“This spiritual renaissance is real and has not stopped. It’s just that it’s growth—and, like all growth, it’s messy.” - Marianne Williamson
We started this magazine 20 years ago, and now we’re thrilled that you came up on the top of our reader poll.
Oh, wow! Thank you.
I’m interested in how that feels, but also in the shift. Twenty years ago, our list started with Thich Nhat Hanh, and was mostly men. And now it’s you and mostly women. So how does that feel?
It makes me feel old! I’ve clearly been around a while, and I’m honored that my work is still considered relevant. When you have a career that has spanned decades, you feel like you’ve been in an ongoing conversation with a certain part of the culture. It’s like a lot of us have grown up together. A culture, a subculture, a civilization, a movement—they mature just as individuals do. After all, any group is just made up of individuals. America has always had strong spiritual voices, including female ones like Mary Baker Eddy and Aimee Semple McPherson. It’s nice that we’re being acknowledged for our contribution to the New Spirituality.
What does a mature spirituality mean to you?
Two basic factors come to mind before all others. Number one: that we realize the deepest, most important work is always on ourselves. We’re not here to monitor the spiritual journey of others, although sometimes it’s very tempting to think we are. A spiritually mature person is asking, “What am I not giving? Who am I not forgiving? Where am I not embodying the principles on which I purport to stand? What is the lesson here for me?” And the second factor, particularly important today, is to remember that no serious spiritual and religious path gives any of us a pass on addressing the suffering of others. We need to expand our sense of spiritual responsibility beyond the confines of our own lives. If we are here to love, that means not only our children, but also the children on the other side of town and the other side of the world. If we are to take care of our home, we need to realize that the entire earth is our home. Mature spirituality extends beyond the confines of the narrow self.
When we started the magazine, the idea was that a spiritual renaissance was beginning, and that the progressives of the various religions had more in common with each other than they did with fundamentalists of their own faith. So you had these progressives reaching out to each other. And then there’s a shift from materialism to post-materialism, with people being born higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy. So there was a sense around the millennium that everything was coming together. And now I’m wrestling with a sense that it’s all falling apart. I wonder how you’re feeling about that?
Well, you brought up a lot of different issues. I never thought a real spiritual renaissance would necessarily emerge from religious ecumenisms, because, while certainly far preferable to fundamentalism, the connection there is still based on a foundation of separateness. It’s still ego thinking, just a higher level of ego thinking than we might be used to. I do think there was a spiritual renaissance, however—not necessarily seeded by institutional religions but reflected there as well as in every other corner of our culture. That spiritual renaissance could not be monopolized—can never be monopolized—by any particular corner of the world or any group or any religion because it emerges from deep within the human heart. It’s the evolutionary impulse of our age. It’s a global and universal phenomenon. To me, this renaissance is real and it has not stopped; it’s just that it’s growth—and, like all growth, it’s messy. I think it’s actually a sign of how successful and powerful it is, that the forces of separateness and fear are putting up such resistance. Love brings up everything unlike itself, not only in our individual lives, but in the collective.
We’re living through what appears to be the death throes of an old paradigm. One world is passing away, and it’s completely up to us what world will be born now. The contest has begun, the struggle has ensued, and the choice is ours: Which direction will humanity take from here?
“If we are here to love,
that means not only our children, but also the children on the other side of town and the other side of the world.”
That’s lovely. One thing that comes up in surveys is the growing number of people who are spiritual but not religious, or if asked what religion they are, they say none. Yet, the number of atheists isn’t growing that fast. There are all these “nones” that aren’t atheists. Is that the group you’re talking about?
Well, the fact that you don’t identify with a particular religion doesn’t mean you’re an athiest. “Spiritual but not religious” is pretty much a new way of saying you’re agnostic. But no such words mean that much anymore, because they fail to describe what’s really going on inside our hearts. External demographics don’t tell a deeper story. I do think that many people who embraced such a concept as “spiritual but not religious” then found after a while that they had thrown away the baby with the bathwater. It’s one thing to evolve beyond the limitations of doctrine and dogma—that’s a gift of the spiritual renaissance. But you can’t ever evolve beyond a connection to God himself, a connection to a Higher Power however you conceive of it. Without that sense of divine connection, and particularly without a sense of the moral responsibility that comes along with it, spirituality is a soft but superficial thing.
