December 2006 -- The fall season ushers in Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and, this year, Ramadan as well. Winter brings Christmas and Hanukkah. Spring takes us to Passover and Easter. And those are just the highlights of the holy days marked by the Old Testament–based religions. Throw in their minor milestones (Purim, Pentecost); add Hindi, Buddhism, and a few other faiths to the mix; and you have a year-round sacred calendar.
Most people feel that the sacred and spiritual pertain to the soul or to things incorporeal and eternal—in contrast to the secular, which is thought to pertain to the material, worldly, physical, and temporal. On sacred days, we’re supposed to turn our attention from the low, mundane, and muddy, to things high, heavenly, and pure. But the fables and beliefs that give rise to the holy days of various religions conflict with each other, and no such belief can be shown to be more valid than the others. Therefore, they must be accepted on faith, which distinguishes such beliefs from those discovered by science or philosophy.
Where does that leave the rational, secular individualist? Those of us who wish to experience a sense of sacred meaning and inspiration will certainly not find it among days marking miraculous births, escapes from evil pharaohs, the receipt of holy books, or enlightenment under bodhi trees. And what sacred lessons can we draw from conflicting myths and dogmas that have stoked murderous human conflict among various faiths and sects throughout history?
Before we conclude that the quest for a secular spirituality is hopeless, perhaps we should ask: What, exactly, is the true nature of the spiritual or sacred? And do these elevated emotions necessarily conflict with reason, the secular, and the ordinary aspects of everyday life?
At first consideration, everyday life certainly doesn’t seem to be a promising source for spiritual fulfillment. It all seems so . . . mundane.
Start at the beginning, with breakfast. We all have physical needs that must be satisfied, and food is the most obvious. No food, no us. Breakfast is then followed by a plethora of other day-to-day activities related to survival. We work and we trade with others in order to secure our food, shelter, and everything else necessary to exist. And we transform these tasks into daily routines.
Is it true that the spiritual aspects of human life are accessible only through religions?
For example, each morning, millions of parents get the kids ready and send them off to school. Just consider the multitude of activities concerned with educating them—from financing, designing, and constructing the school building, to training and hiring teachers and staff, to transporting and schooling the kids. All of these general activities also entail, in turn, a host of more concrete daily tasks. Somebody must design school buildings; arrange for their financing; erect their girders; administer the schools’ staffs; and, of course, teach the kids a host of subjects. And even more concretely: Somebody must mix iron, carbon, and chromium to make those girders; mix tomato sauce, olive oil, and pasta to make the kids’ cafeteria lunches; and mix the various chemicals to make the medicines that keep the children healthy. Somebody must write business plans for construction companies that build those schools. Somebody must write the books, poems, and songs for school kids to read, recite, or sing.
Multiply those kinds of routine tasks millions of times—to meet our millions of other practical needs—and you see that the mundane keeps us pretty busy.
But where can we find anything “spiritual” in any of it?
True, we also occupy ourselves with matters not connected to our immediate survival. We spend time with our families and friends. We enjoy ourselves, watching TV or movies, playing softball or bowling, attending concerts and sporting events. At the end of the day, before we go to sleep (another of those physical needs), those of us with partners may engage in sex.
All of this is still rather mundane. Yet we can see at least glimmers of the spiritual or sacred in many of these ordinary things. The birth of every child is so significant to us that we celebrate the anniversary of each one every year. Unlike animals, many of us grant sex a fuller, richer meaning through romance. And we transform sound and noise into music and meaning—some of it inspiring. Ah, to me, the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sounds as if it’s sung by angels, albeit German-speaking ones!
Still, most people see the sacred as residing ultimately in the people, practices, and places of religion—in gods and prophets, in prayers and worship, in churches, temples, and mosques. And they view mundane matters—births, weddings, and funerals—as sacred only when mixed with things religious. They regard gods and religions as infusing their lives with purpose and moral guidance. What’s good or evil, right or wrong for us? What gives our lives meaning and significance? And where can we find the strength to practice what we know we should preach? Most people look to religion and the supernatural for these answers.
