Spiritual Practice: A Catalyst for Social Change

Basil Ugorji, Ph.D., President and CEO, International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation

My goal today is to explore how the inner changes that result from spiritual practices can lead to lasting transformational changes in the world.

As you all know, our world is currently experiencing many conflict situations in different countries, including Ukraine, Ethiopia, in some other countries in Africa, in the Middle East, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and in our own communities in the United States. These conflict situations are caused by various reasons which you all are familiar with, including injustices, environmental damage, climate change, COVID-19 and terrorism.

We are overwhelmed by divisions, hate-filled rhetoric, conflicts, violence, war, humanitarian disaster and millions of affected refugees fleeing violence, negative reporting by the media, magnified images of human failure on social media, and so on. Meanwhile, we see the rise of the so-called fixers, those who claim to have the answers to humanity’s problems, and eventually the mess they make trying to fix us, as well as their fall from glory to shame.

One thing has become increasingly discernable from all the noise that cloud our thinking processes. The sacred space within us – that inner voice that gently speaks to us in the moments of calm and silence –, we have too often ignored. For too many of us who are preoccupied by external voices – what other people are saying, doing, posting, sharing, liking, or the information we consume daily, we completely forget that each person is endowed with a unique inner power – that inner electricity that enkindles the purpose of our existence –, the quiddity or essence of our being, which always reminds us of its existence. Even though we often do not listen, it invites us time and time again to search for the purpose it enkindles, to discover it, to be changed by it, to manifest the change we experienced, and to become that change we expect to see in others.

Our constant response to this invitation to search for our purpose in life in the silence of our hearts, to listen to that gentle, inner voice that softly reminds us of who we truly are, that presents us with a unique roadmap that too many people are afraid to follow, but it constantly tells us to follow that road, walk on it, and drive through it. It is this constant encounter with the “me” in “me” and our response to this encounter that I define as spiritual practice. We need this transcendental encounter, an encounter that takes “me” out of the ordinary “me” to search for, discover, interact with, listen to, and learn about the real “me”, the “me” endowed with unlimited potentials and possibilities for transformation.

As you must have noticed, the concept of spiritual practice as I have defined it here is different from religious practice. In religious practice, members of faith institutions strictly or moderately follow and are guided by their doctrines, laws, guidelines, liturgy, and ways of life. Sometimes, each religious group sees itself as a perfect representative of God and the one chosen by Him to the exclusion of other faith traditions. In other instances there is an effort by faith communities to acknowledge their shared values and similarities, even though members are highly influenced and guided by their own religious beliefs and practices.

Spiritual practice is more personal. It is a call to a deeper, inner personal discovery and change. The inner change (or as some will say, inner transformation) we experience serves as a catalyst for social change (the change we desire to see happen in our societies, in our world). It is not possible to hide the light when it starts to shine. Others will surely see it and be drawn to it. Many of those we often characterize today as founders of different religious traditions were in fact inspired to address the issues of their time through spiritual practices using communication tools available in their culture. The transformational changes their spiritual practices inspired in the societies in which they lived were sometimes in conflict with the conventional wisdom of the time. We see this in the lives of the key figures within the Abrahamic religious traditions: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Other spiritual leaders, of course, existed before, during and after the founding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The same is true of the life, experience and actions of Buddha in India, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. There were and will always be other religious founders.

But for our topic today, mentioning some social justice activists whose actions were influenced by the transformational changes they experienced in their spiritual practices is very important. We are all familiar with Mahatma Gandhi whose life was highly influenced by his Hindu spiritual practices and who is known among other social justice actions for launching a non-violent movement that resulted in the independence of India from Britain in 1947. Back in the United States, Gandhi’s nonviolent social justice actions inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who was already into spiritual practice and was serving as a faith leader – a pastor. It was the changes these spiritual practices provoked in Dr. King and the lessons learned from the work of Gandhi that prepared him to lead the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. And on the other side of the world in South Africa, Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, known today as Africa’s Greatest Freedom Symbol, was prepared by indigenous spiritual practices and his years in solitude to lead the fight against apartheid.

