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The Quest for Justice, Part I

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As any detective knows, when something is missing that should be present, a void where there should be a plenum, it is an important clue. Like the archetypal philosophical detective Socrates, I set out to discover what had happened to justice. Had it disappeared from modern minds, hearts, and conversation? Or merely from the consciousness of New Age pilgrims?

A Puzzling Void

For three decades I have lectured and offered seminars at institutes and retreat centers frequented by modern pilgrims in search of something called spirituality. For the most part I have applauded these neoheroic travelers into the depths of the psyche and their experimentation with non-Western spiritual practices. But recently, I have grown dissatisfied with the theory and practice of what passes for spirituality. Last summer, conducting a seminar at such a center, I fell into a void. What compelled my attention was the simple observation that amid all the offerings on holistic living, healing, meditation, awareness, opening the heart, oneness, knowing God, sacred bodywork, etc., there was not one reference to justice. Checking the catalogs of several other centers devoted to spirituality, growth, and living at the level of the soul, I found the same vacuum. Nor did the NAPRA Review, the catalog of books and tapes "for retailers serving the body/mind/spirit marketplace," have a single offering on justice.

Questions began to trouble my mind. Could there be any authentic spirituality, soulfulness, or wisdom without a concern for justice? If not among the spiritually minded, where was the quest for justice an ultimate concern?

If we step back into the Greek tradition from which we got many of our ethical and political ideals, we find that the quest for justice was considered the controlling virtue for both the individual and the state. Plato's concept of justice, as set forth in The Republic, was based on a mystical vision of the psyche, thepolis, and the cosmos united in a single system. The virtuous man established harmony among reason, spirit, and appetite; a virtuous society was founded on fair relations between the three classes of society - laborers, artisans and warriors, and guardians. While Aristotle's idea of justice was not set within such a utopian scheme as Plato's, it was based on a vision of a cosmos in which all things strive for fulfillment through balance and harmony. As such, justice involved treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences. Thus, Aristotle could say: "All virtue is summed up in dealing justly."

Anyone who stands within the Judeo-Christian tradition is challenged by the biblical witness that the quest for justice is the sine qua non of the religious life. The best summary of what God requires of us is "to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God." Obeying this demand, Christians and Jews have always supported organizations that help the poor, the hungry, the sick, the victims of war. Advocates of the social gospel were at the forefront of the civil rights and antiwar movements and liberation theologians have been among the most vocal critics of the excesses of capitalism and advocates of land reform.

The American founding fathers rooted the birthright of justice in religious soil. The Declaration of Independence assumes that our self-evident and inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is an endowment from God. The promise of "liberty, and justice for all," along with our Bill of Rights and judicial system, comes with the territory; it is central to our Constitution and identity as a people.

As Americans, our problem is not the theory but the practice of justice. Generation after generation we wrestle with the definition of what people in what circumstances are entitled to what kind of equality. It is increasingly clear that justice demands that all citizens regardless of gender, color, sexual orientation, race, religion, or physical condition must be equal before the law. Practicing what we preach and fulfilling the promise of justice we parade before the world is another matter. Still more difficult is the question we hardly dare ask: Does our obligation to seek "liberty and justice for all" apply only to North Americans, or to peoples beyond our shores?

When I consider our philosophical, religious, and political heritage that made the pursuit of justice central to the good life, I am puzzled about why it is missing from the new quest for spirituality.

Spirit and Justice Revisited

My hunch, or working hypothesis, is that something is askew in the current spirituality movement. To be concerned with spirituality but ignore the quest for justice is as much a contradiction as "compassionate egotism." Spirituality centered on cultivating a sense of personal well-being is an example of what the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith."

The new spirituality is at pains to distinguish itself from Sunday-go-to-meeting religion and denominational worship. At best, it is a do-it-yourself piety with a cafeteria approach to world religions. It takes the sacred Om from Hinduism, a goddess or two from the Celts, a Tantric vision of sacred intercourse, a sprinkling of meditation techniques from Buddhism, an assortment of self-improvement hints from popular psychology, and a few poems from Rumi. It doesn't do soup kitchens, civil rights protests, or demonstrations against the Pentagon. Its notion of spirit is vague but warm and more sexy than the Methodists who define God as "without body, parts, or passions." It is uncorseted, enthusiastic, experimental, and wonderfully irreverent in its pursuit of a new experience of the sacred. Unfortunately, it lacks a sense of history and the discipline of careful theological thought.

A study of the history of religions shows a perennial core of beliefs about the nature of spirit. All major religious traditions distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between sacrocentric and egocentric visions of self and world. "Ego" and "spirit" are flags signifying radically different principles of identity and loyalty.

