A Sensual Faith

GoetheLike to go to Art Galleries?  I do.

When I was in Europe this past spring, I visited a lot of them.

Second question.  Do you appreciate every painting you see in a gallery?  Probably not – some attract us and others will not.

I was thinking about this in some of the major galleries I visited.  I waited in a long line to get into one famous gallery in Frankfurt, Germany.  They had on display many well-known masterpieces.  I was delighted to get to see them in person.  I also noticed there were paintings that I didn’t like and didn’t want to give more than a passing glance.  I wondered about my neglect of them, thinking I was probably missing something.  The curators who selected them out of many others they could have put up must have seen something in the work I wasn’t appreciating.

After all, I’m not an art connoisseur. This summer, I was reminded of my lack of artistic sophistication visiting the National Gallery in Washington DC with a childhood friend who teaches Art History.  She helped me recognize dimensions of meaning in what we were seeing that I had missed.

That said, I’ve also noticed some paintings and sculptures have more universal appeal.  Like that strange smile on the Mona Lisa’s face that fascinates people, some of the works I saw on my travels had people gathered around studying them, sitting nearby and contemplating them.  These works had a dimension that the other ones didn’t seem to have;  a dimension that spoke to something deep within them.

Whether a painting or a beautiful song, an other-worldly meal, or a smell that awakens powerful memories, our senses can give us access to the depths of our being; access to the sources of our faith through direct personal experience.

With Joann Wolfgang von Goethe’s help,  we’ll explore this process with a quote from his writings:

Simple Imitation, Manner, Style by Goethe (1789)


Assume that an aspiring artist with some talent begins to paint natural objects after only brief preliminary training in basic techniques.  He copies forms with care and diligence and imitates colors as closely as he can, taking pains never to deviate from nature, beginning and completing every picture with an eye to nature.  This person will always be an estimable artist because he will necessarily achieve an incredible degree of accuracy, and his works will be assured, vital and diverse.

If we analyze such a course of development carefully, we are led to the conclusion that this method is suitable for a capable but limited talent in treating pleasant but limited subjects…This type of imitation would, then, be pursued by calm, conscientious persons of moderate talent who paint still-lifes.


However, such a technique is usually too pedantic or inadequate for the artist.  He perceives in a multitude of subjects a unifying harmony which he can only reproduce in painting by sacrificing details.  He is impatient with drawing letter by letter what nature spells out for him.  He invents his own method, creates his own language to express in his own way what he has grasped with his soul.  As a result he gives a distinctive form to an object that he has often copied, without now actually seeing it before him or even recalling exactly what it looked like in nature.

Now his art has become a language that expresses his spirit directly and characteristically.  And just as anyone who thinks for himself will order and formulate his ideas on moral issues differently from others, so any such artist will see, apprehend and imitate the world differently.  He will approach the things of the world with a greater or lesser degree of deliberateness or spontaneity and will accordingly recreate them with circumspection or with casualness… [Individual] elements must be sacrificed if the general character of the whole is to be adequately expressed, as for example in landscapes…


Through imitation of nature, through the effort of creating a general language, through painstaking and thorough study of diverse subject matter, the artist finally reaches the point where he becomes increasingly familiar with the characteristic and essential features of things.  He will now be able to see some order in the multiplicity of appearances and learn to juxtapose and recreate distinct and characteristic forms.  Then art will have reached its highest possible level, which is style and equal to the highest achievement of mankind.

While simple imitation therefore depends on a tranquil and affectionate view of life, manner is a reflection of the ease and competence with which the subject is treated.  Style, however, rests on the most fundamental principle of cognition, on the essence of things.


I enjoy taking photographs.  I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a small child when I got my first brownie box camera. I did video production in high school.  But I neglected this interest after I graduated and through the 1980’s.  I got back into taking pictures after our son Andrew was born in 1992.  I got a fancy Sony 8mm video camera and recorded a great deal of his early life.  Sadly, art is often in the eye of the beholder. Much as Philomena and I get teary eyed watching these videos, our son Andrew is far more jaded.  I’m not sure if he will want to keep them after both of us are dead.  This is why we need grandchildren, at some point, who, I hope, will be interested in them and want to save them for posterity.

