The practice of spirituality and social engagement by Brigid Reynolds and Sean Healy - 2002

Posted on Wednesday, 28 August 2002

February 12, 2002: THE PRACTICE OF SPIRITUALITY AND SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT by Brigid Reynolds sm and Sean Healy sma

Paper presented to Boston University/CORI Justice Commission conference on CHURCH AND THEOLOGY IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD February 12, 2002.

1. Analytical Model

The analysis of society presented in the paper entitled The Church as Economic, Political, Cultural and Social Actor is the basis for this paper also.
2. Cultural Structures Shape Society

Values, attitudes and assumptions underpin all decisions taken

by the individual, social group or society. These are part of the cultural structures which play a pivotal role in shaping society. There are many different understandings of the roots of culture. This can be seen in the terms used by various sociologists to identify culture: "collective conscience" (Durkheim), "orientations that guide action" (Parsons), "class consciousness" (Marx), "beliefs and conceptions" (Weber), "mental structures" (Mannheim). We support the definition of culture developed by UNESCO which states that

Culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.

The anthropologist Arbuckle highlighted meaning in his definition of culture. He sees culture as

…that network of common meanings and values that is deeply rooted in the consciousness of a group of people. This network gives life to distinctive structures and institutions, myths and symbols. The symbols of a people have many meanings that are deeply real to those who share them; they give people a sense of identity, security, purpose.

A society must have a 'meaning' if it is to survive. Cultural struct

ures organise meaning in the society or social group. This 'meaning' includes the values, attitudes, and assumptions of the group. It also includes an understanding of the present reality and a vision of the future. This meaning 'explains', 'justifies' and 'promotes' the way the society functions. It answers the question 'why?' things are as they are.

The dominant culture supports the economic, political and social structures. It not only accepts but advocates that the status quo is the most favourable option available. Essential to the continuance of a society is that its meaning is transmitted. If the meaning is not transmitted the society will change as competing meanings become dominant.

The principal carriers of meaning in society are education, mass media and religion. Education and mass media are usually managed and controlled by the economically and or politically powerful in the society. Thus they ensure that the meaning transmitted through these institutions supports the status quo by

persuading people that it is the best option available. Religions tend to legitimate the status quo. When the meaning system is challenged and found wanting change follows. Genuine social change is rooted in a change of meaning.

2.1. The dominant paradigm underpinning today's society is the machine.

The dominant world view today is very much a mechanistic one. This view first emerged as a direct response to the scientific and philosophical revolution of the seventeenth century. The most important exponent of the new mechanical science, Isaac Newton, believed that the foundations of his work could be applied to pro

blems in moral philosophy. The sheer power and simplicity of Newton's three laws of motion were most compelling. This combined with the effectiveness and impact of the new scientific method, greatly impressed the major thinkers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Philosophers, economists, psychologists, sociologists and others used this scientific model to facilitate their search for truth. The word 'sociology' was first coined by Auguste Comte but only after he had called the new science a 'social physics'.

Newton's clockwork machine became the model for understanding both society and the person. The metaphor of the machine is still with us finding expression in phrases such as 'machinery of the state' and 'the wheels of government'. Development and growth are very often identified with having a 'powerful and well-oiled machine'.

The person is seen as made up of parts. For example the focus of medicine is to repair those parts when they are damaged or worn or replace them with new parts. In the context of society pers

ons are likened to the impenetrable atoms, bouncing around and colliding with each other in space. The only participants in this world of Newton were these individual atoms and the attracting or repelling forces acting between them. It was a short step for analysts of the time to see a parallel in the socio-political world. The modern adversarial approach to democracy is based on it being seen as a way of balancing all the conflicting interests or parts.

2.2 Privatisation of Spirituality/Religion

Scientific evolution had its effect on the development of spirituality. Only what could be measured or felt by the senses was considered real; everything else was considered a creation of th

e mind. Spirituality was not seen as relevant to the emerging 'new world'.

Religion became suspicious of scientific development that encouraged freedom of thought and experimentation. New inventions and increased production created new possibilities and new freedoms. Religion reacted to the new realities. Spiritual writers developed the idea of growth in holiness by personal union with God. 'There was therefore the persuasion that a person had to get away from society in order to meet God and grow in holiness'. As this persuasion developed spirituality and religion were relegated to the private domain. The worlds of economics and politics were happy to reinforce this relegation.

