10. Spirituality as a Response to the Secular World


Spirituality as a Response to the Secular World

Conducting the Lesson


Lesson opening:

Discussion – possibly in small groups, with feedback –

What do participants see as the most threatening/ dangerous elements of modern life?

Does modernity pose threats that were not present in previous times?

Does religion or spirituality or mysticism have any answers? Have established religions succeeded in responding to these threats? Could religions offer some answers?


Watch the video.


After the video:


Exercise 1 – all participants: Read Genesis 1:26 and discuss the significance of being ‘created in the image of God’. What might that mean? In small groups, study commentaries as appropriate. How does this concept contribute to ‘morality’?


Exercise 2 – four different sources for different groups:

Ghandi on greed

Christian source on ego

Buddhist source on the heart as compassion

Muslim source on the heart as the dwelling place of God


Feedback from each group. Could take the form of a ‘debate’ or staged discussion about the nature of the human heart or about the author’s view on the moral challenges humans face and the way to overcome them.



As this is the final lesson in the series, it is important to share responses to the idea of the spiritual and mystical life as offering some type of response to the modern world.

Participants should be asked to consider to what extent the answers in the opening exercise reflect their personal experience with religion.

Patricipants should have an opportunity to reflect on whether their own religious experience has included spiritual and mystical experiences and whether the presence or absence of them has been significant.

As a summary of the course:

– Participants could be asked to share key concepts, words or phrases that have affected them or given them food for thought.

– How many new ideas did they encounter and/or how much new knowledge did they acquire?

– They should be asked if the series has changed their ideas in any way.




Therese Andrevon-Gottstein: The danger of our everyday life is to be a slave – a slave of consumerism or a slave of ideology or a slave of my desire. And I think that all religions are a way of liberation, freedom, redemption.


Br Lawrence Freeman: The gift of religion is to offer the world the teaching of the spiritual journey. Every religion agrees that the transformation of the worshiper, the devotee, is central.


Pushing the frontiers of understanding of their practitioners:  ‘Prayer’ and ‘love’: If we understand those two words, we have something to say to the world – otherwise, we are just walking around in little circles.


Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: The notion that human beings have more than instrumental value – that there is intrinsic worth that is not merely functional. And the way that I say that is that we are all created in ‘tselem Elokim’, in the image of God, or even that we ARE images of the Divine.


When you bear that in mind, it gives you some sort of moral stance.  It gives you a way of turning to the other and maybe not turning away from the other.  I’m thinking of a midrash now that says that when the Torah was given, there were two angels present for each person there: one to keep the heart from flying out of the body, the second one to keep us face-to-face with the Presence.


There is something that keeps you connected to something larger than you that gives you some sense of larger purpose and connection. The contribution is finding ways of remaining connected to the heart and finding balance.


We are living in a profoundly interrelated world. What we do has impact on the cosmos – on something much larger than ourselves.


Br Lawrence Freeman: It makes sense to me, Elliot. The crisis in religion at the moment which interreligious dialogue is supposed to address is the fact that the ‘magical’ element of religion is being exposed. The secular world has exposed the magical element in religion. That has to be faced. So we need to reduce our bag of tricks and move into the mystical.


Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: There is also a sense that the earth is in crisis, and from where I stand, Divinity is in crisis. We have to think what it means to be very local and in our communities and also what it means to be in a world where what we do in one part of the world affects..  the plastic that’s washing up in Chile.


In those part of the world that suffer from maybe over-work and under-contemplation, notions of like a Sabbath or ‘rest’, and the balance between work and rest.  In a society that measure people by utilitarian means, I think that religions give ways for sanctifying time.


Therese Andrevon-Gottstein: I think that our religions are all old institutions and most people now believe that old institutions have nothing to bring to the world. But specifically because we are old institutions, we have maybe wisdom to bring to the world because of the experience of knowing the human being.  Religions are able to lead people with discernment, what is good and bad, to discern what is the magical side of the practice and what can lead you effectively to progress in the spiritual and mystical life.


Dr Haviva Pedaya: I think that the main task of religious leaders today is to first of all to react to their own communities and to supply a way of getting release from the hatred towards the other. We have to speak to our communities in their own traditions. And after we do it, then we can continue. If we are speaking about love or prayer or the heart, we are not looking for a common terminology but a common model. We have to agree about the goal of this model.


Shaikh Kabbani: I think we have here seven windows and we are getting lights from it [them]. Every one is giving different light according to the sun. If we go outside, they are all in one. So religion might differ but the One is not going to differ. And the one which you are calling it whatever you want to call it – spirituality or mysticism or mystical life of spiritual life or whatever it is, it has one ground for all religions, and for all human beings – even atheists – there is a common ground for spirituality in all traditions. In Tashi’s understanding of the heart it is compassion, for him ‘heart’ it’s compassion; for the Jewish people it is the Shrine of Solomon, it is Jerusalem, for the Christians, it is the East, it is Jerusalem; for us it is Mecca, it’s Qibla, the House of God. In that way it is like many rivers and many streams, they are going to go in the end to the ocean.  That ocean is going to be the one that contains these small rivers and small streams that are reaching there. There are many different understandings of the heart. In my traditions: ‘Neither My heavens nor My earths contain Me but the hearts of my believers contain Me.’ So the believer must have the heart that is clean to contain that light. Or else what is the benefit of that light if it is covered within the heart?  We have the compassionate heart, the emotional heart, the hypocritical heart, the doubting heart, the suspicious heart  – it can be found in every tradition, in every background, in every society.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn: Religions present the possibility for a relationship and I think it is our duty to stand fast to that. By which I mean, there is a great glory and beauty in the volunteering of the heart. In fact, that is how the Tabernacle was built, by each person bringing the full voluntary contribution of his heart. God seeks the heart. There is an ‘Other’, to whom we are responding, and whom we live in relationship with,


