Imagineers of soul

imagineers illustration (Tracy Walker)
In our churches, we should be sorcerer’s apprentices in the art of quenching thirst and opening the doors of meaning. Why, then, are we so scared?
imagineers illustration (Tracy Walker)
Image: imagineers illustration (Tracy Walker)


When my son was a young teenager his career goal was to become a theme park engineer, so, on one Spring Break, I took him to Disney World. Now, to properly appreciate the parental challenge involved here, you have to know that I don’t do "fast" and I don’t do "high," so he was going to have to do all the exciting rides by himself, which was fine with him. He met me for lunch with great excitement. He had been on the "Journey to Mars." He said I had to go.

He told me that I would like it. It didn’t go high and it didn’t go fast, he said, but you did experience some gs at take-off, and he remembered my tales about the one amusement park ride I had ever really liked, which involved gravity play. I was so touched by his attentiveness to my likes and dislikes that I walked over and joined the line.

At every turn in the line was some version of the following sign: “You are about to embark on an Intense Experience. Pregnant mothers, persons with back, neck, or balance problems, persons with claustrophobia, and any others who think they should not go on this ride, SHOULD NOT GO ON THIS RIDE.”

This started to feel a little risky. I told myself: “My son knows I don’t like fast, or high. I’m not pregnant. I don’t have neck problems. I’m only a little claustrophobic.” With some anxiety, I strapped myself in to my little cockpit and watched instructions flash in my little window. And then, with much rattle and roar, we were off.

It was only 2 gs, but it was impressive. My little window flashed instructions during take off and then switched to an outside view of Mars, which was getting rapidly bigger. There was the inevitable volley of asteroids to dodge, and then, it was time to turn around to land. In my little window, I saw the red planet edge off, and then the vast darkness, and then I saw Earth rise in space, my beautiful, precious home.

My son was right. It was totally worth it. I had several strange flashbacks to dizziness in the next couple of days. But I’ve been to Mars, and I have looked back to see my home from space, and I was touched to the core of my being.

I know that the Spirit blows where it will, but I hadn’t expected to have a religious experience at Disney World, and it was abundantly clear that it was no accident that I’d had it. They put that little iconic picture of Earth in my window on purpose, and they hoped that it would do just what it did. At home, my son showed me an article from the journal of the Themed Entertainment Association, the folks who design and engineer theme parks, casinos, and the Rain Forest Café. Disney calls them “Imagineers.”

The article mused about what themed entertainment can learn from museums. Church people can learn something from both. Joseph Wisne writes (PDF):

Why do people go to museums in the first place? . . . If you ask museum visitors why they came, the top answer isn’t generally “to learn something,” so purely educational motives don’t explain the attraction. What does? I think the answer is at the core of what drives much of the human experience. It is the same reason some people read books, raise families, go to church . . . “meaningfulness.” We’ll go to the aquarium to feel a connection to the environment, the science center to ponder mysteries of the universe, the zoo to witness the truth of our evolutionary human ancestry. We go to quench a thirst, fill a void.

Wisne points out that, while people come to theme parks and other entertainment venues mostly to have fun, they are looking, even there, at least in part, for the kind of authentic experiences and meaningfulness that museums, churches, families, and books offer, and recommends that designers strive to evoke these realities in their fantasylands. He concludes:

Of course, [we who design themed entertainment] know this instinctively, and even at our most cynical moments on entertainment projects yearn wistfully for more. We call it heart.

I have to tell you, the idea that even theme park designers know that it is “heart” and “thirst” and “meaningfulness” that bring real satisfaction to a human life is humbling, especially after my eyes were opened to how well they can do it. I would have said that “heart” and “thirst” and “meaningfulness” were what I was supposed to be doing as an ordained minister. But my special effects budget is otherwise known as “flowers and candles.” I can’t produce 2 gs in my sanctuary by any means. There are no seatbelts in my seats and no need of them, because the biggest physical thrills I can offer are singing, laughter, and the sound of sheer silence.

Why do people come to church? It is not to learn. People don’t even go to museums to learn. It’s not to be entertained. People don’t even go to Disneyland just to be entertained. They come to church—especially they come to church—to quench a thirst, find meaningfulness, to have an authentic experience, or, in a more traditional religious language, to connect with mystery and see their everyday lives reflected in the mirror of eternity. Churches, then, and the lay and ordained people who lead them, are Imagineers of Soul, sorcerer’s apprentices in the art of quenching thirst, filling voids, opening the doors of meaning.

We do lots of things as church people, of course: teach the children, comfort the dying, change the world. When we do these things as religious people, they evoke the holy—and if they don’t, we’ve failed at the only thing the church can uniquely do. And the truth is, we fail a lot, sticking to the safely secular, avoiding reverence, skirting awe, and missing opportunities to conjure up a sense of the spiritual. That failure comes in spite of the fact that significant lay and ministerial voices have been saying for two generations that we Unitarian Universalists are missing something important if we take a secular, “hands off the spirit” approach to our life together.

