“Sacred Pathways: The Naturalist and The Sensate”

September 14, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Sept. 14, 2014


“Sacred Pathways: The Naturalist & The Sensate”

Psalm 23


Several years ago, I accompanied Eric on a business trip to San Francisco.  During the day, he was taking classes on how to administer & teach the Myers/Briggs inventory for personality types.  While he was in class, I explored the San Francisco area and took a tour of wine country!  We met up in the evenings and exchanged stories.  Each evening, he had a few new revelations about why people we knew related in different ways.  He was so enthralled with the intricacies of how different personalities responded to similar situations.  Through the eyes of Myers/Briggs, he gained an appreciation for a variety of personality profiles, and the strengths and weaknesses of each profile.


It occurred to me that we needed a similar approach to spirituality – a healthy and positive way to understand that people relate to God in a variety of ways, and that no particular way is right or wrong.  The sermon series that began last week is an exploration of various spiritual pathways – different and equally acceptable ways of demonstrating our love for God.  I am using Gary Thomas’ book “Sacred Pathways; Discover Your Soul’s Pathway to God” as my major resource for this series.  In the book, Thomas defines 9 different pathways, and like many of these types of exercises, there are some basic presuppositions:

  1. There is no “best” or “right” spiritual pathway to God
  2. Most Christians have more than one pathway we prefer. We may have a dominant pathway and several secondary pathways we use.
  3. There are strengths and weaknesses for each pathway.


Given those presuppositions, my goals for this sermon series are to:

  • Increase our awareness of various ways to relate to God so that we can understand ourselves and other’s ways of spiritual enrichment
  • Offer some new ideas to expand and enrich our spiritual journeys


The two spiritual pathways we will talk about today are what Thomas calls the Naturalist and the Sensate.  If you want to take a little survey to help determine what your dominant spiritual pathway is, there is a link on our church website, and Facebook page to take the survey.  If you don’t want to do it electronically, the ushers will have a handout for you at the end of today’s service.


The Naturalist is a person who would prefer to leave a building – however beautiful or austere – to pray to God beside a river.  Leave the books behind, forget the demonstrations, and just let this person take a walk in the woods, mountain hike or bike, or gaze at a field of daises.  Naturalists believe that nature itself proclaims, “God is!”  They may learn more from watching an ant colony or looking at a peaceful lake than from reading a book or listening to a sermon.  Their favorite scriptures are likely the parables of Jesus based in nature, or the psalms.  Think about all the Biblical encounters with God that occurred outside … in the wilderness, the desert, the mountain, or at the river.  In fact, as I think about it I don’t recall anyone meeting God in a building.  Listen to this ancient text through the ears of the Naturalist….


The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.

 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.                                                Psalm 23


Naturalists have learned lessons in the out-of-doors.  At least three lessons we can all learn from a naturalist are seeing scriptural truths more clearly, seeing God more clearly, and learning to rest.  Looking at a rose, a naturalist may discern that beauty is often mixed in life with hidden thorns.  St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “You will find more laboring in the woods than you ever will among books.  Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”


In the midst of a hectic schedule in ministry, Jesus often looked for a quiet place to pray and be replenished.  He actually taught his disciples to do the same.  Imagine what today’s church (or even our church) would think of Jesus – the minister – always leaving the building and the city to recharge his batteries!  We are told that Jesus often escaped to “a quiet place” and took his disciples out on a boat to rest because being surrounded by water is a most refreshing experience.


Earlier, I mentioned that each spiritual pathway has strengths and weaknesses.  Some of the potential drawbacks for a naturalist are the inclination to become isolated.  While Jesus did escape to the quiet of a mountain, he did it to prepare for an active ministry.  The naturalist needs to be cautious about using nature to escape from the active work of being a follower of Jesus.  Another potential drawback is the temptation to have too much introversion.  The out-of-doors can shrink our world with too much introspection.  The third caution for a naturalist is idolatry.  The worship of nature itself is called pantheism.  There is a difference between saying, “The earth is the Lord’s” and “The earth is the Lord”.


Having voiced those cautions, however, I would encourage you to try a naturalist activity this week to enrich your spiritual journey.  Grab a jacket, pick up a walking stick, and step outside into a school that never closes!


The second sacred pathway I want to talk about today is the Sensate.  Sensate Christians want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendor of God.  They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, and the grand.  When these Christians worship, they are filled with the sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them.  Incense, intricate architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.


For those of us who are not sensates, the whole discussion about whether to have a Roman Catholic Mass in Latin or in English was a ridiculous exercise.  But for sensates, who experience God’s presence in ritual language, it was a discussion of vital importance.  But you don’t need to be a Catholic to have a sensate pathway as your dominant spiritual path.  There are some who feel close to God through the sounds of a large pipe organ.  Others appreciate religious art and through it, have a vision of the Sacred.  Not only art, but also religious architecture is another vehicle through which Sensates experience God.


There is a lot of scripture to demonstrate that humans experience God through the senses.  The glory of God in heaven is described in the Bible as an elaborate affair and rarely quiet, to say the least.  Consider Ezekiel’s description of approaching God: he first feels a wind, then sees flashes of lightning, a brilliant light, fantastic creatures, and a magnificent and stunning throne of sapphire casting off another blinding light.  He hears the roar of rushing water, the sound of wings, and a loud rumbling.  He is asked to eat a scroll that tastes sweet.  And all of this is so religiously enthralling that he sits down, stunned, for seven whole days.


Although we may not be able to personally identify with Ezekiel, consider how many of us are drawn to midnight Christmas Eve services with rich tradition.  There is a part of us that needs the candlelight, the music, the ambiance, and the sensuous power of the ritual that we will stay up and go to an unfamiliar church just to have that experience.


Christians who are on a Sensate path must be careful to avoid some pitfalls.  Some of you may have had an experience in your past of “going forward” at an altar call because you were especially wrapped up in the moment and then later questioning what was really going on.  Sensates can be drawn into a false sense of worship when the senses take control over the spiritual.  These sensuous experiences are for the purpose of leading us to God.  If we stop along the way because we are caught up in the senses, we’ve missed the point.  Or, if we are lured into a false sense of spirituality by the power of our sense, we’ve again missed the point.


Having said that let me recommend to you that if you want to increase your spiritual connection, you may want to try experimenting with things that speak to your senses.  In fact, this week in seminary, one of Paul’s assignments was to make homemade bread.  Why would a seminary suggest such a task for a master’s level student?  To be clear, it was one of several choices the students had – walk a labyrinth, bake bread… the point was to expand their spiritual experiences beyond what was normal or customary.


A simple cross, a stick of incense, a CD of music or your own music, a piece of artwork are all ways to invoke the Holy.  The five senses are undoubtedly God’s most effective inroad to our hearts.


The holy part in each of us has a great desire to be a part of something bigger.  We are all on a journey with God, seeking those holy moments in the everyday.  As your minister and as your co-journeyer, I urge you to seek and explore new ways to enhance and deepen that sacred path.





Resource Used:

Thomas, Gary.  “Sacred Pathways; Discover Your Soul’s Path to God”.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.  1996.