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Inward Gardens:
Let a Thousand Varied Flowers Bloom!

Reflection: Inward Gardens: Let a Thousand Varied Flowers Bloom! (Anne Treadwell)

First of all, I ask your indulgence towards me as a retired minister who’s missed the opportunity, for the second year, to read words which had become a strong Easter tradition for me during my ministry. Since we’re just two weeks past Easter and chilly days are not totally expunged from our minds, I think these words, adapted from Dianne Arakawa, and in the spirit of Max Coots’ Thanksgiving reading, may still be appropriate:

Today we give thanks for having made safe journey
through the cold and long winter months
when silence engulfed us and stillness encased us
and barrenness left its mark.
We remember those who have helped us make passage,
who have held us, fed us, nurtured us, healed us,
and offered us enduring encouragement.
Let us enter the merry month of May, and this time of reflection,
with appreciation for the past,
with patience for things that require time to change,
and with hope for the resurrection of the Spirit of Life.

Secondly, let me say how happy I am to be with you all on my first visit to Fredericton and to this Fellowship. I knew and admired Nancy Anderson when she was here and through her I’ve always felt a small connection to you all; it’s a great pleasure to strengthen that connection.

Thirdly, I must confess that with the words you’ve already heard and the time with the children, you already know the gist of my reflection – all I’m going to do now is expand upon it a little, I hope, and deepen it a little, I hope. I want to share with you my thoughts about how we can no more change our spiritual personalities, and perhaps even our religious convictions, than we can change a daffodil into a tulip. We can only nurture the bulb and celebrate its blooming. Now you may find that kind of sentiment more worthy of a Hallmark greeting card than of a challenging Unitarian talk, but perhaps I can engage you a little more readily by suggesting that fundamentalists, for example, are to some extent made that way, and might have as much difficulty becoming freethinkers as a daffodil would have becoming a tulip or you would have changing the colour of your skin! The question is, can we supposedly accepting UUs truly celebrate the way we all are?

I thought of several possible ways of approaching this topic, from looking at the various models of personality types, which I will in fact touch on, to suggesting we each have our equivalent in kinds of flowers – perhaps religious zealots are like zinnias, all blazing colour for a season, while we intellectual types are more like ixiolyrians – small and lovely but not very conspicuous and hardly anyone has ever heard of them! Then I decided to take advantage of some illuminating material that’s already been written by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal. It’s in a 2005 document called Engaging Our Theological Diversity. The Commission found that the values UUs share are rooted in psychological common ground that appears to cross boundaries between individuals’ various cultures and faiths of origin. In other words, no matter where you were born, or what religion you were raised in, what matters most in deciding whether you’ll be of a liberal turn of mind is – what turn of mind is yours by nature, your personality -- whether you’re a daffodil or a dahlia!

A doctoral dissertation by Brandon Miller studied two groups of fifty Unitarian Universalists, one from New England and one from the Midwest and also surveyed more than eight hundred UUs at a General Assembly. Miller found some major shared characteristics that may shed light on why UUs have chosen this faith tradition. The first is Openness to Novelty. Persons of a temperament which welcomes the new and untried find it easier to live with ambiguity and are not as likely to yearn for certainties in their religious perspective. Some people are more likely to respond to change and novelty with fear and caution, while others respond with curiosity and a sense of possibility. Both “nurture” and “nature” contribute to this pattern.

Like most psychological traits, openness to novelty is not in itself better than a more cautious approach to life – we need both kinds of people if we’re not to be either whirled into chaos or paralyzed by fear. I’m reminded of the seventeen windmills at the Pubnico Point Wind Farm just a five minute drive from where we live. The windmills provide green energy and are quite beautiful in a rather stark way and make only a gentle swooshing sound, certainly no louder than the nearby waves on the shore, but one of the area residents has kicked up a huge fuss about the effects of this swooshing sound on his family’s health, and is in fact moving away. While I don’t see or hear things his way, I think we need people like him to remind us of the price to be paid for innovation and the need to be as sure as possible about any detrimental side-effects. “New” is not always “improved”, whether we’re talking roses or technology.

The second psychological characteristic which Miller found highly represented among UUs was Risk-taking. This suggests that while many people in all traditions may be discontented with their religion of origin, those who break away to try a different faith may do so because they find change more intriguing than threatening and because they’re temperamentally more open to taking such a risk. Again, I don’t think we’d want the world to be made up entirely of high risk-takers, would we? Any parents among you who’ve had to agonize over how much risk you’ll allow your children to take, or medical ethicists who’ve tried to justify the risks of a particular treatment in light of its possible benefits, will know that, like openness to novelty, risk-taking is a trait which needs to be balanced by its opposite. We need thoughtful, careful people at least as much as we need those who easily throw caution to the wind. How can you choose between a daylily which perennially gives all it has to a few hours of beauty per flower, and a petunia which goes on and on blooming all summer and then is gone for ever?

