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    Spiritual Realism in a Divided America

    Human Purpose in Pursuit of the Common Good

    By Tim Shriver and Tara Isabella Burton

    February 3, 2023
    • Keith Dow

      There is a lot of good in this article, and I appreciate the call to spiritual realism. I believe a lot can be "mined" from that premise. Yet, I'm not sure how this call to something new incorporates what we have learned in the past decades - the "fruits" of postmodernism, if one is willing to believe there are some. The six points of application dovetail neatly with the "Virtues of Care" I propose in Formed Together: Mystery, Narrative, and Virtue in Christian Caregiving. Yet I would be so bold as to suggest that my argument there seeks to incorporate the learnings of our current culture in a way that I, theologically and philosophically, don't see reflected in this article. This is not a slight, per se - you are in good company with the Human Flourishing Project at Harvard and other places. I'm just not sure it's enough. Also critical is Hartmut Rosa's The Uncontrollability of the World, which I believe would supplement your concerns here in a meaningful and generative way.

    • Klk259

      Whenever I read articles like these, they seem to dance around key concrete differences between the sides. I certainly agree that we are all fallen, and in need of grace, and should love our neighbor and our enemy, and then we should listen more and be less reactionary, and care deeply about and give to the poor. I agree that we all feel existential, angst and throwness, and that we have much more in common as image bearers than we think. But are there pills that cannot be swallowed? Is there evil? The article points out white supremacy as bad—fair enough. It should be condemned however it raises its head—does anyone really debate that, besides truly fringe groups? Even the “far” right condemns racism. But, I keep hoping to see under discussions of human dignity if it’s okay to be against one side, because they specifically advocate for full term abortions, and killing even outside the womb. Actually in the written platforms—not by a fringe groups. Is there a bridge too far? The president has been asked about it many times and confirmed the democratic party’s support of it. Not a gray area. Or the mutilation of of adolescent girls by cutting off their breasts “top surgery” and worse; ie, “gender affirming care”. Again, actually advocated for by the president and HHS on their website. Not fringe groups. Or pausing puberty with a drug used for chemical castration. Id and Ditto. Is that okay? There is an elephant in the room—at least for many.

    • John Wilson, Jr.

