Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2006 

Spirituality and Culture

By Joan Chittister

Two pieces of religious literature indicate with special clarity the essential connectedness of spiritual maturity and cultural consciousness. The first call comes from Exodus 3:18, "On Horeb," the scripture tells, "the angel of YHVH appeared to Moses in the shape of a flame of fire, coming from the middle of a bush." There was the bush, blazing, but it was not being burnt up. "I must go and look at this strange sight," Moses said, "And see why the bush is not burnt."

Now YHVH saw him go forward to look and God called to him from the middle of the bush. 'Moses,' he said. 'Come no nearer. Take off your shoes, for the place where you are is holy ground.'

And then YHVH said, "I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free. I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them. So, I'm sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out."

The message is a dramatic one: Just at what would seem to be the moment of Moses' total immersion in the presence of God, God stops Moses—to teach him that his holiness depends on finding holiness where he stands and then by taking that energy to other people for their liberation.

Moses learns that holiness is made of virtues, not of visions; that holiness depends on being for the other; that holiness depends on being about something greater than the self, and; that holiness is being present to the Presence, everywhere it is and even where it seems it isn't.

The second story of culture and spirituality comes from the tales of the Hasidim:

A the story goes, an old rabbi of great wisdom whose fame had spread beyond his own congregation to villages and rabbis far on the other side of the mountains, one day suddenly died. The young rabbis were bereft: "Now," they asked, "what shall we do when our people look to us for guidance? Without the old master, where shall we get the answers to the great questions of life?" So they decided among themselves to pray and fast until the old man's holiness and wisdom would be infused into one of them.

And sure enough, one night in a dream, the old man appeared to one of the younger rabbis.

"Master," the young teacher said, "it is good that you have returned. Now, with you gone, the people look to us for answers to the great questions of life and we are still unsure. For instance, master, they demand to know: On the other side, of what account are the sins of youth?"

"The sins of youth?" the old man asked. "Why, on the other side the sins of youth are of no account whatsoever."

And the young rabbi said: "On the other side the sins of youth are of no account whatsoever?! Then, what has it all been about? On the other side, what sin is punished if not the sins of youth?" And the old man answered, slowly and clearly, "On the other side, that sin which is punished with constant and unending severity is the sin of false piety."

The point is clear: Piety is cultural. Holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to the times. Culture and spirituality, in other words, are of a piece.

As Moses and the old master both knew: The function of spirituality is not to protect us from our times; the function of spirituality is to enable us to leaven it and stretch it, and bless it, and break it open to the present will of God.

And what does all of that mean to us today? It means that the question for religious and spiritual people now must be: What cultural realities are challenging the will of God now and how can the word of God best challenge the culture if we are to be a progressive people, a spiritual people, a holy people?

The history of spirituality identifies three basic spiritual responses to culture: the intellectual, the relational, and the performative.

An intellectualist spirituality, the scholars define, is a spiritual life that is creed-centered. People who are creed-centered are concerned with a checklist of beliefs and committed to union with God—hopefully here, but definitely somewhere else.

An intellectualist spirituality is very good at drawing denominational lines, maintaining orthodoxy, identifying heretics and having personal mystical experiences. The intellectualist wants to stay and contemplate the bush, draw it to size, define its properties, dogmatize its meaning and describe the distance to and from it, at which point it becomes a mortal or a venial sin.

A relational spirituality, on the other hand, is committed to the development of human bonds as the preeminent model of the spiritual life.

The relationalist talks a lot about love and is willing to stay in Egypt, if necessary, bush or no bush, to keep the slaves company in their pain. Relational spirituality comforts the oppressed but does little to stop the oppression.

Finally, performative spirituality is action-centered. Performers in the spiritual life are "Our Father" people. They pray every day: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done," and then they do something to bring it.

Performers want to reform Egypt; they don't want to destroy the old system. They just want to make it better by carrying the burning bush back there to create a bright new world in the shell of the old whether the old world wants it or not.

The questions for us, then, are: What is our cultural situation now? And which type of spirituality is most needed now? And how do we build it? And what does that have to do with being either spiritual or progressive today in an era when for the first time in polling history the military superseded the church as "the most trusted institution," 55 to 25 percent?

Let's look briefly at the cultural situation of the Western world from 1960-2006: the era that has formed the spiritual life of most of the world today.

