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Radical Spirituality for a Radical Generation

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The following is excerpted from Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation, published by North Atlantic Books.

 The Occupy Movement was brought on by a sudden burst of discontent by America’s youth. Though such anger was originally pointed at Wall Street, Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox, authors of Occupy Spirituality, believe that the movement encompasses a much deeper, spiritual awakening among the youth of today. 

ADAM BUCKO: All social movements, across generations, need a solid spirituality. A solid spirituality is one that enables people to energize their moral imagination, to make their motives conscious, and to use and deepen their talents to give birth to a new tomorrow.

The Occupy generation is being initiated into a new kind of spirituality, one that is ready to replace the God of Religion (or a God of any other morally bankrupt institution) with a God of Life. This spirituality is democratic, transformative, and dedicated to the healing of ourselves and our world. It is an active and all-encompassing spirituality that leaves nothing untouched, but rather it completely transfigures people and society.

This spirituality is already emerging. It is present in small circles of friends, Occupy-inspired groups, and certain spiritual communities. It is also emerging in the dialogues of young and old coming together in the spirit of reciprocity. It is present anywhere there is a direct meeting of hearts, which makes a meeting with God not only possible but inevitable.

Here is a collage of themes, some named for us by the youth of the Occupy generation and some named by us as we engage with the new generation with deep respect, appreciation, and hope. We will touch upon these themes throughout the book, sometimes through stories, sometimes through practices, and sometimes through sharing our own personal experiences.

We call it Occupy Spirituality. Its promise is no different from what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.” We deeply believe that this spirituality has the potential to change both individual lives and the world as a whole.

The first characteristic of this new spirituality is that it is deeply ecumenical, interspiritual and post-traditional. In an article in Los Angeles Times, Philip Clayton, a dean of faculty at Claremont School of Theology, talked about the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, sometimes called “the nones,” “nonaffiliated,” or “spiritual but not religious.” As he pointed out, 75 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Young people are not necessarily rejecting God, they just simply feel that “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” It is for this reason that Philip Clayton feels that the rise of “spiritual but not religious” is not a sign of spiritual decline but rather “a new kind of spiritual awakening.”

Looking at this from a perspective of young people that I work with, I think that young people are very much interested in spirituality, but they find it outside of organized religion. They tend to adopt spiritual practices from various traditions, have interspiritual mentors, and thus create a post-religious and interspiritual framework for their spiritual lives. Even young people who are still connected to a specific tradition usually have a different relationship with that tradition than their parents did. They may feel rooted in the tradition but not stuck in it. So while many of our religious leaders and media pundits still argue whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, our young people have already moved beyond that. Not only do they believe that there is one underlying reality at the foundation of all major world religious, but they are also convinced that different traditions and their unique approaches to God complement each other.

MATTHEW FOX: Can I just respond to that? Just to give an example, I have a friend who’s Buddhist, from Thailand, and two summers ago he did the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on foot. I think it’s about a four-hundred-kilometer walk; he got halfway, and his feet were bleeding so badly he had to quit. But then the following summer he went back and started where he had ended and finished the pilgrimage. And as far as he knew, he was the only Buddhist he met on the entire journey. He’s in his young thirties. I think it’s very interesting that this Buddhist was happy and willing to make this sacrificial pilgrimage.

And I asked him what he learned, and he said, “Well, I learned that God is in everyone and everything—but, of course, I knew that already.” But again, to me, this just underscores what you just said, that this generation is not the least bit hesitant to mix practices and traditions. And that’s a pretty new phenomenon.

ADAM BUCKO: I think that is because they are sensing that the God they want to experience is a God of Life and not a God of Religion. It’s about deepening their experience of life.

A second point is that this new spirituality is contemplative and experience based. It starts from life rather than concepts. Nonetheless, concepts are celebrated as tools to connect the dots and deepen the experience. So this new spirituality is lived in a constant dialogue between experience and concepts, where one informs the other, thus leading to subtler and subtler understandings. And, of course—you mention it often—Thomas Aquinas said that to teach spirituality, experience is not enough, you also need the concepts. I think this new generation really understands that.

Some of the older spiritualities and more traditional paths started from concepts. An idea of enlightenment or grace, or whatever, was introduced, and then one was given a path that one had to follow for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years to get to that experience. The problem with that approach, as I experienced in my own life, is that it convinced me that God and the experience of God needs to happen outside of my life. This then created a certain kind of detachment from my life and the world around me. In contrast, this new approach goes back to that God of Life. Rather than thinking that God will happen outside of our lives, it’s about starting from what we are already experiencing, acknowledging the sacredness of it, and then using practices and other things to deepen that experience and to sustain that experience.