      I was born in 1949. My parents went through The Depression and World War II. They were part of what is called “the greatest generation.” My generation is, I think, is the “greediest generation.” My parents, as did the parents of many of my generation, wanted a better life for their children. In some respects we became a spoiled generation. I grew up listening to Walter Cronkite, today we listen to Fox or MSNBC, to people that shape our opinions for us. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s many radical conservatives started equating tyranny with not getting their own way, I imagine many radical liberals did as well, but I did not hear their voices so much. In a democracy no one gets it all their own way, which means to arrive at consensus we all have to give up something, because we are a very diverse country. It is human nature to take for granted what we get and to focus on what we did not get. Instead of being grateful, we are disappointed. What didn’t get our way has become our entire focus. The article says we are in an age of hyper-liberalism. As a liberal I find that statement absurd, just as to say we live in an age of hyper-conservatism is equally absurd. I think there is an unhealthy mix of both, though most polls suggest we are country dominated by moderates. Perhaps we live in a “hyper” age. C. S. Lewis said once he is a conservative but thought the gospel favored the liberal (these are not his exact word, but that is the gist). I find this very wise, not because it seems to favor my position but because it suggests that Lewis as a conservative could see the scriptural limitations of his position and I as a liberal try to adopt a similar attitude realizing that just as conservatism falls short of the gospel so does liberalism. I agree that want of purpose is at the heart of much that is wrong, but part of purpose is the recognition there are forces greater than ourselves. We have to be careful when we define lack of purpose as a culture not doing what I want it do, what I believe it is important for the culture to do. This is the first step down the road that defines tyranny as not getting my own way. I believe my sense of purpose is the correct one, as you believe yours is, I believe scripture endorses my view as you believe it endorses yours. If I truly love my neighbor and love my brothers and sisters in Christ. I recognize the importance to them of their sense of purpose and do not discount it. Just as it is important for those on the other side, to respect and recognize the importance of my sense of purpose. I am pro-life. So my belief is that the first response to the abortion issue is to fix the problems that cause a woman to seek an abortion. Work towards a minimum wage that is a living wage, universal health care, universals child care, address issues of housing and opportunity, like equal pay for men and women that do the same work. This will not end abortion, any more than barring access to abortion will end abortion. But, how if in the 50 years following Roe v. Wade we had fought for these changes to the society would our society be different, how many lives would have been saved? But conservatives will look at my view and see it as “hyper-liberalism” and dismiss it. This is one reason I find Dorothy Day so inspirational, she did not see it as one way or the other, but that both were necessary, she protested against abortion (and the Vietnam War) while working tirelessly for economic and social justice. People will not believe we love the children we cannot see if we are not seen to love the children, women, and men we can see. We are judged not by what we say, but what we do. I believe all the commandments can be reduced to one word, “love”; love the Lord your God, love your neighbor, and love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is costly and love is demanding. When I look at your definition of liberalism it sounds more like conservatism. As a liberal I see myself having obligations to my neighbor, not in the sense of a “collective” but in the sense that as a people we need to think of others and not just ourselves; to develop a country in which all can thrive and where all the resources and wealth are not in the hands of a few. We paid for World War II with 90% taxation on income over $1,000,000 (over a billion dollars in today’s economy). The economic burden was shared progressively, the more wealthy (those that benefited most from our capitalist system) paid the most in taxes, somewhat the opposite of how it is now. Of course, taxes and money and investments are not the problem, it is not money, but the love of money. As a society we tend to love money more than our neighbor. If we begin with relationship rather than judgment or self-interest, we can begin to find common ground. Quakers and Mennonites view the world differently than Baptists, though they both begin with scripture, so there should be the possibility of finding common ground. Buddhism and Hinduism are built on theocratic principles and there should be some common ground there as well. But for a theist and atheist this is more difficult. Coercing people into faith has never worked, love has, if we begin with love, with friendship we can listen to each other. I became a Christian in the 1970’s, during the “Jesus Movement.” I, like many believed we could find our worth in ourselves. A belief in freedom of conscience and expression, in a kind of unanchored liberty. That view started with, I think, the free-speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, as well as other Universities, like they University of Michigan. When Abbie Hoffman wore an American flag tee-shirt he was arrested, but today they are commonplace. But all this unmoored liberty did not bring inner peace, the heart was still troubled. As Augustine said “our hearts are bound to restlessness until they rest in You (God the Father, Son, and Spirit). Today looks very much like it did in the 60’s and 70’s and I think we may be on the brink of another Jesus Movement. But, of course, it will separate itself from many of the denominational institutions we have today as it did then, though over time many found their way back to the traditional denominations. My life was not changed by the people I encountered everywhere trying “win me to the gospel.” I found those people as an annoyance, I was changed, as C. S. Lewis was changed, by friends who did not preach to me, but talked to me and with whom I exchanged ideas. But they did not demand I change, but opened my heart to a more real, a more true, and more life affirming belief. But, of course, this is not grounded in the dialogue, but in the relationship. It is the love, friendship, we share that gives life to the dialogue and its ability to bring about change. We listen to each other because we love each other. James K. A. Smith said in Desiring the Kingdom: “To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. Our (ultimate) love is constitutive of our identity. So we’re not talking about trivial loves, like when we say we “love” pizza or the Boston Red Sox; we’re not even quite talking about significant loves, like when we say we “love” our parents or we “love” a spouse (though these will be wrapped up in the sort of love we’re concerned with). Rather, we are talking about ultimate loves—that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world—in other words, what we desire above all else, the ultimate desire that shapes and positions and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions.” This is what I think we need to focus on. If scripture is to be believed it is a love like this that is at the heart of each of us and that needs to be tapped into if we are to change our culture, the world’s culture. The madness of our times will collapse on itself with time, because at heart it is selfish and serves itself not others or any community. When Hilary Clinton wrote a book on education called It Takes a Village Bob Dole (a man I very much admired though I disagreed with on many things) called the “village” the collective. But that is of course not true. We have to preserve both our self and the village and our place in it. In many ways I find the definition of liberalism found here more descriptive of the conservative forces today than the liberal. If we recognize the people around us are intended to be a blessing to us and the society in which we live, that will change the way we look at them. We are all necessary to the well being of the society in which we live. It is much more difficult to exploit someone, like those that sweep floors, dig ditches, stock shelves, earn a minimum wage for what they do, if we see them as the blessing God created them to be. I think I agree with what you have to say, but it seems to me it is the love of politics and getting our own way that is at the heart of America’s problems. I think it was in the 1980’s that we moved away from seeing ourselves as one people and more as individuals. I preferred Jimmy Carter’s Christianity to Ronald Reagan’s. But of course that is probably because I am a liberal.

    Part I: Introduction

    The past few years have made evident a deeply discomfiting truth about contemporary American life: we may be a country, but we are struggling to be a people.

    We are deeply, even catastrophically, polarized: fractured along lines of racial and religious identity, along lines geographic, economic, and ideological. We seem to have little in common except our shared sense of alienation.

    The events of the past several years – the toll of the coronavirus pandemic; the protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, some of which were marred by violence; the January 6 riots at the Capitol, and the political and cultural chaos since – have all revealed the intensity of the fractures and fault lines within our society.

    What Covid did physically, this alienation has done politically: we have isolated from each other, withdrawn. What seems safe to us is to be out only for ourselves, or our own faction or tribe at the most. A 2021 study showed that 49 percent of Americans have three or fewer close friends, up from 27 percent in 1990. Twelve percent report that they have no close friends. In 1990, that number was just 3 percent. The personal is political: another recent poll reveals that over 30 percent of Americans want their state to secede from the union.

    But this social and political alienation reflects our alienation from ourselves. Many of us lack a sense of meaning in the world as it is, and the hope of the world to come. Statistics paint a picture of a national psyche that has been catastrophically damaged. The youngest Americans have experienced this loss most violently of all. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that a full three-quarters of adults under thirty say that people “just look out for themselves” most of the time.

    Meanwhile, religious affiliation in America is at an all-time low. About a quarter of Americans now say that they belong to no religious tradition, a percentage that goes up to 36 percent among young millennials and members of Generation Y.

    How do we guarantee the dignity of all human persons, and pursue a politics that at once affirms this dignity and affirms a wider spiritual reality?

    Suicides are on the rise: between 1999 and 2014, the American suicide rate increased by 35 percent. Suicide is now the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States – a figure that doesn’t take into account the broader figure of “deaths of despair”: deaths associated with overuse of alcohol or opioids. In a study conducted in 2019 – pre-Covid – researchers found that 61 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely: a rise of thirteen points from the year before.

