I’m writing this in the afterglow of Election Day, and I have to say I’m both pleased and relieved. I have no illusion that the results presage an era of enlightened governance, but it does suggest that the American people are more principled, more concerned, and more open-minded than politicians gave them credit for. Perhaps now there is a better chance for what I think is truly needed: a flowering of spiritual citizenship.
The spiritual component of public life continues to be depicted as a battle between religious conservatism on the one hand and secular liberalism on the other. That polarized image is, to be blunt, false and harmful. Between the extremes of anti-religious atheism and biblical literalism is a vast expanse of spiritual expression, and most Americans inhabit that zone.
Personally, I feel left out of the debate. I don’t resonate with the hardcore secularists who think that anything spiritual is for idiots, and I don’t identify with the loudmouths and fanatics who claim to represent religion. I suspect that most of you reading this feel the same way, since you too value the spiritual dimension of life but probably view it and express it in ways that are sharply different from the more strident religious leaders. People like us, who live between the extremes of secularism and religiosity, lack a place at the table. Is it because we have nothing to contribute, or because we lack a public voice? I think it’s the latter.
There is every reason to believe that people who value pluralistic, transformative spirituality are actually a sizeable majority. Surveys indicate that most Americans do not believe that their particular path or tradition is the only way for everyone; that they don’t regard every word of the Bible—or any other scripture—to be the literal truth; that they recognize that core spiritual teachings are not necessarily incompatible with science; that their view of morality encompasses more than sex and reproductive issues; that they see spirituality as first and foremost an inner, personal experience. You would not know that from the way the media portrays the intersection of religion and politics.
Why am I writing about this in a column on spiritual wellness? Because healthy spirituality recognizes that the individual is inseparable from the whole. Our spiritual wellness is affected not only by our internal practices, but by the health of our communities, the country and the planet. It is true that the highest levels of spiritual attainment transcend the ups and downs of worldly existence—the Bhagavad Gita describes it as having “equanimity in loss and gain, pleasure and pain”—but at the same time, authentic, everyday spirituality cannot be divorced from social and political realities, or from the responsibilities of citizenship. Most spiritual teachings implore us to use spiritual practices both as a way to satisfy our longing for the Divine and as a foundation for compassionate action. It is time to take that injunction to a higher level.
The angry voices in the public sphere—both arrogant secularists and fanatic religionists—sound old. Their arguments are like the dying gasps of two brawlers who’ve been pummeling each other so long they’re too exhausted to remember what they’re fighting about. The times demand a fresh vision, one that combines spiritual depth with creative solutions to humanity’s urgent problems.
The problem is, while Americans with an expansive spiritual outlook are probably in the majority, they are not organized. They don’t speak about specific issues with a single voice, partly because they know that the problems of the world are too complicated for simple, ideological answers, partly because they’re independent types who are mistrustful of organizations, and partly because they’re incredibly diverse. Hence, they’ve never come together long enough to think things through. Fortunately, a number of groups are attempting to fill this gap.
One of them is the Forge Institute, on whose board I sit. Last year, we formed a team of diverse spiritual leaders to explore the relationship between spirituality and socio-political issues. Beginning with the premise that our future requires nothing less than a transformation of consciousness—one that recognizes our essential Oneness and formulates public policies that reflect that unity—we drafted a one-page document titled A Call to Global Spiritual Citizenship. It states certain principles that might serve as a starting point for focused action. To paraphrase:
- All human beings are spiritual by nature and are driven to unite with an Ultimate Reality
- Deepening our connection to the Sacred not only satisfies our spiritual yearnings but makes us wiser, more loving and more compassionate citizens
- No single faith, tradition or path contains all the truth for all people at all times.
Building on that foundation, the document proposes that we come together in a spirit of openness and non-attachment to create public initiatives that transcend the usual ideologies and belief systems.
That’s just one example of many ongoing efforts to unite authentic spirituality with practical solutions to our collective challenges. From all indications, millions of people are ready to move in this direction. That’s good news, because our individual and collective well-being—indeed, perhaps the future of the planet—depend on each of us acting like wise spiritual citizens. I hope that each of you find a way to do that. (If you’d like to information about the Forge’s project as it develops, or wish to align with our efforts, write me at Goldberg@TheForge.org.)
I leave you with inspiration from the mystical branches of two warring religions. From the Kabbalah: “First we receive the light, then we impart it. Thus we repair the world.” From the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan: “The solution to the problem of the day is the awakening of the consciousness of humanity to the divinity within.”