“One Needful Thing”, Part 2: UUism and the Transformative Experience

In Part 1, I traced the development of Unitarianism since the early 19th century to the present and argued that UUism has, since its inception, been characterized by what William Channing called a “too partial culture of the mind.”  I hinted that the “one needful thing” for UUism is enthusiasmos or personal abandonment, which I will explore in more detail in this Part.

Jung and religious experience

In 1910, early in Jung’s career, Jung wrote a letter to Freud regarding both mens’ invitation to join the International Fraternity of Ethics and Culture (I.F.).  Jung’s letter assumes that Christianity must be replaced by something, but he finds ethical fellowships like the I.F. to be incapable of filling the gap created by the death of the Christian faith:

“If a coalition is to have any ethical significance it should never be an artificial one but must be nourished by the deep instincts of the race.  Somewhat like Christian Science, Islam, Buddhism.  Religion can only be replaced by religion.  Is there perchance a new saviour in the I.F.?  What sort of new myth does it hand out for us to live by?  Only the wise are ethical from sheer intellectual presumption, the rest of us need the eternal truth of myth. [...]

“Two thousand years of Christianity can only be replaced by something equivalent.  An ethical fraternity, with its mythical Nothing, not infused by any archaic-infantile driving force, is a pure vacuum and can never evoke in man the slightest trace of that age-old animal power which drives the migrating bird across the sea and without which no irresistible mass movement can come into being.”

Note that, when Jung speaks of an “archaic-infantile driving force”, he does not seem to mean it disparagingly.  From Jung’s perspective, this force is at the core of religion and absent from ethical fraternities.  And, as Jung writes, “religion can only be replaced by religion.”  What does this have to do with Unitarianism.  I suspect that, had observed the Unitarian church in his day, he would have thought that it was not a religion, but an ethical fraternity or fellowship.

Jung observed that an ethical fraternity will never evoke in people “animal power” which drives religious movements.  Recall Transcendentalist Unitarian Theodore Parker’s statement (quoted in Part 1) that the Unitarianism of his day had great “practical excellence”, but “lacked the deep internal feeling of piety, which alone could make it lasting”.  While Unitarianism has in fact survived into the 21st century, it has not thrived. What John Trevor wrote in the 1870s still applies today:

“For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”

I believe that the reason for this is that religious humanists and their liberal Christian predecessors effectively replaced their Christian religion with something that is not religion at all, an ethical fellowship.  As Jung suggests, religion is something much more primal than the ethical religion of the humanists. Jung went on in his letter to describe his vision of that something.  He believed that rather than becoming a part of ethical religion, psychoanalysis had the potential to take the Christian mythos and the energy that was once been a part of Christianity and use it to create a new Dionysian religion:

“I imagine a far finer and more comprehensive task for [psychoanalysis] than alliance with an ethical fraternity.  I think we must give it time to infiltrate into people from many centers to revivify among intellectuals a feeling for symbol and myth, ever so gently to transform Christ back into the soothsaying god of the vine, which he was, and in this way absorb those ecstatic instinctual forces of Christianity for the one purpose of making the cult and the sacred myth what they once were — a drunken feast of joy where man regained the ethos and holiness of an animal.  That was the beauty and purpose of classical religion, which from God knows what temporary biological need has turned into a Misery Institute.  Yet what infinite rapture and wantonness lie dormant in our religion, waiting to be led back into their true destination.  A genuine and proper ethical development cannot abandon Christianity but must grow up within it, must bring to fruition its hymn of love, the agony and the ecstasy over the dying and resurgent god, the mystic power of the wine, the awesome anthropophagy of the Last Supper — only this ethical development can serve the vital forces of religion.  But a syndicate of interests dies out after ten years.”

(Correspondence from Jung to Freud, Feb 11, 1910, published in The Freud-Jung Letters, ed. William McGuire (1979)).  Psychotherapy has partially succeeded in this task Jung set out for it.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to note Jung’s choice of words: soothsaying, ecstatic, instinctual, drunken, feast, joy, holiness, beauty, rapture, wantonness, agony, ecstasy, mystic, awesome.  These are words one would never be associated with UU worship.  Instead they describe everything that Unitarianism is missing.

