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Spirituality in a Secular World

This was a talk delivered in 1983 by Ron Miller for Ekklesia, an organization of Catholic Women. This bound, 22-page, 8”x11” booklet was given to me in late 2012 by a relative of ours from St. Louis. Ron had given it to another relative back when it was published. I feel very fortunate to have been given this booklet and am so pleased to be able to share it with you all.


I was recently asked on a student survey, a sociological survey, what I thought our nation most needed and I answered rather cryptically, a myth. And I’m sure that puzzles whatever group of students that piece of paper went back to, because in the area of comparative religions (and that is where I’ve done a major part of my graduate work) we use myth differently from the way it is used in ordinary language. We don’t use myth to mean fable. We use myth to mean a symbol in narrative form and we use symbol not as an arbitrary sign, but we use symbol as a very special word talking about reality that has two sides to it, one side that connects with us and one side that connects with what is infinite, what is transcendent, what is ultimate. So that a symbol serves like a window. It connects us with a larger reality and there is that side of the windmill which lets the light of that larger reality through to us and there is that side of the window which allows us to look out at that larger reality. Symbols are our windows to the absolute. Symbols aren’t less than ordinary kinds of reality. They are not deficient modes of reality. They are special modes of reality. It is interesting that in early Christian tradition the dogmas that were produced and collected were put together in a book called, Enchiridion Symbolorum a Treasury of Symbols. In Greek the word ‘symbol’ would be used to refer to the dogmatic declaration of a specific council. When we speak about “the symbol of Chalcedon” or “the symbol of Constantinople”, it was a term used by the Greek fathers to refer to a teaching or dogma. It is also a term that we use in sacramental theology in understanding a sacrament as a symbol, namely what which connects us to the deeper reality, that which is more than what it appears to be at its surface level, that which has a face to us and a face to transcendance, to ultimacy and is therefore a connecting link. This is why in terms of Christian theology Jesus Himself can be spoken of as the Sacrament of God, as God’s primary sacrament. And, therefore, Jesus Himself, can be spoken of as the Symbol of God. And since myth is symbol in narrative form, then the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the essential mythic structure of Christianity, just as Jesus is the central symbol of Christianity.

I want to at least introduce you to the very positive way in which these terms ‘symbol’ and ‘myth’ are used in the study of world religions. So, when I said that our country needs a myth, that is what I meant. I meant that we are fragmented, alienated. Any counselors I talk to in college situations say that the primary characteristic of the college generation today is this feeling of alienation. That is no secret. I have been working with college students for twenty years and there is no secret that that is the case. It is no secret that that is the case not only with college students but with so many people in our nation. Anxiety, fears, paranoia, alienation, a sense of fragmentation — this characterizes a great deal of American life. And consequently, my response was we need a mythic structure. We need a connecting link to what is ultimate. But, what do we have instead? This is the main division of what I’ll be talking about today. I’m going to be talking about that I think that essential myth can be, but first of all, I am going to talk about two alternatives which I believe are being offered.

The first alternative we are being offered is something that is sometimes called ‘secular humanism’ or in the writings of Huston Smith the modern Western mind-set. He abbreviates it MWM in his essays so he doesn’t have to keep writing it. And what is this MWM? It is, in a way, the air we breathe. It is the popular mentality of Western civilization today, the way we have been socialized to think, especially during the last 400 years (because the modern Western mind-set really starts in about the l7th Century and is dominant up to our own day). We don’t reflect on it much because it is so prevalent that we don’t think about it. Just as we don’t think much about the air we breathe.

This is the importance, of course, of learning another language, going to another country. Because that is when you become aware of who you are and what language you yourself speak. Many people find that they first l earn their mother tongue when they learn another language. Because then you can become reflectively aware, for the first time, of how you put things together in your own language, how you say things in your own language, how you pay attention to reality in your own language. And each language has a different way of paying attention to reality. This is sometimes very striking and has great philosophical repercussions and sometimes it is very trivial. When I stayed in Germany I remember laughing one day just at the fact that in what we call a vacuum cleaner we are focusing on the vacuum, from vacuus, the Latin word for empty. We think of it as something that cleans because it has space. It has emptiness. And it is true that when the vacuum cleaner is full or clogged up you are not going to do much cleaning with it. So, in the English language we focus on the fact that it cleans because it is a vacuum. In German it is called a Staubsauger, which means “a dust sucker.” Because the German mind sees it going around sucking up dust. Now, we focus on the empty space and the German language focuses on the dust that is being sucked up. And there are two different ways of paying attention to that same reality. And when you l earn another language you’ll have to pay attention to your own reality in a new way.

