and how can it heal the world?

This is the conventional narrative: Spirituality is mostly an individual enterprise. A choose-your-own-adventure project of enlightenment or healing or growth. Spirituality helps us be better people. It helps us understand ourselves, our understanding of the world, and place in it.

The Great Problems will be solved by lots of individuals tending to their own healing and growth, so they can have better thoughts and feelings, and make better choices. If enough people tend to themselves this way, it will scale up to change the world.

Reflection informs intentions. Intention determine actions. If enough people choose the right sorts of actions, it will scale up. After all, society is just the sum total of individual actions. Spirituality, then, is a key ingredient in making the world a better place.

This hopeful narrative, unfortunately, doesn’t work.

Reflection is conditioned by what we know. At any given moment, each of us contains multiple intentions and impulses, many of which we aren’t even aware. The number of choices we can meaningfully make is limited by things like our imagination, social norms, financial capacity, law-enforcement, physical ability, and so much more. Our actions often have unpredictable consequences.

But it get worse! What if I were to tell you that you don’t even know who you are? That, even more than individuals shape society, society forms individuals?

What follows is a fairly long exploration. One that draws upon my current dissertation research. As such, it is a work in progress.

Spirituality Under “Subjection”

Philosopher Judith Butler (who is perhaps best known for their contributions to gender studies) suggests that each of us, as subjects, are not only dominated by power, but we are shaped by power. In a sense, who we believe ourselves to be is written by the social script.

Butler refers to this as the process of “subjection.” They write:

We are used to thinking of power as what presses on the subject from the outside, as what subordinates, sets underneath, and relegates to a lower order. This is surely a fair description of part of what power does. But if…we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our existence and what we harbor and preserve in the beings that we are. The customary model for understanding this process goes as follows: power imposes itself on us, and, weakened by its force, we come to internalize or accept its terms. What such an account fails to note, however, is that the ‘we’ who accept such terms are fundamentally dependent on those terms for ‘our’ existence…‘Subjection’ signifies the process of becoming subordinated by power as well as the process of becoming a subject.

—Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, p 2.

In other words, then, we don’t simply “internalize” oppressive systems that exist outside of our selves. Rather, these systems of power co-create us. They “write” the social script. And we are continually formed in the context of that social script.

Oppressive systems are intimately involved in how we become our selves and maintain our selves. We are born into a set of social scripts that tell us who we are. These scripts are reinforced by the people and institutions around us. They are enforced by systems of control and violence. And the story of each our our lives…how we understand ourselves at the most intimate levels, is written upon our psyche.

It is extremely difficult to challenge these scripts.

Deviating from these scripts makes you, well, a deviant. Deviance is painful.

The Painfulness of Deviance

I am a transgender woman. I wasn’t aware of this deep truth about myself until I was in my mid 40s.

Despite the standard narrative of the young child growing up knowing that, deep inside, they were born into the “wrong body” most of the trans people I know spent a good chunk of their lives oblivious to their trans-ness.

For most of my life, I felt an unconscious need to live up to and embody the unspoken rules of masculinity. The more I did this, the more dissonance and discouragement I felt. I felt a perpetual feeling of “wrongness.”

When the truth finally exploded into my consciousness, I began to overtly deviate from the social script. I didn’t deviate to be provocative or as a fun experiment. Deviating from gender norms was, and still is, a matter of survival for me. Even as it puts me as greater risk.

At first, I started to change how I dressed. I started using makeup. I started hormone therapy.

But as I moved more into a place where my gender expression resonated with my internal sense of things, I found myself questioning other ideas that had been tied to my idea of masculinity. How were my primary relationships caught up in the rule of patriarchy? How does Christianity tend to instill moralism so we police ourselves? How much of my life had been a sort of performance to live up to a set of ideals that didn’t fit? And how much of my life had been flowing from my deepest and most authentic self?

And, at the same time, I experienced a painful backlash. Loss of friends. Disapproval from family. Accusations of mental instability, selfishness, narcissism, and immorality. Even from those who, at least on paper, affirmed LGBTQ+ identities.

When we deviate from norms, we are seen as deviants. As a result, we are seen as less-than-fully-human. Even as we find ourselves deepening and growing in our humanity.

