Quaker Universalist Conversations

Rational Spirituality and How I Got Here

Excerpts from a post on Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Beginnings

Recalling her childhood, Anastasia Somerville-Wong writes that family discussed almost everything and “were free to develop our own views, however irreverent. I am thankful for that especially, since I was born irreverent.”

Nonetheless, she puzzled over the question of God. Why did friends and their families believe without physical evidence? “Since I couldn’t write them off as insane, nor could I write off their God.”

That stance lasted until preteen disillusionment with conventional adult notions led her to let go of the God idea. The term “a-theist” didn’t suit her, though. “I didn’t want to be defined by something I wasn’t. I wanted to be defined by the things I was.”

Faith and Disillusionment

In the midst of a crisis of anxiety during her mid-teens, the author describes and opening that came to her at university:

Staring through the window of my room in halls one morning, at the very edge of despair, the sun came out, and I was enveloped in what I can only describe as deep, unconditional, all-pervasive love, of a kind I had never known before. It gave me a hope and a future. It was a shield that would keep the darkness at bay, far more powerful than anything I possessed, or so I thought.

I could find no explanation for this love. It did not seem human. Thus, I became convinced it was a supernatural presence, a divine one.

I had further moments like these, of overwhelming love, of profound peace and of pure elation, which at the time, I perceived as coming from outside myself. These experiences became more frequent, and they began to break through the clouds of my anxiety, forcing the darkness into retreat.

For the first time in my life, I was open to religious belief.


This opening led her into years of engagement with the belief that Jesus was that divine presence. She had the blessing of a small group of exchange students who shared a thoughtful exploration of their religious experience.

"Our Lady Queen of Peace, Boothbay Harbor, ME," by Mike Shell (8/12/2014)

Unlike the rest of the world it seemed, we could enjoy an emotional and intellectual intimacy, without judgment, and without any chemical assistance. This was where I belonged, and it felt ‘holy’…. [There] was a rather motley crew of us, living an alternative lifestyle to the typical university student.

[I also] followed the other religiously inclined youth into the Evangelical Churches, and into what I hoped would be the heavenly body of Christ on earth. These churches resonated with the joy of communal singing, and their adherents were enthused by what seemed to be a genuine pursuit of truth.

Sadly, this was where the author ran up against the institutional expectations of the churches and their dogmatic teachings. Whenever her inward integrity faced too much discomfort with one church, she would move to another, becoming more deeply involved in church activities and communities, yet increasingly more disturbed by what she saw.

Christians and their churches were, in spite of their claims to the contrary, just like every other group of humans and their institutions, and often a good deal worse. Indeed, they proved just as capable of cruelty as their heathen cousins, in spite of all their talk of love and forgiveness….

The deeper a person’s involvement with these churches, the more they became like the religious authorities whom Jesus had spent his life rebelling against, and the further they strayed from the path he had chosen….

Towards Naturalism

By my mid-twenties, I had become a Progressive Christian but I had done so on my own, through my own doctoral research and personal studies. I was rather taken aback later to find there were others, including celebrated authors such as Borg, Armstrong and Spong and a movement called Progressive Christianity.

"Booth Bay Harbor III," by Mike Shell (8/12/2014) I was a panentheist then, believing God to be in the world but also greater than the world, and therefore, in some sense beyond it. God was the good within and beyond.

This meant that I could appreciate divinity in nature (including people) when I perceived it but that equally, when nature (including human nature) revealed itself as corrupt, or even rotten to the core, I could turn to the God beyond it, and stand in solidarity with that God against the evils of the world.

I still believed there was something ‘out there’ that was divine in the supernatural sense, something essentially mysterious and indefinable, and therefore, something which could not be reduced to the traditional conception of God as a person, creator and lawgiver – the conception which had always inspired dogmatism, tribalism and bigotry.

Mine, however, was not a ‘God of the gaps’, who grew smaller and smaller the more we learnt about the universe – a God defined by what it is not. Rather, mine was a God who grew larger the more we learnt because this was a God who contained but was also greater than the universe….

Rational Spirituality

I am confident that humanity can meet its psychological and social needs with a rational conception of spirituality, without the need for traditional faith.

After all, a genuine spirituality is a rational one. It does not try to deny or escape from reality. Instead, it meets a messy reality head on, with compassion and positive action – demonstrating orthopraxy (right action), rather than imposing orthodoxy (right belief).

"Booth Bay Harbor I," by Mike Shell (8/12/2014) Genuine spirituality does not set some people apart from others. Rather, it acknowledges our common humanity, its weaknesses and strengths, and brings us closer together.

It embraces reason and pursues the truth, whether the truth is what we want it to be or not. It acts from kindness and refrains from doing harm, even when doing so runs counter to our feelings and impulses.

