Freethinker’s Trek Through Spirituality, Mysticism and Nature

Freethinker’s Trek Through Spirituality, Mysticism and Nature March 2, 2017

Editor’s Note: I specifically solicited Clergy Project member Chris Highland’s thoughts on “spirituality” because I felt, from his past writings here, that he would fall heavily on the spiritual side of things. It turns out that he’s studied and taught spirituality and mysticism. Listen as he describes what he’s learned and passed on to others and how it all eventually blends with his enthusiasm for nature. Notice how different he is from fellow atheist and Clergy Project member, “Andy” who discussed spirituality in practical terms of how it could help him be a more effective pastor.


By Chris Highland

  1. When you were religious, did you also think of yourself as spiritual, or not? How did you talk about spirituality to the people in your congregation?

Over the winding, root-traced and boot-laced trail out of faith, I thought of “spiritual” as something “mystics” did or experienced.  Intriguing, but a bit otherworldly — in those “liminal” spaces as they say.  I appreciated Hildegard and Meister Eckhart, then Martin Buber, Thomas Merton and others who seem to lead in the mystifying mists of some kind of divine twilight zone.

I taught some courses on Mystics (Christian, Sufi, Jewish, Buddhist) in several congregational settings. To read and discuss and sit silently with the teachings of these “spirit intoxicated” people was enjoyable and thought provoking.

Santa Teresa de Avila

Yet, the historic experiences never truly could be practiced today. An exception would be Brother Lawrence and his practice of “the presence” washing dishes and such, and then Jean-Pierre de Caussade and his “sacrament of the present moment.”  But even all this evaporated after I began to spend more time at Buddhist and Vedanta retreat centers, simply being quiet in beautiful natural settings.

  1. Did you go through a “spiritual but not religious stage” on the way to being non-religious?

Continuing my path-finding — While living in a small cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest, cutting trails through the forest and harvesting on an organic farm, I felt comfortable imagining a “Spirit of Nature” and wrote prose and poetry about that.


I gathered more “meditations” from wise naturalistic thinkers like John Burroughs, and re-read Thoreau’s Walden.  I guess I would describe what happened as “spirit” was absorbed into the natural environment and lost all sense of personality.  My only relation with the “other” was to observe my wild neighbors and appreciate the beauty.


To paraphrase one of my secular saints, John Muir, God becomes Beauty.  There is no worship because there is no transcendent personality at all.  There is Nature and Nature alone, of which I’m a part.  Some accuse me of pantheism, but that’s nonsense.  There is no theo or theism at all.

  1. If you know people who are spiritual but not religious, what are they like?

If “religious” means what it used to for me, to be deeply embedded in one community of belief, then I know many.  And some of my friends, colleagues and family members are not “religious” even though they are members of denominations.  By this I mean they don’t accept the dogmas, creeds and doctrines or literal interpretations of their scriptures.  I let go of that stuff to lighten my brain-pack many years ago.  Some will still use language and labels like “God” and “faith” and such but they are not “dogmatic” about these, and therein lies the emergence to something more “spiritual” though I would just say they are more real human beings using their reason to think and accept other views and opinions.

Some of my close relations still pray or sometimes read a bible passage though they make no show of it or push any thing on others.  Some believe in an afterlife but have no clear image or explanation for what that may be, except that it gives assurance their life and loved ones continue on somehow.  I don’t see it that way since I feel we continue in those who remember us while our bodies become the “compost” Whitman eloquently celebrated.

  1. Are there other questions I should be asking about this? If so, what are they?

Well, we use these words but the main question is do they have any meaning or content any longer? Did they ever have?  Maybe the power of imagination is the main point — and our desperate need to Understand our place in Nature?


Chris Highland 2008Chris Highland was a Protestant Minister and Interfaith Chaplain for many years. He renounced his ordination in 2001. He is the author of My Address is a River, Nature is Enough and ten other books. Chris is currently a member of The Clergy Project, the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, while he blogs at Secular Chaplain. He teaches a class on early American freethinkers at the Reuter Center, UNCA. Chris and his (reverend) wife Carol, live in the mountains of North Carolina. To learn more see

>>>>Photo Credits:
Sequoia sempervirens, Muir Woods National Monument, California, USA / Personal picture taken by user Urban, 2004 ; By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, ;  “John Muir c1902” by unattributed – Library of Congress Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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