Spiritual But Not . . . Keep Talking, Humanists

Literary critic Terry Eagleton said, “The din of conversation is as much meaning as we shall ever have.” I like that. On first glance, it appears to be bleak—human conversation is all the meaning there is?

But imagine what human conversation has given us.

Imagine the din of conversation under the porches (stoa) and under the trees (akademeia) in Athens during the time of Socrates.

Imagine the din of conversation in Baghdad in the late 700s when an institution called the  House of Wisdom opened it’s doors—an attempt to gather all the wisdom in the world. 

Think of the din of conversation in Florence that led to the Renaissance. The din of conversation in Shakespeare’s London. The din of conversation in cafes that created the Vienna Circle at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

The din of conversation in the Paris of the 1920s. Or Greenwich Village. Or North Beach in San Francisco in the 1950s that gave rise to the Beat Generation.

Think of the din of conversation in Liverpool, England that led to the Beatles. Or the din of conversation in a little recording studio called Sub Pop that led to the Seattle Sound, better known as Grunge.

Too often we think of lonely geniuses but genius is seldom lonely. Shakespeare and his Globe theatre were not the only show in town. Shakespeare’s London had twenty-seven public theatre venues. The Beatles weren’t alone. More than fifty British bands made up the so-called British Invasion.

Looked at from this perspective, from the view of what gets created in the crucible of human sharing, Eagleton’s phrase does not sound quite so bleak: “The din of conversation is as much meaning as we shall ever have.” Why ever would we want more than human conversation?

Would we really want a voice from on high coming to proclaim the once and final truth? Isn’t the mystery more beautiful, the stabs in the dark of the millions of human beings who have taken part in this great din of conversation, this lovely human project of creating meaning?

I believe in community. A place where people talk with each other. In coffee houses. In bars. In streets and market squares—public spaces and the din of conversation—this is the meaning of meaning. And it is why totalitarian regimes fear the public square and it is why religions burn books.

The term “conversation” originally meant “intimacy with others.” It also meant “sexual intercourse.” Only later did the term take on its present meaning of talking.

Let’s just say there’s something intimate about conversation.

What if the increasing din of human conversation, and its increasing complexity, is the hope of humankind? Would it be so bad if the talking that led to the Renaissance and a band called Nirvana is all the heaven we humans shall ever know?

Let’s take one conversation as an example. Two human beings, Michael Murphy (not the pop singer) and Frederic Spiegelberg, started a conversation. They agreed that the human spiritual impulse need not necessarily follow any one religious tradition. They thought that people could be “spiritual but not religious.” That phrase is a cliche now, a whipping boy for various dogmas. But in its day the phrase was a radical new thought. Spiegelberg published a book titled The Religion of No Religion.

The two men founded an institution called the Esalen Institute. Now, whatever you may think of what the Esalen Institute became, look at how pervasive a conversation between two people back in the 1950s has become. “Spiritual but not religious” as a concept is destroying traditional religions in the United States.  And Murphy and Spiegelberg would not be upset by that. The Esalen motto is “No one captures the flag.” No religion has all the truth. And science doesn’t either.

Aren’t gratitude and grace and compassion and love and astonishment part of human nature? Part of our evolution? How could any one religion steal the flag of wonder or awe? As a matter of fact, how do any of these things have anything at all to do with religion?

Isn’t gratitude and grace and compassion and love and astonishment just as available in art, in music, in poetry? Available to each of us somewhere in the din of conversation?

Isn’t science a conversation too? A conversation that is less dependent upon cultural assumptions. A conversation in many languages.

Eagleton is correct: “The din of conversation is as much meaning as we shall ever have.” That din includes the Beatles. And Moses and Mohammed and . . . you and me.

Keep the conversation going. It’s all we have. It’s all we’ve ever had. It is enough.


Image credit: Benjamin Luig, by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on flickr, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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Rev. Dr. David Breeden is the social media manager of the UU Humanist Association, serves as Chair of the Education Committee of the American Humanist Association, and is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis. David has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also has a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School. He blogs at https://medium.com/@davidbreeden7. He tweets at @dbreeden.