self reliance carries with it great responsibility. Having direct access to ultimate reality has moral and ethical implications: if you have direct access to ultimate reality, this implies that you will have high standards against which to judge your own behavior and decisions. Self reliance is not an easy philosophy: freedom comes with great responsibility, and that can lead to political action.

One of Emerson’s protegés, Henry David Thoreau, explored some of the political implications of self reliance in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau said that while there are human-made laws, there are also “higher laws,” and we can have direct knowledge of these higher laws. Sometimes human-made laws are unjust, and when that is true, we may be called to obey higher laws. (Notice that Thoreau starts with the assumption that we can have direct apprehension of those higher laws.) In her reflection, Brooke talked about “an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension.” Once you have that kind of experience, it is difficult to put up with human-made laws which go against that abiding love, and which instead promote hatred and warfare. So it was that Thoreau was appalled by the Mexican American War, which he felt was unjust and unjustifiable. Appealing to higher laws, he refused to pay taxes that would support that war, and for his refusal he was thrown in jail. As I said, this philosophy of self reliance is not an easy philosophy.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Thoreau when he was formulating his own theory of civil disobedience. King knew that the human-made Jim Crow laws were in direct violation of that deep abiding love that reaches beyond our rational comprehension. Appealing to that higher law, King said that it was acceptable to break the human-made Jim Crow laws. I would say King’s theory of civil disobedience comes out of his direct experience of ultimate reality. King was careful to call that ultimate reality by the name “God” — to call it “God” made it possible to explain civil disobedience to others, particularly to those ostensibly God-fearing authorities who were trying to enforce the human-made Jim Crow laws; but the name of the ultimate reality is less important than the experience. I don’t know that King was a mystic himself; but if he wasn’t one himself, he drew on Thoreau, who was a mystic; and he drew on Jesus of Nazareth, who was also a mystic.

And by telling you about Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience, I am making the point that mysticism can be a disruptive influence. Mystical experiences are personally disruptive: Brooke told us that in her reflection; she told us that her experience was so strong that she had to lie down. (I’ve had my own mystical experiences, starting in my mid-teens, and I can assure you from my own experience that they can disrupt one’s sense of the world.) When you have powerful experiences of an ultimate reality, that can cause you to look with skepticism on the way humans rationalize our actions. This is what happened to Thoreau. He had his transcendent experiences, he had direct apprehension of higher laws, of ultimate reality, and with that perspective he found himself unable to accept the half-truths that were foisted on the public by those who were trying to rationalize the unjust Mexican American War. Nor did he stop there: Thoreau also knew with perfect clarity that slavery and fugitive slave laws were wrong, that those laws went directly counter to higher laws; and he broke the human-made laws by participating in the Underground Railroad. (Indeed, we have independent documentation that he harbored fugitive slaves at his cabin on Walden Pond.) Thoreau’s mystical experiences proved to be a very disruptive influence.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists — all of them open to direct experiences of ultimate reality — went on to disrupt the world around them. They disrupted the older Unitarianism that had been founded on sound, rational Enlightenment principles. The rational Unitarians were infuriated by Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker. Parker infuriated them partly because of his challenge to their rational ways of thinking; partly because he managed to draw over two thousand people to his sermons each week (his was the very first mega-church, by the way); and partly by his adamant opposition to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The more rational Unitarians may have been opposed to slavery, but they were appalled when Parker told them that not only had he harbored fugitive slaves in his own house, thus breaking the law; in addition to that, he had written sermons with a loaded pistol on the desk in front of him, expecting to have his house broken into at any moment by slave-catchers. Keeping a loaded pistol on his desk was not a rational act, as defined by the rational Unitarians steeped in Enlightenment thinking, but it brought Parker into harmony with higher laws.

Mystics can be less openly disruptive — not all of us mystics keep loaded pistols on our desks — but no less challenging in more subtle ways. I think of Mary Rotch, who had a strong influence on Emerson’s thinking. Mary Rotch had grown up a Quaker, a mystical tradition; she knew what it was to commune directly with ultimate reality. When she became a Unitarian in the 1820s, Unitarian churches still had communion services about once a month. Emerson filled the pulpit of Mary Rotch’s Unitarian church for a few months while the regular minister was on sabbatical, and he noticed that Mary Rotch would stand up and quietly walk out of the church just before the communion ceremony. He discussed this with her, and she convinced him that the ritual of communion was an empty ritual; that the direct communion with ultimate reality was real communion, and the only communion that was needed. This prompted Emerson to write his famous sermon stating why he could no longer officiate at communion services. The rational Unitarians of the day were not pleased by Emerson’s argument; to them, communion made complete rational sense, as a memorial ritual that helped commemorate an important moment from our religious history. It’s fairly easy to come up with rational reasons for most things, and I suspect that if rational Unitarianism had prevailed over Emerson’s Transcendentalism, we would still be serving communion here in our historically Unitarian church.