All of this is extremely important in the teaching of religion. We have to recognize that the religious message is proclaimed to people who speak a certain language and who have been acculturated and socialized in a particular way. They have been trained to pay attention to reality in a particular way. I think this is an often neglected part of religious teaching or preaching. I think that it is very important to pay attention o how the people you are speaking to have been acculturated and socialized. Now how have we been socialized in the last 400 years?

I was re-reading not too long ago a new edition of Descartes’ Meditations. Having completed his university career, he found himself most satisfied with his mathematical pursuits, because they gave him clarity and a precision of development that was pleasing to his mind. And then he mused, l I wonder if this mathematical method could be applied to everything that is knowable. And I really got goose bumps as I read that because I realized that because of the impact of Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy, unwittingly, he was really setting us on a particular course, which we would pursue for 400 years. We began to think of thinking in a certain way. We began to think about life in a certain way that has led us to the point where we identify knowing with that particular kind of process which is done by a computer. That is why it is not at all coincidental that the computer has appeared with such an impact in our present situation. The computer is a mirror of ourselves. A computer is a reflection of how we understand ourselves, that part of our intellectual powers which we have legitimated, validated, given credibility to. And that is why many people have very legitimate fears that they are going to be replaced by a computer. Because they only see their own knowing powers in so far as they reproduce the things computers do. I really doubt that Teresa of Avila would have worried about being replaced by a computer. But, because we have imaged ourselves as a computer and have created a computer as a mirror of our own society, we now fear the computer in some way, because it looks too much like us, or too much like the part of us which we have been paying attention to.

We have been socialized, brainwashed if you want to put it that way, for just to teach a person a language is to brainwash him, because every language has a certain perspective on reality. We have been socialized and brainwashed to pay attention to quantifiable reality, empirical reality, observable reality. These are the premises out of which we think without even being aware of it. It is very important, I think, to pay attention to it and to understand that this is not simply the way things are; this is a particular focus on reality.

I heard something the other night on TV which was both baffling and humorous to me. It was a report on people who had near death experiences. Perhaps some of you saw the program. People who had the experience were a good deal more religious. They had a great deal more peace about the prospect of dying. They had been sensitized; their consciousness had been raised in a very real way. They were much more open to the possibilities of dimensions of experience beyond what is immediately and empirically discernible. And then they had a guest psychologist on the program who said, “Well, of course, this can’t possibly refer to any sort of real, life after death, but this is very easy to explain because we understand that the organism fearing death develops a kind of vision of hearing God or sense of future to help the biological organism to die with less trauma and fear.” And I couldn’t help laughing at this. Which is more difficult to believe, that one does indeed die into that reality, that larger reality we call God, or to believe that out of this primordial ooze there was a molecular development of such sophistication that it has finally decided that it would alleviate our death pains by giving us a vision of God? Although there is no God and there is no life after death, we actually have such clever molecules that they are giving all of us this fantasy just to make death easier for us. And I asked myself, which is easier to believe? To believe that molecules are getting up and dancing to that kind of tune or to believe that these people are saying that their near death experience did, indeed, give them some experience of a dimension of consciousness that transcends that ordinary consciousness that we identify with in terms of our biological organism.

