Is Spirituality a Skill --

I am a pragmatic guy -- a “by their fruits, you will know them”, especially when it comes to religion and spiritual paths.  Whatever seems to work in allowing people to develop the essential virtues of life is OK with me.   Does your religious approach result in you embodying reverence and awe and gratitude, as a start?

In fact, I think it’s the only way to define spirituality in a theologically inclusive way.

Spirituality is a way of thinking and feeling, rather than specific thoughts, or beliefs.

So, the question is whether it is a learnable.  Can one develop a deeper spirituality?  Can one learn how to be more grateful, more reverent, to hold the world in greater awe?    Can one learn how to discern what is the next right thing for you in your life -- the way forward that brings you into greater balance and harmony with the universe? 

Because if there is, doesn’t it make sense to try to develop that skill?  Isn’t that one way to think about being, as we say, “on a spiritual journey.”

Over the last week, I have been reading a book about a variety of Evangelical Protestantism that has some very interesting ideas about this subject.  The Book is “When God talks Back”  by T. M. Luhrmann.  Ms. Luhrmann is a Anthropology professor at Stanford University and is a psychological anthropologist.  She also says that she went to a Unitarian Sunday school growing up, which verifies her credentials as a Comparative Religions nerd. 

Professor Luhrmann spent a couple of years studying the interior religious lives of people who were part of what is called either “renewalist evangelicalism” or “experiential evangelicalism”.  The Vineyard churches, of which there several in Massachusetts, practice this kind of religion.

Renewalist or Experential evangelicalism is not particular interested in right belief or even in right behavior or right politics, but in the person having a personal relationship with Jesus or God, which are more or less interchangeable in their world.  And by relationship with God, they mean that not only does one “pray without ceasing” -- talk to God, but that one listens for and hears God talking to you.  Pretty much all day long, and about everything. 

Professor Luhrmann describes people who tell of conversing with God as they might with a close friend.  Standing in the front of the closet chatting away about whether they should wear the blue or the green shirt today.  Chatty, informal, casual, even giggly. Women talking about having dates with God.

So, what’s going on here? In a certain light, this looks like delusional behavior, but this are not auditory hallucinations.  People are not, for the most part, hearing an actual voice which seems to be coming from outside themselves. 

What Professor Luhrmann learned through extensive and sympathetic interviewing is that people have identified a certain voice, an expression of a certain point of view, among all the thoughts, impressions, images and sensations running through their mind as being the voice of God.

Here is an example:  a woman notices the tulips on her walk through the park -- among all the tulips some were all ready past their peak, and others were just at the peak, and others were opening up, still in bud and some were so newly formed that she couldn’t even see what color they would be when they did open. 

Later as she is talking and praying with someone else, the image of these tulips come into her mind and for her, it is a message from God to offer the other the reminder that everything comes in its own time, and sometimes in ways that are unpredictable.  That sometimes you don’t get what you expect. 

She had trained her mind to read the image of the tulips as it floated into her consciousness as a communication.

Anyone who has meditated for even a short time realizes that we have very little control over our thoughts.  Ideas, associations, images just rush into our minds -- where do they come from?  Why these images or thoughts, instead of those?  Well, sometimes, we understand the association, but other times, it doesn’t seem clear -- I start out thinking about my dog and in 3 seconds I am thinking about the 1950 Dodge we used to have and along the way, I thought about Emerson, an old girlfriend, and what I would like for dinner. 

Professor Luhrmann says that the spiritual path that these folks are on leads them to identify some of those thoughts that God has planted in their mind -- as God communicating with them.

She calls it “externalizing internal thoughts.”  Or moving the boundary between what is private and individual and what outside the self.

Understand that this is consistent with a long tradition with Western spirituality. Every week, as we prepare ourselves for silent prayer and meditation, we speak of “the still, small voice of God that dwells within each of us.”  And today, we read the biblical passage from which that phrase comes -- the story of Elijah the prophet, told in the court history of David and Solomon.  We think that we are more likely to hear God as an internal voice to us, or in a vision, or a dream, than we would hearing it as a teaching of the church, or even in a sermon on Sunday morning -- well, we all believe that, even me.

The whole history of Western Religions has been the movement from worshipping an entirely external God -- God out there, and up there -- through ritual in a special place, with special words, to a private, personal practice of a relationship with the divine within.   We call it the progression from organized religion to private spirituality. 

The experiential evangelicals have adapted evangelical protestantism to the era of personalized and individualized internal spiritual authority. 

The point of experiential evangelicalism is not changing beliefs, or even changing behavior, it is bringing people into a relationship with God -- where God is always a presence in the faithful’s mind -- the way that your spouse or partner or best friend is.  You trust them; you believe that they have your best interests at heart; you believe that they love you; you believe that they will forgive your misdeeds and so it is natural that you would consider what they would think of your actions, even your thoughts.  Their voice is always, in a sense, in your head.

