On spiritual environmentalism
A few weeks ago, I sat down for a long chat with Rabbi Michael Lerner. The first half — most directly related to environmental issues — is here. The second half, wherein in we discuss general spiritual and theological issues, is below.
In his new book The Left Hand of God (you can read an excerpt here), Lerner says the religious right offers what he calls the right hand of God: a stern authoritarian father, who punishes sin, demands self-reliance, and inspires fear. The political right has gained momentum and adherents in recent years, Lerner says, because only conservative Christianity has been vocally and unapologetically addressing the spiritual needs of Americans, their quest for meaning in a materialist, consumerist culture.
Lerner thinks progressives should offer an alternative: the left hand of God, a loving, nurturing presence that forgives imperfection and inspires a sense of hope and wonder.
DR: You say that the universe is not morally neutral — that God is on the side of good. Is that not merely because of your position on the continuum between fear and hope? How is this not relativism?
RML: I think it is a state of privilege to be able to hear the voice of love.
How you hear God’s voice is a function of contingent factors in your life. That doesn’t mean what I believe about God is nothing. I believe my take on God is a real, true take on God. I think there are objective moral truths. It’s better to decrease unnecessary human suffering than to increase it. There are other people whose moral intuitions say it’s better to have a society where some special people will excel even though the rest are suffering. That’s another moral intuition. I think it’s wrong. The fact that I understand they have a competing moral intuition doesn’t make it necessary for me to agree with it.
I’m not trying to argue anybody into anything. I’m trying to show people what it would look like to hear the left hand of God, and ask them: Isn’t this also how you hear it? I’m trying to help people realize they do hear it that way, only they haven’t let themselves because they’re convinced nobody else in the world hears it that way, and they’ll be seen as crazy if they do.
I don’t have a knockdown argument for why you’ve gotta believe the left hand of God is significant. I’m saying: come with me and let me show you how it looks here. Come out of the closet as spiritual people. There’s a huge number of people in this society who have spiritual intuitions, only they think their fellow members of the Sierra Club, or the ACLU, or the anti-war movement will think they’re kooks if they talk about it.
Last night, after a speech, one guy comes up to me and says, "You’re so right about the religio-phobia on the left. Just two days ago I said to a friend of mine at work, ‘Oh I can’t do that, on Sunday I’m going to church,’ and the guy turns to me and says, ‘Oh I thought you were a Democrat.’" The assumption is deep that if you’re into spiritual stuff you’re a reactionary.
DR: Obviously there’s a quest for meaning in what is a fairly soulless consumer culture. But it seems to me that part of what people are searching for when they go to faith traditions is a sense of belonging and safety. Some boundaries: people who belong to the faith tradition and people who don’t. Whereas, the kind of spirituality you’re advocating is very much open and vulnerable — not safe at all. The least safe you can be is giving up ego. I’m not sure that’s what people want, no matter how good it might be for them. People want to have a tribe, an us and a them, don’t you think?
RML: There’s no reason you can’t have a tribe and be in friendly relationships with other tribes. There have been many such realities in the world, including the 12 tribes who created the people of Israel. The same thing is true of family: You don’t have to fight with other families to have the security of your own family. Having the safety of a particular does not necessarily mean a relationship of struggle with other particulars. That’s coming from a fearful worldview.
We can be kind and generous toward each other. You say every tribe fights with every other, like it’s obvious. But if we need another to fight with, for the next 100 years that other could be the destruction of the environment. If there needs to be an enemy, how about past generations for having done so much ecological damage? Let’s put all our energy into repairing.
DR: If a non-human enemy were compelling — if that really got our lizard brains squirting dopamine — why would we be pouring absurd amounts of resources into a fight against a small band of radical Muslims, surrounded meanwhile by vast ecological destruction?
RML: You could have made that argument in 1968 about the war in Vietnam.
Yes, there are some people who have a very narrow view of the world, and others who can help them develop a different kind of worldview. But they can’t do it with elitism toward people who don’t agree. We in the environmental movement often seem to be saying: you are stupid because you don’t yet see the world the way we see the world. That message makes it impossible for people to hear the wisdom in anything else we have to say.
DR: You have the Thomas Frank What’s the Matter with Kansas theory, which says that benighted Midwesterners and Southerners are stupidly voting against their material interests in favor of moral values. Right or wrong: obviously condescending.
But it seems to me you’re saying: while it makes perfect sense to vote your values, or spiritual well-being, these benighted Midwesterners and Southerners are wrong about what their real spiritual needs are. There’s still plenty to feel condescended to about.
RML: The book is not about the hardcore right. It’s about the tens of millions of people who have moved to the right. I’m talking about the people who constituted a Democratic Party majority from 1930 to 1980. What I know about them is based on a huge amount of empirical observation.
There were over 10,000 people in our study. [Editor’s note: In 1982, at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, Lerner led a multimillion-dollar research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health; it focused on work and family life.] Most people working on my project couldn’t believe the stuff about spirituality they were hearing, because they had an elitist view about working-class consciousness. They thought spiritual needs or higher-meaning needs were something liberals had, or academics had, or intellectuals had, but that ordinary people — they only had material needs. It took thousands of people before a consensus arrived that, yeah, this is real.