MATTHEW FOX: Here I’m thinking, when it comes to concepts, that the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality could be really helpful. The Four Paths are conceptual, but they’re thoroughly grounded in experience, and they return to experience. The backbone of the Creation Spirituality tradition is its naming of the spiritual journey in the Four Paths. The Four Paths address the question, where will God—where will the experience of the divine—be found in our life? Creation Spirituality responds: the divine will be found in these places:

In the Via Positiva: in the awe, wonder, and mystery of nature and of all beings, each of whom is a “word of God.”

In the Via Negativa: in darkness and nothingness, in the silence and emptying, in the letting go and letting be, and in the pain and suffering that constitute an equally real part of our spiritual journey.

In the Via Creativa: in our generativity, we cocreate with God; in our imaginative output, we trust our images enough to birth them and ride them into existence.

In the Via Transformativa: in the relief of suffering, in the combatting of injustice, in the struggle for homeostasis, for balance in society and history, and in the celebration that happens when persons struggling for justice and trying to live in mutuality come together to praise and give thanks for the gift of being and being together.

Since I’ve been teaching them for forty years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from so many different kinds of people, and I find that they validate not only individuals’ experiences but the lineage. They validate the naming of archetypal religious icons that are still useful to us, whether we’re talking in Christian language about the cross or about the resurrection, or about the mystical experience that creation is, or about compassion. But I find that they work across the board, and they help to explain when our spiritual practices are just one experience of the spiritual journey—such as, for example, the process of emptying, the process of silence, and so forth—as valid and important as that is, it’s only one part of the journey. So, these Four Paths give us an integrated conceptual framework that can help us create a well-integrated spiritual life.

ADAM BUCKO: I agree, the Four Paths are extremely useful here. They really deal with all of life and all of what we are and are capable of as human beings. If you don’t have the whole picture, it’s easy to just take one of those paths and practice it, thinking that it’s the whole path. And it’s not. I think that the beauty of the Four Paths is that they really reconcile different schools of spirituality that perhaps traditionally have not always agreed with each other. They reconcile things like action and contemplation, and contemplation and creativity, creativity and social justice.

MATTHEW FOX: Each of the paths is valuable in itself. But also, any one of the paths done on its own could be seductive. For example, the fourth path, being an activist: I remember one of my students said to me, when I first met her, “I am a cause junkie.” One can become a cause junkie—one can make one ’s whole life social activism and leave no room for the soul, no room for the mystical juice that, first of all, is the very goal of social justice. The goal of social justice is that the whole community can live life fully. It’s about celebration of life. If you’ve left that out of your path because you’re so married to being this warrior twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, then first of all you’re going to run out of steam and juice, but also you’re not going to taste what it is you’re really trying to bring about, which is the flow of justice that allows the flow of life to move on.

So there is a danger that any one of these paths can be an end in itself. That’s one of the great values of the Four Paths: to remind us that we move in and out, in and out. That’s how they feed one another, and that’s literally how one stays young, because one is staying spiritually alive.

ADAM BUCKO: I feel that experience without concepts could be almost dangerous. You can have many experiences, yet not be changed by them, because you don’t have a framework that can connect the dots, connect those experiences. I have observed people who have had many experiences, but each time, because they don’t have useful concepts, they have to go back and start from scratch.

MATTHEW FOX: That’s a very important point. Also, you can become addicted to these experiences. It’s experience for experience’s sake exclusively, and you’re not growing from it, and you’re not serving others through these experiences.

Of course, the opposite is also dangerous and, in fact, is probably far more of a disease than the first, and that is to live just in a conceptual world with no experience. And that, I think, is at the essence of defunct religion.

ADAM BUCKO: Because it leads to fundamentalism.

MATTHEW FOX: That’s right, and then it leads to ideology. Then all the juice of your faith is put to defending your ideology. Anyone who’s not in it is out and lost. So then faith becomes a fortress, it becomes a system that beats up on others, but it’s also beating up on those inside it, because their souls are shrinking; they’re not growing.

ADAM BUCKO: A third point in this new spirituality is that practice goes beyond traditional contemplative exercises. People still practice meditation and contemplative prayer, but this new spirituality understands that the journey needs to include good psychology and shadow work, as well as integration of the body through things like yoga, sacred sexuality, and deep human relationships. This includes conscious romantic relationships as a path into life and into spirituality. Basically this new spirituality expands the focus of transformation from just one dimension of our being—the soul—to all aspects of our being.