I spent a little time looking back over my collection of photographs this week looking for some stellar ones I might be able to show you that are magnificent works of art.  Can’t say I found much that might meet Goethe’s standards unfortunately.  Still, as I looked through the pictures, I noticed some had more depth and power than others, beyond stimulating my sense of sentimentality (which is pretty strong by the way).  The ones I found the most interesting were the ones of people, particularly those who are no longer among the living, especially the pictures that expressed, in some way, a distinctive element of their personality.

Another factor, however, in my response to viewing them, might be an experience of looking at my old pictures with new eyes.  That new way of looking started with my visit to Goethe’s house in Wiemar, Germany during my sabbatical time in Europe this past spring.  Because I don’t speak German, I discovered the easiest way for me to learn about and appreciate German culture was by experiencing German art, sculpture and architecture.

My sister lives in Jena which is the next small city over to the east from Wiemar, both in what was the former East Germany.  Wiemar has a long and interesting history including being the home to the Bauhaus movement.  Goethe arrived there in 1775 at the invitation of the young Duke Carl August, prince of the Saxony-Weimar city state.  The Duke became a patron of the young artist/poet/lawyer whose first novel titled The Sorrows of Young Werther had recently become an overnight sensation.

Goethe collected an enormous amount of art for the Duke and himself, some of which is on display in his house.  During the tour, we walked past plaster replicas of famous Greek and Roman sculpture.  The tour guide explained that Goethe was so taken with the classical art he saw on a trip to Italy, that he wanted to have them in his home so he could contemplate them.  By seeing the art again and again, he could discover more and more about the art and deepen his appreciation and understanding of the pieces.  For Goethe, access to the divine, to the eternal, could come through being an art connoisseur.

This approach to art both surprised, interested, and challenged me.  As someone who has not spent a lot of my life contemplating or creating visual art, the manner and style aspects that Goethe wrote about wasn’t familiar to me.  So I set about looking for more information than the tour guide could offer or was supplied in the museum next to his house.  This search hasn’t been very easy as Google didn’t give me what I was looking for.  I’m grateful to have a good university library here that did help me discover what I was looking for.

The piece of Goethe’s writing I found I’d like to share with you is a dialogue between an artistic advocate of innovative approaches to theater scenery and a resistant spectator who wants the scenery to appear true to life.  After all, the spectator observes in the dialogue, great pains are taken to create the scenery and costumes to recreate a particular period and setting to transport us through the realism.  The advocate challenges the spectator to think about going to the opera.  Yes, realistic scenery and costumes might suggest a time and place … but in real life, do people walk around singing all the time?  Do they fight singing and die singing?  That is hardly realistic. >>>

Yet, rather than feeling deluded, real emotions and familiar situations are communicated that feel authentic and transport us into the story, to the point of rapture if the production is done well.  So, even though outwardly the art may not be true to life, it communicates an inner logic we recognize as a great work of art.  Goethe makes his point in the closing words of the advocate:

“A great work of art is a work of the human mind, and thus also a work of nature.  But because the work of art treats its diverse subject matter as a unified whole and reveals the significance and dignity of even the most ordinary subjects, it goes beyond nature.  A work of art can only be comprehended by a mind that has been formed and developed harmoniously, because only such a mind can relate to what is excellent and complete within itself.  The average art lover has no concept of that.  He treats the work of art like a piece of merchandise.  But the true connoisseur sees not only the realism of what is imitated but also the excellence in the selection of subject matter, the imaginativeness in composition, and the supra-natural spirit of this micro-world of art.  He feels that he must rise to the level of the artist in order to enjoy the work, that he must focus his scattered energies on the work of art, that he must live with it, must see it again and again, and thus achieve a higher level of awareness.”  (from On Realism in Art 1798)

Only through the highest artistic development of style, as described by Goethe in the reading, do we achieve a quality of art that gives us access to the greater depths of reality, to truth, goodness and beauty, that are expressions of the divine in forms comprehensible to humanity.  Yet not everyone can recognize these deeper dimensions.  Some can only see the surface appearance of the art, take pleasure in the resemblance to reality and miss the rest.  Others go inward and notice the effect the art has on them and begins to see the connections between the parts.  Only the educated connoisseur of style can use the art as a doorway to the divine, to the infinite depths of meaning embedded in a masterpiece.