Social scripts are powerful. Nearly determinative. And not just for queer people.

The little tender boy who longs to dance grows up to be a stoic terse man as norms about masculinity are etched into his mind and inscribed onto his flesh.

The brilliant girl who never learned just how brilliant she is, working a job she hates, married to man who looks at her with dead eyes, never realizing that another life was possible.

We, each of us, are surrounded by myths and norms that constrain our imaginations, that inscribe themselves onto our bodies, that bind our longings, that tell and retell us, every hour of every day, who we are.

But the script cannot account for everything. Most of us, I suspect, feel a deep dissatisfaction in our bones, even if we don’t have way to name it.

When we recognize that our desires don’t match our reality, we have been taught to shut-down that feeling of dissonance. When we grieve over the suffering we see around us in the world, and begin to wonder how things could be different, we struggle to imagine any alternative. This is, just the way the world is.

As Butler suggests “Exceeding is not escaping.” The social script can’t contain us, but just because we don’t fit in that box, it doesn’t mean we can simply escape it. While there is more to us as subjects than our formation within systems of power, we cannot opt out, no matter how determined our actions or crafty our analysis.

But that isn’t to say we have to accept our fate. We can act in ways that subvert, that create pockets of resistance, that allow us to change our relationship to power.

Discerning Deviance

If we want to cultivate within ourselves possibilities for meaningful choices…for ethical actions that nurture liberation for ourselves and others, then spirituality still has a role to play. However, it will require approaching spirituality differently while understanding that discernment can never be clean and simple.

A posture of spiritual, ethical, and political discernment needs to look both inward and outward and blend them together. It will require a strong aversion to moralizing mixed with a willingness to be perceived as deviant. It will delight in recognizing areas of self-deception and disarm self-defensiveness.

Ignatius of Loyola uses the New Testament language of “discernment of spirits” as a process of examining the “motions of the soul”: thoughts, feelings, desires, feelings, fantasies, repulsions, attractions, etc.

The goal of Ignatian discernment is to determine those things that bring consolation or desolation so that we might cultivate the fruit of the spirit in future action. Ignatius, and most contemplative writers, focus on interior discernment. However, my task is to link such interior work with social engagement in a collective, liberatory way.

There is no agreed-upon definition of “spirituality.” Modern spirituality emphasizes subjective experience, and, within Western societies, it emphasizes individual inner experiences as well as the cultivation of personal growth or transformation.

Yet, in the early Christian era, “spirituality” was largely a concept centered on the experience of the activity of the Spirit and the cultivation of life with and in the Spirit. If we believe the Spirit moves and acts through the world to nurture or support collective liberation, any operative definition of spirituality should, I believe, include outer discernment—not just examining the “motions of the soul” but also the “movements in society” or “movements in the world.”

To say that “the Spirit moves and acts” I want to be clear that I’m not advancing a traditional Christian definition of the Spirit as the Third Person of the Trinity. Whatever “spirit” is, it is wrapped up in the hope for liberation. As such, insofar as the Spirit exists, the Spirit exists in the future where collective liberation exists and, in the present, opens possibilities for that future amidst those who struggle for liberation, particularly those who suffer under oppression.

Ultimately, I am agnostic about the existence of God; I find the notion of a God who necessarily exists to be the bedrock of authoritarianism. And though I find resonance with the person of Jesus and consider him a living ancestor, I think it is a mistake to equate him with God, insofar as we understand “God” as the Supreme Being to whom we owe our obedience.

Yet, I will say I’ve experienced spirit. I’ve experienced the opening of a previously unknown horizon wherein possibilities for meaningful action present themselves. I may be stepping onto shaky metaphysical ground here. However, a hope in collective liberation, for me, requires the possibility of that collective liberation.

The possibility for ethical action amidst near-determinative social norms is a sacred thing. This is made all the more sacred by the vulnerability needed to encounter the other in a way that asserts and affirms their full humanity while, at the same time, subjecting us to being perceived as less-than-human.

