An Independent Tradition?
Organizing things this way seems to presuppose that spiritual naturalism is an approach and general philosophy that isn’t strictly speaking a spiritual tradition. And this is true. Yet some believe that spiritual naturalism can develop into a spiritual tradition of its own, independent of other traditions, yet influenced by many insights and practices contained in those traditions. Both perspectives are valid and overlapping.
To probe this line of questioning further, we’re going to need to explore what comprises a spiritual tradition in the first place?
What Do We Meaning By Spiritual Tradition?Let’s start by breaking the term down into its parts. By spirituality, most adherents to a spiritual naturalist stance, believe we are speaking of the human arena of questions of meaning and purpose. Spirituality implies the existential issues in human life and those disciplines and practices that help us focus and probe such issues.
By spirituality, we also mean exploring personal and communal responses including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy, and the astonishment of being alive at all — moments of feeling connected to the world and everything in it.
By tradition, many thinkers mean various forms of reasoning and practices that coalesce into an enduring system of narrative, metaphor, symbol, and ritual, coupled with wisdom teaching and moral insights.
Along these lines, therefore, Christianity would be a spiritual tradition whose narrative is the Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures, whose rituals include baptism, eucharist or Lord’s Supper, symbols such as the cross, celebrations such as Easter and Christmas, and personal practices such as prayer, the rosary, fasting, and so on.
The great spiritual traditions are refined formulations and tying together of specific forms of the above, aimed at reinforcing and communicating a narrative and set of convictions about human life and the world. Each tradition is a woven system of narrative, ritual, celebration, wisdom, and moral teachings.
Here’s a slightly deeper breakdown that illustrates the central components of most spiritual traditions:
Narrative – mythic understandings of the universe, our world, humans, and their purpose in life. These are often written down in what become sacred texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian New Testament, the Koran of Islam, or Buddhist sutras and cannons. These are foundational stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of our lives.
Ritual – individual or group practices meant to evoke and reinforce our narrative(s). Rituals are diverse and can include candle lighting, chanting and singing, body gestures, dancing, immersion in water, the use of bread, wine, and the use of spiritually meaningful objects, such as a cross or bells.
Celebration – holy days, holidays, festivals, and feasts meant to celebrate aspects of a tradition’s narrative, teachers and individuals, times of the year, and even the seasons. Often, these involve special foods and specific rituals.
Wisdom Teachings – insights, convictions, and teachings on forgiveness, awe, gratitude, desire, relationships, and how to live a good and full life. These teachings overlap and inform our narratives, rituals, and celebrations.
Toward a Spiritual Naturalist Tradition
So, what might a spiritual naturalist path look like in terms of a tradition?
Could spiritual naturalism stand on its own as a spiritual tradition that could improve people’s lives, bind communities, and be stable and robust enough to pass on to future generations?
Well, first we should mention that this question isn’t new and many others have contributed to such efforts. One thinks of Mark Green and Atheopaganism, Eric Steinhart and his work with naturalist witchcraft, Bill Plotkin and his Soulcraft work, and Stephen Batchelor and his work in humanistic Buddhism. Granted, some of these individuals are working within or inspired by previous or existing traditions, but their efforts provide us with ideas for the way forward.
There are many others creating rituals, forming narratives, engaging in celebrations, and exploring wisdom and moral insights — all from a spiritual naturalist stance. Our resources are many.
To coalesce into an independent tradition, spiritual naturalism would need to develop its own, distinct, parts and pieces. Here are some basic initial suggestions of what these might look like:
Narrative – the emergence and evolution of the universe, our world, and human life would suggest itself as our core narrative. Evolution provides insights into human interconnectedness and our relationship with the planet, other life, and the environment.
Ritual – let our creativity guide us as we craft rituals around life events, times of the year, and group practice. Various forms of meditation, innovative uses for candle lighting, and the use of certain foods — there is so much out there to explore. Rituals could be shared and adapted by others seeking to do the same.
Celebration – if evolution is our core narrative, then celebrating the seasons and cycles of nature seems appropriate and easy to adopt. What sorts of rituals would be meaningful and appropriate?
Wisdom Teaching – formulating our own sets of teachings on gratitude, love, kindness, relationships, and lifestyle practices, likely related to simple living and ecology. Again, many people are already engaged in much of the above, there would be little need to recreate the wheel. Much of the work would be compiling things into a cohesive, meaningful whole and refining it as we go.
People could create networks, and experiment with local chapters, groups, or interest circles. These individuals could share rituals, insights, essays, and have discussions, learning from one another.
And just in case you’re wondering or concerned, I’m not advocating the establishment of central authority structures, rigid definitions, creeds, or any other narrowing efforts.
Diversity is a good thing and people inspired by spiritual naturalism should feel free to develop this tradition as they see fit — united by common principles such as naturalism, critical realism, humanism, and so forth. And given the artistic and expressive nature, our efforts at crafting a personal and communal spiritual practice will need our best creative efforts including the application of art, music, and poetry, as we participate in forming a tradition that is both practical and capable of engaging the whole person.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that spiritual traditions do not form or take shape overnight, while also recognizing that much work has also been done and there is much available to those who wish to shape this path.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society already serves and is engaged in much of the above. The challenge for those who want further structure from which to grow their own spirituality and spiritual naturalism as a tradition is to maintain an open mind, curious attitude, and a willingness to try new things — and then put together what works, into something a systematic approach.
Thanks for reading. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.