Watts and the art of worship

In his book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (1948), Alan Watts argues that the rationalism which I described in Part 1 as characterizing Unitarianism is actually endemic to Protestantism generally.  Writing in 1948, Watts was standing on the precipice of the decline of mainline Protestantism and his words have turned out to have been prophetic.  Watt writes that Protestantism had gradually reduced the Christian faith to mere moralism and the church itself to a social action committee:

“Even for intelligent congregations Church teaching and preaching is concerned almost exclusively with a multitude of minor matters having mostly to do with the smaller points of morality or, in liberal Protestant churches, with politics and vague ethical principles.”

Although Watts did not mention Unitarianism, the UUA is only an extreme example of a more general trend in Protestantism.

Watts argues that true religion is not morality, but “worship”.  And Protestantism, he says, “has lost the art of worship”.  In its place we have “edification” — symbolized by the replacement of the altar with the pulpit.  He writes that the purpose of true worship is to “realize unity through corporate self-forgetfulness”.  (Unity with what?  With “God” — which for Watts means Reality.)  According to Watts, Protestant edification and promotion of fellowship fall short of this goal, because they are too self-conscious, and true worship is the transcendence of self-consciousness.  The soul “desires release from itself” and “that infusion of life and meaning through being possessed by a power greater than itself”.

“For creativity and sanity, man needs to have, or at least to feel, a meaningful relation to and union with life, with reality itself [what Watts calls “God”]. It is not enough that he be related to a human group or a human ideal … Religion must relate man to the root and ground of reality and life.”

The failure of liberal Christianity to lead people to union with God/Reality is, in Watts opinion, responsible for its decline.

Morality and ethics are not enough.  Morality, according to Watts, is a byproduct of true religion, not its goal.  The goal is union with God/Reality.  Christianity, he says, has “degenerated largely into legalism or surface imitation of the good life without understanding of its inner meaning — the realization of union with God.”

“[T]he answer of modern liberal Protestantism, the religion of ‘ethics tinged with emotion,’ does not impress [us] as religion at all and supplies no spiritual power by means of which such ethics may be practiced.”

Divine Possession

Watt’s quotation above, “ethics tinged with emotion”, is a reference to Matthew Arnold’s (in)famous definition of religion as “morality tinged with emotion”.  In an essay in The New Republic in 1958, poet and Goddess-devotee, Robert Graves balked at Arnold’s definition:

“Dr. Arnold defined religion as ‘morality tinged with emotion.’  ‘Tinged,’ forsooth! Religious morals, in a healthy society, are best enforced by drums, moonlight, fasting, masks, flowers, divine possession.”

Robert Graves, “Food for Centaurs”, The New Republic, April 28, 1958.  (From the context, I think Graves may have meant “feasting”, not “fasting”.)

Graves’ statement is relevant here for its contrast of the emotional reservation of the “ethical religion” of Protestant Christianity with the self-abandonment that characterized pagan religions.  “Divine possession” — nothing could be farther from the description of religious humanism which characterizes UUism today.

Aldous Huxley writes in The Devils of Loudun (1952), a historical account of a supposed demonic possession in 17th century France:

“Introspection, observation, and the records of human behavior in the past and at the present time, make it very clear than an urge to self-transcendence is almost as widespread and, at times, quite as powerful as the urge to self-assertion.  Men desire to intensify their consciousness of being what they have come to regard as ‘them-selves,’ but they also desire–and desire, very often, with irresistible violence–the consciousness of being someone else.  In a word, they long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.”

The rationalist might agree with this assessment but would find this to be a deplorable indictment of irrational human nature.  I think the point though is that the “urge to self-transcendence” is part of human nature, as much as the “urge to self-assertion”.  And as such, rather than trying to change human nature, we must work with it.

The transformative experience

If we were to look back to the beginnings of Christianity to discover how Christianity first succeeded in the marketplace of ideas (growing at the rate of 40% per decade over 300 years), we discover that self-transcendence was at the heart of it.  Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament Scholar and critic of the Jesus Seminar (the search for the historical Jesus), argues that the success of early Christianity is explained by what he calls “the Resurrection experience”.  According to Johnson, Christianity does not begin with Jesus, but with his followers’ experience following his death, an experience of a “personal, transcendent, and transforming power”.  (As a naturalist, I would interpret “transcendent” as “self-transcendent”.)