Of course the visual arts need not be the only way to access these artistic depths.  Many of us have musical pieces that we can listen to over and over that continue to speak to us in novel ways. Sacred church music, like some classical requiems, and masses can do that for me.  I know others of you have favorite operas that connect you with eternal themes of living and dying.  Great architecture that we experience again and again can also speak to our depths.  Even flavors of a masterfully prepared meal can transport us to a higher level of being.

Another, more immediate artistic expression comes to us through movement.  From the outer beauty of dancers in perfect synchronization to the inward journey of self-discovery in a yoga pose, the body can express our inner life more effectively than words can.  This past week, I was at a workshop for UU ministers learning to move with coaching from an acting instructor.  The way he moved his body as he worked with us, enthralled me with its expressive power, cultivated, I’m sure, over many years of training.  He was able to move in a way I didn’t need to hear his words to know what was spontaneously happening inside him.

Okay, so if art, music, and movement are such engaging ways to connect with the depths of existence, why are sermons the central focus for our Sunday services?  Why are we so dependent on words to reach for the ineffable?

Unitarian Universalism has inherited a discomfort with religious artistic expression through our Protestant heritage.  A big part of the schism with Catholicism 500 years ago was over how we should be in relationship with the divine. Should it be through the Church … or through the Bible?   These reformers rejected Catholic sculpture, art, architecture, sacred music and liturgy for the revealed word.  “Solo Scriptorium,” Scripture alone they cried.  All we need to be saved and serve the Lord will be found in the holy word.  People shouldn’t get their religion from statues, stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross.  They need to learn to read it for themselves and have unmediated access to truth; access not manipulated to serve the Church’s agendas, say selling indulgences to get your dead relatives into heaven that then financed opulent splendor in Rome.  In that context, art became a tool of oppression against the masses.

Institutionally, Unitarianism and Universalism inherited this suspicion of sacred artistic expression.  Our Puritan forbears whom we rejected, weren’t the greatest art lovers – more the opposite.  They were fearful of art’s ability to stimulate lustful feelings and intemperate behavior.  Puritans wanted their followers to focus their minds on God rather than the sinful world.  While we changed our theology, we only started questioning our reliance on words in the twentieth century.

My purpose today is not to criticize or denigrate the power of words to inspire us.  My purpose is to expand our appreciation for the arts as a way to enrich and enliven our religious life.  Matt, Leah and I worked together with Thandeka a couple of years ago to enhance our access to emotion during our services.  I’m wondering this morning if our austere Puritan heritage is still hanging on to us.

I wonder if we honor our senses enough as sources of inspiration.  While we still value worship spaces like this one for their ability to lift up our spirits, today many of us would be happy to worship in a quiet forest or on a beach or on a mountain top as well as we might here in Emerson Community Hall.  A candle lit bedroom with soft music playing as two lovers embrace can be as holy a space as a high pulpit.  And religious ritual, in a spacious cathedral filled with iconic art and sacred music, can stimulate erotic, ecstatic feelings that make us feel a sense of being one with the holy.  We need not make a division between the sacred and the secular

That said, I’m wondering today if others of you, like me, have neglected the role of art as a doorway through which we can develop our religious lives.  That visit to Goethe’s home woke me up to a sensual dimension of my faith I was neglecting. What I’ve noticed looking around the walls in my office is the need to change what I’m displaying that is not inspiring me as I look at the pictures….  Not that there is anything wrong with my art on the office walls mind you.  They just don’t have the quality of style that Goethe talks about.

If you look around your walls at home, you may have the same experience.

So my challenge for you today is to reflect on your relationship with the arts, particularly the visual arts.  Do you relate to it as mere ornamentation or representation? Or does it function in a deeper way in your life; in a way that could feed your growth and development?  What kinds of changes might introduce this artistic dimension to your life?  Something as simple as putting some great art on your computer desktop; adding a provocative painting to your wall; possibly finding a spot for a replica of a great classic Greek or Roman Statue might be a way to begin to contemplate it and explore the deeper meanings art could have for your life.

Whatever you do or don’t do, remember that our spiritual lives are nourished by far more than words alone.   All the world’s scriptures are not enough.  We need our senses too, to nourish our faith.


