DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


MLK And Why I Write About Spirituality

Surprisingly, through all the talk about MLK we've heard today, there's one aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we aren't hearing that much about:  the fact that he was a Christian.

Yes, believe it or not, he had that "Dr." at the beginning of his name because he had a doctorate in theology.  Yes, he spent some time leading civil rights protests, but he spent much more time being a preacher.

Okay, maybe you knew that part.  But what we really don't hear about often is that King's Christianity was rooted in his personal spiritual experience.

When discussing his spirituality, people usually say King was influenced by Christ's or Gandhi's "philosophy" -- as if, based on a sober assessment of their logic and evidence, King concluded their ideas were sound -- but they don't touch on what King saw as his firsthand encounter with the divine.

MLK's Epiphany

I've read and listened to a lot about King, but I only recently heard this story.  One night in 1956, King's struggle was taking its toll, and he was feeling tired and defeated.  Sitting at his kitchen table, he started praying out loud.  Suddenly, he "experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before."

"It seemed as though," he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, "I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying:  'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.'  Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything."  This experience convinced him to stay on his course, and become the leader he became.

When reading about this event, it struck me that this would be a great story to tell the people I know and read who scoff at spiritual practice, and say it's a waste of time.  "Why spend all that time meditating or praying?  Why not go out and do some good in the real world?" they ask.

Some Crazy Ideas

Here's a controversial thought:  what if the very idea of "goodness" has its roots in spiritual experiences like King's?  In other words, what if we wouldn't even have any sense of what it means to "do good," without the guidance of people who have had personal encounters with divinity?

The founders of the great religious traditions -- Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and so on -- are all said to have had life-changing shifts in their consciousness that convinced them of their calling.  These figures' spiritual experiences inspired the teachings and behavior they brought into the world, which in turn created much of what we now call "morality" and "ethics."  At least, so some say.

And how about another crazy idea:  what if the very purpose of spiritual practice -- meditation, prayer, chanting, and so on -- is to bring about that same state of consciousness?  To give the everyday person access to the compassion, inner strength, and sense of universal interconnectedness that drove people like King to accomplish what they did?

If spiritual practice can do that for us -- and, in the interest of full disclosure, I believe it can -- I think it's actually one of the best uses we can make of our time.

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  1. Hi Chris, I suspect you think those questions are rhetorical.

    Like you I do think that spiritual practice can change us in profound ways. Or at least spiritual experience does (this leads to interesting places about grace and our spiritual self being our normal experience and so on and much else).

    The problem is that sometimes spiritual practise falls well short of its intention.

    The morality and ethics that the various religions propound conflict on some points. In my own tradition (Chrisitianity) the ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ seem to have different attitudes to war – and this is within the one faith.

    If ‘goodness’ is rooted in spirituality then the question is: What do you with atheists? Are atheists really less moral than believers? This can lead to lots of circular arguments but I hope you see my point. (I do wish the science promoters would deal with the difficulties in their own position though: how exactly do you avoid the nasty conclusions drawn by ’social darwinism’ given your presuppositions?)

    I suspect the hard line scoffers would say that Martin could have just got up and done it without the need of this experience. (I think they’d show their narrow-mindedness by doing so, maybe I’m being unfair to them.)

  2. Hi Evan — how did you guess that I thought those were rhetorical questions?

    Yes, I think what you said about our spiritual self being our normal experience is insightful — we tend to label “peak moments” as the only spiritual experiences we undergo, not realizing how much is available to us in every moment. I think spiritual practices like meditation are about gaining that awareness.

    On the subject of religious traditions and their different attitudes, I think there are (at least) two ways we could see the issue. The first would be to assume that every tenet of a given tradition had its roots in the spiritual experience of its founder, and the second would be to make some distinction between the core of each tradition’s teachings, which came from the mouth of the founder, and the periphery, which perhaps consists of later glosses on what the founder said. In the case of Christianity, for instance, there have been many efforts to distinguish between the actual sayings of Jesus and the interpretations or additions made by the writers of the gospels.

    On the issue of whether we “can be good without God,” I like some philosophers’ distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology. Anyone can know what’s moral and act morally, whether they are atheists or believers. So in that sense we can be “good without God.” But the ontological question is why “goodness” exists in the first place, and that is a question it is difficult to answer without positing a moral lawgiver, i.e., God.

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