    What we are left with is a culture in crisis. The fundamental building blocks of a flourishing culture – the beliefs, rituals, and structures capable of creating experiences of ultimate meaning, roles of transcendent purpose, and communities of trust and belonging – all are now too weak to sustain a polity, not to mention hope. As Joan Halifax has put it, “We are greiving the loss of hope.”

    Our task is therefore nothing less than to build a new culture of us.

    In order to do this, we must understand how we arrived here. Of course, there are many frequently cited factors: globalization, economic inequality and precarity, the acceleration of the pace of technological and economic change, the disruptive power of social media, racism, changing gender roles and sexual mores, and more. But our question takes a longer view: What is it about America today that has allowed us to get to this point – and how do we fix it?

    Our current crisis is related to a set of ideas we take for granted – a mindset with its roots in the political and religious debates of centuries past. This mindset, a blend of scientific positivism and political liberalism indebted to the philosophical and social movement we call the European Enlightenment, has in many regards been a beneficial one. It has contributed to enormous scientific progress, increased wealth, and improvements in physical health. It has spawned the era of individual rights and led to the emergence and spread of democratic government around the world.

    Most of us take all this for granted. We take for granted the power to think and act for ourselves, to demand accountability from government institutions, to choose our direction in life freely, and these things are indeed good.

    But there is a hidden cost to all this: all too often, this mindset leaves most of us without any way to understand, search for, or find shared meaning, purpose, and belonging. At the heart of the contemporary mindset is the tendency to understand our search for ultimate meaning and purpose as a matter of individual choice rather than discerned and jointly experienced reality; as a purely personal and therefore politically and epistemologically suspect quest, rather than a truth to be lived out together. Our inherent hunger for truth, beauty, goodness, and love are typically viewed as merely subjective whims that have no verifiability, and which can therefore have no role in our institutions and our politics. We may be scientific realists, but we are no longer spiritual realists, willing and able to treat our hunger for purpose, meaning, and community as pointing to necessary elements of human life – as something more than a purely personal or private desire.

    Our current way of thinking is deficient in ways that are making us sick and scared, and separated from the gifts and values that make life meaningful. We are blind to these gifts, refusing to receive them: often, we are blind simply because we don’t look, because our belief system has told us that there is nothing to look for. And the result is social and political enmity: not so much in the presence of economic or political factions, but in the absence of moral powers and spiritual gifts necessary to transcend them.

    There is something missing in our mental model of the universe, and that is related to something missing in our political and cultural practices and institutions. In our judgment, our current hyper-liberal worldview is neither empirically accurate or culturally sustainable. Our assurance that classical liberalism politically and materialism metaphysically are complete accounts of the world is not warranted.

    Our crisis is at its core a crisis of collective purpose. It is a crisis of the most important question in human life, both individual and political: What are we for? It is a spiritual and moral crisis that will require relearned and new skills and virtues; retrieved practices and perspectives; renewed structures and solutions: a new spiritual realism.

    To make our way out of this morass, to grasp on to this new spiritual realism, is, we believe, among the most urgent tasks of our era. Our goal is to begin to engage in practices and ask questions that aid us in that quest. We have our own commitments: we are a Catholic and an Episcopalian. But these practices and questions must be ones suited to a people with a variety of beliefs: not because we are relativists, but because we believe that the search for purpose and a spiritual foundation for life is universal.

    colorful clay houses

    Photograph by John Moeses Bauan

    If we are isolated from one another, alienated from our own selves, it is in part because American cultural life leads us to believe that it is our purpose to be individuals first, members of a community second. Our atomization, our alienation within a cultural and economic system displaying little regard either for the dignity of human life, or for the worth of human beings beyond their productive output, has rendered us not merely lonely, not merely mistrustful, not merely disenfranchised with regard to earthly power, but divorced from our very selves: from what human beings are, and what we hunger to be, and what we should be.

    In order to combat American fragmentation, therefore, we first must combat American alienation. We must build the new skills and stories and solutions necessary for a world in which our meaning and purpose are centered on transcendent principles: the pursuit of the Good, and the dignity of each person. We must restructure our educational, business, and cultural life around institutions that bring those principles to life.

    We see this moment as one of enormous opportunity. We will, we must, grow in the knowledge of what is missing from the world we live in now, and in the knowledge of what we are called to do. We believe that this will foster a new understanding of civic virtue: a shared social goodness that we all are called to cultivate. In this shared good, we are all called to find joy: a goodness reflected both in the integrated life of the person and the health of the community in which that person lives.

    We must, in other words, work to structure a society around the promise of human flourishing: a flourishing that needs as a baseline economic stability and justice, but which then supports us in sharing our lives with one another, not as mere economic agents, but as full human beings.

    Human beings with a sense of their place in the world, of belonging.

    Human beings with faith in the ultimate goodness of life, and of its meaning.

    Human beings with a sense of purpose.

    In order to do this, we need to become spiritual realists.

    Part II: How Did We Get Here?

    The fragmentation we see in contemporary America can be traced, at least in part, to the ambiguous relationship we have with the legacy of the liberal project. Both America’s progressive left and its reactionary right are responding in different ways to different elements of liberalism’s failings, while attempting to preserve distinct elements of liberalism’s gifts.

    So what, exactly, is liberalism, and why does it matter? It is a political philosophy with implicit metaphysical commitments, which arose during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe and America. In its developed form, it holds that individuals have the right, and the ability, not just to choose the path of their lives based on what they believe will help them to flourish, but to determine what, in fact, that flourishing might consist of.