This is what Johnson calls “the Resurrection experience” and it can be found in the earliest writings of the New Testament, especially when they are read phenomenologically.  It is an experience of spiritual or psychological death and rebirth, which mirrors the mythical death and rebirth of Jesus, a rebirth to a new kind of life, the symbol of which is the “Holy Spirit”.  “Possession” by the Holy Ghost is precisely the kind of enthousiasmos that Jung, Watts, and Graves, as well as the Transcendentalists quoted in Part 1, all believed were missing from rational and ethical Christianity of their respective times.

It is precisely this kind of divine possession which is, I believe, the “one needful thing” in UUism and mainline Protestantism generally.  And I would argue that its absence is what accounts for the decline of mainline Christianity and the growth of evangelical Christianity.  Turning to contemporary Paganism, I would theorize that “divine possession” is responsible for the growth of deity-centered, hard-polytheism in the Pagan community.  In place of the indwelling Holy Spirit among Christians, the polytheists have “assumption of god forms”, evocation/invocation, “drawing down”, aspecting, and plain old possession.  What is more likely to convince you of the authenticity of a religion, I wonder: a social action committee meeting or the experience of being possessed by Wotan?

If this is true, then those organizations and movements which have been influenced by religious humanism, UUism (and perhaps humanistic/naturalistic Paganism as well?), must find a way to help their constituents to lose themselves.  I’m not advocating here that we try to replicate the specific forms of divine possession present in early Christianity, or contemporary evangelical Christianity, or in contemporary polytheist practice.  But I think but an experience of the same or similar character is necessary for a religion to thrive — and experience of a “personal, [self-]transcendent, and transforming power”.  We may lose ourselves in deity, in nature, or in an expanded notion of the Self.  But self-transcendence does seem to be the key.  How we accomplish that is the question and the subject of Part 3.

  • http://naturalpantheist.wordpress.com naturalpantheist

    Having grown up in an evangelical Pentecostal church that emphasised experiencing god’s presence and the holy spirit e.g. speaking in tongues, upbeat charismatic music e.t.c, its the one thing that I miss more than anything else since leaving that faith, and I find that listening to certain christian worship songs e.g hillsongs, can still evoke the same feelings of “transcendence” that I once interpreted to be an experience of god’s presence. I know its all psychological, but it gives a sense of peace and “completeness.” Being a very rationalistic person, it surprises me that I miss this element, but it also leads me to agree with your conclusion that religions that emphasise the rational over the experiential will not appeal to people’s hearts in the long run. For me, the answer lies in the awe, wonder and beauty of nature but perhaps more is needed. I think that Nature can offer that experience of transcendence and it does call to that longing within us to learn to worship again, but perhaps we need to ignore our rational minds sometimes in order to experience it.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I grew up in what I would call an Enlightenment form of Protestantism (Mormonism). The hymns were dry as the Utah soil. As for transcendence, that was something one would seek in private, but not in group worship. My first experience of evangelical worship came after I had rejected Christianity, but I was powerfully moved by the experience. I thought it was just the music, so I bought the CDs of the music they played (which were for sale), but it was not the same thing at all. Now I realize that there is something about group ecstatic experience that cannot be replicated in private. Being a very rationalistic person myself, I’m not at all surprised that I long for this. It’s one thing I can’t give myself.

      You wrote: “For me, the answer lies in the awe, wonder and beauty of nature but perhaps more is needed. I think that Nature can offer that experience of transcendence and it does call to that longing within us to learn to worship again …”

      Exactly. I am coming to realize that I need to (re-)learn how to worship. But how to do that as a naturalistic/humanistic Pagan is the question. My Unitarian church offers me little help in that regard. As Theodore Parker wrote (quoted in my previous post):

      *This defect of the Unitarians was a profound one. … ceasing to fear ‘the great and dreadful God’, they had not quite learned to love the … Universe. But in general they had no theory which justified a more emotional experience of religion.*

      It is that theory that I am trying to articulate here.

      • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

        >As Theodore Parker wrote (quoted in my previous post): *This defect of the Unitarians was a profound one. … ceasing to fear ‘the great and dreadful God’, they had not quite learned to love the … Universe. But in general they had no theory which justified a more emotional experience of religion

        Wow, that’s food for thought… A theory to justify a more emotional experience? Like people feel embarrassed to display such feeling, unless they have a shared theory that justifies it, like love for some deity? So the theology enables socially-acceptable displays of emotional intensity? Is that really what it’s all about? I wonder…

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          I don’t think that explains all of it. But I do think that is part of it. I am very emotionally reserved, so I can understand about needing a “theory” (excuse) for public displays of emotion.

  • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

    >Only the wise are ethical from sheer intellectual presumption, the rest of us need the eternal truth of myth.

    Fortunately that no longer seems to be the case, thanks to new discoveries in the evolution of ethics and cooperation.

    >An ethical fraternity, with its mythical Nothing, not infused by any archaic-infantile driving force, is a pure vacuum and can never evoke in man the slightest trace of that age-old animal power which drives the migrating bird across the sea and without which no irresistible mass movement can come into being.

    Hauntingly true.

    >”For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”

    Ouch. It’s just painful how much that rings true of my experience of Humanism, Atheism, Pantheism, UU, and other such movements… even Naturalistic Paganism at present.

    >It is not enough that he be related to a human group or a human ideal … Religion must relate man to the root and ground of reality and life.”

    Yes. For this reason, I’ve been working on a set of symbols for that which transcends the individual ego within a fully naturalistic framework. I don’t mean things that are just bigger or more powerful, but which allow the ego to participate in a higher level of complexity. What I’ve come up with is:

    Nature, Society, and Psyche

    Psyche – meaning the total human mind, beyond the ego or small self
    Society – meaning the total collective of humanity and human culture
    Nature – meaning the total everythingness of the universe

    Could these three symbols allow for individual transcendence and relation to reality, in Watts’ sense?

    Similarly, could a meditation like that of the Five +1, which puts us in direct contact with every means by which the world may appear to consciousness – the totality of subjective experience – and displaces self-centeredness by taking an outside observer’s stance toward our thoughts, feelings, etc., recover the missing element of the Dionysian and help us to “lose ourselves”?

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Great comments B.T.

      “… Fortunately that no longer seems to be the case, thanks to new discoveries in the evolution of ethics and cooperation.”

      Jung may have overstated the idea, but I still wonder whether “new discoveries in the evolution of ethics and cooperation” are going to motivate ethical action in the majority of people. In any case, like Watts, producing ethical behavior is not what draws me to religion. I wish the two could be disentangled.

      “… Ouch. It’s just painful how much that rings true of my experience of Humanism, Atheism, Pantheism, UU, and other such movements… even Naturalistic Paganism at present.”

      Yes, that is just how I felt, and I was shocked to read these words from someone writing near the turn of the century — decades before the first Humanist Manifesto.

      “Psyche – meaning the total human mind, beyond the ego or small self
      Society – meaning the total collective of humanity and human culture
      Nature – meaning the total everythingness of the universe”

      Yes! Those are the same three ways I seek (self-)transcendence: the deep self, other people, and the physical world.

      “Could these three symbols allow for individual transcendence and relation to reality, in Watts’ sense?”

      Watts absolutely identified “the total everythingness of the universe” as a (the) proper symbol of transcendence. Not the other two though (for Watts).

      “could a meditation like that of the Five +1, which [...] displaces self-centeredness by taking an outside observer’s stance toward our thoughts, feelings, etc., recover the missing element of the Dionysian and help us to ‘lose ourselves’”

      Of course, that can only be answered experimentally and will likely differ from person to person. I would say meditation can absolutely help us lose our “self”. But I don’t know about recovering the Dionysian element. They may just be different paths to the same goal, but I don’t think of meditation as Dionysian. I think corporate worship (like a benign form of mob mentality) is more what I had in mind.

      • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

        >but I still wonder whether “new discoveries in the evolution of ethics and cooperation” are going to motivate ethical action in the majority of people.

        Actually, what the discoveries indicate is that ethical action doesn’t need to be motivated externally. It’s intrinsically motivated by instinct, as part of our evolutionary heritage as social creatures. Of course culture can and does *modulate* that, for better or worse, and religion does in some cases modulate it for the better. Secular institutions can as well. Often they modulate it for the better in some cases and for the worse in others.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          Oh, I understand what you mean now. How does evolutionary theory account for major shifts in people’s ethics, i.e., the conversion experience?

          • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

            >How does evolutionary theory account for major shifts in people’s ethics, i.e., the conversion experience.

            Good question. I’m not sure if evolutionary-based or cognitive science-based researchers have made it that far to the conversion question yet. I could only speculate. Human ethics is tied to being prosocial, i.e. cooperating within a group, so the ability to change ethical positions may enable people to take up the values of a new group. That’s pure speculation on my part. People certainly do undergo shifts in ethics, and culture can evoke divergent expressions of ethics.