In both Western and Eastern religious traditions the word "ego" denotes a secular way of being in which the self is a self-sealing, psychologically armored entity threatened by other selves and a hostile world. To be egocentric is to be motivated by fear and desire and therefore prey to illusion. The common words that signify an egotistic orientation are: me, mine, individual, want, get, have, fear, threat, avoid, against, defend, power.

The word spirit, by contrast, refers to the self as sacred, porous, and relational. A spiritual orientation involves process and practice, of transcending the isolation and illusion of being a separate entity. The spiritual impulse goes beyond egocentrism to explore the connections between individual life and something beyond the self. The common words that signify a spiritual orientation are: we, our, with, belong, share, embrace, promise, give, love, communion, community.

Beyond the Ego

There are crisp and exact ways to describe "transcending" or "going beyond" the ego. To explore the spiritual dimension is to move from narcissistic self-absorption to identifying with others through the imagination, which leads from empathy, to sympathy, to compassion. When the Buddha linked the first noble truth - life is suffering - to the practice of compassion, he showed how the spiritual imagination is identical with fellow feeling. We are all in this transient, suffering world together! Likewise, we can see the Golden Rule not as a commandment to love others but as a description of what happens when we discover that I and thou are inseparable.

As we become social selves, we develop an ego that internalizes the worldview, values, and loyalties of our tribe, nation, and culture. The normal, egocentric citizen is ruled by a conscience based on the duty to care for members of the in-group. We are taught to love our kin and kindred, and we learn (as Oscar Hammerstein put it) "before we are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people our relatives hate."

By contrast, the spiritual quest carries us beyond normality, ego, and tribal identity into a universal commonwealth. While good citizens dwell conscientiously within a polis, spirited men and women are called by what the great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich called a "transmoral conscience" to expand the circle of communion to include outsiders, strangers, and enemies. Spirituality should make us more radical, not more conformist, critics of our society rather than blind patriots.

For example, as secular citizens we may believe that national security is our highest value and it is therefore legitimate to use nuclear weapons. But to make security at any cost our ultimate concern is repugnant to those with spiritual vision. George Kennan, the no-nonsense realist who created the policy of containment against the Soviet Union, states the spiritual vision clearly: "The readiness to use nuclear weapons to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignation - an indignity of monstrous dimensions - offered to God!"

The spiritual vision carries us beyond concern for civilization to a commitment to the wild, beyond our own species to the commonwealth of all sentient beings. The secular-egocentric-economic worldview offers no basis for an ecological ethic. To the Weyerhauser Corporation, a tree has standing only until it becomes mature timber. But those who experience life within a sacred circle are motivated by an ecological conscience to seek justice for those neighbors, human and nonhuman, who have no voice or protection against the encroachments of civilization.

Spirited men and women are cosmopolitans, citizens of both the polis and the cosmos. The spiritual life leads equally to sympathy and to a disposition to act to lessen the suffering of others. Faith without works is dead. Compassion without a concern for justice remains a vague sentiment without consequence for the neighbor. (Sorry about your suffering, but it is due to your bad karma and not my concern.) The quest for radical justice goes beyond the civic virtue we owe our neighbors. It is not satisfied by mere fairness or the obligation to share a minimum of wealth and power. It demands that we work toward the possibility of fulfillment and a harmonious life for neighbors and distant strangers.

Compassion in Action

For compassion to move from feeling to action it must practice the art of power. Spirited action requires an alliance of love, power, and justice. As Paul Tillich said, in both interpersonal and political relationships love, power, and justice are inseparable. Without love, power becomes tyrannical and justice is only a name for the rule of strong. Without power, love is reduced to sentimentality and justice to an impotent ideal. Without justice, love is a perverse dance of domination and submission.

As I consider what has traditionally been understood by "spirit" I must conclude that authentic spirituality leads from the sanctuary of private emotions into the chaotic arena of political life. Compassion-seeking justice is compelled to gird its loins and battle the sources of injustice - the psychological predisposition to greed, indifference, lust for power, the myopic economic ideology that ignores everything but the bottom line, and the corruption of government by the few for the few.

Far from being optional, the quest for justice is central to a worldly spirituality - as it should be to institutional religion. Otherwise we are left with disengaged religion, gnostic mysticism, and a godlet dedicated to strengthening the ego's illusions of self-sufficiency.

Considering the escalating poverty, anarchy, violence, and ecological destruction in the contemporary world, I believe the central vocation that will define authentic spirituality in the 21st century will be a new quest for justice.


Sam Keen, whose Psychology Today conversations brought Joseph Campbell, Norman O. Brown, and other seminal thinkers to national attention, holds two M.A.s in theology from Harvard and a Princeton Ph.D. in philosophy. His books include the best-seller Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God, and his most recent, Learning to Fly: Trapeze – Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go.


This entry is tagged with:
JusticeSpiritualityHistoryReligionSelfEgoCompassion

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