* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Amos: Challenging a Sense of Entitlement and Advocating a Just Society

Of all of the books in the Bible, Amos is perhaps one of the best examples of a teaching that remains relevant to current Western culture, even though it was written in a completely different social, political, and intellectual context. Many times, assertions about the Bible's relevance are used to justify one's own behavior and to pronounce judgment on the behavior of other people, and those who make assertions about the Bible's timeless relevance must necessarily choose some parts to leave out of that assessment. Amos should not be one of those ignored books, even though the message of this prophet may be difficult for some people to accept.

Amos lived at a time when the Israelites existed in a divided society. There were some people who were doing very well -- financially well off, politically influential, religiously pious -- and there was the vast majority of people, who were impoverished and largely ignored. The wealthy lived under the belief that their possessions and influence were rewards for living pious lives, and they were characterized by patriotism and personal pride. They believed that they were entitled to their wealth and circumstances, and they constructed a worldview that justified ignoring, oppressing, or at least looking down upon the vast majority of people. Amos saw this system as unjust, and he saw the state religion as excusing and promoting those inherent injustices. His message to the people of his day was that religious practices mean nothing if they do not inspire people to lead lives of justice and respect toward others. To be clear, "justice" in this sense does not mean that people who have done something wrong will pay for their crimes; "justice" means that people have equal treatment under the law -- that some people in a society are not made to suffer so that others can be comfortable.

The short book of Amos can be summed up with just a few essential points. First, he chastises people not to long for the Day of the Lord, what some people today still talk about in terms of a "rapture" or a "second coming." Amos suggests that those who long for the End of Days do so out of ignorance and an inflated sense of self-importance. Instead, the prophet urges people to care for one another, to stop fearfully hoarding wealth and power at the expense of others, and to actually build a society of equity and fairness. It was perhaps easy for ancient people, as it is for some people today, to place all hope in a supernatural event -- some final accounting that would bring impartial justice and peace beyond human control. Amos says that this is foolish. For Amos, a just and equitable society established and sustained by human beings is not only possible, it is expected. Although he didn't phrase it this way, Amos envisioned a society that reflected the guiding principle that all people have innate value -- or at least that all Jews have innate value. Finally, Amos points to the hardships and challenges that the people have faced as disciplinary lessons that have gone unacknowledged. The entire society has suffered because of the system of injustice and unrighteousness, and yet those who had the power to change things kept heading in the same direction, oblivious. Eventually, Amos threatens, the society will be destroyed because of its inherent injustice and greed.

In American society today, there are some who have confused patriotic fervor with religious piety, and there are some who believe that God rewards religious displays with wealth and power. Some people think that they are entitled to the possessions and the influence they have because of their spiritual practices, and based on that claim, there are obviously others who do not deserve similar wealth or influence. Is there injustice in American society as there was in the time of Amos? Are there any who suffer so that others may succeed? Are there people who brag about their own faithfulness while ignoring or insulting people who have less? Are there people who believe that it is more important to protect what they have than it is to share with those less fortunate?

It's easy for all of us to slip into a sense of entitlement from time to time. We may even want justice, but we often don't want it to cost us anything personally. The kind of society Amos envisioned requires something more. Some of us may even hear the noble voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reciting the words of Amos 5:24, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Like Amos, Dr. King envisioned a society based on justice -- a culture that supports doing that which acknowledges the human dignity of all people, not because it is profitable or required by law, but simply because it is the right way to treat people. Like Amos, Dr. King knew that building such a society required some hard work.

As a society and as a global community, we have choices about how we view and treat one another. We have choices about the level of social stratification we will support. We have choices about what sort of a difference we will make. If we act out of a sense of entitlement and step on other people in order to reach higher for ourselves, if we look down upon those who have less and assume that those who have less obviously deserve less, we can feed an unjust system as it spirals into self-destruction. If we place a higher priority on justice, equity, and compassion, we might establish a more sustainable society built on the fact that no one truly deserves to be oppressed and no one truly deserves to be an oppressor. It may be difficult to set aside personal comfort or the belief that we have certain entitlements over and above other people. The question is: Is it worth it? Is a better society -- a better world -- worth us giving up a bit of our fear-driven delineations between who is worthy and who is unworthy?

Although Amos does tend to use shame as a tool, there is no reason to spend time feeling guilty or ashamed about our circumstances. Even though we are not entitled to live the lives we have, and even though we don't necessarily deserve any particular quality of life, there is also not a lot of be gained by being ashamed of what we have. It's more a matter of what we do with what we have. For myself, I want to strive first and foremost to see the inherent value in every person. I want to contribute to a society that thrives because people realize that we live in abundance, that personal comfort and convenience are luxuries and not entitlements, and that we all need one another. I want to contribute to a society in which people do not give credence to self-centered, reward-based, prideful religious practices, but instead use spiritual practices as tools to grow as individuals and communities who love, respect, and honor one another. As I read Amos, it seems that this is the kind of society he hoped for. Perhaps the time has come to build it in earnest.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mark 6:30-56: A Choice between [Scarcity, Anxiety, Entitlement, and Fear] or [Abundance, Gratitude, Generosity, and Honesty]

As a rare miracle story that appears in all four canonical gospels, the "Feeding of the Five Thousand (Men)" has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some more conservative readers take the story at face value and assume that there is nothing to figure out -- Jesus miraculously provided food for thousands of people from an amount that would have fed only a few at best. Others consider the story to reflect a "miracle of sharing" -- most people had a bit of food with them, and when they witnessed one act of generosity they brought out what food they had and shared it with one another. One thing that is clear from the story is that Jesus was unwavering in his confidence regarding abundance; the text never attributes to Jesus a fear or concern about scarcity. If there is anything to emulate in this passage, it is that propensity for abundance thinking.

