Visions of Daniel
Rowman & Littlefield (2008)
Appealing to the human spirit and its innate inclinations,
This book uncovers a middle path between secularism and religion. It is, as they say, "spiritual but not religious" — and Daniel explains what this means. For many, the atheism of recent best-sellers offers no viable option. Yet religion, rather than unifying, is splintering our world. Here, finally, is a compelling vision of a truly universal spirituality. It builds on the spiritual nature of our common humanity, not claimed knowledge of God. It emphasizes wholesome living here and now on planet Earth, not life in heaven or some reincarnation to come. Yet it opens seamlessly onto a range of religions and belief in God. It is spiritual for the religious believers and non-sectarian for secular society. It suggests a framework of beliefs and ethics — a core spiritiuality — to structure our global community.
Chapter Listing and Introductions
Summary of the Book's Argument (below)
Religion used to hold communities together. In traditional societies it still does. But on a wider scale, religious diversity is fragmenting our world. The "melting pot" of the United States of America was the original experiment in secular pluralism. In it we have a microcosm of the burgeoning world of the third millennium. What we see is not reassuring. Religious differences splinter this nation, and, likewise, our world is literally exploding because of them.
An article in the April 9, 2007, issue of Newsweek was titled "The God Debate." It featured atheist Sam Harris—author of the best-sellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—and the Bible-believing pastor Rich Warren—author of the international best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life. This reported exchange revealed the intensity of those religious differences.
The topic was God, and specifically, His/Her/Its existence. A narrowness of perspective is already obvious: belief in God is just one of today's burning religious issues. Of course, "God" functions as a symbol for a package of religious beliefs, and in practice adherence to religion includes belief in God. But this identification is mistaken. Non-theist religions exist—Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto—and their adherents probably outnumber the world's theists. Besides, in their own way, without God the non-theists are as ethical or moral as any others.
Religion, morality, and belief in God—and also life after death—are quite commonly linked, but they do not necessarily go hand in hand. Nonetheless, for most of us, they do. We collapse them all into one. To be fair, then, despite its narrow focus, that discussion about the existence of God did involve other religious topics.
The intricacies do not end there. According to the best of theology in all religious traditions, God is the Great Unknown. So any coherent debate about God must first agree on what God means. The Newsweek debate glossed over this point. Were the atheist and the theist, then, talking at cross-purposes?
Both parties did agree that God's existence cannot be proved. But now the question becomes "What would count as proof?" The atheist spoke in the name of science and a reliance on reason, but contemporary science never claims to prove anything. Rather, scientists stand on supporting evidence for "the best available opinion of the day," and they completely expect that that opinion will change or, better, be refined. No one has ever seen or could ever see the subatomic particle, the quark, but science confidently affirms that quarks exist. On the other hand, relying on personal experience and a broadly flung net of reasoning, human longing, and hope, the theist expressed firm conviction but without claiming proof.
If one probes deeply, perhaps honest theism and reasonable atheism are not so different, after all. But the very structure of this debate seemed to preclude any consensus: Does God exist, yes or no? The two sides were bound to disagree.
Unfortunately, that doomed set-up accurately reflects our social reality. A similar state of affairs controls our discussions at large. The times are unsettling. People are scared. Nerves are frayed. It gets hard to just hold on. We want answers. We have to act. We have no more patience for subtleties.
The accusations hurled from either side are egregious, and they call for redress. The secularists allege, "Religion is dictating curricula in our schools. Religion is undermining science and critical thinking. Religion is taking over our courts and government. Religion is fueling explosive world conflicts. Religion is spawning terrorism and violence." On the other hand, according to the religionists, "Science and evolution have undermined the dignity of 'man.' Science is destroying religion and all that we hold dear. Science supports abortion, homosexuality, stem-cell research, and divorce. Science leaves no room for the morality of our traditional way of life."
From one side or the other, it is obvious that the root of our current problems is religion or else science, unthinking fundamentalism or godless secularism, narrow-minded conservatism or wishy-washy liberalism. Yes, the set-up of the Newsweek debate might have determined its outcome from the beginning, but that set-up fairly represents the situation in which we actually live.
We are a badly divided nation: no longer the blue against the gray but now the red states and the blue. Moreover, as the world's only super-power, the USA—or history itself—is exporting secular pluralism around the globe, which is also badly divided.
Our world needs some middle ground, a common terrain on which all could stand comfortably. But when religion, God, and morality are at stake, middle ground is hard to find.
Letters to Newsweek in response to the debate did call for a middle ground: "spiritual but not religious." This emphasis on spirituality in our day is no accident. In the 1950s or '60s, the distinction between religion and spirituality was virtually unheard-of. But the very historical forces that are splintering our societies have also fed the mushrooming of spiritual interests. Historians know that a tumultuous age provokes intense spiritual concern, a rethinking of the basic issues, a new mining of the religious sources. Indeed, if anything will, it is spirituality that will open onto a middle ground—if only we could ever get some handle on spirituality.
But approaches to spirituality tend to succumb to the familiar either-or treatment: religion or science. A truly new approach is a rarity. We in the West are uncomfortable conceiving of spirituality apart from God. To bracket religion is easy enough; to remove God from our equation is nigh impossible. So most appeals to non-religious spirituality still rest on some belief in God—or the Goddess, a Higher Power, the Sacred, the All, or some other vaguely conceived other-worldly entity. Spirituality in this guise is but a watered-down version of Western religion.
