This essay was originally published in my e-book, Nature is Enough (2013). Selected essays, including the one here, were posted on the Nature is Enough website. A version of the essay below was published on State of Formation, the online forum of the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue. I think the questions raised are even more valid and critical in our time. What do you think?
The End of Spirituality:
On the Trail to a Sacred Secularity
Many of us are tired of hearing the contemporary cliche, “Spiritual but not Religious.” We might be surprised to hear someone say “I’m Religious but not Spiritual” though that may simply be an example of a person who does not connect to the word “spiritual”–they may like the word Religion or religious, or judge “spiritual” as being too closely associated with recently invented religions, shallow anti-intellectualism or fringe movements (and maybe it is).
Whatever the semantics, all of this signals game-time for scholars and students of religious history and study. Teams are formed (called schools, seminaries, blogs, etc), ideas are tossed around, each side scores points and sometimes a winner is declared. Books are published, new “spiritual (or religious) stars” arise, until the next challenger steps up to throw out a new, agitating idea. It can all be great fun–a fine distraction. Or a deadly serious distraction.
At least since the un-dramatic moment when I left my ordination at the altar a decade ago, a troubling question has been pinging in my mind: Are we near to the end of this slippery thing called Spirituality as we have known it–or not known it? After this disturbing question downloads, another couple quickly upload: Could some kind of Sacred Secularity take its place, and what would that mean for historic Religions as well as perceptions of personal connections to the Sacred? I’m not convinced that most people, and perhaps especially the Proud Progressives, are ready to “friend,” “like” or thumbs up! this one. The urge to delete the disturbance might be just a little too great.
When I used to teach courses in World Wisdom I would urge students to read the source texts as the primary means of hooking the wisdom of the past. For many this was their first time reading the Qur’an, the Tao, the Dhammapada, the Gita or even the Bible in the context of all the totemic Texts. And this was always directly plugged into meeting people of various faiths and visiting synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. Then and only then could the most “real” questions be asked so the “real” education could emerge. We discussed the stunning fact that most if not all of the so-called Great Spiritual Teachers from Abraham to Lao Tzu to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammad to Zoroaster (and maybe some of their hidden female companions) had their original experience of something called Spirituality in the wild places–forests, mountains, deserts, countrysides, etc.
It can be quite a wake-up for some to realize that Religions did not originate by praying in a Holy House or by reading a Sacred Scripture. The origin of something that came to be packaged, stamped and sent out as Spirituality was in Nature–a direct experience of the natural world. How do you package that? How do you send it? For reference see the History of Religion.
My own vocation as an Interfaith Chaplain among outsiders and castaways confirmed the seismic impact of going into the wilderness (though it be a steel cave of a jail cell or the concrete forest of street life) to discover what rarely if ever makes an appearance on a Friday evening or Sunday morning. Now there’s something troubling! If anything is “discovered” in marginal ministry it may not simply look like God but the God-awful and God-damned. Hard to get a handle on these things, other than the faces, names, lives of each individual and the wild edges of our packaged and stamped “communities” where the despised and damned simply strive to survive.
A college student taking a course in environmental ethics asked me if I thought the earth was sacred. After a pause, I responded by saying that I could answer “yes” but the rest of the page would be one long footnote. I said that as soon as you name a piece of ground (or book, or person) “sacred” then all else becomes “secular” and I’m really fine with Secularity–in its primary meaning as this present world. I really don’t know how to relate to anything else.
In my opinion we are now facing a moment in history when any and all divisive, separatist terms (such as “sacred” or even “spiritual”), concepts, beliefs, books or traditions must be fully justified–if they can be–by extended footnotes. That is, if anything disconnects the human family from itself or its home (the eco from the logy or the ecu from the menical) it should be forcefully detained and interrogated for relevance, cross-examined as an unhelpful obstacle or clear and present danger for destruction to persons, communities or the planet itself.
I would present that Religion and Spirituality themselves fall within this arena for open critique, eventual museum display or perhaps immediate shredding. If these are found to be clearcutting the forests of Reason or poisoning the drinking water of billions on the globe (literally or not), decisive action must be taken. In that mobilizing action, collaborative coalitions will arise to lead the way forward without appeal to “higher” authorities. We the People (of the Planet) have to live here, now, and do what must be done, naturally–according to Nature, which includes our nature. We too must meet our “Greater Spirit” (“better angel”) in the wild places (be they mountains or rivers, prisons or streets) even as we learn from our world and preserve it for generations ahead. As Emerson said, we have no need to look over our shoulders to those who faced their God in the past when we can face that Creative Reality fully and fearlessly today.
This is all of course a great threat to the hand-me-downs of our historic religious traditions. Yet we know that religions come and go or at least mutate and evaporate. One is born; another dies. Stronger religions beat out the weak–survival of the faithfully fittest. But could it be that it is time to acknowledge an evolutionary leap in the Ontological Olympics? Could it be argued that “spirituality” as an imagined connection to a Super above, behind and beyond the Natural, has run its course, lost its momentum and meaning, and Religion itself has dropped out of the race to relevance? Could both theists and non-theists at least ask the questions, and have a conversation? Could the discussion lead to decisive, collaborative responses to real needs in our (common) world? Let’s hope so.
Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote,
“In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. . . .‘Spirit’ comes from the Latin word ‘to breathe.’ What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter. . .or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word.
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. . . . The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark)
If we choose to juggle and struggle along with this slippery something called Spirituality, it seems to me that Sagan’s sensible and sensate scientific spirituality makes immense sense for us today. In a deeply divided world where people, their lands and the interrelations of the environment are being threatened or destroyed every day we need to explore some common ground–literal dirt, soil, something to stand on. Theists and Non-Theists need to engage it all, to work side by side in the present, natural world, putting aside needless and unhelpful divisive, distractive debates over Super-Nature.
Heaven’s golden pavement no longer offers a safe ride and holy books no longer provide much more than torn and yellowed road maps for one tribe to drive over another. We need a GPS that locates our place among many and includes those across borders (physical and mental). We need a Google Earth mentality that spins us around (and reminds us of our axis), forcing us to “get real” and a real perspective of where we live and how small and inter-related we are. We have to ask ourselves and each other: What is the alternative?
As was once said of The Poor, religious communities will always be with us. Religion will always offer something to download and install–with adequate firewalls in place. But Nature is the ultimate and final organic link we have to our own humanity and this present world. All the links are posted and clearly presented for our connecting click. Networking may be the only true work left to us.
What if we seriously considered the practice of a Sacred Secularity, a direct and common experience of what is, what we face as a species among species, from water to air to energy, from economies, to housing, justice, rights and communities? What if? Without a need to fall on our knees beneath something or someone outside Nature we can sink in the soil to plant seeds of secularity, to admit we are a wonderful, even “sacred” (amazingly delightful) mix of mostly water and air and earthy dirt. Could we grow to better “recognize our place in [the] immensity” and discover that what we used to call the Spiritual Path is a pilgrimage closer to home than we ever imagined, a trail laced with breath, bones and blood, with ancient stones, verdant moss, leafy branches, twisted roots and much more?
With a deep breath and a courageous sense of adventure, we may open ourselves to the magnificence, the landscapes never seen, alongside our furry, feathered, finned companions who may just lead us beyond religion, beyond spirituality, even beyond words. . . ?
August 2011, brief edits in 2020