The world becomes flattened, surface, ordinary, spiritless. And in response we succumb to the pseudo-enchantment of addiction to entertainment, to food, to alcohol, to sex, to possessions — out of our deep innate hunger for mystery, for spirit, for glory. Like Esau, we trade our birthright. We settle for glittering treasure, dragon bait, but then the dragon wakens and eats our souls. We become the hollow men and women that T. S. Eliot described. We may not know how to name it, but we are no less deprived, impoverished, hungry. The gnawing feeling that our lives ought to be more possesses us. And we are right. – Herbert Marcuse
Nature has lost its spiritual meaning. Centuries of denigration of “the world” by ill-conceived Platonist and gnostic notions in Western philosophy and theology have rendered nature “flat” for contemporary Western society. Our age has experienced the desacralization of the world and nature – a rendering of nature as lifeless and spiritually void. We see these ideas periodically expressed through the denigration of sex, excessive fasting and self denial, disengagement from society, and suspicion of joy and pleasure.
Rather than finding meaning and value rooted in this world, many religious traditions have posited the location of meaning and value in heaven. The real, the significant, the spiritual is transcendent, beyond, and certainly not in muddy, bloody nature.
Yet such a theology is purely speculative – despite our hope, we have no evidence of heaven, no proof of a joy to come. Those rejecting the joy’s of this life are rejecting the only joy they might ever have.
The Nature-Based Impulse
Emerging nature-based spirituality and theologies have a core focus of affirming life and affirming nature, rooted in insights of the interconnectedness of all things, in the spiritually charged condition of nature, and in awe and gratitude for the goodness of this world – despite its imperfections.
Today’s forms of Spiritual Humanism have strong connection to ancient, indigenous religions that emerged from specific lands and places and that found divinity in this world, in nature’s rhythms, in the agricultural cycles, and in the progression of the seasons.
Ancient forms of paganism also contained elements common to other nature-based spiritualities – warrior spirituality, stories of sacred battles, animal and agricultural sacrifice, often the denigration of women, slavery, an abundance of superstition – and many other practices that we are right to reject today. Spiritual Humanism has discarded these remnants through the centuries, refining its practice toward ethical living, although often at the expense of genuine nature-based spiritual insights.
Spiritual Humanism therefore seeks to cultivate a this-worldly focus that weaves ethical living and deep reverence for the earth as something sacred into a tapestry of spiritual practice.
Such an immanent spirituality can be part of a wider postmodern protest against the modernist separation of nature and the sacred.
Life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.”
— James Leuba, The Monist
To argue for an emphasis on an immanent theology is not to deny the existence of transcendent realities. It can be argued that to the extent that divinity and meaning are transcendent, they are lateral transcendence, rather than vertical one: the divine is infused throughout physical reality (panentheism), rather than being separate from it.
Recovering an Immanent Theology
This world is our context – our spiritual touchstone – and our connection to it is vital for our thriving. Humanity is inherently part of nature, we do not stand above or outside reality; we are fully ingrained within it. Our wholeness happens in this world.
Spiritual Humanism, at its best, is concerned with a holistic sense of circumstances – economic, political, social, cultural – and yes, spiritual. But by spiritual, we speak of the arena of human meaning which touches on the eternal, but isn’t focused on another realm.
A healthy spirituality fosters an attitude of awe at the beauty, preciousness, oneness, and interconnectedness of everything. Rather than being perceived as flat and mechanical, nature is once again perceived as an interconnected web of vitality and meaning.
From an immanent perspective, this world is real, not illusory. Nor is it fallen. We do not seek to escape or transcend the world, but rather seek to deepen their experience of it. We should be skeptical of spiritual abstraction or otherworldliness.
A Theology of Thin Places
Ancient Celts used the notion of ‘thin places’ to describe situations or locations that are spiritually charged, where meaning is found, where the divide between the material and the immaterial is “thin” and things blend – where the spiritual reality of being bleeds through into the material world.
Thin places include places in nature – fields, forests, beaches – liminal moments – a sunrise or sunset, the changing of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the agricultural cycles – and human encounters – of love, kindness, healing, and justice.
Thin spaces are liminal places – spaces in between. Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) refers to a heightened awareness that our understanding is in transition. A liminal space is literally a space in between where we “stand at the threshold” between two realities.
The divine shows itself in nature-based spirituality – each act of kindness, each blessing, each lighting of candles or seasonal ritual, each time we fulfill a sacred obligation – we release the inner light of creation, we allow the sacred to bleed through into our awareness, we reclaim as holy that much more of the world.
Further, much of Spiritual Humanistic observance takes place quite often in liminal space and time – sunset, new and full moon, at the end of a season, and at the liminal times of life – birth, maturation, marriage, death – a religion of thin places and spaces in between.
The nature-based cycle of holidays also evoke the spiritual dimensions of nature’s cycles. Each holiday occurs at significant agricultural or seasonal moments. The cycle of nature-based holidays are rooted in the spiritual experience of nature – the agricultural cycles and the unfolding of the seasons – the liminal, or in between times – and the depth of each season itself.
Embracing the cycles of life and death, dark and light, planting, sowing, harvesting, and attuning ourselves to the rhythms of earth, sun, and moon, we uncover truths about ourselves and about divine energies.