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Spiritual But Not Religious Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version 

NSP members and leaders include both religious people and atheists who are "spiritual but not religious." Here we explain why, and why the progressive world needs a spiritual political movement.

We in the NSP (Network of Spiritual Progressives) use the word "spiritual" to include all those whose deepest values lead them to challenge the ethos of selfishness and materialism that has led people into a frantic search for money and power and away from a life that places love, kindness, generosity, peace, non-violence, social justice, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, thanksgiving, humility and joy at the center of our lives.

So we include in our meaning of "spiritual" all dimensions of life that cannot fit into a scientistic or narrowly empiricist frame. We reject the notion that all that is real or all that can be known is that which can be subject to empirical justification or can be measured. On the contrary, we know that love, kindness, generosity, awe and wonder, art, ethics, and music are just some of the obvious parts of life that cannot be understood or adequately captured by scientism and which we value. We call those aspects spiritual. So it's easy to understand that someone can be spiritual and yet not be particularly interested in most existing conceptions of God or religion. Of course, there are many others, including some of the founders and leaders of the NSP (but not by any means all of them) who do find their spiritual nourishment in their relationship to God or their religious tradition, and they too are part of our community.

But there is a huge problem when social change movements stay away from anything that calls itself spiritual.

We believe that many of the secular movements that exist in the world today actually have deep spiritual underpinnings, but often they are themselves unaware of those foundations, unable or unwilling to articulate them and sometimes even holding a knee-jerk antagonism to explicit spiritual or religious language. This antagonism limits their effectiveness, though it derives from legitimate anger at the way that the language of spirituality and religion has been sometimes used to justify war, oppression, sexism, racism, homophobia, ecological indifference, or insensitivity to the suffering of the poor and the homeless of the world.

Solidarity means that we affirm our responsibility towards each other within our families, within our nation, and within our spiritual/religious community — and also beyond the narrow boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and geography.

We affirm the obligation to actively resist injustice and refuse to take part in it even when we can't prove that our resistance will produce change. In solidarity with the oppressed, we wish to see the democratization of economic and political institutions and a redistribution of wealth so that all people can share equally and sustainably in the benefits of the planet. We hope to have the courage -- in the tradition of the Jewish prophets and interpreters of Torah, in the spirit of Jesus and the early Christian communities of resistance to Rome, in the spirit of Muhammed, in the spirit of the activists of the labor & civil rights and feminist and gay rights movements -- to speak truth to power. Tikkun is a Jewish magazine, but the Tikkun Community is an interfaith organization (and welcoming to agnostics and orthodox atheists as well).

At the same time, we will challenge the lack of a spiritual dimension in the agendas of our allies in progressive social change movements. That gap has allowed the Right to present itself as the force that cares about spiritual issues. And the Left’s failure to address spirituality has led many to believe their hunger for a larger framework of meaning and purpose must be separated from their involvement with social transformation.

Social change activity gets focused on a narrow political agenda that lacks the depth that can inspire sustained commitment or nourishing involvement. Imagine an international group of people who would see themselves as allies to each other in advancing this way of thinking, people who are unashamedly utopian and willing to fight for their highest ideals, yet unashamedly humble in knowing that we don't know all that we need to know to do the healing that needs to be done.

Imagine that this group would help each other in our individual as well as group activities, affirming what is good and brainstorming with us about how to create a movement that gives equal priority to our inner lives and to social justice, that takes loving and caring as serious goals for social healing, and that rejects the utilitarian and materialistic assumptions of the contemporary world and actively fosters awe and wonder in its participants. Imagine that you could be part of creating that.

You can — by helping us create the TIKKUN Community. The TIKKUN Community starts from this fundamental recognition: the sources of external injustice, suffering, and ecological numbness are to be found not only in economic and political arrangements, but also in our alienation from one another, in our inability to experience and recognize ourselves and each other as holy, in our inability to respond to the call of the universe which bids us to deeper levels of consciousness and love, and in our inability to overcome our own egos and see ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being.

