In the Material World, the Search for the Spiritual World


Leonardo Boff – TRANSCEND Media Service

26 Jun 2024 – There are many who are fed up with material goods and the consumerism of our culture. As a counterpoint, I want to place the theme of spiritual goods in the dramatic, dangerous and hopeful context in which humanity currently finds itself, especially the humiliated and offended humanity that lives in the Global South, the victims of 18 regions of war, in particular in the Gaza Strip with an open-air genocide bias, without forgetting the many victims of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Our reflection wants to capture the emergence of the spiritual world and emphasize its pressing relevance in the face of the threats of the disappearance of the species and the liquidation of the biosphere, whether due to a nuclear war, excessive heat due to climate change or any factor of imbalance on planet Earth itself. They could eventually call into question the common future of Earth and humanity.

In such dramatic moments, human beings dive into their depths and ask themselves basic questions:

What are we doing in this world? What is our place in the group of beings? How can we act to guarantee a future that is hopeful for everyone and for our Common Home? What can we expect beyond this life?

These are questions from the spiritual world.

It is in this context that we must pose the question of the spiritual world, in other words, spirituality. The spiritual world is one of the primary sources, although not the only one, of inspiration for the new, of joyful hope, of generating a fulfilling sense and of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence. Because human beings only feel fully human when they seek to overcome themselves. The reason lies in the fact that it is experienced as an infinite project, full of virtualities that, in part, take place in history and, as a whole, beyond it.

This concern for the spiritual world is recurrent in our culture, not only in the context of religions, which is its natural place, but also in the context of human searches, both by young people and intellectuals, by famous scientists and – to our surprise -, of great business people. I have spoken in recent years, here and abroad, to people linked to these groups.

The fact that big business people ask questions linked to the spiritual world, that is, spirituality, attests to the dimensions of the crisis that is plaguing us. It means that the material goods they produce, the productivist logics and competition they encourage, the universe of commercial values ​​(everything has become a commodity) that inspires their practices do not address the aforementioned questions. There is a deep emptiness, an immense hole inside your being. Therefore, I think, only the spiritual world can fulfill it.

It is important, however, to always maintain our critical spirit, because with the spiritual world, with spirituality, we can also make a lot of money. There are real companies that manage spirituality discourses that, often, speak more to their pockets than to their hearts. There are neo-Pentecostal leaders who are an expression of the market with their preaching of the gospel of material prosperity and, recently, of domination. They win over the faithful, religious and in good faith, to the interests of their pastors.

However, the permanent bearers of the spiritual world are people considered common, who live the righteousness of life, the sense of solidarity and cultivate the space of the Sacred, whether in their religions and churches, or in the way they think, act and interpret life. and take care of nature.

What matters, however, is that worldwide there is a demand for non-material values, for a redefinition of the human being as a being that seeks fulfilling meaning, that is looking for values ​​that provide joy in living.

Everywhere we find human beings, especially young people, indignant with the destiny previously defined in terms of economics, when it is said that “there is no alternative”(TINA), the market system, under which we are forced to live, who refuse to accept the paths that the powerful coerce humanity to follow. These young people say:

We will not allow our future to be stolen from us. We deserve a better destiny, we need to drink from other sources to find a light that illuminates our path and gives us hope.”

That is why it is important, from the beginning, to introduce a distinction – without separating, but distinguishing – between the religious world, religion and the spiritual world, spirituality. In fact, the Dalai Lama did so in an extremely brilliant and enlightening way in the book Ethics for the New Millennium (2000). These are terms that we use without knowing exactly what they mean. I allow myself to quote a topic from the book whose understanding I participate in and make my own.

“I believe that religion (religious world) is related to the belief in the right to salvation preached by any faith tradition, a belief that has as one of its main aspects the acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including possibly an idea of paradise or nirvana. Associated with this are religious teachings or dogmas, rituals, prayers, and so on.”

I consider spirituality (spiritual world) to be related to those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience and tolerance, ability to forgive, contentment, notion of responsibility, notion of harmony – that bring happiness both to the person himself and to the others”.

“Ritual and prayer, along with questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly linked to religious faith, but these inner qualities need not be. There is therefore no reason why an individual cannot develop them, even to a high degree, without resorting to any religious or metaphysical system” (p.32-33).

As can be seen, these reflections are crystal clear as they show the necessary distinction between the religious world, religion and the spiritual world, spirituality. Once distinct, they can relate and coexist, but without one necessarily depending on the other.

Experiencing the spiritual world can show paths that take us out of the crisis of current times.


Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian, ecologist, writer and university professor exponent of the Liberation Theology. He is a former friar, member of the Franciscan Order, respected for his advocacy of social causes and environmental issues. Boff is a founding member of the Earthcharter Commission.

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