Thinking back in the history of this magazine, we grew up along with The Secret, and the “law of attraction,” and the growth of prosperity theologies. At the same time, we have this growing divide between rich and poor. How do we beat that—the desire to want more all the time?
There’s nothing new about the idea that consciousness creates our reality; the “law of attraction” is simply a modern repackaging of ancient knowledge. The effect of things like The Secret was positive in the sense that it made many more people realize it, but at the same time, a lot of the trendier prosperity doctrines have nothing to do with real spirituality. The suggestion that simply getting what you want is somehow the spiritual mountaintop is rather absurd, actually. Even Adolf Hitler did that. There’s a lot more to the spiritual journey than just making happen what you want to happen, or manifesting your own dreams. The goal of the spiritual journey is to become a vessel through which God can dream His dream of a more loving world. The realization that the mind has infinite creative power became married to the ethos of unfettered capitalism in a strange and almost lurid way over the last few years. Only in America, huh? But I like to think that this is simply an area where we are moving through our process, maturing in our understanding, and evolving beyond superficial ideas.
“Prayer, meditation, forgiveness, compassion
all lift us above the emotional turbulence that dominates the world.”
One of the other spiritual touchstones of the last 20 years was the movie Avatar, with the Mother Tree in it. And some of that was based on discoveries of how trees talk to each other, that there is a “mother tree” in the forest: the oldest, biggest tree that is communicating with all these other trees and looking out for the health of the forest. It’s interesting to see that kind of indigenous wisdom being proved on a scientific level. And I wonder how you feel about that in your idea of consciousness? And also how you feel about the notion of your being a mother tree, which it seems you are in this great way?
I think Avatar is an example of genuine greatness emerging from American popular culture. If Western civilization survives, I think it will be in no small part because enough people saw it. Sometimes I want to roll my eyes when this little upstart of modern science verifies what many have known for ages. Ancient spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples haven’t needed Western science to verify their ancient wisdom, particularly after having mocked it for the last hundred and fifty years.
As far as seeing myself as a mother tree, I don’t, actually. But I do appreciate that once you have reached a certain age and have accumulated enough experience, it’s the natural order of things that your ideas nurture growth in others. To whatever extent I fulfill that archetype for anyone, it’s an honor. But I assure you, when I think of the great mother tree I’m a little sapling in comparison.
In my line of work I don’t typically get to seriously ask questions that start with “If you were president . . .” But you might be president. Right now, the economy is booming, and yet at the magazine it seems like the stories that sell best are cures for anxiety. People are anxious and afraid, and I think some of that is a sense of being irrelevant. Our sense of meaning is being reduced. The battle is to keep people feeling relevant, and empowered, and active, and forces for good.
I think the idea that the economy is booming should be looked at more deeply. I would never minimize the importance of economic vitality, but the question now is, who it booming for? To say that the economy is booming is not of itself to say that the economy is good. We have greater wealth inequality than at any time since 1929; 40 percent of Americans are having a very difficult time making the basics of food, rent, healthcare, and transportation; millions of Americans are literally one misfortune away from deep poverty. Not all of the anxiety to which you refer is rooted in economic despair, but a lot of it is. There’s not a way to count how many Americans live on a daily basis with the fear of what will happen if they get sick, or one of their children get sick; how they will pay for their kids to go to college, or how they will pay for their college loans. And that suffering matters. The corruption of our economic system is primarily a moral one. There is no factoring in whatsoever the cost of human despair. And of course, the ethics neutrality of our economic system then extends to every other area too, from health policies to environmental policies to food policies to educational policies, all of which contribute to the chronic, underlying anxiety that dominates too much of our culture. The very fabric of our culture has been spiritually rent, as we’ve gone from a relational model to a transactional model of being with other people, and corporate dollars have taken precedence over the health and well-being of people and planet.
None of this can just simply be “fixed.” Americans are good with a to-do list. “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” But today, it’s the state of our being as well as our doing that’s at issue. Who are we as a people when we allow economic values to crowd out moral values throughout our society? What does it say about us that billions of dollars of arms sales are worth so much more than the life of a child? And what does it mean to consider how much the political disengagement of so many—including “spiritual types”—has helped usher in such an age as this? Something happens inside you when you think about all that. But only a sociopath feels no remorse, no conscience; often a kind of healthy shame precedes our willingness to change. The fact that so many people feel so bad about what’s happening in America today is actually not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. It’s one last step to take before we’re ready to rise up and change things.
So how do we get spiritually minded types to mobilize?
