What Spirituality after 1989?


Antonino Drago – TRANSCEND Media Service

A Universal Spirituality Adequate to Our Times

          In 1989 the peoples of Eastern Europe carried out non-violent revolutions which brought down the so-called socialist countries. This collapse also brought down all the old ideologies with which Europe had lived for two centuries and which it had spread throughout the world.

In fact, the political winners of this historic change were the nonviolent people, those who before 1989 had courageously suggested overcoming the clash between the two Blocs without weapons. But after 1989 they have not been able to suggest a new political program for the reconstruction of society and the state.

This theoretical, legal and political vacuum has been filled by the sole remaining superpower, the USA; who pursued world domination with a globalization agenda of consumer goods for all. On people this has caused a general withdrawal in on themselves. It has been very strong in people on the political left; until then they had lived according to a strong, almost military ideology based on objective and structural political facts; then these people had to rediscover the human and subjective side of life and immersed themselves in it. Similarly, those in the Catholic world who had seen Liberation Theology (LT) as the application of the Vatican 2 Council to collective left-wing politics returned to live within the small communities because the disappearance of the socialist states in 1989 vanished the political project of a new society.

In addition, at that time an unprecedented acceleration of technological progress occurred; new means of mass communication have absorbed a large part of people’s lives in the immediate daily life. People have abandoned attention to social structures and have reduced their spiritual life to the original human life, taking care above all of their psycho-physical well-being. A wave of subjectivism ensued; which in any case had the merit of discovering all forms of religiosity, without worrying anymore about the accusations of syncretism or orientalism.

But in the meantime the world’s problems have become more complicated. To pick up the knot of their skein, today it is necessary to recover the best of the spiritual teaching of the past. Lanza del Vasto (1901-1981; LdV) was the first to unite (before the Council) western and eastern spiritual life by becoming a disciple of Gandhi and then founding Gandhian communities in the West. In 1962, he collected various writings by him in a book: Approches à la vie Intérieure (Approaches to the inner life, Denoël, Paris, 1962). Here he sends a strong message to the people of even our time by suggesting two targets: to deepen the spiritual life to the point of conceiving it in a universal way with respect to all the major religions and to understand the social structures in order no longer submit to them passively. The historic change of 1989 did not diminish these targets; on the contrary it made them urgent to recover a full capacity of initiative.

From a careful reading of the book we discover that it is based on twelve guiding ideas (many of which are still innovative for the spiritual masters of our time):

1) in all religions the spiritual life is above all an interior life (see the title of the book).

2) This inner life is based on a relentless search for the true self (second paragraph).

3) The spiritual life must also engage person’s mind in understanding his own life; to this end, four circles of experience must be crossed: intellectual life, artistic life, observation of oneself and of others, moral conscience (pp. 65-86).

4) «the dominant motif of the doctrine is the unity of life; and its fundamental character is to form a living unity» (p. 9).

5) To find a general framework for one’s spiritual life, one must “seek what the three great traditions of spiritual life in the world, the Abrahamic, the Hindu and the Buddhist, have in common” (p. 64).

6) This spiritual life, as Gandhi’s life has indicated, must be constantly verified in relationships with others, that is, it must be linked to ethics (acting well, rather than believing well; pp. 128-147).

7) In this great opening of the horizon of reference, spiritual attention must be guided by what the “simple eye” sees: “three truths, that of the Light [“or truth, or God”], that of the Me [“the Self, or Inner Life”] and that of the You [“or respect, justice, charity, through non-violence and active expectation of the Kingdom of Heaven”].» (pp. 15).

8) In ethics, in order not to be naive, one must understand the ultimate origin of evil in people and in society; it is described by Genesis 3: the original sin (or original violence; pp. 165 ff.) which consists, according to its original interpretation, in degrading the knowledge-contemplation of the other and the world in the knowledge-calculation of one’s own individual interest by exploiting others, now reduced to things;

9) then the so many social relationships of all, i.e. the honest and the dishonest, the bad and the good, the intelligent and the stupid can accumulate this individual violence to the point of constituting negative social structures; which, having become autonomous, act on people like scourges (pp. 227-235).

10) All this must be answered with a total conversion (Beatitudes, Mt 5); that is to say, it is necessary to convert not only from one’s own individual negativities, but also from the negative social and intellectual structures of society (pp. 253-264);

11) the conversion must recover the original knowledge-contemplation, that means empathy and collaboration with all, seen as brothers;

12) and in social conflicts it must lead to the historical novelty of Gandhi’s spirituality, one that profoundly innovates social life: resolving conflicts without violence, even by fighting the main social evils; and at the same time building the alternative, that is, a new associative life, in which peace is based on solidarity and justice.