1. In this period, we experienced major shifts in the Western belief-value system. Family patterns changed; sex roles changed, and governments that talked freedom, justice and human rights have been riven with one corruption after another and so became less and less credible.

2. The most dramatic transformation of world view that has ever taken place in human history took place in this period: John Glenn, the first American astronaut, took from outer space the first picture we'd ever seen of our planet.

Up until that moment the human view of earth and its place in the universe had never been anything but theory and speculation and educated calculations. Up until that moment you and I knew where we lived only on the basis of artistic guesses. Now for the first time in history we could really see ourselves—in all our grandeur and in all our smallness.

3. This generation has seen scientific "progress" that is often more threat than a benefit. In these few years, science changed life and death, changed family and sex, and changed war from struggle to annihilation. It changed human conception and human communication and changed human creation from critically unique to specifically cloned. Finally, science has managed, in our generation, to change the very meaning of "meaning."

4. In this era military security has become our highest priority, our greatest expenditure, and our scarcest commodity.

5. Thanks to our "military security," indeed, we have created the end of the world and we are storing it in the cornfields of Kansas.

6. In this age, too, we have seen new interest in the wisdom of the East as the wealth of the West lost its power to save.

7. In this same time frame integration—Black, Hispanic, Indian, Inuit—challenged white supremacy. Feminism challenged the white male system and even the white male God.

8. Great poverty exists in the midst of great affluence: of the working poor, 20 percent can't find full time work; six million work jobs without full time pay and benefits. This challenges all the American myths ever made about fair play, blessing, the Protestant ethic, and "freedom and justice" for all.

9. All of this has happened in a society where 10 percent of the world, Western Europeans and North Americans, consume, hoard, waste or control two-thirds of the resources of the world. No wonder this 10 percent buy so many guns.

Indeed social consensus on values and beliefs has broken down. An annual survey of college freshmen finds that this decade's students are less concerned about pollution, more approving of abortion, less opposed to the death penalty, less committed to the elimination of racism, less intent on environmental controls, less obligated to help others, considerably less concerned about developing a philosophy of life and more interested in being affluent.

And all of this, while our government has spent only 20 cents of every disposable dollar on human resources: education, employment, job training, social services, health and fiscal assistance, and over 50 cents of every disposable dollar on the military—all of this in "peace time." We have traded a peaceful future for a bloody and brutal present. Indeed, we need spiritual-cultural revitalization. Indeed, the consensus of old values has broken down.

Indeed, the spirit is dying in the most church-going nation in the world. Indeed, the current spiritual-cultural dilemma looms large: Individualism runs rampant to the point of the pathological—at a time when global community is urgent if both this planet and its peoples are to be saved.

Our current spiritual dilemma, then, lies in how to link the personal with the public dimensions of life; how to make private spirituality the stuff of public leaven in a world fiercely private and dangerously public at the same time.

The fact is that simple spiritualities of creeds, community-building, and social reform are no longer enough. We need now, surely, a spirituality of contemplative co-creation, a spirituality of progressive vision and prophetic action.

Genesis insists that the function of humanity is to nurture, cultivate, and care—to sustain, not consume creation. Carrying on God's work in the world is, in other words, "the spiritual life."

And how can people like us possibly manage to do that in a time as confused and divided as this? We may need to step back from issues for a minute and think about the nature of social change and its meaning.

The anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace teaches that major transformations of thought and behavior happen in a society when it discovers that a once-common set of religious understandings have become impossible to sustain.

At that point, Wallace says, society begins to undergo a "revitalization movement" of four major stages. Stage one is a period of serious individual stress. In this stage, people begin to question past values and start to establish new patterns of thought and behaviors. They don't think about things as they once did. What the generation before them took for granted—divorce, mixed marriage, birth control, segregation, homosexuality, capital punishment, in vitro fertilization, cloning, stem cell research, the role of women—they begin to debate and discard.

In stage two, there is alienation everywhere. Wide-reaching social stress becomes apparent. What we once called "our culture" is now barely recognizable. And people begin to decide that their problems aren't personal. Others feel the same. Groups form, organizations grow. Their problems, they decide, are a result of failure in the institutions they had always depended on for stability and direction. The churches are out of tune with their needs, they say; the schools remote from their life questions, they feel; the government corrupt and corrupting. There is political rebellion in the streets and schism in the churches.

