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The Humanist Pulpit   Series XIII No. 1

What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?


The First Unitarian Society
1526 Harmon Place
Minneapolis, Minn.

This pamphlet contains an address delivered before the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, at its regular Sunday morning meeting, April 14th, 1929, by the minister. John H. Dietrich, and is published for the purpose of reaching those people who are in sympathy with our work but are unable to attend our meetings.

The minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis is granted absolute freedom of thought and speech. The Sunday morning addresses are the expression of his individual convictions and he alone is responsible for them.

Twelve addresses are published during the church year from September to June, and subscriptions for the annual series are received at one dollar postpaid. I f in addition the Sunday morning programs are desired, the subscription price for the two (addresses and programs) is two dollars. Address the Secretary, First Unitarian Society, 1526 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, Minn.

Extra copies of this pamphlet and all others that are still in print may be procured from the above address for ten cents each, postpaid.

Mr. Dietrich's addresses are broadcast over WDGY.

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What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?

The whole world has at some time or other smiled at the old lady who found consolation in "that blessed word 'Mesopotamia'; but a very large proportion of the smilers had blessed words of their own, and often there was no more ground for the emotion which these inspired than there," was in the case of the Mesopotamia lady. I have had many similar experiences while speaking in foreign parts. People tell me that I delivered a fine lecture, but they do not consider it a religious discourse because it did not contain such familiar expressions as God and Jesus and salvation which they have always associated with religion and which therefore are necessary to arouse their religious emotions. A good instance is the controversy which recently took place between Mr. Ham and myself in the Register. He wanted to know if I believed in God. I said I would answer the question when he told me what he meant by the word God. He replied, "There is no question of definitions involved. The only question is, Does he believe in God or does he not? and if he does not believe in God, no matter what the word means, is he not an atheist?" Once I had an almost identical experience with that of the Mesopotamia lady. After I had finished an address, a lady told me that she was so glad that I had quoted from the writings of Paul, not realizing that I had quoted him in such manner as to make him appear ridiculous and to confound the basis of her religion. So words are strange things. They have been called the money of fools, but the counters of wise men. It is a happy expression; and just as your money may degenerate into a most deceitful piece of paper, scandalously suggesting a hoard of gold or goods that does not exist, so the word may become a delusive phantasy of the idea for which it once stood; and the feebler or the more dissipated the intelligence of a person or a generation, the greater the chance that mere words will pass as coin.

Such a word preeminently is "spirituality." While no one is able to define it or has a concrete idea of what it means, yet it suggests at once an unction, an exaltation of emotion, a superiority which are associated with hardly any other words in the English language. Spirituality is more profitable to a minister than long hair or a foreign name to a musician. Therefore, if one does not have it he assumes it, and that is why most of the ministers have such an artificial manner and such a smooth and hollow voice. A minister may be ignorant, he may be intellectually dishonest, he may be ethically indiscreet, his sermons may consist of empty vaporings, but if his manner, however assumed and artificial, suggests this subtle and indefinable thing which we call "spirituality," he is a success. In fact, most people seem to feel that spirituality is the summum bonum in human life. It makes the future of a novelist and raises every one to a superior plane. Creeds may come and go, saviors may shrink into moral heroes, bishops may lose their antique trimmings; but the future of humanity is safe if we only retain our faith in the spiritual and keep at bay that awful dragon which besets the race in every age Materialism.

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Now what do people mean by this indispensable and important thing which they call spiritual? Not long ago some one said to me, "Reason is not everything, there are other, perhaps finer powers in man. Why not consult them? Indeed, we feel that the world and human life as you sketch it, the logical consequences of your merciless logic, are repugnant to this finer spiritual nature of ours. We have a right to listen to it, and reject your apparently unimpeachable demonstrations." I think this person had in mind the message of our finer emotions, which I consider quite as important as the message of reason, so do not think I am going to decry it, or despise it or ignore it; but may it not be possible to come to some clearer understanding of what we mean, when we say spiritual. For instance, not long ago I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman. I was surprised to find that they were discussing me. The man was telling the woman that I was an atheist (which I never have called myself) and he flattered me by adding that I seemed to be a learned and clever fellow. "Yes," she replied. "I grant that, but he is not spiritual." I wonder what she meant by that? Apparently some people have something that I have not, and this something is called spiritual. To tell the truth I have often heard this before, and for many years I have tried to find out exactly what it means. I have read many books on the subject -- Spiritualist, Theosophist, Christian Scientist, Higher Thought, Hindu, Christian, and so forth -- and I have questioned all sorts of people, and found only confusion.

