Monday, August 8, 2011

Trading in God for Good, part 4 - Can Soul, Spirit, and Sacred be used in secular contexts?

            The above terms are used to indicate human engagement with transcendence. “Transcendence” seems to be a key term in the art of meaning-making. In my classes, I define transcendence as “beyond-ness,” and I believe our ability to reach/push beyond whatever are our apparent limitations signifies our ability to transcend. My family, my partner, the need for justice for the oppressed—these are things outside of myself that make demands upon me to which I have a deep response. They pull me outside of myself towards my ethical duties, and so I think of them as sacred.
When I use the word “Spirit,” to refer to myself, I am pointing out my human capacity for depth and growth—because I can evaluate and change my thoughts, because I can evaluate and change my actions, I am more than simply the person I am at this moment. Growing individuals repeatedly transcend their former selves. For these reasons, I find it easy to use “sacred” and “spirit” to indicate transcendent aspects of human life, without invoking the supernatural.

“Soul” is a trickier word, which I hope to dispense with in this paragraph. Since “sacred” is an adjective, and I really use “spirit” to describe an activity of self (or at least as a synonym for self), I find myself able to contextualize my use of them in ways that do not appear to endorse some kind of thing beyond the physical world. But let’s be honest—a soul is a metaphysical object. Sure, I can use it metaphorically, but I will constantly mislead a lot of my audience. I can try to say that “I feel it in my soul,” is just like “I feel it in my gut,” but the first statement is far more metaphorical than the second. No—“soul,” to me, is far too charged with supernaturalism. It smacks of immortality, of divine judgment, of supernatural transcendence—the soul is the part of me that is utterly separate from everything I know and think about myself—and I can’t imagine what that could mean in a secular context (Freud’s subconscious??). So I reject “soul” as an available word for discussing secular spirituality.

But am I fooling myself about this word “spirituality”? Am I being unrealistic about how language is used when I present myself as a seeker/finder of “secular spirituality”? Probably. Do people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” mean they have secular spirituality? I’m guessing no—I think they mean that they have notions about the spiritual (=supernatural) world that they are uninterested in forming into a system.
           And what would I replace the word “spirituality” with? My inspiration for using the word “spirit” comes from G.W.F Hegel’s book “The Phenomenology of Spirit”—just as often translated as “The Phenomenology of Mind.” Perhaps instead of secular “spirituality,” I mean: secular “amateur psychology of human flourishing as individuals and collectives.” That may be a more accurate expression, but it’s terrible branding.
            And is the phrase “secular sacred” also a misuse of common language? Microsoft Word quickly informs me that “secular” is an antonym for “sacred.” Clearly “sacred” smacks of religion, through and through. But what word will I use instead of “sacred”?
            As an atheist, what word(s) can I use to enter/center conversations on what matters in life, on what is worthy of human care? What word(s) can I use to succinctly evoke various ultimate facts about human existence/ethics? (Are there no ‘ultimate facts’ on these topics?) How do I talk about the greatness of the human spirit without “spirit”? How do I relate what is of utmost importance without “sacred”?


  1. imperative intellect,

    I think you are struggling with religious vocabulary, but why? spirit, soul, and the sacred have religious connotations because they are religious concepts.

    ask about human nature.
    ask about the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the consequences of our actions; the joy of possibility and the anxiety of opportunities lost.

  2. Why are you responding to my prose with poetry? Also, see "part 3" of the series, and you'll see that all three words can be used in secular contexts.

    As for your secular gathering terms, I hear "human nature." The ones after that are a bit wordy-- care to capture "simultaneous attraction... actions" in a shorter phrase? Same request with the other ones.