I close with this Goethe quote:

One who possesses art and science has religion;
One who does not possess them, needs religion.

May our appreciation of art
as the highest development of our senses
Help guide the growth and development of our faith.

Encountering Disconnection

The December holidays feel like a self-examination.  It takes till December, however, for me to discover the status of my holiday spirit. I can’t predict how I’m going to feel. Sometimes I’m really excited and full of anticipation. That was especially true when our son was little. Christmas experienced through a child’s eyes is so magical. This year I’m kind of neutral to slightly positive. Not having any snow and warmer weather makes it less real that we’re approaching the shortest day of the year. And a few times, I’ve gritted my teeth and just plod on through till Christmas morning just wanting to be done with it. Those years felt very uncomfortable as the celebrations cranked up and I wasn’t feeling much connection to the joy and happiness I’m supposed to be feeling.

That sense of disconnection can be even larger if there has been a major loss in the past year. The death of a loved one weighs heavily on the heart as others are making merry. There are so many little reminders of that person’s absence that come up unexpectedly. Then a wave of grief hits, tears flow and an inner ache pulls one out of the present into memory, and into an intense longing for what can no longer be.

There are other losses that gnaw at the heart this time of year. Those who are new in this area and not able to return to be with friends and family may be lamenting the separation. For some this may be the first year after a relationship break-up. There may be family members newly moved away who will be celebrating the holidays alone or with others. Children may not be coming home for the holidays. There is a significant emotional price we pay for our transient and mobile lifestyles.

Some may be struggling with employment or lack of employment. Money may be tighter making the gifts we’d like to give unaffordable. It doesn’t feel very good to cut back this time of year when the impulse is to splurge.

Unbidden, we find ourselves stuck in an emotional trough of disconnection.

Others of us may have an ongoing experience of disconnection that troubles our lives. I was listening to a podcast recently describing the challenges children have when their parents have unhappy marriages and go through bitter divorces. When these children grow up, frequently they struggle in forming intimate relationships, often with significant trust and abandonment issues. If they marry at all, it is often much later in life, postponing their child bearing years.

Another common source of disconnection in families are the taboo dinner table conversation topics at Thanksgiving: politics and religion. I’m amazed at how quickly I can want to disconnect from someone I’ve recently met when we start disagreeing about politics and religion. I’ve had those conversations on airplanes. The fellow sitting next to me will ask what I do for a living. If I mention I’m a minister, he’ll ask what denomination. Then he’ll ask me what Unitarian Universalists believe. I’ll do a credible job explaining our faith and its value as a religious path. The other person will nod and and smile. When I finish, he will ask, “Well all that is interesting, but is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” And I’ll know that this conversation isn’t going anywhere. The disconnect happens when I hear the word “savior” because I know he is on a way different religious journey than I’m on.

But as bad as disconnecting around religion and politics is, the hostile feelings that come up around money are deep sources of disconnection. Loving families can be ripped apart by ill will generated by how an inheritance is distributed when a parent or grandparent dies. Friendships can end quickly when money is loaned and not repaid. It is one reason I never loan people money. I give money away when I can and it is asked for. If they want to give me some back that would be very pleasant. Pleasant but not expected.

The feeling of disconnection can also happen in small ways. Small ways that can still feel disproportionate to the situation. That happened to me recently and I’d like to describe the situation.

Last January I attended a Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Convocation in Florida. The focus for my fifteen hours of class time was a presentation by the co-minister at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, the Rev. Scott Tayler. The theme for his presentation was “Doing More with Less.” Tayler is an organizational genius. He has studied all the successful church models and distilled their ideas, with his own innovations added, into some great programs in that congregation. I’ve translated one of them into a new program for our congregation called Meaning Matters that is going very well so far this year.

As the class ended, several of the participants informally started talking about meeting to follow up on what we had learned and brainstorm implementation strategies. One of the ministers offered his cabin in the Adirondacks as a place to gather, so six of us agreed to meet there in June. We had a wonderful meeting for a couple of days, did a lot of talking and came up with some grand plans.

The way we realized we could “do more with less” effort was through sharing materials with each other. What makes sermons and adult programs great are the materials and resources we have from which to prepare them. This is some of the hardest work of my week, searching for that great illustration or story that will inspire you and motivate you. If we could share with each other our great finds by focusing our efforts on a shared theme for the month, we would all benefit. We chose themes and set up resource sharing locations in the cloud with excitement and anticipation.