Some people connect it with a kind of mysticism, an intuitive faculty, which man is supposed to possess if cultivated, and which acts as a sort of receiving station for messages which come from the infinite. Others connect it with that which they do not understand. I know people who will read pages upon pages of Science and Health which are absolutely meaningless and for this reason think it is spiritual. There are others who will spend hours upon hours in contemplation or meditation and feel that they are engaged in a spiritual task. Others use the term to cover the emotional life of man as distinguished from his intellectual life. Others call one spiritual when he is reverent, kindly, sympathetic and considerate. And a great many connect it with what I suggested a moment ago -- a kind of artificiality, a pose, which people have cultivated for effect. To these, if a person is physically pale and weakly instead of stout and robust, if he is meek and merciful instead of bold and audacious, if he has a sweet and gentle voice instead of one that is rough and grating, if he is gracious, tolerant, mild, and so forth, he is considered spiritual. Admirable characteristics, most of them. Some have them naturally, and others, feeling the desirability of this spirituality, cultivate them. That is why you find so many ministers, who are regular people during the week, assume all these characteristics the moment they step into the pulpit on Sunday morning. Some one wrote me during the week, that the spiritual are those who believe in a spiritual realm, as contrasted with a physical realm. I presume he means those who believe in spirit or mind as a substance, and not merely as a function of the material.

When I was in the orthodox ministry I could talk about spirituality as confidently as I could talk about material things; though I was only twenty-five years old. In our philosophy we defined the spirit as "substance without extension or parts" as distinguished from matter which has extension or parts. That sounds dry and cold perhaps, but I have searched the warm literature in vain for a better definition. I want to know in plain English what spirit is as distinguished from matter. I would like to get to the heart of the matter. What is it that the world is in danger of losing because of our modern materialism? What is spirit? No definition I have seen differs essentially from that taught me in the theological school twenty-five years ago, namely: Spirit is unextended qualitative substance, that is -- non-quantitative. But all enthusiasm evaporates when you reduce the issue to those cold terms. Who can be profoundly moved over the question whether all reality is quantitative or some of it is not?

There is a mystic type of person who sweeps all this logic-chopping aside with an austere air of spiritual superiority. He knows, feels, or intues the spiritual. There is no need for any definition. Naturally there is no arguing with the person who knows; but I venture to say that this sort of thing is not superiority. It is not warmth of nature, or intuition, or refinement, or anything of the sort. It is simply intellectual incapacity and the illusion of mistaking introspective reflection for divine revelation. I have heard these people talk for hours about the spiritual intuitions; but it seems strange that these people cannot tell in a few plain intelligible words about the difference, especially, as they claim, when there is such a stupendous difference between the spiritual and the material that the world will perish if it loses even the belief in the spiritual. Let us note that the loss of spirit or belief in the spirit is expected to have tremendous practical consequences. Perhaps we can get somewhere by this line of inquiry.

What are these supposed consequences? Decay of our spiritual faculties of course; but what are they? We push on resolutely through the mist. A hint is given us that morals may suffer. Why? Is a man going to be less temperate and honorable because he has come to the conclusion that there are no non-quantitative substances in existence? It would be just as logical to expect the collapse of civilization because Einstein has shown that space is curved. Artists, poets, novelists, dramatists, I understand are much more spiritual than men of science. But I had always heard that, as far as morals went.... No, that is, a piece of the regrettable controversial stuff of an earlier age taken over by our modem mystics. What other points are suggested? I put this candidly to every religious person. When you contrast spiritualism and materialism in this respect do you not mean that the former stands for refined sentiment healthy imagination, tenderness, generosity of mind, delicacy; and that the latter implies a rather vulgar, calculating, selfish. indelicate, unimaginative type of man or woman? If I am wrong I have read dozens of spiritual and mystic books in vain. But I think that is what most people mean.

