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by DT Strain.
Spiritual Naturalists choose to use many phrases and terms that may sound poetic to some. Others may mistakenly think we refer to supernatural concepts with some phrases. Yet, our aim is to reunite the sacred with the natural in our culture and in our own lives, after a schism between the two which took place centuries ago. Much of the language we use hearkens back to an ancient time in which spiritual movements were founded on a universe that was seen as one natural integrated whole, such as early philosophic Buddhism, some forms of Taoism, ancient Stoicism, and so on. In these times, understandings of the universe were not as precise as we have come to understand today, but many understandings were correct in their substance or underlying general essence. In these cases, we often choose to use their terminology in reference to phenomena which are even better understood by science today, rather than technical terminology.
It is significant that we do not view this manner of talking about Nature as merely poetic or as ‘less accurate’. Rather, it is important to note that language is a tool used to communicate. As such, its design is up to us and may vary depending on the task to be accomplished – or, the nature of the thing to be communicated. For example, it may be important to use technical scientific terminology when speaking about astronomy for purposes of research or about forces for purposes of engineering. These terms have a certain precision or ‘resolution’ to them which is appropriate to the task at hand. But not every case in which we speak of phenomena in the natural world requires such a resolution, and in fact overly technical language can do us a disservice if the purpose of our communication is not technical.
Happiness, our aim, is a subjective by nature, and approaching the sacred involves the subjective experience as well. That experience is facilitated with language and descriptions that carry with them cultural connotations that spark a host of tangent ideas, emotions, and feelings in our minds. In this kind of communication, we are attempting to communicate the richness of a full sensory experience which inspires, connects, and opens our perspectives. Here we are dealing with other aspects of how the human mind functions in order to induce a sense of awe, appreciation, perspective, wonder, and a touch of those experiences which defy capture by mere language. Here, imprecision is specifically required in language so as to interface with the creative and intuitive parts of our minds.
Further, while certain traits of Nature are important for scientific understanding, a different and particular set of aspects of the natural universe will be important for human beings making spiritual progress. This difference in prioritization, and the crafting of helpful perspectives on those aspects, is another reason why a different kind of lexicon is needed for spiritual naturalists.
But the important point is this: the use of language in this capacity is not seen as some psychological gimmick. This is what I call sacred tongue. It is my assertion that using sacred tongue is no less correct than using precise modern technical language to describe the natural universe. Both ways of talking about phenomena are equally legitimate, equally valid, equally correct, and equally true. Each is a language designed to communicate different kinds of concepts about our world for different purposes. This is not unlike the role of myth as identified by Joseph Campbell. As he noted, a literal, historic, or scientific interpretation of myth becomes ridiculous, as this is not its function. Campbell said in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums…” The use of sacred tongue is one part of an effort to reverse that process and establish a language that fosters feelings helpful in connecting a naturalistic worldview with the wisdom found throughout our history in a deep and meaningful way.
This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’. Even in sacred tongue it is possible to tell untruths. It is still essential that our subjects refer to real phenomena we have rational cause to believe are true, and that we say true things about their effects or relationships to other phenomena and ourselves. If I point to the creative nature of self organizing complex systems and call that the Divine Fire, because the Stoics used the term to refer to the creative function in nature, that can be legitimate. But if one says that the Divine Fire gave them the power to fly and magically heal the sick, then such a person has a lot of explaining and demonstrating to do, under controlled conditions.
Different religious and spiritual naturalists have various labels for this kind of language. Christian naturalist Michael Dowd, for example, refers to it as ‘Night Language’ (see his article on this). Michael’s lexicon includes the use of the word ‘God’ to mean ultimate reality. Spiritual Naturalists will differ on whether they use the term God (I do not) and many other terms, which is to be expected given our rich and diverse backgrounds. But we all tend to make use of more intuitive forms of communicating about Nature in the proper context – without shame or fear of being labeled something we are not. This is simply one of the challenges of forging a new paradigm as we move forward.