The third psychological trait found with greater-than-average frequency in Miller’s UU subjects, is Creativity. Highly creative people tend to have a taste for complexity, and are more likely than others to take authority with a grain of salt, to see life in shadings of grey (or even in colour) rather than in terms of black-and-white contrasts—to reject dogmatism—to show independence of judgment rather than conformity—to be more willing than others to entertain and sometimes to express their own irrational impulses—to place a greater value on humor—to be freer and less rigidly controlled. That summary may be read as the idealized image we have of Unitarian Universalists, but as you knowwe often fall short of living up to its best possibilities. In the words of one scholar “A compulsive need to be independent, different, eccentric, novel, can and sometimes does poison the well of liberal creativity”. When I look at my flower and seed catalogues each Spring, I notice the vast difference between the plants captioned “New! Striking! Novel!” and those which are old-fashioned and familiar. I lean towards the old-fashioned flowers, but there’s no doubt that some of the recent introductions are flamboyantly gorgeous. Let a thousand varied flowers bloom!

UUs fall disproportionately into the Intuitive rather than the Sensing category of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type index, which some of you are familiar with. In North America, at least, Intuitives are in the minority of the general population, at about 25 percent. People who lean toward the Intuitive as defined by this model are far-sighted individuals, “big picture” rather than “detail” people.

Intuitives “base their perception on the possibilities in situations, patterns, hunches, imagination, reading between the lines, with expectancy for the future.” In contrast, people who lean toward Sensing are oriented to the present and more literalminded; they value common sense and tend to be “realistic [and] practical, observing facts directly.” When I think of this in terms of flowers, I think of the predominant wildflowers of our meadows, the sturdy oxeye daisies and coneflowers and lupins, as parallel to the Sensing personalities, and the rather more ethereal windflowers and blue-eyed grass and campions as parallel to the Intuitives. Would we want to be without any of them? I don’t think so!

There’s a collection of psychological traits which has been described as the Outsider Syndrome which seems more common among UUs than in the general population.. It appears that Unitarian Universalists often see themselves as in some way outsiders or misfits. Although we’re often part of the mainstream economically and socially, many of us experience a persistent psychological lack of belonging – and incidentally I suspect we perhaps try to overcompensate for this by exaggerating the importance of belonging to our particular non-conformist tradition! People arriving in UU congregations may say, “I have felt like an alien all my life -- I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t experience the world like those around me did. It is such a relief to belong here.” Those who grew up in the UU tradition may also be subject to this sense of distance from the wider culture. Research on the third Myers-Briggs psychological type suggests that nearly 90 percent of UUs have a different pattern of Perception from the majority of people in the larger culture, weighing things up and assessing them more than people who simply take them in, and this may contribute to a sense of not quite belonging to society at large.

People’s realities, the ways in which they see the world, can be substantially different as a result of both their environment and their innate pyschology. Around our home on the south-west shore of Nova Scotia, many kinds of plants found elsewhere are affected by the sea-winds and salt-spray which tend to check their growth, so that they’re smaller than they would be in a more sheltered environment where they perhaps belong more naturally. I love those “stunted” pine trees and the tiny wildflowers in our windy meadow. “Belonging” is wonderful, but I suggest that it’s not our ultimate goal. Grow where you’re planted, as someone wise has said.

Reflections upon psychological profile and faith would be incomplete without considering research on the subject of faith development. These studies are built upon the foundational work of Jean Piaget in cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan in moral development. James Fowler first formalized a set of “stages of faith development” parallel to these. In Fowler’s six stages a small child begins with an unformed chaotic world view, stage one, moving in early childhood to one structured by outside authority, Stage2. In Stage 3, “conventional faith,” the community defines the individual’s worldview. Individuation and independence mark Stage 4, while stage 5 is interdependent and open to integrating wisdom from many sources. Stage 6 points to rare people like Jesus and the Buddha.

UUs generally see themselves as at stages 4 and 5 of Fowler’s model and tend to view stages 2 and 3 as immature. But this is a theoretical model and it may discount faith qualities such as profound love that give depth to less questioning kinds of faith. To take it too much as a model of how we ought to develop is as absurd as saying that because we learn to understand numbers as we grow up, all mature adults should be higher mathematicians. Nor should we forget, I think, that, for people who have known only chaos in their growing years, the authority found in Fowler’s Stage 2 faith may bring hope to their lives, as may the conventions of Stage 3. We often ask ourselves why people are not flocking to our UU doors. Apart from the question of whether the world needs huge numbers of Unitarians, which is at least debatable, might it be that UUs are often too quick to dismiss anything short of an abstractly reasoning Stage 4 identity as inadequate? What about people who need concreteness as a part of their developmental process? Is their wisdom discounted because it’s not expressed in abstract form? Do we discount the less complex plants in our gardens or prize them for their natural beauty, such as the elemental grasses which we more and more see as invaluable enrichments to our landscapes? Do we forget the wise words attributed to Jesus about theneed to become like little children, or the Buddhists’ reverence for “Beginner’s Mind”?

The UUA’s Commission on Appraisal Report comes to some conclusions from its survey of the relation of psychological characteristics to spiritual types. It says that the test of our faith tradition’s true growth is the extent to which we can move from being a self-selected, like-minded community towards openness to the other -- from class-biased liberalism to true mutuality with those other than one’s own group or class or culture.

