Some Thoughts for “Secular Humanist” and “Spiritual” Friends — In Honor of Karl Jaspers


This posting came to me out of the blue, though I have previously written about problems I have with “humanist” and “spiritual” distancing from religious faith. It may be of interest to the academically inclined, but may help others who hear much these days about folks who are “spiritual but not religious” and others called “secular humanists.”

What follows are notes from the German “existentialist” philosopher Karl Jaspers. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about him and, while I ended disagreeing, I learned much in the process. I still find him a very important 20th Century philosopher and humanist, even though he has been eclipsed in current US academic philosophy.

1. It will seem pretty clear to most that we are living through an era of religious disruption and crisis. The foundations of the great religious traditions have been shaken. Those Muslims and Christians and Jews, as well as Hindus and Buddhists and Confucians, who remain faithful and practicing in their religion are increasingly also modern people who simultaneously believe and doubt – who at very least are no longer so deeply rooted in their religious tradition as were their ancestors.

Of course, some traditional believers have moved in the opposite direction, reacting to modern challenges by emphasizing the absolute truth and stability of their religion. We typically hear such folks called (in praise or blame) “fundamentalists” or “strictly orthodox.” Others, of course, are the already noted “spirituals” who have moved from traditional faith to some broader (and for me vaguer) sense of spirit and faith. And then there are the “secular humanists” (agnostic or atheist) who clearly reject or claim unknowability about religious faith. Their spirituality is grounded in belief and hope in human goodness.

2. Karl Jaspers wrote extensively about this contemporary and increasingly global “crisis of faith.” Raised a fairly secular German Lutheran, but married to a Jew with whom he jointly survived the Nazis, he did not consider himself a Christian, but saw that the future of our humanity depended on the restoration and nurturing of faith among both the elites and the ordinary folk. Without a deep faith pervading both personal and public life, he was convinced (as are many) that our present crisis would lead inevitably to the continuing decline of human society into a “worldwide factory” of production and consumption, with days of labor and nights of superficial entertainment. What some call the nihilism that results from “the death of god,” and others describe simply as the rise of masses of people who may seem satisfied but often live (perhaps unknowingly) “lives of quiet desperation.”

3. There are, of course, many further ways to describes this contemporary religious crisis and to analyze its causes. Yet, to keep this brief, I will stop with the preceding paragraphs and simply suggest that most other discussions overlap and expand on such ideas.

4. Jaspers himself hoped to develop the idea of “existential” or “philosophical” faith as an alternative to traditional religious faith. Yet his thought about faith was not simple. The two dominant forms of faith in human experience are religious faith and philosophical (or humanist) faith. And they are mutually interdependent. He argued that without human faith in some kind of ultimate good, some “transcendent” reality or (to change the metaphor) some foundational ground of being, we are simply doomed or fated to sophisticated forms of barbarism (though most actual barbarians were people of faith).

Jaspers used many different terms to describe the object of faith or the ultimate in which faith is grounded. I especially like his use of the German word Ursprung (“original source”), perhaps simply because of its sound, but also because I too have difficulty with “big guy in the sky” ideas about faith and (can I now use the word?) God or gods.

5. So here are Jaspers challenges to my humanist and spiritual friends, challenges I share:

a. He first says that your positions are logically unsustainable and thus will not contribute to the long-term restoration of our humanity. Though they clearly and happily may continue to serve the good of your humanity. Without, in other words, an at least implicit affirmation of faith (whether philosophical/humanist or religious) – an affirmation of a “transcendence” or “ground of being” or “ultimate good” or “Ursprung” – neither secular humanism nor the new spiritualism can be sustained.

b. He goes further. He makes the historical and sociological claim that even his own philosophical faith in transcendence cannot be sustained without the restoration of religious faith on a major scale. For in human history and culture, among most humans, it has been the great religious traditions which have been bearers and sustainers of human faith. If they do not manage to survive and revive, then even more philosophical and humanist forms of faith cannot persist. (How that revival may happen is where Jaspers and I disagree.)

So there ‘tis. Watcha think?

With apologies for all the jargon and abstraction, and the length.

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts for “Secular Humanist” and “Spiritual” Friends — In Honor of Karl Jaspers

  1. Jaspers’ analysis of the shallowness of secular humanism rings true. I appreciate your drawing attention to him, John. The flourishing offered by enclosed humanism is “thin” (Charles Taylor) and constantly recalls Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” What is needed is “integral humanism”. (Maritain, of course)

    I wonder if Jaspers recognizes the importance of grace/revelation as a sine qua non for human happiness. After all, religion as a response to the transcendent is ambiguous. It is all nihilistic if there isn’t something that activates that human searching. What stands out for me here is Pasternak’s remark that without Christ we die like a dog in the gutter, and of course, Paul’s principle that if Christ be not raisen then we are foolish people indeed.


  2. Thanks. Jaspers does not recognize grace/revelation. I find Pasternak’s remark too much, unless he means that the reality of Christ is the basis of all salvation though not recognized by many (non-Christian) of the saved..


    1. It comes from “Dr. Zhivago” in the context of the Bolshevik revolution. It’s point was that the inalienable dignity of the person is rooted in God’s love for us in Christ. Being a poet I’m confident he’s open to Transcendent beauty in all its manifestation.

      Liked by 1 person

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