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Monday, October 20, 2014

Basic Human Questions

I recently read an interesting interview about a woman who has just written a book on the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Clearly this is a prevalent phenomenon in our world today.  It often is associated with the young people, but I think it is a mistake to assume they are all this way and that older people are, by and large, still religious in the traditional sense.  Things are much more up for grabs these days.           

The person being interviewed, Linda Mercadante, teaches in a Methodist seminary.  I found her interview both fascinating and insightful.  No doubt that is partly true because a significant number of the students who are in my classrooms consistently claim they are spiritual but not religious.  I have explored that theme, but not in the depth that Mercadante has.  So let’s examine some of her findings.
There was one question that I thought was revealing.  The interviewer commented to Mercadante that she had focused on four particular themes: “the sacred, human nature, community, and the afterlife.  Why these four themes?”  As I thought about these four themes, I was very clear these are major themes of human development---basic human questions.  Mercadante’s answer fit right in with what I was thinking.             

Let’s look at her rather long answer and, then, we can unpack what she is saying about the folks who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Mercadante says, “These themes seem to get at the main questions that trouble humans and require answers.  Is there anything beyond myself?  Is anything sacred?  Who am I as a human, and what are my potentialities and limitations?  How determined are my choices—do I have free will? Am I on this journey in life alone?  How much am I a self-enclosed being, and how much am I open to others?  What happens after death? Is there anything afterward?  These are the kinds of questions human beings ask even if they don’t consider themselves religious.”          

These questions---basic human questions---go to the heart of what spirituality is.  The initial question is a poignant one: is there anything beyond myself?  Of course, I know I exist and I know that you exist.  But is there anything beyond us?  Are we it; we live our lives the best we can and that’s it?  This necessarily leads to the second question: is anything sacred?  That is a complex question.           

To ask the “sacred” question invites in complexity.  But I already know that the world is complex.  The longer I live, the less I think I know.  To ask the question about the sacred is really to ask the “God question.”  But with the spiritual but not religious crowd, to introduce the word, God, is usually a problem.  This group is not sure they believe in God---certainly not the traditional God of Christianity.  So language of “sacred” is preferable.            

I know in the classical languages the language of “sacred” points to some kind of divinity, but not necessarily a traditional view of God.  And sacred marks off the divine from the non-divine (usually called the profane).  When we introduce the profane---profanity---we certainly have entered the human realm.  This leads to a range of human questions.  The first asks the basic question, who am I?  What are my potentialities and limitations?  In most cases I think humans are capable of more than they think they are.           

The next human question is a huge one: how determined are my choices?  In effect this asks whether I have any free will?  I am under the illusion that I do have some choices.  But do I?  And finally, am I on my journey alone?  Oh, I know you are making your journey, too.  But is there any afterlife?  Is this all there is?  These are all good, basic human questions.             

Religions have offered standard answers to these questions.  The people who claim to be spiritual but not religious are not content with the standard religious answers, but they are finding what they feel are spiritual answers.  In effect this means they are not interested in institutional church, institutional church answers or institutional church life.  Sometimes I can’t blame them.           

But they do want answers.  They want to know that they are not alone on their journey.  They do sense there is some kind of sacred energy or force in the world to which they can be connected.  They would like some kind of community, but they may not make a commitment to that community.  They really do think they have some choice; affirming free will is important.  And yet, most of them whom I know affirm, “everything happens for a reason.”  I am not sure about that, but they seem sure!           

In the last analysis I appreciate reading this interview and thinking about the folks I know who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  It prompts me to get in touch with my own basic human questions.  How am I answering those?  How am I living out those questions?  I realize the answers are not so much answers as they are reasons for being.  And to find these reasons for being is to find meaning and purpose.  And that is what the spiritual folks also want: meaning and purpose.

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