I. Love, Philosophy, & Revolution
I confess that I have been madly in love with philosophy since I was 18 years old. Reading my first book on religious philosophy and learning of the powerful ideas of Aquinas, Hegel, and Kierkegaard set me on a path seeking universal truths and the meaning of life. These days my heroes are more likely to be black feminist bell hooks, Quaker socialist John Macmurray, and Noam Chomsky, just to name three. Many of the even more important names are even more obscure.
My philosophical seeking has become focused on constructing a “grand synthesis” of social movement goals, strategies, and tactics within a holistic framework of life on earth. My lifelong evolving religious commitments have brought me to a universalist, yet nontheist, perspective. My concerns with social problems have led me to construct what I call an integrative revolutionary social ecology. This is more of a method than a completed philosophical system.
To take the term “ecology” first, I begin with the earth, our non-human fellow beings, and humanity’s future on this planet. As the best available evidence shows, the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, ecosystems, and species are threatened with increasing destruction. This destruction is caused, not by individual actions in the abstract, but by interpenetrating systems of industrial production, military exploitation, political domination, and racial oppression.
The urgent need to go beyond these dangerous systems and replace them with an earth-friendly social ecology calls for no less than a revolutionary transformation. Many philosophies of revolution exist, from Marxist to feminist to anarchist and beyond. And many of these offer irreplaceable contributions to a revolutionary project. However, without an overarching social ecology, each revolutionary philosophy in their own terms addresses only limited aspects of the enormous challenges our world faces.
II. Revolution Within the Great Nest
A revolutionary social ecology views the world as a nested complex of beings, relationships, communities, ecosystems, and institutions. Each being is also a nested complex of exterior and interior aspects, a body with organs, systems, thoughts, and feelings. These interdependent complexes move through time and space, birthing, living, evolving, reproducing, and dying. A revolution occurs when, at the level of collective institutional structures, one set of institutions is intentionally replaced by newer structures that reshape the living conditions of the whole.
In Western society, we have revolutionary institutions that replaced those of pre-modern society as society transitioned beyond monarchy to democracy, beyond feudalism to capitalism, beyond agrarian to industrial, beyond religious to secular, and beyond slavery to liberty. These modern institutions have accomplished a great deal, some of which is wonderful, and some of which is very awful. To move beyond our modern institutions to something even better is the heart and soul of a revolutionary social ecology.
The central goal in transforming the institutions of society is to improve existence for all other inhabitants of, to borrow a term from Ken Wilber, the Great Nest of Being. Our relationships, communities, ecosystems, and very being are either empowered or oppressed by our social institutions. Even very private thoughts and feelings feel the weight of our whole nested complex of reality.
III. Religion In Revolutionary Perspective
Religion occupies an unusual position within the nested complex of existence. In some aspects it is like a community, in others like an institution, and still others like a set of ideas or beliefs. Religion is actually all of these and more. It has both interior and exterior aspects and evolves through history, time, and space.
A working incomplete definition of religion is that it is an institutionalized community formed by a narrative tradition that highlights matters of ultimate importance. What is considered to be “ultimate importance” takes a different shape in the different religions and, the forms of life and organization within each religion also vary widely. This definition does not insist that religions be supernaturalist. In fact, it is intentionally constructed to allow for non-supernaturalist religions, such as humanism or pantheism. This definition calls into question the apparently stable distinction between religious and secular.
To return to my personal confession, my religious journey has moved through three distinct stages; childhood Pentecostalism, early adulthood radical Anabaptist, and mid-life radical Quaker. The first stage was of course dictated by my parents’ religion, though still vastly important to this day. Early on, I began to diverge, influenced by the cultural shifts of the 1960s, to embrace a radical Anabaptist theology. My growing focus upon revolutionary philosophy eventually led me away from most recognizable Christian orthodoxies and eventually I found a home in a liberal Quaker meeting.
As a radical Quaker, I am in tension with the center of gravity in that community, even as I am deeply committed to it. Most liberal Quakers are pacifist theists with advanced educations. I am a non-theist working-class socialist college drop-out. In the menu of religious choices in the US, liberal Quakers are still the best fit for me, despite my tensions with it.
The understanding of revolutionary change at the heart of an integrative social ecology focuses on social movements, geo-political trends, industrial development, and living communities of resistance. Although liberal Quakers are in many ways accommodated to late modern capitalist society, they are also in tension with it as pacifists and reformists. The abolition of slavery in the US and Britain was not possible without the direct militant involvement of radical Quakers.
Revolutions depend on mobilized organized social movements. Key sectors from which revolutionary activism will arise are the working-classes, women, people of color, (ecological) scientists, religious bodies, and many others. The potential for a religious left to make a substantial contribution to the revolution is enormous. In a religious community, as defined here, people are able to form relationships that elevate those aspects of themselves that are neglected, repressed, exploited, and oppressed by existing social institutions.
By valuing each person in broadly non-instrumental relationships, a religious community can inspire movements, become a support system for activists, and prepare people for a better world. Of course, religious communities can become exploitive, repressive, and abusive. All existing religions have some sort of life-denying history. Rather than seek a better future, most religions become fixated on an afterlife of consolation. The “protest against real distress” becomes an “opiate of the masses.”
IV. An Earthling’s Dream
To dream of a better world of love, beauty, health, and peace in the face of the world’s suffering is to have a kind of faith in miracles, in unpredictable events that carry us forward. In 1954, no one could have foreseen that a simple bus boycott in Alabama would kick off a movement to shake the foundations of white racism in America. In 2010, no one would have predicted that one government after another in northern Africa would begin to totter wildly, as the people rose up demanding justice and freedom.
The work of a philosopher is to seek to understand the world, in order to understand how it may be changed for the better. From Plato’s ideas of the just city to Thomas More’s Utopia, philosophy doesn’t just seek rarefied abstract truths, but rather to use the mind in all its potential to tackle life’s most complex challenges. This planet and all its inhabitants deserve nothing less.