Tag Archives: Howard Gardner

Basketball hoops, puzzles, and the liberal church

It happened entirely by chance, but by far the best thing I did in my twelve years as a religious educator was something I did at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington center, Massachusetts. At some point, I noticed there were lots of rabid sports fans in that church. I’m not a sports fan, so at first I just ignored the talk about football, baseball, basketball, soccer, blah blah blah — but talk about sports pervaded all aspects of church life, from the Sunday school to the youth group to adult committee meetings and social hour, and it finally sunk in to my thick head that sports was central to the lives of about half the church members.

So I got approval to install a basketball hoop. Kids from kindergarten up through high school started to play Horse after church was over. Adults didn’t play, but adult sports fans watched the kids playing. One young person, someone who had been something of a troublemaker, said to me, “Finally we have some sports at this church,” and then sighed with a mixture of pleasure and relief.

Why was this one of the best things I ever did? Because by getting a basketball hoop installed, I acknowledged that religion is a matter for the whole person. If you’re into sports, or if you’re simply an active person, having to sit through a typical worship service at a liberal church means having to deny the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence with which you are blessed. I speak from experience — I am not particularly good at sitting still, and when I am not leading worship I try to sit in the very back of the church because I know I am going to have to fidget and move around.

Psychologist Howard Gardner has developed a theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner claims that we human beings possess at least eight different, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist intelligences. Whether or not you accept Gardner’s theory as valid, it does offer a useful description of the kinds of knowing that we human beings can do; and helps us understand that each person has a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses among these types of knowing.

But most liberal religious worship services that I have had to sit through focus on the linguistic, musical, and intrapersonal (i.e., internally reflective) intelligences — and that’s about all. If you stay for social hour, you might get to exercise your interpersonal intelligence. If the church is a pretty building, you might get to exercise your spatial intelligence.

Most liberal churches pretty much ignore those of us with strengths in bodily-kinesthetic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Sure, maybe you get to stand up once in a while to sing a hymn. Yes, maybe the minister will offer an interesting logical argument once in a while (but given current homiletic trends, that’s increasingly rare). But that’s about it.

So that’s why we need basketball hoops at church (although some of us with bodily-kinesthetic needs would prefer just to work around the building, but you get my point). And, come to think of it, that’s why we need puzzles at church (personally, I would be much happier sitting through a typical Unitarian Universalist worship service if the order of service had a really good puzzle in it). Religion should engage the whole person, not just bits and pieces of the person. With that in mind, although I can’t install a basketball hoop in this blog, I think maybe I will plan another puzzle….


Psychologist Howard Gardner has hypothesized that “intelligence” must be measured on more than one linear scale. There are, says Gardner, multiple intelligences; for example: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. Gardner also postulates a naturalist intelligence:

A naturalist demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species — the flora and the fauna — of his or her environment. [Intelligence Reframed, Basic Books, 1999, pp. 48 ff.]

You could argue that this intelligence is not highly valued in our society. When the majority of the population was rural, the naturalist intelligence would have been highly valued. For most of us human beings, this is no longer the case:

…the naturalist is comfortable in the world of organisms and may well possess the talent of caring for, taming, or interacting subtly with various living creatures. Such potentials exist [in the roles of biologists and environmentalists, and]… with many other roles range from hunters to fishermen to farmers to gardeners to cooks.

Fewer and fewer people hunt or fish these days; farmers make up less than five percent of the population; many of us live where it’s impossible to have a garden; and cooking has been reduced to opening packages of pre-prepared food. Yet it is a human characteristic that if we have an ability, we will want to practice it, and there will be consequences if we don’t practice it. Sherlock Holmes needed opportunities to practice his highly-developed ability for criminal investigation (a combination, perhaps, of logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences); without such opportunities, he reached for his seven-per-cent solution of cocaine.

For those of us who have some measure of it, the naturalist intelligence will find expression, even in the typical urban or suburban landscape where there is little in the way of biodiversity. In a debased form, it may be what drives some people to be able to identify the year and model of a Harley Davidson motorcycle glimpsed from a distance. My older sister keeps a horse and my younger sister has cats; the evening attendant at the Elm Street parking garage raises pigeons. I live in the middle of the city with almost no space for a garden; what saves my sanity is birdwatching and house plants; those two things, and I take an hour-long walk every day instead of going to the gym, for I would rather be outdoors in the worst weather than cooped up in a sterile gym.

I have fantasies about quitting ministry and going back to work as a carpenter. At least then I’d be working with wood, which even when cut is a living material. At least then I’d be outdoors much of the time.