Friday, November 26, 2004

Mystic Community : Lifelong Religious Education and National Political Decisions

Originally delivered as a sermon at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence
October 20, 2002

Starhawk – The Declaration of the Four Sacred Things, from The Fifth Sacred Thing.

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: Air, fire, water and earth.

Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without

To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be
judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.

All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom.
Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.

To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.

To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.

Hildegaard of Bengin
Last week we sang a hymn of this text, a description of Wisdom, the feminine incarnation of G-d’s compassion, the creative fire of creation --
“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows. I gleam in the waters.
I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything,
I awaken everything to life. I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.” [i]

Henry David Thoreau

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.[ii]

Sermon: Mystic Community
I quote Starhawk. “To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.”


We tend to imagine mystics as visionary individuals, alone on a mountaintop, having private transcendental and intensely personal spiritual experiences. We tend to imagine community as a group experience in which we all share perspective, ideas, ideals, labor and its benefits, and goals.

The writers Hildegaard of Bengin, Henry David Thoreau, and, for that matter, Jack Kerouac, were all such mystical visionaries. They experienced that which took great skill with language to share, the transcendental, a reality that somehow separate from the mundane.

They had another thing in common. They had someone else do their laundry. Hildegaard lived in a 12th century abbey where nuns did household chores. Thoreau left Walden often to dine out at the Emerson’s, and had his mother or Mrs. Emerson do his laundry. Kerouac came home regularly in the winter, and his mom took care of him, replenishing his ravaged body while he drank or wrote about his adventures, or both. Mystics exist in community. They may have personal spiritual experiences, but they do so in a context.

The life of the individual can only have full meaning in the context of the interdependent web of all that exists. It is a significant moral challenge to provide equity in respecting both individuality and interdependence.

In order for us to simultaneously create a community while respecting our particular choices, lives, insights, and perspectives, we commit to grow and struggle together. We pledge to be a part of one another’s faith journey, to assist when possible, and to get out of the way when necessary.


Life long religious education is one part of our journey together. Being a Unitarian Universalist is to be a mystic in community. Tom Owen-Towle calls us “freethinking mystics with hands” It means we embrace both the mystical and the mundane.

In order to talk about religious education – education for values and moral growth – we also need to talk about how faith is developed.

Developmental theories provide nice road maps, like or mapquest, they can’t always tell the difference between Saint Catherine and Catherine Street. Like a map, the image it constructs depends upon the perspective of the mapmaker. It is a pointer, an indicator, a way of percieving a human process, not more, not less.


But before we can map out a developmental theory of faith, we must approach faith itself. The concept of “faith” is heavily contested territory.

Paul Tillich called faith "The state of being ultimately concerned."[iii] This definition of faith leads me to an image of Tillich sitting in a café somewhere, pensively watching through the window as the world passes by with a very serious look of ultimate concern on his face.

Unitarians love to quote Frederick Buechner, who said that "Faith is often better understood as a verb than a noun, and as a process rather then a possession. … Faith is not being sure where you're going, but going anyway. It is a journey without maps."[iv] Where Tillich’s definition seems to be a somewhat immobile state of reflection, Buechner makes Faith active – Faith is something that grows, changes, develops.

The last description comes from Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who said that “belief is the holding of certain ideas. One does not have faith in a concept, one has faith in the reality about which propositions are fashioned.”[v] In other words, our faith is in the reality that underpins all our attempts to describe it. Our relationship to that faith – what that faith leads us to believe about positive values, or right and good moral decisions, or the meaning of life – that is what happens as we grow and change within community. [vi]


Faith development and moral development go together in Religious Education. What is described by theorists as a series of faith development stages or moral development stages, is, I believe, better described as a web, a woven tapestry of the complexity of human growth.[vii] This growth happen only as a response to challenge – new information, and life events expose the inadequacies of a particular view of faith, pushing us to grow even more. And as we grow we don’t shed our old skin like a snake, but we incorporate past experiences and ways of being in our new selves. I believe it is more appropriate to talk about States of faith rather than Stages. It is also important to note that these states of faith, or of moral development, are based on the experience of privileged Westerners. Children of War, Children of severe oppression and abuse, Children of famine – they develop differently.[viii]


According to James Fowler, a central faith development theorist, pre-school children have an intuitive faith. They engage in magical thinking. They think that the reality around them is for and because of them. They believe in the tooth fairy. Their moral decisions tend to be made on the basis of avoiding punishment. Our religious education with these children is based on affirming their worth and individuality, keeping them safe so they can believe in and rely on the stability of our religious community, and practice joy and sharing.