However, with regard to the decisive guiding idea, the eleventh, non-violence, which should have directed all the teaching of his book, LdV declared (p. 240) that he had not found a completely satisfactory definition (yet today there is no shared definition of this word).

So, having understood that he had not accomplished his project, in the middle of the book (from page 179) he made his exposition of spirituality more concrete; he addressed the reader to participate in the Gandhian-type community which he had founded and which in its time represented the most concrete realization of the Gandhian spiritual life on the personal and social levels. To this end, he suggested a series of teachings for overcoming the pre-conciliar spirituality which dominated the Christian world of that time, that is to say, to fully live one’s social role: he encouraged people to come out of Western social organization, to participate in the life of his community (pp. 183-188).

Today we see that his exposition has some defects (e.g., the presentation of the twelve aspects of his spirituality are not listed in order); but they can be overcome. We can also overcome the difficulty of recognizing a substantial definition of the word “non-violence”; in fact LdV had already expressed it (but in passing), when he presented a parallelism between the role of Christ and that of Gandhi in the histories of the respective religions (p. 298-299). The Messiah came to “fulfill the law of the Father”; that is, according to LdV, he taught that the ancient “Thou shalt not kill” is valid not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in social life and even during wars.

Gandhi did the same with an ancient Hindu teaching, ahimsa (non-violence), which before him was understood as benevolence only in interpersonal relationships; he applied it with courage even in social and political conflicts. The Messiah taught (with his life and his death) that in order not to kill enemies even in the worst social conflicts (he was under Roman domination) one must not “answer evil with evil”, but with good: ” Love your enemies” (yes, he said exactly “enemies”). This is precisely what Gandhi did, who also treated the British colonizers kindly and cooperatively; and that in addition he taught this novelty to the people, leading them to fight non-violently the worst social evil of the time, the domination of the British Empire. Thus, the ideas of Christian love and non-violence are parallel.

Another defect of the book is that it introduces a person to mainly a non-violence of personal kind; it briefly deals with the spiritual struggle against negative social structures. But there is a previous book, Les Quatre Fléaux (Denoël, Paris  1959) where he interprets four passages from Western sacred texts in an original way that can be shared by the faithful of every major religion. After what we have already seen about Genesis 3, he considers Apocalypse 6 and 8 where he finds the social scourges “made with human hands”: War, (violent) Revolution, Poverty and Servitude. Guided by this idea, he builds his own analysis of all the structures of society, without asking for loans from nineteenth-century ideologies.

Then he completes his analysis of negative social structures by playing the two terrible beasts of Revelation 13 that dominate the world; they indicate the maximum and extreme negativities, because they pervade all social and intellectual life. In the former Beast he recognizes Science (because it is empowered by his conquest of the infinity to fight God and it imposes its truths in a totalitarian way as the only possible ones) and Technology (because, under the authority of the former, it multiplies material goods by presenting them as the Paradise in Earth); in fact, both are responsible for the “secularization” that has occurred over the last few centuries.

But Revelation 13 also indicates the way of salvation: it consists in knowing the names of the two beasts, that is, the two motivations that the beasts instigate people to have. There it is written: “666”. LdV interprets it as a “666…”, that is, the typical concept of modern mathematics and science: an infinite mathematical series. This series is here the symbol of a will of the individual man (translated into a 6) to expand his capacities to reach the infinite (understood as the overflow of human limits), even with the suppression of others and of God.

This is also the profound motivation of the first two scourges: War and Revolution (“active…, with their [mythic] character of inevitability and almost fatal” of carrying aggression to the lives of others to infinity, p. 5). But the “666” can also be interpreted as the basic element of ancient science, the triangle, with three 6s (men) placed at its vertices: that is, the symbol with which God is usually represented; that is a few people who unite to make themselves heaven on earth, at the expense of others, reduced to servitude and misery (“passive” scourges).

Revelation 13 says that both beasts impose a totalitarian power that violates the very structure of people: they brand everyone’s forehead so that they reason like a machine, and their right hand, to formalize all interpersonal relationships. In the past, the European totalitarian Stalinist, Fascist, Nazi and Francoist dictatorships are precise historical examples.

Ultimately, LdV suggests that in personal life and in social life (even the enormous and complicated social life of the West, the so-called “modernity”), there are two basic dimensions, infinity and organization; they can be oriented by the person and by society towards either good, or even extreme evil. Work on oneself (the second guiding idea), in order to be truly spiritual, must discern good directions from bad ones in order to separate oneself from social evils, fight them and build alternatives, those aimed at the truly infinite (God, human relationships) and true organization (Kingdom of God on Earth, i.e. community of converts).