So it follows that in this whole controversy there is a confusion of ideas, a double meaning. There are two meanings of the word spiritual -- one the philosophical and theological meaning (unextended substance), and the other when the word is used to indicate those g r a c e s and qualities of mind and character which I have enumerated. Similarly there are two meanings of the word materialism -- one the philosophical meaning that all things are quantitative, and the other the popular or literary meaning when the word is used to denote the deterioration, the coarsening or vulgarizing of the mind or taste of a person or a civilization. There is no connection between the two meanings of each word, yet half the literature of this subject is useless because they are not kept clearly apart. Now in regard to the philosophical difference it does not matter two pins what the ordinary person thinks. Some one says, do you mean to imply that it does not make any difference whether a man is a materialist or a spiritualist? That is precisely what I am trying to make clear. So far as this life and its finest requirements are concerned, it does not matter. Of course it matters vitally in connection with the question of immortality, with which we are not concerned this morning. But it quite obviously does not matter in connection with man's highest interests on earth. Whether we grow more gross, more selfish, more grasping, more vulgar, more dishonorable, or whether we grow more delicate, more tender, more sympathetic, more aspiring, or more affectionate does not depend on whether we think the mind quantitative or qualitative. It depends on what we think of the values of those qualities. And I for one choose so-called spiritual qualities of mind and character because for me they contain the most enduring and highest joys of earth. Therefore, in this practical sense I am a firm believer in the spiritual life. And when I use the term as I frequently do, it is in this sense that I use it.

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Well then, being a believer in the spiritual life, I want to know something more about its nature and its origin. At this point, I thought of Henry Drummond's attempt to apply the natural laws to the spiritual world, and it occurred to me that if there is such a thing as the spiritual life it must have a science of its own, and it must be more or less similar to the science of the physical life. It must deal with the same problems, seek answers to the same inquiries, use the same methods of investigation, as the science of the physical life. In short there must be a sort of biology of the spiritual life. And so I am going to follow the methods of biology in our attempt to understand the spiritual life, that is, use the same method of study as in our attempt to understand the physical life. First in regard to its nature.

What is life, either physical or spiritual? Of what elements is it composed? In what terms is it to be described? Such questions, of course, bring us face to face with the greatest mystery of our existence. Millions of words have been written, thousands of books have been published on this problem of life -- what it means, how it is to be understood; but never so far as I know has anyone, except the Fundamentalists of course, been able to discover what it really is. The nearest approach that has ever been made to the solution of this problem is found in what is known in contemporary science as "the energy concept of life." At bottom of course this is only the substitution of one word for another. To say that life is energy is only to raise the question as to what energy is, just as the ancient teaching that the earth rests on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, only raises the question as to what the tortoise is standing on. But if the definition of life as energy does not tell us very much, it at least suggests certain pictures, which help us to understand some of the practical phases of the problem. For energy conveys to us the idea of motion and activity. Inside a living organism we see a source of power, which by some manner is released in terms of movement. Outside the living organism, we see certain results achieved, certain things effected by this release of power. Put a nonliving object in an environment and nothing happens. Put a living object in this environment, and something does happen. Energy, in other words, or life in terms of energy is a creative principle. It has the capacity to start itself; and when it starts, a long series of results transpire. Sometimes these results seem altogether out of proportion to the cause. The electric energy transmitted through a small copper wire is capable of moving a long and heavy train of cars. The energy hidden away in a microscopic atom, we are told, might blow the earth to bits. But the connection between cause and effect here is always real. Life is energy-by which we mean it is the creator or initiator of movement, change, development. We are different from moment to moment because the life principle is at work within us.

