Interior and Exterior Collective: Religion/Irreligion & Radical Progress

As a native religious leftist, stretching back to my childhood in the 70s dreaming of an anti-war and anti-capitalist commune, I have always been concerned about why the left seems to have so little constructive engagement with religious communities. There are exceptions, such as Dr. King’s SCLC, but often today’s Evangelical and Jewish left periodicals seem to hang on barely to the left of the Democratic Party.

The problem seems to center on how to integrate secular democratic concerns with religious concerns without falling into a functional state atheism or quasi-theocratic polity. The former strategy may have worked in European countries with a more domesticated religious culture, but the USA requires something more flexible. The latter strategy is what plagues modern Israel and the evangelical/Catholic bloc of the Republican party.

The need to develop a more constructive left approach to religion seems to me urgently necessary. The trick is to know how to distinguish the religious issues that are political at heart and which ones are more cultural. One way to parse this is suggested by Ken Wilber’s integral theory. When dealing with society and its institutions, Wilber describes society as the “interior collective” and institutions as the “exterior collective.” This seems to me to offer a very constructive approach to religious issues and activism.

For example, many are concerned about how religion has impacted gender relations in our society and globally. Religion has been profoundly male-dominated for most of human history. Despite this, many religious traditions have internal movements that have been working to change the very beliefs and religious doctrines that undergird such regressive conditions. This work seems to be clearly in the category of interior collective.

The exterior collective of religion refers to two areas, the power structure of the religious community and the religious community’s relation to those outside of its membership. Those religious communities that have begun to develop feminist theologies have also begun work to enfranchise women’s leadership within their membership. While this may seem to still fall in a domain that is “hands off” in our pluralistic society, it seems fairly obvious that the Roman Catholic Church, for example, perpetuates its regressive social influence in part at least by their manner of limiting leadership to men.

A religious leftist concerned about women’s equality at all levels of society can give varying levels of support to those within religious communities beyond their own by engaging in cultural work that is supportive of feminist theologies, by encouraging movements to enfranchise women clergy and laity, and to critique and protest attempts by religious groups to impose regressive policies on the wider society.

Of course, a comprehensive religious left strategy will have to do more than simply delineate interior and exterior issues. However, I have found that this distinction has been very helpful to get beyond the classic “hands off” attitude of the left.

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