Early elementary children have a Mythic-literal faith. Their moral decisions are based on getting something out of a relationship or a decision. Their basic drives are fairness and care, or getting their needs met. These are kids who come home having traded their lunch for 6 Pokemon cards because in their mind the cards were way more important than lunch. They begin to recognize that time and space are fixed, that a tooth fairy couldn’t be popping in and out of children’s bedrooms, but they still have a faith in extra-natural possibilities. Magic, Harry Potter, and Dinosaurs, all seem to be supernatural – not exactly real, or immediately present, but real enough. They believe that the good guys always win, and that the bad guys always lose, and that it’s easy to tell one from the other.

Our religious education with them is based on sharing traditions, stories, and practices. Two years ago I substituted in a class where the story of the week was the crucifixion of Jesus. The curriculum is a fine one, telling a hard story without being traumatizing, but still, one of the children was especially upset by this story. So I asked the class to work together to re-write the ending however they wanted. What they decided was that a magic flying unicorn came out of the sky and swooped Jesus up off the cross, rescuing and carrying him off to nurse his wounds and he lived happily ever after.

Children at this age need stories and traditions. Even when they are challenging stories, they help children develop morally, help them determine what is right and wrong, help them work together to identify other people’s needs, and care for them. These children invented a unicorn to provide justice and care in a story that lacked either.


When children are in early adolescence, they start thinking abstractly. They begin to critically choose beliefs, values, and commitments. They synthesize competing values, and begin to be aware of the difference between who they are and who they present themselves as. Fowler calls this synthetic faith.

Moral choices at this age involve idealism as a motivation for external action while internally there is a great need for acceptance, affirmation, and approval. Maintaining the social order, and being in a privileged position within it form a great basis for moral decision-making.

They lack experience in taking action, and so derive their model of action and identity from the institutions and people around them. There are strengths of this state. It can provide a stable and well-organized system of meaning in which one can have stability in the midst of chaos. It can provide a sense of absolute, and the safety that goes with absolutism. It can make moral choices seem simple – there is a clear right and wrong previously identified for you by law or religion, there are still good guys and bad guys. This is the great challenge of fundamentalism or orthodoxy. What is absolute and predictable can be incredibly comfortable.


Our Coming of Age Program functions as a bridge between this and the next state of faith development, where autonomy is the motivation for action, and young people begin to challenge prior beliefs and call into question the fundamental beliefs of those around them. Actually, a more apt analogy than bridge would be that the Coming of Age class functions as a kind of water slide, shooting our young people out of the top of it like mother birds push their babies out of the nest. Not because we don’t provide for a strong, stable, guided experience, but because we are challenging our 8th graders to step into a developmental place that is a challenge to them.

This is the developmental point at which an adolescent or young adult decides whether to stay where they feel safe, belief wise, or to step out and begin to make their own choices – recognizing that those choices could be wrong. This is, of course, a developmental task that is made not once, but again and again as a process into young adulthood.

This program is especially challenging and rewarding, for we provide a formidable challenge for our 8th graders. This is when most young people are maintaining a borrowed faith – the faith of their parents, uncritically examined, and absolute. Where other religious traditions have a coming of age experience that is about conformity and affirming the values and beliefs and creeds of their religious community, ours is about challenging our young people to examine their own values and beliefs in light of the larger community. We challenge them to struggle long and choose wisely.

Programmatically, our Coming of Age program moves into the Youth group. These religious education structures are about helping our young people have a sense of belonging, and function as a positive group influence while providing the support for them to explore the deep questions of their beliefs and faith commitments. We provide an environment where they can deal with the particular challenges of being in different places intellectually, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. They can giggle and cry, share marshmallow peeps and deepest fears. They can trade cd’s, (which, as far as I can tell are the adolescent replacement for Pokemon cards) and cook for the cot shelter.

Motive is important for moral decision making at this time, and there is a tension between maintaining and challenging the social order.

