“Spiritual but not religious” and The Political

One often has occasion to be annoyed with people who declare themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” who seem to view the great religious traditions of the world as an undifferentiated field upon which they can project their own spiritual warm fuzzies.

I wonder, though, if there is a sense in which leftist academics are “spiritual but not religious” with regard to politics — each of us with his or her own idea of what “the political” would really look like, each one theorizing about it without any real means of actualizing it. Is the self-proclaimed Marxist with no relationship to the worker’s movement any different from someone who claims to have a Buddhist or Kabbalistic outlook on life without practicing Buddhism or Judaism in any serious way?

21 thoughts on ““Spiritual but not religious” and The Political

  1. This is part of my problem with academia — so I would answer your question by stating that, in the vast majority of cases, there is no real difference between the two parties you describe. I tried to bring up this subject in a comment thread awhile ago and that didn’t go so well, so I’m glad you’re posing the question here.

  2. I didn’t mean the question rhetorically — I think there’s a decent chance that there is an important difference, and it might be worth thinking it through in response to this challenge. Indeed, it may even be possible that the comparsion might make the “spiritual but not religious” people seem somehow not as bad.

  3. Adam,

    I didn’t think the question was rhetorical — but it is one I have considered a fair bit over the years. However, maybe asking you a question about Zizek may help me understand what the difference might be.

    Zizek is a fine example of a fellow who rips on so-called Western Buddhists (as well as so-called radical academics who remain comfortably situated within the academy). Yet he also suggests that the best response to our current situation is to do nothing (except think and talk about It). I’m assuming that he thinks he is somehow in a different place than the Western Buddhists and radical academics he criticizes (given that he doesn’t target himself with his own criticisms and given that he defends his own position) but I don’t understand why he thinks this. Perhaps if you could explain this, a possible difference between the parties you mention could be fleshed out?

  4. An initial jab: Zizek-style theorizing is at least thinking through the conditions of possibility of a future concrete political movement, as opposed to the Western Buddhists who (in his view) are using their ideas primarily therapeutically. Perhaps the withdrawal into thought is in itself a kind of protest?

  5. Okay, fair enough, although I personally don’t think that this sort of thinking-by-itself is any significant kind of protest. Thought, as thought alone, is about as much of a “protest” as the therapeutic “freedom” that Zizek’s Western Buddhists find in their own minds–you know, the kind of freedom Chan Marshall sings about in “Maybe Not”, However, how does this distinction get Zizek off the hook for the criticisms he levels against other leftist theorists who are also engaging in this sort of thinking (I forget the book — but doesn’t he basically compare those theorists to the Buddhists)?

  6. I definitely think the “academic marxist” is worse than the “spiritual person.” I have perhaps a more sympathetic relation than others do (it seems) to the latter — i think s/he is adopting a position that, while limited in certain ways, is one that can enable real creativity and growth. The former tends to lack such openness. Though this is not always the case, of course. But qualificaitons aside, the former tends toward a kind of self-satisfaction, they “know” what’s happening in a way that often forecloses the construction of new relations.

  7. do you think Engels made any meaningful contributions to the worker’s movement from his very safe, very detached and very comfortable middle class position?
    i understand the problems with starbucks buddhism or leftist posturing, but all this finger pointing and criminalization… my god as if the subjugated life we lead under capitalism isn’t oppressive enough, that you should belittle and punish people for at least LOOKING FOR or CONSIDERING alternate modes of life organization.

  8. Amish,

    Identifying as this-or-that isn’t all that significant. It’s how a person acts based upon that identification that matters. The academic who identifies as a Marxist but remains solely within the academy may be worse than the so-called Western Buddhist in that he or she may well be betraying the supposed goals of Marxism by remaining rooted within that environment.

  9. Marxism certainly can bring with it a kind of fatalism — no struggle “really” matters unless it’s getting at the core economic problem, but no extant form of struggle is even close to figuring out how to do that, so… I can see preferring a certain kind of open-mindedness, even if naive, to that.

  10. Okay, I want to pull back from my original snark.

    I suppose for me the question would revolve around the academic’s teaching. While I know that it’s easy – if not inevitable – for teachers to overestimate wildly the formative influence that they have on students, it remains the case that a leftist academic who takes her or his class through an awesome seminar on, say, Capital or the history of the U.S. labor movement might end up inspiring future activists who will then go out and tear it up. And even if that inspiration has little to do with the professor’s actual teaching, the professor’s merely creating the space in which students can be exposed to the texts/history should count for something.

    In that case, I suppose that you could make the case that the academic would be making a substantive contribution to activism, even if she stays firmly within the walls of the academy.

  11. It seems that some activists view it as axiomatic that pointing to one’s teaching as a way of having an impact on the world is destructive bullshit, a transparent alibi for holding up the status quo, etc. Surely academics can overestimate the impact of their teaching, but it always puzzles me that working intensively in a community of learning somehow doesn’t count as “doing something.” Or as working in a community, even! It’s as though academia is just a black hole of total worthlessness, which strikes me as… exaggerated.

  12. I think it’s relevant to ask ourselves what the purpose of the Leviticus’s prescription of maintaining the sabath day, sabath year, and jubilee year if we have no reason to believe that the sabath and jubilee years were ever observed. Did anyone every really think they would be followed? That debts would be forgiven and prisoners set free? If not, then what is the the value of this scripture to us? In what ways were the prospects for Marxist revolution different than the prospects for the execution of sabath and jubilee years at the times of their respective rallying cries?

  13. I think I may be naive and/or simplistic in this regard, but it seems to me that this is a same body / different parts kind of thing. Everybody will inevitably identify their role as pivotal, because in fact it probably it is. I’m of the mind that even parts at apparent cross-purposes need not necessarily be set against one another. Bodies are complex beasts, and I’ve never met one that agreed with itself entirely.

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