Secular Spirituality: An Oxymoron?

A secular spirituality, far from being an oxymoron, brings heaven down to earth, and encourages everyone to be their own priest.
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Is there an innate spiritual impulse independent of the fear of death and of religion itself? I have never been able to espouse any religion, even as I have been attracted to various elements in all of them. I am often moved by religious art and architecture in all its forms, for example; and by Sufi poetry or Gregorian chant, both of which raise the pitch of my heart and mind beyond their usual octave.

Yet there is also an echo of something in all religions that goes deeper for me than art appreciation. I have always had the intuition, felt in the marrow and not just in the mind, (a feature of my temperament, shared by many) that we live on the edge of a fullness of life that, while constantly available, seems all too often to be just out of reach. A lack, or sense of incompleteness, that gives rise to a longing for something beyond the known, and that cannot be spoken. No wonder the Jews leave out the vowels in YHVH.

Sometimes, whether through meditation, a walk in the woods, or being in love, or any number of catalysts, the incompleteness, the separateness, falls away and we feel less ourselves than part of everything; joined to a life both larger and more knowing than ourselves alone. More knowing, because in those moments we are a speck in the endless web of life, and yet joined even to the intelligence of the wheeling stars; a web that has no need of a computer terminal. Indra's net, the Hindus call it.

A life more knowing, and yet ever a mystery to our ordinary mind; a mystery with horizons that stretch away the more we gaze into it. An anonymous English writer in the 14th century called it The Cloud of Unknowing. Rumi and Hafiz, the two great Persian poets of Sufism, couched the experience in the language of lover and beloved. So too did Christian writers like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Hindus like Ramakrishna and Tagore, and countless others.

This flow of longing into an awareness of belonging and back into longing again is, I suggest, the original and naked religious impulse. It is common to human beings everywhere throughout time; and it is this that has been concretized and systematized into different belief systems around the world. It itself, however, is prior to belief of any kind.

The poet Rilke urged us to live the question rather than settle for easy answers. To live the question in this regard surely means being willing to feel and explore that eternal itch -- to experience its poignancy, its pleasure and pain -- and then the awe, the wonder, the beauty, the deep peace and fullness that may come as the wave hits the shore -- without either dismissing or explaining away any part of the cycle.

The fullness I refer to has nothing to do with thinking or believing. It is a spontaneous emergence of clarity, peace, aliveness, connectedness -- truth and beauty if you will -- and all for no reason. We might justly call it an authentic expression of the human spirit; and as such it is the source of spirituality, unbound by any religion of any kind.

The intuition of a larger life which embraces everything that lives and breathes is a felt sense rather than a thought or a concept. Reason, after all, is just one kind of knowing; felt sense, another. The one, more objective, gives rise to secular humanism, while the other, more subjective, can give rise to a personal and secular form of spirituality. Both can arise independently of external beliefs, and both are the fruit of a questioning mind.

Both are concerned with compassionate action in this world and not with rewards in some hypothetical afterlife. The abolition of slavery, the right to vote for all colors and both sexes; human rights, animal rights, environmental protections - all these extraordinary accomplishments of the human spirit surely add up to more lasting good done in the service of humanity than all the religions of the world together.

You may say that these extensions of the circle of life to include the previously disenfranchised are simply a reflection, not only of an age of enlightenment but also of the mirror neurons that we now know make us empathic creatures who can identify with a We as well as an I. But do mirror neurons account for the ecstatic love poetry of Rumi?

I wonder whether this We also reflects something of a larger reality still, beyond the neurons firing in our brain; whether it is a felt awareness of a dimension beyond the separate sense of self, one in which we are one body, one mind, with everything that lives and breathes. Not only that, but that there is an inscrutable wisdom in the way it all works. Not the wisdom of some Creator looking on bemusedly at his creation, but a wisdom and intelligence inherent in all creation itself.

Do I know this to be true? I can only say I recognize it to be true -- I remember it to be true -- in a region not accessible by my reasoning mind. In his book The Ego Tunnel, the German philosopher and radical materialist, Thomas Metzinger, argues persuasively that absolutely everything we experience, however cosmic it may seem, happens only within the confines of our own brain. He may be right; though we have no way of knowing. In the meantime, I will take that tremor of recognition until my experience tells me otherwise.

A secular spirituality, far from being an oxymoron, brings heaven down to earth, and encourages everyone to be their own priest. It bows in recognition of the extraordinary mystery that we are living in this very moment, without packaging it up in a neat bow of explanation. Bowing in a gesture of wonder and awe, not to any god or deity, but, as W.S. Merwin says in his poem, For The Anniversary of My Death,
bowing not knowing to what.

Roger Housden's new book, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye will be published by Harmony Books on February 21st. You can pre-order it on Amazon.

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