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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  • guerillasurgeon

    Spiritual but not religious. It may well be a weakness of mine or something wrong with my brain function, but I have absolutely no comprehension of what that means. Well, the religious part I sort of get – but the spiritual part – absolutely no idea.

    • mason

      Other than those just wanting a way to declare they are not part of any organized religion, I tend to think “spiritual” is a way humans questing for more than exists anywhere or in anything in the Universe, relegate themselves to a life of continual dissatisfaction and sense of short coming, and in this hopeless quest miss the awe & wonder of what is and thus behold mirage giants and battle with windmills,

      • ElizabetB.

        : ) Mason, you are always a brisk wake-up breeze!!!

        • mason


    • That’s honest! I welcome comments like this in my classes, since No One knows what “spiritual” means. It may be a fun pingpong ball to smack around, but, like theology, people simply make up this stuff. I always enjoy Robert Ingersoll’s line about clergy: “They know that I know that they know they don’t know.” Something to ponder!

      • Linda_LaScola

        Never heard Ingersoll’s line about clergy – I’ll try to find a citation. As for “spiritual” being a nebulous word – definitely – even more nebulous than some of the beliefs of religion, and easier to be vague about.

        • Linda, I’m using that quote along with other selections in my upcoming class on Ingersoll and Stanton. It’s the last line in Volume One of the Works of RGI. He continues to amaze me with his reasonable common sense and sense of humor.

          • ElizabetB.

            Was just reading your Ingersoll “Meditations” for the North American Review linked from your Secular Chaplain blog. [I read S.C. in chunks] such an appealing vision of “church” : ) I’ve wondered what something like that would be like. Thank you, and Ingersoll

  • ElizabetB.

    Hi Chris! I was hoping you would weigh in!! Thank you, Linda!

    Last week I ran across a piece in “The Fourth R” by philosopher Donald A Crosby describing “Religious Naturalism and Its Place in the Family of Religions.” It reminded me of you, and today as I explore more, I see your book “Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple” listed on the website of “Religious Naturalism”: “A religious worldview grounded in the sciences, the humanities, and the arts.”

    I am noticing that your definition of religion here is very different from Crosby’s, as he explains why his view is not pantheism:

    “It might seem to be the case that Religion of Nature is a kind of pantheism. Pantheism means literally that everything (pan) is God (theos). But there is no God of any sort in Religion of Nature, whether God be conceived as one with nature or whether nature be conceived as contained within God (panentheism). In other words, there is no divine spirit pervading nature and giving guidance and support to nature. Spirituality is contained within nature and provided by nature quite apart from the existence of a deity of any kind. In Religion of Nature, nature is deemed worthy of the religious devotion, loyalty, and commitment accorded to God in theistic religions. But Religion of Nature is not a theistic religion. ” [The Fourth R article ]

    Are you familiar with “Religious Naturalism” as a school of thought? If so, what do you think about its being called a legitimate religion? I think you are right that the meanings of “religious” and “spiritual” are very uncertain!!!

    Your renunciation of your ordination intensifies my recurring questioning what I need/ought to do. Part of the problem is exactly what’s been complained about in this “religious but not spiritual” question — definitions are extremely squishy. At present, my denomination is quite a large [amorphous? : ) ] tent, so I think technically I fit even though I disbelieve maybe 98% of traditional theology. The 2% I believe, I wouldn’t want to appear to reject — compassion and awe. And today I’m a little surprised to realize that maybe what I’d miss most would be the possibility that maybe there is something like an overarching spirit that cares about me & all — even if it doesn’t or can’t keep me or others from harm. That “companionship” element, in addition to rocks and trees, birds and galaxies. Isn’t that weird!! So probably for now I need/ought to work to weed out the noxious theories & strengthen the helpful ones best I can, recognizing I’m sure to be wrong on some or many.

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey! here, in your books, and Secular Chaplain. They’re gifts!

    • Linda_LaScola

      the possibility that maybe there is something like an overarching spirit that cares about me & all — even if it doesn’t or can’t keep me or others from harm. That “companionship” element, in addition to rocks and trees, birds and galaxies. Isn’t that weird!!