Now, their understanding of God is very similar to the vision of God held by liberal Christians, or theistic religious liberals.  God is encouraging; God is on your side; God knows you intimately and God still loves you.  God wants to get what you want if it is going to be good for you.  God no longer engages in smiting.  God is not angry, or wrathful, or eager to destroy the rebellious humanity.

Their belief, indeed the belief of all liberal theists these days, is that God is a safe, loving presence -- the ultimate therapist, seriously, some with whom you can safely explore what is most troubling about yourself and the most painful and traumatic of all your experiences, and you can do this because you know that you will not be judged, or condemned, or mocked. You can be vulnerable and not in control. 

Now, it seems that the practical result of understanding yourself in such a relationship could be that you could live a life more consistently reverent and grateful.   When you were bored and tired and irritated and distracted, (as I was in the tire store I told you about a couple weeks ago) you would be expecting that God would be telling you to make a more cheerful and positive response to life.  I would be interpreting some of the thoughts that were floating into my mind as reminders and calls and encouragements. 

As I have said, my father left the Baptist ministry to become a Unitarian about the time I was born.  I have held the letter that he wrote to the American Unitarian Association at that time, explaining why he wanted to leave the Baptists, where his father and brothers and brothers-in-law and his father-in-law were all successful ministers.  He said that he had become convinced that people change because they come to believe more in God’s Love than in God’s anger.  So this is a distinction that has been around for a while.

So the progression is like this:  in order to live a more spiritually grounded life, one has to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, as though God were best friend.  And in order to be in that relationship, you have to let God speak to you, by identifying parts of your stream of consciousness as the voice of God.  And to let God that close, you have trust God as truly loving you, which just means believing that you are a person worthy of being loved. 

Oh, that’s all. 

The Vineyard Churches seem to have some methods for developing the sense that one is lovable and indeed, loved by God.  Their worship and their prayer life together is very emotional and emotionality is encouraged.  People cry when prayed over by others; people are supported in having their emotions run away with them.  Their Bible study is emotion centered -- how would it feel to be in the situations described.  They are encouraged to practice peace, joy and love in all situations -- a virtue based morality, rather than rule-based.  They are asked to look at themselves through God’s eyes -- to give up looking at the world as a frightened creature at risk, but looking at them as God would -- almost parentally watching a tot’s first steps.  And, interestingly enough, for them an important piece of the work of the spiritual journey is specifically addressing and re-working the concept of God the Father.  It is their experience that people cannot let God get close to them because they are conflicted, frightened, traumatized, ignored, neglected, abused by the human father figure. 

Their understanding of why so many of us cannot be in relationship to God is not because of belief, or logic, or doctrine, or science, but because we are somehow blocked in entering into that relationship.   And how long does it take to fully let someone into your heart -- a lover, a friend, a partner, a spouse? 

Unitarian Universalism is not the Vineyard and the Vineyard is not us.  We come from a different historical root and branch.  They are a type of evangelical Christian with strong Pentecostalist influences.  Their founders and pioneers came from the Jesus Freak movements of the late 60’s and 70’s -- very loosely structured, emotional and ecstatic forms of Protestantism that developed and were rooted in California.  Obviously, we are something different.  We come from those Puritans for whom the spiritual life is often focused on self-examination, self-scrutiny, making a fearless inventory.

I am not sure that you could even call the Vineyard Christian fellowships part of “Liberal Religion”. 

But they are, as I have said before, a genuine religious response to the personalization of spirituality in the 21st century.  Spirituality is personal, unique, individual.  It has to do primarily with how you live your life, how you feel, what you think about, the values you live by in daily life, with whom and how you are in relationships.  It is not primarily about what you believe.  It is not even what you do.  It is not about the groups that you belong to. 

And this experiential evangelicalism is getting at one of the weaknesses of personal spirituality:  that of spiritual practice?  What do you as a person do?  How do you learn; how do you mature in faith?  What are the life skills of the spiritual life?

My big takeaway from this book is that life skills of a spiritual life can be taught and learned.  Ultimately, they are relational skills, learning how to live in this universe and among these people, with honesty and humilty, reverence, gratitude, openness, solidarity and self-possession.  These are the virtues of liberal religion and if you notice they are relational -- they describe kinds of relationships with others, with your many selves, and with all of reality.  May we learn to ground those relationships in love.


  1. It's a great and insightful book. T. M. Luhrmann has also published on other topics relevant to liberal spirituality. Her excellent PERSUASIONS OF THE WITCH'S CRAFT explores wicca and feminist spirituality in a sympathetic way. A very insightful writer and researcher.

  2. Janet4:21 PM

    An addition to your paragraph on the progression of relationship with God, one has to believe that He is !
    This foundational part of the formula proves a stumbling block for some of us UUs.
    Thanks for your exploration. I had heard the author on NPR and have friends in a Vineyard church.

  3. Janet,

    Yes, I affirm that some UU's don't believe in God.

    Just in case, anybody forgot for a moment.


  4. Cool post; thanks. Not sure what to do with it, or how to weave any of it into our UU churchlife. But cool.


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