Holy days remind the faithful of their beliefs, telling them to lift their eyes and hearts from the day-to-day to the eternal. Holy days also serve to unite the faithful in their common beliefs, providing a unified spiritual power to overcome individual doubt and critical examination. “Gee,” many think, “everyone else believes this; maybe I should just get with the program.” That’s certainly not a valid philosophical argument, but beliefs held within a group setting can certainly reinforce the beliefs of an individual.
So, is it true that the spiritual aspects of human life are accessible only through gods, religions, and religious institutions? And is human life empty and meaningless without them?
To answer, let’s reflect upon the precise essence of the “human.” Biologically, we may be animals, but we’re certainly different from dumb brutes.
To begin with, our knowledge is not bound by mere perception or time. We may literally live in the moment, but, because we can conceptualize, we remember the past and imagine the future. Even chimps, the critters closest to us on the evolutionary ladder, don’t sit around celebrating simian Yuletides and reminiscing about how their great-grand-monkey, many moons ago, taught them to snag tasty holiday insects by sticking twigs into anthills. Nor does some innovative Bonzo dream of cutting down the trees where he lives in order to build sturdy, permanent shelters—or imagine ways to preserve food and store water year-round, so that he and his furry friends will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Like chimps, we humans see, hear, feel, taste, and smell particular objects and perceive their changes over time. But unlike chimps, we also can discover the underlying principles that make them what they are and that cause them to change. Even humans can’t “see” the force that causes apples and artillery shells to fall to earth, that causes the planets to move the way they do around the sun, and that causes the material in the sun to be crushed to the point that it releases incredible amounts of energy to shine down on all of us. But unlike chimps, we alone can discover how that force works and even give it a name: gravity.
With our rational capacity also comes our awareness of our own free will—and our moral capacity to choose. We can decide to act or to refrain from acting in various ways and situations; to resist the whim of the moment; to focus our minds; to fully face the facts of the world and ourselves; to think or not to think. We know, deep down, when we’re being deceitful and dishonest with ourselves, allowing our whims to cloud our minds. We know when we are being creative or destructive. We know that we’re responsible for our actions and for our selves.
This is the awareness of ourselves as moral agents. In fact, we can reflect on everything we do—even on our own reflecting. As Aristotle said, we can think about our own thinking.
“So what?” some religious minister might respond. “We in our religions acknowledge that humans are half-way between the animals and the angels. How does human nature and your little philosophical dissertation get us on a stairway to heaven and the sacred?”
The answer is that the source of the sacred and the spiritual are in each and every one of us. Our self-reflective, creative capacity is the nature and source of the human spirit—of those things that arise from our unique form of consciousness. We are the creators, the motive force, the prime movers of our own moral characters, of our own knowledge, of our own world. And it is in the exercise of our most human capacities that we can find the sacred and the spiritual.
Our unique ability to think conceptually allows us to transform and give special meaning to even the most mundane biological aspects of our lives. Take eating. When we’re ravenously hungry, we sometimes stuff ourselves “like animals,” as we say. But unlike animals, we can also plan and prepare, then sit back and savor a good meal. Animals forage and eat; only men can hold banquets.
Or consider the tasks mentioned above that go into educating kids. Whether it is designing buildings or erecting them, whether it is cooking cafeteria lunches or administering the school offices, whether it is writing textbooks or teaching their contents in classrooms, each creative activity calls upon the best, the highest, and the most human in us: our intelligence, imagination, honesty, courage, fortitude, and integrity.
Because we are human, we create the meaning in our own lives in accordance with our nature and the objective needs for our survival and flourishing. The values and virtues required for life on earth come not from on high but from that nature and those needs. The things most sacred to us as individuals ought to reflect our highest personal values and virtues. When they do, our experience of the spiritual can come from reflections upon the glory of our own creations.
Consider, for example, parents who work for years to raise children from babies to young adults. Certain aspects of that project would never be chosen for their inherent pleasure; indeed, they often try the patience and commitment of the best parents: changing diapers; waking in the night to hush the crying baby; dealing with colds, nausea, fears of school and of not being liked by other kids; handling frustration over homework or gloom over the first romantic infatuation that doesn’t pan out.
Nietzsche urged us to “remain true to the Earth, and believe not those who advise a hope above the world.”
