A RELIGION OF DEPTH

JANUARY 10, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

How many of you have ever caught Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts" on Saturday Night Live? This is the guy who offers inspiration for the uninspired and thoughts so deep they squeak. Of course it's all a spoof on people who think they're profound, but are not. Here are a few samples of Jack Handey's deep thoughts:

Sometimes the beauty of the world is so overwhelming, I just want to throw back my head and gargle. Just gargle and gargle, and I don't care who hears me, because I am beautiful.

Sometimes I think the world has gone completely mad. And then I think, "Aw, who cares?" And then I think, "Hey, what's for supper?"

Instead of having "answers" on a math test, they should just call them "impressions," and if you got a different "impression," so what, can't we all be brothers?

When this girl at the museum asked me whom I like better, Monet or Manet, I said, "I like mayonnaise." She just stared at me, so I said it again, louder. Then she left. I guess...to find some mayonnaise for me.

I hope that after I die people will say of me: "That guy sure owed me a lot of money."
If God dwells inside us, like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas, because that's what He's getting!

Well, this morning's sermon is about "A Religion of Depth." It will presumably be a bit more serious than Jack Handey's deep thoughts, but in case I take myself too seriously I will try to remember that a good hearty laugh can be a pathway to the depths no less than tears and somber thoughts.

My inspiration for this morning's reflection is drawn from the late Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich's sermon, "The Depth of Existence." I had the pleasure of hearing Tillich speak in person at a Harvard lecture and again at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California during an intern year in the campus ministry in 1963. A group of us drove down from Corvallis, Oregon to hear him. The place was packed. There was a profundity about Tillich's thought and personal presence that touched the mind and the soul in a deep way. The fact that he spoke with a thick German accent and with language drawn from ancient Greek philosophy of Being made the sense of profundity all the more intriguing. In spite of his accent and his use of philosophy Tillich somehow connected with his audience. He made you feel that though his mind was far above yours he nonetheless took you with him and you felt you had touched deep and profound truths of life and being. I don't remember what he said that day, but his use of the metaphor of "depth" as a symbol of the soul and of God was what had drawn me to his thought and person in the first place. He did not disappoint.

Tillich notes that the word "depth" denotes a dimension of space that can become a symbol of a spiritual and psychological quality. I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time a couple of years ago when the General Assembly was held in Arizona. Though my wife and I had seen many pictures of the Grand Canyon over the years nothing could have prepared us for the real thing. It literally took our breath away. The depth and height and breadth of the canyon simply staggers the mind and the senses. One understands why the vastness of it all makes people think of God or the divine source of creation. My colleague Bob Thayer tells the story of being down at the bottom of the canyon on a clear cloudless night during the transit of the Hale-Bopp comet. He got it all, the vastness of the canyon combined with the infinite reaches of the heavens above marked by the divine signature of a passing comet. Mountains, canyons, the ocean, the heavens are all powerful metaphors of the divine, and also of the depths of the human mind and imagination.

A person of deep thought (with the possible exception of a Jack Handey) is presumably the opposite of one who is shallow. I remember an expression that was used as a put-down to someone who lacked depth. We would say, "He is about as deep as the back of a spoon", which is pretty shallow. Everything we see with our physical eyes has a surface, but the truth of that thing or person often dwells below the surface in the depths. A surface symptom in the body can often be a manifestation of a deeper malady which can only be corrected by a surgical procedure which requires our going deeper into the body.

Likewise the human soul and personality may reveal one level of truth on the surface, but contain a deeper and contrary source of truth in the depths of the psyche. We are all of us more than we appear on the surface. What you see is not always what you get, at least not all of what you get. Tillich noted that the advent of depth psychology had revealed unconscious dimensions of the self heretofore unknown. Still waters run deep, we say, to connote the hidden depths in someone who does not say very much. But we are all of us more complex than we know. It's not just that we don't know the deeper thoughts and feelings of other persons that are hidden from us, but that we often are unaware of the same depths within ourselves. The truth be told we can never get to the bottom of knowing who and what we are. There will always be a deeper truth to be known, and still more that we can never know.

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, talked about various levels of the human psyche, beginning with the Persona, which was the surface personality we reveal to the world, the clothing of the ego as it were, how we appear to others; but as we move deeper into the psyche we come upon the Shadow, the repressed impulses, desires and aspirations both good and bad that are part of who we are, and which we must own if we are ever to achieve a sense of wholeness; going deeper we meet the unconscious opposite of our sexual identity (the male within the female, and the female within the male); and if we go still deeper we sense our connection with the ultimate source of life and being, the imago deo, the divine image or spark within the human soul. It is a journey into the depths and is not without its portion of pain and suffering along the way.