MATTHEW FOX: Yes, and included too, I think, would be the role of creativity as a path, as a spiritual discipline, as a yoga—what I’ve called and practiced, through thirty-some years of teaching spirituality, “art as meditation.” So that focusing through clay, through dance, through painting, through music, and so forth—that too is meditation, and that too incorporates the body. All art is bodily. And that can be missed. Of course, for many people, it also includes athletics, sport—running or climbing or walking or hiking. These should not be denigrated as inferior, so long as you bring your heart and your focus to it. Or even exercising, working out—if it is just about beefing your body up, well, that’s one thing. But if it’s also about centering and about focusing, there ’s definitely a spiritual practice to it.

I know people who run on a treadmill while listening to discourses on spirituality and mysticism and so forth. So again, I think the world has opened up so much, and part of it is the availability of electronic teaching devices—and music, of course—that there are so many more ways to practice spirituality. Massage too. And they’re all saying what you’re saying, that including the body is including the soul. It’s not leaving it at the door. And in a way, I think, we may be just beginning as a species to integrate in this regard.

ADAM BUCKO: I think it’s a completely new development as a species.

MATTHEW FOX: And yet, of course, if you look back to olden times, the work, for example, that the monks did, and the struggle to survive that our species has gone through at so many times in so many cultures, that very much included the body. The monastic vision was that work is prayer, too—working in the fields or carving the stones for the buildings in which you’re living, and so forth—that all of work can be prayer, as part of carrying your meditative consciousness with you. You can take that consciousness wherever you go.

As a Dominican, I was taught that study is also prayer, so study can be a spiritual practice—and needs to be. When we secularize study, which we ’ve done in our culture, you get bad results. You get very unhappy professors, you really do. You get people set up for addiction, and you have a joyless educational project. The joy is missing, because facts in themselves, knowledge in itself, does not satisfy the soul. There ’s something deeper that we yearn for and ache for, and that needs to be integrated in all of our life efforts.

ADAM BUCKO: Speaking about exercising and listening to discourses, there is a very good biography of Henri Nouwen called Wounded Prophet, and in it there ’s a description of him exercising and listening to a tape of Creation Spirituality.

MATTHEW FOX: Really? Wow, that’s funny! So Henri Nouwen listened to my book while exercising. Well, I’m edified! My respect for Henri Nouwen has taken a leap forward—one, that he exercised, and two, that he had me along!

ADAM BUCKO: Point number four is related to what you were saying—that this new spirituality says that spirituality that does not include action is no spirituality at all. But it’s not just about any action—it’s about action that comes from one’s deepest calling. This spirituality does not accept the reality of living a divided life, such as complete withdrawal or a separate career divided from one’s soul and its deepest aspirations. Those dualities of the past no longer apply here. For young people today, the sense of vocation and the sense of a calling become the very doorways into spirit. So this new spirituality also realizes that the new world can be created only if people incarnate their unique gifts and callings in the world and employ them in the service of compassion and justice.

MATTHEW FOX: As I reflect on the topic of vocation, I remember the distinction I make in my book The Reinvention of Work, in which I point out the difference between a job and work. A job is something we do to pay our bills. Work is the reason we are here on Earth. It is a call; it is our purpose; it is how we give back. Today I find lots of young people who are willing to sacrifice an overcommitment to job in order to devote themselves more to their work. This entails living a simpler lifestyle, of course, and often living in community. Vocation raises to importance in such a value system.

ADAM BUCKO: This point is especially important for me, because I feel that this is definitely my path, which is service—sacred activism and karma yoga. This idea of a calling or vocation is, in my opinion, uniquely inspired by Western traditions. If you look at the Eastern traditions, there is less focus on an individual calling. The Bhagavad Gita, for example, talks about the importance of service, but it’s more about fulfilling your role or duty. It says that as long as you’re not attached to the results of your actions, your service will lead you to union with God. In Western traditions, there is more of a concept of individuation. You’re literally called by name to a specific kind of task. In this way, sensing your calling becomes a very deep connecting point with life and God, because you really discover your unique expression in life and the unique contribution that you can make.

I sense that in people today. They sense some kind of gift emerging in them, and they want to say yes to it, because it’s so personal and so connected to the soul and because it’s a doorway into spirit. That’s why the divisions of the past, the dualities of the past, no longer make sense. Making a sacrifice and saying no to this gift is like saying no to life.

