Though I admire the courage and thoughtfulness of many secular friends, I don’t know how to be secular myself.
I don’t know how to be secular, first, because I simply can’t make any sense of the idea that persons like you and me are utterly alien products of the ultimately real.
Not every secular person embraces this idea (John Dewey didn’t), but many assume it (for example, Bertrand Russell in “Free Man’s Worship”). They assume that, since we are exceedingly rare products of the ultimately real, that very rarity shows that beings like us tell us hardly anything about the nature of the ultimately real. They equate rarity with insignificance.
There’s an admirable humility that often accompanies this equation of rarity with insignificance, but if the equation is true, such humility means nothing, ultimately. There’s ultimately nothing to admire here.
So I find this, the idea that persons like you and me are utterly alien products of the ultimately real, to be nonsensical. I don’t need faith to conclude that. It’s not a matter of faith to deny the irrational.
But I presume more than just a denial of that idea. Some secular friends deny that idea but remain secular.
I go a step further.
There is, I would have to say, something like faith involved here, a trust too inescapable to prove, though reasonable nonetheless.
I trust, not just that we are not utterly alien products, but that we are in fact exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. I can’t prove this idea; it does not follow automatically from denying the irrational assumption of our ultimate insignificance. But it seems a reasonable idea worthy of a reasonable trust, a reasonable faith. And I live by that faith without apology.
I haven’t said anything about God yet. But the idea of something like God is implicit in trusting that we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. If we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real, then the ultimately real is exceedingly like us—not exactly or nearly like us, obviously, but the evident unlikeness does not ultimately negate the significant likeness. The ultimately real is significantly expressed through us, though always in ways that exceed our comprehension.
Other traditions might say something like this without using the word “God.” People who speak of Brahman or the Tao agree that we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. Even Buddhists who awaken to the boundless openness (sunyata) of us and all things view our boundless openness as itself an exceedingly significant expression of the ultimately real—the ultimately real is likewise Sunyata, boundless openness.
But I do not find these words—Brahman, Tao, Sunyata—to be superior to the word “God,” properly interpreted. They are superior to the all-too-popular idea of a temperamental, invisible guy who can be talked into doing amazing favors. But that’s not (or not always) the God of Isaiah or Jesus or St. Paul or Hillel or St. Augustine or St. Anselm or Maimonides or Rumi or St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Julian of Norwich or St. Teresa of Avila or Martin Luther or John Calvin or Friedrich Schleiermacher or Karl Barth or Paul Tillich or Rosemary Radford Ruether or Cornel West, not if you pay careful attention to all that these God-intoxicated people said.
They all trusted that, although we are rare and minuscule products of the ultimately real, we are also exceedingly significant expressions of the same. That was essential to the core meaning of their faith in God, and essential to the core meaning of my faith in God as well.
With my secular friends, I reject and even denounce the all too popular idea of a temperamental, invisible guy who can be talked into doing amazing favors. But I can’t even imagine rejecting God, of whom you and I, though exceedingly minuscule and rare in this universe, are nevertheless exceedingly significant expressions.
That’s why I don’t know how to be secular.