How then can the transformational change inspired by spiritual practice be explained? An explanation of this phenomenon will conclude my presentation. To do this, I would like to link the correlation between spiritual practice and transformational change to the scientific process of acquiring a new knowledge, that is, a process of developing a new theory that could be held as true for a period of time before it is refuted. The scientific process is characterized by the progress of experiment, refutation and change – what is popularly known as a paradigm shift. To do justice to this explanation, three authors are important and should be mentioned here: 1) Thomas Kuhn’s work on the structure of scientific revolutions; 2) Imre Lakatos’ Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs; and 3) Paul Feyerabend’s Notes on Relativism.

To answer the above question, I will start with Feyerabend’s notion of relativism and try to weave Kuhn’s paradigm shift and Lakatos’ scientific process (1970) together as appropriate.

Feyerabend’s idea is that it is important that we step aside a little bit from our strongly held views and positions, either in science or religion, or in any other area of our belief system, to learn or try to understand the other’s beliefs or worldviews. From this perspective, it could be argued that scientific knowledge is relative, and dependent on the diversity of point of views or cultures, and no institutions, cultures, communities or individuals should claim to have “The Truth,” while denigrating the rest.

This is very important in understanding the history of religion and scientific development. From the early years of Christianity, the Church claimed to possess the entirety of truth as revealed by Christ and in the Scriptures and the doctrinal writings. This is the reason why those who possessed contrary views to the established knowledge as held by the Church were excommunicated as heretics – in fact, at the beginning, the heretics were killed; later, they were simply ostracized.

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century through the prophet Muhammed, perpetual enmity, hatred, and conflict grew between the adherents of Christianity and Islam. Just as Jesus considered himself as “the truth, the life, and the only way, and established the new covenant and law different from the old Jewish ordinances, laws and liturgical practices,” the Prophet Muhammed claims to be the last of the Prophets from God, which means that those who came before him hadn’t the entire truth. According to the Islamic belief, Prophet Muhammed possesses and reveals the entire truth that God wants humanity to learn. These religious ideologies were made manifest in the context of different historical and cultural realities.

Even when the Church, following the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature claimed and taught that the earth was stationary while the sun and the stars rotated around the earth, nobody dared to falsify or refute this paradigmatic theory, not just because it was upheld by the established scientific community, promoted and taught by the Church, but because it was an established “paradigm,” religiously and blindly held by all, without any incentives to see any “anomalies” which could “lead to a crisis; and finally resolution of the crisis by a new paradigm,” as Thomas Kuhn pointed out. It was until the 16th century, precisely in 1515 when Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus, a priest from Poland, discovered, through a puzzle-solving-like scientific exploration that the human race has been living in falsehood for centenaries, and that the established scientific community was wrong about the earth’s stationary position, and that contrary to this position, it is indeed the earth like other planets that rotates around the sun. This “paradigm shift” was labelled as a heresy by the established scientific community led by the Church, and those who believed in the Copernican theory as well as those who taught it were even killed or excommunicated.

In sum, people like Thomas Kuhn will argue that the Copernican theory, a heliocentric view of the Universe, introduced a “paradigm change” through a revolutionary process that began by an identification of “anomaly” in the previously held view about the earth and the sun, and by resolving the crisis that was experienced by the scientific community of the old.

People like Paul Feyerabend will insist that each community, each group, each individual should be open to learn from the other, because no one community or group or individual possesses the entirety of knowledge or truth. This view is very relevant even in the 21st century. I strongly believe that individual spiritual practices are not only important for inner clarity and truth discovery about self and the world, it is quintessential for breaking with oppressive and limiting convention in order to bring about a transformative change in our world.

As Imre Lakatos posited in 1970, new knowledge emerge through the process of falsification. And “scientific honesty consists of specifying, in advance, an experiment so that if the result contradicts the theory, the theory has to be given up” (p. 96). In our case, I see spiritual practice as a conscious and consistent experiment for evaluating commonly held beliefs, knowledge and codes of behavior. The result of this experiment will not be far from a transformational change – a paradigm shift in thought processes and action.

Thank you and I look forward to answering your questions.

“Spiritual Practice: A Catalyst for Social Change,” Lecture delivered by Basil Ugorji, Ph.D. at the Manhattanville College Sr. Mary T. Clark Center for Religion and Social Justice Interfaith/Spirituality Speaker Series Program held on Thursday, April 14, 2022 at 1PM Eastern Time. 

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