We need a spiritual consciousness along with a political consciousness if we are to heal and transform the world. Some of us in the TIKKUN Community are atheists or secularists, some of us belong to traditional religious communities, some of us are just beginning to work out our relationship to Spirit. But all of us understand that we need a movement that can address spiritual needs.

It is our contention that social change and inner change go hand in hand. We are building a movement in which we can talk about love and caring for each other -- and this is the only way we can overcome the old left/right dichotomies and dead policy debates that fill academic journals, leftie magazines, the insipid television confrontations between shouting talkiing heads, the vacuity of so many of the speeches at leftie anti-war demonstrations, and the rhetoric of elected officials. For too long these predictable slogans and divisions have paralyzed American politics and made most of us feel like withdrawing into a purely personal life. At this moment, we are particularly excited by and supportive of the upsurge of social justice activism aimed both at promoting environmental sanity and at challenging the destructive impact of globalization. But we hope to play a role in deepening those and other social change movements to integrate into their core the kind of spiritual awareness that can make it possible for them to reach a much wider audience and thus be able to actually achieve their social justice goals.

To do so we must talk at a far deeper level than merely repeating or reframing the traditional leftist demands for economic and political rights. While we support those demands and thus welcome any advances that provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, and other basic rights, we also believe that these will only be won on a global level when the social change movements are able to address the spiritual consequences of the triumph of corporate globalization: a society-wide depression and repression of what we can variously call the life-force, eros, God-energy or Spirit.

Please note that this is very different from those who talk about spiritual politics but actually mean only this: that it would be politically advantageous and opportune to take the traditional liberal agenda and dress it up with some spiritual or “values” language. So they take the existing liberal/left agenda, with its primary focus on social justice, inclusion of those who have been left out, economic redistribution, and peace — and then they find some Biblical quotes to bolster the case for the pre-existing liberal/progressive agenda. We support all that, but our movement goes much deeper. We don’t believe that the liberal agenda can be won simply by reframing it in spiritual language. For a large section of the American public, the primary source of pain in their lives is not about economic deprivation or non-inclusion, but about the way that the ethos of selfishness and materialism plays out in their personal lives and in the lives of people around them in ways that are destructive and feel terrible. They can’t stand being part of the manipulative, narrowly utilitarian way people treat each other, themselves, and the earth. They want a framework of meaning to their lives and to the lives of those around them that speaks of higher meaning to life, shows a path to a life that is not only about maximizing money but about maximizing a meaningful life — in short, they want and need a politics of meaning, and need a meaning-oriented movement that can counter the spiritual depression that surrounds them. Don’t confuse this with those who simply are trying to put some Biblical quotes in front of the same old Democratic Party or liberal agenda — we are seeking a much deeper change. Our challenge is not only to the Right — but also to the liberals and progressives, to the Greens and the Democrats, who have not allowed themselves to get beyond their knee-jerk antagonism to religion and spirituality, and whose openness to religious or spiritual people is only utilitarian and does not include a willingness to learn about the actual dimensions of the spiritual deprivation which is endemic to the way global capitalism functions today, and the ways that it generates a global emotional depression.

CoverThis spiritual depression and emotional repression that suffuse contemporary life are the near-universal responses to the globalization of a self-congratulatory individualism, obsessive materialism, and consumption — all provided as compensation for the meaninglessness of our present-day culture. The one-dimensional technocratic consciousness, speed-up of work, perception that we have "no time" to do what we really believe in, and our inability to recognize others in terms that go beyond what they can do for us to advance our own agendas as rational maximizers of self-interest — all these combine to create human beings who, if they don’t explode in violence or self-destructive alcohol and drug abuse, find themselves in varying degrees of disconnection to their inner selves, their feelings, and their capacities to be loving towards others and responding to the universe with joy.