MATTHEW FOX: Very well said. And the kind of action we’re talking about is action that comes from nonaction, comes from being—it comes from where the deep call is. Again, to introduce some concepts here, which is always useful, because concepts can help you to go deeper, and they provide a certain objectivity, the ability to step back and analyze our deep experiences. One of the concepts that I have always found useful is the dialectic between mysticism and prophecy. Or, if you will, contemplation and action, or that which constitutes a spiritual warrior—that a warrior, as distinct from a soldier, has an interior life and undergoes practices that feed one’s deepest level of being, not just the compulsion to act.

I also observe in younger people that they’re not content to just live at the level of action and recovering from action, but rather, as you said, action as an expression of their being and of their calling. And in a way, this is also talking about everyone living their lives artfully, because that’s what art is. As the psychologist Otto Rank said, for the artist, his or her work is their life. Their work and life come together in vocation, because there ’s a calling and because there ’s a love affair going on. So when we can learn to love our work, because it is our calling and because it is in service for others, then there ’s a loop—there ’s a return. You don’t burn out nearly as quickly, and you don’t need that much to live on. You can live a simpler life, because, for one thing, you don’t have to be dashing away to expensive resorts to heal.

ADAM BUCKO: And you don’t have to act out to get a break from things, because you’re being fed by your work.

MATTHEW FOX: Exactly. You’re being fed by your work. And that’s a wonderful loop to be in. And, again, a sign of that is joy. The joy is embedded in the loop, because you’re receiving joy as well as putting it out.

ADAM BUCKO: This takes us to point number five, which is that this new spirituality includes joy, sensuality, celebration, and heartful aliveness.


ADAM BUCK O: Fun, absolutely. This new spirituality celebrates life through meaningful connections, works of art, music, and all things that essentially help to grow the soul.

MATTHEW FOX: Exactly. And again, to invoke a concept, you are speaking of the Via Positiva—that there is a joy of life, a celebration of life that permeates and that really holds all the crises and all the breakdowns and all the chaos and all the vicissitudes that life also offers. But that fun is itself a value is something that many, many spiritualities have not taught over the centuries. We’ve skipped over the Via Positiva; we’ve kind of let it go, turned it over to secular powers, such as advertisers, to give us their pseudo definitions of pleasure and what supposedly provides profound joy. I think we have to take that back. It’s kind of like the word eros. We gave that away to the pornography industry, whereas, in fact, an erotic life is a juicy life, an alive life, and we all have a right to it. And as Audre Lorde, the New York poet, said, “I’m erotic when I write a poem, when I make a table, when I bake bread, or when I make love”—eros is the passion for living that we bring to everything we do.

Again, I think a big part of honoring the celebrative dimension to life and spirituality is this feminist thinking. I think it’s one reason that we’ve underplayed the Via Positiva. Marija Gimbutas, the feminist archeologist, says that for the goddess civilization, the essence of it all was a celebration of life. I think when patriarchy established its norms and its definitions of religion and so forth, it very much short-changed the celebration of life. I think that a new spirituality that’s truly profound and grounded will again bring back the divine feminine to balance the sacred masculine. But part of that gift in the divine feminine is that the celebration of life is primary. And as I said earlier, even the struggle for justice as service is precisely so that people can celebrate life. It’s not to be right; it’s not to win in court. The point is to create a culture, a civilization, a community in which all can enjoy, for as many years as they’re on this Earth, the gifts that life has to give.

ADAM BUCKO: The sixth point is that this new spirituality is more democratic. As a result, the role of the teacher changes from a traditional tell-you-what-to-do teacher to a spiritual friend. The role of the teacher is to point students back to their own experience and to name their experience for them so that they can start paying attention to the movement of the spirit within. Discernment becomes a big part of this new democratic and dialogical way of being. Elders are not so much recognized for their titles, résumés, or fame, but rather their ability to relate to the younger generation from their lived experience.

Our friend Jamie Manson, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter and in whose prophetic column, “Grace on the Margins,” I always find deep nourishment and encouragement, related to me a profound story of this change in the youth. In teaching theology, she often assigns her students the task of  designing their own religion. In the many times she has done so, no one has designed a priesthood or a hierarchical leadership structure. The students’ religions are always built around small communities working with a collaborative methodology. The bulk of what the communities do centers around meditation, which I find very, very interesting. Everyone, even students who have never meditated before, seem to know that something in their spirit longs for it. It is so telling that if left to themselves, the youth would design religious frameworks that are completely at odds with traditional religious structures.

