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Toward Secular Formation
7 min read

Toward Secular Formation

“What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.” -Carl Jung

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In The Second Mountain, David Brooks writes that our lives and careers are oriented around climbing one of two mountains.

The first mountain represents ego and striving in the world. It involves chasing outward success and cultural acceptance. We seek money, status, and power, all toward the end of feeling more secure in our lives.

Eventually, however, we come to desire more than the first mountain can provide. Either we reach the top and it disappoints, or we encounter some hardship in our life that reminds us of the quixotic nature of endlessly fortifying the self. In the end, no amount of resources or prestige can prevent the ultimate vulnerability -- our deaths.

At this point, we become aware of a second mountain: one motivated not by security and self-aggrandizement, but rather by an altruistic commitment to others. We no longer look to fill our existential vacuum with superficial achievements, but instead seek to dedicate ourselves to something beyond our ego -- a person, an ideology, or an organization.

Both mountains are important. We must find ways to survive and thrive in this volatile world, and the first mountain helps us find our footing. While spiritual practices may be meant to “relieve us of the bondage of self,” we must first develop a healthy sense of self before we can transcend it.

Yet, if we never move beyond self-orientation, we risk becoming what Buddhism calls hungry ghosts -- creatures who are never satiated, no matter how much they eat. In the words of Franciscan monk Richard Rohr, we must move our focus from doing “repair work on our ego container” and instead find the contents that are meant to fill it.

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In generations past, religious traditions provided a framework for moving towards the second mountain -- a process known as “spiritual formation.”

Henri Nouwen, a 21st-century theologian, described this as a process of dropping from the head to the heart as a driving force in our lives. Through prayer, meditation, communal rituals, and a shared mythology of growth, people deepened in their religion and moved towards more meaningful and compassionate ways of being in the world.

In contrast, the modern, secular world has few overarching frameworks for growth. Perhaps this explains why self-help is a $10 billion industry and Americans spent $40 million on astrology apps in 2019 alone. We’re starved for something, anything, that can help us understand the world and our place in it. But instead of the Eucharist, we turn to Tim Ferriss and Tarot to fill the gap.

One reason the modern world finds classical spiritual formation inaccessible is that it usually comes wrapped up in orthodoxy -- systems of belief about the divine and our world. Growth processes are intertwined with a tradition’s myths and over-beliefs, alienating those who reject the supernatural or who do not wish to view their lives through the lens of a single tradition.

On the other hand, it is also possible to approach spiritual formation as an orthopraxy, rather than an orthodoxy -- a set of practices, rather than a set of beliefs. Many Western Buddhists, Quaker non-theists, and members of 12-step groups use this as a pathway into spirituality. They find value in the practices of a tradition even as they reject the original religious interpretation.

And yet, the above-mentioned environments are still too religious for many. Broad swaths of the secular world may never be able to look past talk of God at an AA meeting, or Pali chanting at a silent meditation retreat.

To reach the religiously unaffiliated masses and invite them into deeper meaning in their lives, we need orthopraxies of formation that are accessible to those of any faith and no faith.

How might we create these?

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In an earlier post, we discussed three core elements that make an organization “church-y,” even if it doesn’t look like a traditional religious institution: contemplation, community, and contribution.

These are also what I like to think of as the three spheres of formation, and we can use them as a framework for building orthopraxies that meet the same needs as classical spiritual formation.

Contemplation

This sphere is about deepening one’s relationship with self and cultivating an experience of awe or transcendence. It encompasses rituals that invite us to slow down, touch the present moment, and make contact with our inner experience. Traditionally, this occurred through meditation, prayer, and time spent in silence. In the modern world, this also includes things like journaling, therapy, and intentional time in nature.

Community

This sphere is about cultivating interpersonal connections and seeing the shared humanity in another. Typically, it involves being part of a regularly meeting group where we can allow ourselves to be deeply known and learn to constructively navigate conflict.

It also involves building relationships with people across lines of age, ethnicity, race, and gender. Through these relationships, we become aware of the broader human story beyond our own individual lives, and we develop a deeper sense of belonging that we carry with us as we move through the world.