This psychologist is an example of someone who is working within a specific set of parameters and is incapable of even entertaining the possibility that there might be further dimensions of human experience. And, therefore, without even realizing how funny he is being, he does all sorts of mental gymnastics that are patently absurd to try to explain something away because he can’t deal with it. Now, that is a classic example of what I mean by seeing what we have pre-decided can be seen. And of course, all sorts of psychological experimentations support this, even at a perceptual level. It is akin to someone who would walk around this room with a yardstick for an hour and then come to the microphone and say, “every reality in this room is in terms of inches and feet”. And we would say, yes, of course, you have been walking around for an hour with a yardstick. And when you apply a yardstick to reality, all the answers will be in inches and feet. But, do you realize that you are holding a yardstick? To become conscious of that is a greatly liberating reality. This is why I have always been an advocate of languages. Right now my three year old and five year old are at a great age to be learning languages. And I would love to see fluency in a foreign language compulsory in our education system. Just the fact of learning to speak another language leads me to that creative insight that when I speak English, I am just speaking one way. I am approaching reality in just one way. That is very important to realize. The other side of that is the ugly American type of tourist who starts yelling at foreigners in English with an unaware premise that if you yell at anyone loud enough, deep down everybody can speak English. When I lived in Europe I saw this all the time.

This sort of linguistic intolerance doesn’t live too far from cultural and ethnic intolerance. Some of the absurd nationalism that is rampant in this country today is part of this. So too are the paranoia and fear we have of other peoples, our tendency to see the other as enemy. It ties in with a whole collective neurosis that we suffer from in this country. So just learning another language, is one way of addressing reality. Learning that your way of eating is only one way of eating. Learning that your way of thinking is one way of thinking. And consequently, when we speak the message of religion, we have to be aware that we speak out of a process of socialization and into a context of people who have been socialized in a particular way. And that communication gap has to be attended to, especially if people are speaking across cultural differences. This is very clear today in the area of theology.

I‘m using a book by Jose Bonino in one of my classes at Lake Forest College. Bonino is a Protestant theologian, a liberation theologian in Buenos Aires. And through the book he keeps saying “First World theologians are not speaking our language. They don’t understand the reality in which we are living. It misses us. It flies right past us. The theology being talked about in the universities of Germany and France, United States and Canada, just does not connect with this lived reality of people in Latin America.” One has to attend to that. And yet, it is very hard for me who am not a member of the Third World to get hold of how my First World perspective unwittingly colors my theology, my total way of thinking in viewing reality. The only way I can even try to do that is to keep reading the books of Third World theologians. In the summertime, I teach at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Study. I have lots of students there, priests and nuns from Africa, Australia, South America. I try to keep listening to them and try to see the world as they see it. This takes a lot of effort from us in the First World, to try to understand the way a Third World Christian is thinking. It is not just a matter of translating from Spanish to English. It’s translating from a Third World mentality to a First World mentality. This is quite different; in fact, I can’t do it. I mean I ‘m not adept enough to do it. There are people who are. These things take a lot of patience, a lot of learning and a lot of unlearning. I’m just interested at this point in even knowing what it is to speak to our own First World community; to understand the premises of our own thinking.

So students in my classes for years and years have been asking things like, “Can you prove God, what is the empirical reality, what can I get hold of, what can I touch, what can I see?” And this does not surprise me because this is the way they and all of us have been acculturated. This is the way we have been socialized. And we have to recognize that there is no proclamation of a religious message in that kind of a context. Because religion doesn’t operate out of that narrow kind of knowing that Tillich calls “calculating reason”. It doesn’t operate from that kind of use of the mind one exercises when working a computer.

That is not the way religion operates, any religion. And so, religion is going to appear as foreign to that kind of a mind-set. Even though both people are speaking English, the two mind-sets are different. Look at the areas where the religions of the world have come from. The great religions of the world really come from three specific areas: India, China and the Near East. The Near East has given us our Western religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. China has given us Taoism and Confucianism; India has given us Hinduism and Buddhism. These are the religions one studies when one studies world religions. And they come out of particular language/cultural environments, contexts which support that intuitive connectedness with ultimacy which religion is based on.

In order for us to even begin to talk about religions, we have to challenge the close-mindedness of the modern Western mind-set. We have to break that open to entertain reality in new ways or e l se we can never even begin to understand the religious dimension of experience. Secular humanism will not give us a viable future. The modern Western mind-set will not heal our brokenness and fragmentation.