What keeps us oriented toward scarcity rather than abundance? Quite a lot, actually. A significant portion of advertising attempts to induce in consumers the fear that there is not enough to go around, and that they must act quickly if they want to be safe, well-fed, and happy. Our modern mythologies about finances encourage scarcity thinking as well. We believe at a certain level that there is not enough wealth or resources to meet the needs of everyone, and therefore we must strive to get all that we can so that at least our needs will be met. Those who have money and power have a strong desire to hang on to that money and power, because they fear what might happen if they let go of it. Even though one hears tales (often meant to inspire people to spend money on something they don't need) about millionaires who have been bankrupt many times over before accumulating their current wealth, there are profound cultural differences between the "haves" and the "have-nots" -- systems that perpetuate over generations.

It would be fallacious to suggest that everyone in the world has more wealth than they need. In our individual lives, there is a reality of scarcity that cannot be overlooked if one is honest. Most of us cannot sit back and trust that all of our needs will be taken care of by someone else. If we want to be responsible people, most of us must make decisions about how we are going to spend our time and money so that our lives have integrity with our guiding principles. Budgeting time and money and other resources may seem like an exercise in scarcity thinking, but it is possible that many people in industrialized nations spend their personal resources on things that do not actually matter all that much to them -- things that do not align clearly with their personal guiding principles. So, being intentional about how we use what we do have may reveal that we have more abundance in our personal lives than we often think.

Thinking in terms of abundance and scarcity on a small scale, such as the context of a nuclear family or one individual's life, are possible indicators of the level of irrational fear being courted. When one is thinking in terms of scarcity, one is likely to be more anxious and fear-driven, thus one is more prone to reacting to circumstances rather than living out of one's authentic guiding principles. When one thinks instead in terms of abundance, one is more likely to act out of integrity and invoke an inherent creativity -- one is more in tune with what I have taken to calling "inner divinity" or one's most noble self. This does not mean pretending that one has resources that are not practical realities, and it does not mean making fanciful assumptions that something will manifest just because one wills it. Such behaviors are rejections of one's current reality. What is required for authentic abundance thinking is a humble, honest acknowledgement of current reality and commitment to a meaningful guiding principle (or set of principles). A path toward a compelling vision for a preferred future can only be charted if one is honest about one's point of origin.

As an example, we can turn back to the miracle story. Those who see the story as a "miracle of sharing" might assume that most of those thousands of people who decided to follow Jesus out into the countryside were smart enough to take a little food with them. Perhaps they were keeping their food hidden out of fear that others were less well prepared, and scarcity thinking suggests that we need to protect what we have since there isn't enough to go around. The disciples were really the only ones who demonstrated anxiety in the story, though. As they became concerned about how to feed everyone, it's possible that people in this crowd of thousands were already pulling out their food. Perhaps they were even sharing it with one another by the time the disciples made it around with the offer of a bit of fish and bread. Even those who may have been reluctant to let on that they had come prepared would eventually recognize that they could eat what they had -- and perhaps even share some with other people -- without anyone taking advantage of them. As it turned out, there was an abundance. It was thus easy for people to contribute to the twelve baskets of leftovers, since people with an abundance mindset find it much easier to practice generosity.

When we pull back from the perspective of individual lives to examine the larger state of things in our society and in our world, the fact is that we live in a state of abundance. Human beings have constructed artificial systems to consolidate money and power (out of beliefs founded on irrational fears), the result being that every person does not have equal access to the abundance of our world, but that does not change the fact that we have plenty of resources to meet the needs of everyone. Many of us have become very accustomed to satisfying a large percentage of our wants and desires in addition to our needs, however. Scarcity thinking tends to make us a bit self-absorbed from time to time, and we can develop a sense of entitlement that suggests that we are worth more than other people -- that we deserve something that other people do not deserve. We create imbalance. We create the lines that separate Us from Them. That is our current reality.

We could judge that current reality, and we could suggest that the system needs to change to satisfy our ideas about how things should be. We are limited in the extent of our control, however. We actually have control over our own decisions, and we actually have responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. So, while it can be superficially satisfying to proclaim how the world ought to be, what is potentially even more deeply satisfying is for us to make decisions in our own lives that reflect our awareness of abundance and our own meaningful guiding principles. That will most likely mean something a little bit different to everyone. Perhaps it will mean reallocating some time and money more intentionally. Perhaps it will mean being less anxious and fearful about not getting what we think we deserve. Perhaps it will mean taking a few months and going overseas to build wells or care for children on the fringes of their society. Everyone's life is different.