This metaphor of the machine supports hierarchy. It structures existence according to ever-descending units of analysis. Molecules are more basic than neurones, atoms more basic than molecules. Power and organisation tend to be structured in the same ladder of ascending and descending authority.

For the most part Churches have bought into this model. The person is compartmentalised into soul and body. Life on earth was seen as a testing ground for heaven. The business of the Churches was to minister to the soul. When the Churches got involved in running various institutions for social development (schools, hospitals, social centres, etc.) the original motivation was to protect people from the evils of the world or to prepare them to live in the world without being contaminated by it. The Catholic Church took until the Vatican II Council to articulate an inclusive position

"the Council focuses its attention on the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which that family lives. It gazes upon the world which is the theatre of man's history, and carries the marks of his energies, his tragedies, and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustaine

d by its Maker's love" .

It went on to challenge dualism "the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one".

The work of Newton and the thinkers of his time made a huge contribution to the development of the human family. It opened up new possibilities ranging from the development of technology to the emergence of liberal democracy. But it had its limitations. For example, it built a large gulf between human beings and the physical

world. Human consciousness has no role or place in Newton's vast world machine. Nature is perceived as wholly 'other' than ourselves a force to be conquered and used. This has led inexorably to our present ecological crisis. This paradigm accepts that parts are isolated, separate and interchangeable. Being able to isolate the parts has facilitated great developments. However being able to see parts principally as separate underpins the cult of the expert who is very knowledgeable about particular parts and most often, oblivious of the whole. Carrying this paradigm to the extreme leads to fragmentation and disconnection.

In the world of physics Newton's laws still apply but only within a narrow range of physical reality. They are no longer seen as the key to thinking in physics. However the wider socio-economic world is only slowly coming to grips with the fact that the mechanistic paradigm is inadequate. It denies the importance of relationships and it justifies conflict and confrontation in pursuit of self-interest. In the words of Alvin Toffler 'the age of the machine is screeching to a halt'. It fails to provide a core meaning that would hold the imagination of people and societies and bind them together. O

ld social and political systems are breaking down. These no longer satisfy people's deepest needs nor answer their deepest questions. The mechanistic paradigm of society is unable to cope with the world of today. It cannot account for why people ever act on behalf of others, nor for any sort of social cohesion.

The search is on for a new paradigm. Developments in the 'new physics' provide a pointer. The 'new' physics as quantum theory is often called is nearly one hundred years old. It is based on work done by Einstein. Einstein initiated two revolutionary trends in scientific thought a) the theory of relativity and b) electromagnetic radiation. He believed in nature's inherent harmony.

The universe is no longer seen as a machine, made up of a multitude of objects but has to be pictured as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process.

Experimental work showed that not only were atoms not solid particles, the sub-atomic particles were nothing like the solid objects of classical physics. These subatomic units had a dual aspect.

Sometimes they appeared as waves, sometimes as particles. Capra explains this very complex reality as follows:

Subatomic particles, then are not 'things' but are interconnections between 'things' and these 'things' in turn are interconnections between other 'things', and so on. In quantum theory you never end up with 'things'; you always deal with interconnections. This is how modern physics reveals the basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independent existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated basic building blocks, but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between various parts of a unified whole.

These new insights challenge us to look at society and the person in a new way. A new paradigm which would facilitate structures for dynamic integration is required. The 'new' physics has some pointers for us. While the classical physics promoted rigid categories of space and time, solid, impenetrable matter and strictly determined laws of motion, 'new' physics supports fluid boundaries, uncertainty and the centrality of relationship. Thinking

people of today are asking questions about meaning, the purpose of life, and how we can fulfil our potential as social beings. Values and assumptions are challenged and the shape of society is a topic for debate. The search for truth and meaning is a common preoccupation of the human psyche. At a European level Jacques Delors initiated a process to find the 'soul of Europe'. In the business world progressive companies are endeavouring to answer their employees' needs by organising conferences and debates. In 1999 in the US and Canada alone there were over twenty conferences on the theme 'Spirituality and the Workplace'. There are over 20,000 websites on the subject of 'Spirituality'.

3. Culture and Spirituality

We believe that spirituality is at the heart of culture. CORI Justice Commission favours a broad understanding of spirituality. We see spirituality as the 'habitual stance' of the person; it is what shap

es and moves the person and influences her/his relationships. These relationships include self, people, institutions, environment and God. This is a dynamic and inclusive understanding of spirituality that recognises that every person has a spirituality. It influences all their decisions and actions. Whether this spirituality is acknowledged and how it is articulated will vary with the person. Transferring this understanding of spirituality to the social group or society helps us to see society in a larger context of meaning and value.