It will continue to reduce us to nothing more than computers, processing more and more information. I was appalled the other night to hear that a philosophy department in two notable universities has been amalgamated with the computer studies program into a joint department now called “information retrieval”. I am astounded to think of Plato and Aristotle and Socrates and Thomas Aquinas and Augustine and Spinoza in a department called “information retrieval”. But, that has become our model of knowing. That is what we think knowing is about. Part of the computer hype today is that if you can process more information (and this is why you should spend $1,500 and get one for your kids) you will have a more intelligent child. That is nonsense. That has nothing to do with wisdom or intelligence. You may have a child who can process more information, but that is not a more intelligent child. It certainly is not a wiser child. It may be useful to process information, but I don’t think it should be identified with philosophy, or with knowing or with intelligence or with reason. So that to me is a dead end. The modern Western mind-set will not take us into a future. All it can do is repetitively reproduce the same fragmented close-minded reality. And it is interesting to me that even in a lot of science fiction films all we get is an extension into space of the same limitations and collective neuroses. We’re just computers in space. But, there is no higher level of human living achieved. There is no real evolution of human consciousness. There is no real growth of the human person. All we have done is extend the spatial parameters. So, instead of being neurotic on earth, we can be neurotic on Mars. That doesn’t represent a hopeful future to me.

Now, there is another growing alternative today and there are several serious studies being done on it. And this is what I would call the new Religious Right. There is a book on fundamentalism by the British theologian, James Barr, I would highly recommend. There are two critiques of the Religious Right by moderate evangelicals: Gabriel Fackre and Robert Webber. I think we are going to see an increasing amount of literature paying attention to the Religious Right because it is growing in power. I think I read most recently that there are some 3l million people of the Moral Majority persuasion now of voting age in our country. And they operate from a very clear political platform and have very overt purposes about controlling legislation. What is their appeal? I asked students in my class to listen to extreme right religious programs. They found these programs eye-catching, interesting, powerful. Why? They feel the alienation of our times. They feel the anxiety. They feel the brokenness. They want a way out. They want a future. They want to be able to move forward. They can’t accept secular humanism, so what do they see as the alternative? The old time religion. Give me a set of staple answers. •And then I can have closure, I can have peace, I can forget about it.

One of my students did an analysis of a fundamentalist Christian TV program. It started with a twenty minute film showing some of the problems in Chicago – unemployment, poverty, etc. And then said, “If this concerns you, send money to this program; we at Christmas, had a million dollar banquet for the poor”. Now anybody with a little sophistication about analyzing what percentage of a donated dollar goes to a particular target group would ask himself or herself, “If I send in my $10.00 to this program, what amount of that is going to be going to the problems that I was seeing on that film?” For instance, if I send $10.00 to the Little Brothers of the Poor, $10.00 are going to the poor. If I send $10.00 to that program, I would be lucky if 5¢ of that went to the poor. Can you imagine what it means for a program like that to have $1,000,000 food banquet a year? They are getting $1,000,000 a week? But, what is nice about this, is that it is simple, it is black and white; I can send in my $l0.00 or say, “Okay, now I’ve taken care of unemployment and poverty in Chicago. I’ve done my duty.” And it is the same way with beliefs. Fundamentalist beliefs are black and white. I don’t have to live with ambiguity. The extreme evangelists like to talk about a “plain sense of scripture.” There is no discussion. There is no argument. Ambiguity is difficult to live with. This has been part of the Catholic experience since Vatican II.

One can readily contrast the experience of the Religious Right with the Roman Catholic Church in the twenty years since Vatican II. Those twenty years have happened and they have been worth it. The Catholic Church is growing up, becoming a community of adults. Catholics are moving away from what Karl Rahner calls “ecclesiastical collectivism”, an old idea that the best way to be a Catholic is to send your mind to the Vatican, where it is put in a little safe deposit box. And whenever you are supposed to think anything, the Vatican tells you: “We are now thinking this.” And that was a wonderful way to live because (like fundamentalists) you had no responsibility. Your mind was there in that vault and all you had to be told was, “This is what we are thinking; this is what the Church is thinking”.

At the very beginning of Vatican II, one of the writers in the National Catholic Reporter said, “If you want to try to get an interesting reaction from a Catholic at a cocktail party, first of all give him a question from the Baltimore Catechism like, “What is a sacrament?” and after he answers you with the memorized catechism response ask a second question, “But what do you think?” And the journalist predicted that you would see a very baffled person. But twenty years later, you won‘t see such a baffled Catholic. Because Catholics have begun to understand themselves as the Church and they now think about their own answers. They have taken responsibility for being ‘church’. And, therefore, they have taken their mind out of that v au l t in the Vatican and put it back in their own head and they are willing to be conscious Christians.