In contrast to this, we encourage an engagement with the Sacred, an Emancipatory Spirituality which affirms pleasure and joy and the recognition that "there is enough," a replacement of postmodernist self-alienation with a renewal of Being based on awe, wonder and radical amazement at the mystery of the universe and the mystery of every human being on the planet as a manifestation of the sacred. Our economic, social and political institutions need to be replaced and rethought not only because they are unjust, but because they foster a consciousness that keeps us from connecting to the deepest truths of the universe and make it harder for us to recognize each other as fully free, fully conscious, self-creating, loving beings. In this sense, the globalization of Spirit is the antidote to the globalization of Capital. We reach out for a spiritual dimension not as a replacement for, but as a deepening of, our understanding of social action, and not as a replacement for but a deepening of our understanding of informed science. Our spirituality does not reject the value of rational thought nor does it suspend scientific enquiry.

Why is it that people who live in the advanced industrial societies of North America, Europe and Japan, the richest societies that history has ever known, believe we "can’t afford" to share what we have with the rest of the world so as to eliminate poverty, hunger and homelessness? It is partly because of our collective paranoia that no one will be there for us if we should ever really need their help that leads us to think our only security lies in endless accumulation, to protect our isolated self-interest in face of a deep inner certainty that others can’t be counted on. And partly because we have a deep emptiness inside and we have come to believe that only material goods can fill it. We buy things to buy happiness, to compensate ourselves for the alienated work, the disconnection from each other, and the estrangement from our own inner selves that constitute the texture of our daily lives.

In our spiritually impoverished world, acquiring ever more things provides an illusion of fulfillment — and a replacement for the deep connection with each other and to the spiritual realities of the universe for which we both hunger and simultaneously deny to ourselves (lest we re-experience the pain and disappointment we had at earlier points in our lives when we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and then failed to receive the loving and recognition we needed but didn’t fully get).

In addition, almost every child in our culture gets strong messages to focus attention on that which can be useful, and away from the spiritual dimension which has no "practical application." Indeed, this message has been so deeply ingrained in many of us that we instinctively shy away from the spiritual realm as though it were as dirty as not being toilet trained. We fear that were we to acknowledge to ourselves or others that we actually wish for connection with that which cannot be used or made practical, cannot be subject to empirical observation or turned into a commodity or something that will make us more attractive or salable on the job or relationship marketplace, we would subject us to ridicule and humiliation.

Fearful that we will experience that pain once again, we often build strong external walls to keep us out of touch with this deep yearning for connection to each other and to the universe. Instead of drawing on our own inner resources, we too often find ourselves looking to the media-dominated mass culture for fulfillment and reassurance that our scaled-down sense of possibility is "what everybody else is doing" and hence "the only possible path for us too." The media is one of the many institutions that speeds up time — protecting us from the quiet moments in which we might doubt the whole way our lives our being lived.

Instead of finding our own pace, we find ourselves rushing about, seeking machines and gadgets that make things go faster, becoming accustomed to media and technology which speed the pace while “shallow-ing” the intellectual and emotional level of our daily consciousness. We learn to forget the past and focus only on the new while devaluing the old, which leads to decreasing literacy and an increasing difficulty in following a complex discussion, sustaining a long-term relationship, or committing to social goals that can't be accomplished immediately.

Sadly, our social institutions only reinforce this materialist view. Our institutions provide us with the illusion of permanency (pretending we won’t die) and the illusion that the "real world" is the world of power and wealth. Compound this with the patriarchal assumption that we should be tough and ignore our feelings, and we are left with a "common sense" that dismisses the relevance of our inner lives. We are told that spirituality should be left in the home, relegated to the weekend, kept separate from the pragmatic decisions that should shape politics and the business world.

In the TIKKUN Community, we refuse this kind of "realism." We will unashamedly use and learn from the language and practices of spiritual communities. The spiritual life can give us a level of mindfulness, focus, and calm so that we can re-center ourselves and discover what we truly value.

One reason we are proud to have the TIKKUN Community draw upon the spiritual wisdom of Judaism is because we think that the spiritual practice of Shabbat, a twenty-five hour meditation focused on turning our energies from "getting things done" to a "celebration of all that is," can empower us in the struggle to heal our planet. This is one example of the kinds of spiritual practices that we encourage among our members and for the larger world—even as we say this in a non-coercive way without implication that you must be doing a particular spiritual practice to be part of our community.

