Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. — Thomas Merton
Over the past decade, I’ve come to believe three basic things about life. First, there is Something in the universe far bigger than the sum of its parts. This Reality, this Transcendence, sustains us and guides us in ways more mysterious than anything we can fathom. This Divine impulse breathes through everything, even in the darkest and most painful moments of our lives. It consistently reminds us that we are not alone. That everything that exists is uniquely and strategically created and beloved. Even though, at times, we do not recognize the whisper of God, it is always there. All too often, we are distracted or in denial or just dealing with the intensity of our woundedness in all sorts of counterfeit ways. When we move from intuition towards intentionality, we can pursue a deeper connection with hope, grace and love. When we do this, Something happens to us.
Second, when we do this, Something happens through us, too. This Something beckons us to a life of serving others. We can feel it deep within us. Our best times are not in convenience and comfort, but instead when our hearts are softened and compassion fills us up. We sacrifice and suffer for the sake of others and it brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives. Narcissism, apathy and indifference all vanish. At least for a little while. This will take determined and disciplined inner work. Only a rigorous personal inventory can identify the pain that spirals out of control and holds us back from really seeing others for who they are: human beings who are hurrying and hobbling through life. Just like us.
Lastly, this Something prods us to move beyond caring for individuals and families towards a more systematic engagement with suffering humanity. When we are in solidarity with poor, oppressed, marginalized and abused people, we start asking questions: why is this happening? When we do this hard work of social analysis, we form a critical consciousness. We come to a realization that there is more to life than just me and my little world. We pop our suburban bubble. We recognize that there are crises everywhere. This sparks us to work for change. It leads us into the uncomfortable, awkward, highly emotional realm of politics, economics and social justice. It also demands that we expose the ways that organized, institutional religion continues to support and sustain systems of injustice.
These three chords can’t stand alone. They weave themselves into a holistic spirituality that connects the dots to everything. In our current global situation, consumer capitalism has become an omnipotent force, affecting everyone and everything. The specific policies that stem from free-market fundamentalism have widened the income inequality gap, accelerated the climate crisis and triggered a torrential downpour of anxiety, alienation and addiction.
Masses of people living in the Global North, mistakenly, seek salvation through (over)consumption, stifling the ability to experience Something deeper in the universe. Our attention deficit is frenzied and chaotic. It is difficult to stop, notice, breathe, play and pray. There are choices. Everywhere.
The goods we cherish come from corporations who exploit labor all over the globe. Our phones are produced by people working long hours for one or two dollars an hour. Our off-season tomatoes are picked by poorly-paid and maltreated workers rounded up all over Sinaloa, Mexico, living in decrepit conditions. This state of affairs demands our willingness to consistently and creatively love our neighbors, both foreign and domestic. We are implicated in our economic choices, our election votes, our campaign contributions, our public stances . . . and our silence.
Unconstrained capitalism necessitates poverty and massive resource extraction from land all over the planet. As long as middle class and wealthy people in the Global North demand affordable lattes and luggage, the landscape of the Earth will be altered and abused. As Gandhi prophetically proclaimed:
The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.
Only a sustainable and simple lifestyle can support the world’s population. This Something challenges us to live out the manna mentality — to live gratefully for the daily bread on our plates. But it also means that we must be the ones who change the rules of the Game on behalf of the very least of these. Because the rules have changed before. And they can be changed again. And Something wants us to do it.
Loving God, loving our neighbors and enemies, and working for the redemption of the world (“on earth as it is in heaven”) become the three-fold path of a not self-indulgent spirituality that is deeply committed to serving the less privileged in the world, and advocating for those most heavily targeted by our destructive lifestyles and exploitive imaginations. We look to Jesus, the human form of Something, as inspiration for contemplation and compassion, but also for a creative and consistent confrontation with the social, political and economic systems that order society and oppress those who are shut in, locked down and cast out.
This is what it means to be faithful today. This is what it means to be human.
Tom Airey is the co-editor of radicaldiscipleship.net, where this post first appeared. He and his wife, Lindsay, live in Detroit, where they are serving with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the Jeanie Wylie Christian Community.