I don’t believe there is anything elitist in saying we have an approach to spirituality that could talk to people on a deep level about their needs.
Somebody has to articulate it. Most of the response I get to my book is: thank you for putting into words intuitions I already had. There are a lot of people with similar intuitions about the need for a world based on love, kindness, generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, awe, and wonder, who never heard that articulated in the liberal and progressive world. The only place they heard anything vaguely like this was in religious-right communities.
DR: I guess I would classify myself as an atheist.
RML: Let me say something about that. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is open to people who are spiritual but don’t believe in God — spiritual, but not religious. People who have no belief in God, but who recognize that there’s a spiritual dimension to human reality.
DR: I’m not sure exactly what that means.
RML: "Spiritual" refers to all those aspects of reality that are not verifiable through sense data, and not measurable. All ethical, aesthetic, and love experience. All parts of reality that cannot be described in a scientistic paradigm.
DR: Have you not just defined spirituality in such a way that there is no non-spiritual person? Surely everyone believes in aesthetic or ethical or romantic sentiment. Surely there’s no one not spiritual in that way.
RML: The question is whether they validate that aspect of their experience as important enough to shape public policy and the way we live together.
The anti-spiritual consciousness was first developed by the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, in its struggle against feudalism. It tried to undermine the feudal order by adopting a narrow form of empiricism: that which is real is that which can be verified through sense data. It was a powerful tool against the feudal order. However, once capitalism succeeded in undermining the belief system that underlay feudalism, it had a problem. Namely, the capital class wanted to control people, and they thought religion would be a good vehicle for controlling them. So what they said was, we’ll make a compromise. You can have this religious stuff — in fact, we want you to have this religious stuff — on the weekends. Have it in church or in synagogue or in the mosque on the weekends. But when we go to our public life, we want to be governed only by criteria that are inter-subjectively verifiable through sense data, or measurable.
For themselves, they were more consistent. They were interested in maintaining the power of the new ruling class; they stuck with their materialist worldview. They wanted to keep spirituality out of the public sphere.
But its fundamental tenet — that which is real or that which can be known, depending on whether you’re going with an ontological or epistemological approach here, can be apprehended through sense data — cannot itself be verified through sense data! It is, by its own criteria, false or meaningless.
So why do people accept it? Because it’s obvious to everybody. Why is it obvious to everybody? That’s what it means to be in a religion: a system in which fundamental truths, which have no foundation, seem to everybody to be obvious.
I’m contending against that religious system. I’m saying it’s not true.
We can’t really keep the spiritual out of the public sphere. We think things ought to be different. What’s your "ought" about, then? You want to save the planet? Is that merely a subjective view that ought to be kept in church on Sunday? Or do you think it should affect public policy? If you bring in an ethical vision to the public sphere without a foundation, you’re subject to the empiricist argument.
DR: I’ve certainly heard the argument that there’s no basis for ethics outside of spiritualism or some form of religion.
RML: What I’m saying is outside of spirit. You said, everybody is spiritual by your definition. Yes, exactly. They just don’t take it seriously. I’m trying to get people to take that spiritual part of their consciousness seriously.
DR: What did you think of the recent consensus statement of evangelical leaders about climate change?
RML: I thought it was great. It’s a very important development.
DR: Do you think the current institutions of the religious right are capable of shifting in the direction you like?
RML: There is an inherent contradiction in the right between those who would keep government out of the public sphere and allow maximum individual freedom, and those genuinely committed to a religious and spiritual vision for the world. Those two are increasingly going to be in conflict, and the environment is one great possibility for winning some people over to a progressive spirituality. But not as long as the environmental movement has, like the rest of the left, a deep hostility toward religion and spirituality. Religious people will feel they can’t challenge the irresponsibility of the corporate order, or the irresponsibility of the global capitalist market, if it’s going to lead them to be identified with people who have nothing but scorn for them. The environmental movement desperately needs what we’re calling a progressive spirituality.
DR: Is it valid for the left to construct public policy with the explicit goal of changing people’s ethical or spiritual outlook? Do we want to rearrange physical infrastructure to encourage better spiritual values?
RML: Sure. Absolutely. Just as I support laws to prohibit people from smoking in public places, or to prohibit corporations from pouring pollutants into the environment, I want the government — the people — to construct a world where it’s safe for people to be loving or generous or ecologically sensitive. Do we want to change structures to encourage a certain kind of behavior? Absolutely.
DR: Even among non-libertarians, the notion that the public sphere is morally neutral has a pretty strong hold.
RML: No: it maximizes money and power. It doesn’t maximize love and caring and generosity. It doesn’t maximize ecological sanity. For those of us who want to save the planet, we have to recognize that the purported neutrality of the public sphere is a huge boost for those who believe money is the ultimate criterion.
DR: Do you consider yourself a capitalist? A socialist?
RML: We are agnostic with regard to economic theory. We don’t care what you call it. What we care about is that when you get down to making a decision, whether it’s in the board room or in a school room or in conference committee, that your criteria are ecological sanity, love and kindness, generosity, and awe and wonder at the universe. Enhancing those: That’s what a spiritual politics is.
DR: You say God is the force for love?
RML: God is the force that makes possible — not inevitable — the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be.