Spirituality without God

By Welch, Sharon | Tikkun, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Spirituality without God


Welch, Sharon, Tikkun


Spirituality without God

Sharon Welch is a professor of religious studies and women's studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of A Feminist Ethic of Risk and Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work.

I am a mystic, a political activist, and an atheist--an odd combination, I grant, but one that I come to naturally. I was raised in a religious tradition in which spirituality was inextricably bound with politics, in which the motive for prayer and service was not guilt or duty, but living fully, deeply, and well. For my parents and grandparents and many members of their churches, life was spirituality and spirituality was life. Service and belief in God did not require sacrifice of individual will, aspirations, or intellect--such religious practice was, rather, the chance to live out the best of one's talents in response to nature, to people, to the particular opportunities for beauty and justice in one's immediate world. Spirituality was that which brought us into full engagement with the world around us.

For my parents, this work took many forms--serving as pastors, church administrators, farmers, activists in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, members of the hospital board, leaders of programs to empower teenagers. It was always fascinating to see what new avenues for activism and service they discovered. Their work was filled with laughter, exuberance, and a delightful absence of fanaticism or self-righteousness. While their political activism and work in the church was grounded in a clear sense of the divine, they were aware that they could be wrong, that it was possible to feel led by the spirit and to misinterpret that leading. They brought two basic criteria, both collective, to their private and communal spirituality: 1) Do these spiritual practices and experiences make us more loving? Do they help us see the worth of everyone? and 2) Do these experiences change how we live?

I remember my fascination as a teenager with tales of angels. When I left for college in 1971, one of the stories being commonly told was of people picking up a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker telling them that Jesus would soon return to earth, and then the hitchhiker disappearing. I told my father about these stories, sure that he would be thrilled at the announcement of the imminent return of the messiah. His response was measured and clear. …

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