4.13.2008

Early-Morning Philosophy

And here's what I've been saying to secularists, Ethical Cultural groups, and the like, when I speak to them about Waiting for God:

You know, the great triumph of capitalism, and perhaps its most surprising impact, has been how it has obliterated all obligatory community ties and made it possible — and even enjoyable, or at least tolerable — to be alone. For many people, community has been reduced to a purely voluntaristic activity that we can easily do without. Gordon S. Woods has called this "the radicalism of the American revolution," observing that from the very start in this country, the involuntary bonds of community that were once determined by class, gender, ethnic and caste status, religion, birth order, and so on, have been steadily supplanted by the advent of a freewheeling consumer culture in which money does the talking. Today, those powerful identities of class, race, religion and geography are more and more being replaced by a single identity, that of the consumer, who is offered incredible tools of self-sufficiency that privatize our lives and remove all sense of interdependency from our relationships. The problem is this: While we have very much been liberated from the oppressive bonds of involuntary community, we human beings cannot afford to stray too far from the awareness of interconnection or to get stuck too deeply in the illusion of independence and separateness without doing ourselves great harm. I say "illusion" because while both interconnection and separateness are REAL, interconnection is more real — or at least, more important to cultivate in our awareness if we are to preserve this world of ours.

"Interconnection" is not spiritual gobbledygook. Ecological science, genetics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry all testify to the shared origins of all matter and the ongoing symbiosis of all life systems. Human economies are certainly interdependent, and all activities that create sustenance and wealth, from invention to production to distribution, are deeply collective. Our very bodies are collectivities that include once-independent organisms such as mitochondria and still-independent bacteria of all kinds. And our capacity for love and mutual support — which is surely as powerful, on a day-to-day basis, as our capacity for war and domination — is further testament to the existential reality of our interconnectedness.

I define spirituality, in fact, as the emotional surge we feel when our apprehension of the reality of interconnection is enhanced — enhanced by singing together, talking together, loving together, whatever; the arc of interconnection is a broad arc, and the spirituality of interconnection is a wide-ranging experience. Still, it is my hope that such a secular, baseline definition of "spirituality" can help non-theists and atheists like myself perceive spirituality and spiritual practices as part of the tool kit for building a better world.


Many of us tend to dismiss all spiritual practice and all religious ritual as "opiates of the people," and we pride ourselves on not "needing" such opiates. If we belong to "religious" communities at all (such as Ethical Culture, or the local synagogue), we tend to treat our membership as less-than-important, less-than- compelling — as a pleasant diversion rather than as an important, and highly political, commitment. This is a pity, because in our alienation from God-concepts, in our alienation from "old-time religion," we have leadership capacity: We have no religious inertia or conservatism to overcome in ourselves, and so we can help lead religious communities into meaningful ritual, meaningful discussion, and genuine encounters with the “We” instead of the make-believe "You."

We need to shift our perception of spirituality: from a mere boutique version of the "opiate of the people" to a significant tool of social transformation. History has presented us with so many examples of hopeful political change being corrupted by power-hungry, paranoid or otherwise "unenlightened" or "unawakened" leaders that it should seem obvious that the creation of a more equitable, merciful and environmentally responsible social system requires not only the forceful reorganization of property ownership and power relations — the classic Marxist formula — but also the cultivation of compassion and higher consciousness in human beings. The maternal, loving, trusting sides of our nature need to be developed; the lustful, egotistical aspects of our nature need to be tamed and directed into socially constructive channels. Our perception of interconnection needs cultivation; our perception of separateness — which is so easy to access! — needs to be diminished and confined.

You want to overcome, say, police brutality? Well, the other day on NPR I heard a cop who had taken a four-day workshop with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk-poet. She described the heart-opening effect of that workshop, how it had transformed her policing, including her perception of those whom she arrests — and I thought about how some years ago, I would have sniffed and thought, "Reformism! Spiritual gobbledygook!" But instead, I thought, "Ah, yes. We need to train human beings to be more fully human."


And then I say, Nu, what do you think?

1 Comments:

Blogger Lao Qiao said...

I agree with you about interconnectedness, Larry. Law is about interconnectedness, and is therefore good, even though particular laws may be bad. Judaism is about law. Jesus Marx and Karl Christ, on the other hand, looked forward to the day when the state would wither away and when we would be redeemed. When the millennium arrived, we would all agree about everything. That's what gave us thought control—the Gulag and the Inquisition.

11:26 AM  

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