Spiritually Promiscuous

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Video: https://youtu.be/T26rrK6XRIg

Annie Dillard has a way of writing provocatively. She often tackles themes of God and the natural world, spirituality and suffer, in her works. We Unitarian Universalists have something from her in our current hymnal (SLT #420); something that can be used as opening words. It is from one of her early works:

We are here to abet creation and witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.

The word ‘abet’ is interesting. It is usually a term with a criminal implication – to aid and abet a crime. It means you didn’t actually do the crime but you were a willing participant in the crime happening, that you assisted.

Dillard says we are here to abet creation. You did not do creation yourself, but you helped, you were a willing participant. Dillard is very good at creating a provocative image with her choice of words.

Annie Dillard is also the inspiration for my title today. She used the phrase “spiritually promiscuous” to describe herself when she was in her 30’s. At first blush, this feels like a good descriptor for many Unitarian Universalists including myself. I partake in multiple spiritual sources as part of my search of the intimate and ultimate values in life. I’ve long identified with Dillard’s work, and not just because we share a birthday.

I must admit, however, the word ‘promiscuous’ may be off-putting. It is Dillard, again, being provocative. The word promiscuous suggests a lack of commitment, a frivolous rather than serious exploration of the matter. We Unitarian Universalists have been accused before of being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep;’ meaning we will take in a lot of diverse sources of spiritualty but not go deep with any of them. The critique is that we UUs are dabblers and tourists in other people’s deep faith traditions. I confess, there is a cautionary note worth hearing in this assessment. It is not an unfounded critique.

I would argue, however, Annie Dillard’s exploration of spiritualty has never been shallow or lacking in commitment. I would further argue that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning must likewise have depth and consequences, and my own experience has been so. We ought not be dabblers in the intimate and ultimate matters of life.

All the same, I will continue along my original line of thinking which this provocative phrase “Spiritually Promiscuous” has sent me along. The spiritual heritage of world’s faith traditions has nourished me well over the years. As it has many of us, I am sure. As Unitarian Universalists, we lean into a multiplicity of ways to be spiritual, and find teachings and lessons along the way as we work to become better people, truer to the promptings of the Spirit, more awake and aware.

This past week my neighbor complimented me on the article we had in the local newspaper about our renovations and the way our congregation navigated the pandemic. He said he had spent some time on our website and my own site where I post my sermons. He said he liked the way I described myself on my website as a Buddho-Humanist, Christo-Pagan with occasional bouts of mysticism. It caught his attention and made him think.

His compliment got me thinking, too. Annie Dillard is not the only one out there trying to be provocative. But what if I am serious? What if that clever line about being a ‘Buddho-Humanist, Christo-Pagan with occasional bouts of mysticism’ is not just a way for me to say ‘I can’t decide so I’ll take all the flavors.’ What if I mean it? Allow me to unpack my spiritual promiscuity this morning.

While it is not always my own personal starting point, let me begin with the pagan side of my spirit. In a meditation about calling the Four Corners, my colleague, Julia Hamilton writes this:

In the pagan tradition, which is grounded in a respect and reverence for the natural world, calling upon the four directions is the usual way to begin any ceremony. Each direction is associated with an element of the natural world, and represents some part of our human nature as well. The directions are not seen as separate and isolated, but rather as part of the interdependent system that makes up the world…

We have moved through these four directions, given them shape and meaning:
East: Air, breath and inspiration.
South: Fire, transformation and action.
West: Water, feeling and reflection.
North: Earth, balance and wisdom.

I need to be out in nature to stay grounded and balanced in my life. I often experience inspiration and reflection when I take myself out into nature, when I associate with the elements of the natural world. Being in nature helps me become a better person, and hopefully a better minister. It helps me be at peace and happy.

And when I say that, when I talk about being at peace, my mind is drawn toward another tradition and a different practice. Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote quite a bit about having peace and being at peace. He did not find peace being out in nature, he found it through meditation. I find his writing illuminating. Here is a small meditation he wrote entitled “Being Peace.”

Being Peace

If we are peaceful,
If we are happy,
We can smile and blossom like a flower.
And everyone in our family,
Our entire society,
Will benefit
From our peace.

We can be at peace and we can be happy; and our peace and happiness can have an impact on those around us. I often try to pair this idea with something I hear a lot from a non-theist or Secular Humanist perspective which says when we are grateful, we become happy, not the other way around. Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude is what leads us to happiness.

And from there I swing into some the Christian and Jewish ethical traditions which say having peace and gratitude is borne out of being in a community of justice and prosperity. It is not something one can do alone; one becomes free only in community. Gratitude and happiness and peace are all relational experiences, communal practices.

And that thought circles me back Mahayana Buddhism, which talks about how full enlightenment is an unachievable goal until all sentient beings are ready and we can all transcend together. It is a communal practice. Meaning no one person is ever fully enlightened, but one person can become more enlightened. As philosopher Ken Wilbur once wrote, “You are never ‘fully’ enlightened, any more than you could say that you are ‘fully educated.’  It has no meaning.”  (Wilbur, Ken, A Brief History of Everything p216) 

I find my spirituality is a blend, a weaving of various traditions and multiple voices. I value the lessons I find in Secular Humanism as much as those I find in Paganism, and they are intwined for me. In many ways it is because I am striving to be more educated, more peaceful, more just and kind. I will not limit where I seek for wisdom because I always have more to discover.

This perspective of being a seeker is very helpful to me, in part because humility built in to it. Many people get caught up in exclusionary spiritual ideas about being special and chosen and better than others. A healthy spirituality ought to keep me humble. A healthy spirituality ought to keep me striving to be better.

If you have found that following one particular path is what serves for you, then I commend you. I am not suggesting your fidelity is in any way a bad idea. My practice of wandering along many paths is not meant to suggest it is a bad idea to stick to one path. Instead I am suggesting the important part is how you move along your path. Follow one path or many, it is about how you follow.

In Paul’s letter to the congregation in Phillipi, one of the epistles in Christian scripture, we can read advice which outlines what I’m talking about.

Philippians 2:3–4

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

I like the way the second sentence is structured there. It is similar to the phrasing Jesus used when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself;” implying we do need to love ourselves, and in that same way love our neighbors. Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others, Paul wrote.

Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead, we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. All the religions lift up the various key threads of value found in the human experience: justice and compassion, suffering, hope and renewal. Each share, with their own distinct patterns, practices and beliefs that can make us whole.

Some of the wisdom leads me to prayer, some leads me to working for justice, and some leads me to regain my balance, and some helps me to learn to let go.

In the fifth chapter of the Tao Te Ching, we read:

Countless words count less than the silent balance between yin and yang. The space between yin and yang is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.

What I need in my spiritual life is both the yin and the yang, both the emptying and the filling, the words and the silence. Different practices from varied traditions serve to help me find that dynamic balance.

As Unitarian Universalism, we honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth. Every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Expanding that basic premise, we say that every religious path, when it is travelled with good intention and integrity, can lead you where you need to go.

I’ll close with a final piece from Annie Dillard again. From her book Teaching a Stone to Talk in which she is grappling with prayer and nature and silence.

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters, it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

May you find, in your searching for meaning and truth, resources from all the world’s scriptures and humanity’s storehouse of spiritual poetry. May you be fed and challenged. And may each day of your searching bring you to a deeper understanding of yourself, of our world, and the grand mystery woven through it all.

In a world without end

May it be so