Dr Anantanand Rambachan: I think it is not helpful to start by speaking of the ’non-religious’ quest or the ‘secular’ quest as opposed to the ‘religious’ quest.  We should see that what we name our ‘religious’ quest is a profoundly human one that is not necessarily distinctive to those of us who label it as a religious quest. There are those who have argued that all culture is essentially religious in a sense that what is very unique to us as human beings is that fact that we have a self-awareful existence.  Not only do we exist but what is special about the existence is that we are aware of the existence. At the heart of that awareness of existence is the awareness of mortality. We know that we will die and this is at the heart of what it means also to be human. Other forms of life just die. At the heart of that is the anxiety which means that every human being is pressed for meaning, for self-worth, for self-value, the quest for meaning, common to every human being. We name it sometimes as a religious quest – we can identify that religious concern even in the Wiccans. We should recognize that and see it as a profoundly human quest.  Having said that, I think that what we are going to contribute as religious persons with our mystical traditions will depend on two things: the way in which our religious traditions, our spiritual traditions, our mystical traditions, demonstrate that our solution is true. In different ways we employ language of ‘truth’. In what sense are our resolutions to this human problem, this human quest for meaning, true?  We can’t avoid the question of truth. We’ve often as religious people privileged our own language and we’ve not seen it necessary to enter into the larger stream of the human quest for truth. One person said recently, after  Galileo God became homeless and after Newton, God became unemployed. What does it mean to live in a world in which there is nothing out there? The universe is vast. Where is the God that you worship? The world is explained by Newtonian physics .. what has your God… [Lawrence] and with Nietzsche He died.

We speak a very specialized language, a deeply symbolic language, but we have to open that language to the larger human cause. We cannot remain in the cloisters of the privileged language if we are to speak to human beings.

And the second point – if we are to be responsive to the greater human quest, how are our solutions fruitful? How do we demonstrate in our own traditions that we fruitfully resolve the human predicament, better than the ideology of the State or better than consumerism? Our inability to contribute is a consequence of us not properly addressing the question of truth and fruitfulness.


Mr Simon Hermes: The largest force of all is material forces. The material has taken a totally different form and it has permeated more than ever ego, desires, and, unfortunately, the heart. And it is so strong that there are people whose only objective is ME, and I will do anything in order to be richer- it becomes neuroses at the fact that too much is never enough.  What is the basis that we need to believe that the mystical and spiritual life can bring..? I believe that a tremendous amount of the world’s people are disconnected – there is nothing there – religions have not shown up to now that they were able to bring things to people in such a way that it is transformative. There are millions of people looking for religions. There is an enormous need that all individually, whatever is our tradition, we have, in my view, a second aim. Isn’t this time to admit that we have not always been successful in all ways, and to somehow let go a little of that tradition to see where is the point that we all meet? What will be a form or a way that will help, I think, basically, the world?


Swamiji Atmapriyananda: The challenge is that for the young people interested in religion in a very deep way but the kind of religion that is being offered to them, they are absolutely dissatisfied.  Science has come in a big way. The principles of science of science, at the material level, have clearly proved, unambiguously, that we are interconnected and that we are one. Materially that we are one is an undisputed scientific fact. Psychologically that we are one has been proven by the mental sciences. Collective consciousness and so on. At the level of the spirit we are one. The interconnectedness of the whole universe, the oneness of the universe, the solidarity of the universe, from which flows the social dimension –   If I am interconnected with everybody, I have a deep relationship with everybody. Somebody defined life as the movement of relationships. I should have a healthy world-view in which I should know how I am related to the world in which I am living: the material world, the mental world and the spiritual world.

The fundamental principle is self-sacrifice. The whole of nature is based on the sacrifice of individual living cells. An example I can give from physics: the hydrogen nuclei fused to the helium nuclei. We would have died out long ago if it were not for the sacrifice of the hydrogen nuclei to fuse with the helium nucleus.


Einstein, in very secular language, has said: A hundred times a day I remind myself that my life depends on the sacrifices of other men, living and dead, and therefore I should give of the same measure as I have received and am receiving.


You cannot survive without the act of giving and continuously receiving. Ghandi said: Nature has enough for man’s need but not enough for man’s greed.


Dr Ruben Habito: From a Christian perspective, Africa, Asia, Latin American, there’s a new resurgence of people looking for a new kind of Christianity that is very fundamentalist, literal and will give them the solutions to their life problems and that is a very alarming kind of trend and I see that is something that people are looking for: Religion, the answer to the quest for meaning and for life. They are looking for a different aspect of religion. And I would see that as more harmful and destructive.


Prof Philip Sheldrake: People often turn to religion as another form of consumerism, because what is often sought in religion is a quick fix – not truthfulness but an immediate answer to everything, packaged and there.


Back to those questions: How are our religious traditions ‘truthful’ and how are our religious traditions ‘fruitful’?  Much of what is truthful and fruitful we have to offer is deeply counter-intuitive in contemporary culture  – particularly Westernised consumerist culture. It counters the notion that satisfaction is about being self-satisfied, that true self-satisfaction is something about feeding my immediate yearnings as opposed to some deeper sense which may well depend on self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good, and in that, to discover ultimately what is self-satisfying for me at a much deeper level. That is very counter-intuitive – it actually says, to gain, one lets go;  to be happy one does not seek immediate satisfaction.