February 13, 2019

PINERO | The Case for Spirituality in a Secular World

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After sitting for my senior portrait, each step I took as I emerged from Willard Straight felt suddenly significant — as though each was one closer to my youth’s looming end. I felt an unfamiliar urge for quiet contemplation and reflection. Sage Chapel seemed to beckon, so I obliged. The pilgrimage to Sage quickly became a part of my routine; five daily minutes in a sanctuary with a Bible seems to keep me spiritually satiated.

I don’t consider myself religious, but I do, however, find solace in the words of radicals — people who dare to challenge the status quo and evangelize our collective imagination. It so happens that the most famous radical of all time is Jesus Christ.

Despite the posthumous mainstreaming of his teachings in service of hegemonic interests, Christ’s own words discredit the false prophets who exploit his name to justify bigotry or enrich themselves. His words encourage us to embody radical compassion and to see ourselves not as individuals, but as the children of divinity acting on behalf of our shared Creator.

Jesus’s teachings define one’s purpose in terms of one’s selfless service to others. His greatest hits include the inherent evil of wealth accumulation, loving thy neighbor, and the vacuous nature of social hierarchy. In all the stories he tells, the villains are those who choose to live according to bourgeois values — like elitism or the pursuit of capital — rather than the values of faith and empathy. Jesus asserts that within all of us lies the innate propensity to love one another, and implies that those who deviate from this propensity do so out of self-interest.

I’m a big fan of his work.

Religion has endured because it is a useful framework to grapple with the fundamental human struggle. The world is struggling right now, so perhaps it could use some religion.

Experts warn that our existence is threatened by the specters of artificial intelligence singularity, climate change, dystopian inequality and surveillance. The threats we face today aren’t just epochal; they’re the ultimate culmination of centuries of selfishness and greed. The zealots who insist we are approaching the Final Judgment for our sins aren’t far off, because how we answer these eschatological questions will, indeed, determine humanity’s fate.

Our response to such perils so far have been insufficient and limited by our dedication to logic and reason as governing principles. Though the capacity for abstract thought is the only thing that separates us from animals, we dismiss spirituality as an exercise in frivolity.

Yet all religious texts contain truths that might help alleviate our postmodern nihilistic malaise, because each seeks to elevate our terrestrial existence by integration with the sublime. So, as a humble agnostic, I am making the case for spirituality in a secular world.

Like many others, I allowed the malaise to consume me. But when I saw the rise of radical left and right populism, I realized there was a growing collective rejection of the structural forces that profit from our apathy. All populist movements are fueled by the same existential and emotional crisis: alienation.

Alienation is the process through which one becomes divorced from one’s own labor, power, and neighbor. It is a sociological theory but it describes a deeply spiritual phenomenon — the widespread, systematic denial of self-actualization to the masses.

We live in a culture that normalizes alienation. It is so deeply embedded that hating Mondays and hiding in the bathroom at work are universally parodied experiences. We become alienated from our labor and from one another because it is easier to isolate oneself than to earnestly acknowledge the ubiquity of purposelessness.

In the information age, we are constantly reminded that evil and injustice operate relentlessly and without pause. These reminders are often conveyed to us via smartphone notifications, the most passive possible way to absorb information. Each time we are apprised of the world’s pain this way, we are subconsciously reminded that ours is merely to observe — that events of significance occur entirely absent our input. We are thus alienated from our own power.

Grassroots organizing and collectivist philosophies use terms like “moral imperative” to justify progressive political action, but they fail to explicitly define that imperative. Without a remedy for the spiritual deficit created by alienation, our stultifying apathy can never be truly eradicated.

We are conditioned to quiet our altruistic impulses and value self-preservation above all. Jesus was executed because his own remedy of radical love posed a serious threat to that individualistic conditioning, upon which all oppressive superstructures necessarily depend. The repression of our compassion is a burden which alienates us and keeps us docile — alternately, its expression would grant us peace, foster unity, and mobilize us around shared values.

If we hope to overcome the numerous apocalyptic challenges we currently face, we must reject habitual self-interest and embrace the active practice of compassion as a means to self-actualization. There is no way to do this effectively without confronting the distinctly spiritual poverty that plagues us.

Jesus has some quality content, but our focus should be on building a non-denominational spiritual, moral ethos that draws on a universal tenet — the Golden Rule. Across religious traditions, the Golden Rule implies the ethic of reciprocity in action; it is through being of service to others that one connects to oneself, one’s productive capacity, and one’s fellow human. Nihilistic malaise and apathy serve the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the majority’s fulfillment and our potential survival as a species.

It is time we recognize secularism as an insufficient framework to address oppression’s spiritual deficit. We have to acknowledge that only through embracing our collective connection to some kind of divinity can we move forward, creating a world that radically aspires to a purpose greater than ourselves.

It’s a lofty goal, but maybe just five minutes a day in a house of worship is a noble place to start.

Jade Pinero is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at jpinero@cornellsun.com. Jaded and Confused runs every other Thursday this semester.