Our program works to prepare them for what Fowler calls Individual-Reflective faith, a state of careful and exact evaluation. We can decide what we believe, and say to someone, you believe what you do, and I’ll believe what I do, and we’ll work on living in harmony together with the understanding that there are reasons we believe as we do. This is a state of faith that begins to develop in high school and continues into early adulthood.


As the Director of Religious Education, I have the responsibility to oversee our Religious Education program through high school. But Religious Education, moral and faith development are part and parcel of our journey together as adults as well.

The Religious Education and Faith development of Adults happens in all kinds of places, sometimes intentionally, sometimes as a by product of our lives together. It occurs intentionally in Adult Ed. Classes, and as outgrowth of community in social action organizations, small group ministries. Faith development happens in the service of teaching younger children, passing out the bulletins or doing the administrative work of this institution. Moral and faith development continue long after we think we have finished, or perhaps hope we have finished, for it is hard work to keep growing and changing.

As we are mastering the state of being critical and reflective, we begin to have moments of recognizing that personal fulfillment or personal belief has little meaning outside the context of a community, or action. We begin to grapple with the tensions and dialectics of real life – with tradition and innovation, stability and change, justice and mercy, freedom and order.[ix] We begin to make moral decisions based on justice and care for other humans and the earth – we begin to be willing to make moral decisions that may undermine the social order if it is unjust. Civil disobedience becomes not simply a tactic of social change, but a moral imperative.

We begin to grapple with the real challenges of being a community that holds as sacred the spiritual experiences of different people. We struggle to respect the worth and dignity of the individual while maintaining that there are individual actions that are not acceptable within our community.

This state of faith is “living the contradictions” because when we do so, we transform contradiction into paradox, into something that seems contradictory, but can be essentially true. When we hold the poles of either/or, this or that, yes or no, in tension, they become signs of a third way, a way for our lives to become larger than we ever imagined.[x] This is a Conjunctive Faith – where we live with the tensions, detach ourselves from our self-benefiting ideology and begin to look from other perspectives and new eyes. It is a place where we live with a truth that is more complicated than the categories we use to name it.


We might sometimes chuckle at phrases like “the great being-ness of all that is sacred” when one could simply say G-d, but in reality, the word G-d is limited – its implications for specific belief are exclusive of those who believe that the Sacred need not be self-aware.


Truth is more complicated than simple facts. It is a fact that solar systems are certain distances away from one another, and the multiples of those distances. For instance and by analogy only, three, six, or twelve bazillion light years apart, but none appear in between those certain distances. The truth of that mysterious fact is greater than any explanation we are capable of at this time. The paradox is that we can know this to be true even without knowing why or what it means.

When we’re in the state of holding truths in tension, we begin to realize there’s another bit of the puzzle to explore here. Not only can I grant you the space to believe what you do while I believe what I do, but in being in community we will be in dialogue with one another. We will have a “real interchange, and even openness to having a change of heart; certainly an expectation of learning something new from the exchange”[xi] Dialogue will not be a word implying an extra-polite debate, it will mean being open to the possibility that I will be changed by your faith.


The final state, according to Fowler, is the state of Universalizing Faith. While he identified people he believed probably lived this state of faith development – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatmas Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero -- this is, I believe, for all of us a momentary state of being. Fowler did not claim himself to be in this place, and admitted he didn’t have much to go on in terms of describing it. He suggested that it may be exemplified by this quote from Ghandi, which ML King referenced often. “To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself.”


This is where mystical experiences lie. It is where we have moments of feeling and knowing that we are one with everything, that there is an invisible sacred life that contains everything. These are moments when we are sitting on a rock by the ocean, look at the moon and feel the reflection of another human being. When you’re struggling with a mathematical problem and suddenly you see it in your mind, full fleshed and real. When you have a moment of joy with a person who could not be more different from you.

When my friend Jeremy passed away, the three of us at his bedside simultaneously looked up. Somehow we knew not only that he had gone, but also that he’d gone a certain way, in a certain direction, and we instinctively looked at the same corner of the ceiling as if to catch a final glimpse.

These are mystical moments, and unlike Oscar Romero or Mother Theresa, who may have lived the state of universal mystical community, we live our lives in between those moments.

