I must confess that I judge books on spiritual transformation based on whether or not they address the wider issues of social transformation and justice. While I found some wisdom, for example, in the best-selling new age book The Secret, I discovered that there was not a word about justice or fairness in the whole text; it was all about individual success. Its vision of humankind implied that those who are traumatized or impoverished were, in fact, blamed for their condition. You are sick because of negativity. Poverty is the result of spiritual ignorance. Victims of abuse are responsible at a “soul level” for connections with their abusers. If the universe is a place of spiritual education, certainly a lot of people fail the tests of each lifetime.
This is not just a new age problem. When Joel Osteen writes Your Best Life Now, I am tempted to amend the title to “Our best life now.” Osteen and The Secret are clanging symbols that make a great noise but lack the melodious movements of God’s spirit.
One of the reasons I find David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self to be a truly holistic and inspiring text is his concern for the spirituality of community and the impact of the environment, including economics, on spiritual transformation. Echoing the wisdom of Plato’s interdependent community in the Republic and the apostle Paul’s “body of Christ,” (I Corinthians 12) Benner proclaims: “Genuine transformation occurs only within a communal and interpersonal context. Often those communal contexts inhibit transformation, but they can facilitate it and always mediate it.” (xii) Further, Benner recognizes that “becoming is a luxury that evades those whose lives are preoccupied with survival and basic coping. Until the lower-level needs are dependably met, talk of human unfolding remains nothing but meaningless chatter on the part of those who have the luxury of full bellies, a reasonable base of personal security, and idle time.” (xi) It takes a village to grow in spirit, and this village must aim at awakening as one of its first priorities, along with social justice.
Years ago social gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch, in speaking of New York City’s tenements, asserted that “hell’s kitchen is not a safe place for saved souls.” If we want more than faux enlightenment, we must create sectors of healing, wholeness, and spirituality within every community. They must be truly holistic, nurturing spirits but also insuring good diets, safe and adequate housing, quality education, preventative and responsive health care, and communal support of spiritual growth and aspiration. While few societies have made spirituality their priority, organizations such as the church, temple, mosque, ashram, etc. must choose to be countercultural for the sake of spiritual transformation.
The apostle Paul proclaimed, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) Sadly, many spiritual seekers and congregations fail to recognize that awakening is ultimately a social process. Martin Luther King noted:
All life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
Conversely, the prophet Amos proclaims that a famine of hearing God’s word will descend upon those who are unable to discern the relationship between their wealth and the poverty of others. (Amos 8:11)
In this time in which people cry out for shrinking government, focus on their property and not the well-being of the whole, and privilege wealth over social welfare, individual and social awakening is a challenging despite best-selling books in spirituality, megachurches, gurus, and televangelists. Awakening requires a commitment to look beyond ourselves and see the awakening of others as connected to our own awakening. Awakening means growing, like Jesus, in wisdom and stature, and personal stature involves embracing others as if they are your own self. Such expanded selfhood takes us beyond the sharp boundaries of yours and mine, citizen and immigrant, wealthy and impoverished. It invites us to always ask, “How can I bless those around me in body, mind, and spirit.” It challenges us to create structures of personal and communal blessing.
Communal blessing involves transforming our social order in both the private and public spheres. Without rejecting the American Dream of personal initiative and creativity, it means creating a culture of sharing and service, in which greed is looked down up and ownership and wealth are seen primarily as opportunities to support the community’s well-being rather than individual or stockholder aggrandizement.
Communal blessing involves the society asking itself what is really important. It involves politicians seeking a “big enough government” that encourages the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (fulfillment and spiritual awakening) for all its citizens. This means supporting young parents, creating safe communities, ensuring employment, securing creative and effective education, honoring diversity in all its forms, and building a society that seeks good health from conception onward and ensures that no one is left out when they are ill or vulnerable.
Communal blessing requires the generosity of time, talent, and treasure for the well-being of our children and other peoples’ children. This obviously means contributing financially to good causes instead of unnecessary consumption. It also means creating a fair tax policy that raises enough money for a “responsible and effective government” to fund initiatives that support personal, communal, and global transformation. In a spiritually sound society, millionaires will want to give more to support society through benevolences as well as higher taxes. They will recognize that all of us are “job creators,” not just the wealthy, and that the wealthy have largesse because of the “job creation” of middle and lower middle class people who spend the majority of their incomes on groceries and services.
These days, I often despair that our nation is going backward spiritually and communally and that many actually want a world without adequate social safety nets, protection of workers, environmental wellbeing, or concern for the aged, young, and vulnerable. To such rugged and ultimately destructive individualism, I preach the gospel of interdependence taught by the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, the early church, and the apostle Paul. Our spiritual awakening is a joint enterprise in companionship with the One who calls us to partnership in healing the world and giving each child a chance to flourish and explore the possibilities for abundant living in a caring society. We need an awakened nation, and people committed to awakening the spirit of interdependence at every level of our society.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.