A Direction of the Heart

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Religion is something infinitely simple, ingenious.  It is not knowledge, not content of feeling … it is not duty and not renunciation, it is not restriction: but in the infinite extent of the universe it is a direction of the heart.”

While I cannot agree wholeheartedly with this great existentialist poet about what religion is not, I share his sense that, whatever else it may be, religion is a direction of the heart.  I mean this in a two-fold sense: any religion worth embracing will, in and of itself, contain an element of emotion which is both inspiring and satisfying.  At the same time, any religion worth embracing will be sufficiently reasonable and encourage sufficient spiritual discipline so that it will serve to channel our feelings in positive ways—that is, it will offer direction to our emotions, tempering them when they are out of control and provoking them when they are sublimated in unnecessary or unhealthy ways.

Much of the history of liberal religion, in general—and Unitarian Universalism, in particular—has been devoted to crafting an approach to religion that is more rational, more reasonable, more intellectually coherent, and more congruent with empirical evidence than more traditional belief systems.  I celebrate our cultivation of reasonable religion.  But the life decisions we make—great or small—rarely lend themselves to purely rational processes.  The value judgments we all make on a daily basis—about what we eat, who we love, what we enjoy, what work we undertake—may all lend themselves to attempts at rational explanation by social scientists but arriving at those personal judgments is anything but a purely rational exercise.

What separates the sanctuary from the laboratory, the church from the academy, the congregation from the learned society, is the richness of human feeling that goes into shaping and expressing the values we affirm and promote.  And so we strive to find the balance between head and heart, to create a worldview that meets our deepest emotional needs without acquiescing to the ridiculous.  A faith which represents a direction of the heart need not be grounded in simplistic sentimentalism or frivolous feeling – although sentiment and feeling will be found within it – perhaps even simplicity and a certain measure of frivolity, but it will esteem love and compassion, kindness and responsibility.

Waldemar Argow warned that, “Religion without emotion is a stunted, ineffectual thing.  Religion that is all emotion is a childish and even dangerous force quite incapable of solving the problems we have to deal with.  The ideal in religion is to establish the proper balance between mind and emotion, the thinking mind showing us the way we ought to go and the loving heart leading us to walk in that way.”


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