By Kelly Besecke
The relationship between reason and spirituality has been part of our cultural conversation since the advent of modernity. In recent times, we’ve seen this conversation play out in public debates over creationism and arguments between religious leaders and representatives of a “new atheism.” Meanwhile, ordinary people are engaging this subject on their own terms and in their own daily lives.
One evening, for example, college professor Ron Miller was speaking at Common Ground, a Chicago-area center for interfaith spiritual education. He told his students, “Our culture doesn’t support what we do. We all know a lot of people who absolutely think we’re crazy for doing what we’re doing here today.” A Common Ground participant agreed, saying,
“When I tell people about Common Ground, they think it’s all froo froo and crystals. So I tell them how smart people are, how well-educated the people are, the teachers are people with PhDs, it’s like a lecture. We should talk about this in Common Ground—how to explain Common Ground without sounding froo froo.”
A few suburbs over, Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, was leading a weekend workshop about the challenges and rewards of following a calling—an inner pull to, for example, become a singer or artist, take up a social cause, or explore an interest in spirituality. At one point, Gregg asked participants what they thought other people would say if they decided to follow their calling. Participants responded:
“I always knew there was something flaky about her.”
“I always thought you were crazy.”
“That’s too woo woo for business.”
Gregg chimed in with his mother’s reaction to his book:
“’Where did you come up with the notion of God, coming from the family you came from?’ She was astonished that I had a spiritual life. I heard it as, a spiritual life is so anti-intellectual, so intellectually creepy, so intellectually tacky.”
“Crazy.” “Flaky.” “Woo woo.” “Tacky.” These are the prejudices of a rationalized society confronted with spirituality. Viewed from a narrowly rationalistic perspective, spirituality comes off as fuzzy, illogical, impractical, and above all, irrational. So to make major life decisions based on an intuited spiritual calling rather than on logic and practical reason, as the Callings workshop participants were thinking of doing, means risking one’s status as a reasonable, responsible, sane person. Pursuing an interest in spirituality, especially outside of a recognized church, as the Common Ground participants were doing, requires a defensive strategy that includes PhDs, college-style classroom dynamics, and reassurance about intelligence.
Which creates something of a dilemma for educated spiritual seekers, who value both reason and spirituality and see the two as partners, not antagonists, in the search for meaning. A century ago, sociologist Max Weber described rationalized society as “disenchanted” — lacking a sense of deeper meaning, existential purpose, or transcendent possibility. Educated spiritual seekers value reason, but they’re frustrated with disenchantment, and they suspect that spirituality is not only important, but also valid.
Later on in the Callings workshop, a participant succinctly voiced the dilemma that many educated spiritual seekers believe they face. Following up on his previous question, Gregg asked participants what payoffs they might expect if they chose to follow their calling. Ruth, who earlier had said, “That’s too woo woo for business,” again raised her hand. This conversation ensued:
Ruth: I surprised myself: I wrote the word “transcendence” as a benefit—becoming something larger, or connecting with something larger. It surprised me that I wrote that.
Gregg: Because it’s too woo woo for business?
Ruth: No, I just never thought of myself as transcendent.
Patty: Most business is full of woo woo; they don’t realize it — they’re pretending. Full of –
Patty: Thank you.
Gregg: Oh! I took “woo woo” to mean spiritual things.
Lynn: Yeah — business will put up with crap but not woo woo.
Richard: So it’s the dilemma of woo woo versus doo doo.
“Woo woo versus doo doo.” On one hand, when educated spiritual seekers look out at modern society, they see it as preoccupied with the basest functions of humanity; they see it as a wasteland. On the other hand, they fear that their efforts to introduce some sense of larger meaning and purpose into that society would be dismissed as “woo woo”—too weird, too flaky, and too irrational.
Philosopher Paul Ricoeur once wrote that if we are to bring meaning back into modern society, we need to “deconstruct… the assurances of modern man” and “struggle with the believable and unbelievable of our time in order to make a place for intelligent discourse.” Some educated seekers are trying to do just that. On a different day, Ron Miller introduced the word “transrational” to Common Ground participants:
“There are three levels: the prerational, the rational, and the transrational. The rational is very important — as a college teacher, most of our task is getting students from the prerational level, where they just have opinions, to the rational. But in our culture, we stop there. We stop with the rational. Other cultures affirm the third step, the level of the transrational, the things that can’t be understood in rational language. Our culture doesn’t affirm that.”
Just because something is nonrational, Ron is saying, doesn’t mean that it’s irrational. In other words, for educated spiritual seekers, reason is only one way of knowing, and a meaningful modern society requires both the rational and the spiritual.
Kelly Besecke is the author of You Can’t Put God in a Box: Thoughtful Spirituality in a Rational Age. Formerly a professor of sociology at Colorado College and Kenyon College, she is now a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Connect with her on Facebook or through her author website or her editing website.
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Image credit: Balance. A construction from a pebble. It is isolated on a white background. © galdzer via iStockphoto.