* 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

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.

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