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Can We Keep the Faith Without a Religion?

Bestselling author Roger Housden talks about the path of wonder.

Roger Housden is a bestselling author, teacher, and lifelong “student of the beauty of the word.” A native of Bath, England, he immigrated to the United States in 1998 and is the author of twenty books, including three travel books, a novella, Chasing Love and Revelation, and the best-selling Ten Poems series (which began in 2001 with Ten Poems to Change Your Life and ended with the publication in 2012 of Ten Poems to Say Goodbye) and, most recently, Keeping the Faith Without a Religion. Housden has led contemplative journeys in the Sahara Desert, India, and the United States, and gives public recitals of ecstatic poetry from the world’s great literary and spiritual traditions. While living in England, he founded the Open Gate, a holistic workshop and conference program. He now makes his home in the Bay Area of California.

Mark Matousek: How did you come to write this wonderful book?

Roger Housden: Well, my very first book was called Fire in the Heart: Everyday Life as Spiritual Practice. That was published in 1990 so this is a theme I’ve been wrestling with for most of my life. I simply cannot call myself a Buddhist or a Christian or anything else for that matter. Still, this fire in me, this spiritual hunger, needs a place to express itself. This new book is about how to find that place. At 69 years old, I am still asking myself, Where am I? What do I stand by? What really matters to me?

MM: You write about “secular spirituality” in the book. What do you mean?

RH: Secular spirituality is founded on faith as distinct to belief. By faith, I don’t mean something that’s irrational, but rather it is non-rational. Faith in what? Faith in life. Faith in the moment as it is presenting itself to me. Faith that there’s an inscrutable (or unsayable) intelligence that is present at every moment. The non-rational faith I’m speaking of is an intuition of that intelligence whereas belief is more a mental concept. One of the origins of the world belief comes from the Latin opinare. Belief is more connected to opinion. Faith is like a fragrance, if you like, of the heart’s knowing. There’s an intuition of the transcendent that is not confined to a church or a mosque or a synagogue. It’s secular in the sense that it can be part of our everyday ordinary existence if we are open to it.

MM: You make the point that science can’t tell us who we are. We need to look to spirituality for a sense of what you call the person as opposed to the personality?

RH: Yes. The latest bandwagon that people are jumping on is neuroscience. It’s hard to find a book at the moment that doesn’t in some way bow to neuroscience as evidence of some point it is trying to prove. In spite of how incredibly valuable all this research is, it cannot tell us everything. Although we can track the passage of a thought through the brain, we still don’t know what a thought is, much less what the thinker is, if there is one.

MM: And yet neuroscience does provide a ‘bridge to mystery’ for many atheists and agnostics, in my experience.

RH: That’s true. Science has replaced religion as a source of wonder for many today.

MM: In one of the most beautiful parts of the book, you write about longing. Can you talk about the relationship between longing and secular spirituality?

RH: Love and the longing for love are like the tides of the sea that wash in and out of us. That is an innate, fundamental movement in any human being, a movement between the feeling of belonging and the feeling of absence which gives rise to longing. That longing is a bridge between two worlds, the seen and the unseen. Why are the love poems of Rumi so universally recognized? I think it’s because they point to his love for his teacher, Shams, but at the same time toward something that Shams represents to him. His poems bring together the personal and the transcendent.

MM: You quote Parker Palmer in the book. “Everyone has a life that is different from the ‘I’ of daily consciousness. A life that is trying to live through the ‘I’ who is its vessel.” Can you say something about that secret life?

RH: Yes. Those words remind me of a poem by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez. “I am not I,” he writes. “I am this one, standing beside me whom I do not see.” I’m aware of this “I” that is Roger with his story, going about his day, thinking he knows what he’s doing. And of this other “I” that is there when I fall out of that story into what I call presence. Aliveness, in which there seems to be no center. This is where language fails. There’s no longer a self but there’s an awakeness, a spaciousness, that is not limited to this center, this “I” known as Roger. People down through millennia have spoken about the same thing, which is why it seems to me something intrinsic to who we are as human beings. We are always standing on the edge of two worlds. Part animal and part angel, as Christians or Muslims would call it.

MM: You say that in the book that perplexity keeps awareness on its toes. Can you elaborate?

RH: It’s a great phrase and it’s not mine. Let me give a little bow here to Stephen Batchelor who is a writer in the world of Buddhism. Perplexity keeps awareness on its toes. This goes back to the difference between knowledge and knowing. When we know something, when we have all the information required, there’s a kind of solidity that can set in, making it difficult for us to entertain other perspectives. Awareness is dulled a little, something subtly closes down in us. But when, along with all the information that we need, we still have a window open to what lies beyond what we know, open to doubt and wonder and further possibility, an aliveness comes that isn’t there if that window does not remain open. That’s how perplexity keeps awareness on its toes.

MM: And this is directly tied to having a spiritual life without religion?

RH: Absolutely. Just try it.