Spiritual Experiences in a Secular World (John Carr)

  (09 May 09)

Spiritual experiences in a secular world




By John Carr



This topic was discussed at meetings of the Brisbane Chermside Group of Sea of Faith. The following report is an amended version of that which appeared in the Chermside Group’s November 2008 Notes.



The search in the West for spiritual experiences in non-religious settings has arisen from peoples’ dissatisfaction with the orthodox theology of mainstream denominations and with the sometimes painful relationships and experiences that they have suffered within the Church. Many SoFiA members reject Christianity but miss the warm fellowship of the Christian community. As is often the case with SoF discussions, it was necessary for some of us to talk through these issues once more and thereby justify our apostasy. Some people, quite clearly, did not find that Church activities had provided worthwhile spiritual experiences or, if they had, that the effects were vitiated by their no longer credible, false, or even toxic, theological bases.


The second ‘preliminary’ topic—another SoF regular—was the nature of spirituality. This presented no great problem, as most of us were quite happy to settle once more on a broad, inclusive definition. This allows the broad spectrum of Sea of Faithers, in their usual non-dogmatic way, to avoid tedious recurring controversies. Some of us have a degree of scepticism about the very existence of spirituality as a distinct human faculty. However, we are content to use the term as a convenient metaphor for a range of complex mental states so that we can talk about them with ‘true believers’.


In considering the qualities that might qualify as ‘spiritual’ in a secular activity, the members identified the following:


  be part of a sympathetic group

   bring and share experiences with non-judgemental others

  be inspired

  feel part of something larger and more significant than our own daily lives

  seek and find deep truths about life

  do some kind of good for others.


Apart from the obvious lack of reference to God or worship, this list of objectives would not be out of place in many a religious setting.


So, where do people in this post-religious era seek and, occasionally, find spiritual experiences? The same places, in fact, as in more religious times:


  among friends and family (falling in love, having a baby, surviving – or not surviving – an illness, celebrating successes, big and small)

  at work (not as rare as cynics claim)

  in recreation (hobbies, intellectual inquiry and discussion, reading, crosswords, discussion, meditation)

  in the arts and sports (whether as participant and observer)

  in Nature (walking, gardening)

 through consciousness-changing stimuli (fasting, sleep-deprivation, extreme sports or dance, alcohol and drug-taking) and, even –

   through participating in religious activities.


Most of those present were quite prepared to accept all, or almost all, of these as enabling ‘spiritual’ experiences for some people, with the important proviso that there is no guarantee in any of them. A long-awaited concert, lecture, family reunion or grand final may be disappointingly anti-climactic. While there seemed to be a minority view that responses to some of these areas of human endeavour (sports, for example) were not worthy of being called spiritual, the majority were adamant that a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture pursuits is totally unjustified. Similarly, we should not be judgemental regarding the relative emphasis on intellect and emotion in an activity or on its level of intensity or longevity. Once we accept a broad, parareligious view, we must accept that ‘spiritual’ experiences vary in many ways and we should not depreciate the responses of other people. If experiences move and inspire them and give meaning to their lives, we should not judge. Who are we to say, “That’s not spiritual; that’s just euphoria”?


The next stage in the debate related to one member’s search for non-religious spiritual experiences that can be planned or organised. If we accept the above range of domains as legitimate, this should not be a problem, as all include organised programs to a greater or lesser degree. However, the crucial point is that all of these activities are embedded in a culture, which brings with it a purpose, a content, the roles that the participants adopt and the appropriate genre. Most importantly, it should be noted that the main purpose is generally not ‘to have a spiritual experience’ except, of course, with respect to the religious domain and even then, the spiritual is often objectified to some extent. Many of us have spoken about how moved we have been by secular funerals. In this context, the current purposes of a funeral in our culture are to celebrate the life of the deceased and for the living to come to terms with both the loss of the loved-one and their own mortality. The content includes the accomplishments, personality and relationships of the deceased, often with an emphasis on the humorous. The participants are the family, friends and acquaintances; outsiders may not feel at ease and heaven help the secular ‘celebrant’ who does not strike the right note. And the funeral genre is a rejigged Christian funeral conducted in a crematorium ‘chapel’. Symbolic artefacts of the person’s life are often presented and displayed.


A similar analysis of other successful secular events – unique and mundane, big and small – will reveal the same essential embedding of real life events in a culture: the opening ceremony at an Olympic Games; a performance of an opera; a family Christmas dinner; the repotting of caladiums; receiving grand-dad’s war service dossier; a card game where you find that you hold a lot of trumps; watching a skilled television interviewer talking with a person who has suffered; the US Democratic Party Convention; listening to the rain on an iron roof; practising tai-chi; a run of puns with your mates at the pub; and watching the sun rise or set. A moving or “spiritual’ response is not assured, but the potential is there.


The reason that many of us in the West no longer feel the benefits of religious activities is that we no longer belong to the particular culture. We have changed. Even the most devout may not enjoy a religious service in a ‘foreign’ context; as we have so often acknowledged in SoFiA, we’re all different, so one Christian’s emotional, recreational experience may be boring or risible to another. On the other hand, even an agnostic or atheist may be uplifted by some religious services. What will probably not work is an activity that sets out to be a spiritual experience, but which does not have authentic cultural roots. Without purposes, content and roles related to a cultural community, an activity is likely to be a fairly arid exercise. Even genres like pilgrimages, retreats and meditation, whose main purpose is spiritual, usually have additional purposes and depend on culturally specific content and roles.


Our own SoF meetings – secular activities – may provide spiritual experiences for some of us. At the September meeting at Chermside, a small group set out to talk about spirituality in secular contexts and, by their own testimony, some of those present were deeply moved and had a rush of insight into their lives. This should not be surprising; surely all long-term (faithful?) members of SoFiA have experienced euphoria and inspirational insights at some time in a Sea of Faith meeting. Our organisation and events provide the necessary conditions: reasonably clear intellectual purposes that members deem important; they have a content (in the case of the September meeting, the possibility of secular activities having some spiritual outcome); the participants are thoughtful, non-judgemental debaters, who are genuinely seeking a measure of enlightenment; and the genre is the traditional, comfy club discussion. The uniqueness of the September meeting lay in the fact that it was reflexive: the participants set out to discuss secular spirituality intellectually and some of them experienced it—emotionally.




Apart from disagreeing with the Chermside group that any explanation of the nature of spirituality would be tedious, I think this was a very good discussion and it demonstrates that most people do have spiritual experiences. One thing that was not mentioned that may not be tedious was that these experiences are remembered, perhaps for a lifetime.

Posted by helen mason

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