Vulnerability is the Heart of Resistance

By “vulnerability” I am again drawing upon the work of Judith Butler who suggests in much of their work, particularly in recent publications, that vulnerability is a core part of what we might call solidarity.

The potential for ethical action doesn’t come from adhering to rules passed down from on-high. Rather, ethical action arises from responding to vulnerability, both in ourselves and in those who suffer.

When we encounter another in a way that affects us, we begin to realize our mutual dependency.

We are invited to recognize the ways we do not know ourselves as much as we earlier believed. We realize that we aren’t in control of our lives nearly as much as we’d thought. We learn that our own growth and healing depends upon relationships with others.

Those who suffer under oppression likewise realize that they depend upon others for survival and, even more, for the hope of fulfilment and liberation.

Vulnerability isn’t something to overcome, though. It is the pulsing heart of resistance. When we embrace our mutual interdependence and challenge the systems and norms that create precarity and inflict violence, we find ourselves amidst a community of resistance.

This vulnerability is not only essential for ethical action, but also for spirituality.

Judith Butler suggests, “the sacred is precisely that which cannot be fully captured by any appearance, certainly no visual icon. There are no idols that might represent the sacred, and, for this reason, the infinite is precisely that which cannot appear.”

Butler goes on to treat the fundamental unknowability of the self and the other in a similar way: “How is it, then, that we might understand this motion of the self as that which can only appear indirectly in its effects, precisely in its altered capacity to respond to others, their suffering, the demand to self-alteration they place upon us, the ethical obligations that are addressed to us in various ways? If this motion can only appear indirectly, then there will have to be a hermeneutics that comes to bear upon this encounter, one that would know and mark its inability to capture what it seeks to know.” [1]

Butler’s work could be said to have an apophatic quality. By apophatic, I am referring to that tendency in mysticism to recognize the fundamental unknowability of the divine and to, therefore, recognize the limitations of any attempts to define, grasp, or categorize the divine. Butler extends this apophatic posture to the self and the other.

The “self” appears to us indirectly, in motion. We glimpse it when we act and think and feel and respond. The self isn’t some static thing. Some definable object.

There is more to us than we can easily define or know. Any “essence” of the self cannot be collapsed to a set of identities.

Nevertheless, we are affected by others. As we give our attention to them, they make a claim upon us…to ignore or respond to their precarity and vulnerability. And as we respond, we glimpse our selves in motion—like a flickering flame that cannot be grasped.

We may find ourselves formed in community. Caught up in hope. Aware of our desire to transcend the limits inscribed upon our flesh and imaginations by systems of power. And animated by our longing for a abundant liberative world.

It is in that longing that my spirituality dwells. I find hope in the Spirit of Liberation as a possibility that draws us forward towards an uncertain collective liberation.

A Deviant Definition of “Spirituality” and “Discernment”

Before I lay out my working definitions of spirituality and discernment, I will name a significant lingering challenge: How do we define “liberation?” And how do we avoid using Liberation as an authoritarian signifier, much the same way many use the word “God?”

That exploration, though worthy of attention, will need to wait for another time. For now, it is sufficient to name the glorious revolutionary elephant in the room.

Returning to the task at hand, I offer the following as working definitions of spirituality and discernment, which I intend to return to in future research. I will follow these definitions with a series of socio-spiritual[2] assertions:

Spirituality: Our participation in the ongoing movement of the Spirit, in whose generativity we perceive opportunities for meaningful action, which culminates in personal, interpersonal, and collective liberation.

Discernment: A posture and practice of attending to interior “motions of the soul” and exterior “movement in the world” with the intention of cultivating personal, interpersonal, and collective liberation.

Not the sexiest of definitions. But a start.

Now, let me lay things out with a series of twenty-one assertions about divine deviance, about subversive spirituality. They are my attempt at creating the contours of a Spirituality of Liberation that helps bridge our own inner work with the collective work of social liberation.

