The Mood of Secular Existence

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

I just started reading Jerome A. Stone’s “The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence“, and he immediately raised a question I cannot answer myself. Stone describes the secular life, on p. 3:

Given that the meaning of secularity is the loss of a transcendent source of meaning, secular existence will either find a source of meaning within this life or it will find this life essentially meaningless. Quite possibly there may be a vacillation or ambivalence between these two modes by an individual or culture, but these two represent the types of secular existence within which the ambiguities and dynamics of secular life are placed. (…)

Having lost the transcendent source of meaning, secularity either tries to find an immanent source or finds no meaning at all. And having lost the transcendent source of judgment, self-assured secularity has no perspective from which to criticize its attachment to relative meanings. The secular world tends to be caught between a self-assurance tending to fanaticism and an alienation tending to despair.

What I would like to know is whether atheists recognize this, whether this description fits their experience (maybe not as in ‘personal experience’, but as in ‘experienced around me’). Is secular life caught between being meaningless or being too self-assured? Comments on that are welcome, and would really help me understand what Stone is describing here.

One further remark: Stone seems to build his distinction between secularism and religion on the refusal or acceptance of a “transcendent source of criticism and renewal or help”. I’ll have to wait to comment on that: it’s not clear yet (remember, only at p. 3!) what he means by that. But is rather obvious that an appeal to transcendent sources is often just what a religious fanatic would do. So this post is not aimed at throwing blames back and forth between religious believers and atheists about who is the most fundamentalist…

One thought on “The Mood of Secular Existence

  1. In my encounter with naturalism I have argued that (a) though conceptualised as the Source and Destiny of reality as a whole, the transcendent is inaccessible for our observation, explanation and manipulation, while our concept of the transcendent is part of immanent reality, thus open to critique, transformation, or rejection. (b) Being geared to the transcendent can lead to an eccentric (rather than egocentric) orientation: one is capable of seeing reality ‘from above’ as it were, ‘with the eyes of God’ and one’s place in one’s concentric contexts. This distance makes it possible to become not only liberated from reality but also responsible for reality. (c) In contrast, if reality is perceived to be closed in upon itself, self-generated, self-sustaining, self-destructive, and (in the case of humans) self-responsible, the human being is, on the one hand, at the mercy of immanent forces and developments, a phenomenon that can be seen in thousands of instances. On the other hand, humans can perceive themselves as the highest product of the evolutionary process, thus entitled to consider themselves the sovereign masters, owners and beneficiaries of reality. With no higher authority around, humans can generate a deep concern for reality, as many naturalists do, or use it as a quarry to be mined to satisfy one’s desires and interests. It is entirely up to them. (d) However, it is critically important how one perceives the ‘content’ or ‘character’ of the transcendent. Only if the transcendent is perceived to have a vision of comprehensive optimal well-being that translates into concern for any deficiency in well-being in any dimension of life, will true freedom and responsibility emerge. In the language of faith, having been accepted into the fellowship of God, one is involved in God’s creative and redemptive project in the world. Anybody who would like to pursue these thoughts can consult my books Informed by Science, Involved by Christ, chapter 4 (2013) or Regaining Sanity for the Earth, chapters 8-9 (2011). Klaus Nurnberger.

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