2016-06-30
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I often give lectures in synagogues, churches, and universities around the country, and I am generally greeted with good-natured skepticism when I tell my audiences that it's possible to build spiritual aliveness into a religious life. For many Jews and Christians, the most they have come to expect from a religious community is a place to do social action or charity, or a place in which they can find good-hearted people. I think that both of these are important parts of what a religious community should do, but something is missing: a spiritually alive encounter with the sacred.

Many young people today reject religious communities precisely because they can't find their spiritual yearnings addressed in synagogues or churches. The hunger for meaning and purpose in life is as strong and central to human life as the hunger for food or for sex, and that sense of meaning leads people to want some relationship to the sacred.

Just as some social and religious orders demean or repress our desires for sex, so today we live in a world whose institutions and social practices implicitly demean or repress our hunger for meaning. This repression has led to a wide range of pathologies in daily life.

And yet, though the dominant culture celebrates its material success, though it imagines that anyone who has "made it" in the competitive marketplace must be a fountain of wisdom, though it encourages people to "look out for number one," though it does its best to ridicule or expose as self-interested anyone who claims to be motivated by some higher purpose, people nevertheless insist upon some form of spiritual nourishment, grabbing on to whatever form of spirituality provides an alternative to the dominant culture.

Hungry for some community in which their need for meaning can be explored, some are attracted to a reactionary spirituality that is used to justify right-wing political agendas. It is frequently not the right-wing politics but rather the safety to explore spiritual issues that attracts them to these communities. For many people, these communities are the only places they've ever encountered people who care about others and don't evaluate others by how wealthy, physically attractive, smart, or powerful they are. People who choose a reactionary spirituality sometimes make this choice for a good reason: because they are fed up with the one-dimensional and technocratic realities of daily life.

Most of the people in these right-wing religious communities are not stupid or evil, despite the ways they are caricatured in the media. On the contrary, they have made a choice that, in their context, was the most noble and principled commitment available. In my forthcoming book, "Spirit Matters," I try to describe what an Emancipatory Spirituality might look like, because reactionary spirituality need not be the only option.

On the other end of the spectrum, we get another distortion. Sometimes the hunger for meaning leads people to glom on to flaky and narcissistic forms of spirituality. I've sometimes lost patience with spiritual talk I hear emanating from "New Age" sources, because it seems as if "spirituality" is being used as permission to abandon serious thinking and open the door to every imaginable spiritual commodity. Writers in New Age magazine, Utne Reader, and other serious spiritual journals sometimes bemoan this appropriation of the term "New Age" by charlatans, opportunists, and flakes.

I have witnessed the sloppiest and silliest thinking justified under the banner of "spirit"--but then again, in the years I have spent in universities as a student and professor, I've also witnessed incredible silliness and stupidity parading as academic philosophy or empirical psychology. In fact, I've seen academics use science to justify arguments that black people are less intelligent than whites, or argue that students who have trouble succeeding in schools must have some kind of genetic or physiological dysfunction, or that people who rebel against our current social system suffer from various forms of psychological or physiological defects. We all know about these distortions, and so I say to the spiritual skeptics that it is pure hypocrisy to focus on distortions justified in the name of spirituality without recognizing the same tendency within the supposedly more respectable intellectual arenas. Like with the academy, don't dismiss the whole spiritual endeavor because of the sloppiness of some.

I've also watched some very important spiritual ideas get presented in ways that made me feel embarrassed to be associated with them. The media are able to reduce everything to the same cheap level. Advertisers and commercial marketeers see a growing "market" in our search for spiritual meaning. Look at the ads for a nail polish called "Spiritual," which claims to "aid in the connection to the higher self." Or witness the Hollywoodization of Kabbalah. Or watch how the media manages to create various spiritual gurus who compete with movie stars and politicians for our attention. But that is just what the market does--to everything! Don't blame Spirit for capitalism.

In fact, on several occasions I've been interviewed for television, only to see my ideas edited in ways that made them seem stupid and empty to me. Who can blame viewers for thinking that spirituality is a set of vacuous clichés and fuzzy ideas when that's how it's presented in much of the mass media?

Taking steps toward deepening spiritual sophistication means ensuring that being open to spirit is not confused with an empty cheeriness and refusal to see the painful problems facing our world. I've seen versions of spirituality that seemed to me to be thin veneers on top of a mountain of narcissism and self-indulgence. Even very valuable spiritual practices like meditation have sometimes functioned as a way for some people to move inward without ever going outward. Yet I also know many others whose spiritual and meditative practices form the foundation for a strong involvement in healing and social transformation work. I have been involved in social-change movements for the past 35 years and can testify to the fact that most of those who remain committed when social change is no longer "cool" are people with a strong spiritual base.

So, don't let distortions or flaky versions of spirituality lead you to give up on establishing a spiritually alive reality in your personal life or in your religious community, because there is no substitute for it, no matter how powerful your social action or how satisfying your connection with community activities. The future of our religious and spiritual communities depends on reconnecting to the sacred, and that will only happen if you begin this process in your own life.

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