Twenty-One Socio-Spiritual Assertions:

  1. Oppressive systems[3] impose upon us a perception of reality that breeds unhealthy attachments, fears, anxieties, while reinforcing hierarchal norms. This leaves us in a state of alienation.
  2. These systems shape our subjectivity in ways that constrain our deepest humanity and stifle our deepest desires.
  3. An important part of spirituality is naming our experiences of oppression (external) and malformation (internal).
  4. Our “self”, the Other, and the divine are fundamentally ungraspable, uncontainable, and undefinable.
  5. Nevertheless, the spirit meets us in our desires and in our vulnerable interactions with the Other. We might call such meetings an encounter with the “Spirit of Liberation.”
  6. If we want to perceive the ways we’re enmeshed within the system, and the way our attachments, fears, and anxieties contribute to not only our own harm, but also the harm of others, we can do so from a posture of solidarity. By recognizing our shared vulnerability in relationship to those who suffer, we encounter the sacred.
  7. Our bodies are political and spiritual. Systems of power not only constrain our imaginations, but also inscribe norms onto our bodies.
  8. As we attend to our bodies, recognizing discomfort and dissonance in the tension between inscribed norms and bodily desires, we encounter the Spirit of Liberation.
  9. By giving up a self-sufficient “I” we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and more fully alive in mutual relationships with others.
  10. This mutuality isn’t self-denying. Rather, there is a healthy self-love involved in the struggle for liberation. Rather than being driven by moralistic standards of “correct” or self-sacrificial action, we seek our own fulfillment in relation to collective fulfillment.
  11. Where the Spirit of Liberation moves, the Spirit of Liberation subverts. The Spirit of Liberation opens possibilities where none would otherwise seem possible.
  12. The “power” of the Spirit of Liberation is that of deviance and transgression—to discern possibilities where we’d otherwise perceive none, and to enable us to become more human in ways that deviate from those social norms, myths, systems, habits, and institutions that inscribe themselves onto our bodies, constrain our imaginations, and govern our relationships.
  13. The power of the Spirit of Liberation not only disrupts oppression, but also opens the possibility for counter-naming and embodied counter-action[4] wherein our relationships may become more liberative and our imaginations less fettered.
  14. Such action shifts perception, opening a deepening capacity for discernment, allowing us to perceive the world anew and, thus, act in novel ways.[5]
  15. As the Spirit of Liberation unmasks oppressive systems and relations, we are invited into holistic discernment that transgresses the distinctions between spiritual and social, personal and political. We might call this “socio-spiritual discernment.”
  16. Action that flows from socio-spiritual discernment will be perceived as deviant, since ethical action in an oppressive system requires transgression of normative limits.
  17. Deviation from norms is spiritual practice insofar as it disrupts systems of oppression or nurtures dissonance with oppressive inscription.
  18. Socio-spiritual discernment requires attending to our desires, experiences of dissonance, and the experiences of suffering around us.
  19. There is joy in the struggle. In solidarity and discernment, our praxis deepens. As our praxis deepens, we become “more human.” As we become “more human” our capacity for love, joy, and creativity grows.
  20. Discernment requires risk. If our spirituality isn’t subversive, it isn’t spirituality.
  21. In all these things, the Spirit of Liberation invites us to bring our full “selves” and our deepening creative capacity into the work of co-creating the new world as an ongoing work in process.

[1] Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, eds., Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 283.

[2] I am using the term “socio-spiritual” as a way of naming an existing tension between the perceived separation of the inner and outer domains. Spirituality and politics are usually bifurcated areas of concern. By bringing them together into one term, I want to emphasize the political and social dimensions of our interior experiences as well as re-spiritualize our understanding of social and political forces.

[3] By “oppressive systems” I essentially meaning dehumanizing or exploitative discourse. Foucault adopted the term “discourse” to denote a historically contingent social system that produces knowledge and meaning. He notes that discourse is distinctly material in effect, producing what he calls “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak”. (Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969) (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, 1972), 135-140 and 49. Discourse organizes knowledge in a way that materially structures social relations through the collective acceptance of discourse as social fact. And, as articulated by Judith Butler, discourse also mediates our sense of self through subjection.

[4] When I use phrases like “counter-action” or “meaningful action” I am, generally speaking, referring to praxis in the Freirean sense. In his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire defines praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” 126.

[5] This is what Hannah Arendt calls “natality.” She writes: “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.” Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 9.

Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk
Latest posts by Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk (see all)