Most likely, even the most intentional among us will slip into scarcity thinking from time to time. We will want to protect ourselves and what we have, we will be anxious about not having enough, and we will perhaps even make claims that we deserve more than other people. Abundance thinking, however, realigns us to a deeper self, a calmer and less anxious self. Abundance thinking affirms the possibilities available to us and invokes our vast creativity. From abundance thinking, generosity and gratitude flow. My personal guiding principle is that people matter -- that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I simply cannot align with that guiding principle in my life if I think in terms of scarcity. What is your guiding principle? Is it served best by thinking in terms of scarcity or in terms of abundance? 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Jonah: A Challenge to Recognize that Everyone Is Worthy of Mercy

Although there is more to learn from the books of Kings and Chronicles, the book of Jonah is as well considered here as anywhere else, since it is set during the reign of Jeroboam II, in the 8th century BCE. This fictional book was probably written much later, in the 5th or 4th century BCE, given the subject matter of this short tale, which in part asserts that God cares about Gentiles too.

The summary of this familiar tale is as follows: Yahweh asks Jonah to go proclaim judgment on the Assyrian capital, Ninevah. Jonah runs away and gets on a boat headed as far away from Ninevah as possible. The boat gets caught in a bad storm (because Yahweh is angry at Jonah), and the unwilling prophet gets thrown overboard and swallowed by an immense sea creature. After Jonah’s prayer (which may have been inserted into the story later), Yahweh tells the beast to vomit Jonah up on a beach, and it does. Then Yahweh sends Jonah to Ninevah again, and this time Jonah goes. He preaches hellfire and brimstone to the people of Ninevah so effectively that they become a repentant population. This really pisses Jonah off, because he was at least hoping to see the city get destroyed and all the evil-doers punished. Yahweh has mercy on Ninevah, and Jonah goes outside the city to sulk. Yahweh then teaches Jonah a little lesson about how the prophet’s selfish anger contrasts with the merciful and active Yahweh.

Jonah is one of those biblical stories that doesn’t need a whole lot of interpretation. If we translate the text into a new way of defining divinity, we might say that Jonah was a man who was compelled by a deep desire to create a better world, but that he allowed fear of how he would be received by others guide him 180 degrees from where he most wanted to be. Even when he stopped running, he interpreted his vision of a better world as requiring that some people (and even some animals) be destroyed—another layer of irrational fear that still kept him from seeing clearly. When other people responded with receptivity toward Jonah’s vision, he became angry because he had prepared for a fight.

He wanted people who were different from him to suffer—to be annihilated—and his narcissistic attitude wasn’t eager to find creative ways to coexist with others, even when they were willing to adapt a new way of being because of his message. Jonah had a narrow way of viewing the world. One might say he had limiting mental models. He wanted justice for other people, but he was quite happy with claiming grace for himself. He let his fear and anger control him rather than digging into those emotions to discover something he could work on within himself. But in the end, the story affirms that everyone is worthy of mercy. Everyone is worthy of grace.

We can probably find a lot of points of comparison with Jonah. Perhaps when someone goes speeding past us recklessly on the road, we hope they get into an accident, or at least that a cop is waiting around the next curve for them. When people behave differently than we want them to, we make them our enemies in our minds. We are often eager to speak judgmental words against things we don’t like, but we rarely take the time to speak inspiring words about the lives we most want to create. We are tempted to rejoice when people we don’t like suffer, and we are loathe to celebrate with people we don’t like, even when it wouldn’t cost us a thing to do so. We draw lines of Us and Them, just like Jonah did with the people of Ninevah.

However, Jonah did a few admirable things, too. He took the blame when the ship was having trouble, and even though we know that doing something bad won’t bring foul weather your way, in the context of the story Jonah was clearly at fault. Jonah also overcame his initial fear of how he would be received by people in Ninevah. He didn’t keep digging beyond that, but it took courage for him to make the first step out of his comfort zone. We also don’t know if Jonah learned anything in the end. It might be that he realized how unsatisfying his selfish perspective was, and he might have started to look with fresh eyes at people who were different from him.

Even though we don’t know how Jonah’s story truly ends, though, we have the great opportunity and responsibility of determining whether we will learn something from his story. If we are willing to dig into our fears and our anger and get to the root of what holds us back in life, we may find that our way of seeing the world is not very helpful to us. If we are willing to recognize how people are similar to us—that there really is no Them except in our own minds—we may find that our inherent creativity is as useful for building connections as it is for destroying them. If we are willing to articulate the kind of world we want, and if we are willing to ask ourselves the difficult questions that dig into why we want what we want, we might discover for ourselves a compelling vision that we just cannot run away from. It requires a level of honesty and insight that Jonah wasn’t prepared for, but there’s no reason for us to be ruled by our irrational fears and our anger. Underneath all of our judgments and fears about other people, we know that human beings have a lot more in common with each other than they have differences. Sometimes the differences seem huge, but often that is just because our minds make the differences more important than they actually are.

So, what’s really important?

            what’s really important?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mark 6:1-29: How Our Opinions of Other People Inform Our Actions (maybe more than they should)

In the beginning of Mark 6, Jesus returns to his hometown (which interestingly remains unnamed in the gospel of Mark) and people are not altogether enthusiastic about what he has to say. This is where we find the well-known quote, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town." After that disappointing episode, Jesus sends his disciples out and tells them not to waste their time with people who won't listen. They are to shake the dust off their shoes and move on. This was a bit of an insult in the time, as if to say, "There is nothing here worth taking with me, not even the dirt." Next, we read a bit of a flashback regarding the circumstances under which Herod had John the Baptist beheaded. Essentially, he was seduced by his daughter (or step-daughter) into doing something he didn't particularly want to do. In these three stories, we find some interesting lessons about how we see other people, and how we choose whether to give other people power over us.