When we let ourselves bump up against those who are different, we begin to find fulfilment in conversation with those who are profoundly other than ourselves, without needing to try to convert them to being like us. Just as biodiversity is valuable in our outward gardens, so is religious diversity valuable in the inward gardens of our spiritual lives. As a musician has said, “Those who love the violin have never declared war on clarinet players, tried to convert them to violin, or burned them at the stake for persisting in the heretical love of clarinet sounds.” I think it’s also true that iris lovers are rarely interested in persuading rose enthusiasts away from their own preference.

What I’ve said could be interpreted as suggesting that all religions are equally valuable and that it really isn’t true that as Sophia Lyon Fahs says, “It matters what we believe”. I think it does matter what we believe, and for the very reason that she gives in her garden analogy: “Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.” Those wider and deeper sympathies are, I think, at the very heart of our Unitarian Universalist convictions. We have covenanted to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have covenanted to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We can find in every other faith tradition that we encounter points of convergence with these affirmations, and I believe it is far more important to find these points of relationship than to hold ourselves apart in divergence.

The report from which I’ve drawn in this talk includes these words: “It is a fact of UU history that while some have come to us because their authentic selves were wounded in [their former relisious] communities, there are also UUs who have had their most precious, lifetransforming experiences dismissed by fellow UUs in the name of reason.” I have observed this to be true, and I deplore it. Even more, I’ve seen it in our relations with those who have not “seen the light” and become UUs! We are a miniscule minority in the world’s religious faiths: let’s be careful not to dismiss the precious, life-transforming experiences of those who for whatever reasons of culture or personality see the world through different eyes than ours. Let’s try to see them instead through an appreciative lens which recognizes that they are the persons whose worth and dignity we affirm, that they are part of that interdependent web of all existence along with us.

The Commission on Appraisal recommends what it calls “cultural competency”. This is much less daunting than it seems. For example, if someone exploring the possibility of a new spiritual home calls a congregation to find out what time a service is and asks, “What time is Mass?” and the person answering the phone responds huffily, “We don’t have Mass, we have a service, we aren’t a Catholic church!” that person has missed an opportunity to be welcoming. We might more helpfully reply non-judgmentally, “We meet at 11 am”. Rather than asking a newcomer, “What brings you here? How did you find us?” what if we were to ask as the Tibetans used to do, “And to what sublime tradition do you belong?

I’ll end with yet another thought from the report, which just happens to fit beautifully with this “Inward Gardens” theme. The Commission on Appraisal asked participants in focus groups to describe their dream for the future. In the UU Buddhist group, one participant said, “My dream is to be in a community where people have a depth experience of truth, then begin to see it in other places. They start to see there isn’t only ‘one way.’ They have the flexibility to worship in different languages.” Another participant imagined congregations where “diverse spiritual disciplines are explored in depth -- everyone into it, but different practices for different folks.” That speaks to me: I’m basically pagan and nature-oriented in my beliefs but my introverted personality isn’t drawn to the rituals of paganism or wicca, except for my private observances, mostly in my own garden. It’s true for me in relation to other religions too. I deeply treasure my Christian background and the stories of Judaism, but my interpretation of them is so personal that I don’t find myself particularly in tune with conventional church practices. How foolish it would be for me to dismiss paganism or Christianity as insignificant, just because they don’t mesh with my psychology! Why should they? Their reason for being is in what they bring to those who see through other lenses.

Just as I was completing the preparation for this talk I suddenly remembered that 15 years ago I’d written a paper on “Unitarian Universalist Psychology: Some Limitations of Liberal Religion”. I’m glad I didn’t think of it earlier because I might have been tempted to use chunks of it and avoid reworking my thoughts, which I certainly needed to do. I did go back and look at that paper, though, and I’d like to give you just this brief excerpt from it which seems relevant to what I’ve said to you this morning. I wrote, in 1991, as a theological student:

There are hopeful signs, especially among UUs at such places as the Divinity Schools, and among many ministers and congregations also, of a new openness to considering [many] points of view ...... UUs are no longer as likely as in the past to align themselves with outlooks such as that expressed in a recent letter to a Canadian daily paper (by a practising psychiatrist, alas!) who said:

..... 20 to 25 per cent of us do not believe in celestial big daddies or mommies of any description, having outgrown the need for infantile existential soothers. Also many more Canadians do not worship the Christian hairy thunderer, preferring other mythical supernatural beings.

It would not have been uncommon in the recent past for this to have been written by a Unitarian Universalist. Its potential for alienating the majority of the public, for no worthwhile purpose, is only too evident. The UU principle of respect for the beliefs of others is, fortunately, likely to soften such an approach today .....

And now, in 2006, let a thousand varied flowers bloom – not only varieties of the Unitarian or even the liberal religious species, but the most beautiful flowers of all faiths. May we appreciate them and relate to them and learn from them. In the words of professor and writer Jacques Barzun, “Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.

Let a thousand varied flowers bloom.