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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  • Dave Dawson

    Thanks for your post. On the surface it sounds great but leaves me feeling very empty as does so much that I encounter in UU Churches. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not leaving Unitarian Universalism. I’ve been a devoted member since 1979. I am 66 years old and just beginning to consciously seek God’s direction in my life. And a clarification is vital here…I embrace Forrest Church’s oft stated “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” Your post stirred a dissatisfaction I’ve been feeling for awhile now. I’m not sure who in the movement coined the term “UU Exceptionalism” but it has deep resonance for me at this point in my life. And your post just stimulated that dissatisfaction. How can we, as a denomination, grow up and be a more vital part of the the Church Universal instead of an “exceptional denomination”?

  • http://www.randomreflectionz.com Christie

    I really enjoyed this post. The quote at the end is a perfect way to tie it all together.

  • Kathleen Lehmann

    I really enjoyed this post, finding myself saying, yes, yes, yes!
    I’m still reveling in the joy, committment and passion of Justice GA, where our hearts were unabashedly free to empathize, to sing, to ache, to love… It gave me hope for the future of Unitarian Universalism. While I think we are moving more into a balance of head and heart, our intellect and questioning nature sometimes gets in our way – to our detriment. At GA we had the opportunity to volunteer to assist documented immigrants with their applications for naturalization. The organizers hoped for 200 volunteers, but 500 of us signed up. To participate, we were required to attend a training session. So many of us that there was an overflow training session. 500 or so people wanting to do something good. To be of service. Wanting to get it right. Not wanting to seem dumb in the face of a challenging application form. So the questions started, trying to be prepared for every possible scenerio. What if, what if, what if… Folks worried that people would be trying to falsify the applciation; trying to get over. Our heads and anxiety took over, leaving our hearts in the dust. We forgot that we were going to help people, individual people who had worked very hard to get to this, what should be a joyful day. A day of huge accomplishment. On Saturday morning, as we entered the Naturalization Fair, we passed by a line of people, all with expectant faces, waiting in the heat for the Fair to open. Any anxiety we had coming in melted away as we met one another eye to eye and heart to heart. Allowing ourselves to lead with our heart more often will surely serve us well. Who needs the anxiety anyway; it is such a waste of energy.

    • Ruth

      Right on, Sister!

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  • Nicki

    OH yes. And yes to Argow. Can we convince the humanists that there is more to life than the mind?