So when September came, I was distressed that the contributions and material didn’t appear the way I had expected. I put up what I was working on but the response was lack luster. Two of our group didn’t post anything at all that first month.

Now, I know how hard ministry is, how many distractions there are. I know how best laid plans do not come to fruition as a memorial service or a congregational crisis intervene. Yet, the absence of any emails from those two bothered me. I was afraid I’d be going to the extra effort of sharing all my material and getting little I could use back. The urge to withdraw, reject and disconnect came up.

This is a familiar experience, I might add, in congregational life too. The mismatch of expectations and results creates a lot of stress. We are all working together to create this community and sometimes people don’t follow through on their commitments. They are less friendly and kind than we’d like. Events don’t turn out to be as satisfying or enjoyable as we’d hoped. Each Wednesday, Matt, Leah and I review the previous Sunday services looking for ways to improve what we do. Your hard working staff troubleshoots all the unexpected problems that come up so your expectations are met as often as we can.

And still there are moments of disconnect, many that we have no control over.

I listened to a very interesting sermon recently by a British minister named Stephen Matthew describing those kinds of disconnections that happen in his church. He pointed out that people sometimes get disaffected from his congregation and its programs. I was interested to hear how he understood what was going on and what his solution was. He saw the movement away from his church as people participating in sin. If his members were disaffected and hadn’t talked to him or his staff, if they got critical and judgmental, they were moving away from God. They were allowing themselves to become alienated.

I enjoy listening to these kind of traditional religious messages because sometimes they have practical value that is independent of their theological perspective. I think he has a part of the truth when he points to our participation in the process of disconnection and alienation. And we know it emotionally.

When we participate in disconnection and alienation, it leads to unhappiness, inner turmoil, and unrest and can lead to meaninglessness and dehumanization. But when we participate in connection and experience unity, it leads to happiness, calm, and peace, and can lead to meaning, a greater sense of humanity and fulfillment. One direction feels good, the other bad.

Whether by recognition or by feeling, becoming aware of the disconnection and sense of alienation moves us out of reactivity. In Buddhism, this is called a moment of mindfulness. There is a recognition of the mental and emotional processes that are happening inside us. It is the difference between being absorbed in an experience and stepping outside it and seeing it as a mental and emotional process. It is like the moment in a movie theater when someone coughs and you are jerked out of the trance and recognize that you are in the audience and not part of the movie.

When we are in this mindful state, we have the freedom to evaluate the situation and make a choice. In the recognition of being disconnected, there is space in the mind to know that what we are doing may not be healthy or wholesome. The choice is ours to remain disconnected and alienated or to renounce that path and choose another one to reconnect and seek unity. Choose a path that potentially leads toward reconciliation.

That moment of mindfulness happened for me first when one of the missing participants in our group sent an email apologizing for not posting because of the overwhelming success he had had signing up people for his small groups. He had been struggling to train more facilitators and keep up with that success. Then the second missing person posted an email to the group apologizing as well. He had been leading an international trip and all of his time and attention had gone into that project. Both reiterated their commitment to our common experiment.

Reading those emails, I became mindful of my resentful feelings just below the surface of my awareness. I regretted that I’d allowed those feelings to take root in me and not checking with them to see what was going on. I rejoiced to renounce that resentful attitude and reconnect with both of them. This joint project may sink or swim in the future, but I don’t want that success or failure to disconnect me from these beloved colleagues.

As Anne Lamott puts it, in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Alone we are doomed. Yes, people are impossible, often damaged, prickly and set in their ways. It may be comfortable to be invisible, disconnected, and intoxicated with our superior thoughts but it isn’t where we discover hope. Only together do we come through unsurvivable loss.

So as we approach the Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year, may we use these holidays as a wake-up moment to take our emotional temperature and see how we are doing. If we are sensing a feeling of disconnection, to pause and explore it, then decide whether you want to do anything about it. My hope is you will seek a way to reconnect with the sources of value in your life, including the opportunities we offer here.

There is much love in this place already.
There is always room for more.
It comes into being when we choose to make connections.