It's rather obvious why a prophet would have trouble in his hometown, among people who saw the individual grow up, get into trouble as a teenager, work a trade, and eventually abandon being a productive member of society to be an itinerant preacher, and a preacher unaffiliated with the state church at that. We make rather quick judgments about people, and the impressions we have of the people we know stick over time. It is as if we have taken a snapshot of an individual at a particular point in time, and whenever we interact with that individual, we rely on our snapshot rather than the current reality of who that person is. We don't always notice when people grow and change, because we have a rigid impression that becomes ingrained very quickly. It takes a bit of effort to see a person as they are and recognize every step of growth and progress they make in their lives. We don't necessarily want to understand people very deeply; we think we already do understand what a person is about based on the snapshot we keep in our mind.

Thus, when a person tries to kick an old habit or develop a new discipline, it's often the people who have known that person for a long time that present the greatest challenges. Maybe we don't actually want people to change all that much. When people change, it suggests that our reality is unstable--that we can't rely on things to remain as we expect them to be. Whatever the reason, we often have a difficult time hearing unexpected things from people who are most familiar to us. The reverse is also true: The people who have known us the longest are likely to have the hardest time hearing unexpected things from us. This does not mean that we should never change. Responsible, aware people will always be growing in some way, and growth necessarily translates as change at some level. Part of growth involves not basing our self-worth on other people's opinions, but rather on deeper, honest self-assessment based on an intentional set of guiding principles.

This is why the disciples were told to shake the dust off of their shoes and move on. There is often nothing to be gained by arguing one's point of view with someone who simply cannot hear what you have to say. An individual's inability to listen, however, reflects more about them than about you. The disciples would have done well to listen respectfully in addition to hearably presenting the truth as they saw it, but at the end of the day, if someone wasn't interested in the disciples' perspective, there was little value in sticking around.

It would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from that story, however. Some relationships are worth a bit of extra effort. Sometimes a person needs to see reliable, dependable behavior that reflects deeper convictions over time before becoming open enough to hear truth spoken clearly. Most of us can afford to give people multiple chances, otherwise we are relying on a snapshot of a person that may be inaccurate and obsolete as soon as we have filed it away. The important part is not that we write people off or dismiss those who disagree with us. The important part is that we do not base our deep guiding principles on whether other people agree with or accept us. People can ask some incredible questions that help us to sharpen and refine the principles on which we most want to base our actions, and they can challenge us in positive ways even if they don't agree with us. So, the goal is to be very clear with oneself so that one can connect with other people without placing demands on them or making assumptions about them.

Herod is an example of what happens when we do otherwise. By the biblical account, Herod was not a very secure individual. In fact, he was quite emotionally immature, often making decisions based on fear rather than on a grounded set of principles. When Herodias' daughter (named Salome in some other accounts) dances for Herod and his guests, he promises to grant her anything she desires. Even though he is intrigued by John the Baptist, he has the prophet executed because he was unwilling to tell the girl, "No." It is easy to imagine that Herod was experiencing a significant amount of anxiety in that moment, and in the many moments that followed. There are probably many things he feared would happen if he did not honor his promise. He sacrificed his own self-governance and abdicated personal responsibility instead of standing by a set of intentional principles.

We are capable of doing better than Herod, and in some ways, we may be in a position to do better than Jesus and the disciples. Jesus and his disciples did not keep visiting places over and over again and giving people second, third, or eleventh chances, and it is possible for a person with well-defined guiding principles to model a different way of being over and over again with the same individual or group. The goal, after all, is not to convince other people how they ought to live, but rather to fully inhabit our own lives -- to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. This does not require anyone else's approval; it just requires our own willingness to grow. As we become more clear about who we want to be in the world, we will likely conflict with the snapshots that other people have of us. As we create the lives we most want, we are also likely to find that some of our own snapshots are outdated and inaccurate. We don't need to be afraid of seeing reality as it is. In fact, being honest about current reality is the only way to move forward into a vision of something better.

So, from this first portion of Mark 6 we learn not to base our self-image on the opinions of others, but to develop a set of deep guiding principles that will lead us toward the lives we most want to create. We learn that giving power to other people can lead us to make decisions that go against what we actually want to create in the world. And we learn that we cannot control other people's reactions to us; we can only control our own beliefs and actions. People have inherent value, but people's opinions are sometimes based on fears and falsehood rather than a deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity. So, are your actions lining up with your guiding principles? How are you allowing other people to determine your sense of value? In what ways are you playing small because you fear what other people will say or think? What would it look like if you pushed past that fear and inhabited yourself more authentically?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Common Threads: Incorporating Concepts of Christian Spirituality into a Secular Humanist Context