Contribution

This sphere is about channeling the energy from the practices above into movement toward the second mountain. It is about making sure personal or spiritual growth isn’t just navel-gazing, but results in committed action to reduce suffering in the world.

In the words of Buckminster Fuller, it is about asking, “What is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?”

If we do not yet have an answer, this sphere is about experimentation and reflection -- exploring our vocational calling. On the other hand, if we already have some idea of an answer, this sphere is about making the daily decision to move toward the second mountain in the face of mainstream cultural influences.

Any well-rounded process of formation will include practices that encourage growth in each of these domains -- but what do they look like together in practice?

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One of the best models I’ve seen of an orthopraxy of formation is at The Church of the Saviour, a little-known church based in Washington D.C.

Between 1950 and 2000, members of their congregation launched over 40 different non-profits in the D.C. area. Although the Church split into nine independent faith communities in the early 2000s, many of these non-profits are still around today, including a residential medical facility for the homeless,  recovery housing for people with addiction, and a local hub for community activism, among many others.

How were they so effective at activating their people toward social good?

The church was built around high-commitment small groups, each with a mission to serve D.C.’s most vulnerable populations. To join a group, you had to pledge membership for an entire year and commit to a number of practices in your daily life.

These included:

  • A commitment to spend a specific amount of time in contemplative silence each day (meditation, prayer, etc).
  • A commitment to make the weekly small group a priority in your life and allow yourself to be deeply known and loved by that group.
  • A commitment to spend time with people across lines of difference, and use that time to nurture authentic relationships.
  • A commitment to give proportionally of one’s time, energy, and resources.
  • A commitment to use the inward journey to go outward, finding the place where one’s gifts and brokenness meet the world’s deep needs.

If we look at the above, we see that these commitments fall nicely into the three spheres of formation. They provide a balanced framework for how to grow as an individual, and the effect they had on members is evidenced through the community's impact on the local D.C. community.

Interestingly, while the Church of the Saviour was rooted in biblical Christianity, the commitments above are not explicitly Christian. Their orthopraxy is surprisingly secular-friendly, and can provide a foundation for individuals who are seeking the second mountain outside of traditional religious institutions.

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After reading the above, you may decide you want to experiment with some of these disciplines in your life. Perhaps you realize that you want to carve out more time for stillness, or that you want to connect your existing meditation practice to more values-based action in the world. However, living into these commitments is easier said than done.

We don’t just decide once to move towards growth and then live happily ever after; it’s a decision we must continue making over and over again. Moving toward the second mountain can often feel like swimming against the current of mainstream culture -- when everyone around you is using a yardstick marked by status and fancy cars, it can be easy to lose sight of your own measuring tape.

This is why classical spiritual formation wasn’t just a set of independent disciplines, but was a holistic experience rooted in community -- scaffolding to help keep our bearings on the path. And yet, with a growing number of Americans identifying with no religious tradition (or dabbling in practices from multiple traditions), more and more people are creating their own piecemeal formation processes with no real support system.

If we wish to help the modern world move toward a second mountain, we need secular organizations that can offer the same formation experience that religion provided to generations past. Likewise, we need leaders in the secular world to step into their quasi-pastoral roles and take on the responsibility of inviting more meaning, connection, and impact into the lives of their people.

Though this is a big ask, we need not reinvent the wheel. Religious leaders have been doing this for millennia, and have generated a large body of academic literature around their process. While it may take some work to translate these learnings into a secular context, there is no greater task in our meaning-starved modern world.

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Invitations for reflection:

  • What mountain am I currently climbing? How would I name what’s at the top?
  • In which spheres of formation am I currently moving? Where am I standing still?
  • Are there any practices I feel called toward experimenting with after reading this post?
  • Are my friends and colleagues pulling me toward the first or second mountain?
  • Where do I have support on my path? Where could I support others?

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PS -

A few friends and I started a “formation group” earlier this year -- a secular-friendly community based around the orthopraxy laid out above.

If interested in learning more, check out our full invitation and feel free to drop in one of our upcoming open gatherings.

PPS -

If you’re interested in implementing some of the ideas above in your community or organization, drop me a line. I’d love to chat.