Integral Spirituality

Integral Spirituality

By Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

The phrase integral spirituality seems problematic. The term ‘integral’ evokes a holistic perspective. But the term ‘spiritual’ already restricts this holism by excluding matter and the body. It may also imply a system of thought or a dimension of reality. The Eastern religious traditions would refer to this area of experience or reflection as a WAY to an Absolute or Transcendent goal. Buddhism presents Nirvana as the goal to be pursued and it suggests the eightfold path as a way of pursuing it. Hinduism speaks of Self realization, the Self itself being the Real itself. Realization is achieved through four margas or ways: Jnana (wisdom), Bhakti (devotion), Karma (right action) and Yoga (psycho-physical discipline) that involves the whole person. The TAO is the dynamic way of reality itself, to which one has to conform.

So let me speak of the Way rather than of spirituality. I am also taking for granted that I have to speak here of the Christian way, though today, in Asia and in the world, it has to be in dialogue with other religious ways, precisely in order to become integral.

Our Goal

The way obviously supposes a goal. What is the goal of the Christian way? The New Testament presents it to us through many symbols. Let me evoke some of them. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, speaks of the mystery that God has revealed to us in Chirst “as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10) In his letter to the Colossians the focus is more on Christ, who is the image of the invisible of God and the firstborn of all creation, through whom and for whom all things have been created and who is the fullness of God. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col 1:15-20)

His letter to the Corinthians, which is an earlier text, the focus is rather God – the Father. Christ brings all things together and offers them to God so that “God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15:28) In his letter to the Romans, it is the Spirit of freedom who makes all of us joint heirs with Christ so that we can call God ‘Abba’ and “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom 8:15, 21) Here we have four versions of the same image of God gathering all things together. The whole cosmos is involved, the humans as well as creation.

John in the book of Revelation seems to reflect this image. He starts with the picture of a human community: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people.” (Rev21:3) But then he opens up to become more inclusive: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) In his gospel, he makes up in depth what he may lack in breadth. On the last day of his life, Jesus prays: “That they may all be one. As you, Father are in me and | am in you, may they also be in us.” (Jn 17:21) The Synoptics speak of the Kingdom of God, though its cosmic and holistic outreach is not as clear as in the texts above.

They seem to be much more sensitive to the ongoing struggle between the good and the bad, God and Mammon. But a universal vision is not absent. Before going up to heaven Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:18-19) If I were an exegete I would take these passages one by one and analyzed them in detail and highlight the vision that they propose to us. But even a simple reading of these texts shows us that God’s plan is to gather all things together. This is, obviously, also our goal — the goal of everyone and everything. Our way must lead us towards this goal.

Harmony with the Other Humans

A spirit of individualism, egged on by ignorance, desire and egoism, is bound to clash with others. It will become competitive and acquisitive, seeing the others as enemies, seeking to deprive them of what is their due (injustice) and to dominate and instrumentalize them (inequality). One forgets one’s duties and denies the rights of others. Such an attitude will, obviously, lead to conflict. Egoism can often also be collective in the name of a religious, caste, ethnic or national identity. In such a situation harmony can be established only when one thinks, not only of rights, but also of duties and responsibilities; not only of the rights of individuals but also of cultural, social and religious communities. The context of such attitudes will be solidarity and subsidiarity. I do not think that I need to explain these concepts here. Injustice can become structural enduring through history and leading to hidden or open conflict. At that stage an option for the poor and the oppressed may be necessary. This very option for the poor may lead us, not only to challenge the rich to conversion, but also reach out to the non-poor change-makers like the intellectuals, leaders of social movements, activists and even the enlightened rich.

Christianity has not spoken much about harmony with creation and with the body. It does insist on harmony with the self. In recent times it has also insisted on harmony with others. Jesus himself has focused a lot on these two dimensions. While the Sermon on the Mount is a good example of attitudes that everyone needs (Mt 5-7) — I would highlight poverty of spirit and the love of enemies — John’s description of the last day in Jesus’ life evokes a social dimension. (Jn 13-17)

Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) He exemplifies this love for others in humble service of the others, washing their feet, in sharing food with them and in total self gift, offering his own life for them. (cf.Jn 15:13) Starting with these indications of Jesus we can work out a way of relating to the others according to his way. Structural ways of doing this may change according to context and history. But the directions are clear.