    What is a human being, and what should a human being be? Those questions themselves, are, in liberalism’s most radical form, up for personal self-determination. It is a political project, but it’s also a kind of theological anthropology, a statement about what kind of beings we fundamentally are.

    We are, in liberalism’s view, what we will to be: we are self-determining beings, deciding on our own natures, with no unchosen obligations, rather than beings who receive our essential nature as a gift and who are born into possibilities grounded in that gift. Liberalism has, too, implications for our economic systems: in envisioning the primacy of our immediate desires as constitutive of our authentic flourishing, the liberal project is perfectly suited for the capitalistic economic systems that developed alongside it. What we want, we pay for. The value of a thing is what a buyer pays for it. And that is all that needs to be said about what is good and why.

    The American vision of the self, encoded in our founding documents as well as our broader cultural mythology, is – perhaps more than in any other nation – wedded to this liberal tradition. Drawing upon the philosophy of Enlightenment-era thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, American political culture has always stressed self-reliance, the individualistic pursuit of happiness, and the freedom of private choice as the cornerstones of a society where personal self-mastery and political self-governance intersect.

    Self-reliance and self-rule are not bad things, but they are not the whole of what a person needs to thrive: we must rule ourselves in accord with our hunger for ultimate goodness, not just in accord with our own desires, and we must recognize our fundamental dependence on others, a dependence seen most clearly at the beginning and end of life. And we must recognize that the happiness that we pursue is not ephemeral pleasure, but the eudaimonia of the ancients: true well-being, the flourishing of a human being in a human community.

    A final strand of American liberal thought is its fascination with “neutrality.” The idea of the polity as fostering and protecting an ostensibly neutral public square, a pluralist space free of prior metaphysical commitments in which dialogue can take place, has become an integral part of our commitment to a separated church and state. The specter of the sixteenth century Wars of Religion makes any public claim to truth, and especially to know what is really good, seem dangerous.

    At its best, this neutrality is an expression of epistemic humility: a commitment to the notion that our best shot at discerning truth together in a way that respects the dignity of each of us will come when institutions and polities do not attempt to promulgate a single viewpoint. A pluralist culture, which not only welcomes but celebrates the embodied and enculturated distinctiveness of human persons (rather than, say, state-mandated homogeneity), is among the most attractive elements of the American dream.

    But a liberal neutrality that forgets this fundamental humility risks using the rhetoric of reason in the service of a religion of its own “self-evident” present values. Urging a polity to caution in making metaphysical or religious pronouncements is the course of wisdom. Freedom of conscience is one of the goods associated with liberalism which has proved its worth. But pretending that any polity can or should be fully neutral about what is meaningful, what is real, and the elements of a good life, is foolishness.

    We do and indeed should make moral claims, based in reason and in the discernment of our natures: what actually does lead humans to thrive. We do and should make moral commitments in the choices we make in our shared lives. We do this in our families, in our groups of friends – and in the life of the commonwealth. To pretend that we do not is simply to obscure from others and ourselves an empirically verifiable pattern: our conscious intending assumes the search for an unconditioned truth, value, and meaning. There is a “spark in our clod,” as the theologian Bernard Lonergan wrote: “our native orientation toward the divine.”

    We are bearers of a dignity that is given to us and not earned.

    It is often said that one should not legislate morality. But ultimately, it is unjust to legislate anything other than morality: if something is a matter of moral indifference, surely it is tyrannical to have a law proscribing it. All policies, and all politics, rest on moral premises – spoken or unspoken. In the case of our contemporary liberal politics, a primary moral premise is the ideal of the self-determining individual. There is little distinction, in a liberal understanding of freedom, between what we might want, in the sense of a current strong personal desire, and what we ultimately do and ought to want, in the sense of what our endpoint is as human beings: what will actually fulfill us. After all, the logic goes, are we not the best and only possible judges of what is best for us? From what standpoint can what I desire be criticized? What we aspire to in the moment is sanctified; what limits us is thought to be destructive of our ability to reach these aspirations.

    And yet – we are inherently limited, and our moral and spiritual search is never complete. We are embodied beings, who have been given the gift of existence – and the inevitable companion to such existence, limited understanding. We have been given it by our parents at the very least; the religious aspect of our tradition would point out that this gift is not only from our parents. Our lives are always bound up with those of our communities, our families, and our fellow-citizens. We are not exclusively “self-makers,” pursuing the American dream of personal prosperity and self-actualization in isolation from others.

    As inheritors of the American liberal intellectual tradition we have inherited, too, its problems. How do we guarantee – as the best of the liberal project seeks to do – the inalienable worth of every person, including a respect for the dignity of their inner intellectual and moral life, without reducing people to mere constellations of private desires, and private choices?

    How do we engage meaningfully with how un-chosen and non-universal aspects of ourselves shape our life experiences; how our race, sex, class, and other elements of our identity inform how we perceive and experience the world? How do we do this without sacrificing the notion of something irreducible, a human nature and a moral exigency that are shared by us all; a reason that allows us to truly communicate even across difference? How, too, do we embrace rootedness – the sense that we as human beings need not just a shared moral community in the present but a connection to what has come before us, and indeed what will come after – without falling prey to the blood-and-soil rhetoric of nationalism?

    How do we guarantee the dignity of all human persons, and pursue a politics that at once affirms this dignity and affirms a wider spiritual reality? Part of our dignity, after all, includes our communal life and our shared quest: first for purpose, and then to fulfill that purpose. Without something beyond liberalism, or behind it, even those goods that liberalism vaunts itself on preserving will be lost. How can we preserve the goods associated with liberalism, while rooting them in something better-suited to address questions of ultimate truth?

