Friday, February 11, 2011

The Project of a Humanistic Spirituality

In this entry I want to address the questions of what it would mean to develop a humanistic spiritual philosophy, why I'm trying to do it, and just who I think I am anyway, that I think myself fit to go about it.

These are good questions. There are already countless forms of spirituality in the world, and I hope that I am as quick as anyone to assert that many of them carry invaluable insights into human nature and human life, and tools for the creation of meaning and the organization of feeling and identity, which are at least as good as any that I could possibly offer out of my decade of philosophizing. All of the major religious traditions have their great virtues and their special beauty, and all are worth discovering, experiencing, learning about, and learning from. Of course, they all have their downsides too; they are all human creations, and they have all been put to every kind of human end in their long histories, through the best times and the worst, in the most exalted and the most horrifying aspects that humanity has displayed.

The time we live in now is radically different from that in which those ancient spiritual traditions were first conceived. Science has revealed to us a vast and wondrous world that no revelation or mystical insight has ever managed to shed light on; Philosophy, and history, and the arts have introduced us to ourselves in a way that makes much of what religion can tell us about ourselves redundant, or simply false. Technology has made it possible for us to achieve feats (for better and for worse) that were once thought possible only for supernatural beings. Nothing we have achieved or experienced as a species, however, has eliminated the truths of mortality, uncertainty, or loneliness from our lives; nothing, therefore, has lifted from us the need for spirituality.

Being spiritual creatures does not mean that we are hostages to ancient ideas and practices that are both false and damaging to our lives. Contemporary religion is rarely read strictly and literally out of ancient texts, and when it is, it is rightly spurned and ridiculed by rational people of both religious and non-religious stripes. The most reasonable alternative for those who remain within the traditional religions is to see ancient texts as flawed human attempts to understand and interface with a divine reality, and to see the religions built on them as evolving means to access, honor, or utilize that reality through faith, narrative, ritual, and community. Some who decide to live outside of those traditions (more or less) have developed new forms of spirituality promoting reverence or scorn for the older forms, some of them farcically stupid, others intentionally comedic, and a few both serious and genuinely worthwhile. I hope that my current project will fall into this last category, and that it will provide something both unique and valuable within it.

It is highly questionable whether the word "spirituality" has any meaning in a context that is denuded of "supernatural" content, and founded on a respect for science, rationality, civilization, and the moral and creative potential of humanity. The case can be made, however, that supernatural connotations for that word are seen to be entirely optional when the function of spirituality in human life is understood. For the purposes of this work, that function, very briefly, is to provide a grounding and organizing framework for "the deepest values and meanings by which people live", to borrow some words from Philip Sheldrake. While we may not have immaterial souls or "spirits" in the any traditional sense, we are aware of ourselves as finite, vulnerable creatures whose lives yet have genuine significance, and we value those lives and invest them with purpose. A humanistic spirituality is one that characterizes such value and purpose in terms of our natural lives- the only lives that we certainly get to live.

I did not set out at the beginning of this long process to develop a new spiritual perspective, but when I discovered that I was doing so, I embraced the fact. The time is ripe for forms of spirituality that have grown out of a contemporary naturalistic worldview, which owe little to the ancient religions that civilized humanity has grown up with and now suffers from, and which are not conscious imitations or mockeries of earlier forms. Inescapably, the perspective I will present in the course of this blog is a personal one; it won't be acceptable to everyone, and it might not be acceptable to anyone but me, but the most important thing about it is not whether anyone ends up agreeing with it. Its most essential function is to inspire and challenge, to stimulate thought and feeling, to encourage those who encounter it to engage creatively with their own "deepest values and meaning". In these terms I hope my project does not seem too hubristic; I am inviting you along to share my journey through the new self-understanding that modern science and society have made possible.

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