The Crossroads of Secular and Spiritual: A Reading List

The line between faith and, well, everything else, is not as stark as I was taught. The “secular” world is not any more evil than the religious world. Sometimes, they aren’t even that different, despite what my Focus on the Family teen magazines would have me think.

I studied American literature as a freshman at my conservative Christian college. My best friend and I walked, bleary-eyed, to our 8 a.m. survey course, and made fun of the sloppily-dressed upperclassmen as a way to stay awake. We dressed up, sometimes in matching outfits, to endure a torturous semester fraught with angry Puritans. By second semester, my friend lost interest. I stuck around, and I’m glad I did.

Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…” 

The Transcendentalists—especially Ralph Waldo Emerson and the above-quoted Walt Whitman—caught me by surprise. I had not known these people created their own modern theology. Evangelical Christians sometimes deride “Cafeteria Christians”—Christians who pick and choose the parts of tradition that gel and leave the rest. Though my professor and classmates gently disagreed and discarded Transcendentalism, I read and reread our assigned readings. This was the first time I witnessed humanist tendencies colliding with traditional religion, and the result was captivating.

I’m drawn to this intersection, this give-and-take: A borrowing, or an appropriation. Eternal life/immortality, fate/(pre)destiny, passion/”calling”—these concepts are two sides of the same coin, a coin placed in the offering plate or handed to the homeless woman on the corner. The following four essays take on saints, proselytization, prayer and coincidence: abstractions that may have great impact on our everyday lives, regardless of faith tradition.

1. “My Secular Patron Saints.” (Molly Priddy, The Toast, March 2015)

When a teenage Molly Priddy left Catholicism, she curated a coterie of inspirational women to guide her. At The Toast, she describes her secular hagiography, from her favorite character in Fried Green Tomatoes to Tegan & Sara. Priddy embraces self-love, rather than guilt. She continues to add to her list throughout college and beyond, and her personal saints help her to feel less alone, celebrate her sexuality, and even get sober. As I start my new life outside of a 9-to-5 job, I look forward to creating a glossary of my own women of power, to serve as writing exercise and self-care practice.

2. “The Gospel of Intuition.” (Ryan Harper, Killing the Buddha, July 2014)

Both big-name corporations and evangelical religion have a “history of sacred and secular missionizing,” and Ryan Harper draws startling, tight parallels between the two. In this essay, intuition is manipulation, smug insurance that nonbelievers will eventually come around to the right side of history. Intuition is seen as the basest of instincts—the unconverted may know nothing but will feel if something is true, even if they don’t want to admit it. Harper challenges himself and the reader, religion and capitalism, to see “the people who reject my sacred commodities” as something other than “hopelessly parochial.”

3. “Like A Prayer.” (Heather Havrilesky, Killing the Buddha, March 2015)

“I need to honour my soul, of course. Who doesn’t? But I want to do it in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’m living in a douche commercial.” With the wit and honesty common to Ask Polly, Heather Havrilesky searches for a daily ritual to help her handle the quotidian with grace.

4. “The Meaning of Coincidence.” (Lucy McKeon, Guernica, December 2014)

My partner, good friend and I decided to break for dinner. As we saved our respective projects and removed our headphones, we discovered we were all listening to the same album at the same time. Seemed apt, as I was reading this essay about Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity while listening to the aforementioned album:

On the one hand, like a monotheistic God who acts completely independently of the human will—with the power to bless or curse you—synchronicity depends on its feeling irrational or inexplicable, depends on the feeling that it comes from without, from outside the self. Like a blessing, and truly unlike prayer, it couldn’t have happened if you tried to make it so…Perhaps these feelings of synchronicity are a contemporary, secular version of the divine.