People set out to do it themselves: join with others to ban the bomb, save the whales, eliminate the death penalty, put women in Congress, and join Voices in the Wilderness or the Network of Spiritual Progressives!

In stage three of a revitalization process, though people as a whole agree there is a problem, they can't agree on how to cope with this new social situation. Some want to change the system, to wipe it out and begin again. Others want to send in the troops and get the old system back in order. And the two groups quarrel and divide and blame authority.

Then, inevitably, in stage three a revitalization movement, a nativist, or traditionalist movement arises. Nativists argue that the danger has come from the failure of the people to adhere more strictly to old beliefs and values and behavior patterns. They want to do more of the same-old, but do it better. They want the "old time religion" and they find scapegoats aplenty: the economy would be all right if it weren't for unions, they argue; marriages would be all right if it weren't for feminism, and; the country would be fine if it weren't for liberalism. Or Blacks or Arabs or immigrants or Koreans or Khaddafi or Hussein or Gloria Steinem or whoever or whatever is the convenient scapegoat today.

In the fourth and final stage, Wallace points out, comes the emergence of a new world view and the restructuring of old institutions to enable it. But how do we get there?

In simpler societies, the leadership for this rebuilding of the society usually came from a single charismatic person: "And Moses intervened," Psalm 89 reminds us, "And you, O God, turned aside your destruction."

In more complex cultures, like our own, multiple spokespersons—many leaders, a chorus of voices—are needed to lead the people to new understandings about old values.

The role of these spiritual leaders is not to repudiate the older worldview entirely, but to shed new light on it so that it can be remembered that God's spirit always manifests itself in new ways to meet new needs.

Then, more flexible people begin to understand and experiment with the new consensus and cultural transformation—the movement from death to life—of an entire people begins to happen.

Finally, Wallace points out, it will not be the older generation, the spiritual wanderers who brought with them the old ideas, goals, values and designs from one desert to another, who will lead today's institutions—it will be the new generation!

As Wallace says, it will be the generation that "grew up with" the emerging insights, who never lived in the old world; who spent their life wandering in a social desert, and knew no other, who will come to maturity.

Then, the old institutions find themselves with new leadership. And the institutions are restructured. But that will happen only provided that they listen, if someone brings them up with the new questions and the new insights.

And how do we know it can happen?

Because in this country alone we have seen one generation withdraw their allegiance to a king; the next abolish slavery; and one after that regulate businesses; and the last empower laborers. And this one, now, is beginning to struggle for liberation, equality and survival.

"And Moses intervened," the psalm teaches, "and you turned aside your destruction." We need to intervene for the future of the whole human community of the globe.

What God saves, God saves through us. We need, in other words, to intervene for one another. We need a new worldview that puts the old one "in new light."

But how? And where will this "spirituality of contemplative co-creation," this progressive spirituality come from?

In what way can the spiritual leaders of our time help to build this bridge from privatized piety to public moral responsibility?

I suggest that we must all begin again to look at the bases of social brokenness and see the spiritual link between the personal and the political. I'm suggesting that we look again at what ancients called the seven capital sins/signs of social brokenness, but this time on two levels: the level of the personal as well as the global. Remember with me: envy, pride, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, covetousness.

Envy, for instance, on the personal level is certainly a lack of acceptance of self, which leads in its sinful form, to a rejection of others.

But globally, isn't this ethnocentrism as well? When we create and uphold criminal governments for our own good—such as in Iraq—rather than recognize the needs of the people of the country; when we impose our system and structures in return for trade, isn't that the failure to accept a thing for what it is?

Pride is, of course, the need to dominate and coerce others on the personal level. But on the global level isn't it also the mania for national superiority, for being "numero uno," for having the best of everything (e.g., strawberries in winter, whatever the cost to the pickers?).

Lust is clearly the exploitation of another for the sake of physical satisfaction.

We are beginning to recognize it when it's date rape or pornography. But is there yet enough conscience in us to also see lust as the national passion for the instantaneous gratification that justifies the exploitation of whole peoples so that we can have the cheap cash crops and conveniences we demand while raping their lands and looting their futures? Isn't it the exploitation that comes from lust that leads to the feminization of poverty and the loss of feminine resources and values in a world that is reeling from the institutionalization of masculine values? Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are single mothers with three children. Lust is child labor at 6 cents an hour: economic pedophilia.