As part of a course in Christian Spirituality, I wrote an integrative paper which was intended to indicate how I had integrated the concepts of the course into my life, while still being an academic paper. I approached the topic authentically as an atheist humanist. This is a lengthy academic paper, but it addresses some pertinent topics in a way that I am happy to share with anyone willing to take the time to read it.
Specific nomenclature and personalities characterize Christian spirituality, as is the case with most faith traditions. Although many Christians may perceive their beliefs and practices as unique to their religion, beneath the surface of theological language, the practical application of idealized Christian spirituality is quite similar to what one may find in a multitude of human spiritual and cultural contexts. As with any religion, Christianity becomes dangerous to society when its adherents insist that all people must believe as they do, and the violent and oppressive ramifications of this characteristic of religion are apparent in every period of recorded human history. If one could strip away insistence upon specific linguistic labels and bypass the separation of “Believer” and “Nonbeliever” inherent in most expressions of evangelical Christianity, however, one would find a collection of practices that support meaningful human relationships and personal integrity. Christianity’s greatest weakness is that these potentially valuable practices are used to support assertions that overshadow the gospel message of love, namely that human beings are essentially depraved, incapable of love and integrity by their own effort, and that an afterlife of reward or punishment awaits every individual, based on one’s acceptance of the mythology regarding an implausible divine being’s blood sacrifice. Should any person choose to develop the spiritual values found in Christianity apart from their basis on the supernatural, that person might gain a clearer understanding of the teachings of Jesus in the gospel narratives than many who identify themselves as “Christian.”

Foundations of (Christian) Spirituality 

Spirituality, as a comprehensive term, is a way of describing the actions people take to incorporate deeply held beliefs into their practical lives. While some definitions of Christian spirituality skirt the issue, accurately defining Christian spirituality necessitates a comprehensive definition of Christianity. Unfortunately, this has become less and less possible as individuals self-identify as “Christian” based on flawed or incomplete understanding of Christian mythology, not to mention divisions of various Protestant denominations over doctrinal conflict. This is a boon to all people who have an interest in exploring a more integrated life, since there is now a greater diversity of beliefs that spirituality may support. One Christian may support through spiritual practices a belief in guardian angels, while another may support the belief that God wants worshippers to be wealthy, and another still may look to the actual teachings of Jesus as depicted in the gospels to determine what beliefs spiritual practices should support. With this incredible diversity within the Christian community, it is understandable that some writers are satisfied with a definition of spirituality apart from a specifically Christian context.

The key to spirituality is that it reflects intentional integration of beliefs into the practical reality of one’s life. Spirituality is not limited to a specific set of doctrines or principles. Spirituality is about purposeful action based on deeply held beliefs. People automatically act on their beliefs every day, although this action is not necessarily conscious or purposeful. Some people may even experience a certain amount of anxiety in their lives because they think they believe in a certain set of principles, while their actions reflect a different set of deeply held beliefs, of which an individual may not even be completely aware. One’s actual beliefs may even be radically different from what one wants to believe, and this can only be recognized with intentional exploration of the self. Thus, human behavior is always the result of beliefs being integrated into practical action; spirituality is the practice of making that integration intentional. When one’s life becomes a purposeful reflection of deeply held guiding principles, then life can be more fulfilling because it results in a more fully authentic expression of one’s self.

There is danger in purposefully engaging in spiritual practices without truly examining one’s beliefs. As can be seen in the fear and hatred expressed by many twenty-first century “Christians,” spiritual practices can reinforce false beliefs if one remains oblivious to the difference between irrational fear and guiding principles. Fear can seem very important and powerful, and yet it cannot have the sustainable strength of emotionally mature guiding principles. While spirituality defines the purposeful actions one takes to integrate deeply held beliefs into the practical reality of one’s life, one must also critically examine one’s beliefs to determine which beliefs are desirable and which are based on falsehoods and fears. Without a set of guiding principles that supports personal responsibility and integrity, and love and respect for other human beings, spirituality can become a very purposeful way of reinforcing irrational beliefs. In other words, if spirituality is focused passion, one should be aware and intentional about one’s passions.

Thus, while it is impossible to say exactly what is “Christian” about Christian spirituality, it can be said that spirituality is how an individual chooses to be in the world. Since spirituality is the intentional practical application of guiding principles, a secular humanist can potentially incorporate insights from any religious tradition without kowtowing to supernaturalism or the political leanings of twenty-first century religious power structures. Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, for instance, is a statement of faith, since it is impossible to empirically prove such a claim. A variety of intentional practices can support such a guiding principle, and these intentional practices might look indistinguishable from what an emotionally mature religious person would choose to do in support of a set of religious beliefs. While there are potentially other descriptive labels for the connecting of guiding principles with practical actions, the term spirituality need not be confined to religious contexts.

Six Great Traditions of the Faith 

[Some Christians consider the six great traditions of the Christian faith to be the Holiness, Contemplative, Social Justice, Charismatic, Evangelism, and Incarnational traditions.]

While some Christians identify six traditional means of the outward expression of faith, the definitions of these means of expression require a bit of adaptation if they are to be meaningfully applied in a non-Christian context. Whereas the Holiness tradition might be defined as “purity in thoughts, words, and actions, and overcoming temptation,” the challenging words purity and temptation reflect a mental model that may not be shared by a secular humanist. However, one might re-frame Holiness as “having self-differentiated thoughts and actions, and dismantling irrational fear.” While there is most likely a more appropriate label to attach to this outward expression of emotional maturity, it undoubtedly captures the spirit of the Holiness tradition in a way that can have broader usefulness apart from a religious context.

