GOD STORIES: SEARCHING OUT THE DIVINE IN THE MUNDANE

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Today, with religion being cloistered behind closed doors it seems other instances of spiritual experience are being pushed out of everyday life as well. Secular society tells us there is not room for the divine in the mundane. One Episcopal parish is fighting this mutually exclusive arrangement through what they call, ‘God stories.’ These stories are instances where one feels or experiences something that acts as evidence of the divine and its presence in daily life. It could be something in nature, the frank words of a child, or a perfectly timed coincidence. It could be small or big like a miracle. At the end of the weekly worship service when general announcements are made, the reverend asks if anyone has any God stories to share. Members of the congregation can stand and use this opportunity to tell their God story aloud. Alternatively, stories can be posted on a designated board in the parish hall. This medium includes many photographs to illustrate the personal narratives. For example, one such photo is a flower that managed to grow and bloom through a crack in the pavement. It isn’t what most people would call a miracle, but for someone it held significance and brought a spark of divinity into ordinary life.

The question is not whether such instances of divine presence and / or action are ‘correct’; but rather, why we look for them at all. Why do we search for the divine in the mundane? Why do we search for evidence of a greater power not only through miracles, but in little things easily explained away? One obvious reason is that for individuals, life and faith do not exist in separate spheres. As much as secularism tries to convince us otherwise, religion and spiritual beliefs affect one’s outlook and choices in all facets of life. How one lives is an expression of faith and further confirms one’s religious affiliations and spiritual disciplines. Life and belief are not separate. Nor is it a one sided relationship. Religious belief affects life and life affects our beliefs. Life experiences can make one question their faith and even lead to conversion or alternation. The faithful know this, and feel this push to let their worlds mingle.

But the structure of society prevents this. The segregation promoted by secularism is exacerbated today by hyper sensitivity and political correctness. I believe the persistent searching illustrated by God stories is partly backlash, or at least resistance, to the staunch segregation of areas of life today. As secularism strives to create definite and separate boundaries, the faithful aim to diminish these boundaries. As secularism tries to make religion and spirituality private matters, the faithful strive to bring their beliefs and practices into the public arena.

The role of scientific reason has perhaps made people search out divine presence more. Today everything is explained away with science which is firmly placed in the secular sphere. The natural world is extraordinary and deserves the same awe and wonder as the supernatural. But its secular category gives the natural world a false sense of banality. The consistent insistence that ordinary life is mundane, results in a hyper sensitivity to anything that could be regarded as supernatural or divine.

While I believe these forms of resistance and the push to live more holistically are at the forefront of why people continue to search for the divine in the mundane, I wonder what kind of natural aptitude or psychological need humans have for such experiences of the divine? I would like to look into this area further as well as the consequences of secularism. How are these needs met through purely secular means? And what happens if these needs are not met? What happens when a flower is just a flower rather than a symbol of perseverance, a spot of unexpected beauty or a reminder of something bigger than ourselves?

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SECULARISM: SOCIETY AND THE INDIVIDUAL

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Another point scholars still debate on, and leaves religious leaders wondering, is the nature of secularism. What started the ideology and what continues to drive it to such prominence in the Western world? A natural starting point is colonial America, where ‘freedom of religion’ was implemented as a reaction to persecution experienced in the old world. Secularism as we know it is still a far cry from the initial concept of freedom of religion, but I believe the seeds were planted here. By removing religion from the official list of offences, people started to get acclimatized to such separation, as superficial as it may be.

With better means of travel and communication this separation became more necessary as the global village began to form. But now we see that secularism is much more than separation of church and state. It is now clear that there is a relationship between the level of separation and the amount of religiosity present in a society. Bruce argues, “… the declining social significance of religion causes a decline in the number of religious people and the extent to which people are religious” (2002, 3). The other side of the argument of course being that a decline of religious people causes a decline in the collective significance attributed by society.

I tend to agree with Bruce based on the religious fervor and spiritual dedication I have witnessed in secular, Western society. If individuals held the power, I think religion would be more evident in the public sphere and encouraged. But as it remains now society has agreed it is better if religion remains a private matter. Thus, as it is kept behind closed doors, religion is not encouraged and a less religious and thoroughly secular life is. Secular Humanism has emerged as the politically correct system of belief. Secularism may have got its start with official, societal sanctions but I believe both society and the individual are factors. They work in a cycle. Where one’s influence ends, the other’s begins. One shapes the other to reflect and reinforce secular principles, and so the wheel turns.

