10/09/2014 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

The Secular Theologian


If you were to visit Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park and watch it spout its boiling spray on schedule, you might stand in awe and wonder at the sight. Imagine what Native Americans felt there thousands of years ago or even the new European settlers who seem to have avoided the place. Real awe and wonder usually give rise to deep reflection and the sense that the place is sacred. Rituals and stories and images follow.

All our national parks, and even the small parks in our cities and towns, have similar sacred spots that inspire awe and wonder. But, as at Yellowstone, most of the educational displays you'll see tell of the science of the phenomena on view and avoid the more challenging task of speaking about the sacredness of the place.

For one thing, we are accustomed to thinking of the sacred only with reference to a particular belief system. Theologians examine the holy from a particular tradition -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sufi, Buddhist. And yet we commonly encounter the sacred and would benefit from some deep reflection on our experience. For want of a better phrase, I'd like to see "secular theologians" on the scene, professionals dedicated to reflecting on experiences and places, helping us glimpse the ordinarily miraculous and wondrous, linking to our sense of identity, purpose and morality.

Life is full of sacred moments that have no direct connection to formal religion, or else are the experience of people who are not connected to one of the established religions. Birth is one of those moments, and yet it is increasingly done in the atmosphere of a secular hospital. Yet, the holy knows no bounds. As Emerson said, the miracle of rain is more important than the miracles of religion.

As the evolution of thought and culture moves many away from the established religions today, we need a secular theology more than ever. Otherwise, we end up with a purely secular world, one that no longer senses the miracle of rain or the transforming wonder of Old Faithful. A secular world without a sense of the sacred can be ethical but lacks the vision that roots a life in the mysteries that take us out farther and more deeply inward. There's a paradox at work here: The more we appreciate the holy outside of us, the more human we become.

The secular theologian might be well versed in the traditional theologies of the world, those associated with the great religious and spiritual traditions, and also able to carry the discoveries and explanations of science further into the realm of mystery, feeding our need for wonder and making us into people aware of the invisible.

Theologians of the past, or those connected to one of the religions, can also unveil the holy in the everyday, but often their vision bends to their own agendas, and they worry more about maintaining orthodoxy and promoting their particular ideology than revealing the holy everywhere. Theology sometimes becomes more about an institution than the holiness of human life and the world.

I was once a fervent Catholic, loyal to the Church in every respect. Then my thinking expanded and deepened. I still wanted to be Catholic, but it became difficult, given the dogmatic and moral positions of the Church. Now, in the privacy of my own life, I still regard myself as Catholic, though a highly singular one, and treasure many of the spiritual sensitivities I learned from the Church. But as a writer and teacher I am a secular theologian, speaking for matters of soul and spirit without reference to one single tradition. I enjoy the freedom in developing systematic ideas about the holy without any reference to one path.

I'd like to see more secular theologians at work shifting our society from its rationalistic, materialistic secularism toward a new and broader appreciation of the sacred. I make a major distinction between secularity and secularism, shunning the "ism" and loving the "ity." As many religions have taught, you can only appreciate the holy if you love the worldly. The two are neither at odds nor separate.

I imagine a secular theologian on hand at sporting events, helping us see the deep meaning in game and sport. Or at concert halls, commenting on the symbolism in counterpoint or orchestration. I hope to see a secular theologian advising politicians, alerting them to the deepest issues at work in their practical maneuvering. I'd like to see a theologian on the job guiding educators as they work out the mysteries of teaching and guiding students toward the fulfillment of their destinies. We definitely need theologians offering their advice on city planning and building roads and bridges and putting up buildings.

Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences, but today it's rare to find a young person eager to become a theologian. What is a theologian anyway? Theos, the subject, refers to divinity or the ultimate or the most profound. In early usage it meant "shining." The theologian penetrates so far into a matter that the ultimate issues within it come to light and are discussed. The source and heart of things shines through. The theologian takes up any matter at all, without exception, and explores ultimate meaning, purpose, value, mystery and destiny in it. Nothing could be more important, nothing so exciting.