Of course, I have been speaking of physical life, but this same idea applies to spiritual life as well. What we mean by spiritual life is just as much a mystery in religion a physical life is in biology. The theologians have tried as make things plain by inventing a lot of big words, such as regeneration, salvation; but such words only add confusion to the mystery. I do not think we can say anything more about this spiritual life than that it is a form of energy -- by which we mean that it is a source of power which when released is capable of producing changes in the outer world. We may not know what this power is, but we can see what it is doing in the outer world. In other words physical energy is not the only energy that is at work among men. Steam, electricity, muscular contraction, are not the only forms of power which are moving the world. There is another kind of power -- that which we think of as the mental or spiritual life. What it is we do not know. How it works we cannot say. But that it is a reality is a fact we cannot deny.

Take a word for example or an idea -- the purely spiritual phenomenon of thought in its spoken or written form. Think of the energy that is released by a thought, and how this energy sweeps through the centuries like fire across a parched prairie. "The power of thought," says Bertrand Russell, "is greater than any other human power . . . . It is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man." Think of the teachings of Socrates, how they have come to human ears in every generation like chords of noble music, lifting men to dreams of beauty and deeds of sacrifice. Take Jesus for example, and think of the changes that have taken place in the world because of the thoughts which have been ascribed to him. Or think of Tolstoy or Voltaire, or Abraham Lincoln or Ingersoll, and the tremendous influence of their thought and the changes brought about in the world as a result of their words.

But words are not the only form of spiritual energy. A deed is even more potent than a word – a deed of sacrifice, and just as truly an effluence of the spirit. It is possible that the words of Socrates might have endured had he not drunk the hemlock; but it is certain that this martyrdom added an incalculable amount of energy to what he taught. So with Jesus. It is hardly likely that his words would have been treasured and elevated had it not been for the deed of heroism which brought his life to a termination. Or as an example of the deed without the word, take John Brown at Harper's Ferry. What this old man was able to do in the flesh was trivial; he was seized and put out of the way very easily, but what about his spirit? This was a force so great that it moved armies, shook continents, and turned the fide of history. It was more valuable to the northern cause in the Civil War than a hundred regiments. It was true that John Brown's body lay a mouldering in the tomb; but it was also true that his soul went marching on.

And we need not confine ourselves to historical examples of the spiritual life as a form of energy, working vast changes in the world. Is there any one of us who has not met this energy in his own experience as surely as he has felt the shock or seen the illumination of an electric current? Cannot you remember hearing a word or reading a thought which has transformed your whole life? Have you not encountered some noble deed which has lifted you above the ordinary affairs of life? Have you not met men and women whose personalities have literally poured strength into your lives, so that you have found it possible to do things which you could not do before? Talk about spiritual life as energy! There is nothing to compare with it from the standpoint of results. Take the world as we find it today. Trace back its phenomena to the ultimate causes from which they sprang. Recognize to the full the physical forces of nature attraction, repulsion, heat, electricity. Emphasize to the uttermost the social and economic factors in human development-food, climate, soil, production, distribution, transportation. Count in every natural force ever discovered and every machine ever invented, and still you have not explained the world. Something else has been at work -- the spirit of man. In other words, there is an energy which springs from the heart of man. What it is we do not know, any more than we know what electricity is. How it works, we cannot say, anymore than we can say how radioactivity works. But that it is real, that it produces results, is as certain as that we breathe. It is thus that for pragmatic reasons we accept the spiritual life as one of the elements of the universe. The spirit of man, like the forces of nature, and like the physical life, is at bottom, energy.

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When we study biology we find that a second important question arises in respect to physical life, and that is in regard to its origin, as to where this peculiar thing we call life came from. And this question of its origin is quite as baffling as that in regard to its nature. In answer there are two surmises, or speculations.

In the first place there is the view that something new entered this planet with the appearance of physical life. A germinating seed derived from some foreign source found lodgment upon the earth, and from this primeval seed have sprung all the myriad forms of life. Where this seed came from and how it got here, no one presumes to know. It has been suggested that it may have come from a neighboring planet on some meteor, or that it may have descended in the rain from heaven. All such notions, of course, are purely fantastic. What we have here is simply the assertion that there is an absolute gulf of separation between living and non-living matter, and that the two came together from different sources and as the result of accident.

