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Bringing God Into It

Rabbi Michael Lerner builds a community of spiritual progressives
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In the wake of a progressive shift in local politics, perhaps it’s time for Bellingham to re-engage with what motivated that outcome. Do you want to build a place that cares about the well-being of all rather than the greed of a few? Bellingham could be that place.

The political left struggles, Rabbi Michael Lerner believes, because it has abandoned the spiritual values that undergird it—kindness, compassion, generosity spur the left’s concerns for social justice and a benevolent approach to public policy, yet these things can’t be weighed by science or valued through the stock exchange. The left, the editor of Tikkun magazine argues, has ceased to talk about the motivators that lend meaning to people’s lives. Lerner is one of the nation’s most influential progressive intellectuals and political leaders.

“The left’s hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off,” he said. “So it becomes important to ask why.

“One reason is that conservatives have historically used religion to justify oppressive social systems and political regimes. Another reason is that many of the most rigidly anti-religious folk on the left are themselves refugees from repressive religious communities. Rightly rejecting the sexism, homophobia and authoritarianism they experienced in their own religious community, they unfairly generalize that to include all religious communities, unaware of the many religious communities that have played leadership roles in combating these and other forms of social injustice. Yet a third possible reason is that some on the left have never seen a religious community that embodies progressive values. But the left enjoyed some of its greatest success in the 1960s, when it was led by a black religious community and by a religious leader, Martin Luther King Jr.”

Indeed, Lerner points out, the great changes in American society—the end of slavery, the increase of rights for women and minorities—all have their progressive origins in the religious community. It’s time to reclaim that legacy, he said, and create a new community.

“It’s not true that the left is without belief,” he said. “The left is captivated by a belief I’ve called scientism.

“Science is not the same as scientism—the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification—all these spiritual dimensions of life—are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.

“Scientism extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society,” Lerner said. “It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives therefore insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.”

Liberalism, he argues, emerged as part of the broad movement against the feudal order, which taught that God had appointed people to their place in the hierarchical economic and political order for the good of the greater whole. Our current economic system, capitalism, was created by challenging the church’s role in organizing social life, and empirical observation and rational thought became the battering ram the merchant class used to weaken the church’s authority.

“The idea that people are only motivated by material self-interest became the basis for a significant part of what we now call the political left, or labor movement, and the Democratic Party,” Lerner said. “We reduce it to, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ But in the research I did with thousands of middle-income working-class people, I found that there was a pervasive desire for meaning and a purpose-driven life, and for recognition by others in a nonutilitarian way, and that the absence of this kind of recognition and deprivation of meaning caused a huge amount of suffering and could best be described as a deep spiritual hunger that had little to do with how much money people were making.

“Granted,” he said, “most people on the left would probably agree, in the abstract, that money can’t buy love (or meaning). But when it comes down to the choices they make in trying to formulate goals for a union or a political party or a social change organization, they often revert to their deeply internalized materialistic assumptions, which leads them to deny the potential efficacy of addressing the ‘meaning’ needs.

“Most people on the left already have a set of moral principles that guide their lives and have led them to be Democrats or Greens or social change activists,” Lerner said. “But their worldview makes them feel slightly embarrassed to acknowledge and articulate those values. And the intense skepticism about religion and spirituality on the left makes them reluctant to talk in a language that could be seen as inherently religious or spiritual. In this, they are reflecting a long history of indoctrination into the scientistic assumptions of the dominant secular society, assumptions that have shaped our educational system, permeated our economic marketplace and been internalized as “sophisticated thinking” by the self-appointed arbitrators of culture.

“If the left could recognize that the capitalist marketplace already imposes a set of values in the public sphere, it would understand that the most effective way to combat the challenge of the religious right is not to fight for values neutrality in a public sphere already fully permeated by the values of materialism and selfishness but instead to introduce a set of spiritual values with progressive content.”

Lerner calls it “A New Bottom Line.”

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