Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rabbi Michael Lerner: Bringing God Into It

The Nation recently printed an article by Rabbi Michael Lerner about the need for the political left to embrace some form of spirituality if it hopes to reclaim the ground being occupied by the religious right. Rabbi Lerner argues that liberals have embraced scientism as its religion in reaction against the historically repressive aspects of religion.

But he feels liberals need not abandon authentic spiritual belief and practice to be good progressives. Rabbi Lerner, Cornel West, and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister have founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives as a way to delineate a way by which progressives can reclaim the moral authority of faith in the political arena.

Rabbi Lerner explains the origin of scientism, and sounds a little like Ken Wilber:
So why has the left become so attached to scientism? The left emerged as part of the broad movement against the feudal order, which taught that God had appointed people to their place in the hierarchical economic and political order for the good of the greater whole. Our current economic system, capitalism, was created by challenging the church's role in organizing social life, and empirical observation and rational thought became the battering ram the merchant class used to weaken the church's authority. Many of Marx's followers thought they were merely drawing out the full implications of their new worldview when they adopted a scientistic approach that not only dismissed God and spirit as being without empirical foundation but also reduced all ethical and aesthetic judgments to little more than reflections of class

The idea that people are only motivated by material self-interest became the basis for a significant part of what we now call the political left, or labor movement, and the Democratic Party ("It's the economy, stupid"). But in the research I did with thousands of middle-income working-class people, I found that there was a pervasive desire for meaning and a purpose-driven life, and for recognition by others in a nonutilitarian way, and that the absence of this kind of recognition and deprivation of meaning caused a huge amount of suffering and could best be described as a deep spiritual hunger that had little to do with how much money people were making. Granted, most people on the left would probably agree, in the abstract, that money can't buy love (or meaning). But when it comes down to the choices they make in trying to formulate goals for a union or a political party or a social change organization, they often revert to their deeply internalized materialistic assumptions, which leads them to deny the potential efficacy of addressing the "meaning" needs.

The truth is that most people on the left already have a set of moral principles that guide their lives and have led them to be Democrats or Greens or social change activists. But their scientistic worldview makes them feel slightly embarrassed to acknowledge and articulate those values. And the intense skepticism about religion and spirituality on the left makes them reluctant to talk in a language that could be seen as inherently religious or spiritual. In this, they are reflecting a long history of indoctrination into the scientistic assumptions of the dominant secular society, assumptions that have shaped our educational system, permeated our economic marketplace and been internalized as "sophisticated thinking" by the self-appointed (and capital-sustained) arbitrators of culture.

One the exemplars of scientism familiar to many of us is Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith and more recently, the Athesit Manifesto, but he doesn't embrace the progressive values Rabbi Lerner is talking about.

Scientism is not a uniquely progressive stance. Harris uses scientism to defend torture as a viable method of gathering information from alleged terrorists, totally rejecting the inherent right of human beings not to be tortured, no matter the circumstances.

My point here is that, although I agree with Rabbi Lerner in principle, scientism is not a distinctly lefty stance for the person on the street. It may be true of the "academic elite" that Faux News loves excoriate, but most of us have faith in something other than science.

If we want to really undertand the reasons the left has abandoned religion, we must look at the Spiral of human development. As a first step, Rabbi Lerner's vision of a spiritually engaged politics is intriguing:
I've used the word "spiritual" as a label to identify a meaning-oriented approach to politics. Its focus is on the yearning of human beings for a world of love and caring, for genuine connection and mutual recognition, for kindness and generosity, for connection to the common good, to the sacred and to a transcendent purpose for our lives. Understand human history and contemporary society and individual psychology from the standpoint of these needs and the ways they have been frustrated, and then develop a strategy that addresses those needs, and we will be able to build a movement and a political party that will be in a position to bring about all the good things liberals and progressives have fought for with such limited success over the past 100 years.

In order to implement this view, we need people who are reaching into the Green meme of the Spiral in their spiritual developmental line. Sceintism -- as a belief systems -- is a distinctly Orange meme structure. It cannot exist in any person whose spiritual line is either below or above the Orange meme.

I think Rabbi Lerner is somewhat mistaken in his view of why the left has rejected traditional religion. I am not convinced scientism is the real culprit, although I'm sure it is for some people, especially the Marxist division of the left that he describes above.

I think the real reason lies more in the fear many progressives hold that all organized religions are dogmatic and repressive. While this is true for many mainstream churches in the major denominations of the major religions, it need not be the case. There are more and more Christian churches who embrace the teachings of Jesus and are setting aside the less compassionate teachings of Paul.

Judaism is even more progressive than the most progressive Christians in some temples, and there are progressive Islamic mosques as well. Buddhism is considered progressive by many, but the real teachings can be quite conservative to those of us who are solidly liberal.

Religion need not be repressive and intolerant, but the major religions often are. This is what progressives are responding to -- they are not embracing scientism out of a belief that it is a viable faith system.

Although I disagree with Rabbi Lerner, in the end, I still encourage everyone to take a look at the Network of Spiritual Progressives website.

[Cross-posted at Zaadz.]


Steve said...

Thanks, Bill, for a heads-up on Lerner's article in The Nation and also for informing us about the existence of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Lerner's article echos the same themes he's eloquently addressed in books such as the "The Politics of Meaning" and on his website Tikkun. It's also reminiscent of Jim Wallis' call for a progressively engaged Christianity and the Sojourner's movement. I tend to agree that unless and until the so-called "Left" finds a way to plausibly incorporate "spiritual" values or, at least, people with spiritual values into its framework, it is doomed to relative ineffectuality.


Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how glad I am that Michael Lerner wrote this article. I used to be actually quite a devout Christian, but time and age changed a lot of that belief, but I never lost my sense of spirituality, and in some way I'm a better Christian than I ever was. I frequently find myself butting heads with "scien*tists*" as a friend and I were calling them, well before this article came out. Unfortunately, in order to eliminate or even tone down this anti-religious bias, some very stubborn minds will, ironically for the so-called progressive movement, need to be opened. Many people have been completely disillusioned and put off by the negative acts of religious figures and the religious ultra-right, and many progressives and liberals shun religious content, simply because the possibility of being associated with the conservative religious right and people like Jerry Falwell, George Bush and Pat Robertson is disgustingly distasteful. At the same time, I find anti-religious dogma to be extremely off-putting, and this strong bias has in part weakened the ability to provide a compelling message to the vast majority of voters, who do belong to a religion of one type or another.

It should also be noted that those of us who are left-leaning and spiritual have failed to yell as loudly as the religious right starting with the 'God is Dead' era of the 1960s, and by doing so have failed to provide a counter-example for Democratic and progressive leadership to latch onto. It's time to start being loud and proud about it. There are plenty of people in science and engineering who are rational adults and also profess a faith of one kind or another. Let's get it out of people's heads that religion is an offensive topic.

Anonymous said...

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."
Abraham Joshua Heschel