Meaningfully translating some of the recognized traditions into a non-religious context requires little adaptation, however. People from nearly all faith traditions and cultures practice Social Justice to some extent, and while Contemplation in a Christian context implies communion with an external divine being, people have incorporated the practice of meditation and introspection in many contexts, religious and otherwise. Other traditions suffer, as the tradition of Holiness does, from alienating terminology, both in the name given to the expression itself and in the words used to describe and define it. The Charismatic tradition involves “engaging the Holy Spirit while developing and exercising one’s spiritual gifts.” While this may seem immediately dismissible to one who eschews supernaturalism, beneath the linguistic religiosity, this tradition is about recognizing and legitimizing one’s authentic self—perhaps even one’s deepest guiding principles—and nurturing and exercising one’s innate capability. Again, a less alienating label can perhaps be applied, but the ideal of the Charismatic tradition can be made useful in a non-Christian context. The same could be said of the Incarnational tradition, which also may seem immediately worthy of rejection within the context of secular humanism, given that what is presumably being made “incarnate” is overtly supernatural. Any person who strives toward emotional maturity, however, is in a sense attempting to “incarnate” deeply held intentions—to unify the intended and the actual areas of life. Put another way, emotional maturity involves learning to show forth one’s authentic self more clearly. This is, at its core, Incarnational.

While it is somewhat artificial and gratuitous to translate these traditional means of expressing faith into a non-Christian context, the value of finding common conceptual threads that connect radically different perspectives is that people learn to see one another as similar rather than Other. Specialized and alienating language is less of a barrier to harmonious relationships when the actual intentions beneath the linguistic challenges become clear. This illustrates the importance of appropriately applying the Evangelical tradition, which has been made more challenging by the appropriation of the term “evangelical” by a particularly fundamentalist, politically conservative, and socially bullying sector of American Christendom. While the term originates from the concept of sharing “good news,” many who outwardly proclaim themselves to be “evangelical” express more fear, hatred, and arrogance than anything that might be considered good news to anyone. Thus, it is perhaps even more important that those outside the Christian context become adept at framing the message of human value in a way that is filled with hope and inspiration rather than contributing to the environment of fear and anxiety. The inherent worth and dignity of every person is indeed a message of good news, and in the face of fear-mongering and claims of superiority, it is a message that is vitally important to the postmodern world.

Balance is the ideal approach to these traditional expressions of faith, according to many Christian writers on the subject. This involves being aware of how one spends time and energy and where one lacks confidence or practice. In a certain sense, by extrapolating how the biblical example of the character of Jesus embodies this aspects of faith, one could say that being “Christ-like” involves practicing all of these outward expressions of faith in equal measure. Taken from a less religious perspective, however, one sees another aspect to these traditions, as they have been provisionally reframed. Placed next to one another, the goals of these outward expressions from a more humanist perspective might be seen as: having self-differentiated thoughts and actions and overcoming irrational fear, recognizing one’s authentic self while nurturing and exercising one’s innate capabilities, spending time in introspection and meditation, honoring and caring for others, unifying the intended and actual areas of one’s life, and sharing the hopeful and inspiring news of human potential and capability while continuing to grow in knowledge and insight. This is the epitome of emotional maturity (or self-differentiation) based on the guiding principle of the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Balance is inherent in the process of recognizing one’s own worth, examining one’s guiding principles and dismantling the fear and lies that threaten to provoke anxious reactivity, and reaching out beyond oneself to acknowledge the value of other people. If one commits to living authentically, without acting based on fear or obligation, but rather out of a deep faith that human beings are capable of building a better world, personal balance in these various expressions is potentially a byproduct rather than a goal. Where there is imbalance, there is fear; dismantling fear opens the way for balance. At the same time, balance is an illusion, for each of these components will be in a constant state of fluctuation in the life of a person who is growing and becoming more emotionally mature. Any attempt to assess balance based on a static snapshot is misguided. Maintaining focus on the process of inward and outward work toward emotional maturity and authentic expression of guiding principles yields a full expression of all of the traditional Christian expressions of faith, without the limitations of Christian mythology and supernaturalism.

The Experience of Silence 

Like the process of breathing, the process of growing into greater emotional maturity based on meaningful guiding principles requires taking in and releasing. When one develops the practice of reaching inward to maintain connection with one’s deepest self, then one is better able to reach outward to connect with others. For some, this may look self-indulgent, but one must indulge one’s deepest intentions in order to live them out in practical reality. Indulgence is harmful when based on fear, as is often the case when people develop psychological addictions, but indulging in introspection—time to still the mind and reconnect with an inner sense of what is most important—is vital to bring forward an authentic expression of oneself into the world. Amid the busyness of life, stillness and silence may require discipline, but without time of inward connection, irrational fears and old lies may more easily govern behavior.