Things have changed some in the past thirty years. We talk about spiritual practices with some comfort now. Worship is a richer experience in most congregations and at General Assembly. There was a great hue and cry about UUA President William G. Sinkford’s call in 2003 to develop a “language of reverence”—as if he meant to impose creed-like definitions on our life together—but after the dust settled, our freely chosen vocabularies started to thicken and deepen. It doesn’t matter which reverent words you use, after all, or exactly what they mean to you. What matters is that you use some.

Not enough has changed, though, which helps to account for our practically non-existent denominational growth during a population boom. Between 500,000 and 675,000 Americans tell pollsters that they are Unitarian Universalists, but only 164,803 adults are members of one of our churches, according to the 2009 UUA Directory. The UUA’s 1998 Fulfilling the Promise survey found that 76 percent of us feel that there is something missing in our faith. What is that “something”? Thirty percent of the dissatisfied said “greater intensity of celebration, joy, and spirituality.” (Another 30 percent longed for greater racial and cultural diversity.) Seventy-six percent is a very large number of restive people.

Roaming coffee hour at my congregation, looking for visitors, I spot one with her brave yellow visitor’s mug set in front of her, a shield and a hope. It draws me. This visitor, a young adult, tells me that she loved the service and is so happy to have found us. She tells me that she and her husband are about to start a family and he wanted to have a church. They came because she had grown up a UU, she tells me, but in the church she grew up in, they refused to talk about God, so she drifted away. But this, she said, this is promising.

Our children leave us because we don’t give them enough to stay for. We use the precious hours we have with them to teach them everything they ever wanted to know about sex, but we play “Don’t ask, don’t tell” about matters of the spirit. We teach them to be respectful of all the things we don’t believe, but don’t tell them what we do believe—in part because their teachers are not prepared to talk about such frightening, personal, delicate matters as spirituality. It’s just too embarrassing.

Listen to Lizzie Schiffman, one of our young people, who wrote this in her college newspaper last year about her growing interest in Judaism: “It wasn’t that I minded Unitarian Universalism; I loved the people, the intellectualism and the freedom. But it never felt like a real religion to me . . . hell, I didn’t even know how to pray.”

What is keeping us from evoking the holy, from embracing our congregations’ purpose as imagineers of soul? I think it’s that we’re shamed, scorned, and scared.

Whatever our theologies, we have a collective fear of the spiritual that makes it hard for us, lay and ordained, to take the risk of spirituality. Our collective fear of the spiritual has deep roots in shame and in the scorn we use to mask our shame. Together they keep us from meeting our own needs and the needs of those who come to us thirsty for depth and heart without traditional dogma.

Shame, scorn, and fear of the holy

Four out of five Unitarian Universalists came to Unitarian Universalism after a childhood spent in other faith communities. We left those communities because we no longer believed what they taught, and we often left wounded and bewildered by our experiences. If we were led to feel that our inability to believe what we were taught was due to a flaw in our nature, we brought with us a burden of shame. This shame, like all shame, comes from feeling or being told that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. In contrast to guilt—the knowledge that you’ve done something wrong—shame is existential.

Far too many people who later became UUs were not told, when they didn’t feel God’s presence in their lives, or didn’t feel it any more, “That happens sometimes”—which is the truth of the matter—but “What’s wrong with you?” Shame is a destructive emotion because it takes aim not at something you think or have done, but on who you most deeply are. While many of us were directly shamed, however, nobody has to shake a finger at us to plant the seed of spiritual shame in our hearts. Many a person who can’t remember any altercation with a believer still wonders why they “don’t have the faith gene.”

And because of that deep, shaming message, many Unitarian Universalists experience their rejection of what others believe—and, often, what they themselves used to believe—as not simple or freeing but as complex, angry, brittle, and defensive.

But we don’t need to pretend to believe what we cannot believe in order to reclaim our spirituality. We Unitarian Universalists mostly have what twentieth century American theologian Martin Marty has called “wintry spirituality”: Our religious experience is of doubt, shades of gray, and absence. Although there are plenty of wintry spirits in conventional religious communities, what is celebrated and held up as “real spirituality” is the summery, “What a friend I have in Jesus” sort of spirituality, which comes in many theological variations but which is always celebrating the clear presence of spiritual ideals.

There are summery Humanists who can hold on to the glories of the human spirit and its potential for unlimited growth even while watching the evening news. There are summery Transcendentalists who have never for a moment doubted that their lives were a part of a Great Plan. There are many among us who live in quiet faith that God is with them. But most UUs are doubters, clearer about what they don’t believe, aware that the ideals or beliefs they hold could be wrong, and experiencing God’s presence or surety of their ideals only in fleeting moments.

Many people come to our congregations thinking that, since they don’t have an unending conversation with their friend Jesus, they must have no spiritual life at all—a painful thought. They come to us to see if here, by any chance, someone will point them to experiences of depth and wonder and meaningfulness, sans dogma; if something will bring tears to their eyes and strangely warm their hearts. They are hoping to be introduced to a spirituality for agnostics, theists, Transcendentalists, pagans, or liberal Christians that is not dependent on unending sunny days of the soul.