      Weird and worthy of further thought. I can’t say I feel that way, but am thinking about the possibility that a sense of companionship (security?) is a regular feature of my life. I’ve never FELT alone and helpless, perhaps because I’ve been fortunate to never BE alone and helpless. Certainly my formative years were very secure.

      • ElizabetB.

        Two meanderings… one, I always think about people living in situations like Aleppo, what I’d think or feel in a situation like that. Many in the Holocaust came to the conclusion that there could not possibly be the traditional all-powerful god, but some didn’t toss out something like a companionable spirit idea (maybe Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”)

        And… I’ve been wondering if it has anything to do with being an introvert. Maybe that makes someone feel that attraction more than than it does those who draw more sustenance from fellow humans
        : )

      • mason

        Linda, I think you have had an unusually secure life, more than most anyone I’ve known. You’ve been “blessed” AND had damn lucky fate. 🙂

        • Linda_LaScola

          Yes, I was certainly lucky to have a calm childhood, but I think personality played an important role too. I think of childhood events that my sister and I remember differently — She felt anxious or insecure and I didn’t. Those “abilities” didn’t arrive until I got older!

          • mason

            🙂 We’re you the oldest child? They almost always do the “best” from what I’ve read and from every family situation I’m privy.

          • Linda_LaScola

            No, the youngest, giving me an opportunity to learn from my brother’s and sister’s mistakes.

          • mason

            Bright girl!

          • ElizabetB.

            I think too parents learn as they go along &
            [en]lighten up : ) Except that in our case, my younger sister was born during WWII and our mother always felt regret that her early years were so tense, with most of her uncles overseas (one at the Bulge), one lost here in the States, her dad away, and the whole country anxious. She really didn’t smile much — but has made up for it since! — or maybe because of all that she learned especially well how to make people laugh. Anyhow, she’s delightful : )

    • Appreciate your thoughtful response, Elizabeth. Interesting that you found the Religious Naturalists, and yes, oddly enough I joined them not long ago. I do not use the word “religious” to describe myself at all, yet I like much of what I hear from Ursula Goodenough, Crosby and some others. I see them as one (perhaps messy) attempt to “bridge-build” between sacreds and seculars. We’ll see. Some of them are in pulpits, which I find interesting.

      I hear you about the big “spirit who cares” but that leaps over a wall I’m not willing to leap back over.

      No matter our semantics and word-gymnastics I think all of us can meet in the woods, on a mountain or by the sea and be ok, god or not.

      Thanks, and be well.

      • mason

        “The spirit who cares” … that made me laugh out loud 🙂 If I was to believe in the great spirit, or the one who cares (still makes me chuckle & had to explain to wife what I’m laughing at as I rarely do at the computer) it would be the one who cares in the most minuscule ways possible and prefers sadomasochism, death, killing, suffering, cruelties, tyranny, disease, war, pain, agony, chaos, disasters, and 12 lane freeways to torment humans. Even the beautiful woods, forests, mountains, rivers, seas, and my lawn, are the fields of eat or be eaten. Those who forget this pay the cost. So what joy and bliss we find on this planet, in this brief life, is to be greatly cherished.

        • ElizabetB.

          ….cares but not powerful to prevent….
          That doesn’t compute for you? : )

          • Linda_LaScola

            It computes for me — it sounds a lot like a good human friend, but it seems like a spirit should be able to do more than a human friend. Maybe it’s more like an imaginary friend.

          • ElizabetB.

            helpful, wasn’t thinking about a human friend comparison. Thank you! And imaginary — reminds me of our highlands guru saying, “Maybe the power of imagination is the main point — and our desperate need to *Understand our place in Nature?* ” : ) Thank you again for all R.D., and your sensitive explorings

      • ElizabetB.

        Appreciate so much the idea of bridge-building between sacreds and seculars — and in-betweens! Especially thought-provoking is your description that
        “ ‘spirit’ was absorbed into the natural environment and lost all sense of personality…. To paraphrase one of my secular saints, John Muir, God becomes Beauty.”

        Maybe there’s not time to explore this, but it makes me wonder, how would Beauty sustain us in the hell of Aleppo? Maybe the moral beauty of the White Helmets?