    Part III: The Landscape of Liberalism’s Decline

    Over the past few years, and in particular during the Trump Presidency, which saw so many rhetorical and procedural norms of liberalism break down, we have seen a number of different ideological groups emerge, each with an ambiguous relationship to the liberal order.

    The first of these camps we might call broadly the “techno-utopians”: those optimistic that technological advances, in rendering literal – often via digital avatar – the subtextual force of our desires, can help people become their best selves. It is the successor to what critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified in 1995 as the “Californian Ideology”: a distinctly American, philosophically libertarian technocracy.

    In this camp we find the bigwigs of Silicon Valley, people like Google’s Sergey Brin or Tesla’s Elon Musk. We may find, too, explicit transhumanists, like the notoriously contrarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel: those who believe that through technological advance we might, for example, indefinitely postpone aging or death, or use computer technology to enhance our cognitive power. We find it in the rationalist community, with their conviction that – with the right tools and training – human beings can “hack” our wetware.

    But we find it, too, in behemoths of modern corporate wellness culture and in commodified practices of self-care. These cultural practices are massively enabled by the smartphone, that tool of untrammeled self-creation. This self-creation can be purely personal, or can be used for economic ends, or else for that increasingly porous space in between: the influencer economy.

    What unifies these groups is a fundamental optimism about a particular understanding of the aspirational self as we have defined here: a self defined primarily by its wants, whose telos is self-making, and secondarily by its faith in instrumental reason. Human ingenuity is best used in the service of the creation of products and strategies to be used, in turn, to optimize individual human life (and, of course, to do so profitably): to improve productivity. We “life-hack” in order to free up the maximum amount of leisure time – leisure time which is, in turn, dedicated to the kind of self-care that boosts our ability to be efficient workers, or to the events and adventures which, recorded on social media, enhance our influence, or provide us with “experience” as a consumer commodity.

    colorful clay houses

    This is not the leisure which Josef Pieper called the basis of culture. It is “leisure” that is purely vacant. There is nothing to contemplate in this imitation of the contemplative life.

    The life we “hack” is, nonetheless, too often a solipsistic one, turned inwards towards our own chosen ends. Flourishing is replaced by self-actualization, mediated through consumption and HR-department “nudges.” Lest this seem hyperbolic, it’s worth noting that in May 2021, Amazon announced the launch of its new “AmaZen” program, which purported to show warehouse workers meditation videos in order to improve employee conditions. The “conditions” being improved are entirely private, a psychological self-reliance that betrays the hunger for some form of shared meaning and value.

    Far more solidaristic is the group that, in theory at least, most explicitly counters this capitalist Silicon Valley culture: the progressive activists often considered under the umbrella term of the “social justice” movement. Resolutely postliberal in its rhetoric, particularly in its critiques of the ideals of untrammeled free speech and standpoint neutrality, these movements prioritize the epistemology of lived experience. Our lived experiences, within this model, are primarily mediated through the structures of power that determine our inculturated identity. What it means to belong to a particular race, gender, class, or orientation is to have our lives primarily shaped by the way in which we interact with the hegemonic power structures ruling our world.

    Just as Silicon Valley techno-utopianism has permeated the culture outside the Bay Area, so too has progressive social justice activism permeated the wider cultural consciousness beyond the college campuses on which it first began. As many as eight percent of Americans, according to a study by the think tank More in Common, belong to the category of “progressive activist.”

    At their best, these latter groups and movements offer a profound and necessary challenge to ideals of liberal neutrality, and to overly idealized notions of common sense or rationality or neutrality that rest instead on the perspectives of the powerful. They offer a vision of human solidarity and of human vulnerability.

    Social justice culture advocates for vast collective action, for systematic changes to oppressive or toxic power structures, changes that are not merely procedural but also ideological. It has, too, a sense of flourishing, and of human telos: our purpose is to work for justice; our end, like a secular kingdom of heaven, is a solidaristic world.

    But this social justice culture, too, can easily slip into a false promise – a kind of power-brokering without a universal dignity or morality to direct it. Even at its best, this identity-focused politics cannot deliver on its promise of flourishing. Emphasizing difference, suspicious of “essentialism,” these politics do not allow us to speak of a shared human nature and a given human telos, of identity that is unrelated to one’s position within a hierarchy of oppression. A cycle of critique is launched but rarely is it mediated by a creative vision of how to balance prophetic challenges to the status quo with the healing and transformative gifts of love and unity.

    Acting on our obligations to each other will lead us to a renewed experience of a true common good.

    How do we not merely reapportion power, but create a world in which power structures themselves serve – as much as possible – a better way of being, and true human solidarity? We need a material analysis as well as a cultural analysis of inequality: all too often, when these ideas reach the mainstream, the latter is prioritized over the former. This becomes a kind of moral bread and circuses on the part of corporations: we are given identity-political rhetoric and representation over substantive structural change: a woman can be a CEO, for example, without any changes to the business’s ownership structure.

    We need, too, ways of accounting for human difference, distinctiveness, and givenness outside categories of power and oppression, but without returning to the isolation of liberal individualism. And we need, however quixotic it may seem, a promise of human solidarity, and the human experience, that can be truly universal: a promise that may demand not only the restoration and protection of the marginalized, but also redemption and, yes, even forgiveness of those who once did the marginalizing.