Once here, they need some help in discerning how their wintry spirituality can feed them. Since they are unlikely to have had soul-shaking spiritual experiences, they need ways to discover the more subtle movings of the Spirit of Life. They need someone to elicit their story about the time the world stood still for them, or how one day, out of nowhere, on a bus, they were released from anxiety and freed to move ahead in their life, to hear those kinds of stories and say, “Wow, that sounds wonderful,” and “Yeah, it went away; it does that, you know.” They need to learn the rich history of wintery believers and faithful skeptics. They will be grateful and they will be able to say to themselves, “There’s not something wrong with me after all,” and they will be healed of their shame.

Until the healing happens, though, if there is one thing a person who has been shamed knows how to do, it is to shame others in return. That’s how it happens that, amongst Unitarian Universalists, the tools of scorn and shame are so often used to scare off any hints of spirituality.

At a meeting of the worship committee, one member ventures the thought that she’d be a better worship leader if the group would spend some time talking about the spiritual aspects of worship. “I don’t know why you’d want THAT!” someone says, his voice tinged with scorn. That was the end of that topic. He knew not what he did, and if he’d been called on it, he would have protested that he was just speaking the truth: He can’t imagine why anybody would want to talk about spirituality. If it had been a debate team or a science lab, this rational argument would have done no harm; it might even have provoked those who disagreed to work harder, but in a spiritual community, scorn is deadly.

Our faith, our thinking about our faith, and our conversations with others about faith don’t do well around belligerent language, close questioning, and scorn. Very few people are willing to talk about their spiritual lives if they think they will be ridiculed or misunderstood.

Imagine what may be going through a fellow church member’s mind: If I think you are going to laugh at me, ridicule me, or try to prove me wrong, I’m not going to say that when the congregation really gets to singing and clapping with the musicians, that’s when I feel the spirit move through the room. I’m certainly not going to tell you about that one precious time, when I was scraping the bottom of my barrel, I felt, for an infinitely sweet half hour, held in the palm of God’s hand, and that sometimes my longing for a repeat of that amazing few moments is so strong that I could just weep. I just can’t bring myself to say that aloud. I’ll just shut up and wait, if I don’t wander away, for someone to imagineer a place where it’s safe to speak about my tender, precious spiritual life.

A shame-ridden people deal with pain by flaming every intimation of spirit. That makes things difficult enough, but the heart of the matter is that the realm of the Holy is a fearful place, not just for us but for all religious people. It’s one thing to bring “authenticity” and “heart” to life in your amusement park. We church people edge sideways into trying to bring the Holy into life, and that’s a bigger deal. Annie Dillard once suggested that we ought to issue crash helmets and signal flairs at the doors of our churches, just in case the Spirit we sing to actually does show up and lay waste all our neat little liturgies.

Spiritual risk-taking

Imagine: It’s the board retreat, and dinner is about to begin. Some hang back, wondering if grace will be said. Some, perhaps, will have almost belligerently forged ahead. Somebody takes the risk of saying, “Let’s say grace!” and holds out her hands for others to grasp and says a few plain words, blessing the gathering and the work, expressing gratitude for the cooks, the bountiful earth, hallowing the moment in a language that most, at least, find nourishing.

Imagine: It’s a hospital room. The dying person has closed his eyes to escape the relentless, trivial chatter of the relatives. The minister arrives, bringing a seriousness of purpose as he asks to turn off the TV. “I wonder what still needs to be said,” he says, turning them from their denial. “How can I help you make this a sacred moment?”

Imagine: It’s a send-off for a work trip, a dedication of infants, a parent-child potluck before the Coming of Age Service, or the teens’ worship service where they are about to present their personal credos. The minister gathers everyone around and prays: “Bless these children,” she says, and the catch in her voice is audible to every person there, “Your spirit incarnated in human form. Keep them safe and growing, loved and loving, through all the days of their lives.” And suddenly, those who were just there for the ride are touched to the core of their being.

If we can tend to the spiritual shaming that most of us took on; if we can come to understand our own wintry kind of spirituality, finding it not only in our hearts but in all faith traditions; if we can stop ourselves from flaming those we disagree with and scorning practices that might remind us of “what they do” but that might also nourish us; if we would take some spiritual risks and let our leaders, lay and ordained, take some spiritual risks, we might be better for it. We’d have a more attractive option to offer those other pilgrims who come to us, not to escape religion altogether, but to find for themselves a better, freer way.

Illustration (above): © Tracy Walker. A version of this essay was delivered as the Berry Street Lecture to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in June 2008. The full text is available at

Related Resources

  • Imagineering Soul.Christine Robinson's 2008 Berry Street Essay, delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association June 25, 2008, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (
  • The 1997 Unitarian Universalism Needs and Aspirations Survey.Part of the UUA's "Fulfilling the Promise" initiative, this survey revealed that 76 percent of UUs feel "something is missing" in their UU experience. (

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