Rite & Reason: Spiritual moments in secular life

Full engagement in positive pursuits can offer moments of spiritual experience

Absorption has both secular and religious aspects. Everyday life offers experience that can be described as spiritual in this sense. Aspects of this experience are to be found in any activity that we engage in for pleasure rather than for an extrinsic purpose such as a reward.

Absorption has both secular and religious aspects. Everyday life offers experience that can be described as spiritual in this sense. Aspects of this experience are to be found in any activity that we engage in for pleasure rather than for an extrinsic purpose such as a reward.

 

In his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton makes a strong case for drawing on religious traditions to get practical insights on how to live. Religions offer guidance on the role of friendship, community, art, and architecture in enriching our lives.

Though spirituality is traditionally associated with religion, it also has important links to the secular world.

Underlying the six main aspects of spirituality is its non-instrumental and non-utilitarian character. This means that being spiritual is not connected to earning a living or to what Wordsworth describes as the world of “getting and spending”.

Spirituality relates to a quality of life that lies beyond the brute fact of living. The spiritual and the ascetic are related because, as with asceticism, spirituality usually involves some detachment from bodily needs and desires.

The first strand of spirituality concerns the search for meaning. In the secular version, this quest is reflected in a sense that there is more to life than appears on the surface and it is captured in the title of the U2 song, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for.

In religious terms, the quest for meaning takes places within a tradition of belief and discourse about what gives purpose to human life. What gives life its ultimate purpose is the search to enter into communion with God.

Moral life

The second and third strands of the spiritual link it to the moral life. Strand two refers to its manifestation in personal qualities and strand three concerns its collective or communal dimension.

Secular and religious people can share the personal qualities of the spiritual disposition in strand two. These include self-knowledge, self-control, self-possession, self-transcendence, calmness, love, generosity, trust, hope, wisdom, serenity, openness, humility, and many more.

These qualities have a moral character related to making the individual a better person and the world a better place. Relationships of friendship, love and affection can also be said to have a spiritual quality. This occurs where individuals are concerned only about the enjoyment of one another’s company rather than with any considerations of the possible usefulness of the relationship.

The third dimension of spirituality concerns the celebration of a sense of belonging, shared memory and commitment to a common purpose. This has very clear secular and religious expressions.

Sporting occasions or concerts represent a secular version of this dimension of spirituality, while liturgical services represent the most obvious religious version. In both contexts, spirituality is related to communal bonding.

The fourth strand of the spiritual refers to feelings of awe, reverence, and wonder in response to the natural world. Clearly these feelings can take religious and secular forms.

Source of awe

From both a secular and religious perspective, nature is quite properly a source of awe, respect, and reverence. In this form of response to the world, the religious and secular versions of spirituality are very close to one another.

This leads to the fifth strand of spirituality, namely, the cultivation of inner space. The exploration of inner space in secular contexts has prompted the development of calming music with therapeutic purposes designed to provide moments of respite from the stress and pressure of life.

In religious spirituality, this includes prayer, meditation and ritual, often accompanied by sacred music. This strand of spirituality is linked to the final dimension, that of absorption.

Absorption has both secular and religious aspects. Everyday life offers experience that can be described as spiritual in this sense. Aspects of this experience are to be found in any activity that we engage in for pleasure rather than for an extrinsic purpose such as a reward.

This is the kind of delight experienced through responding to nature, working with wood or other materials, reading a novel or a poem, watching a play, listening to a piece of music, or looking at a painting.

Individuals enjoying these activities can sometimes be described as engrossed, absorbed, wrapped up or lost in what they are doing. Full engagement in any positive pursuit has then the potential to offer us moments of spiritual experience.

In brief, a spiritual orientation to the world can be found in people of both secular and religious convictions.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University

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