This new spirituality is much more about taking off the masks of pretense and cultivating genuine heart connections that inspire growth in both elders and youth, rather than in keeping with tradition or respecting authority. It is all about true aliveness and entering into life in a more full and deep way.

MATTHEW FOX: Yes, and I think it’s taking seriously the advancement of the

Enlightenment consciousness that fought so hard for democracy—so the American Revolution and its great thinkers, the French Revolution, and so forth. The whole idea that we ’re not eternally bound to hierarchy, to monarchy in any of its forms, to dictatorships—even benign ones—that we ’re not just in vertical relationships. We ’re in horizontal relationships also, and we are individuals. That is, I think, one of the major accomplishments of the modern-era enlightenment consciousness: the dignity of the individual. That spirit works through democratic and horizontal directions and through circles, not just down from ladders.

So a spiritual democracy incorporates the wisdom of the Thomas Jeffersons of the world, if you will, that this is not just about a secular, political shift of power. It is a spiritual insight, and it’s not unrelated to the teachings of Jesus and the Cosmic Christ and Buddha and the Buddha Nature, and so forth. The Iroquois were already practicing democracy centuries before the Europeans landed here.

The notion is that the spiritual works through democracy, through a shared distribution of power, through debate and disagreement and compromise, and through every citizen having an insight about what life is about. So again, it’s about moving from the vertical idea to horizontal.

Now this does not mean that you’re without leadership. But it means that, first of all, leadership can evolve, and no one is meant to be a king for life, and we have to elicit leadership from one another. And it’s not an ego trip; therefore, it’s not a power trip. Leadership is, again, a mode of service, as Jesus tried to teach. So it’s not as if we’re without a leader, but that ultimately the leader is responsible to the group itself, and the group is responsible for itself. You’re not surrendering power to some kind of individual.

ADAM BUCKO: There ’s an element of trust at play, too. Trust in human nature and human insight, and trust that we can relate to each other in such a way that allows wisdom to come through everyone participating in it. It doesn’t mean that people don’t have different gifts or different callings. It just means that there ’s a fundamental respect for what our gifts are and a trust that those gifts are there.

Well, you know, Matt, we’re calling it a “new spirituality” incarnating itself in the younger generation, but it’s very obvious to me that you have been talking about all of these points for the past forty years. Essentially, all of these points can be traced back to what you envisioned to be Creation Spirituality.

MATTHEW FOX: Well, I would not deny that. And I carry a few battle scars from promoting these sometimes unpopular (and sometimes labeled heretical ) ideas over the years, but I have always sensed a deep affirmation of these principles in many students and listeners. Now, I think, with this new generation that we are talking about, the time has come for these ideas to become more mainstream.

I think that point number seven is that this spirituality is meant to be lived in communities. And, I think that you and I would agree that hints and echoes of what we ’re talking about have already emerged in Base Communities in Latin America—which, interestingly, were so badly treated by the Vatican, by hierarchical powers, almost to the point of wiping them out. And yet their resilience is such that today they are simply divorcing themselves from organized religion, from the church as such, from the institutional church, and continuing their practice of democratic spirituality and democratic leadership—in other words, the church of the people.

ADAM BUCKO: And serving not the church, but humanity, which is also life.

MATTHEW FOX: Exactly—serving life and humanity, and letting the church go in its own direction as it travels down the path of death.

So there have been movements that had this kind of spirituality. Certainly the civil rights movement is a North American example, led as it was by prophets like Howard Thurman and Dr. King—we can see that the spirituality we’re talking about is not just beginning at this moment. It’s been stirring, and it’s already drawn many heroes and saints, even martyrs—martyrs in South America and North America, who include Óscar Romero, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Stang, and others.

But I think now a whole generation is primed for this, and it’s a global thing. It’s not just about the Americas, but there ’s a stirring and an aching among young Buddhists in Southeast Asia and among Muslims in the Middle East and in many people around the world. Hopefully, anyway.

ADAM BUCKO: That is why later on we will be talking about the Occupy generation and a vision for a community-based approach or a New Monastic approach, so to speak, one that could take these points and put them into practice in small communities. This is very much what the Base communities were doing, what the civil rights communities were doing, what Catholic Workers have been doing, and what some of the Sufi orders have been doing. Because we’re talking about the whole generation, this could really be a new way of relating to life and relating to each other. In the process, it can be a way of changing ourselves, our communities, and the world.

 Occupy Spirituality


Photo by Bella189, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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