The other opinion and the one that has behind it the authority of modem science, is that life arose directly by the process of evolution from the material substance of the earth. There is no absolute division between dead matter and living matter; it is not necessary to imagine that something new appeared on this planet with the advent of physical life. On the contrary these living forms of plants and animals developed as naturally from the chemical elements in the primeval slime, as the reptile developed from the fish or the bird from the reptile. What happened exactly, when the non-living became the living, we cannot say; all we know is that from the beginning the elements in this universe were constantly undergoing changes in their relation to one another, and finally there came a moment when certain energies pre-existing in the cosmos fell into a certain combination with the chemical elements already existing, and life was the result. The nature of this combination has for years been the subject of investigation by distinguished scientists who are determined to bring about an artificial form of life in their laboratories. Whether they succeed or not we must believe with them "that life arose from a re-combination of forces pre-existing in the cosmos." The line of evolution, in other words, is unbroken, it suffers no intrusion from without.

Now it is interesting to notice when we turn from pysical to spiritual life, that these same two opinions make their appearance in philosophical discussion. The biology of the spirit is identical with the biology of the body in the answers it offers as to the origin. Thus traditionally we have the idea that the spirit, or the higher aspect of man's nature, has entered into his being from without. This is the picture that is given to us in Genesis, where God is represented as forming man out of the dust of the earth and then breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. And it was this breathing into him of the divine spirit that made him a living soul. And this idea has been held by some modem scientists, though very few. For instance, Alfred Russell Wallace taught that there is no way of accounting for the higher elements of man's nature except by an influx of some portion of the spirit of deity. Just how or when this influx of spiritual life into the material world took place, Wallace does not explain. He simply affirms that in the very necessity of the case, it must have come not from within, but from without.

This idea, however, finds little support, in the scientific world today. A second opinion as to the origin of spiritual life, identical with that of physical life, is the one which is finding general acceptance. Just as we have seen that the life force in its lower forms, developed out of the chemical and physical forces of nature by an unbroken process of evolution, so we see now that the spirit of man developed out of this same life force in its higher stages of fulfillment Says Professor Le Comte, "There was a time in the history of the earth when only physical forces existed, but at a certain stage chemical affinity developed into the earliest an simplest form of physical life force. This life force took on higher and higher forms until finally what we call the spiritual appeared -- a new and wondrous thing, but still nothing more than the life force derived from preceding forms." Spiritual life, therefore, is just as much a development out of what has gone before in the evolutionary process as physical life is; which means that the origin of spiritual life

And so the spiritual life today is not something separate and apart from man, which operates through him, but an expression of the combined functions of the human organism. Thus far I have been dealing with the spiritual life as though it included the whole of that energy which we think of in contrast to physical energy, but which is more frequently thought of as the mental realm. It was necessary to do this in order to make the distinction which I have in mind. For I want to show you that what we call the spiritual life is merely one phase of the mental activity, and is a word which we use for convenience more than anything else. For instance, the mental life expresses itself in various ways, which for convenience of speech we call the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual. These are not different mental processes, they are merely different realms on which the mental process is brought to bear. Today we regard human life as a unit, the mental life as simply a portion of the manifestations of that unified life, and the spiritual life as simply a portion of this mental life, operating in such manner as to distinguish it from the intellectual life or the moral life or the emotional life. There are things which we speak of as being spiritual, just as there are things which we speak of as being moral and things intellectual, but they are all parts of the mental life which in turn is merely a portion of the unified life of man. They are all forms of human activity.