Genuine spirituality is the experience of wonder, of creativity, of love and self-transcendence, of connection to other living beings. It includes the cultivation of empathy and compassion for others through reflective exercises such as meditation and contemplation.

Genuine spirituality demands honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, values running counter to the religious power structures that have been dominant for so long. It is a process of rediscovering and having a renewed appreciation of our place in nature, an emphasis which contrasts with the efforts of traditional religion to set humanity apart from its natural origins and even to set us apart from the needs and pleasures of our own physical bodies….

"Booth Bay Harbor II," by Mike Shell (8/12/2014) Awe and wonder are often the source of belief in a supernatural God but they need not be. We can worship instead in the sense of honouring (the original Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word ‘worship’) that which is good in reality, in nature, including in our human nature – though I do not recommend using the term ‘worship’ in general, since it is far too widely associated with obeisance to a dictator of either the human or divine kind.

This ‘honouring’ is not something strange and new-agey but something we actually do already when we celebrate one another at births, birthdays, milestones, marriages and funerals, when as a community or society we celebrate people who excel in their work and do a great deal of good for others, and when we celebrate the seasons and wonders of the natural world.

We can, however, learn to do these things a whole lot better, with a whole lot more creativity, meaning, imagination and depth. Another look at what we count as success, and at who we choose to reward with our civil honours lists wouldn’t go amiss!

Friend Somerville-Wong adds this note:

Eventually, my journey around the churches led me to a Quaker Meeting, where the unassuming stillness and quiet offered considerable solace.


Images

Our Lady Queen of Peace and three water images from Boothbay Harbor, ME, by Mike Shell (8/12/2014). See more about Our Lady Queen of Peace here.

Comments

Friend Anastasia,

I’m very glad that you offered your personal story for publication here. Though the details are of course different, in various ways your history resonates positively with mine. Much of what you have done by trial and error recalls to me my own seeking. Much of what you have found also resonates with my current understanding of faith and practice in this world.

There is one passage over which I stumble, though:

After all, a genuine spirituality is a rational one. It does not try to deny or escape from reality. Instead, it meets a messy reality head on, with compassion and positive action – demonstrating orthopraxy (right action), rather than imposing orthodoxy (right belief) [emphasis added].

This statement, taken as whole, works for me as well. However, I have a quibble about the clause I emphasized: “a genuine spirituality is a rational one.”

In my experience, that notion “rational” is a major stumbling block to modern explorations of spiritual reality. It excludes anything that we cannot describe empirically in such a way that others can replicate our experience precisely.

I’m working on an essay to develop this theme more fully on my personal blog, The Empty Path. In the meantime, here is a passage by James Hemming that speaks to me:

For a definition of ‘spiritual’ I will turn to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, selecting two of the range of definitions on offer. One reads, ‘Of, pertaining to, affecting, or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, especially as regarded in a religious aspect’; another, ‘Of, or pertaining to, or emanating from the intellect or higher faculties of mind.’

We might expand and unify these two definitions by saying that ‘spiritual’ entails a special sort of relationship between the individual and the universe often characterized as religious in the broad sense of the word. In considering the spiritual, we are concerned with the clarification of vision. A spadeful of wet soil can be seen as just dirt or as the basis of all life. So with everything: we must try, as Blake said, to see not only with, but through, the eye [emphasis added].

— “The Spiritual Reach of the Human Mind,” by James Hemming, in Universalism and Religions: The Quaker Universalist Reader Number 2.

Blessings,
Mike

Thank you for your comment. I acknowledge that spirituality is about more than just the nuts and bolts of reason – it’s about intuition, perception and emotional insight as well, though these things are, in practice, often bound up together rather than separate processes.

In the specific paragraph you quoted above, I was merely emphasising the rational aspect in the context of the importance of consistency – living out ones values as opposed to believing (or saying one believes) one thing and doing another (the hypocrisy or contradictoriness that so many religious/spiritual people display).

There is a tendency for people to think spirituality is something completely mysterious and unconnected to daily life and activism. My comments were a challenge to that view, a view that is often an excuse for laziness and hypocrisy.

I am looking forward to reading your blog. It sounds very interesting!

Thanks very much for this, Anastasia. Your clarification helps me to see that you do, in fact, speak my mind:

The importance of consistency – living out ones values as opposed to believing (or saying one believes) one thing and doing another (the hypocrisy or contradictoriness that so many religious/spiritual people display).”

You might appreciate Elizabeth Boardman's "Understanding Belief," which she gave us permission to republish from the December 2018 "Quakers and Christianity" issue of Friends Journal.

Blessings,
Mike