Exploring Who We Are As Spiritual and Secular

Spiritual or mystical experience is the mirror image of
science – a direct perception of nature’s unity, the inside of the
mysteries that science tries valiantly to know from the outside.
– Marilyn Ferguson

Recently I was invited to offer a presentation at a conference that brings together people who want to encourage college-age students to engage in issues of social justice through service learning from a faith-based perspective. Most of the young people I know, despite having attended Catholic grade school and high school, are “Like, so done with religion.” They may describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Many would probably consider themselves thoroughly secular.

Even before encountering such students in a college religion class a few years ago, I have held questions about how to re-engage our society in a conversation about the role of religion, of faith, of spirituality in the development of the human person and of human societies. I decided to submit a proposal to the conference organizers to offer a workshop which would explore dimensions of faith, spirituality, secularity, and service from the perspective of evolution.

I am interested in this question of the dynamic relationship among faith, spirituality, secularity, and service because, as one of the keynote speakers asked on the first day, if all of the mainline religious traditions vanish from college life “who will ensure that the moral component continues on campus?” I later pushed him on that question, asking if he could say a little more about it. He admitted that he did not have an answer to his question, and hoped that someone at the conference would. I felt I might, but as my exploration was only in the initial stages, I didn’t pursue it with him.

While I may not have a full answer to the speaker’s question now, I feel I at least have identified a pathway towards it.  That pathway has to do with understanding not only the role of faith or spirituality but also secularity in our individual and collective development as humans.

To begin exploring this topic, I find it helpful to recognize that both faith and spirituality are defined by many scholars today as primarily concerning the human activity of meaning-making. They are about the questions I am about in this blog: Who is God? Where are we? Who are we? How are we to be here with others? Two things are important in this. The first is that this meaning-making is an activity that is largely based in our experiences. The second is that as our experiences bring us new insights that contradict our former meanings, we begin a process of transformation.

As I said earlier, several months ago when it was time to submit my proposal to the conference planning committee, I decided to place my questions about faith, spirituality, secularity, and social justice into the context of the story of evolution of our Universe, a story that I now use as a foundation for all my teaching. I wanted to know if it was possible to gain any new insight by viewing the issues we would be dealing with at the conference from within the 13.7-billion-year evolution of our Universe and our own growing understanding of the transformations that have taken, and are taking place, within that story for our human community and for us as individuals.

My discovery in this search was quite astonishing to me, and holds much excitement for me going forward. I now suspect, as perhaps you might imagine, that the movement toward the so-called “secular” may represent a stage on our growth toward maturity as a human species. I would like to begin in this post to articulate how it was that I reached that conclusion.

As I thought about how to get spirituality and secularity sorted out in my mind, two resources immediately came to mind. One is Ken Wilber’s integral worldview, and the synthesis he has created of the developmental theories related to human psychological and cultural development (1999). Another, somewhat related theory, is the cycle the development of images of God posed by the ecofeminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson (2002). I wanted to bring Johnson’s insights into the presentation because of my own conviction that the way we image God drives how we answer all the other spiritual questions. I wanted to invite people to consider this as we reflect on an expanding “godless” secular society.

I first learned of Wilber’s theory of the 4-Quadrant Kosmos in one of my graduate courses by reading his book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul. Wilber takes an evolutionary approach to reality, synthesizing in his 4-Quadrant Model of the Kosmos all of the developmental theories that emerged within the sciences in the last century.  His “integral” view suggests that all development takes place on both an internal and an external plane of reality; and that these dimensions are interrelated (1999).

For individuals, for example, as I physically (externally) develop – as my brain and nervous system take shape – my interior changes as well; that is, I become “conscious” in new and expanding ways (I change internally). At the same time, as my consciousness develops (internal), I begin to view things in a different way and behave differently, just as an infant slowly becomes aware that he or she has hands and begins to delight in extending them toward adults to be touched.

Wilber notes that the process of internal and external change happens as well for the collective (societal) internal thinking and external behaviors. In other words, as we develop new technologies (external), we change the culture – the way we think about things, what we believe. For example, until the development of the telescope Western European society believed that the Earth was at the center of the solar system. The ability to peer through a telescope changed all that.

The final important element of Wilber’s viewpoint is that all four of these aspects of existence are interrelated, and influence each other’s development. In other words, it was Galileo’s thinking that inspired him to look through a telescope and change his way of being in the world. Eventually, his new knowledge and behavior influenced society and what we collectively believe about our planet’s place in our solar system. This led us to aspire to and finally actually fly to the moon.

For me, Wilber’s theory helps us to see how our visions of the world, of ourselves, and of God have continually transformed through the millennia of human reflection and action. We have articulated those visions with symbols. From cave paintings to medieval works of art, and now to the image of our Earth from space, such images have helped us to understand our place among the community of creation. However, because as individuals we live within our own culture almost blind to its influence, we often do not have an awareness of when the inner transformations – the stages of growth and development – are occurring.

We more easily recognize the stages of transformation as they go on around us externally. We see water transform into ice, caterpillars transform into butterflies, babies grow into grandparents. We are not, within Western culture, as experienced at noticing internal transformations. We are less able to recognize, even allow, them to go on in our own interior and within the consciousness of others. In fact, we find these moments of transformation frightening, especially if they threaten long-held beliefs.

But, it is important that we know how transformation happens, on both the individual and society level. I am convinced now that this is important because it will help us understand where and how secularity fits into this process.

First, though, I need to share a few definitions of secularity that I discovered in my research for my workshop.  I learned that secularity is not a new phenomenon. It is said to have originated in the Greek philosophical duality of the temporal and spiritual. That philosophy envisioned a moral system of social and political life not based in the injunctions of a “divine.”

The book that found me with while I was looking for this information is by a Catholic priest named Ronald Rolheiser called, Secularity And The Gospel: Being Missionaries To Our Children. Rolheiser views secularity as “the adolescent offspring of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” because as any adolescent, it questions authority and dismisses former beliefs and rules about the way the world works (2006, pp. 202-203).

I find Rolheiser’s image comparing secular people and society to an adolescent child intriguing, especially in light of my recent reading of Sharon Daloz Parks, who ponders questions of young adult faith development in her book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. She says this about what it means to eventually achieve full adulthood: “Adult connotes ones having achieved the composition of the critically aware self, with its attendant responsibility for the self” (p. 70).

She further explains how at this stage of adulthood, people are able to deal with the complexities of life through their faith: “…the movement to mature adult faith [is] a three-step process whereby…adolescent meaning-making develops into a critical-systemic faith…which then evolves into a mature adult faith that can hold both conviction and paradox”(pp. 12-13, emphasis added).

This very brief explanation of the three-fold movement from adolescence to adulthood says to me maybe secularity is not such a bad thing. Maybe it is helping us individually and as a species to grow up.

Finally, the ability of an adult of which Daloz Parks speaks to hold in one’s consciousness both conviction and paradox is for me a key point in creating the pathway to the reconciliation of faith and secularity. It suggests that going forward we need to be able to hold onto with conviction the paradox that there is and there isn’t a God. There isn’t the God we thought we knew, but there may be a God that we haven’t met yet.  And that thought is enough to get me through this day.

Daloz Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. [1st edition] Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, E. A. (2002) She who is: The mystery of God in feminist theological discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad.

Rolheiser, R. (2006) Secularity and the gospel: Being missionaries to our children. New York, NY: Crossroad.

Wilber, K. (1999). The marriage of sense and soul: Integrating science and religion. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

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