I wrote this in answer to a friend, a relative newcomer to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, who inquired about my interest in spirituality and why I would say something like “The divine is all around us.” Why use the same words that religions use?
I just got back from a 20-minute nap in the sunshine in the grass, in the park down the street. On my way to my favorite patch of grass on the embankment, I was approached by a young black missionary named Marcelle who was carrying a bible and was eager to talk. Sweet kid, seemed lonely, and was happy to have someone to talk to, but happier when I started doing the talking.
Which reminds me of your questions about using spiritual language. I have a few thoughts.
In any spiritual or philosophical tradition, there are those who take things very literally, in a very concrete fashion. Marcelle was doing this. And there are others who are willing to look past the words, past the hardened dogma, to the truth at which it points. These people are more loyal to reality than to scripture or revealed wisdom. You can find these people in any significant spiritual tradition.
When you bring the best of these people together, you notice something interesting. You might have a Catholic, a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Baptist — but, nonetheless, they start agreeing with one another. Most of the folks they go to church with may see mostly differences among their traditions, but these guys, they see similarities: They see that the real miracle is what is around us. That the true spiritual path consists of connecting with this reality in deeper and more meaningful ways, by letting go of our resistance to the way things are. That being present with life is our best teacher. That truly connecting with others is perhaps our highest calling. That expressing ourselves through meaningful life-work, rather than just busywork, allows us to give our fullest gifts to the world.
In this way, no matter the philosophical tradition, they become students of openness, inquiry, connection, presence, and the meaning that flows from these things. I’m not the first to notice this, at all. Many who come to take spirituality seriously begin to notice these commonalities, that the different traditions seem to converge on some common wisdom about life and the spiritual path. They’re all pointing to the reality.
So, as far as why I am comfortable using spiritual words in a different way than Marcelle does… Partly it’s that I understand what he’s groping for, when he does all that talk about God and Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The word “God” does bother me a little, inside. But when I talked with him, I used that word and it settled him right down, to hear someone who understood his longings, and could inquire about his ability to find the peace he’s really longing for inside, rather than telling him he’s a freak and to go away. He seemed deep in thought, by the time I left.
Also, when I talk about the divine all around us, I feel like I’m referring to the way things really are. I certainly try to create goodness in me and the people and circumstances around me, but I also recognize that often things can be good, perfect, without any effort on my part. I’m increasingly at peace with the way I find reality, before I ever touch it. And it brings me a peace I had never felt so fully, when I was trying to make things conform to my wishes.
It isn’t something Rand was always in touch with, but there’s so much beauty in the way things are. Skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too. And often it feels to me like the more we pay attention, the more we realize that the real beauty of the skyscraper is that it tries, in its own effortful way, to conform to the same laws of reality that gave rise to that cherry blossom without an ounce of stress or strain.
Another amazing thing about the skyscraper, of course, as a cultural symbol, is that we’ve been able to improve our standard of living in so many ways, to be more productive — to have more time left over in life for meaning and connection and presence and the simple joys of life — rather than having to worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll be killed by a neighboring clan. This is nearer to Rand’s love of a skyscraper, and it resonates with me as well.