Spiritual v. Secular

The Spiritual Path

The last post on the contrasting sets of concepts, interconnected v. autonomous, drew a few comments. I find it very satisfying when my posts draw comments whether pro or con. Today, I will work on a similar pair, spiritual v. secular. Unlike the above pair, these are opposites; secular is defined as denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. So secular has no meaning without a definition of spiritual. And this poses a serious problem for me. One online dictionary defines spiritual as

  1. relating to the spirit or soul and not to physical nature or matter; intangible.
  2. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) of, relating to, or characteristic of sacred things, the Church, religion, etc.
  3. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) standing in a relationship based on communication between the souls or minds of the persons involved a spiritual father.
  4. having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.

I want to stay away from any religious context so will overlook the middle two definitions. The last seems unnecessarily Victorian for today’s less romantic world. So let’s parse the first. My troubles come from the reference to “the spirit” and “soul.” I think this definition misses the point. Spirituality describes a way of acting. Spirituality is always an ascription by some observer of a person’s way of being. In my phenomenological way of thinking and speaking, what generally go as personal traits attributed to some inner quality are the result of observations and comparisons to some cultural norm. It’s never about some inner entity like spirit or soul. These terms are reifications or metaphors.

As metaphors, these terms can be very powerful. I took a couple of grandchildren to see a dramatic adaptation of The Little Prince a few days ago and was so moved by the message that I came home and read it from cover to cover. The chapter about the fox in particular seemed relevant to this post. Here is the key sentence. “Goodbye,” said the fox [to the Little Prince}. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It would be hard to imagine a more evocative way to talk about spirituality. It’s so evocative that the “heart” is easily taken to have eyes and given powers that transcend its physiological capabilities.

Let’s look at a few similar descriptors, say, vitality, humility, punctuality, congeniality, reliability, honesty, and many more. The are all descriptions of how a person acts in certain domains, but have, because of broad agreement about the criteria that define them, become reified and seem to be some inner thing. Certainly people with outstanding records of performance in whatever domains lead to being described by any of the above or similar terms possess bodily structures that enable them to act in that way. But these structures are some combination of their cognitive and musculoskeletal systems that have learned how to respond after many, many repetitions.

The conventional way of talking about any of the “qualities” fails to attribute them to specific domains of care. An honest person is one whose actions are thought to be truthful. Vitality is a general term applied to the way someone attacks a wide variety of cares. The same goes for congeniality. Remember when I talk about cares, I refer to a set of categories that constitute being. The categories form three classes referring to the material world: the actor, other humans, and the rest of the world, and one additional referring to actions that address the transcendent. Taking care means acting out of concerns for self, family, learning and so on as expressions of one’s being, not as responses to social pressures.

Spirituality is different because the target of caring actions is not anything material. Spiritual is often confused or conflated with “religious,” which specifically refers to having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity. Because the target of spiritual actions is immaterial, this domain is sometimes attributed to a force between the actor and the target, that is, some kind of connection. In the Native American and other traditions of indigenous cultures, spiritual actors are said to be part of the web of life, interconnected to all the parts of the world and to the transcendental or immanent entity. Immanence refers to a belief that there is a mysterious force emanating from or a transcendent presence in worldly objects. Spirituality refers to acts directed to (taking care of) this mystery.

Secular, as noted above, is defined as the antithesis of spiritual. Secular actions entail everything other than spiritual by this definition. The necessary sense or consciousness of connections is missing. Actors may be conscious of connections, but in our market-dominated world treat much of their daily actions as transactions, defined as impersonal interactions. The very idea of market has become equivalent to a system of purely secular activities. The absence of consciousness of the other in secular acts leads to a focus on the “I,” producing the narcissism and alienation so prevalent in our society today. Flourishing is impossible in a purely secular world. Max Weber famously said:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.

The implications of this are that spirituality is a critical domain of care as it holds values essential to flourishing, without which sustainability cannot be created. Taking care requires an authentic sense of connection to the target of action. Without that sense, actions are mere responses to cultural norms. These may be appropriate, but alone cannot lead to the kind of satisfaction on which flourishing rests.

I have been working for about a year with a group at the Weatherhead School of Management examining the place of spirituality in business and in business schools. The year has been a great challenge on many accounts. The first hurdle was to agree on the meaning of spirituality. The discussion above in this post doesn’t come close to capturing the richness of that effort. We never did come to a single definition, but did come to agree that spirituality is a proper and very important concern in the business world. Because it carries a consciousness of interconnectedness, spiritual practices can raise competence in system thinking, foster empathetic relationships, and add purpose to enterprises far beyond profit making and raising shareholder value.

Our focus was on the world of business, but the same conclusions hold everywhere. Our research made it very clear that spirituality is distinct from religion. It is certainly possible to find spirituality in religious practices, but not necessarily. In any case, sustainability demands that we reverse Weber’s conclusions and reintegrate the sublimity of Being in all of our daily lives. We will have to overcome our cultural need for certainty and rationality and let mystery return to its place alongside all the other domains we care about.

| | Comments (2)

« Previous Entry   Next Entry »


Chris Clark said:


This summer I've been working on a literature review for the Organization Systems Renewal grad program at Seattle University. When I began my paper, I started with a question: what are the conditions in which organizations may flourish? I hadn't yet read (or even heard of) your book, and only came across it as I was hunting the literature for references to both sustainability and design (there are precious few!).

For me, this has been a spiritual process--interconnected, transcendental, immanent and mysterious--because as I've become more educated about the emerging paradigm of sustainability as the possibility that life may flourish on the planet forever, I have become more aware of these qualities as accessible and present in our everyday lives, intimitely tied to our use of resources and space, our culture, and our shared sense of possibility and purpose. In short--sustainability encompasses every part of our private and public life.

Thus I've changed my research question more broadly to: "What is a sustainable society?" anticipating that the answer as it is emerging throughout the field will point us towards a world in which the secular and the spiritual are no longer seen as opposites, but as the former nested within the latter. This question feels big enough to actually help answer the first, and has steered my in my own sense of purpose in a way I did not forsee before I started my research.

I was surprised and amazed to read "Sustainability by Design" and find thinking so sympathetic to my own cares and concerns, and for this I would offer my heartfelt thanks!

I'd also like to venture an invitation to further discussion if at all possible around what I have discovered as my own great work. This has emerged as adaptive leadership among diverse stakeholders, towards the co-creation of a sustainable future.

Many thanks, and warmly,

Boudewijn Boon said:

Hi Chris,

Reading your comment I became curious what literature you found on design and sustainability. My first good read was Design for the Real World by V. Papanek and after this came Ehrenfeld's book, bringing a whole new perspective. Did you find any other literature that discusses design in such a context (i.e. 'design for flourishing')?

I did find much about 'the good life' and, for instance, T. Jackson's double dividend (i.e. reducing consumption is better for the environment ánd better for ourselves). Also other authors propose worldviews, attitudes, or virtues that are necessary for sustainability or 'eudaimonia' (i.e. human flourishing). But I haven't found any design methodologies or strategies that relate to concepts such as care, true concerns, or similar proposed concepts of the good life / sustainability.

Looking forward to a response, kind regards,