Coming from the perspective of science, particularly quantum physics, Danah Zohar advocates the need to keep the spiritual dimension of society in focus.

Our social vision must have a teleological dimension. That is, w

e must be able to answer questions like, what is society for, what is its purpose and direction, in what dimensions of understanding reality do we find its roots, its systems of value, its moral foundations? These are ultimately spiritual questions. They have to do with how we understand the ultimate meaning and sanction of our actions and projects. Such concerns were the motive force behind the founding of most religions, but spirituality itself is less organised than religion, less tied to any specific dogma or practice. A spiritual dimension in society need not (indeed, in a plural society, should not) be identified with any particular organisation or group.

We agree with this broad approach to spirituality. We believe it is im

portant that people articulate their spirituality and so own the values upon which they base their decisions. This is particularly relevant in the work for social change. We do not accept that there are any value-free disciplines, studies or decisions. At personal and group levels this presents us with a challenge. We must articulate the values base from which we take positions or take decisions. We must also question how these values are formed and informed and the impact of religion on this discernment.

4. For us Spirituality is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition

We strive to root our spirituality in the Christian scriptures. We strug

gle with the seeming contradictory images of journey and rootedness; the Christian images of pilgrimage and incarnation. The journey seeks the Reign of God ('Thy Kingdom come'). The rootedness looks for where this Reign has already begun and helps to progress it in the here and now. It recognises the unity of the Creator and creation.

We begin from the position that the society of today is not the kind of society envisaged in the Scriptures. We do not accept the divisions we see. Like many others we wish to work for a society where the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:53). Taking inspiration from the Beatitudes we work with Jesus for the coming of the Kingdom where the poor will be happy because they have sufficiency, where those who hunger and thirst for what is ri

ght will see their vision concretised in the structures of society, where the gentle (or 'the lowly') will be guaranteed their right to a part of the earth's resources (They shall have the earth for their heritage Matthew 5:4). With St Paul we are conscious that the entire creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth (Romans 8:22). We strive to play a positive role in this great act of giving birth to a future society.

We believe this vision is carried forward in the social teaching of the Catholic Church. From Pope Leo XIII who began the call for major changes in the socio-economic order to the present day, the Church is calling us to transform society. Pope Paul VI called for bold transformations, innovations that go deep. We are challenged by his exhortation It is not enough…to point out injustices and to utter pious words and denunciations; such words lack mean

ing unless they are accompanied by responsible political and social action.

In 1971 the Synod of Bishops asserted that Action on behalf of justice and the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. Pope John Paul II calls for a complete analysis to reveal unjust structures so that they may be examined and transformed to build a just earth. Later he talked about the virtues needed to be involved in this transformation. To destroy such structures (of sin which impede the full realisation of those who are in any way oppressed by them) and replace them with more authentic forms of living in community is a task which demands courage and patience. He also alerts us to our responsibilities to change the structures that cause d

estruction of the environment. Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone…there is an order in the universe which must be respected…the ecological crises is a moral issue.

Social involvement is an intrinsic outcome of espousing Christian values. We see our efforts to influence public policy and to generate structural change as answering the call to transform society which is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel. The method used is an action reflection model with a three step process.

a) Establish the present social reality through research and dialogue. After reflection in the light of the Gospel highlight the areas that need transformation. Prioritise the areas on which it is possible to work given the resources available
b) Articulate an alternative vision of society with specific tar

gets for change.
c) Devise action that will move society towards the targets identified.

Because the dominant culture is a very comfortable one it is painful to critique it. It demands the ability to stand back from the status quo and view it through the lens of the Scriptures and Catholic Social Thought. As members of a major Church this can be particularly difficult because we tend to have close relationships with the groups who benefit from the status quo. The institutions and services we own or manage usually depend on the economically and politically powerful in the society for support. We may even come from families who belong to these groups. We empathise with Jeremiah when he said 'I am a daily laughing -stock, each time I speak the word I have to proclaim violence and ruin…why did I have to come out of the womb'. (Jer. 20:8)

A second part of this work is evoking a consciousness and a vision which is alternative to the present. One needs to be able to see possibilities, to envisage other ways of organising society. Energy comes from vision. When people see possibilities they are prepared to do the work required to achieve their vision. When w

e read the scriptures we have no choice but to be involved in looking for alternatives to some of our present structures.

