varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality”

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Series Index

I’ll admit that it has taken me longer than I would have liked to get around to writing a summary of my thoughts about the conference (which was now a month ago!), but “late” and “never” are still two different categories.

The first thing that I’d like to offer comments on deals with the papers offered by many of the conference speakers. A common theme among many of the presenting scholars was a search for something along the lines of a “secular spirituality,” though the shape of that quest was portrayed diversely by those considering it a worthwhile goal.

Simon During described in great detail a particular moment in which a novel’s main character finds an ordinary street corner, on an otherwise drab afternoon, to be suddenly and spectacularly remarkable. He refrains from attaching any meaning to the conjunction of cement, pavement, tufts of grass in the cracks, and sunshine, but nonetheless finds the sheer existence of such a scene, its “here-ness,” to be an uplifting and motivating experience. The unlikeliness of the whole thing coming together in just this way is cause for something like reverence—but it is a reverence entirely bound within the scene itself. During calls this a moment of “mundanity” and he speaks of the “mundane” as something which exists outside both the religious and the secular.

Both religion and secularity, in During’s mind, presume too much. Religion presumes to explain the deeper significance of such a scene as this by burdening it with determinate meaning, while “secularity” presumes to strip the scene of its wonder (a superfluity) and get on with the business of economic growth, rational control, and paving paradise.

Courtney Bender’s paper pushed toward something similar, a recognition of the depth and even “transcendence” of the world in which we live without tying that transcendence to set institutions, beliefs and practices that control the lives of others.

I am sympathetic with the two the urges that I see motivating this search—“sympathetic” in the sense that I feel the pull of both these instincts, even though I ultimately follow them elsewhere.

The first is a sense that the reductive and mechanistic modes of thinking that characterize much economic thought, large swaths of twentieth-century positivistic philosophy, and a small-but-vocal cohort of contemporary atheists who claim to value the most significant aspects of human life (i.e. ethics, personality, consciousness, altruistic love) but seem simultaneously dismiss them through naturalistic genealogy. There is something metaphysically necessary to human flourishing which is excluded and suppressed when human beings presume to understand, control, explain, and manipulate the entirety worldly existence. There is a “something more” which is lost in the totalizing schemes of that project, even if it is only the ability to marvel at a particular patch of pavement. In the face of this reduction, people have been trying to recover something like a “spirituality” for centuries now—because even Dawkins can’t live consistently within his own system. Along these lines, I too feel the pinch of positivist and reductive modes of thinking, and long for wider and more colorful spaces—though “spirituality” of the secular type seems hopelessly off track.

On the other side, many people regard religious allegiance in any organized form as an outdated, irrational, historically violent, and culturally distasteful form of life. The push toward the secular is a push away from the painful damage that religion has supposedly caused throughout history. Indeed, there is a great degree to which the story of secularization is the story of increasing personal freedom from the impingement of outside authorities. Religious allegiance carries with it a great curtailment of personal autonomy, whether under God or some human representative (or both). So the drive for secular spirituality is an attempt to maintain a fully-orbed notion of what it means to be human, without being subject to the claims and control of institutions, doctrinal constraints, or obligatory practices—all of which quickly become “inauthentic.”

The terminus and deepest expression of a secular spirituality—so far as I can trace that path out—looks something like Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of the world “as is.” The person who can will to repeat his life ad infinitum, even in its darkest and most bitter moments has a relationship with the immanent which simultaneously transcends the immanent (insofar as it places an infinite value on things just the way they are) and refuses to look beyond the infinite (insofar as it refuses to look for “solutions” or “improvements” for the world’s condition). By affirming life just as he finds it, Nietzsche’s protagonist evades any reduction of “being human” to the roles cast for him in biological, economic, religious, or political terms. By placing an infinite weight on what he can make of his life (expressing his “will to power”), he negates any transcendent claim on his life. He strives to change the world around him, not because he has a normative vision for the way things “should be,” but because he wants to express his control.

Nietszche rightly recognized that such a life would require an intense devotion to one’s own aesthetic sensibility—and a determination to mold the world into that form which demands nothing less that an ascetic withdraw from all else. It is the imposition of a kingdom of one’s own making, and it is not merely incidental that Nietzsche is both utterly opposed to and utterly transfixed by Jesus Christ.

Now, it is not my assertion that those presenters at the Varieties of Secularism conference who advocate some form of “secular spirituality” have pretensions to being ubermenschen, nor that they have any deep affinity for Nietszche himself. I will, however, argue that the moral lights of such a spirituality are necessarily drawn in a parasitic fashion from the very religious forms that it seeks to negate. If I am correct that the high-point of “secular spirituality” is something like Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of the world, then morality is only “fixed” by the aesthetic whims of the masters (or the back-handed-but-servile whims of the resentful slaves) and subsequently, protestations about the violent history of religion are groundless. Rather, those protestations are genealogically dependent upon a faith which gives some essential (yes, even metaphysical) equal-footing to human beings in the scope of a story which transcends all human strength and weakness.

In short, I am asserting that at its best, a secular spirituality in the terms discussed at the conference a month ago can only practice a watered-down version of agape by perceiving neighbors as the bearers of some abstract “human dignity” without provenance. Insofar as this secular spirituality succeeds, it will be theologically insipid, a ramshackle collection of therapeutic techniques for attaining wholeness (itself a self-defined state of being). Insofar as it (purposefully) fails to recognize the moral sources upon which it parasitically draws, it is subject to being co-opted by any strong cultural force whose reconfiguration of social sensibilities draws people into conformity with another moral schema. By refusing to attend to Christ’s leadership, it awaits that of the ubermensch.

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