Mapping the Possible Relations between “Religious,” “Spiritual,” “Humanistic” and “Secular” Sensibilities

four points of view

Today it is a truism that we live in a pluralist society and global age. The significance of this fact is that we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent natural and social environment in which individuals and groups with widely different values, beliefs, interests and commitments must find a way to co-exist but cooperate together for common good, even while they continue to compete with each other in various ways and to live across their differences.

One way to map or model the spectrum of consciousness and culture today is to talk about the continuum that connects the religious, spiritual (but not necessarily religious), humanistic (but not necessarily religious or spiritual) and secular ( but not necessarily religious, spiritual or humanistic) sensibilities. Further, there are those who religion is not necessarily hostile or indifferent to the spiritual, humanistic and secular dimensions of life.

What this map or model provides is a way to think about each of the four points on the spectrum as possessing several possible options. Each point can be either absolutely exclusive, tolerantly inclusive, ambiguously equivocating or  dialectically related.

The Absolutely Exclusive Dogmatic Approach takes the position that “he who is not for me is against me.” Militant religious fundamentalism and equally militant secular fundamentalism can adopt this approach, and of course these are the partisan extremists that make the headlines.

The Tolerantly Inclusive Hierarchical Approach takes the position that there may be some relative value in each point but that one of the points represents the consummate position of superior relation. This approach says “Our party is  ‘king of the mountain’ but we’ll let the rest of you play on our mountain in the hope that eventually you’ll find your way to the top like we have. You have some truth but we have the Supreme Truth.”

The Ambiguously Equivocating Linguistic Approach takes the position that words like religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular are each polysemic ideas that cannot be reduced to monolithic meanings, and therefore that it is probably not helpful to reify any of these abstract ideas into concrete objects as if they corresponded some objective reality. This approach says, “Well, what do you really mean by religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular? Are you aware that each of these words has a whole range of possible meanings and associations, and that the presumably objective denotative meanings are all but silenced by a cacophony of various subjective connotative meanings. Therefore, any meaningful and constructive dialogue between persons who have front-loaded their own experiential associations and interpretative evaluations of these words make real communication all but impossible.

The Dialectically Related  Mutual Approach takes the position that words like religious, spiritual, humanistic, and secular need not necessarily be construded as either absolutely exclusive, tolerantly inclusive, or impossibly ambiguous. Instead, they are words that suggest different psychological temperaments and casts of mind, as well as fluxuating moods within a single individual across a period of time. Our relationship to these words may be more aesthetic and metaphorical than scientistic and metaphysical. By way of analogy we may resonate with and enjoy many different kinds of music…in historical era, compositional genre, emotional mood, and artistic style. This approach says, “Well, I suppose such words as religious, spiritual, humanistic, and secular do not necessarily exclude each other, or require an elitist hierarchial ranking. I do not doubt that we do mean “something” when we use these abstract polysemic words, but that “something” must be made more clear since others will use the same words to symbolize or signify something quite different from what we intend it to mean. Most people are linguistic realists who tend to regard abstract ideational words with either affinity, hostility or indifference, and to treat them as if there were a concrete objective things. When these kinds of polysemic words are segregated from each other to create island worlds of sectarian cabals, or when they are used to fuel a culture war, then they have become reduced to rigid ideologies that diminish the fullness of our complex and many-sided humanity.”

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