A third aspect of this work involves taking the risks of piloting alternative proposals so that vision can be translated into action. This step distinguishes the prophet from the revolutionary. Both the prophet and the revolutionary critique the present social reality, both envisage alternatives. The methods used to achieve these alternatives are different. The prophet approaches change with compassion and in dialogue with all affected partners including the environment. It is the practical living out of the Lord's Prayer: 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven' (Mt. 6: 9) We see these initiatives as hastening the Reign of God in our time.

5. Spirituality in practice

Choices play a significant role in the development of spirituality. We can decide to engage with the world within us and the world around us and the Creator of all or we can confine ourselves to little bits of these realities.

5.1. Engagement with the Transcendent

We have already defined spirituality as that which shapes and moves us and influences our relationships. One of these relationships is with the transcendent. The influence of the transcendent is very dependent on the choices of the person. For us the transcendent is the God of Jesus Christ.

5.2. Personal level

We are shaped by our relationship with God. This requires space and time. We need to be comfortable with ourselves and silence in order to 'come apart and rest awhile' (Lk.9:10) We come to this place in humility, recognising our poverty and totally open to receive and trust in God's providence. We come seeking truth, wisdom and compassion. In this space we get to know God and to know ourselves better. This space propels us forward. We hear the recommendation 'Love others as you love yourself'. (Mathew 22:39) We cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. When we are comfortable with ourselves we can reach out to others. In the work of social change we cannot survive as loners. Both support groups and friends are needed.

5.3. Group level

The significant group for us is the CORI Justice Commission. It shapes the agenda. Members are invited onto the commission to reflect the 'sensus fidelium' of the religious of Ireland. Most members are the leaders of their congregations and orders and as such are in close contact with all the aspects of religious life. As well as its monthly meetings the Commission takes two days each year to

  • Get to know each other better, welcome new members and give thanks
  • reflect on our motivations as individuals and as group
  • evaluate the work of the past year
  • review developments at global and national levels and give significant time to teasing out options
  • discern the Gospel response as this time
  • plan the work of the coming year.

In order to enhance and support projects considered high priority, the commission forms sub-groups. One of these groups is the spirituality working group. This group meets regularly to do the detailed planning and ensure implementation of decisions taken. Two of it's projects are of interest here.

5.3.1. Conversations on Spirituality, Justice and the 21st. Century.

This project is about five years old. It brings together practitioners in the work for justice and theologians. Members of other disciplines are invited to lead the conversation eg. economics, sociology, philosophy, literature, psychology. It is a genuine search for truth from the perspective of the various disciplines under consideration. As well as the God questions it is seen as important to keep the justice questions to the forefront of the search. These 'conversations' provide a 'safe' space where different disciplines can meet, dialogue and challenge each in openness and trust. Each conversation takes four to five hours. Usually papers ensue and responses are written. These are published. The search is to find authenticity and truth - what does it mean to be a Christian in the 21stcentury.

5.3.2. Retreat on the Streets

For the past ten years Retreats on the Streets have been facilitated. These have been full time and part-time. The full time takes a period of about 10 days. The challenge to participants is where and how do we find God today. It calls for an appreciation of the mystery of the Incarnation - God entering human reality to 'dwell among us'. In particular participants are invited to empathise with people who live at the margins - the homeless, asylum seeker

s, prisoners, those dependent on social welfare, older people etc. The reflection includes the experience, a social analysis of Ireland and the Scriptures. It addresses he questions; how and where is the story of Jesus meaningful at the margins.

The part time retreat takes place in the evenings and facilitates participants who have work and family responsibilities. The process and material covered is similar.

The feedback from these retreats influences the agenda of the Justice Commission.

5.3.3. Networks

The commission facilitates a number of networks of activists, totalling four to five hundred people. Membership is both religious and lay. These networks meet a number of times each year to review developments in Church and State and make proposals for policy development.

