By Joe Perez
At least since the early writings of Karl Marx, many public intellectuals have acknowledged some variant on the phrase “the personal is political”. Not only that, but by implication it is held that “the spiritual is political”. This notion actually is a reversal of the truth and invites a closer look at the connection between politics and spirituality.
Traditional religion is often intertwined with government. And various conservative, liberal and liberation theologies in the twentieth century across a spectrum of religions spelled out new ways in which religious teachings seek to influence the public sphere in secularized societies.
For some religionists, the marriage of the spiritual and the political comes easily. The heavenly realm is mirrored in the earthly realm, and one’s vote and political allegiances are linked to making the earthly goings-on more perfect. Political activism is sourced from the spiritual self.
For those without a religious tradition – I am thinking especially of those folks who find themselves in the “spiritual, but not religious” category – it is often the case that their political beliefs are felt to be of spiritual significance, and yet it is a puzzle as to how they are connected to the rest of their belief system.
For example, a spiritualist may have a strong belief that governments ought to take climate change seriously and enact environmental regulations that save the planet. Spirituality gives them a sense of right and wrong, and when it takes a community or nation to act, then politics is about the government doing good and acting for the common welfare.
On the other hand, there are spiritualists who imagine that their spirituality is entirely personal and unrelated to morality, either individual or collective. Usually these folks are reacting against the past in which they believe religion and politics have been too intertwined. They probably want to keep religion’s dirty hands off their individual rights.
Clearly, from an Integral standpoint, the notion that spirituality is or ought to be apolitical is not sound. Whenever a belief arises firmly as a reaction against religion it is a good sign that it is not whole in itself, but a stepping stone to less partial and more beneficial and inclusive beliefs. How can Spirit – which is a way of talking about the timeless and infinite ground of All-That-Is – be removed from a realm of human activity as important as how we govern ourselves?
Politics is a place for love and compassion and kindness and fairness not merely for individual human beings but for groups. Politics is the expansion of essential virtues in increasingly larger circles of concern, and it is the embrace of those who are forgotten or marginalized into the whole. At a fundamental level, politics is about human beings learning to act together more wholly as the best and brightest and most comprehensive We that is possible. Liberal and conservative tendencies (as well as libertarian and statist orientations) are approaches for working out the descent of the Spirit of the World… or something like that.
Yes, for many people it’s difficult to talk about politics in this way. There is the risk of reducing complex issues in political philosophy to sound bites or nebulous notions. And there’s the risk of turning philosophically in too strongly a Hegelian direction so that the individual is wrongly minimized in relationship to the state. But we must talk about the nature of politics as an Integral whole if we are to have an Integral spirituality.
Politics is a part of spirituality, not vice versa. For this reason it is more true to say that “the political is spiritual” as opposed to “the spiritual is political.” Everything that we do politically whether we are a voter or an activist or politician is spiritually charged, because we are learning to relate to a “higher power” outside of our individual self. That “higher power” is not Spirit, but is a face of Spirit that is important and deserves our attention.
To the extent that we identify with the True Self, the ground of being – the most inclusive “higher power” – politics becomes a vehicle for identifying with greater and greater parts of our own Self. Politics is thus a transformative spiritual practice in which we are discovering our Unique We, and our Unique Self by implication. (By “Unique We” and “Unique Self”, I am referring to the teachings which are part of Integral Theory and World Spirituality especially as they have been developed by Marc Gafni.)
Spirituality cannot be reduced to politics. If political activity is divorced from a spiritual orientation, it loses a lot of power in terms of motivation and increases the potential for confusion and lack of meaning. Through your political views and actions, you are either discovering new terrains in your higher self and acting in the midst of a divinizing world, or you are sputtering.
A good first step in scrutinizing your political beliefs is to ask whether their source seems to be the separate egoic self or the Unique Self. Does the belief arise from an open heart or a closed heart? Does it seem to arise out of the Eros of the cosmos or a grasping or clinging of the individual? Does it lead to authentic freedom or a pseudo-freedom which leads to disconnection? (These are questions like those asked in a different context by Marc Gafni in Your Unique Self.)
Spirituality ought to be political, if we are serious about enlightenment or salvation or dharma. But spirituality must not be politicized, which is the accretion of political beliefs onto one’s egoic self-sense so they are unintegrated ideals, dangling artifacts that impose themselves from an alienated place within or outside our separate selves. In politics we ought to discover Ourselves.
About Joe Perez–Joe Perez is a spiritual mentor, author, poet, and scholar. He is best known for his 2007 book Soulfully Gay. one of the first memoirs in the tradition of World Spirituality based on Integral principles. Joe is also a Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Integral Wisdom. His works in progress include Gay Spirituality and Kalen O’Tolán.