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Not Left or Right, But Deep: How People of Faith Can Help to Heal America's Divisions

Originally published in USA Today December 6, 2022

We must fan the flames of spiritual renewal within our religious traditions to help them overcome dogmatism and division and to become their best, most life-affirming selves.

Do spirituality and religion pull us together or apart? A new public opinion survey by the nonprofit research organization Public Agenda provides intriguing data points that seem to pull in opposing directions.

Americans who are both religious and spiritual are 20% more likely than those who are neither to say that they have taken steps to understand and connect with people with opposing political views. Similarly, spiritual and religious Americans are 21% more likely than those who are not to believe that reducing divisiveness is important.

Yet, a strong majority of Americans say that religious leaders should stay out of politics and that politicians should not base their decisions on their religious beliefs or spiritual values. And half of Americans say religious people are unwilling to compromise or to respect persons with opposing views.

As an organization working to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world, the Fetzer Institute has been working with these complex dynamics for 30 years, most recently by supporting religious and spiritual organizations working to overcome toxic polarization. Based on this work, I will offer the following observations.

Two ways to understand reality
As human beings, we are blessed with two fundamentally different ways of understanding reality. In the first, we step back and empirically analyze reality from the outside in, attempting to understand how it works; in the second, we open our hearts and minds to reality from the inside out, seeking to discern what it means.

This second way of knowing is the defining essence of the spiritual journey, and over the millennia all the great faith traditions have used it to probe the deep mystery of existence. The radical good news is that none has found the mystery to be meaningless and value free; instead, all have experienced it as richly and deeply infused with meaning, purpose and sacred connection.

The faith traditions call this Sacred Mystery by many different names and understand it in radically different ways, but their shared experience is that in some ineffable way reality holds us in love, calls us to love and empowers us to love. The life-affirming power of religion and spirituality comes when we open our hearts to this transcendent Love.

The story of each of the faith traditions is the story of generation after generation seeking an ever deeper shared understanding of this transformative encounter with Sacred Mystery. At its best, organized religion offers this distilled spiritual wisdom as a precious gift to each rising generation, and the synergy between religion and spirituality becomes powerful and positive. Religious doctrine and practice inform and guide spiritual experience, while that fresh spiritual experience enlivens and renews doctrine and practice.

However, when this symbiotic relationship breaks down, both spirituality and religion face grave risks. Spirituality too easily becomes superficial and self-centered, as happened with much of the New Age.

And religion too easily becomes dead, dogmatic and divisive, as we see all too often in our politics and culture wars on both left and right.

For those of us who believe that a strong spiritual foundation is vital to a flourishing culture and democracy, these countervailing dynamics define an urgent challenge. On the one hand, we must help our secular culture reawaken to Sacred Mystery and to recognize that love really is the answer.

On the other hand, we must fan the flames of spiritual renewal within our religious traditions to help them overcome dogmatism and division and to become their best, most life-affirming selves.

The And Campaign works to build bridges
The good news is that many individuals and organizations are already rising to these challenges. One exemplar is the And Campaign, a Christian organization based in Atlanta that views both conservative and progressive ideologies as fundamentally inadequate and incomplete.

Instead, inspired and guided by the Christian faith, the organization's leaders are working simultaneously for both redemptive justice grounded in love and for cultural renewal grounded in the affirmation of timeless moral values. Their approach could aptly be described as “not left or right, but deep.”

At a time when our democracy and our broader social system seem headed toward collapse, we need to make this the mantra for a broad national movement for spiritually grounded personal and societal renewal. “Not left or right, but deep!” It is our best hope for a flourishing future.

Bob Boisture is president and CEO of the Fetzer Institute.

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