One of the things that Tillich emphasized in his sermon, and which is extremely important to remember, is that "deep things" (or "deep thoughts") are not to be confused with so-called "sophisticated things" which only an educated mind can grasp. The "mark of real depth", says Tillich, "is its simplicity....nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone." Even a Jack Handey has hidden depths that neither words nor expression can truly reveal. The problem is that we often seek to run from our own depths because of our anxiety and fear of what we may find there. Remember the by-line from the old radio show (made into a movie a few years ago) about "The Shadow"--"What evil lurks in the hearts of men--the Shadow knows--heh! heh! heh! heh! heh!" Yes, there's unpleasantness there, but there's also "gold in them thar depths", and you can't get to the gold unless you are willing to sift through the grime. "Like hit-and-run drivers," says Tillich, "we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life."

What does it mean to live out of the depth of ourselves? "Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord," wrote the psalmist. The depth of our being refers to the inner core of ourselves, that deep-down-inside-ourselves place where we feel things deeply and profoundly, where abide our hidden fears and guilt, our unrealized hopes and dreams, the dark desires and passions of our buried rage against life's oppressive and crushing realities, the light-filled seeds of wholeness and hope crying to unflower themselves within us. To live constructively in depth means to face oneself with openness and honesty and to say "yes" to what one finds there, even though it be terrible inadequacies, seething hatreds, burning passions, paralyzing fears, and existential loneliness--not to acquiesce therein, but rather to accept these things as part of our humanity that needs to be transformed, helped, healed and loved into something better. All women and men cast a shadow. Those who do not are empty and shallow, without human substance. A religion of depth reveals to us our shadow and lets us see it without shame. In embracing our dark side we discover that nothing human is alien to our own nature, neither good nor evil. And in that discovery we learn the meaning of compassion and humility.

In the depths we discover the sources of our ultimate concern and the questions that point to the spiritual longings of the soul: What is the purpose of my life? Who am I and where am I going? To what or whom am I responsible for my life? Why do I at times sense something holy, mysterious, and infinite beyond myself? These questions point to the spiritual and mystical strivings of the soul which are as much a part of who we are as our physical and sexual drives and hungers. Clinton Lee Scott once said that a chief cause of many forms of neuroses in our times is the want of a basic religious philosophy of life. "Things and events do not break us", he said. "We go to pieces because we bring to life a breakable philosophy", or no philosophy at all.

It was Jung, you may remember, who said that none of his patients were really healed until they had recovered a religious or spiritual dimension to their lives through direct experience. The anxiety about life and death, which we all feel and which we must come to terms with, are profoundly religious concerns which the individual needs to resolve in relation to the Universe, to Life, and to God beyond the self.

A religion of depth is one that connects us with the deeper sources of life and being within us and beyond us. There are at least two dimensions to the religious life--the outer and the inner--and both are necessary. Either one without the other is incomplete and inadequate. The outer aspect of the religious life has to do with its expression in communal worship and collective ritual, and its application in our social and cultural life. This is the realm of values and social ethics. We can call this a "religion of breadth" because it seeks to reach out and encompass the total fabric of human life in community.

Tillich also noted that depth psychology has its counterpart in a sociology of depth that seeks to uncover the cries of the victims of our social and political system who have been hurt, abandoned or ignored by policies of indifference and greed. A religion of depth calls us to become aware of the shadow side of our social and political structures no less than the shadow side of our psyches and souls. In the last analysis soul and society reflect one another. In the depth of human history we find the human longing for a realm of love and justice, peace and reconciliation, which prophets of old have called the Kingdom of God. It is a hope born out of the struggle and suffering of countless generations of people everywhere. To get to the hope we have to embrace and heal the suffering and make it our own.

Our religious fellowship is by intent and practice a church with many open doors, many roads leading to spiritual reality, both traditional and uncharted ways, a free church for free souls, and souls longing to be free. Here we may nurture the needs of our spirits and tend to the religious dimension of our being unencumbered by restrictive creeds that cramp the soul or limit the reach of the mind--only that is, if we will dare to venture out into the deeps and seek communion with that which is deeper than ourselves and beyond ourselves because it is the very life of the universe and the light of the stars. Through a sense of communion with our deeper selves and with the source of our existence we can, as Evelyn Underhill states, "prevent that terrible freezing up of the deep wells of our being." Through communion with the deep life within us, without us, and beyond us, we reach out and touch the universal life of the world and the universal being of God. But it is we ourselves who must water the seeds of spiritual growth within us and help it to unfold. Or as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, "The just person sets his or her house in order, gaining mastery over oneself, molding the many within into one, temperate and harmonious." Such is the "deep thoughts" soul work that each of us is called to do.

In this age of increasing polarization and divisiveness, such a task will not be easy. But because of this it is all the more necessary. For we shall never build a healthy society with sick souls and distraught spirits, just as we shall never be able to nurture healthy souls in a sick and conflict-ridden society. Soul and society create and sustain one another. A religion of depth leads us into the inner life of every soul in order to relate us more constructively with the outer life of all humanity. May each of us nurture and discover our own religion of depth in concert with others. In so doing we may discover with the ancient prophet "that neither life nor death, nor height nor depth," shall be able to separate us from the source of love that brought us into being and sustains us all our days. So be it.