Perhaps a good way to bring out what I have in mind would be to say that the spiritual is a term for activities concerned with the higher human values in all their manifestations. It is human activity which alone is spiritual. Seen in this light it will be quickly realized that it is absurd to contrast the spiritual with the physical. The proper contrast is to those activities which lie below the level of the spiritual. So, you see it is entirely a matter of values, which we ourselves must determine. What one person considers spiritual may not be considered spiritual at all by another. But I think most people would agree that the spiritual emerges when there is intelligence of a fairly high order, a sense of right and wrong, an ability to set up standards, a drive for creation in art and in social relations, a wealth of imagination. The spiritual is nothing more nor less than that function of human life which manifests itself in the more refined and delicate attitudes of mind.

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Now this idea of the natural or evolutionary origin of the spiritual life as a whole, and this thought that the spiritual is simply one of the manifestations of mental activity, makes a complete change in our conception of religion. What it accomplishes at bottom is the elimination of all that we mean by the supernatural. Hitherto we have always divided our world into two parts, theologically speaking -- the natural and the supernatural, the earth here and the heaven up there, man here on earth and God up there in heaven. In the same way we have divided our practical life into the natural and the supernatural -- or as we speak of it the physical and the spiritual, the sacred and the secular. The Bible is a sacred book because written by God, while other books are secular because written by men; the church is a sacred institution because supernatural in origin and dealing with spiritual things; while the state is a secular institution because natural in origin and dealing with worldly things; a sermon is a sacred discourse because it deals with heavenly or eternal subjects, while a lecture is a secular discourse because it deals with worldly or temporal subjects. In the same way we have conceived of man's religious or spiritual life as the problem of conversion or regeneration -- that is, the problem of getting rid of the nature of which he was born on the earth and which is therefore "of the earth earthy," and substituting in its place a new nature which has its origin in heaven, and is therefore heavenly or spiritual.

But all this is now swept away by this new idea of the natural origin of the human spirit, and the acceptance of the theory that what we call the spiritual is simply a phase of man's mental life. We see today that there is no such thing as this arbitrary division between natural and supernatural, flesh and spirit. All the spiritual there is, is right here in this world and definitely connected with the flesh. With this standpoint we see how ridiculous and false is the arbitrary between things sacred and things secular. Everything in the human world has come from the life process that is behind. Everything that is a part of the man is a creation of his being and a projection of his spirit. In this sense every thing is neither sacred nor secular but just natural and normal, because it is all the outgrowth of the same thing. Plato is as sacred as the Bible, the state as divine an institution as the church, a sermon no more spiritual because it talks about man's soul and heavenly mansions, than a political address which talks about man's body and earthly tenements. Of course, we may speak of some things as more sacred or more spiritual than others, but this is purely a matter of values which we ourselves ascribe to them, and not because there is any essential difference in their origin or nature.

As for man himself , he is no more to be saved by substituting some outside spiritual nature for his inside human nature than he is to be educated by scooping out his brains and substituting the brains of an angel. All the salvation will ever gain must be found within himself just All the spiritual life that he will ever find, is the life that he is now living when developed to its highest and noblest possibilities. This religious business therefore is a matter not of conversion, but of education, not of substitution from without, but of development from within. The spiritual life is attained not by putting on a whole lot of artificial pieties, but by fulfilling to the uttermost the ordinary commonplace virtues of daily life. St. Paul was greatly mistaken in his contrasts of the flesh and the spirit, but he had the right idea when he said that "the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance." To be spiritual is simply to be nobly human, it is to be sincere, honest, reverent, highminded, just, and noble in all our dealings. And it is to the development of this kind of spiritual life that scientific and humanistic religion addresses itself. Not for the sake of the development of the spiritual as something in itself, but because in so far as those things which we call the spiritual life of man are developed, human life in general will become more desirable. They are the things that make life worth while; they are the things, which if properly developed, will make life beautiful.

So there is no such thing as the spiritual, as distinguished from the physical. The only spiritual there is, is a function of the physical. And what we mean by the spiritual is simply certain phases of the mental function, which deal with the higher values of human life. Some physical organisms naturally function in this manner, others need to develop this type of expression. But the important thing is really to develop it, and not assume an artificial attitude, which pretends to have it when it does not. For the very essence of spirituality is integrity, honesty, sincerity.

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