When I was in seminary, I had to take a test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a multiple-choice exam that asks questions like, “Have you been hearing voices lately?” When I sat down with the psychiatrist two weeks later to hear the results, he told me, “By and large, this is a healthy profile.” Then he pointed to a line that plummeted from the top of the page to the bottom. “But do you see this? This means that your soul is conflicted, filled with tensions and contradictions. Those tensions can either be a blessing or a curse; they can either stimulate creativity and vitality in your life, or they can shut you down.” Seeing my reaction, he reassured me, “Rob, you have to learn to love the tensions that are in your soul.” Love the tensions? I wasn’t sure I had heard him right.
Ten years later, I am still trying to discover what it really means to not merely accept the tensions and contradictions of life but to love them. We want to love the world, but does that mean we must condone all that is wrong with it, that we must quietly acquiesce to injustice? What is there to love about contradictions?
Learning to love contradiction is no small thing; it amounts to a fundamental spiritual imperative for our time. We live in a crazy-quilt world that is at once becoming smaller, more complex, and more polarized. This world presents us with contradictions at all levels—within our own souls, in our communities, and in our world. Today one in five children lives in poverty right here in the United States, the richest nation on earth. The golden arches of McDonald’s now rise above the dusty streets of Kabul where the Taliban once banned all traces of Western culture. People fly planes into skyscrapers and call it the will of God. If the divine plan does, indeed, include so much conflict and contradiction, then we can be excused for concluding that either the gods must be crazy—as in the 1981 movie of that name—or we are.
Making sense of this craziness is a religious task. Religion is the faculty through which we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. But these days, religion seems to be more of a problem than a solution. What kind of spirituality can help us live with integrity in the midst of the ambiguities, complexities, and disparities of our contemporary world? What kind of faith can sustain our love and care for such a world?
Nobody likes a mess. We regard a mess as a threat to our spiritual and psychic integrity. We react to a mess the same way we would to a physical threat: We want to flee or fight. Fighting gets the most attention these days. The front pages of our newspapers are filled with stories of people who are engaged in a religiously motivated fight in response to the complexity of our world. Radical Muslim jihadists use bombs and terror against Western “infidels” who, they believe, threaten their way of life. Christian fundamentalists use slander to foment hatred against gays and feminists for upsetting their view of the traditional family. Extreme fundamentalism of any stripe is a faith whose creed is fear and whose ritual is a sacrificial amputation of anything that does not fit into its worldview.
Though less violent than fighting, the flight response is another destructive reaction to our complex world. It takes many forms in contemporary religious life. Some on the religious right harbor hopes of an imminent Rapture, when God will destroy this vale of tears and gather the righteous to live with God in Paradise. This idea is reflected in books like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels. I describe this as a flight response because it is the equivalent of living one’s religious life in a gated community, where one can hide from all the dangers beyond the guard at the entrance. This is the religious behavior of people who have long ago given up on loving this world.
On the center and left of the religious spectrum, the temptation to flee is also great. It usually occurs among those who have made a serious attempt to engage the complexity of modernity but have succumbed to its stresses and strains somewhere along the way. They burn out and withdraw, often to the confines of the nuclear family, declaring that the household represents the limit of their capacity to care. They may be aware of all the conflict that roils around them, but they have the luxury of retreat, often due to wealth and privilege. Sociologists call this “compassion fatigue.” I call it the “Calgon Moment,” because it reminds me of the embattled mother in a commercial from my childhood. As her children spill grape juice on their clothes and the dog tracks filthy paw prints through her house, mom throws her arms in the air, looks to the heavens, and shouts, “Calgon, take me away!” This is a prayer for deliverance disguised as a bubble bath commercial, for in the next scene she blissfully soaks in a tub full of bubbles. But neither bath products nor spiritual fantasies can deliver us from the messiness of our world. Nor should they.
We need a spirituality that moves us beyond fight and flight, one that sees complexity not as an enemy but as a friend. We need a spirituality that views paradox as a creative opportunity and contradiction as a stimulant. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” But what kind of spirituality allows our souls to embrace contradiction and complexity? The kind that lets me do what the school psychiatrist charged me to do: love the tensions in my life.
Not long after divinity school, I stumbled upon the work of theologian Bernard Loomer, who began to point me in the right direction. Loomer is an important figure in process theology, a movement that contends that the universe is always growing in size and complexity, and that as the universe grows, so does God and so must we. Loomer saw the increasing complexity of creation as a glorious blossoming that God was delighted to behold. Late in life, Loomer was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, California, where on Sundays after church he would lead thought-provoking theological conversations. After describing his vision of the complexity of creation, he often asked the group, “What is the size of your soul?” By which he meant, “What is your soul’s ability to grow and expand, to stretch when life throws more contradictions your way?”
Size was the defining concept in Loomer’s spirituality. He almost always wrote the word S-I-Z-E, with capital letters and dashes, to better convey the spaciousness that he intended by using the word. Loomer describes the concept this way:
By S-I-Z-E I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.
Before Bernard Loomer, I used to think of spiritual growth as a process of growing closer to God in a vertical kind of way. I took the image from “Jack and the Beanstalk”: We’re here on the earth, God is up in heaven, and spiritual growth means growing like that beanstalk, higher and higher, ever closer to God. But in that model, we end up with our head in the clouds. Another recipe for retreat.
Loomer showed me that spiritual growth isn’t about a vertical ascent to heaven but about growth in every dimension at once. It’s spirituality in 3-D. Growth in spirit doesn’t measure one’s proximity to a God above, but rather the spaciousness of one’s own soul—its volume, its capacity, its size. We need to grow souls that can encounter the other as a unique subject, not an object—in the words of Martin Buber, a “Thou,” not an “it.” We need souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. And we need souls that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity. Instead of fight or flight, we need a spiritual posture of embrace.