There are a lot of moves today towards consciousness. Conscious child birth is very precious to my wife and myself. My parents didn‘t understand why I would want to be there when my baby was born and why my wife wanted to be conscious. In the hospice movement, we see the same concern regarding the mystery of death. People want to be conscious of dying. People see the act of dying as an important transitional act, something understood in all the great religious traditions. Why it is even in the Hail Mary: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” Those two moments because those are the two moments that are most important. “Now”, which is really what is available to us and “the hour of our death”.

The hour of one’s death is an important moment. There is a theology of dying. We no longer want to be unconscious at death. If possible, we would like to die consciously, just as we would like to give birth consciously. So, in the whole area of living, Catholics no longer want to be “Vatican Vault Catholics.” They want to be conscious Catholics, with minds that work and think and entertain different opinions. Sure, that means ambiguity. Sure, it means some tolerance of differences. But it is much more exciting to live with consciousness than as a community of clones, which is what many Catholics were raised to be. A community of clones can parrot back the same answers, but are never ready for the next question about what they really think.

Is it more difficult to be a Catholic today than twenty years ago? I hear some people say, “It is easier, today. You don’t have fasting from midnight and all that kind of stuff.” But those things weren’t that difficult. It is much harder, today, to be a Catholic. Because Catholics are asked to be conscious and consciousness is harder than mimicry, parody, cloning. Don’t ever buy that notion that it is easier today to be Catholic. Not at all. But fundamentalism remains a temptation. In its Protestant form it is Biblicism. In its Catholic form it tends to be ecclesiastical collectivism. You look to father, mother, bishop, pope and let them do it for you. It is ultimately a fundamentalist cop out, an abdication of one’s own consciousness and one’s own responsibility to be Church.

Now, if those two alternatives are unacceptable to you, either this sterile, secular humanism or the fundamentalist option, then we must find a new way. If those two alternatives are unacceptable, then what is viable? I think what is viable is spirituality. The patient, prayerful, discerning process of a consciously embraced spirituality.

Spirituality in this sense is different from religion. Religion can be more external. The fundamentalist can have religion; so can the Cathalic clone. Exoteric religion can be like the old answers that used to be in the back of the math book. But, when you talk about spirituality (or esoteric religion), you can’t get it at the back of the book. It’s built into your own life process. It is inescapably yours, structured into your own experiences, your own consciousness. And it is a process. It is not finished. It is not over. It is not over even at the moment of death. We are never off the hook. Even when we are dying we have to be doing something; even dying becomes a transition in growth to something more. I always like the wisdom, the beauty and the elegance of the old Latin Preface of the Requiem Mass which contained the great line, Vitamutatur, non tollitur, “life is changed, not taken away”. Even death is a change, not a taking away, not a final taking away, not a final end. So we are involved in a process of growth and we are called to keep growing right through the moment of our dying.

It would be much more relaxing if we could just take a quick course, get all the answers and then glide for awhile. To glide, that was the old way of doing it. You finished catechism, then you could just glide through. Priests used to come out of seminaries that way, they had their course; they read their books, and they came out of the seminary. They had their answers for the rest of their life, for the rest of their ministry. They weren’t talking about in-service training in those days. You got it, you had it, you were finished. We used to “finish” people. Today, we know that nobody is finished. We don’t even see the Pope as finished. That is what is interesting today. The Pope makes a certain statement and the people respond and say, yes, we hear that, in the ongoing dialague about such and such an issue. And we will respond to that. And then we will ask the Pope to respond to that. The Pope, himself is in process. His brain isn’t frozen, either. He doesn’t have all the answers. He is a member of the Church, too. He is still thinking; he is still listening; he is still hearing, growing, learning. And you and your experience have something to share with and give to him and if he doesn’t receive that in some form he is going to be less as Pope. Nobody would have said that twenty years ago. But, today, I don’t think that is a difficult factor to realize. If we are church with the Pope and the Pope is church with us and we don’t do what we are supposed to do, if we don’t share what we are supposed to share, he has got less chance of exercising his charismas Pope. We are all in this process. Nobody can cop out. Nobody has the right to stop. Nobody has the right to put a bumper sticker on that says, “I found it, I’m finished, I’m through, I’m done.” We are not done, ever, ever, ever. No, we aren’t.