  • http://gravatar.com/dtstrain DT Strain

    What a wonderful article, John. Thanks for this :)

    I completely relate. I have, however, had some naturalistic transformative experiences that go beyond what is easy to communicate. They involve such things as unconditional compassion, humility, empathy, profound experience, a sense of the sacred, revelatory perspectives, and so on. I feel as though my experiences with several ancient philosophical wisdom and practices have helped to make me a “new kind of person” and continue to do so.

    But there are serious roadblocks that we from the secular humanist and similar backgrounds face. Here are some of them:

    1) Always looking at things from the third-person. Seeking ‘objective’ descriptions of everything, as though writing an anthropological research paper on it. This, as opposed to greater appreciation and immersion in first-person subjective experience. We cannot achieve greater subjective intuitive experience through greater objective intellectual knowledge alone. We are still holding on to the edge of the pool, scared to float.

    2) An outward social/focused agenda and framework as opposed to an inward looking focus on personal growth and development.

    3) Talking/writing *about* the thing rather than putting it into practice (be it meditation or any other practice).

    4) Appreciating the role of metaphor intellectually without ever really moving one’s perspectives, responses, and feelings into that place.

    5) Trying to approach the matter in a step by step process, whereby we: (a) note the claims, (b) assess them empirically, (c) decide if they have merit, (d) engage in them, and (e) reap the benefits. This algorithm will *never* get us there. We will eternally be stuck on stage (b) as we indeed are. In Buddhist practices, for example, we could be an expert in every character ever written on the page over the centuries of its existence and this would not be enough. We will never reach a point where we have assessed the practices and decided they are worthy to be engaged in – not fully and not to the extent that matters. This is because they are inherently subjective experiences. The way you investigate them is by engaging in them without reservation – to be willing to make a leap.

    6) The impulse to reject anything with the ‘taint’ of religion upon it, either because of ourselves or because of our fear others might think we are religious.

    7) The effort to build something “alongside” or “other” than religion – instead of working to transform religion into a naturalistically compatible genuine path. This involves a completely bold and shameless use of their terms, imagery, practices, and manners of speech, whenever they are applicable – without apology. Not because of some external effort to steal them – but because these terms convey honest feelings we have a right to and which illustrate the feelings we have about the awesomeness of reality. “a-” words and “non-” words and alternate clinical descriptions are – when it comes to the realm of spirituality – the *ghetto* of the English language, and we must aspire to better.

    8) A continuous drive to debunk, critique, or complain about others’ beliefs – focusing on telling others what they ought to believe and do, rather than leading by example.

    9) A failure to appreciate or trust the full power of universal love, forgiveness, and compassion. A generally harsh demeanor instead of loving-kindness, and an underestimating of the importance of such a demeanor to one’s well-being.

    Many of we rationalists, humanists, etc. sit against the wall at the dance, talking with one another about the dancers out on the floor – analyzing their movements, critiquing their techniques. Then we speculate about the biological underpinnings of their enjoyment of the dance, imagining that this discussion and knowledge somehow gets us closer to being good dancers or to sharing in that enjoyment. The lights come on, the party is over, and we go home completely failing to have ever danced or even understood what it was like.

    In my own local gatherings, we have covered topics like meditation, compassion, spiritual progress, awe/wonder, Taoism, Paganism, Buddhism, etc. I have found that many attendees love talking about “how it is” as if we are a bunch of aliens floating over planet earth, assessing the humans. But when I ask them to share their experiences, feelings, as these concepts are applied to a real life, I sense a resistance to ‘getting personal’. The former kind of intellectualizing and rhetoric is not even a ‘lower level’ of true spiritual practice – it is another kind of thing altogether, and will not get us there.

    There are other doors yet to be entered for many naturalists. And they must be if we are to truly heal the schism and reunite the natural and the sacred.

    Best wishes friends :)
    Sincerely,

    -Daniel

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      What an incredible response Daniel! It’s deserving of its own post. I’m going to use your comments as a jumping off point for my next post.

      • http://gravatar.com/dtstrain DT Strain

        Too kind, thanks :)
        Looking forward to seeing it!

    • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

      I second that. This must be its own article!

      • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

        Worthy of H.P. I think!

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