On the other hand, some innovative approaches to spirituality rely on contemporary science, usually quantum physics, plus a good dose of esoteric Eastern philosophy, which introduces the notion of an all-pervasive power, force, or "energy" that might or might not, again, qualify as the Western God. But quantum physics remains riddled with questions even for true scientists; naturally, lay people hardly understand its complexities at all. Thus, the imponderables of quantum physics provide the perfect playing field for creative imagination and spiritual fantasy, and our media abound with offerings of "science-based spirituality" —for example, What the #$*! Do We Know!?—that rest on misunderstandings, misapplications, and scientific half-truths. Spirituality in this guise is but a fictionalized version of science.
Ah, alas, there they are again—two forces competing for allegiance in our day, science and theism, both offering spiritual visions that amount to just more-of-the-same. In place of church and weekly services, collections, and doctrines, we have spiritual circles and book clubs, high-priced boutiques, costly lectures, and New Age affirmations. In place of the mystery of the Trinity, we have dark matter, worm holes, and ubiquitous presence via travel at the speed of light. In place of bibles, revelation, and infallible popes, we have intuitions, psychics, channeled readings, and privileged access to libraries in the sky. In place of angels, saints, and reincarnated bodhisattvas, we have the reassuring presence of extra-terrestrials, who covertly watch over and guide us, waiting till our world comes to its senses. Still unable to face squarely the realities of the human condition—limitation, disappointment, illness, aging, uncertainty, death—we find new creeds to take away the challenge of life and guarantee this-worldly fulfillment and eternal bliss hereafter.
Be that as it may, attention to the spiritual does hold our best hope for a middle ground. The key to finding it is to direct our search toward what truly lies in the middle. Between science and theism, stretched in both directions as in the Newsweek debate—there in the middle we find…ourselves, us human beings, spiritual in our very make-up. We humans mark ground zero.
It is the very longing of our souls that leads us to discover and affirm the Divine. It is the very outreach of our minds that urges us to understand our reality through scientific method. The very same self-transcending dynamism that makes us persons—the wonder, the awe, the question, the outreach, the longing, the desire, the love—is itself the ground of our spirituality and the basis of both religion and science. Delineate the human spirit and remain open to its unfolding, and you have a cross-cultural, universally valid, human basis for a "generic spirituality" that opens onto an array of religious expressions and powers our secular pursuits.
This is the vision of spirituality for our global community that I propose in this book. I not only propose it but also concretely sketch its implementation. Humbly but boldly, I share what I think is an original perspective on globalization. I base my offering and my optimism on the incisive analyses of consciousness of the late Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), whom Newsweek (April 20, 1970, p. 75) portrayed as the Thomas Aquinas of the twentieth century and to whom I was teaching assistant at Boston College.
This vision represents a middle path that weaves between the screeching preaching of hardcore, self-validated religion and the dead-end materialism of rationalistic, reductionistic secularism. At issue is not the oppositional question, "Does God exist, yes or no?" set up such that any hope of consensus is doomed from the start. Nor is the issue the simplistic dichotomy of religion versus science, or the spiritual versus the material, or faith versus reason, or this world versus some world to come. Emanating directly from the epicenter of human spiritual capacity, this vision pertains by its very nature to every person, religion, culture, community, institution, and nation in the human family. Presuming, of course, open-mindedness, honesty, and good will—What hope have we otherwise?—this vision truly offers a unique prospect for peace.
Share this vision with me, dear reader, to the extent that you are able. This vision means only to express the very best in ourselves. Let our meeting of minds begin a new era for planet Earth.
Summary of the Book's Argument
Religions used to hold communities together. Today, religions breed outright violence. Rather than providing a solution to social fragmentation, vying religions and competing beliefs in God have become the problem. Yet the rejection of God and religion is no solution, either. To sustain themselves, even secular societies must offer some inspiring vision. Only the makings of religion, shared beliefs and common values, foster genuine community. To feel community, people must share a common reason for living.
Now, beliefs and values are spiritual—but they are not necessarily religious. They are spiritual because they emerge from an ever out-going dimension of the human mind. They are spiritual because we humans ourselves are, in part, spiritual: we marvel, we wonder, we question, we choose; we are meaning-making animals. By nature, we base our lives on beliefs, and we fuel our living with values. Beliefs and values are spiritual, yes, but they don't pertain to God and other-worldly realms; first and foremost, they pertain to humanity. Belief in God is itself the product of human speculation. Here, then, lies a crucial clue about a middle path between "value-neutral" dead-end secularity and pie-in-the-sky religion: "spiritual but not religious," loftily human but not divine.
Following this clue, in this book Daniel Helminiak proposes a "generic" or "naturalistic" spirituality free from religious particularities, a genuinely spiritual vision that cuts across all religions and cultures. He does so, not by sifting through the religions to find what they have in common, but going much more deeply, by pinpointing humanity's own built-in requirements for open-ended living. His guide is the late Canadian philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan, called the Thomas Aquinas of the twentieth century, whose analysis of consciousness or "the human spirit" supplies a common basis—open to sane religion and reasonable belief in God, to be sure—that could support a global community of the third millennium. Daniel shows how this "core spirituality" not only informs pious believers and the world's religions but also pertains to atheists and agnostics, to businesses, government, and secular agencies, and to society overall. In a world of diversity and pluralism, our common humanity offers our best hope for prosperous peace.