Robert Coles: The Secular Mind

(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999)

It would be interesting to ask Collegium alumni/ae for their nominations of authors who should be on a recommended reading list for the rest of us. Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Erik H. Erikson, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy might be high on the list. In more than fifty books, Robert Coles has written extensively about these authors and many others. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his work with Children of Crisis, Coles is a research psychiatrist for Harvard University Health Services and Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School and the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics.

Inspiration for the current volume came from Dorothy Day and Paul Tillich, to whom the book is dedicated. The book is a short discourse on how secular culture, science, and "secular mind" (a term used by Tillich) have come to dominate Western society. In conversation with Tillich, Coles found he distinguished between "Man the Thinking Materialist and Man the anxiously aspiring creature who bows his head and prays, and who 'looks outside himself to Another, to God,' for explanations, understanding, guidance." Dorothy Day expressed a similar thought: "Thank God for this wonderful secular life -- but thank God for giving us a mind that can turn to Him, to ask 'why' and 'wherefore' as well as spend itself to exhaustion getting things done!" In line with these, his mentors, Coles sets out to explore the two minds -- secular thinking as well as the constant moral and spiritual search for meaning. 

He concludes that there is room for both the secular and spiritual mind, but it is difficult to cross the gulf between them and embrace both. Dorothy Day noted that her Greenwich Village/Columbia University peers applauded her liberal and radical views. She was praised and encouraged to continue her work with the poor, but when she started saying and doing so in the name of God the reactions of her secular associates changed. They found the "God talk" to be interfering with her muckraking and championing of the poor. 

The first of the three parts of the book is titled "Secularism and the Biblical Tradition." Coles finds secularism has existed throughout the centuries. (The word secular refers here to any particular time.) Probably his most interesting observations concern secularism at about the turn of the last two centuries. In Part Two, "Where We Stood 1900," he reports Anna Freud's observations of the heated denunciation of both psychoanalysis and her father on the part of the clergy from their base of real power in Western Europe. The clergy condemned psychoanalysis as "godless," and Anna Freud found this stance to be threatening. Psychoanalysis was at that that time viewed as a rival to religion, but it is now viewed as part of the thinking of many religious denominations. In his last section, "Where We Are Headed," Coles wonders how religious institutions will deal with the advances now being made in chemistry and biology in explaining thinking and feeling. Will these advances of the secular mind also be seen as godless?

This short volume is a good place to begin the reading of Coles' extensive work for readers interested in the tension between secular and religious orientations. Those interested in the major contributions of Robert Coles should certainly start with the Pulitzer Prize winning Children of Crisis volumes, especially The Spiritual Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). It is likely that many readers of Collegium News advise student volunteers and interns. For them, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) is worth more than a casual glance. It provides many insights for individuals considering a year or more of volunteer service. Among contemporary authors Robert Coles should be high on the list of "must reads" for persons who share an appreciation for the Dorothy Day/Robert Coles passion for both the secular and the sacred. -- John Broderick, '99, Stonehill College