For most of us, the days of growing up within a fixed religious tradition is long past. Seeking a lifeline to what really matters, many are either bewildered by the array of spiritual choices, or dulled by the materialism of Western culture. In his latest book, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, former monk and bestselling author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore explores this modern-day dilemma. Drawing from the well of his own inner sources, he offers a new vision of how seekers can fashion their own connection to the sacred out of the materials of ancient faiths and everyday life. This is the first in a three-part interview.
Pythia: I was intrigued by the influence of Thoreau and Emerson on your own spiritual thinking. The notion that we each have the freedom to fashion our own spiritual path is so fundamentally American: what you’re doing seems a natural outgrowth of that.
Thomas Moore: Over the years I’ve studied Thoreau, Emerson, and Emily Dickinson for what they can teach us. Dickinson’s way of dressing and staying at home, for example, was a kind of religious decision that reflected her own spiritual way. In her letters and her poetry, she talks about nature, not just in general, but of her garden and the geography of the hills around her. That was her world, and that’s where she found divinity. Thoreau says the same thing essentially. He recommends that we be in touch with our local nature, not nature in general.
So my book represents an extension of that nineteenth century American spirituality focused around the Transcendentalists. I believe their work is just now beginning to come to its promise and fruition.
Pythia: Can you say more about how the work of the American Transcendentalists is coming to fruition now?
Thomas Moore: Emerson practiced as a minister at a church in Boston, but left after some arguments around the role of communion in the services. He began traveling and giving talks in lecture halls, addressing the problems with institutional religion.
But when Emerson left the ministry he didn’t abandon religion altogether—he just made his own religion. Through his lectures and writing he created his own way, drawing on sources such as the Neoplatonists going back to ancient Greece, Eastern teachings from India, and Sufi writings from poets like Hafiz, then putting all those together.
Emerson’s story is very similar to where people are today, and who say that the rituals they’ve been doing feel empty. Or they don’t want people telling them how to live or what to believe. Especially with the development of science and technology, many people simply feel that the old way of doing religion just isn’t viable anymore—and so they start doing what Emerson did.
Pythia: What do science and technology have to do with the development of personal spirituality? Does it lead us closer or take us away from a deeper connection to life?
Thomas Moore: On the positive side, developments in technology and communications have raised the level of a certain kind of education, learning and sophistication. People have more of an appreciation for other spiritual traditions than before because so much information is available, and they simply know more. Communication is international, and people naturally bump into others with different belief systems.
On the negative side, because technology and especially neuroscience tries to explain everything through scientific methods, the insights of great teachers in the past, such as Freud, or theologians or philosophers, have come to be viewed as unreliable. In addition, people don’t get much in the realm of deep, authentic spirituality from the Internet; it’s considered laughable that people would take up an in-depth study of philosophy and theology. People who’ve lost their trust in formal religious organizations don’t know what to do—and so they go looking for spiritual leaders who aren’t in churches or synagogues that they can follow, or be followed by.
Pythia: Are you saying that following a spiritual leader isn’t a good thing in terms of developing one’s own personal spirituality?
Thomas Moore: There are many good spiritual leaders both within and outside religious organizations. I meet many men and women who are ministers, rabbis and imams who are highly educated and skilled. Some leaders have done a lifetime of study in Buddhism and have much to teach. But these are the exceptions. Many who present themselves as leaders appear to me to have little background. I hear them saying the same old simple things: Be in the now. Be in the light. Love everyone. These are good things, but people need more substance.
I believe we need a new and different relationship with the traditions, which do have solid ideas and highly developed approaches. It comes down to the individual person demanding the best leadership and seeking out trustworthy teachers: not to go it alone completely, but to take responsibility to find the best resources and to go into them in depth.
Pythia: A prominent theme in your book is the link between the spiritual and the secular. You describe the “numbing secularism” in our culture, but then you also talk about a secular religion. Can you say more about the intersection between these two areas?
Thomas Moore: Most of us are surrounded by a culture that is largely devoted to the secular life, and that doesn’t adopt spiritual values. Our political system talks about God, but all that talk about God doesn’t translate into cooperation, community, and actually helping people out—so it’s not real. I call that secularism, and I believe it’s inimical to religion in any real sense. Instead of a real vision, it’s an ideology that prevents us from living deeply enough. In fact one reason religion has become so shallow and we’ve developed such problems with it is because it’s become separate from the secular world.
So in this book I wanted to counter that secularism by re-connecting these two things. It’s a religious attitude and activity that is adapted to our times, and isn’t to be found only in churches or spiritual institutions. It starts with an individual, and comes out of their sincere search for understanding and a set of values.
Pythia: Can you give me an example of how and where the sacred and the secular connect in everyday life?
Thomas Moore: Thoreau said that, for him, to get up early in the morning and take a bath was sacramental. In the same way any of us could take a very simple activity, like going to the river and just sitting by it for a while, as a form of meditation. When an activity is done thoughtfully, intentionally and regularly, it becomes a spiritual practice. And it’s completely secular, it doesn’t need any religious overtones, in the sense of how we usually think of religion. We don’t need to use any special language, or have a priest or a rabbi there. No one has to tell us what to do and when to do it; we can make our own rituals within our own everyday setting. So that makes the secular and the sacred much closer to each other. I think that’s a better form of religion.
Pythia: In a way what you’re describing is a religion with no name.
Thomas Moore: Yes, exactly.
In Part Two, Moore discusses more specifically how we can draw on the tenets of religious traditions in shaping our own personal spirituality.