Intentional growth toward emotional maturity is a process, regardless of whether one embraces any specific religious tradition. Christians and humanists alike must trust the process rather than allow it to be a further source of anxiety. Like following the path of a labyrinth toward its eventual and inevitable center, if one foot is placed in front of the other along the path, the destination is certain. Human beings cannot always be certain of the destination of their lives in terms of external circumstances, but individuals can choose to take slow and methodical steps toward greater emotional maturity. In its assertion of an afterlife, Christian thinking sometimes fails to offer practical hope. If one can do nothing to control one’s life except trust in an inscrutable, omnipotent divine being and wait for a better experience after death, then one cannot be empowered toward any meaningful growth. Likewise, if one cannot do any good except by the inner working of a divine entity beyond one’s own control, then one cannot be personally responsible for one’s contribution to the world. Humanism offers greater potential for practical hope in that it asserts the capability and responsibility of human beings for their own growth and contributions. The practice of inward stillness and silence is especially important when one’s own personally-determined guiding principles are the linchpin of a meaningful life. Where some Christians strive to trust a process of listening to and being guided by something outside of themselves (for which stillness and silence are necessary), a humanist approach can use the same practice of stillness and silence to look inward and foster deeply rooted guiding principles that allow for greater fearlessness and authenticity. One might even suggest that Christians who pray or seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit are looking to the same place for truth—deep within themselves—using a different set of terminology that reflects a lack of confidence in their own ability to answer the important questions of purpose and authenticity.

The Journey of the Intentional Life 

In considering how other core beliefs and practices inherent to Christian spiritual identity might inform a less religious, more rational, human-focused life of integrated guiding principles, it is important to recognize that there are limitations to the foundational claims of Christianity upon which otherwise useful practices rest. While any human being can find value in introspection, social justice, and striving for emotional maturity, there is less use outside of a Christian context for concepts like the transcendence of God beyond time and space and the immanence of God’s relationship with the natural world, which were contrived to explain and justify a belief system that has no basis in concrete reality. Equally unhelpful is the concept of an absolute moral authority that cannot be equally accessed and interpreted by every person; it is impossible to verify or refute anything that an individual claims about what God wants. Perhaps it is comforting to claim that all things are under the control of an almighty deity, but in a certain sense, this is a dismissive assertion that delegitimizes personal responsibility. Such ideas require the very reinterpretation of the divine if they are to be useful in constructing a humanist spirituality.

Some stepping-stones in the Christian understanding of spiritual identity can be useful, if one is interested in incorporating them in a non-Christian context and willing to perform some radically transformative interpretation. As one example, soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, becomes useless in a mental model that dismisses the idea of sinfulness and human depravity, but if what the Christian context calls “sin” is addressed honestly as behavior prompted by irrational fear, then salvation becomes a matter of personal responsibility. Salvation becomes emotional maturity or self-differentiation. Even the concept of a trinity of personalities within one unified deity reflects a deeper truth about human interconnectivity within a larger system. Discarding the concept of a deity does not necessitate discarding the deeper truths of human relationships.

Perhaps it is worth exploring the idea that divinity is within the individual—that references to the divine are essentially references to the deepest, most noble self within a person. Platitudes can potentially take on a much deeper meaning if this is the case. For instance, some Christians speak of presenting themselves to God (preferably in a state of holiness and blamelessness), or of belonging to God, or of being devoted to God. One might consider what it would be like to present oneself to one’s Self—to look closely at one’s real, practical, intentional identity from the perspective of one’s idealistic, value-based, deepest, most noble and creative Self. As a replacement for the question of whether one “belongs” to God, the simple question, “Am I my own?” evokes an honest examination of one’s motivations and authenticity. Perhaps one is living out of a sense of fear or obligation toward others, denying one’s own deepest guiding principles in favor of superficial acceptance or keeping the peace. If one can strive to be devoted to one’s best self, this is in many ways more compelling than being devoted to a deity about which nothing can be known with certainty and about which many people disagree.

Ultimately, even if one is devoted to God, it is only one’s own concept of God to which one can be devoted. Being devoted to one’s deepest, most noble self is a powerful concept that would be difficult in many iterations of Christian spirituality due to a belief that people are wicked, broken, or damaged. If people are, at their core, incapable and unworthy, then anything good in a person must be considered to come from something outside of the person, and thus there is nothing within a person worthy of devotion. However, if people are recognized as innately capable of love, joy, peace, goodness, compassion, gentleness, and self-control, then these qualities can be seen as the fruits of their true nature, not some alien influence on their lives. Thus, where some Christian spiritual ideas make things immensely more complicated than necessary and abdicate personal worth and responsibility, the same concepts can be put to meaningful use in a non-Christian context which values people—or, as some might concede, a context which sees people as the character of Jesus in the gospel narratives does.

One challenge to the statement of faith that all people have inherent value is that it ultimately leads to a disintegration of tribalism, and human beings seem incredibly adept at distinguishing between “Us” and “Them.” Christianity has not managed to overcome tribalism; in fact, Protestantism has exacerbated tribalism within Christianity, finding reasons to build walls and corral people at every turn. The challenge of biblical love is no different from the challenge of humanism, however. While many would look at the commandment to “love one another,” as an insular order regarding how people within a faith community were to treat other people within that same faith community, this limitation is not reflected in the biblical depiction of Jesus. While it is true that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, the delineation inherent in the statement is unnecessary. Rain falls on people; the sun shines on people. The biblical call to love “one another” is, in essence, the very core of how a humanist vision of transformation must be founded. While the Christian church has not lived up to its own guiding principle very well in this regard, the implication of biblical love is that there is no “Them;” there is only one big “Us.” There is no human system in the world that cannot benefit from a more intentional application of this ideal.