    The promise of human flourishing must be that a good society is good for people, and indeed for all people. It must contend with the idea that excessive wealth, or unjust forms of political power, are bad not merely for those who do not possess them, and to whom they might in part be redistributed. Rather, unjustly held and exercised power is bad too for the powerful themselves. No political critique can stand that does not give us, fundamentally, a hermeneutic with which to discuss the relationships between individual human persons – the fundamental basis of political life – as opposed to abstractions or lists of qualities.

    We must now turn to another model of postliberal thought, one we find in primarily conservative and even reactionary spaces. It is a model shared by some among the (primarily) white “barstool conservative” and culturally Evangelical community that serves as a new populist base for the Republican Party, by some (though not all) strands of the more explicitly intellectual Christian postliberal movement, as well as by some of the followers of “anti-woke” figures like Jordan Peterson, and by more extreme atavistic pockets of the alt-right and reactionary far right.

    These more explicit critiques of liberalism tend to emphasize a Romantic fantasy of rootedness, and a nostalgia for periods in history – such as the American 1950s – when, they believe, American culture was itself more rooted. It is linked, too, to fetishized imaginings of Western European civilization (often at the expense of engaging beyond a fetishized level with the cultural artifacts of that civilization), and to an insistence on identity that would conflate human biological or even cultural origin with the totality of our experiences and abilities; at its crudest, this becomes an explicit white nationalism.

    Ironically, this camp is most likely to take as its primary oppositional target not liberalism proper, but rather the social justice activists we’ve discussed above (and, in particular, the confluence of the first and second groups: the alliance between “woke capitalism” and progressive activism). Within the reactionary/atavist paradigm, proponents of social justice are too liberal, precisely because they locate the mechanisms of our givenness in culture, rather than, as they see it, Nature.

    One thing they react against is the aspect of the social justice movement which, following Marxism, advocates a “blank slate” theory of human nature, in which social mores and historical processes alone determine who a person is. The atavists can, at times, throw themselves entirely into the opposite camp: all is biologically determined; there is very little sense of common human nature, and the “second nature” which was so important to Aristotle is dismissed. This is particularly striking in what might be called the post-Christian right.

    This vision has more in common with techno-utopian, capitalist visions of the aspirational self than it would allow. Both the brutal atavist self and the capitalist self see the self in terms of power and will, rather than mutuality or solidarity. The self is defined, in either case, by its position within the dominance hierarchy; in both cases, its position within that hierarchy of dominance is legitimated with recourse to an idea of innate merit. The rootedness of the self does not translate into positive accounts of the self’s contingency, still less the self’s vulnerability. It is not a rootedness, in other words, with compassion for actual human persons, defined by our relationship to one another. We have a telos, but that telos is indistinguishable from mere evolutionary process; it is a will to power, nothing more.

    It is understandable that, in running from these versions of postliberalism, many would seek refuge in a renewal of classical liberalism, committing with renewed energy to free speech as the panacea to overcome progressive and reactionary power politics. Surely “Red” and “Blue” need only talk with one another, and then our cultural fragmentation will be solved.

    Yet this faith in the power of dialogue risks confusing method with result. Dialogue, qua dialogue, may indeed be the most valuable way for us to discover what indeed our telos is as human beings, but it cannot substitute for that telos, and contemporary centrism risks emphasizing the importance of free speech at the expense of truth.

    Each of these groups responds, in their own way, to the liberal order: adapting it, assimilating to it, and opposing it (and often all three at once). And we can find, within the wider discourse, valuable insights in these various attempts:

    • the need to preserve human dignity
    • the importance of a degree of self-determination and creative possibility
    • a way to account meaningfully for differences in lived experience
    • the desire to speak of a fundamental shared human nature and consciousness
    • the desire to understand and cultivate human rootedness
    • an affirmation of the way in which both cultural and biological factors impact us
    • finally, the need to understand ourselves as beings who, far from being self-creators, are fearfully and wonderfully created

    Yet these insights cannot be taken up one by one. The postliberal and liberal distortions above are distortions precisely because they emphasize some of these ideas at the expense of others, brutalizing reality and actual human beings in the process. They demand a unifying approach, one that is both spiritual and political: that makes sense of who we are and how we can live together.

    Part IV: The Culture of Us

    Identifying the roots of our collective political, and indeed spiritual malaise is only part of the problem. The challenge of our time is to shift from criticism to construction – from fighting old wars to creating new institutions of shared flourishing.

    That flourishing must transcend individualistic notions of profit or success and equip us to live with greater awareness of our inner tug toward the ultimate goodness, beauty, truth, and love which are the only things capable of overcoming fear, oppression, pain, and despair. The challenge is clear, bold, and urgent: for centuries, our conception of meaning has been centered on the all-important individual. That focus has proved materially powerful, politically liberating, but devastating to our hunger for ultimate meaning and value.

    We need a conception of meaning that is centered on the transcendent Good, on the wholeness from which individual dignity comes, and which is manifested in the basic structure of human knowing and acting. We need to recognize that wholeness is first and most importantly a matter of relationship. We are born in and for relationships: we are indeed individual selves, but those selves can never thrive without connection to others. That connection preserves the sanctity of the individual and the sanctity of interdependence.

    We need, in other words, institutions that understand who and what we are. We are bearers of a dignity that is given to us and not earned. We are called to a quest to live out that dignity in seeking the highest good alongside others. We are social creatures who depend on our capacity to cross the boundary of the solipsistic self to find belonging. Our need as human beings, our shared telos, does not lie simply in the accumulation of personal profit but instead lies in awakening to joy, to justice, and to love.