Where there’s love, nature organizes things naturally. Our job is to be available; God will do His part if we will do ours. Prayer, meditation, forgiveness, compassion all lift us above the emotional turbulence that dominates the world. It dissolves the chaos, putting us into a collaborative matrix where we automatically find ourselves connecting with others with whom there’s maximal opportunity for soul growth and service to the world.
In the body, cells are led by a natural intelligence to collaborate with other cells to serve the healthy functioning of the organ and the organism of which they’re a part. Every once in a while, though, a cell might go insane, disconnect from its natural intelligence, and go off to do its own thing. That’s a malignancy when it happens in the body and it’s a malignancy in consciousness. That’s what’s happened to the human race: We’ve been infected by a malignant consciousness—the very thought that it’s all about me. A kind of rugged narcissism is the prevailing meme of our civilization today, and it’s killing us. So now it’s time for the immune system to kick in. Each of us can be part of that immune system if we choose, and we’ll be led to the ways we can be part of a vast, collective healing. There’s no more powerful prayer than “God, please use me.”
The acorn is already programmed to be an oak tree. The bud is already programmed to be a blossom. And we, as human beings, are already programmed to become the people that we are capable of being. When we are in a state of spiritual devotion, what happens in us and around us re-aligns itself with love.
From the perspective of A Course in Miracles, none of us can know how our individual efforts fit into the larger pattern of healing. But if we rise to the occasion of any moment, then nature, because it is invested in the enlightenment of all things, will use whatever we offer to it on behalf of love. I don’t think we have to concern ourselves with how to mobilize: Nature knows how to mobilize. God works through each of us to the extent to which we make ourselves receptive.
The shift from spirituality to politics is a big one, and you’re embodied in that. Could you talk a little bit about how that feels? Or how that happened?
I grew up in a generation that didn’t separate the two. When I was in college, we read Ram Dass in the morning and went to an antiwar protest in the afternoon. In people like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our highest spiritual and philosophical aspirations expressed within the political realm. And that’s the grand tradition of the United States, by the way. All great social justice movements have been rooted in spiritual and religious traditions. The Abolitionist movement emerged from the Quakers. Many of the leaders of the Suffragette movement were Quakers. Dr. King was a Baptist preacher who led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When I was growing up there was a powerful religious Left, embodied by figures such as William Sloane Coffin and the Berrigan Brothers. So the current divorce and disconnect between modern spirituality and political activism is an aberration. Fortunately, it feels like we’re on the way to putting the two back together.
Gandhi, with his philosophy of nonviolence, posited that the inner light within every man, woman, and child was key to healing not only our personal relationships, but our political relationships as well. Dr. King went to India, studied those principles, and brought them back here to apply to the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we simply need to apply our spiritual understanding to events beyond the personal self. And that’s something very important for the contemporary seeker to bring to the table, by the way. I think we should be the last people to stand on the sidelines regarding the great social, political, and economic questions of our day. If anything, we should be the biggest grownups in the room, because if you have a clue as to what changes one heart then you have a clue as to what changes the world.
Stephen Kiesling is editor in chief of S&H.
A Politics of Love
The very foundations of our democracy have been shaken, and the rumbling continues. From attacks on the press, to the belittling of the notion that all people should be treated equally before the law, to economic policies that favor the wealth of a few over the health of both people and planet, to authoritarian and secretive behavior that runs against traditional democratic norms, our current administration and its supporters in Congress have done more to undermine democratic governance than to exercise it.
America is being awakened by this crisis, and in the end, we will be better for having gone through it. The revolutionary resistance to hatred and injustice, the lines being drawn in the face of assaults on our democracy, are in high gear. Millions of Americans are already doing heavy lifting all over the country, sifting through the ashes of our current crisis and making us, despite the difficulty of this moment, an even better nation for what we are going through.
We need—and are experiencing now—our own pro-democracy movement, a revolution of consciousness that will cause an uprising of hope and new possibilities.
This moment is not just a time of breakdown; it can also be a time of breakthrough, if we deal with it soberly and with deep conviction. Our current unrest can lead to a national reset, if we’re willing to face the challenge now presented to us: to grow more fully into who we are as individuals and more courageously into what we can be as a country.
Yes, America has fallen, but now it’s time for America to rise!
From A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution by Marianne Williamson. Available in January from HarperCollins
Editor’s note: It was reported that Marianne Williamson is running for president. That was a mistake on our part, she has only said that she is considering it.