        “Simply being quiet in beautiful natural settings” Yes! tai chi is very refreshing – quiet, quiet together, just being, just exploring, not trying to figure things out.

        Thank you so much for your exploring, and offering so much to enjoy, and ponder

    • mason

      Eliz, “an overarching spirit that cares about me & all — even if it doesn’t or can’t keep me or others from harm.” LOL

      I think that’s also called “the empathy lacking voyeur spirit that just doesn’t give a damn.” 🙂

      “That “companionship” element, in addition to rocks and trees.” Maybe that’s why humans on LSD and peyote hug trees and pet rocks? At least we might have some shred of empirical evidence with that. Just trying to be helpful. 🙂

      I think people can have an invigorating, rejuvenating, refreshing, wonder-awe giving experience out in Nature because energy from the Sun, moving atmosphere, plants, trees, waters, the ground, living creatures (from large to microbes) is not cut off by the man made barriers of concrete, asphalt, and our building structures that mute and dull our senses. I’ve been in beautiful buildings and cathedrals, but they offer nothing to compare with Nature. The most beautiful feature is always the sunlight raging through the stained glass windows made from grains of sand and the pigments of flowers, beckoning those inside to escape.

      ‘We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.‎’ -John Muir

      • ElizabetB.

        Always happy to spread hilarity : )

        What a wonderful Muir quote! He’s been in my pantheon probably since the 70’s. Thank you for that!! ….I guess I’m just not confident everything has something we can detect with our abilities, and — this isn’t nuanced enough, but in general: not happy with the idea that we humans are the highest form of consciousness. Peyote-powered or otherwise : ) Always thanking you for the feedback and pushback!!!

        • mason

          Keep trying to convince me there’s something more than the material Universe. I don’t know if we’ll ever detect everything but we’ve done phenomenal with the electromagnetic spectrum, gravity, quantum physics, and all our exploration of the macro and micro.

          There may well be higher forms of consciousness on the other millions of planets that have had intelligent life for a million years or more; possibly 40,000 just in our galaxy. And there are at least one hundred billion galaxies.

          As far as a super being of the Universe. Nah, I’m not persuaded in the least, but keep trying. 🙂

          • ElizabetB.

            Seriously, not trying to convince you, just trying to explain why I keep going round & round : ) I truly do appreciate your pushback… it helps me examine where I am and hopefully discard as much stuff that’s not so as is possible for me. So thx!!

          • mason

            Ah yes,…streamlining our philosophy, I’m all for that, like cleaning out the garage. Discard is my favorite word for what I did with my indoctrinated Evangelical beliefs.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Yes — that’s what I was going to say about you. You are not trying to convert anyone, unlike some people who represent an organized religion – just trying to understand yourself.

          • mason

            Yep, I get that, that’s why I enjoy the exchange. 🙂

            The going round & round does mystify me and I wonder if it’s about trying to salvage/discover something that will satisfy your rational intellect about something irrational. Of course, if you lacked your rational intellect there’d be no need for round & round.

            By way of push-back, I can tell you that after I discarded my belief in all the Gods and any ideas about a supernatural realm or whatever, it was like a scientist who discovers the simplest and most elegant solution. (I concluded all the “stuff” was as you say, “not so” stuff. 🙂

            The peace of mind I had as a child, before my theistic indoctrination, returned. I no longer experienced life through superstitious mental filters. Everything made sense, and my sense of wonder and awe about the material Universe was no longer disturbed by irrational thoughts and cognitive dissonance. I was like a hoarder who totally cleaned house. That was 46 years ago.

            So on one hand I admire your valiant quest to study and delve into the myriad things that you apparently enjoy studying, … on the other hand it’s seems to me you’re like someone who trying marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, meth, Oxycontin, heroin, and I’m just hoping you can get straight and stay straight. (That’s surely a bit of dramatic analogy, but I’m sure you get the idea. 🙂 )

            Much of what you write strikes me as a roulette ball just about ready to settle on Deepak Chopra’s number. (whatever that is)

            “God is not an external deity but the inner intelligence within you that mirrors the wisdom of the cosmos.” -Chopra Or as Spinoza said, “God is the same thing as Nature” (the Universe)

          • ElizabetB.

            Thanks for the description of your journey — liberation!!!!! to celebrate!

