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Religious, political, spiritual—something in common after all?

By Roger S. Gottlieb


Many people think it’s a great idea: we can have all the benefits of religion…without religion. We’ll call it “spirituality” and in choosing it we will have unlimited freedom to adopt this or that ritual, these or those beliefs, to meditate or pray or do yoga, to admire (equally) inspiring Hindu gurus, breathtakingly calm Buddhist meditation teachers, selfless priests who work against gang violence, wise old rabbis, and Native American shamans—not to mention figures who belong to no faith whatsoever. We’ll get the calm of one tradition, the reverence of another and the benefits of just those prayers, yoga poses, and meditations that feel comfortable.

As spiritual seekers we ask: What feels good to me? We do not ask: What is true? Who is right? To whom or what do I owe obedience?

Ironically, this outlook has aroused critics on both the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ From traditional religion, the idea that individuals could or should choose the truth for themselves is a direct violation of orthodoxy’s claim to possess the inside story on the universe’s ultimate reality.  Spirituality’s orientation to (in Robert Wuthnow’s telling phrase) seek rather than dwell seems to signal a frivolous, arrogant, pretentious attitude. “Who are you to decide?” religious orthodoxy asks angrily. “It is God and scripture that are the authorities, not your individual, weak, and often sinful self.”

From the political left “spirituality” appears to be a glossy, earth-toned, natural fiber, self-interested consumerism with a New Age music soundtrack. Where is concern with other people’s calm or contentment? Where is awareness of the social structures which allow the spiritual seeker to choose among teachers and practices while a billion people go to bed hungry every night, victims of imperialist or jihadist wars abound, and industrial civilization eliminates a species every ten minutes?

As is almost always the case in highly charged cultural conflicts, both sets of critics have a point, but these criticisms are also far from being the whole story. Let us—to vastly oversimplify a form of life that has been around for at least 2000 years and arisen in every human culture—think of spirituality as the attempt to live by the virtues of awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love. This attempt is motivated by the belief that only these virtues can bring real, lasting, happiness. And that without these virtues personal conduct and society as a whole are doomed to frustration, greed, and injustice.

The first thing to notice is that the standard social ego, tied to desire, self-concern, fear and arrogance, will perceive spiritual virtues through its own distorted lenses. It will seek personal contentment while avoiding the hard work of overcoming old habits; think meditative calm can be achieved without examining the attachments which provoke a restless mind; be inspired by nature but not question its own environmental behavior. It is here that the charge—from both left and right—of self-oriented superficiality rings true. It is also the case that such spirituality always proves to be self-defeating.  The contentment spirituality offers is not that of the standard ego, but of a self dramatically remade by commitment to practice spiritual virtues.

Pavilion of Harmony, Chinese University of Hong Kong

But the inability to take one’s stated goals seriously is widely shared among the human race, as easily found among traditional religious believers and committed social justice workers as within the ranks of spiritual types. How many Christians truly seek to follow Jesus’s teaching about wealth (shun it), retribution (“turn the other cheek”), or religious pride (definitely not for the Christian)? How many social critics pursue their political goals with close-mindedness, arrogance, or careerism?

Conversely, it is not hard to find an essentially spiritual orientation within the ranks of both revered religious figures and important social activists.

Along with its complicated doctrine of mental and emotional analysis, Mahayana Buddhism teaches the insignificance of doctrine itself. Only detachment and compassion matter, and all theology (in a Zen Buddhist image) is like a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon (true Enlightenment) itself. Thomas à Kempis, among the most revered of Catholic saints, emphasized a kind of spiritual solidarity: not judgment of others, but a fellowship constituted by shared weakness and need of support. Sufi poets identified with Islam, but also proclaimed their love of spiritual seekers of whatever creed or constancy: “Whoever you may be, come, “ said Rumi, “Even though you may be an unbeliever, a pagan, or fire-worshippers, come, our brotherhood is not one of despair, Even though you may have broken Your vows of repentance a hundred times, come.”

For these and countless other traditional religious voices–who may not have dominated tradition but can easily be found within it–the point of religious life was never verbal acceptance of a particular claim about God, scrupulous performance of ritual, or spending a lot of time judging other people. It was always the manifestation of—surprise—spiritual virtues. To love your neighbor (Christianity); to develop a compassion that makes no distinction between one’s own happiness or suffering and that of others (Buddhism); to be, as Kierkegaard put it, so consumed with living your own life of faith that you don’t have time left over to worry about other people’s failings.

If modern spirituality is particularly detached from conventional creeds, particularly willing to utilize a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional (e.g. psychotherapy, physically oriented hatha yoga) resources, it is nevertheless faces the same struggles as serious people of any denomination. It will always be extremely difficult to discipline the mind, renounce addictive pleasures, care for strangers, accept disappointment, and be grateful when times are rough.  Whether we are motivated to do so because God commands us to, or because we just think it is the only way to a really good life, living this way will never come easy. And therefore the struggle to do so is something that “spiritual but not religious” types and the most orthodox of the faithful have in common.

On the political front it seems clear to me that progressive political movements have often foundered on a lack of spiritual virtue. Violence towards the enemy, advancing one’s own group at the expense of others, seeking personal power and even wealth within “the movement,” and a blindness to one’s own oppressive habits can found in the history of communism and socialism, liberalism and feminism, struggles for the rights of marginalized groups, environmental sanity, and national liberation.

Gandhi, 1929. By Vyankappa Kaushik (1890–1988), Counsic Brothers (gandhiserve.org (PEMG1929505003)). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That is why spiritually-oriented political leaders stand out as beacons of sanity and models of the best of what social justice movements can offer. Gandhi and King faced entrenched power and violent suppression. They responded with teachings of peace, humility, and unrelenting activism. Far from perfect as either individuals or political leaders, they nevertheless avoided many common pitfalls precisely because they focused on spiritual virtues of compassion and self-awareness as much as on the critically important goals of social change. Comparable virtues can be found in Burma’s democracy movement leader Ang San Suu Kyi, and in lesser well-known but highly valuable groups like Mennonite peacemakers and interfaith environmental groups.

Does this all mean that there are no differences among the readers of Yoga Journal and the Catholic World? Between Move On.org and your local yoga teacher? Not at all. It means, rather, that despite very considerable differences there may be some very important things in common. If compassion for others and willingness to ask oneself hard questions are part of what you are about, then spirituality  is something you can  respect, for it is part of your life already. And if as a spiritual person you care about the fate of humans and the earth, political activism beckons as a vital spiritual practice.

Professor of Philosophy (WPI) Roger S. Gottlieb’s most recent book is the Nautilus Book Award winning Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. You can read the Introduction here.

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Image credits: first image: Pavillion of Harmony by Nghoyin (Own work). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Second image: Gandhi, 1929 by by Vyankappa Kaushik (1890–1988), Counsic Brothers (gandhiserve.org (PEMG1929505003)). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to “Religious, political, spiritual—something in common after all?”
  1. robert landbeck says:

    What ever common threads may exist among religious traditions both theistic and no, not one can demonstrate a universal model of human conduct that is capable of leading our species off the slippery slope of it’s own self made hell. Whether that hell is defined as war and conflict, environmental disaster or social injustice to name but a few. Without the means to realize the very ends they share, they are no more than exploiting the hopes and aspirations of billions to sustain traditions well past their sell bay dates.

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