Traditionally we humans have sought to satisfy our spiritual needs through religion. As our world becomes increasingly secular, many have turned away from religion, yet see themselves as spiritual. Though we clearly have spiritual needs, we measure success in the modern world mostly in terms of wealth and privilege. From kindergarten on, we are tasked with becoming economically viable. Even from the pulpit, many of our most prominent ministers tell us that economic success is what God wants for us all.
In spite of our devotion to material wealth, we yet know from the spiritual traditions of our religions, from the story of Jesus’ life and death, and from our most personal experiences, that we have soul-felt needs that wealth does not satisfy. We have material needs, of course, and any standard of happiness requires that they be reasonably met. But that yet begs the question: Is that person living in the mansion on the hill really happy? We don’t know, but we deeply suspect whether he is or isn’t has little to do with the fact that he lives in a mansion. So what is this soul-felt hunger that material success does not satisfy, where did it come from? And why, when it isn’t fulfilled, do we feel so un-whole?
We seek to satisfy our spiritual needs in many ways. One is through good deeds. I could, for instance, reduce my carbon footprint by moving closer to work at considerable expense, and accepting a lesser living standard. But is that really going to make a difference? No one is against good works. But any realistic evaluation of our circumstances renders us powerless, if through good deeds our goal is to really affect the issues threatening this planet. If good deeds won’t bring spiritual fulfillment, maybe celebrating the moment will. This approach is exemplified by Petula Clark’s 1965 international hit song, “Downtown.” If grain production costs that are greater than the grain’s market value is forcing everyone off the land, then why not celebrate the exhilaration of life in the city where “you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go Downtown…” We now live in a world of alarming change. To become as one with what is going on, maybe we should celebrate change, as if our salvation lies in change itself. But the city, no matter how glorious and exciting, did not satisfy the needs of our souls, and, I suspect, neither will change. Maybe we can live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous, lose ourselves in the lights, music, and beat of a rock concert, or celebrate simulated life-and-death struggles for survival engaged in weekly at the football stadium.
If involving ourselves, in one way or another, with what is going on doesn’t satisfy the needs of our soul, then maybe our salvation lies in a more personal approach. Maybe by meditation, soul searching, positive thinking, self-help principles, or by worshiping love for the sake of love itself, we can change ourselves. Lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, so to speak, above the fray, and thus no longer be affected by it all.
By our many and varied efforts to realize emotional fulfillment, it is evident that our spiritual needs are every bit as real as our material ones. So I am not disparaging anyone for seeking to satisfy those needs through any of the above approaches, indeed, I use many of them myself. My concern is, in the end they don’t really satisfy, but, instead, are merely respites along an otherwise spiritless journey where we partake of whatever spiritual sustenance we can. It is an economically and legally imposed road we are on that, though it well prescribes our journey, we don’t really understand.
If vicarious living, doing good works, or whatever other method that befalls us, doesn’t bring true fulfillment, is there anything that can? I believe there is. But to understand it we must first give consideration to where we came from, and how our kind managed the journey by which we arrived.
Modern cultures are founded on the belief that humans are separate from and above the Natural world. We see it as our privilege, indeed, our duty, to use this planet to our own ends. But our kind has a long pre-history here during which there is no evidence that humans saw themselves as either above or separate from Nature. Indeed, the archaeological record indicates that humans have lived here for upwards of two hundred thousand years, during which our species flourished so well we came to inhabit virtually every corner of this planet. During most of that time we saw ourselves as subjects of the natural world, not its master. Are the spiritual concerns that we find so difficult to satisfy Nature’s way of trying to call us home? If so, what is a spiritual home?
A natural home is where we take care of our brothers and sisters according to our deepest sensibilities. Jesus, who I see not as God, but as a man who saw deeply into the nature of reality, told us that heaven—that is, spiritual fulfillment—is at hand, meaning that we would experience it the moment we started attending the needs of those around us. He was calling us home. It was, after all, by attending the needs of our brothers and sisters that we have flourished on this planet for most of the time we have been here.
Humans are a social species, meaning that we naturally depend directly on one another to secure our material needs. Evolving as material dependents has also rendered us emotional dependents. This explains feelings of loneliness when inordinately separated from others, and, conversely, the feelings of relational intimacy that we know only when directly dependent on others. Such intimacy is exemplified by the experiences of battle tank crews during WW II. When interviewed years later, those men had no problem using the word love to describe how they had felt about one another. Our problem is, we now depend on money to secure our material needs, instead of a band of brothers and sisters. The spiritual estrangement that thus pervades our culture is so severe that Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.”
Our spiritual needs can really be resolved only by caring for one another. Indeed, in a “spiritual home” we have no need to worry about ourselves. Our brothers and sisters will take care of us. Taking care of life, and allowing ourselves to be taken care of by life, is what it means to be part of the web of life, the phrase Chief Seattle so poignantly used in his letter protesting his people’s homelands being taken over by our government. Becoming part of the web of life requires that we anchor our lives in relationships, instead of money and law.
It’s natural that we want the personal control of our future that only money and law provides. But such control renders us dependents of the state, in which case there isn’t much intimacy. If, instead of control, we want intimacy, we must trust our lives to the human spirit, making us dependents of our brothers and sisters. The point is, we can have individual control of our future, or we can have intimacy, but we can’t have both.
Currently, we presume control of our future by placing our trust in the state. But is the state trustworthy? By trusting our future to its institutions, we apparently think so. On the other hand, to know intimacy we must trust the human spirit. Is the spirit trustworthy? Though some proclaim they believe in human nature, in that we routinely employ the police powers of the state to protect ourselves from one another—even from siblings and lifetime mates—we in fact display very little trust in the human spirit.
That we trust the state, but not the human spirit, should give us reason to pause. The human spirit embodies the sensibilities by which we took care of one another until only a few thousand years ago, when money and law took possession of us. I describe this placing of our trust in the state metaphorically, as our expulsion from Eden, for this is a story of a human error followed by great loss. When we turned to money and law to secure our material needs, we turned away from each other. We lost intimacy, our most precious gift, and, consequently, happiness. In short, we lost everything of real spiritual value. This was the consequence of trying to unnaturally control the future by force of instituted law. The pre-human, and then human, spirit managed things for millions of years until quite recently. And yet we have turned our backs on it by placing our trust the state, when, as is evident by the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, states have proven unstable since their very beginnings. We presume to be rational entities, even more than spiritual ones. But, if that is true, how could our state of affairs have become so irrational?
How we arrived at our present state of affairs is a long story, one I tell in my book, Eden—Regaining our Spiritual Freedom. Suffice to say for now, trusting our lives to the state instead of the human spirit has deprived us of our spiritual freedom, and thus the freedom to do what was once quite natural, secure our material and emotional needs by taking care of one another. Though we are so separated from our spiritual homes we have no way to really know, I suspect when people claim to be spiritual what they are really yearning for is a place where how they feel—be it joy or sorrow, anger or love—really matters to the people around them, and vice versa. True, we are material beings, but we are spiritual ones also. A real home is one that provides for both our material and our spiritual needs.
Can humans return to our spiritual homes, and thereby regain our spiritual freedom? Only the future knows. But whether or not we can, it is something we probably need to be thinking about. One thing to keep in mind: Regaining one’s spiritual freedom doesn’t require that the whole human race place its trust in the human spirit. It requires only a body of people who believe in one another—that is, believe in the human spirit as expressed through one another.