Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for August 29th, 2009

A liberal by any other name

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Like many other people today, I watched the funeral service for Senator Ted Kennedy. Like a good many other people, I was struck by the constant references to his faith, and to his drawing inspiration from the gospels and the Hebrew prophets. His long career as a public figure working for the poor, the mentally ill, the physically ill, immigrants seeking to improve their lives, the downtrodden was all inspired by Christian teachings. Similarly, his work for racial desegregation and for a full equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their race, their religion, their political convictions or their sexual orientation bore the unmistakable stamp of his Christian values in general and his Roman Catholic values in particular.

Ted Kennedy called himself a liberal. What he called his liberal values were so intimately tied to his Christian values that it is difficult to imagine anyone being a Christian without also being a liberal. But one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, for liberal values are also at the heart of being  Jewish, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Buddhist, and Sikh, and Jain. It is difficult to imagine anyone being truly serious about any of the world’s religions without being deeply committed to the traditional liberal values of protecting the poor against the wealthy, the weak against the powerful, the feeble-minded against the clever, the humble against the mighty, the peaceful against the warlike, the few against the many. It is impossible for me to imagine being a sincere practitioner of any religious tradition without being committed to what Catholics during the Second Vatican Council called the preferential option for the poor. That is, whenever there is a struggle between the rich protecting their vested interests and the poor struggling for a basic livelihood, and  fundamental human rights, and dignity, and equality of opportunity, one should always side with the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. That is the message the prophets of Israel brought. It is what Jesus of Nazareth taught. It is the message of the Qur’ān and the prophet Muhammad. It is a central theme in the teachings of the Buddha. It is what Confucius and his followers repeatedly sought to implement. It is also what humanism is all about. These are the basic values not only of the religious but also of many agnostics and atheists.

A word that many people don’t like to use because they find it too nebulous in meaning is spiritual. Some people use the word to refer to espousing the core values of the world’s religions without necessarily buying in to the rituals and the dogmas of any those traditions. That is one way of using the word, but it is not entirely accurate, for that usage suggests there is a dichotomy between being religious and being spiritual. That is, however, a false dichotomy. While it’s true that people who prefer never to go inside a church or temple or synagogue or mosque can be spiritual, it’s also true that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can all be spiritual. Just as one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, one need not avoid organized religion to be spiritual. Just as liberalism embraces all the religions, and many ways of thinking that are not at all religious, so does spirituality.

It would not be going to far, I think, to suggest that spiritual and liberal overlap in meaning a great deal. They are not synonymous. But they are close enough in connotation that people who are allergic to one word can use the other without being too badly misunderstood.

I am among those who will miss Ted Kennedy’s tireless crusades for the poor and the powerless. And I am among those who know that the word crusade comes into English from the Spanish and from the Latin word for cross. A crusader carries the cross into his battles. Ted Kennedy did that brilliantly and unfailingly. One need not be a Christian to feel grateful to him for doing that. One need only be spiritual. And in being spiritual, one cannot help also being a liberal.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 21:01