As we grow and develop, our movement through states of faith is not fixed, or uni-directional. We live our lives in community, in relationship, and no moral state or faith state exists uninfluenced by others. We can expect to find ourselves in all of these states from time to time, but we have the responsibility to always make our ethical decisions based on our highest and best. We will get our buttons pushed, and will push others buttons; we will have personal tragedies that challenge our faith… this is part and parcel of being human.


Sometimes I enjoy some of those earlier states. I sometimes find comfort in the mythic literal faith of elementary school children in a universe where the good guys always win, its easy to tell them from the bad guys, and the answer to the bad guys is to simply “Poof!” make them go away. I’ll tell you a secret – I love shoot ‘em up movies. I get a great deal of pleasure in those films where there is a Bruce Willis or Stephen Seagal as the one guy against a gang of evildoers, or an environment-destroying corporation in Alaska.

But regardless of whatever moment of surety those bits of fiction give me; those are not the places from which I can make moral decisions for the real world. We must make our moral decisions based on the highest and best state of faith and humanity that we can. We must make our decisions based not on the comfortable or emotionally reactive state of faith, but on the appropriate one.

This is a challenge our nation is currently failing. There are people for whom the imminent war in Iraq seems to be based on a mythic and literal faith that provides clear good guys and bad guys; people for whom this war is about protecting the current social order as it privileges us. I would go so far as to say that our steady march toward war is evidence of an abysmal failure of lifelong moral or faith development in our country.

Our lawmakers are empowering our ‘Character President” to kill thousands or millions. He is man who seems to be making moral decisions from a very early state of moral and faith development. George Bush believes there are good guys (us) and bad guys (terrorists, Muslims, Hussein, the “axis of evil”) and that he has the moral authority to decide who the bad guys are and what to do with them. He believes that use of coercive force is a moral right once you’ve determined who the bad guy is. The international press calls him a cowboy – an impulsive, gun-toting, tough talking man. But that image isn’t complete - Cowboys need Indians – they need someone to wear that racist black hat, someone to be the object of genocide that the cowboy claims as his moral obligation. Our president calls a preemptive strike ‘anticipatory self-defense’ as if the choice of language changes what it is, similar to a child who says they didn’t steal the dollar from the wallet, they just borrowed it and forgot to give it back.

Our moral obligation as citizens of this nation and world is to make our moral decisions on the basis of the most appropriate state of faith development we can. Our moral obligation is to challenge ourselves when we find ourselves wanting to be Bruce Willis, to challenge the president when he seems to want to be that cowboy. To be clear that in the real world, where everything is sacred and connected, coercive force must always be the last option, if it is to be an option at all.


We sometimes have mystical experiences, we always have communal ones. Our challenge is to choose to put ourselves in situations where the current inadequacies of a particular view of faith are exposed, pushing us to grow – To choose to walk a path that includes faith development and religious education – To choose encounters, experiences and exchanges that propel us forward rather than pulling us back.

Our challenge is to take what our RE Council chair Jane Simonds has called our Ghandian moments of authenticity –and to expand them. Our challenge, as we see things happening in the global community that we know to be wrong, is to model a different way, a third way, here in this community. We do this with our children and peers, and then we take that vision and experience out into the larger community.

I will close reiterating the quote of Starhawk: “To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.”

[i] From “Scivias”, quoted in Christian Mystics Ursula King, 1998, Simon and Schuster, p. 84.
[ii] Henry D. Thoreau, Walden , Princeton University Press, 1971 printing, pp. 323-324.
[iii] Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).
[iv] Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking, Harper’s, San Francisco, 1973.
[v] Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, Faith and Belief: the Difference between them, Princeton U. Press. Princeton, 1979.
[vi] These three definitions were used as quoted in the UU Faith Works newsletter, Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group, Pat Hoertdoerfer and Jacqui James, Fall 2002. Found at
[vii] This work is indebted to Faith Development A Critique of Fowler’s Model and Proposed Alternative, by Rev. Dr. Edward Piper, posted online at
[viii] See Children of War, Roger Rosenblatt, Anchor Books, Doubleday, Garden City, 1984.
[ix] E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper Collins, 1978, p. 15.
[x] Palmer, Parker, The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
[xi] David Creamer, Guides for the Journey, Univ. of Maryland Press, 1996.

Copyright Cindy 2002
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