Humanistic Judaism journal, “Colloquium ’01” Spring/Summer 2002
Spirituality is a controversial word in the secular world. For most “traditional” secularists the word is a weapon in the armory of the enemy. It conjures up the illusory world of spiritual beings — all the way from gods to spirits of the dead. People who are genuinely and consistently secular, it is said, cannot be spiritual. They can be emotional, artistic, impassioned devotees of beauty — but they cannot be spiritual. A secular spirituality is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, very much like a square circle.
Yet for many other secularists, both old and young, the word spirituality has become a comfortable addition to their lives, pointing to a secular reality that no other word adequately denotes. They recognize the historic use of the term for supernatural events. But for them the word easily crosses over to the world of space and time, to the realm of here and now. Many religious people are spiritual. But so are many secular people. Spirituality is an experience that can happen in both places.
If there is a real, this-worldly experience that can be designated spiritual, what is it? And what is its connection to the secular experience that would justify our use of the word?
The answer to this question lies in the origins of religion. The foundation of religion is the human experience of suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, there would be no religion. All religions are coping strategies for dealing with these two frightening realities.
As a coping strategy, historic religion offered magic power. Magic power is extraordinary power. It can achieve what natural power never allows. Magic power that is manipulated by magicians and wizards belongs to the world of magic. Magic power that is personalized and attributed to ancestral spirits — and that becomes the focus of acts of reverence and worship — belongs to the world of religion.
Holiness and sacredness mean the presence of magic power. Holy things radiate power and are often too dangerous to touch. If they are near, they can cure suffering and postpone death. Holy spirits possess the power of immortality. They defy death and stand in contrast to the change and decay of the natural world. The original spirituality was indeed access to or contact with this spirit world. It provided the serenity of eternal life, the transcendence of the supernatural, and the sense of power that dispels fear. In short, spirituality is a form of extraordinary empowerment.
Spirituality as empowerment comes in two forms: external and internal. External spirituality is the most common form. The seeker sees himself as helpless and powerless, a childlike victim in need of rescue. Magic power is external to him, present in the god or the angel that will save him. The normal experience of prayer is an example of this unequal connection. The source of power is outside of the supplicant, beyond him. He seeks to be touched by it and transformed.
Internal spirituality is less common. The devotee feels the magic power within herself. She feels himself capable of performing miracles. A sense of extraordinary power pervades her being. She easily turns into the prophet, the healer, the saint, the guru, the holy person. Internal spirituality is the sense of empowerment felt by charismatic and messianic leaders. They may plead humility, but their followers see them as godlike. The goal of mysticism, as opposed to ordinary prayer, is to achieve this condition.
Both external spirituality and internal spirituality can be dangerous to the welfare of the individual. If one becomes addicted to prayer, he can aggravate passivity and dependency. If one sees himself as godlike, he can easily fall into the foolishness of pretension. Traditional spirituality, when it works well, can provide its devotees with a special empowerment. But when it works badly, it can lead to self-destruction.
So what is the connection between spirituality and anything that secular people may be comfortable with? How can one have spirituality without magic power?
Secular spirituality, like traditional spirituality, is the experience of extraordinary empowerment — not so extraordinary that it defies natural law, but extraordinary enough to make it special. The birth of children, the intense solidarity of determined groups, the euphoria of great achievement, the inspiration of beautiful nature or beautiful people — all of these experiences provide the seeker with a new sense of significant power.
Secular spirituality can be both external and internal. It is external when we feel the power coming from outside of us. When we feel insignificant in the midst of a vast and overwhelming universe but feel significant as a part of a single nature evolving through the ages; when we feel insignificant as a lonely and mortal individual but feel significant as part of a centuries-long chain of family love; when we see ourselves as powerless in fighting the forces of evil alone but see ourselves as powerful when joined together with others in a movement of political idealism — we experience the wonder of natural transcendence. For many Jews their spirituality arises from their sense of connection to generations of ancestors — a sense of solidarity with the past and with time. The pleasure of roots gives us a sense of “immortality,” of continuity beyond our all-too-brief personal existence. Having children and grandchildren is growing roots in the future.
Secular spirituality is internal when we feel the power residing within ourselves. Self- confidence and personal self-esteem are not as extraordinary as sainthood. But they fill us with an energy of hope and well-being. There are times in our lives when we feel euphorically that we can seize the moment and achieve goals that we once thought were unreachable. Such moments are the stuff out of which internal spirituality is made.
Like traditional spirituality, secular spirituality can be dangerous. If we never feel powerful within ourselves but only feel powerful when we are connected to nature and to other people, then this losing oneself in something greater than oneself is the path to passive surrender and conformity. If we exaggerate our personal power and imagine that we can change our lives and the weather by simply wishing it, then we become the victims of megalomania and illusion.
A healthy secular spirituality is a balancing act. We need to feel connected to forces beyond ourselves without ever losing our personal identity. And we need to feel powerful enough within, yet never imagine that we can survive independent of the help of others.
A healthy spirituality for Humanistic Jews needs the following guidelines.
We need to distinguish between the word spirituality and the experience of extraordinary empowerment. Some Humanistic Jews will feel comfortable using the word spiritual to describe this experience. Others will not. As long as we understand the experience we are talking about, we can generously let the word be optional. If someone prefers to say “empowerment” or “transcendence” or “exaltation,” that choice is legitimate. Leaving the word as an option is kind, good-humored, and pragmatic.
We need to recognize the spiritual quality of many secular lives. The spiritual idealism of halutsim and kibbutzniks, which defied both nature and the limits of human ingenuity to achieve almost impossible goals, has a spiritual quality that can surely equal the devotion of monks and nuns. The resistance of secular ghetto fighters who offered their lives to rescue the dignity of the Jewish people certainly has as much spirituality as that of the religious martyrs who died for their faith. Secular scientists such as Einstein and Darwin, who brought unity out of difference, were as spiritual as the most famous theologians.
We need to distinguish between the spiritual experience and its consequences. Empowerment may make us feel energetic and ambitious, willing to confront all odds. It also may make us feel satisfied and secure, dispelling all fears. Ambition and serenity are the consequences of empowerment, not the substance.
We need to develop the ethical side of our spirituality. Transcendent experiences that focus only on nature and the universe to the exclusion of other people are morally dangerous. A healthy spirituality is not so transcendent that human affairs become unimportant. Some of the most significant moments of empowerment come from working with others to alleviate suffering and to strengthen the community.
We need to develop the aesthetic side of our spirituality. Beauty is the reflection in nature and people of whatever fosters life. Romantic love and sunlight are beautiful because they nurture life. In a universe where ugliness reflects all the dangers to human existence and happiness — from pestilence to violence — we need to feel strengthened by everything in the universe that supports our will to live.
We need to cultivate the internal spirituality that courage brings. In a world where guaranteed happy endings are illusions and magic power is the stuff of fantasy, the ultimate spiritual experience is not the surrender to God. It is the sense of empowerment that refuses to surrender to adversity and insists that taking risks is as sublime as naive faith.