The Common Good
November-December 2000

Emancipatory Spirituality

by Duane Shank | November-December 2000

Weaving social engagement and spiritual practice.

One of the most interesting discussions during this fall's presidential campaign has been the controversy over faith and politics, fueled by Sen. Joe Lieberman's frequent invocation of his religious beliefs. It is a continuing contradiction of contemporary society that while 95 percent of the public believe in God, 65 percent are currently members of a church or synagogue, and nearly half attend weekly services, our culture is aggressively secular. The dominant belief is that spirituality should be purely personal and have no role in public life.

Rabbi Michael Lerner believes that this culture has led to a denial and repression of our spiritual needs, but correctly argues that more and more people are beginning to take those needs seriously. His fundamental premise is that "God is the Force of healing and transformation, that which constantly allows us to transcend all that is and move towards that which can and should be....Our meaning in life comes from being embodiments of that Spirit...." In other words, Spirit Matters.

While the book often shows more of Lerner's psychological education than his theological training, it is an important practical teaching on how to live in a "spiritually deadened world" by connecting with an "emancipatory spirituality" that gives our lives and work a higher purpose. He challenges both conservatives and liberals whose beliefs "lead to the conclusion that all people really care about is their material well-being."

In a particularly helpful section, Lerner contrasts the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. with today's struggles for rights. The more that people see themselves as individuals, working to have their individual rights enforced, the less they feel themselves part of anything larger. He correctly points out, "When 'rights' were part of a larger spiritual vision of a society based on love and justice, as when Martin Luther King Jr. rooted the movement in biblical aspirations, the struggle for rights was merely one part of a transformative spiritual mission." Today's liberal politics, he says, have largely abandoned the vision of King and the spiritual foundations that nourished him.

After defining his idea of a new emancipatory spirituality, Lerner concretely applies it to work and professions. How would medicine, law, and education be reshaped by a spirituality which views that work as advancing the common good, as a "sacred contribution to the highest values of the community"? He has a series of specific recommendations for those three professions that could lead to their "re-spiritualization."

Noting that "a far higher percentage of those who remain committed to social change are people who have a strong spiritual base," he reviews the relationship between spiritual practice and social engagement. He stresses the importance of uniting our inner and outer realities, an integral spirituality and integral politics. "A healthy person," he notes, "will combine inner work like meditation and prayer with outer work aimed at transforming the institutions of society."

Lerner concludes that at this moment in history, people are hungering for a new spiritual recognition and that a new consciousness is spreading in the world. It is the recognition that "nothing is more sustaining than a life filled with spiritual practices and joyful service to others." Describing that practice and service is the message of Spirit Matters. —Duane Shank

DUANE SHANK is issues and policy adviser at Sojourners.

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