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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 52 foreign policy, Lerner says, “We recognize the unity of all being, and that the well-being of every American depends on the well- being of everyone else on the planet. Politicians ought to be say- ing not simply, ‘God bless America,’ but rather, ‘God bless America and all people on earth.’” What motivates environmental policy, Lerner says, is awe and respect for “the wonder of all creation.” Lerner boldly proclaims the covenant is “unrealistic.” But he wants that word highlighted and bracketed, he told me, because “When I say unrealistic, I mean not buying into the frame of re- alism that governs the current debate between Republicans and Democrats, because that realism does not take into account peo- ple’s highest ideals, and is therefore extremely unrealistic, in the negative sense. We are unrealistic in the way that the early wom- en’s movement was unrealistic. People thought nothing would come of it, but those in the movement refused to be defined in those terms—and look at the effect that movement has had.” In fact, Lerner wants to create a political movement—moving from principles to policies to practice—without hitching the movement’s wagon to immediate ballot-box results. So, he says, the next step for the Network of Spiritual Progressives is “leader- ship training, training people in the vision of a spiritual poli- tics and how to communicate that effectively while also learning from others. We are trying to draw on thousands of years of wis- dom and spiritual practice to build a structure for societal trans- formation. It would be a big mistake to measure the importance of what we’re doing in terms of its impact on the next election.” SISTER JOAN CHITTISTER beautifully blends gentle and tough. She seems the sort of person who could dismantle your edifice brick by brick in a proper debate, but also just the kind of person you would want to comfort you in a crisis. When Chit- tister starts to speak, publicly or in person, it feels like you’re just hanging out with her, in a kitchen, or a neighborhood tavern near the factory, or maybe a school cafeteria. She is down, to, earth. What accounts for much of Chittister’s appeal is that she is a Catholic who likes to asks questions rather than provide answers or edicts. She is a walking Vatican III, a breath of fresh air in a strikingly conservative and closed-minded period for the church. In the chapter on religion in her latest book, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, she presents the book’s central question, which turns the notion of “faith” on its head: “Is openness to other ideas infidelity, or is it the beginning of spiritual maturity?” Chittister is not content merely to inquire. She is a very big doer. Her CV lists dozens of organizations and efforts she has been part of or spearheaded, having to do with equality for women (especially in religious contexts), monasticism, educa- tion, and peace. She has written thirty books and is the founder and executive director of Benetvision, in Erie, Pennsylvania, a national research center for contemporary spirituality. Contemporary spirituality, the way Chittister approaches it, has a lot to do with how spirituality is embodied in culture, not simply practiced as an adjunct. Private spirituality works best when it supports a culture and is supported by a culture. She be- lieves we are deep into a cultural crisis, which is not a bad thing per se, but something that must be acknowledged. “It’s tough enough to talk about culture in this country right now,” she tells the conference, “it’s even harder to talk about spirituality. But if somebody doesn’t put the two of them together with some sanity pretty soon, we’re going to lose both.” Chittister is adamant that spiritual practice must evolve; oth- erwise, its practitioners fall into the greatest of sins, false piety, the self-serving and judgmental religiosity that often clings to past trappings of spiritual practice and institutional power. “Piety is cultural,” she says. “So, true holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to our time. The pieties of the past were not wrong, but the pieties of the past are past. We need new, holy, spiritual responses to the world around us. As Moses knew, spirituality does not exist to protect us from our times but to en- able us to leaven it, to stretch it, to bless it, and to break it open to the present will of God.” The new piety that Chittister champions is what she calls “con- templative co-creation,” a bridging of private spiritual practice and public action. She believes this is a form of spirituality suit- ed to the modern era. It goes beyond—and here she reveals her background as a social psychologist—the three historical spiri- tual responses to culture: the intellectual, which is creed-centered and good at drawing lines of orthodoxy and heresy; the relation- al, which is all about love, but which “may comfort the oppressed but do little to stop the oppression”; and the performative, which is action-centered and reformist, and “tries to create a bright new world in the shell of the old, whether it wants it or not.” Contemplative co-creation goes beyond these three in that it does not attempt to impose something; it attempts to expose something by bringing the fruits of inner reflection to bear on the uncertainties of the outer situation. It takes the form of probing and honest questioning so people can find their way together—so they can “co-create.” This process is needed now, she says, because in the last fifty years, the “Western belief–value system” has been subject to tectonic shifts: “Family patterns and sex roles have changed. Governments that had been the standard-bearers of freedom, justice, and human rights have been riven with one cor- ruption after another, and so have become less and less credible to the people at large. Scientific and technological progress have now become more of a threat than a help, changing the nature of life and death, changing human creation from critically unique to cloned, changing war from struggle to annihilation. Military security has became our highest priority—both our greatest ex- penditure and our scarcest commodity. We live now with great poverty in the midst of great affluence, challenging all the Ameri- can myths about fair play, the Protestant ethic, freedom, and jus- tice. Ten percent of the world controls 75 percent of the world’s resources. No wonder the 10 percent buys so many guns.”