    Decades ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked whether evil is more powerful than good. His reply can help shape the terms of our challenge in this moment: “Evil is not more powerful than good,” Tutu replied, “but it is better organized!” The challenge of our time is to organize around what we have called spiritual realism – to focus on the ideas, institutions, and narratives capable of being the pillars of a renewed culture of meaning, purpose, and belonging.

    If the long arc of Enlightenment thinking has left us starved of ultimate meaning, purpose, and belonging, and even in some cases calloused to that hunger, our challenge now is to re-awaken it. We must experience it, and then, together, allow ourselves to hope that it might be satisfied. We must preserve the goods of liberalism, but on a profoundly different basis.

    colorful clay houses

    That is the great challenge of our time: to create institutions capable of harmonizing our spiritual hunger for meaning and value while protecting our individual demand for dignity and self-determination.

    While this challenge is enormous, practices grounded in spiritual realism are already common, though they often go unnoticed.

    Americans are hungering for alternatives to purely materialist and temporal models of human life. This hunger is seen in increasing interest in mindfulness practices, in wisdom traditions, in organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the mystical traditions. Many at work in these fields, as in the camps outlined above, are attempting to take on the post-Enlightenment challenge of reconciling self-determination, political neutrality, and the power of reason with the search for meaning, purpose, and belonging.

    Rather than debating these concepts abstractly, however, proponents of these perspectives seek experiential and practical approaches. They hold that we are fundamentally interdependent. We do not make ourselves; we cannot live only for ourselves. Such perspectives share a belief that ultimate meaning is present not so much in concept but in the very fabric of our knowing, our searching, and our loving. It is revealed in mystery, in story, in relationship, and most completely, in falling in love with God. This claim of ultimate meaning is made not through arbitrary assertion, but in an invitation to the direct experience of unconditional love at the center of awareness itself.

    Rather than debating these concepts abstractly, however, proponents of these perspectives seek experiential and practical approaches. They hold that we are fundamentally interdependent. We do not make ourselves; we cannot live only for ourselves. Such perspectives share a belief that ultimate meaning is present not so much in concept but rather in mystery, in story, and in relationship.

    In this pursuit, we must be open to our own traditions and to the wisdom traditions of the world, as well as to new insight from the sciences: an applied spiritual realism.

    1. A belief in the givenness of human dignity

    Everyone is sacred and deserves to be treated with dignity. There are no exceptions. The Christian tradition draws on Jewish sacred literature and speaks of people being made “in the image of God,” and further, of creation being made “good.” However one understands these things, the importance of human beings, of each of us human beings, is not up for grabs. It is not earned by producing value; it is not forfeited by having a poor “quality of life.” It is that in each of us which is good, and which commands, at all times, the honor and respect of our fellow men and women.

    The foundation of a free and harmonious polity is what has been called the common good, experienced in part as the tug of the ultimate in our social lives, an encounter with grace, an awareness of being held, a felt participation in something bigger.

    2. Practices of silence, contemplation, and attention

    Institutions grounded in spiritual realism flourish when they make practices of silence and non-reactive awareness central. Silence nurtures the space within. The distraction of debate, of whatever has popped up on our smartphones, does its best to drown out this human inwardness, this art of attention. Recovery of the skill of attention, including attention to the natural world, reveals a deeper connection to reality and a deeper trust in Being itself: the non-contingent Being from which our contingent being derives. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher and mystic, said centuries ago, “All human evil comes from this: our inability to sit still in a chair for half an hour.” To nurture this ability will be central to the recovery of meaning, purpose, and belonging.

    3. Practices of deep listening, empathy, and forgiveness

    These practices are increasingly recognized for their power to increase understanding and promote creative problem solving. In other words, these practices are not only helpful for internal work, but also for aligning with others in creating reconciled communities, balancing the prophetic critique necessary in the face of injustice with the love and forgiveness necessary to reknit the bonds of peace. Think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation to create the “beloved community” by nonviolent methods. He held fast to his conviction that racism was a scourge on the soul of America but equally saw that compassionate nonviolent connection with others was the means by which to create a new “more perfect union” among all.

    4. Building relationships of dignity and affection

    Both personal and collective flourishing in a world of difference will increasingly depend on our capacity to create institutions that encourage and promote relationships: true friendships that banish loneliness. These friendships are, fundamentally, based on our common human nature, and as such they can be ways of crossing boundaries of identity, background, and experience.

    We look to institutions to provide cultural and social meaning and belonging, but we now need institutions that provide meaning and belonging without creating superiority over or hatred of other groups. To know and believe in the dignity of all is one thing; to create the safety and purpose that comes from being a part of a “tribe” without humiliating the tribes of others is another. Human history is replete with tribes who hate and demonize. It is more rare to find those who know how to find safety and belonging in one’s own social group while remaining open to and respectful to others.

    We must, too, be willing to find friendship in pursuit of the Good which is not the unique possession of any tribe. To stand firmly with conviction and listen deeply with compassion – that is the quality of heart and mind necessary to identify transformative solutions to the challenges of our time.

