Some people would insist that the term “spiritual freethinker” is self-contradictory.
A freethinker, by definition, is a person who holds that one’s opinions “should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freethought)
A person who is “spiritual,” in its most literal sense, believes that there is a supernatural dimension to reality. Since the supernatural is difficult to observe, quantify and experiment on, the strict rationalist would say it is impossible for a freethinker to be spiritual.
There is, however, a different interpretation of the word “spiritual” that might make sense of this.
I once sat in meditation and since I had no formal training in meditation, religious or otherwise, I just closed my eyes and breathed deeply while trying to calm my thoughts. I was able to reach a point that could probably be described as spiritual (and I have not replicated it ever since). I can only use vague metaphors to describe the experience — I was empty of thought; I became oblivious to time, or the small aches and pains I often have when sitting cross-legged for an extended period; I felt deep joy and contentment; I felt bliss.
There are moments in my life when I have experienced something so wonderful and profound, and almost impossible to put in words. Sometimes, it happens at the end of a beautiful movie or an incredible book and I am just moved to tears. I see a photograph or piece of art and I can just gaze at it for a long time.
There is a danger in being rational, and that is to reduce everything to rationality. I am quite guilty of doing that on several occasions and I constantly have to remind myself that there is a knowing that transcends reason.
This is perhaps best illustrated by a story told by Tony de Mello (whom I wrote about last week):
The master said, “Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak.”
The disciples asked, “What does that mean?”
The master said, “How many of you know what a rose smells like?”
Everyone raised their hands.
The master said, “Now, put it into words.”
Everyone was silent, and understood.
It is in this unspeakable sense that I understand spirituality.
Alan Watts, best-selling author of The Way of Zen said that while we may study and understand the human mind and body scientifically, that better not be the way a man tries to understand or relate to his wife.
Of course, the purpose of this piece is not to put down one or the other, but to show that both are valid facets of our humanity, worthy to be nurtured and celebrated. We are, after all, not just talking heads, roaming bodies, strong wills or raging emotions. We are all of those combined and to try to take them apart would be like trying to appreciate a rainbow by taking apart its colors, or to marvel at a waterfall by storing the water in a bucket for future contemplation.
A spiritual freethinker, therefore, is a rational person, grounded in reality, yet still able to look at the stars in awe of their magnificence. Carl Sagan, author of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, perhaps said it best: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.