But raising children also brings many joys: the joys of guiding and witnessing their growing control of the world around them, and the pleasures they take from the process. Parents find spiritual fulfillment as their children discover their own physical and mental capacities; as they swing their arms and hands or crawl about with vigor and determination, squealing with the delight of self-mastery; as they utter their first words, sentences, questions, and thoughts; as they learn softball, piano, or ballet; as they figure out why a mechanical toy moves, why plants grow, why stars shine, why people get sick and how can they be cured.
Good parents guide their children every step of the way, with the goal of not having to guide them, moving toward the day when their children become self-responsible adults. As they watch with pride their kids graduate high school or college, to what solemn and celebratory ceremonies is it better to attach the word “sacred?”
This same sense of the sacred can apply to all moral enterprises that call upon the best within us. An entrepreneur who works for years to nurture his business to profitability is just as much a creator as is the parent who nurtures his child: he too should view his business as a sacred creation. Likewise, a scientist who studies for years to master every aspect of a discipline, and who then applies that knowledge to make new discoveries, is on a sacred quest that ends at the holy grail of human understanding.
Similarly, a couple would be right to consider their marriage a sacred spiritual bond, not because of a benediction pronounced in a church at its beginning, but because of what they choose to make of their relationship through their own efforts over the years. What is more beautiful or noble than for each individual in a marriage to inspire the best in the other? And while sex between consenting adults may be enjoyable and sin-free, sex in such a marriage can have the passionate rapture of a holy sacrament.
Our most important, sacred creations are our own souls and moral characters. What we are as individuals—our virtues as well as our vices—certainly has much to do with parents, teachers, culture, and environment. But while good influences can help us and bad ones hinder, ultimately each person must say: “I am master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” We choose the influences that ultimately prove decisive for us, and thus shape our characters. From our moral characters come, in turn, the things we should hold sacred.
The occasions and events that we hold most meaningful will be particular to each of us as individuals. But because we are all human and share the same form of consciousness, millions of us mark similar occasions—graduations, anniversaries, birthdays, and the like—and wish to share them in rituals and ceremonies. Though what is uniquely ours will always be most sacred and joyful to us, we also take joy in seeing the achievements and joys of others.
Most national holidays, for example, grow out of shared religious and secular beliefs and traditions. Thanksgiving, for instance, like most fall festivals, celebrates a universal gratitude for harvests and human productivity. Other holidays, such as Christmas, have become occasions for general feasting, enjoyment, sharing goods times with family and friends, and showing through gifts our appreciation or love to those significant to us.
For individualists, other days could take on a secular, spiritual significance. For example, July 20—the day that in 1969 marked the first human landing on the moon—might be celebrated as Human Achievement Day. The lunar landing was an achievement regarded as literal lunacy throughout most of human history. Ayn Rand wrote, “Think of what was required to achieve that mission: think of the unpitying effort; the merciless discipline; the courage; the responsibility of relying on one’s judgment; the days, nights and years of unswerving dedication to a goal; the tension of the unbroken maintenance of a full, clear mental focus; and the honesty.” It took the highest, sustained acts of virtue to attain in reality what had only been dreamt of for millennia. So why not mark that day as a time to reflect on all that’s possible to humans?
There are other possibilities. On days that mark rebirth and renewal, such as New Year’s Day, we can reflect on what we’ve made of ourselves and where we might improve; and we can renew our appreciation for the joys and achievements in our lives—in the same way that an artist gains renewed joy by reflecting on the beauty of one of his own paintings.
Nietzsche urged us to “remain true to the Earth, and believe not those who advise a hope above the world.” In this worldliness lies the key to secular spirituality. The sacred and the spiritual are to be found in the virtues, values, and creative capacities within each and every one of us, right here on Earth.
For too long, we have accepted a false dichotomy between that which is mundane, earthly, and human, and that which is high, heavenly, and divine. The sacred has always been exiled to another world or dimension. But we exist here and now, in a specific space and time, and not in some eternal, otherworldly, Platonic realm. As philosopher Benedetto Croce put it, “Eternity is in the moment for those who know how to place it there.”
Properly understood, then, the spiritual is that which pertains to our human capacities for understanding, self-awareness, free will, and moral responsibility. And the sense of the sacred comes from realizing our own potential and striving for the best within us.
What could possibly be holier than that?
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.