    5. Pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful

    Institutions of meaning, purpose, and belonging will be only as effective as the clarity of their purpose in achieving a transcendent goal. “Purpose-driven” lives, institutions, and organizations will articulate their reason for being in terms that advance a goal that leads to greater justice and joy for all. These goals will fundamentally be goals of service to others, and to the good which is beyond us all. Even competitive institutions will increasingly require a purpose larger than the defeat of the other or the material advancement of the participants. And increasingly these articulations of purpose will depend on internal structures of power, such as cooperative ownership and workplace democracy, that affirm the value of all rather than the control of few.

    6. Solidarity with those who suffer

    The wisdom and insights necessary to create a world of spiritually realistic people and institutions will invariably come in large part from those who have experienced suffering of various kinds, including cultural, political, and economic marginalization: with those that the Christian tradition has referred to as “the poor.” The future, therefore, will depend on the extent to which circles of belonging are routinely opened to these people. Institutions must “meet those marginalized where they are at so that the margins may someday be erased,” as Father Greg Boyle has written.

    Part V: The Way Forward

    Are we idealistic? Not if that means that we are impractical. We do not need to invent, or reinvent, anything. We only need to look: the pathways to ultimate meaning, purpose, and belonging are hiding in plain sight, in our selves, our traditions, and the wisdom traditions of the world.

    Think of Lincoln’s “malice toward none,” words spoken in the midst of the most divisive and bloody conflict in American history. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exhortation to create the “beloved community” despite brutal oppression. Think of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s focus on the African concept of “Ubuntu,” which loosely translates as “I am because we are.” Consider the moral courage of Jane Addams, the mystical consciousness of Thomas Merton, the nature-infused spirituality of Mary Oliver, the raw truth-telling of Fannie Lou Hamer, the unbridled resilience of Sojourner Truth. Think of the words of the late Pope Benedict XVI, who on World Youth Day in 2007 spoke to the young people in his audience in words that captured precisely the boldness that we are calling for:

    I want to invite you to “dare to love.” Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful and that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who vanquished hatred and death forever through love.

    Each of them embodies a different story, a unique lens on meaning and purpose. But each bears the marks of a mind not trapped in narrow individualism or despair but instead rooted in the Good. So rooted, these thinkers were imbued with a belief in universal dignity, the moral courage to cross boundaries of exclusion and hostility, the practices of both justice and joy, the capacity to see beyond the narrow interests of any given conflict to discover the possibilities of transcendence.

    And it’s not just individuals; it’s institutions too. The kinds of institutions we envision are, happily, already being brought to life by innovators in economic, social, religious, and political walks of life. Throughout the country and the world, groups large and small are being shaped by a belief in the dignity of people, the interconnectedness of all life, by a willingness to cross divides to develop experiences of common good, and more.

    These types of institutions are everywhere and hiding in plain sight. Consider the worldwide Special Olympics movement where almost ten million people a year volunteer, train, compete, and advocate for justice in education, healthcare, and employment – all based on the shared dignity of those who are often devalued and even destroyed by paradigms that see human worth only in those who are “fit.”

    Consider the millions of lives saved from the scourge of malaria because of the cooperation of governments, civil society organizations, medical experts, philanthropists, and health care workers.

    Consider the generations of Americans who have championed a robust, even mandatory, experience of national service in which higher purpose is ingrained, boundaries and labels overcome, and moral courage embodied.

    Iconic American initiatives like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, USA Freedom Corps, City Year, The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Interfaith Youth Corps and dozens of service initiatives led by Lions, Rotarians, and religious institutions all offer a kind of citizen training in the kinds of virtues and skills suited to spiritual realists.

    We recognize that these institutions are often dismissed as being idealistic. It is unfashionable, in many circles, to appeal, at least explicitly, to such concepts as truth or goodness. Yet we hold that the most practical strategy is the one most likely to inspire the greatest action from the greatest number in search of the most just and joyful outcome – that far from being naively idealistic, these strategies are rigorously empirical, pragmatic, and possible.

    It is precisely by appealing to these universal truths, rather than to either partisan political ones or to narrowly conceived individualistic notions of personal success, that we might help foster a more unified polity. It is only by robustly defending the core principle that all people are sacred, and deserve without exception to be treated with dignity, that we can make any claims to the value of a polity beyond the brutal power games and Darwinian status hierarchies into which they all too often devolve. It is only by inviting people to respond to their noblest aspirations and their deepest longing that we create sustainable change.

    We must demonstrate, in the structures of institutions, in the organization of our common life, in the economic and logistical commitments made by our public servants, a continuing conviction that the world is an inherently meaningful place, rather than a mere staging-ground for interpersonal competition, and that the life of each human being, too, has meaning.

    We cannot, in other words, repair America’s fractured landscape through words alone. No promise of telos, nor of spiritual renewal, in this country can be realized without action private and public: a re-awakening not just of individual rights but of our obligations to one another, in families, in communities, and in the polity. Acting on these obligations, in rekindled civil friendship with each other, is what will lead us to a renewed experience of a true common good: a just and merciful picture, even if always imperfectly realized, of the shalom that one strand of our traditions paints as the telos of each human person, and of all our communities.

    To help America heal, we call upon the American people to pursue this goal of spiritual realism together, in friendship. And we call on those in power and our public servants to lead by example: to prioritize the common good and common life over private interest, and to seek to reknit the fabric of our institutions and our country so that we may all live well with one another, in justice, truth, and peace. All of us, with none left behind.

    Contributed By portrait of Tim Shriver Tim Shriver

    Tim Shriver is the longtime chair of Special Olympics, the cofounder of the social and emotional learning movement, and recently the founder of UNITE.

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    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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