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: secularization in the West. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

ON CHARLIE HEBDO

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The attacks on Charlie Hebdo rocked the globe as another example of religious extremism. But it also left many questioning intercultural relations in France and in our global world. What could spark such an attack? If the attack was a symptom of a larger problem, then what was the cause? Offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo are the obvious cause and are no doubt the primary spark. This fact has lead to extensive debate on the freedom of speech. How far is too far with freedom of speech? Does such a limit exist? These are some of the questions surrounding the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. Following is my take on the situation.

France has had a huge increase in its Muslim population due to immigration. This dramatic rise has created tension between natural born and naturalized citizens. The cartoons of the prophet Mohamed published by Charlie Hebdo are both a reflection of this tension and a contributor to it. If France and its citizens truly hope to ‘assimilate’ their newly arrived and / or Muslim residents, cartoons like Charlie’s are a serious problem. Assimilation does not occur through insult and shame. Assimilation does not require one to absolutely abandon their culture. Assimilation is possible only as appreciation and fondness for the new culture develops. When the new culture is unwelcoming and insulting, isolation and eventually extremism like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo can occur.

In our global world of advanced communication and heterogeneous societies it is important to be respectful of others’ backgrounds. This idea is encompassed by political correctness and tolerance, which I do feel are taken too far and are becoming counterproductive with respect to remedying social issues. (Check my other articles for more on these topics). However, the sanctity of free speech in Western societies seems to be used as the exception to tolerance and political correctness. Freedom of speech is a wonderful right, one that should be preserved. However, I think individuals need to exercise more forethought. When it comes to free speech: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In the interest of positive intercultural relations and assimilation, I think such hurtful communications should be curbed at the individual level. Freedom of speech is a powerful ideal, but I see no reason as to why it should be exercised over respect and empathy. Perhaps the cause is not depictions of the prophet Mohammed, but the fact that people feel more strongly about freedom of speech than respecting their fellow citizens.

A SECULAR NEW AGE OR A NEW AGE SECULARISM?

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There is no doubt New Age has many characteristics that are often considered secular. I have already written an article on such instances of overlap in an article entitled, “Secular and New Age Overlap.” But these similarities leave us to wonder, along with the growth of New Age in the secular age, what exactly is the nature of the relationship between New Age and secularism? This question is unfortunately much like the chicken or the egg dilemma. Did the similarities come about because New Age, as we know it today, grew up out of a largely secular mainstream society? Or does the holistic and seemingly boundary-free nature of New Age provide an opportunity for secularism to encroach upon and transform New Age to closer align with its ideals?

These two positions are argued by Carole Cusack and Steve Bruce. First, Cusack views the similarities between New Age and secularism as evidence of the reaching effects of mainstream culture. Here Cusack uses the strong presence of consumerism in secular society and New Age to illustrate this, “… if the cultural context is consumerist, then the dominant religious form of that community will be, too” (2010, 20). While Bruce takes on the opposing argument, “Unless one constantly works to preserve a body of doctrine, the ideas will gradually accommodate to the cultural norms” (2002, 102). I have not conducted enough research on this topic to side completely one way or the other, but instead aim to provide some thoughtful commentary.

Both arguments are sound in that they provide ample and logical reason as to why New Age and secularism share similar elements. I think the key to shedding light on this debate is in the differing characteristics of secularism and New Age. Whichever argument can account for the points of difference as well as the similarities can be utilized as the primary model for the secular-New Age relationship. The biggest point of separation is the holism emphasized in New Age and the extensive categorization indicative of secularism. This most evident in the thorough separation of religious and spiritual systems from other facets of society.

I find it more likely that New Age has inevitably picked up some characteristics from wider society as it formed its own sub culture, as argued by Cusack. New Age started as an alternative to organized religion; often to leave behind patriarchy and hierarchical structure in favor of personal spirituality and mystical experience. But it seems today it has become an alternative to a purely secular (humanist) existence. While spirituality and mysticism are important elements in New Age, holism is the New Age buzz word of today. This suggests that it may have picked up some popular elements of secularism considered supportive or at least benign to New Age ideals. But New Age promotes and constructs its ideals around points of differentiation like holism, as a direct response to secularism.

However I don’t believe there is such a thing as a one-way relationship. This question may not have an either / or answer, but a both / and answer. Secularism and New Age must affect each other mutually, not simply one upon the other. Such reasoning would make neither Cusack nor Bruce wrong.

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Cusack, Carole. Invented Religions: Faith, Fiction, Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010.