Many UUs reject the separation of the spiritual and the material.
When I asked Siri, the iPhone’s new virtual personal assistant, if she believed in God, she punted by answering: “I believe in the separation of spirit and silicon.” I tried to corner Siri with the follow-up question, “Yeah, but what is spirit?” only to confirm that Siri isn’t much help with religious questions.
The separation of the spiritual from the material, each in tension with the other, is an old and well-established idea—Siri could invoke it to avoid offense—but it results in a dualism that not every Unitarian Universalist accepts.
Many UU pagans agree with the pagan teacher and writer Starhawk: Spirit and flesh are one. In Starhawk’s poetic theology (thea is Greek for “goddess”), the Goddess—the source of wonder, joy, and delight—manifests herself in the whole of the natural order. Nothing about us is set apart from her; our being, our lives, our world are the Goddess, immanent. In The Spiral Dance, Starhawk writes, “Matter sings.”
Starhawk practices the Faery tradition of witchcraft, which recognizes a “God Self” within, or what she calls “the ultimate and original essence, the spirit that exists beyond time, space, and matter.” The God Self is “our deepest level of wisdom and compassion”—it “is conceived of as both male and female” because their opposite (but not opposed) energies balance each other.
Like Starhawk, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), a Unitarian, essayist, and prominent Transcendentalist, sought the Goddess within, but in contrast to Starhawk’s ecstatic paganism, Fuller’s path was one of suffering and solitude.
Aspiring to the self-reliance championed by her friends Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fuller wanted, above all, religious self-determination. Her innermost self, she believed, had been warped by the male-dominated teachings of Unitarian Christianity. The masculine Christ had to be deposed from his place at her center before her female divine (the Goddess of her poem “Leila”) could emerge. She described this agonizing process in “Raphael’s Deposition from the Cross.” Other writings reflected this as well—Fuller scholar Jeffrey Steele observes that her 1840–1844 poems focused on the tomb and on “spiritual death and resurrection, psychological burial and rebirth.”
Through her pain, Fuller expected to give birth to a transfigured self, a spiritual child born of a “sacred marriage” between the masculine and feminine aspects of her being. Thus freed, she hoped to achieve a life of harmony with the genderless central soul—the God of Emerson’s understanding.
Snapping back to contemporary times, we turn to the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich, whose God-Spirit is already and always genderless. Guengerich, senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City and a popular UUA General Assembly speaker, describes God not as separate from the world but as an experience—“the experience of being connected, ultimately, to everything.”
Drawing on the process thought of twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), Guengerich holds that God is refuge, hope, and possibility. Our loves, joys, sufferings, and sorrows are preserved for eternity, “woven into the harmony” of God, the “completed whole.” Because nothing we say or do is lost to the ages, every moment is meaningful. And Spirit, or God, serves as the “ground of novelty, the source of possibility,” beckoning us with a desire for a more fulfilling tomorrow.
Go ahead, ask Siri: “What does spirit mean?” She’ll explain that spirit is an alcoholic beverage—distilled, not fermented. As she’s upgraded, expect more amusing and off-the-mark answers. For complex and nuanced takes on spirit, try Starhawk, Fuller, and Guengerich.
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Dr. Myriam Renaud is a scholar of religion in public life who specializes in data-driven analyses of current issues. She has a Ph.D. in religious thought and ethics from the University of Chicago. Her general-audience articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion & Politics, The Globe Post, Religion Dispatches, Sightings, and others. Her research has been cited in The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, and Religion News Service. In 2017, she was a finalist for the Religion News Association’s Chandler Award for excellence in student religion reporting. Renaud’s academic work focuses on moral ideas of God with a special interest in how these ideas are constructed and how they are understood across the Abrahamic traditions. She has co-edited and contributed to God and the Moral Life (Routledge, 2018) and co-edited and contributed to Multi-Religious Perspectives on a Global Ethic: In Search of a Common Morality (Routledge, 2020). Currently, she is at work on an academic monograph, Toward a Moral God in an Age of Globalization and Expressive Individualism, and a general audience monograph, White Evangelicals in America.
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