Why "Spirituality"

This article offers a possible clue as to the history of Unitarian Universalism in the later 70's and 80's.

We speak of the turn toward "spirituality" in that era as though it was a natural event beyond human control. Like a river shifting its course after an earthquake.  But what was the earthquake that happened that caused UUism to move away from the rationality and intellectuality that had been our hallmarks up to then.

Episcopal Church Foundation 
The traditional analysis has been that the earthquake that moved the river were the two connected social and demographic events: the rise of the baby boomer and the rise of a more female ministry. (Maybe in concrete terms, they are one event in UU History: Boomer women enter UU ministry.)

I would add two other aspects, suggested by this article.

One is that growing economic inequality was sapping the sense of agency in our congregations. Our people no longer felt in control of their destinies. Members of our congregations, as a whole, no longer exercised the same economic power as established UU's of previous generations.

The second factor was the experience of disempowerment that came with the election of Nixon, the frustrations of the 70's, and the election of Reagan. Whatever the objective circumstances of Unitarian Universalist congregants, many UU's crashed into the 80's hungry for some source of power and agency that they felt they lacked.

We turned to a source of spiritual power: the religious community. The purpose of our worship shifted from the stimulation of the mental powers of the powerful people in the pews to the invocation of the spiritual power of the religious community. Without a commonly shared theological language to support it, we invited the Holy Spirit into our gatherings with the hushed moment of the chalice lighting, the testimony of Joys and Sorrows, the spirited singing that skipped around intellectual content, the hand-holding benediction, the new-style communions.

The Holy Spirit was in that sense of community, and UU's sought to be possessed by it. I wouldn't say that we have fully evolved into an ecstatic ritual style, but we keep pushing on toward it.

There are millions upon millions of people in this country (and billions upon billions around the world) who also hunger for a spiritual source of power to strengthen themselves to survive and to challenge the powers and principalities that rule this planet. The spiritual power of our small communities are but stepping stones to connecting with the spiritual power of that world community.


  1. Possibly, too, the deletion of any mention of any sort of god in our principles drove theists to hide their theism and it emerged as "spirituality." Those who hold on to the notion that there is, really, Something On Which All Else Depends might feel they have to hide that belief because other UUs might shame them (it HAS happened). They can use the word "spiritual" a little more safely than the word "god" and all the attendant words from the traditions.
    Just a thought...

  2. Speaking as one spiritual boomer woman, I have a different perspective on this. In my own faith journey, there has always been spirituality, and ecstatic spirituality entered in different ways. I was a part of the Catholic Pentecostal movement as a teen and through college, along with my parents. Then I became an activist. Then I became a feminist and got involved in the feminist spirituality movement. The power analysis might be expressed as: women becoming aware of the extent of our marginalization by mainstream religion (in my case Catholicism) So we were re-inventing spirituality, and the expressions of it turned toward earth centered, dance and music filled, full body expressive kinds of spirituality... for us it wasn't economic inequality, but sex inequality which fueled the change. This is a longer conversation, and I am also intrigued by the article, but I found UUism in the 90s after the Earth principle was adopted... so I can't speak to the internal changes... However, I came into UUism because it was open to feminist, lesbian, earth-centered people... and I am guessing that the influx of people like me contributed to whatever internal changes were happening, and that feminist spirituality was also a part of the change for UU women. So it wasn't just the rise of women ministers, but the transformation of women's consciousness that contributed to this.

  3. Rev. Kate Rohde1:55 PM

    As one of the early female boomer ministers who entered in 1980, my search for "spirituality" grew out of a reaction to the fundamentalist (and somewhat sexist)Humanism of my UU youth. For years my feelings about Humanism were somewhat similar to some members of my congregations' feelings about their upbringing in fundamentalist Christianity. I actually appreciated my elders' activism. It was the rigidity and lack of tolerance that disturbed me.

  4. Kim Hampton6:18 PM

    Wow, it's amazing how differently we see this and yet still like each other.

    I think the religious left's move to "spirituality" has little to do with economic forces; just look at where most "liberal" religious churches were founded/built in the period between 1965-2000. I see it as a result of the religious left's abandonment of political engagement because they could no longer control it. The rise of the Black Power movement (which challenged the need for whites to be involved); a growing and organized concerted anti-Vietnam movement; the beginning of public engagement of second-wave feminism all contributed to that feeling.

    Look at it this way, the religious left, from roughly 1900 to 1968 took Neibuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society" and thought that the way to change was to make society more just. [yeah, I know, MM-IS came out in the period btw. WWI and WWII] They were more interested in "social salvation" and not as focused on "personal salvation".

    The religious right, during that same time period, were doing the opposite; they were much more interested in "personal salvation" and not as focused on "social salvation". They didn't really latch on to MM-IS until later and their take-away was that in order to make society more moral was to make man more moral by limiting the opportunities to be immoral.

    1968-1972 changed everything. The religious left left public life because of outcomes they did not expect. The religious right entered public life because the world as they knew it changed in ways they did not like and they wanted to reverse that trend.

    How does this apply to Unitarian Universalism? Well...most congregations that were city based moved to the suburbs and exurbs because they no longer wanted to engage with the cities that their "mother" churches were a part of. This necessitates a change in focus. Instead of being a part of the neighborhood, many UU congregations became refuges from the neighborhood---whether urban or suburban/exurban or rural. [the change can be seen in the songs that have taken hold... "Spirit of Life" has taken hold and "Where Is Our Holy Church?" doesn't get sung that much outside of older UU congregations]

    It doesn't surprise me that this coincides with the entrance of women in larger numbers into the ministry and with the broadening of the church to the LGBTQ community. Telling people that they are worthy and loved as they are, while radical, is more personal salvation than social salvation.

    It has only been since 2000 that the religious left has started to re-engaged with public life in a really meaningful way.

  5. Kim, I think I am not far from your analysis, although I read the same narrative a little differently. You say that the rise of "spirituality" comes from the "religious left's abandonment of political engagement because they could no longer control it." I say that it reflected the disempowerment of all forms of reform in the Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution. The split that occurred between black radicals and white liberals was product of that same rightist reaction. In other words, I tend to see it (the action/inaction of the religious left) as part of a broad historical movement; the article I link to makes a generalization that populations which are experiencing a perceived loss of power often turn to more ecstatic religion to find other greater sources of strength. I suggest that might be what was going with us as well.
    Piketty's Capital places all of this in a much broader economic movement. The share of national income derived from capital was approaching its low point and Capital -- the wealthy was enacting policies to grab up more of the national income. While not making an explicit connection to the movement of capital -- ordinary people experienced this as stagnant living conditions and massive disinvestment in the public sector, which took its toll first in the cities falling apart.
    I don't think that religious left, which was never that powerful, was done in by some moral failure. They were swept along by the same tide as everyone else. It's Calvinism to see the movements of capital and politics and history as being the results of only one's own moral failings.
    Our residual Calvinism always imagines us at the center of history. We think we make history, even when we clearly don't. We never examine how history has been making us.

  6. Elz Curtiss9:38 AM

    Everything here is true. Here are two more factors often cited by historians of the left: 1) fragmentation into what we now call identities/categories; and 2) burn-out of the leadership. Demographics also has a role to play: these were years when the more institution-minded among the mid-to-late boomers were marrying and starting families, two stages of the life journey which always take people out of congregational religion.

    As to the rise of "spirituality," it wasn't just the need for an overarching unity for all the categories, but an honest admission among the rebels that there really is such a component to the human being, so now let's see what it is at its most basic.


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