Fear is the enemy of “Us.” Irrational fear of people who are in some way distinguishable from how individuals see themselves leads to behaviors that damage society. In the same way, irrational fears lead individuals to do things that are harmful to themselves. What Christian spirituality considers to be “deadly thoughts” are prime examples of this irrational fear, as well as the falsehoods that people develop throughout their lives. Gluttony and greed are expressions of the fear of scarcity. Misplaced anger is reactivity out of emotional immaturity. Envy, pride, lust, and indifference are all expressions of disconnection from, or devaluing of, one’s true self. Similarly, the virtues that are said to serve as counterparts to these “deadly thoughts” are various expressions of recognizing one’s value as a human being, striving for emotional maturity, and engaging with one’s guiding principles. Temperance, mildness, generosity, happiness, humility, chastity, diligence, and wisdom are all results that stem naturally from emotional maturity and honest self-evaluation. While it is valuable to consider where irrational fears and false beliefs originated, it is more important to continually return within to confirm one’s deep guiding principles and strive to unite these principles with the practical reality of daily life. One need not itemize virtues and “deadly thoughts,” but if it is helpful to an individual in recognizing areas in which fears and lies are prevalent, then even the distinctions of Christian tradition can serve as a starting point for honest self-evaluation.

In order to move closer to God, to express biblical love more effectively, and to shift from “deadly thoughts” toward their respective virtues, Christian spirituality considers a selection of behaviors—or disciplines—useful. Similar sets of meaningful habits may be useful for individuals seeking to break away from behaviors that do not reflect innermost values, or to commit oneself to developing behaviors that are more in alignment with deeply held guiding principles. While praying to something outside of oneself makes no sense in a humanist context, the practice of meditation and introspection has already been lifted up as a necessary piece of developing emotional maturity and engaging in honest self-assessment. Study is an equally important component of growth, especially considering the Christian inclusion in this discipline of studying the natural world and the careful observation of systems. While fasting may be helpful in terms of developing self-discipline, a more worthwhile exercise might be to consider why one is particularly drawn toward something that does not match with one’s guiding principles. Self-denial without self-examination is empty.

In fact, many of the spiritual disciplines regarded as beneficial in terms of Christian spirituality can be expressed in terms that have already been outlined: regarding all people (including oneself) as valuable necessarily leads toward certain types of behavior, and it is necessary for an individual to engage in consistent self-examination to verify that personal actions reflect guiding principles. This self-examination is a profoundly important discipline that many people neglect. If one does not truly understand one’s own beliefs, then one can never honestly explain one’s own actions. The entire process of looking within and maintaining one’s connection to self, then looking without and acting intentionally in the world is a disciplined way of being as well. In many ways, this process is counter-cultural and requires recognition of the vulnerability inherent in human existence. If approached from a humanist perspective, the process of building emotional maturity requires wrestling with difficult questions about oneself, other people, and life itself, with the added challenge that supernatural or doctrinally based answers are not satisfactory. A disciplined approach to such wrestling is necessary to continue seeking and applying meaningful answers in everyday life.


All people have beliefs. At a certain level, some deeply held beliefs cannot be proven. There is rarely anything to be gained from debating such beliefs with the expectation that another person’s viewpoint might be swayed into agreement. There is value, however, in recognizing one’s own deeply held beliefs, dismantling those beliefs which are actually irrational fears and falsehoods, and choosing a set of guiding principles by which life can be intentionally made meaningful. Although Christianity has many features that encourage supernaturalism, tribalism, and the devaluation of personal value and responsibility, some of the practices by which Christians claim to connect faith with practical reality are equally useful to individuals in a non-Christian context. If one approaches the spiritual practices of any religion with an eye toward finding personal value rather than an intention to criticize and judge, one is likely to find elements that can be used in support of the guiding principles by which one wishes to connect with oneself and other people. This can mean some amount of re-contextualization of ideas from other belief systems, but this need not translate into insistence that one’s interpretation of a practice is right while all others are wrong. The important task is finding practices that support the implementation of guiding principles in everyday life. While spirituality might be loosely used to refer to putting into effect the practices linking deeply held beliefs with purposeful action, there are many other meaningful labels that might be applied.

Just as Christianity requires dedicated work within oneself if it is to be effectively manifested in the world, other beliefs require intentional effort if they are to meaningfully inform practical reality. Whatever one’s culture or religion, there is a core identity beneath traditional nomenclature, cultivated irrational fears, and falsehoods about oneself and other people that have developed over time. Allowing this core identity to be expressed authentically in the world is challenging enough that some supportive practices are most likely necessary. Connecting with that core identity understandably requires some intentional effort. Especially in the context of a culture that views human beings as broken or depraved, crippling fears may even develop about the nature of that core identity. Some people may never look deeply into themselves out of fear that, deep inside, they are inherently worthless. However, one might just as easily assume that, at that deepest point of every human being, there stirs a similar desire to be free of fear, meaningfully connected with others, and contributing to a better world. There is no reason not to assume that all people are, at their very core, beings of love and hope and creativity. Individuals who believe such things about themselves and others still require a means of putting that belief into practice just as much as those who believe in human depravity and powerlessness. Perhaps it is too audacious a question to ask which perspective more clearly emulates the Jesus of the gospel narratives, but there is no question that people with divergent spiritual views can still learn something from one another, if they are willing.