My good friend and Divinity school classmate Caitlin Golden works at Social Action Massacusetts, previously Social Action Ministries. Check out this awesome guest blog she wrote last month, explaining the name change. I hope other "inter-faith" organizations follow their lead, and work to create opportunities for social change and community service that welcome people who want to do good regardless of god-belief!
One word that seems weighty, but spared of total synonymy with religion, is “good,” aka “the good.” To me, it’s a bit of a bland term. It reminds me of all that Greek philosophy I failed to read. I want to say that it feels too general to be a gathering term, but then again all of my central terms so far have had that generic touch that makes them hubs for meaning.
The thing is, I can define my other terms. “Spirit” defines the human person (and human collective) as the meeting of subject and object. “Sacred” is a label we apply to those things which we hold most dear as a matter of our ethical existence. (Aha—my interest in sacred is really an interest in the ethical—forcing me to confront this word “Good.”)
The most daunting aspect of confronting the word “Good” is that I am entering some of the most well-worn territory in philosophical history. I understand that ethics is the ‘first philosophy’ in the post-metaphysical landscape, and so of course I have to take it on now. But—it’s a huge topic. For now, I’ll pick at it:
-Good – first and foremost, is a spoken label. To paraphrase Hamlet, nothing is good or bad but speaking makes it so. So, in analyzing the word “good” I always want to analyze the speaker, to understand what provoked them to use that word. “Good” as a label, is always used relative to its speaker. Insofar as a person takes their own existence/self as good, I will guess that anything they term as “good” is also “good for” them.
-The neutrality (relativism) of this term means that it can be used by anyone, which immediately gets us into trouble. Exterminating the Jews was “good for” Hitler. I feel a desire to rid the term of its neutrality, to make Hitler’s use of it somehow unfit. The neutrality also makes it less evocative—the words “God” and “sacred” have certain weight and connotation that makes it easier to identify false meanings.
-There are a set of words that I relate closely to “good.” While good might be the central gathering term, it is these words that actually express goodness for me. A lot of these words can be found on Maslow’s pyramid: health, safety, belonging, love, flourishing. Two other heavy-hitters I would include are: compassion, justice.
-There is still so much to unpack from “good”!
Ethical good = good between people
Personal good = good for the individual person
Practical good = gets the job done well
Aesthetic good = beautiful, entertaining, captivating
-The principle riddle involved in determining goodness is that of prioritizing. Given that we include so many human values in goodness, these are bound to conflict—and then which good do we pick? There are trade-offs, conflicts, and sacrifices—between values, between immediate and long-term goals, between proximal and distant subjects. And so on.
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”?
In this post, I will provide examples of some secular uses of the above terms. I present these examples as the beginning of an argument towards reclaiming them outside of their traditional religious contexts. Obviously, in my next post, I will need to struggle with whether one or all of these words are too tainted by their connection with religion to be used as atheistic indicators of human existence and meaning.
SOUL – “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) “Living being”—in Hebrew nefesh chaya, or “a living soul.” There are multiple terms in Hebrew that can be translated as soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, yechidah, etc). In this verse, the word “soul” reflects the new man’s vitality—not his ability to survive death in any form. Thus, the Bible itself presents us with a use of the word “soul” uncoupled from any notion of immortality. To be a soul means to be a living being—no more, no less.
Apart from religious contexts, “soul” can also be used rhetorically to point towards the metaphorical center of a person. This center is often irrational and highly personal. Thus I can “know it in my soul” in a similar way that I might “know it in my gut.”
In the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame online entry for Otis Redding, we are told: “His name is synonymous with the term soul, music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” For more on how “soul music,” reclaimed religious items for the secular, look for the scene in the movie “Ray” in which Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) writes the song “I Got a Woman.”
SPIRIT – I’ve already written a lot about this in a previous blog post and also this pamphlet. But a few examples of the secular use of “spirit” just to remind you:
The power of the human spirit discussed in this article on the Disable Veterans of America Winter Sports clinic.
We got spirit, yes we do! (Pretty sure this is secular-- or are our cheerleaders indoctrinating us?)
That’s the spirit!
SACRED -- I’ll start with a scene from The Simpsons:
(Lisa and Janey are in Lisa's bedroom reading the "Baby-Sitter Twins" books)
Janey: I can't get enough of "The Baby Sitter Twins." They arrested the counterfeiters, rescued the President, and made 4 dollars.
Lisa: I love everything about the world of babysitting. The responsibility, the obligations, the pressure...
Janey: And full refrigerator privileges!
Lisa: That's a trust, Janey. A sacred trust.
Janey: Geez. Lighten up, Lisa.
Here are some other quotes that use the word “sacred” pretty secularly:
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson*
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” – Thomas Jefferson
“National defense is the sacred duty of the young and all other people.” –Kim Jong Il
Also, thanks to Jeff Lowe for pointing out this fantastic example from the classic comedy "Back to School." (Example in the first minute. For the faint of heart, don't watch further than that!)
Help me out here! Know any other good, secular uses of SOUL, SPIRIT, or SACRED?