So too the Biblical idea of a Sabbatical Year for all and the Biblical idea of Jubilee with its call for a redistribution of land and wealth back to a basic equality once every fifty years provide us with inspiration for how to learn from the wisdom of sacred texts.

Although our organization will speak at times in the name of the best in the Jewish tradition, we will also honor all major spiritual traditions represented in our membership. We are a multi-etnic, multi-religious, multi-spiritual community--and we believe that there are many paths to spiritual truth, and we want to honor all of those which are open to an Emancipatory Spirituality as presented in TIKKUN. So we draw upon the richness of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, spiritual truths from indigenous peoples and from the often ignored spiritual wisdom of women.

We do not believe that every particularistic tradition must be totally left behind in some new globalized spiritual mush. While we support the attempts within existing religious and spiritual traditions to renew their foundations, we do not seek a spiritual melting pot but a world in which plurality and difference can be respected, even as we affirm the Unity of All Being, the interconnectedness of all with all.

At the same time, we will challenge reactionary spirituality that privileges one group above all others while demeaning those who are not part of the group. We will challenge forms of spirituality which seek to impose racist, sexist, or homophobic values. And we will challenge forms of spirituality which lead people into quietism or a de facto accommodation to a world of oppression. In this and other respects we want to be clear that we do not embrace a vapid "tolerance" which refuses to make moral distinctions or a deconstructionist logic which sees all forms of discourse as little more than strategies for some group or other to gain power over others. We are not tolerant of religious reactionaries who manipulate the language of God in the service of an oppressive status quo or to restore patriarchy and authoritarian forms of government.

Our goal is to build a community of people who share a common intellectual/spiritual perspective—an intellectual/spiritual cadre of activist social healers--even as they retain their own particular religious and spiritual practices. We will work together to bring a progressive spiritual politics into the various arenas in which we work. For example, we will bring our perspective into existing social change movements in the hopes of strengthening them and making them more successful. Our task is to support each other as we bring ideas into the public sphere that are often dismissed as "too idealistic" or "too spiritual"—and to help each other sustain a commitment to a transformative agenda against all the pressures to be "more realistic" and settle for much less than we actually believe in.

In this work, we see ourselves as fundamentally connected to the thinking being done in TIKKUN magazine. We connect with all who hope for a real TIKKUN (the Hebrew word for healing, repair and transformation).

The TIKKUN Community will not be a traditional organization—certainly not an organization that would compete with or take resources away from other social action groups.

We are trying to create something which doesn't have an exact analogue in contemporary life. The truth of the matter is, many of us are wary of any organization—they remain human institutions, susceptible to the ever-present reality of human frailty. The capacity to under-whelm, frustrate, disappoint, and madden is common to all human organizations, whether spiritual or secular, whether on the left or the right or in the middle.

Particularly when people start hoping for a loving reality, we often get so scared—because we have been so deeply shaped by the pathogenic belief that we don't really deserve to be loved—that we try to prove to ourselves that a better world isn't really possible. That’s when we find people in our organizations hurting each other in the name of love, being brutal and lacking compassion, creating endless fights over theoretical differences, or clinging to ego at the cost of finding real solidarity with others. We will do what we can to provide a supportive context, but we will also not hesitate to ask people to leave our organization who would prefer to fight with each other than to lovingly support each other. Creating an international community of people who start with agreement on the points in this document can generate generous amounts of comradely love and solidarity.

In the Network of Spiritual Progressives, we find ourselves learning from our dialogue with each other, having intense conversations, listening to each other's formal presentations but also, and equally importantly, each other's life experiences and current struggles. Our community will only be sustainable if it provides many opportunities to laugh with each other, to meditate or pray together, to sing and dance together, and to experience each other as sources of surprise, joy and transcendence. So, our expectation is that this commitment will be fun and joyous.

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