Humanist Spirituality: Does the concept of spirituality have any relevance to contemporary Ethical Culture, and if so, how?
Ethical Humanists should welcome expressions of naturalistic spirituality. Despite our similarities, we derive inspiration from different words and experiences, so I don’t promote a single definition of naturalistic spirituality. As an Ethical Culture Leader, I want to be more playful with, and tolerant of, spirituality. I think we can both honor our skeptical roots and embrace spirituality by being grounded in rational science, animated by thoughtful imagination, and engaged in compassionate action.
Science grounds naturalistic spirituality. What John Dewey called “the spiritual of the actual” harmonizes about what is—what exists in the physical universe. It’s the spirituality of Baruch Spinoza, who, roughly speaking, equated God with nature. It’s the spirituality Carl Sagan felt in gazing up at the night sky. As he wrote, “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
This is a worship that respects reason, but is not devoid of emotion. As Robert Solomon points out in Spirituality for the Skeptic, we over emphasize the division between emotion and reason. They can support each other: “…the spiritual life is a passionate life and neither spirituality nor passion is as such irrational.” For me, reason is a necessary but not sufficient part of spirituality.
In addition to “spirituality of the actual,” Ethical Humanism embraces what Dewey called, “the spiritual of the possible,” which taps into “the emotional stir of possibilities as yet realized.” I call this imagination. Through imagination we can transcend the reality of the world as it is, and reach toward the world as it might become. Our animal nature and emotion can create new, beautiful words, music, and art.
Felix Adler was wary of spirituality based in “muddy thought and misty emotionalism,” but we can be more open to the “vagueness” of feelings that are “indistinct and transitory.” They are part of human life. My colleague Anne Klaeysen uses poetry because it can touch us deeply without slipping into supernaturalism. Poetry can illuminate, in the words of Muriel Rukeyse, ‘the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and…understand… in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.’
Imagination allows us to explore what Felix Adler called “consciousness of infinite interconnection.” It’s not simply metaphorical, but it’s not supernatural. Adler connected this to the spirituality of Ralph Waldo Emerson considered by many to be the forefather of modern spirituality. Emerson praised both our concrete world and the expansiveness of interconnection.
But Felix Adler critiqued Emerson’s philosophy of spirituality for not emphasizing action. In Emerson’s approach the other person was lost in the rapturous unity of self with the universe. This rapture can be so intoxicating that in trying to grasp the whole universe we miss the person right before their eyes. Adler concluded that Emerson emphasized “self-affirmation at the expense of service.” In An Ethical Philosophy of Life, Adler admits that, “…Emerson’s pantheism in effect spoils his ethics.” Emerson did not, in Adler’s opinion, pay enough attention to real people and real problems.
Some people rely on a supernatural God to help them help real people with real problems. Without theistic frameworks, can we find a spirituality that helps us? As Candace Gorham, a humanist who spoke at an American Ethical Union Skills summit said, when you take God out of the equation, the job still has to get done—If not me, who?”
Many activists—from abolitionists to progressives to suffragettes to social workers—have acted without god to change the world. As Dewey describes spirituality, “It can be just an awareness of our being both part of this world and capable of changing it.”
Humanist spirituality should be more about deed than creed. Adler often used the term “spiritual” as a synonym for “ethical.” He did not promote the spirituality of the hermit. In The Essentials of Spirituality, Adler wrote that spirituality manifests “in a variety of activities and beliefs.” Adler offers to humanists a spirituality that is simply “morality carried out to the finish.” For Adler, and for me, “[t]he ultimate end itself is to elicit worth in others, and, by so doing, in one’s self.”
The spirituality I welcome arises out of our humanist tradition. Not all Ethical Humanists want, or need, to access spirituality. Some use words other than “spirituality” to describe their inspiration. But for those who like the term, I hope they nurture a spirituality with the steady legs of science, the wings of imagination, and an outstretched helping hand.
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