The Way of Gratitude author and prominent Unitarian Universalist minister Galen Guengerich dives deep on faith, belonging, morality, and, of course, gratitude.
One of the leading ministers of the Unitarian Universalist faith, the charismatic and inspiring Galen Guengerich recently released his latest book, The Way of Gratitude: A New Spirituality for Today. Addressing SBNR readers in search of meaning, The Way of Gratitude serves as a sort of manifesto for gratitude-based spirituality, complete with a guided spiritual practice and gratitude goals. Here, Guengerich dives deep on faith, belonging, morality, and, of course, gratitude.
S&H: How did you discover the Unitarian Universalist faith?
Galen Guengerich: I became aware of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions (they merged in 1961) through my academic studies. On a personal level, I was drawn to their shared view that we are more alike in our common humanity than we differ in our diversity of worldviews. As human beings, we all come from the same source and share the same destiny. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us how profoundly we are connected to each other. We’re all in this together.
You left the Conservative Mennonite faith. What kept you seeking an organized faith? Why not go “full secular,” as it were?
When I left the Conservative Mennonite tradition in my 20s, I initially felt a great sense of freedom. I no longer had to listen to the Bible and church leaders tell me what to believe and how to live. But, then, something unsettling started to happen. I found myself listening to the culture around me. I realized that the same thing was happening all over again. My book describes a quest to discover a way of life based on what we ourselves know by reason and experience to be true, yet enables us to live with meaning, purpose, and joy. The way of gratitude, as I call it, recognizes that everything in the universe is made up of relationships, which is why our relationships—with ourselves, with other people, and with the natural world—matter more than anything else. For me, being part of a community of spiritual seekers has helped me follow the way of gratitude.
You use poetry to such eloquent effect in your book. Does this also hold true in your sermons? If so, that must be a treat to those listening! Do you care to share the name of a favorite poet?
Poetry has a special role to play when it comes to spirituality. It’s my view that we need a touchstone to anchor our experience of grappling with the human desire to find a meaningful place for ourselves in the larger drama of time and history. Each of the established religious traditions of the West has its own scripture: the Torah of Judaism, the Bible of Christianity, and the Quran of Islam. Likewise, one could say that the scripture of modern science is data—the touchstone of discovery and decision.
For me, poetry is the scripture of contemporary spirituality—its touchstone. Poetry has long been an essential part of my own spiritual journey. My favorite poet? Emily Dickinson, because she has penned my favorite line of poetry: “I dwell in possibility.”
You talk of the human need to belong. Do you think this explains some of the recent rise of groups organized around anti-Semitism, racism, and so forth, because even hateful groups give someone a sense of belonging?
We like to think of ourselves as independent and self-reliant, but we actually rely on the people around us and the natural world for everything that makes life as we know it possible. We also derive our identity from these relationships. Being part of a group, whether it’s a nation, a religious community, or a sports team, involves being clear about what unites us with others in our group and distinguishes us from people who aren’t. Unfortunately, one way to build group identity and cohesion is to make value judgments: People in our group are good, and people in other groups are bad—even evil. The way of gratitude calls us to champion ways of thinking and living that strengthen the relationships between and among people and the natural world.
Can you discuss the difference between being moral and being religious? Not that they don’t overlap, but a secular person can still be moral, yes?
Yes, a secular person can live by values that they believe to be universal values, such as dignity, equity, and honesty. Spiritual seekers and those who identify as religious also live by values they believe to be universal, but for somewhat different reasons. Secular people typically believe that the meaning of life is strictly an individual matter, while spiritual and religious people typically understand the meaning of their own lives within a much larger framework, which ultimately extends to include the meaning of everything. When a group of people coalesce around one particular understanding of the meaning of life and develop a satisfying way of living that nurtures and extends their view of its meaning and purpose, the result is what we typically call a religion.
You used the term “catalog of astonishment.” I love that. Can you define that for our audience?
One of the most important insights along the way of gratitude is that human beings are contingent creatures. We are not entitled to be alive in the first place, and, therefore, we shouldn’t take the gift of each new day for granted. This is not to say that life is always wonderful, nor that each new day brings only good things. But there are many good things in our lives, even astonishing things, and we need to remind ourselves of what’s in our catalog of astonishment. The poet Mary Oliver described herself in one of her poems as “married to amazement.”
Life will give you enough evidence to convict it of whatever you charge it with. We need to charge life with being unfair and brutal because it sometimes is, but we also need to charge it with being astonishing and amazing because it’s often that too.
You wrote, “Joy is our reward for gratitude.” Would you please name another reward or two?
I describe joy as our reward for living with gratitude because joy is deeper and more resilient than happiness or pleasure. We can experience joy not only when things are going our way, but also when times are tough. Another reward for living with gratitude is a feeling of satisfaction with who we are and what we are doing. We feel deeply engaged with the things that matter most. The presence of satisfaction and joy in our lives reveals that we have discovered the purpose of life—and our purpose in living.