In the 20th century all religions suffered the aggression of “modernity” through Science and Technology. LdV was the first to give an interpretation of this modernity based on the ancient wisdom of the sacred texts of a religion (Christianity). Every religion, to survive modernity, will have to find a similar interpretation in its specific sacred texts.

Now let’s compare the political spirituality of LdV with that of LT. This has seen social negativity in only two of the aforementioned four scourges: Poverty and Servitude, caused in the peoples of Latin America by world capitalism; it has not fought the scourge of War; on the contrary, it has supported the guerrilla to carry out a (violent) Revolution, considered not a scourge, but a social liberation. Finally, IT did not criticize Science and Technology, which we clearly see today having a negative role for the spiritual life of humanity, right from a person’s childhood. Therefore, LdV’s illustration of the evils in the world was broader and more prophetic than that of the LT; and, with regard to the Revolution and the War, it differs from LT because LdV proposes what to the LT had seemed a utopia: to resolve conflicts with non-violence.

History has instead shown that non-violence was not a utopia. The book by E. Chenoweth and M. Stephen (2010), Why Civil Resistance Works, Columbia U.P, New York, 2010, collected data from all the revolutions (called “civil resistance campaigns”) that took place in the world in the years l900-2006). Their number is 323; that is to say (excluding from the 198 countries of the world the twenty countries of the dominating West), on average almost two revolutions per country. A hundred of them have been nonviolent and these in recent decades have been as numerous as the violent ones.

These results confirmed and scientifically detailed the results of a previous work (P. Ackerman and A. Karatnicky: How Freedom Won, Freedom House, Washington, 2005) on revolutions that took place in a shorter period of time (1975 – 2002) and which have been studied with quick methods. In this time period 2/3 of all revolutions have been non-violent revolutions.

The statistical analysis of the first book on non-violent revolutions highlighted their effectiveness: which was 56%, against 24% of violent ones; and, in the period following the victory, the former ones have been much more effective than the violent ones in establishing a stable regime of free political life.

The following graph shows that in Latin America, where the myth of the liberating violent revolution was launched, this type of revolution won in 24% of the cases, while the non-violent revolutions won in 83% of the cases. This is a historical proof that the non-violent struggle pays off abundantly.

When we speak of non-violence as a discovery of this century, it must be made clear that we are not dealing with the revelation of a new spiritual value or religious concept, but with the entry into the history of peoples of a revolutionary and innovative force. “I saw” – says Romain Rolland in the preface to Gandhi’s “Jeune India” -, this wave rise from the depths of the East and will not fall again until it has covered the whole world. ”

This is the discovery that the century too is beginning to make, forced as it is to seek a way out of the blind alley it has entered. (Lanza del Vasto: Les Quatre Fléaux, Denoël, Paris, 1959, p. 293).

As a conclusion, we can say that the master of non-violence Lanza del Vasto has two great merits. First, having accurately indicated a complete spirituality, in the sense of a spirituality that goes from the interior to the personal, to the community and finally to the social-political with full awareness of the structures of society. Second, this spirituality is universal, in the sense that the faithful of every major religion can relate to it.

This spirituality is adequate to the two political tasks we have in our post-1989 time: to continue to resolve social conflicts at all levels without violence, even at the level of global aberrations (e.g. nuclear weapons) and to rebuild society on non-violent foundations, in particular the Gandhian-type state: the one that has a community economy and that, in order to better resolve conflicts with non-violence, has the minimum of bureaucracy and technology.


Prof. Antonino Drago – Member of the TRANSCEND Network, formerly at the University of Naples. Allied of Ark community, he teaches at the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU: I have a Master degree in physics (University of Pisa 1961), I am a follower of the Community of the Ark of Gandhi’s Italian disciple, Lanza del Vasto, I am a conscientious objector, a participant in the Italian campaigns for conscientious objection (1964-1972) and the Campaign for refusing to pay taxes to finance military expenditure (1983-2000). Owing to my long experience in these activities and also my writings on these subjects I was asked by the University of Pisa to teach Nonviolent popular defense in the curriculum of “Science for Peace” (from 2001 to 2012) and also Peacebuilding and Peacekeeping (2009-2013); then by the University of Florence to teach History and Techniques of nonviolence in the curriculum of “Operations of Peace” (2004-2010). I was the first President of the Italian ministerial committee for promoting un-armed and nonviolent civil defense (2004-2005). drago@unina.it.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Nov 2022.

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