That is why I like the writings of Jung which are one of the things that inspired me to start Common Ground as an educational center for people in their middle years. There is no retirement age in learning and in the growth process. Aspects of growth to be attended to, in your40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s; however long God gives you life, there is something, there is a kind of growth available to you and there is work to be done. And the process is to go on, even after death.

This is what represents a viable future. When we reject the close mindedness of secular humanism, when we reject the easy answers of the far right, then we can embrace the task, the process, the vocation of spiritual growth, moving into the mystery which is God.

The new spirituality emerging for Catholic Christians is one I would describe as biblical. It is deeply rooted in the Bible. It starts with the second chapter of Genesis, Verse 15 where God says to the human person that he put there in the Garden to serve and preserve the Garden Earth. There, I think, is our basic human vocation, that God calls us to be co-creators. He calls us to take responsibility for being co-creators of this world, just as he calls us to take responsibility for being church. We are called to be responsible for the Garden, to care for it and to preserve it. In light of our present planetary performance, I don’t think I’d want to see a report card turned in at this point. Nevertheless, I think that is the place we must begin.

Next I think we can look to the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible. What did the prophets do? They called us to pay attention to the agenda of creation. That is how I now understand the whole prophetic dimension of scripture. The prophets call our attention to our responsibility for creation, our responsibility to be co-creators with God.

What happens when we move into the New Testament? How can we understand the role of Jesus in terms of this sort of theology. Let us view Jesus, first of all, not as Redeemer, but as Reminder. Reminder of what? A reminder that we are a very precious creation of God’s. I think that one can look at the whole ministry of Jesus that way. He cut through all the socialized structure by which people were called prostitutes or tax collectors or governors. Powerful people are not powerful people, rich people are poor people, Jesus cut through all of that and spoke to people, addressed people at that very hot center of their consciousness where He saw them as what they most deeply and really were-. He saw them, so to speak, fresh from the creative hands of God. And He challenged and addressed people at that very center of their being. He told them that the reign of God, the Kingdom of God, was near to them, was close to them, was available, was at hand in their own life and experience. This, I think was the most powerful thrust of Jesus’ ministry during that very short time of His public life.

This is the center of spirituality and of spiritual growth. First, our faith in creation, in this Creator God, who has given us responsibility for this Garden Earth; secondly, as Christians our faith in Jesus Christ as the one who reminds us of what it is to be a son and daughter of the Father, what it is to be a co-creator with God.

There is a very telling passage in John’s Gospel I would like to consider today, where Jesus is accused of healing on the Sabbath and Jesus responds, “My Father works even until now and so do I”. It was a rabbinic teaching at the time of Jesus, that God didn’t totally cease to work on the Seventh Day, because if He did, the rabbis taught, everything would fall back into non-existence. And, therefore, on the Seventh Day, God did no new work, but He continued the activity of sustaining and nurturing creation. Jesus didn’t engage in secular activities on the Sabbath. He didn’t work, or handle money or do any secular activities. The only thing He was every accused of doing on the Sabbath was healing and the response of Jesus is very much in that rabbinic tradition. So Jesus means that His Father, according to the teachings of the rabbis, does work on the Sabbath. He sustains and nurtures creation, even on the Sabbath. And therefore, Jesus too, can sustain and nurture creation on the Sabbath and healing is an aspect of sustaining and nurturing creation.

Jesus is reminding us of our vocation to work as the Father works, to be perfect, as God is perfect, to engage in that work of fostering and nurturing creation. We are the midwives of that creation, we are, if you will, the mothers birthing that creation, moment to moment, in everything we do and are. That is our constant vocation from the first pages of Genesis through the prophetic literature and the wisdom materials of the Hebrew Bible, through the teachings of Jesus and through the entire spiritual tradition of the Church. For each of us, til our last breath and beyond, are co-creators with God. We are guarding and preserving the Garden Earth; we are sustaining and nurturing God’s creatures.