            & for the customary great metaphor. ….methaphor? All the yakking I’ve done here this week is clarifying for me that I think — at this point (!) — the 2 things that prevent my being Clergy Project are 1) that puzzling feeling of lonesomeness when I think there’s nothing like an overarching consciousness; and 2) my “scientific” reluctance to shut the door on something that might be good. Not the horrible theology a lot of us grew up with!!! that’s history for me. but good stuff consonant with compassion, truth, & beauty. ….Life as a roulette ball : ) One great imagination!! Because of that lonesomeness deal, not so likely to settle Deepak; but Spinoza I need to learn more about, see how much he leaves open for new knowledge. I think there’s a false dichotomy between material & “spiritual.” All energy [or whatever : ) ]

            Sounds like it may be ok to keep piping up “But what about *x*? or maybe *y*?” ? I deeply appreciate it, and have settled on a lot of perspectives, thanks to R.D. Just not the Big One
            : ) Thanks for all of it, Mason!

          • ElizabetB.

            about “the material universe” — I don’t think there’s a sharp dividing line anywhere, like — many thought [horribly still think] illness was caused by demons before we became aware of those bacterial and viral critters. Whatever the “companionship” is, I would expect it to be consonant with what we now perceive as “the material u.” The Great Chain of Being and All That : )

            [“demons” is making me think of the unutterably horrible report from the AP this week — “Ex-congregants reveal years of ungodly abuse”
   Cult psychology, of all descriptions, can be lethal, and so hard to combat!!!! ]

    • carolyntclark

      “…… recurring questioning what I need/ought to do….. what I’d miss most would be the possibility that maybe there is something like an overarching spirit that cares about me & all ……”
      Elizabeth, whenever I read of your search for “more”, I’m curious at your persistence. It sounds so tedious and futile. But maybe the search itself has become your resolution ?

      • ElizabetB.

        Thank you, Carolyn! It surely is puzzling! And I surely do appreciate the RD patience while I try to figure it out!!!!

        Maybe it boils down to trying to “unscrew the inscrutable,” which is above my paygrade but I keep trying, or maybe to having developed with a mental Jenga Tower block that I miss when removed – have this lonesome feeling. Maybe I have resolved enough theological questions already that it makes me keep trying on this one!

        “Search being the resolution” is an arresting thought to mull… thank you very much

        • carolyntclark

          I don’t think RD is awaiting a decision, Elizabeth :), thus no patience needed. Hopefully we each find our own best answers to the mystery….or perhaps no answer satisfies.

          • ElizabetB.

            Well said! Many thanks!!! [but I would think that seeing somebody keep spinning their wheels would be quite a bit trying : ) !!!!!!!!!!!!! ]

          • mason

            I think this is the best analysis of humans, their religions and “spirituality”

          • ElizabetB.

            Yep! of course, I’d say that I think we need to keep an open mind for the future : )

          • carolyntclark

            nope, not trying at all. I’m just glad it’s not me. It seems that it would be emotionally exhausting.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Could be, though, if you’re naturally built that way, it’s not exhausting — it’s just natural. I don’t know this to be true. I’m just speculating.

          • ElizabetB.

            [& Linda] I think this is one of the reasons R.D. has been important to me ever since I learned about it from John Shuck’s podcast. It’s a natural frame of mind — always questioning — but not always so comfortable or shareable. Being able to interact with people who’ve wrestled with the same or similar issues is an absolute treasure. much gratitude

  • Marcus Small

    It seems to me that one can be spiritual and not religious, religious but also spiritual and religious without being particularly spiritual. What distinguishes the two terms for me is that to be religious is to be bound together with others by a common set of beliefs and or practices. That makes it easier to define I think. I am not sure what ‘Spiritual’ means, or rather I know what it is until someone asks me to define it, then I flounder.

    • ElizabetB.

      Glad you have chimed in! A couple posts back, Linda turned the usual phrase around and asked “Were you religious, but not spiritual?” I decided I pretty much agree with you! Happy Spring, over your way!

    • Yes, Marcus, freethinkers can flounder with these slippery definitions! Another good reason to let some of these terms drift off so we can focus on what matters. Cheers.