5.4. Wider world level

5.4.1. Dialogue

Just as we are shaped by the Transcendent and the communities in which we live and work so also are we shaped by the wider world. Again this shaping is very dependent on the degree to which we engage in dialogue with various sectors and allow that dialogue influence our decisions and actions. We come from the position firstly, that we don't possess all truth and secondly, that ever person possesses some truth. We believe that it is in the sharing of our pieces of truth that we will arrive at the full truth. This involves the ability to listen and hear. It means sharing and affirming. It demands trust and mutual respect. It means we have to be able "to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for hope that is in you". (1Peter 13: 15) There is an expectation that we can articulate our position and the values on which it is ba


5.4.2. Dialogue with wider society

We believe we are shaped by the world around us in a variety of ways. The quality of our interaction is very dependent on our spirituality. We can accept the status quo as inevitable or we can critique the shape of the world and allow that critique to shape our actions. The Justice Commission believes in the latter. This critique and engagement takes many forms. The paper presented yesterday entitled 'The Church as Economic, Political, Cultural and Social Actor gives a more detailed account of this work.

a) Social Analysis
Social analysis is a basic tool of the Justice Commission. The stance taken in approaching this analysis is the perspective of poor and excluded people. It updates this analysis each year. On the academic side the Justice Commission engages with the many pieces of analyses produced by a number of reliable research ins

titutions both State and private. This analysis is also tested 'at the coal face' against the experience of people who are excluded from the benefits of decision-making and by our many members who work with these groups.

b) Social Policy Conferences
Each year a social policy conference is organised. The topic reflects the concern at the time and the opportunities for action. Independent speakers are invited to present papers. These papers are published on the day of the conference to facilitate greater dialogue and debate. The work of the Justice Commission is informed by this research, dialogue and debate.

c) Workshops/Seminars

Each year about thirty workshops/seminars are facilitated for interested groups on the social analysis and the alternative positions being proposed by the Justice Commission. These workshops are great opportunities for dialogue with wide groups of people, coming from various perspectives.

d) Media
When it is deemed appropriate statements are made to the media and dialogue takes place over the airwaves or in the print media. This is an effort to engage public opinion with the issues.

e) Publications
Among the annual publications are

  • Socio-economic Review
  • Papers of the Social Policy Conference
  • Pre-Budget Submission
  • Post-Budget Analysis and Critique
  • Briefing Documents on relevant issues of public policy
  • Newsletter

5.5. Relationships

We understand justice in terms of right relationships with God, self, people and the environment. We believe that all the work must come from the stance of building right relationships and repairing relationships that have broken down. We believe that the paradigm for society should be the web. We understand that all of creation is connected and activity in one part affects the whole. We believe that our views are supported by modern physics. Just as classical physics set the paradigm for the enlightenment so modern physics is challenging us to a new paradigm.

'The conception of the universe as an interconnected web of relations is one of two major themes that recur throughout modern physics. The other theme is the realisation that the cosmic web is intrinsically dynamic'….the being of matter cannot be separated from its activity. The properties of its basic patterns, the subatomic particles, can be understood only in a dynamic context, in terms of movement, interaction, and transformation.

Our spirituality calls us to promote interdependence, connectedness and mutuality.

6. Liturgy

There is a need in the human psyche to relate to other people, to come together, to celebrate, to share concerns and to relate as community to the transcendent. All Churches provide space for liturgy. The Catholic Church sees this space and the place of liturgy in our lives as follows: 'For it is through the liturgy, especially the divine Eucharistic Sacrifice that "the work of our redemption is exercised". The liturgy is thus the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives, and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. It is of the essence of the Church that she is both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly endowed, eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it.' This is a summary of the ideal.

However many people do not experience liturgy as live-giving. People struggle to find substitutes for religion and liturgical expression. McGeachy argues that the workplace should provide a source of spiritual strength. She quotes Zohar and Marshall 'We are under stress today about questions of right and wrong, about how to keep ourselves on a straight path and how to guide our children. Formal religion and its ethics no longer hold sway, family structures are fluid and constantly changing and our sense of community and tradition has broken down. Somebody has moved all the moral goalposts and we don't know any longer what game we are playing, never mind what constitutes its rules' . McGeachy concludes that 'For some people, the workplace is providing them with the only consistent link to other people and the basic human needs for connection and contribution. Workplaces striving to meet this need through workshops, seminars, reflection periods and retreats. Sunday shopping and Sunday lunches out seem to be among the substitutes for liturgy.

There are some examples of good liturgy today, where communities work together to build the reign of God in the here and now. However the need to develop relevant liturgies is a major challenge for the Churches today. Liturgies need to connect in a meaningful way with the realities discussed here.

7. Never sure, always searching!

In this work we do not know where the road will lead. We trust God that we are on the right road. We take courage and comfort from the words of Thomas Merton.
O Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,
and that fact that I think
I am following Your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe
That the desire to please You
does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire
in all that I am doing.

'The future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide future generations with reasons for living and hoping'.