Does this concept of spirituality relate to the theme of wholeness. I’ve talked about fragmentation in growth and spirituality, but I’ve also talked about a growth and spirituality implying wholeness? I think the wholeness is in the process. I don’t think the wholeness is fully achieved. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, said once, “we are called to be secure in our insecurity”. If our expectation of wholeness and peace and joy in the Christian life is that we will be finished, have all the answers, have closure on everything, then we will be frustrated, I believe, because I don’t think that is ever given to us. I think what is given to us is a peace, a sense of wholeness, a sense Of joy, in our engagement in the process of faith and of spiritual growth. Faith in the biblical sense is the way we trust our lives forward. The word “emunah” in Hebrew is the way we trust our lives forward, as we see already in the Genesis story of Abraham, who was called, very rightly, the father of faith. God didn’t give him a blueprint, a clear scenario; He just said go to the land that I will show you. And Abraham had to trust his life forward. Three of the world religions look to Abraham as the father of faith. The three Abrahamite religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stand in a heritage with that particular man of faith.

I think it depends on what we mean by wholeness, harmony, peace and joy. I see those as very real gifts of God’s Spirit, but they exist on our way. The first name given to Christians before they were called Christians, was ‘Followers of the Way’. And I think I like that name better than any other because it points to the fact that we are walking a path, that we are on the way, that we are in process, that we are not finished. And Kierkegaard, one of my favorite philosophers and theologians, said once, “I don’t even like to call myself a Christian.” He said, “I like to say that I hope that I am becoming a Christian.” Because, he said, “All of me is not Christian, yet. I don’t deserve that name. But, I hope and pray that I am becoming a Christian.” And I like that. I think that we are all becoming Christians. We’re not finished. So, our hope, our harmony, our wholeness, is in that process.

Some people worry about the influence of Eastern religions in our country. One thing that strikes me about Eastern religions, one of their strengths, is that they tend to start with consciousness and see conduct as following consciousness. And I think sometimes in the West, we have been too locked into identifying religion with conduct, and then letting consciousness catch as catch can.

At Lake Forest College, part of my job is to coordinate the campus ministry program. Our most popular activity is simple meditation. We have a morning meditation for half an hour in a little meditation room, which the students fixed up. Students are there every morning 8:00 – 8:30and we have Wednesday night meditation, from l0:00 – l0:30 p.m., which is a good time for college students, and terrible for the rest of us. And all that happens is that somebody lights a candle and there is just a half-an-hour of silence. Many students say that this is the only place where they can be quiet. Whatever they want to do is up to them. But it is just a p l ace where there is silence for half an hour. And some like to start their day like that and some like to end their day like that and it is the most popular single religious activity we have on campus.

How do we begin work towards spiritual consciousness? I think what all of the religious traditions say is, Pay attention. We start to pay attention. Just to pay attention is an extremely important step in spirituality. Every tradition I have studied talks about it. Attention- just to pay attention. As soon as we pay attention, we begin. There is a Buddhist retreat guide that says, “Do something today that you like doing and do it attentively”. Because you see, the essence of spirituality is our presence in the here and now. This is where creation is going on. Our God is the God of origins, of creation. And creation is not something that happened millions of years ago. Creation is that which is emerging now. In us and in our world; we are birthing God.

This present moment is a moment of creation. This is a new moment and we need to be conscious in this birth. Just like mothers choose conscious birth, we have to choose conscious birth in each moment where we are called to give birth to God. And that isn’t easy. Because we live so distractedly. We live not present, not there, not attentive, not in the here and now. Hooked by the past, hooked by the future, distracted, fragmented without the ability to be attentive. Many times we are not where we are.

So the beginning of all spirituality is silence and space, creating a womb for the work of God’s Spirit. Into this silence, the Word of God can be spoken and heard. When we hear and obey this creative Word, a process begins in us which is a powerful alternative to either sterile secularity or canned and cloned fundamentalism. Against these two forms of death we will be affirming life.

Ron Miller 1/26/1983

Spirituality in a Secular World

© 1983 The Michael A. Posen Foundation

One Response to “Spirituality in a Secular World”

  1. Jerry Lavey 16 January 2013 at 5:03 am Permalink

    My dear friend Ron is still teaching me, us. I am so grateful he came into my life at Florissant in 1958 . Jerry


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