Spirituality & Humanism
By Ron Steelman (sort of)
The word “spirituality” is difficult to define. We Humanists equate the word with religion and even with folks who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Of course most people can’t define what “spiritual” means. With the help of some others, I will attempt this audacious feat.
[Also, see my blog post on this: “I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious” (Bronx Cheer)]
I’d like to share a good article I just read on Humanist-UK website HumanistLife. The article is Spirituality and Humanism – by Jeremy Rodell. I have selected those parts that best help to define that terrible “S-word.” I also have illustrated his article with a few of my photographs. These photos may not qualify for you as spiritual, but I hope you can enjoy them and remember for yourselves your spiritual moments. But first we must define that damn word.
Spirituality and Humanism – by Jeremy Rodell
(Here’s where I pick it up “. . .Experiential spirituality”)
“. . .here’s Andre Comte-Sponville, former Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, from his Book of Atheist Spirituality :
‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six. I had just been hired to teach high-school philosophy in a school on the edge of a canal, up in the fields near the Belgian border. That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All….
…’This is what Spinoza meant by eternity’, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’
(Headed West in 1988)
What he’s talking about is an intense human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too. Most religious people, as well as Comte-Sponville himself, as an Atheist, would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play, or the sense of wonder from seeing the stars on a dark night.
(Mt. Baldy’s Devil’s Backbone trail – over 9,000 feet down. . .on each side)
Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context:
‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’
(San Diego Harbor double rainbow with my Uncle Bob on his birthday – 3-7-92)
This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to do the same thing. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’
(Sunset Peak off the Angeles Crest Highway, CA)
There are a few things that these artistic and natural examples of ‘experiential spirituality’ have in common:
- For a start, they are non-intellectual. As Comte-Sponville found, as soon as you try to analyse what’s happening – in his case by thinking about Spinoza – it disappears. Beethoven didn’t want you to think about the structure of his music, he wanted you to be transported by it.
(Mt. San Jacinto by Palm Springs, CAds with my wife, Elaine)
- Secondly, the core of the experience is a sense of transcendence or connectedness. That may mean other people, wider humanity, the rest of the universe, or simply ‘something greater’. The experience carries with it a diminishment of the ego, sometimes to the point where there is no self-awareness, or separation between subject and object. Rather than ‘you’ looking at ‘it’, there is simply ‘looking’.
- The feeling that goes with it is powerful and positive – elation, joy, compassion. Sadly, for most people, especially those of us who tend to over-intellectualise, it’s often short-lived. We quickly come back to normality as we start to think about it.
(Kelso Dunes – Death Valley, CA)
- The final characteristic is that the experience is individual. As far as we know, the others in Comte-Sponville’s party just had a nice walk. Even sharing art with others in a concert hall, or a gallery, our experience is entirely subjective and individual.
The big difference between a religious person and a humanist in considering any type of spiritual experience is that the religious person may see it as a religious experience, a manifestation of the spiritual realm, perhaps of the divine. The humanist would say it is a subjective human experience, available to anyone, taking place in a human brain, triggered by a complex combination of external sensory inputs and internal memories and processes, and nothing to do with a spiritual realm or deity, both of which she thinks are imaginary. Spiritual experiences can even be created in the laboratory or by taking the right drugs.
(Mt. Whitney – 14,445 Ft. Scary, insanely intense. Early snow on the trail forced us off the mountain. We felt very small up there, and Wow!)
But knowing all that does little or nothing to diminish the power of the experience. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is arguably one of the defining features of our humanity.
(In the happy mirror together: transcendence and connectedness – 2004)
There is nothing magic here, just the still-mysterious characteristics of human consciousness. . . should humanists actually use the word ‘spiritual’ in this experiential sense? Other terms might do just as well to convey what we mean without confusing the two. ‘Sense of the transcendent’ maybe?
. . . This is from an article by Joe Cornish, the respected British landscape photographer:
‘For some landscape photographers, Nature’s beauty is all the evidence they need of a Divine Creator. For others, scientific curiosity reveals an alternative explanation, where over unimaginable aeons our plant has evolved into the unique wonder that is our home today. This is a form of ‘terrestrial theology’, a belief in the fundamental, non-negotiable laws of physics. It’s not by any means depressing, reductionist scientific thinking based on the inevitability of nature’s immutable laws, but a broad church which encourages compassion and wonder in the beauty that we find in landscape, and humility in the face of what the world has to teach us. There is little doubt that for many of us, landscape photography is a spiritual journey.’
Is anyone going to say to him ‘Sorry Joe, you’re obviously an atheist, so you’re not allowed to use that word’?
(“over unimaginable aeons” – Flying over the Grand Canyon – 1988)
‘Spirituality’ is an ambiguous term. . .The ambiguity lies in its breadth of meaning. . .
. . .Humanists may prefer not to use the S word if there’s another way of conveying what we mean, maybe aesthetic awareness, sense of transcendence, love of nature, or simply love. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the baggage of religious spirituality put us off if it’s the best word available, or if we need to reclaim it from those who seek to use it to exclude the non-religious.
Whatever terms we use, spiritual experience, and awareness of our own and others’ profound inner lives, are important parts of what it means to be human – and a humanist. And while this will remain an area of difference between humanists and the religious, we can also recognise it as an important area of common ground.
(Reading the notes other hikers had left for us above Death Valley atop Mt. Rose, added to our transcendent moment. The others were as thrilled and overwhelmed with this experience as we were.)
Finally, Steelman Says:
If we Humanists can define the word, then we can use it (most people can’t). The best definitions I have found. . .as of today.
Spirituality is the sense of the transcendent.
– Jeremy Rodell, Humanist UK
Spirituality is emotional and psychological well-being.
– Paula Kirby, Washington Post
Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.
– Doug Murder, UU World
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