What Do You Mean You’re Not Spiritual?

My name is Stan Yack, and I’m a member of this congregation.

A word that comes up around here more often than it used to is spirituality. It’s not something that I like to talk about. That’s in part because I’ve never really felt spiritual, but also because whenever I hear the word spirituality, I think spiritualism. You know: talking with the “departed”, recalling past lives, levitating tables — stuff that a scientific humanist like me rejects almost instinctively. But levitating tables is of course not what spirituality is about.

Spirituality is defined as “the concept of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality” or  “an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being” or just “the deepest values and meanings by which people live.” The quest to discover the essence of our being, and our deepest values and meanings — that’s hardly inconsistent with our Unitarian principles.

One way that I express my religious self here at First, is by celebrating our 4th Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” So why do I avoid or dismiss a word like spirituality that echoes that principle? Some of you may have encountered my occasional, illiberal reaction to the word. Sorry about that.

In my later life academic excursions, I’ve learned that meaning doesn’t originate in some Platonic idea; what a word means is determined over time by how people use it. And there’s not much evidence that spirituality is becoming a synonym for spiritualism.

Have you ever tested yourself on a “What is your religion?” website? (One of them is listed on the Toronto First website’s “Cool Links” page.) My own beliefs show a 100% commonality with Secular Humanism, and 88% with Unitarian Universalism; not too surprising — but also 55% with Theravada Buddhism. I apparently have 55% in common with what most of us would consider a very spiritual believe system!

I have meditated off on for over thirty years, until recently mostly to calm myself. But I now sometimes meditate here Sunday mornings during a quiet time or musical interlude, apparently seeking some inner peace.

Most spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life, but it isn’t essential that spirituality encompasses a belief in immaterial realities.

I’m most comfortable calling myself an Agnostic. I understand that there are questions that we can’t answer, and I believe that all knowledge is provisional, or as a longstanding UU aphorism puts it: “Revelation is not sealed.” But if I don’t believe in immaterial realities, why every Sunday do I “affirm life, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine”? What’s the divine thing that I want us to grow into harmony with? Is it some theistic entity, God help me! In fact, because I’ve seen no evidence of the universe’s “life-force”, or “cosmic consciousness”, I treat our Sunday affirmation as a metaphor.

My roots are in the Jewish tradition, a religion and culture where teachers, and the most learned, have always been the most respected. As long as I can remember I’ve held learning in high esteem. In later life, it’s become my hobby, and my vocation. One of the things I've learned about is Unitarian-Universalism, a religion where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, where there’s no privileged priesthood revealing truths about mythical divinities.

I very much value what I've learned from all the free-thinkers that I've met here … and I plan to continue to learn from you and, I hope, you from me.