In our day, Unitarian Universalism is once again dominated by religious rationalism. This is not a bad thing: logic and rational thought are extremely powerful intellectual tools. But a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Fred Hawley about the way Unitarian Universalism is currently dominated by religious rationalism. Fred was a long-time member here in our congregation, and he gave me permission to tell you about this conversation. Fred suggested to me that our congregation was overly dominated by those who value rationality above all else, to the exclusion of other modes of thinking and being.

As I said, logic and rationality are powerful tools. Emerson and Thoreau and Theodore Parker and Mary Rotch all used rational thought and logic. But what the Transcendentalists, and other Unitarian mystics, have tried to demonstrate is that logic and rational thinking have limits; we cannot rely on them for everything. The limits of rationality became particularly evident during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany was in many ways the epitomy of a rationally-run nation; here in the U.S., separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were perfectly rational; and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was eminently rational. All these things were quite rational, but they were not necessarily right.

One of the things Fred Hawley talked to me about was the book Koviashuvik by Sam Wright [San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988]. Sam Wright is a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served our congregation as interim minister in 1990 and 1991. In Koviashuvik, published by the Sierra Club, Sam Wright tells about living in the Brooks Range in Alaska while the Alaskan pipeline was being built. Koviashuvik is a book about different ways of knowing. Sam Wright knew about the Brooks Range as a place where he and his wife lived off the land; the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline knew the Brooks Range in a different way, as a mere obstacle to the building of the pipeline; the people who worked on the pipeline knew about the Brooks Range as the background to their well-compensated jobs; the Arctic Terns and caribou knew about the Brooks Range in still other ways. Now, the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline were entirely rational people who knew that they had to transport oil from where it was being pumped out of the ground to where it could be refined and used. But, says Sam Wright, the Arctic Tern and caribou have equally valid, albeit non-rational, ways of knowing the world. Were the builders of the oil pipeline right simply because they used rational thought? I’m not sure the Arctic Tern or the caribou would say that was true.

I have never lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but in my work as a religious educator, I see the limits of rationality all the time. Anyone who teaches sees the limits of rationality. As a religious educator, one of the things I like to teach children is how to be radical feminists — that is, teach children that girls and women are just as good as boys and men. Now if you’re trying to teach a nine year old girl about feminism, you can give all the rational explanations that you want, and that nine year old girl will probably agree with you, but she has not really gotten what feminism is all about. But if a boy is given preferential treatment, a teacher suddenly has a moment when they can suggest that perhaps this instance of preferential treatment is part of a larger pattern, and sometimes you can watch as that girl suddenly gets it, suddenly perceives this mass injustice that pervades our society: Oh yeah, boys get preferential treatment all the time, and that’s not fair! We do this with boys, too, and they are equally capable of directly apprehending the unfairness of sexism. But in my teaching experience, this is not a rational process.

Rational exposition can work as a teaching tool, for some people, at least some of the time. More often, however, I think learning takes place in flashes of direct apprehension: suddenly you get it, suddenly it all makes sense, suddenly you can do it. Fred Hawley talked with me about this experience in relation to his favorite pastime of lawn bowling. Referring to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Fred spoke about “flow,” when you get so involved in something that your self is subsumed in the task at hand. In Fred’s interpretation, this happens when you are not thinking about doing something; you are doing it, doing it so well that there is no thinking involved: you have direct contact with the game in that moment. You can learn all you want about the physics and mechanics of lawn bowling; but unless you actually do it, and practice it, and get good at it, mere rational knowledge of lawn bowling means you know everything about lawn bowling while knowing nothing about lawn bowling.

Teachers run into this situation, too: every teacher has run into learners who can talk a good game, but who don’t really know much of anything. Mystics also run into this situation all the time: people who have not had mystical experiences themselves trying to give rational explanations of other people’s mystical experiences. Rationality is a good and useful took, but it is merely one tool in your toolkit, and like any other tool, it is good for some things and useless for other things. What I have learned from our Unitarian Universalist mystical tradition is that rationality is a very useful tool for explaining, describing, and designing new technology. It is less useful for making moral and ethical decisions. It is next to useless for lawn bowling. Just as you should not use an ohmmeter to hammer a nail or open a can, you should not use rationality to do everything. And as for transcendent experiences and direct apprehension of reality and the feeling of “flow” — these are not particularly useful tools for explaining and describing, but they are quite useful tools for teaching kids about sexism, for engaging in civil disobedience, and for lawn bowling.

This is why we are fortunate to have such a strong mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism: it significantly expands our kit of useful tools. If you find yourself engaging in civil disobedience, and being hauled off to prison, it might be helpful to have a rational understanding of why you are getting arrested; but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., might suggest that it could be more helpful to have a direct experience of an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. If you find yourself fighting very rational arguments for ignoring something like global climate change or toxics in the environment, it might be helpful to remember that people can learn through direct apprehension at teachable moments.

I certainly don’t expect every Unitarian Universalist to have mystical transcendental experiences; after all, ours is a non-creedal faith that does not enforce intellectual conformity. But when I think about all the serious problems that face us — racism, toxics in the environment, global climate weirdness — I am glad that we can draw on the mystical tradition of Mary Rotch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau.