Monday, April 27, 2009

A Personal Note on Praxis and Spirituality

Praxis involves reciprocal and mutually informing interaction between theory and practice for the purpose of transforming the social world toward greater equality and personal liberty. My approach to praxis also holds that we humans are born with an innate need for positive recognition and connection to our fellow humans that is every bit as fundamental to human life as the need for food and water. In fact, as psychologists who study early childhood teach us, we will not become fully human unless this need is met. We are born needing to care and be cared for.

I further believe that this innate need for recognition and connection to others has an intrinsic spiritual wellspring; and that this need is systematically frustrated and retarded by our capitalist market society that encourages individualistic competition and self interest at the expense of all else.

Growing economic fears in the midst of market society's failure certainly are central to the insecurity and pain people feel. But this hardship is also connected to the widely shared belief that we cannot count on each other to stand up to corporate and governmental power or to provide adequate caring to those of us who will be hurt when corporations downsize and outsource our jobs to the Third World.

We are taught that we live in a meritocracy where people wind up in whatever positions we hold in society either through our own talents (if positive) or our own fault (if negative). Many of us learn to become highly cynical and to watch out for number one because we cannot trust anybody to be there for us if we fall.

Such cynicism is rooted in a deep belief that nothing about our social world can be fundamentally transformed. Many of us are caught in a thick web of pessimism and cynicism that leads us to question any higher purpose in life beyond materialistic self interest, and centrally involves using other people from the standpoint of what we can get from them. We are rewarded for the degree to which we are willing and able to put our own interests above those of our friends and neighbors.

But human beings hunger to be recognized by others and cherished for our own sakes, not valued only for our achievements and possessions. We yearn for communities of meaning that transcend competitive individualism. The economic crisis and the crisis of meaning are two sides of the same crisis. Most of all, we want an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives higher purpose.

The Bible has some 3,000 verses on the poor and on the obligation to fight poverty and to stand with the least among us. There are no verses that tell us to serve those who already have the most with policies ensuring that they get ever more. Nowhere does the Bible tell us to value wealth over work, the rich over the poor--or that war is the first and not the last resort.

Jesus would say to the rich, as in the 25th chapter of Matthew: "I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was naked. I was sick. I was a stranger. I was in prison. And you didn't come to see me. You didn't minister to me. As you've done to the least of these, you've done to me."

I am not a Christian, but I understand the core ethic of Christianity and all the other great world religions as teaching us that our deepest moral commitment is to each other--that we are all in this together. And this ethic is of course also central to all varieties of secular liberal philosophies.

My approach to praxis endeavors to address our need for meaning and higher purpose in the context of class-based oppression with its roots in the injustice of our economic system. But this oppression cannot be overcome only by providing adequate economic resources and health, education, and welfare services--as crucially important as these material resources are to human well being.

Rather, we must strive to frame every social issue in terms of the infinite preciousness of every human being as inherently deserving of compassionate care and respect; and encourage middle income and poor people to become allies who understand that we are all in this life together as the miraculous embodiment of spiritual energy. It is most important to understand social policies in terms of the fundamental unity and oneness of all life in the universe, and to work to build a society of greater equity and personal liberty on this basis.

Politics is not at bottom about the struggle for power, but rather calls for a social and world-wide movement whose goal is to nurture our souls. Politics is above all else a manifestation of the spiritual and ethical consciousness of humanity.

Every major reform movement in America--from the abolition of slavery, womens suffrage, child labor reform to civil rights--has been motivated by this core understanding as informed by a deep spiritual faith and a moral compass that insists on human equity and individual liberty.

And so I call on all people of good will--people of faith and the secular-minded alike--to challenge the rich and the powerful to change their ways and policies to include all of humanity in sharing the bounty of the creativity and productivity of all the world's peoples. I embrace Dr. Martin Luther King's wonderful vision of America and the world as "The Beloved Community" where everybody has a place at the table--especially those who were left out and left behind. These get a front-row seat.

Finally, I call on all of us to stand together to serve the common good--to do the best we can on behalf of the least of us, which, in accord with all the world's faiths, turns out to be on behalf of all of us. There are no divisions.