I went from a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk spirituality to a How the Grinch Stole Christmas faith. Perhaps you remember the moment near the end of Dr. Seuss’s beloved Christmas tale when the Grinch rides his sleigh up Mt. Crumpit to dump the Christmas presents he has stolen from the Whos. Just before jettisoning the gifts, the Grinch pauses to listen for the weeping of the Whos down in Who-ville. He hears them singing instead. At first the singing doesn’t make sense to the Grinch; it doesn’t compute. But finally he understands, and Dr. Seuss tells us that “the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” This is a description of true spiritual growth: growing hearts and souls large and supple enough to embrace—to love—more and more of our complex world. This is the spirituality of the third Principle of Unitarian Universalism: “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
Imagine what your own heart looks like. Is it “grinchy,” like a clenched fist, or is it supple and spacious? What is the size of your soul?
Let’s not be fooled by the false dilemma of whether we should focus our lives on spiritual growth or social justice, as if the two are mutually exclusive. When we frame the conversation this way, we undermine both our spiritual health and our work for justice, and we misunderstand the meaning of a world-affirming spirituality.
The moment I first understood this link between spirituality and justice was when I had the opportunity to study with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Latin American liberation theology and one of the preeminent religious thinkers of the twentieth century. Gutiérrez is the priest of a large, poverty-stricken parish on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. I took a class with him just after I returned from working in Guatemala, when I was still trying to reconcile my experience there with my life in the United States. On the third day of class, a student asked Gutiérrez to explain how we, as residents of the richest country in the world, could best serve the poor in Latin America. After some silence, Gutiérrez confessed that he had always struggled with how to divide his time between being a parish priest and a theologian. Sometimes he felt guilty traveling the world giving talks and papers while his parishioners struggled just to survive. Other times, he felt frustrated that he couldn’t more broadly share liberation theology’s gospel of God’s love for the poor and oppressed. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve sought a theoretical or spiritual answer to this question of how I am to serve the poor: as a priest or as a theologian. But I haven’t found one. I simply try to find a balance between being a theologian and being a pastor. And in the midst of all the suffering—I know this might sound romantic—I try to be happy.”
“As for you,” he said to the student, “you have to find the answer for yourself.”
At first I thought, “You can’t get off that easy!” But eventually the message broke through my resistance, and something shifted for me. I have accepted the complex notion that the contradictions in our lives will remain, and that in the midst of those tensions we must try to be happy and to love the world.
No one can tell us how to make sense of the contradictions of our world. We each have to struggle with these tensions ourselves. But I can offer you a model of what such a struggle can look like. I offer you the prophetic life of Gustavo Gutiérrez—his lifetime of service to his parish in Lima, his revolutionary theological career—and I hope for you that your struggle to live and love in the tensions of the world might bear a small fraction of the fruit that his has.
If we can truly love this world, the place of paradox and tension can be the place of immense creative power. Gutiérrez’s ability to remain in the tension of his vocation for twenty-five years—pulled in two directions—generated a creativity that fueled one of the most brilliant theological minds of the twentieth century. If he had lopped off either of his callings, I doubt his contribution would have been as rich. Gutiérrez shows us what it means to love the tensions in our life and use them to respond creatively to the world’s suffering.
In his Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke uses the metaphor of the bow and arrow to speak to the creative power of tension in our lives. “The arrow endures the bow string’s tension,” he writes, “so that, released, it travels further. For there is nowhere to remain.” It is precisely in the tension that we discover the creative power of love.
A. Powell Davies, one of my predecessors at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., used to say, “Life is just an opportunity to grow a soul.” In saying this, he wasn’t envisioning a narcissistic spirituality of retreat from the world—after all, this was a man who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the pages of the Washington Post and helped to integrate the lunch counters in our nation’s capital. An authentic Unitarian Universalist spirituality nurtures spacious and resilient souls that embrace the tensions of our world and propel us forward in our task of loving one another.
Our world desperately needs such a spirituality. Spiritualities of fight and flight, amputation and retreat, are not viable in a world that becomes more complex by the moment. This is why fundamentalism will ultimately fail as a religious option. It is not a credible or sustainable way to understand the world and our relationship to it. If our world is to survive in all its contradiction and complexity, it needs more people who are capable of loving it in its entirety; people capable of loving all of themselves, not just parts; people capable of loving all souls, not only some.
Unitarian Universalism’s third Principle sets before us a vision of our congregations as communities where spacious souls can flourish and grow. We grow souls on Sunday mornings when a sermon challenges and expands our thinking, or when music makes our spirits soar. We grow souls throughout the week in religious education classes for all ages, as we learn to discover the movement of the spirit in our lives. We grow souls when, amidst the clamor of war, we struggle to find paths of peace. We grow souls in our covenant groups, learning together and caring for one another, recognizing in others’ stories our own experience. We grow souls when we engage with one another in congregational self-governance, learning through conflict and feeling the power of a shared vision come into reality. The purpose of church is to provide spiritual sustenance for world engagement. Now more than ever, the world needs our congregations to be incubators of a generous, loving, and justice-seeking spirituality.
Adapted with permission from The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, edited by Ellen Brandenburg (Skinner House Books, 2007).
- The Seven Principles in Word and Worship. Edited by Ellen Brandenburg. Skinner House, 2007. (UUA Bookstore).
- Unitarian Universalist Association's Seven Principles. (UUA.org)