Most Western intellectuals see the world as consisting of only physical matter and its associated effects, such as heat, motion, and electromagnetism. For those who think this way, there is no ‘ghost in the machine’ animating the world: everything that exists is a causal elaboration of the Big Bang, and all of reality seems to be random or accidental.
At the same time, many Westerners have gone through individual awakenings, connecting to Eastern philosophy, New Age thought, transpersonal psychology, or some other mystical traditions. These individuals feel they have accessed a greater reality and have transitioned to a state of personal spirituality. Some of these individuals – in particular those who had previously maintained strongly-held secular positions – could be considered ‘post-secular’ or possessing a ‘post-secular spirituality’.
On a personal level, I find the word ‘post-secular’ as a useful way of communicating my spiritual history and worldview. When I was in college, I was Vice President of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers club. I recall several hours gazing inwardly at myself, considering the critical mass of neurons which were producing my illusion of subjective consciousness. I would verbally swat at my mother when she mentioned astrology, energy, or ESP, since none of these concepts were considered valid by the scientific mainstream. Eventually, I went through several emotional and cognitive shifts through which I began to discard a purely secular worldview and self-identify as a spiritual person.
I see this secular process as a sort of ‘journey underground’ – a period of time where we deny our more transcendent spiritual natures and desiccate all notion of spirituality from the machinery of life. Like the Fellowship of the Ring traversing the Mines of Moria, it is a darkened and perilous passage, where we eschew sunlight and taste a keen fear of death.
This passage is not a bad thing (at least in my view), and I do not bemoan those who continue to undertake their secular journey, rejecting all possibilities of spirituality. From a spiritual standpoint, this may be considered a powerful cleansing process, a cultivation of key skills, and a transformative experience of existential Otherness.
So, what does it mean to be a post-secular spiritual person? This is really a philosophical question, so its answer will vary from person to person. In my view, a post-secular viewpoint is highly useful when it emphasizes the following qualities:
- Existential engagement: a spiritual approach means engaging ideas, practices, and work with our whole being. Rather than maintaining a sterilizing distance, we throw ourselves fully into what we do. We are open to revising any element of our viewpoint which does not cohere with our selves in an intimate, personal sense.
- Seeking explanations: at its essence, secularism is questioning. We investigate, examine, and consider alternative possibilities. We seek a full, comprehensive answer which satisfies as many scenarios as possible. Rather than swallowing spiritual advice like an inert pill, we engage the content and work through it. And, we allow both physical and metaphysical factors to be present in the explanation.
- Post-modernism: this twentieth-century movement recognized that all schools of thought are human creations, and that no single perspective can ‘own’ the hidden truths of life. This is not intellectual resignation, however: it calls us to investigate diverse perspectives and synthesize them, affording compassionate consideration to all knowledge traditions around the world. What does it mean that our knowledge is always to some degree uncertain? It reflects the social reality that we are vulnerable, incomplete, and interconnected, and that social connection is a necessary component for well-being, even cognitive well-being. It also means that we need to draw on both our secular and spiritual natures if we want to truly expand our understanding to new frontiers.
One of the best things about being a post-secular person is that you can continue to value and appreciate the secular worldview and those who adhere to (or insist on) a purely materialistic worldview. ‘Yes, that was once myself’, I say. And while I do not presume their worldview must one day look like mine, I do feel that any clearly bounded worldview has an expiration date, and I advocate for each of us to transcend the limits of our own worldviews as time goes on.
By respecting and admiring secularism, I can continue to communicate with secular-minded individuals, creating a non-violent space where spiritual topics are available for open discussion and exploration. If they are not interested in discussing spirituality (as most are not), I respect and honor their journey underground. I try to remain open to the many permutations of human connection that can arise in the rich diversity of our modern world community.