A few years ago I was giving a talk in a church near my home. During the question period a man stood and said that his young daughter had died recently, and he felt a strong need to talk to her every day. At the same time, he didn’t want to be naïve or simple-minded with his spirituality. Should he continue to talk to his daughter or be more realistic, he wanted to know.
I could have assured him that his daughter was up in heaven, looking down on him and hearing his thoughts. When Ted Kennedy died, I heard several priests say similarly that he was now reunited with his brothers. Or I could have told him to find a constructive way to honor the memory of his daughter and be more adult about the situation.
In fact, I said to him that we modern people live within a limited circle of understanding. We believe in facts and a material world, one that we can see and touch. We absorb these rationalistic and materialist values and feel compelled to remain within the circle. But there is liberation to be had by stepping outside that circle and shedding some of the scientific narrow-mindedness that is so much a part of it. You, I said to the man, can go beyond that circle, where your skepticism is haunting you, and find comfort in freely talking to you daughter. We don’t know how these things work, but it isn’t necessary to know.
I have no taste for the sentimental language that is so much a part of religious and spiritual conversations, and, like my questioner, I don’t want to give in to overly sentimental practices. I don’t want to be told to “be in the light,” because darkness is an important part of the human condition. I don’t want to be told that my spiritual leader is a shepherd and I’m among the sheep or flock. This kind of talk, common in certain churches, reeks of sentimentality and may contain hidden power agendas.
I define sentimentality in these situations as accepting only the bright half of an idea and rejecting the problematic or dark side. If you sentimentalize marriage, you ignore its challenges and struggles. If you sentimentalize community, you may expect total harmony and discourage dissonant voices. If you sentimentalize spiritual leadership, you give too much away and don’t take enough responsibility for yourself.
Since this kind of sentimentality is one-sided, you identify with the sunny value, and the rejected dark elements operate from the shadows unconsciously — and often destructively. A spiritual leader may well believe that he wants only good for the people he serves, but darker motives may hide in the background and cause extra trouble for being unrecognized.
There is a kind of sentimentality that is pure affection and good will. We need plenty of that variety. But there is another kind that is symptomatic and neurotic. It infects the spiritual life because spirituality champions the highest values. Spiritual organizations may have the darkest shadow precisely because of their high-minded goals. Spiritual people especially may need to reflect on this issue of sentimentality because it weakens the very ideas and values that they hold precious.
In my own life as a theologian, I have been guided by intelligent writers like Abraham Heschel, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They used spiritual language thoughtfully and creatively, without sacrificing their power to inspire. I don’t mean that you have to be hyper-intellectual to have a sober, weighty spiritual idea; you simply have to be aware of the weakening effect of sentimentality. You blend its positive outlook with the problems and intricacies that are unavoidable, and you come up with a something complete and genuine.
The solution to sentimentality in spiritual matters isn’t to become only dark and realistic. Instead, you can see the value of complexity, subtlety, and the constant application of intelligence. The man who spoke about his daughter was worried about being sentimental. It was a good impulse, and I believe it had an answer: respond to your feelings, but never surrender your intelligence.
Thomas Moore’s newest book is Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels (Hay House, May 2009). See careofthesoul.net.