Gluttony, the over consumption of food, leads to waste and bloatedness, and the misuse of resources on the personal level. But it is also surely at the base of the lack of distribution of surplus to the dying in Somalia and the destitute in Haiti.

Someone wrote of this culture: "We do not have a war on poverty; we have a war on poor people." And what are we religious people doing about it as we say our prayers and publish our theology papers, and repeat our rituals week after week?

We speak of covetousness as a lack of a sense of "enough" and we know that on the personal level that leads to the sinful brink of hoarding or an inordinate desire for unnecessary possessions. But what is the difference between that kind of covetousness and the demon that fuels militarism and the continual quest for superiority?

Anger we recognize as the cultivation of an eschatological sense of righteousness and judgment; of putting ourselves in the place of the patient justice of God. But what has happened to the national moral fiber when whatever evil we say of the other is counted as virtue? What about the sin of demonizing our enemies, or our refusal to sign arms accords or submit to an international military tribunal?

We abhor sloth as its assumption that anyone has the right to live off the efforts of others as laziness and lack of responsibility.

But where is spiritual leadership in the building of a new worldview about the sinfulness of multinational corporations that live off the backs of the poor, that give unjust wages and benefits, that take the unequal treatment of women for granted, and absorb women's lives at lesser pay for the convenience of others, and then moralize about that kind of domestic servitude as "God's will" for us?

So we go on blindly in our search for goodness: we counsel and educate for individuality and autonomy and control and independence in a world that needs community and mutuality and cooperation interdependence and human responsibility and contemplative co-creation and spiritual progressives.

We build small shelters for the homeless and huge rockets to make people homeless. And we go to church. And we go to church. And we go to church.

Yet 70 percent of the respondents to a survey conducted by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation said that religion has a place in public life. Well, where is that public religion in private life supposed to come from if not from us?

When Jacob saw Joseph in Egypt, He said, "Now that I know that you live, I can die." And God said to Moses, "Stay where you are. Where you are is holy ground."

And an ancient people tell the story of a seeker who asked, "Before I follow you, tell me, Does your God work miracles?" And the master said, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of the people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."

Clearly, the role of the spiritual people today is like that of Jacob's: not to die until we have assured a dynamic and meaningful spirituality for the next generation.

It is like that of Moses: to recognize where we are as the ground of God's grace. It is certainly like that of the Sufi master, who enables the individual to see life differently so that God's miracles can happen in our time, so that the reign of God can finally come.

Templeton wrote, "If we were holier people, we would be angrier oftener." And the Chinese wrote, "Time changes nothing; People do."

My prayer is that we can summon up within ourselves the kind of holy anger that will finally do something to take this country back to its best and glorious self.

Sister Joan Chittister is an international lecturer and author on issues of justice, peace and equality, in both Church and society, especially for women. She is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. She founded and is currently the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality. Her thirty-five books include: The Tent of Abraham: stories of hope and peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims; The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages; and Called to Question, a spiritual memoir.


Salam Aleichem. The progressive Muslim community worldwide is not prepared to cede the great religion of Islam to the militants, the extremists and the barbarians who would do awful things in the name of God. Furthermore, the American Muslim community is not prepared to cede the great country of America to the barbarians, the militants, and the extremists of this country.

I want to exhort you to reach out to the Muslim community, particularly the progressive Muslim community. Right now in America there are three faces of Islam: the bearded, heavily-accented brown guy; the woman in a hijab, with hair and body covered; the white convert.

I want to ask you to reach out to the non-bearded Muslim guy, to the non-hijabed woman, to the gay Muslim guy, to the woman singer who is not allowed to sing in the mosque. Reach out to them because they are equally authentic voices of Islam. Don't reach out only to those people who have been designated by CNN and by mainstream Muslim organizations as the authentic voice of Islam. Reach out to all Muslims.

—PAMELA TAYLOR, Board Member Progressive Muslim Union

Source Citation

Chittister, Joan. 2006. Spirituality and Culture. Tikkun 21(5): 29.

tags: NSP, Spiritual Politics, Spiritual Progressive Analysis  
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