- Engaged Spirituality: Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire
One of the more wrenching adjustments one can make is to leave a foreign land, its culture and its people, and return home to what was once familiar. To the extent that this experience abroad transformed the way one views reality, the adjustment is even more difficult. Anyone who has lived and ministered with the poor in another country will feel the struggle of Joseph Nangle in his book, Engaged Spirituality, as he tries to bring the gifts he has received from the people of Latin America back to his native culture. Nangle’s honesty and openness about this struggle is one aspect of the book that makes it so accessible and readable. In some sense, this book is a confession of a transformation undergone over the course of fifteen years of service to those who live and love in a dehumanizing social, economic and political context. This transformation has affected every aspect of Nangle’s spirituality—a truth he strives to communicate throughout the book.
The work begins with a brief history of his journey and how he perceives American spirituality today—one that he characterizes as “all about me” (xv). He recognizes that the vast majority of spiritual writers and practitioners focus “on the individual”(xv). While if reminded most people would perhaps recognize this fact, it feels like a proverbial slap in the face when returning from a culture with a much greater emphasis on community and one’s spiritual journey within that community. What Nangle seeks to recover or discover, in the case of American spirituality, is a spirituality that emphasizes the action of the Holy Spirit in “this messy, disorganized state of our world” (xvii). In a word, he wants a spirituality that bridges one’s private journey, on the one hand, and the suffering that determines the existence of so many, on the other. To that end he emphasizes throughout the text the reality of being a Christian “in the empire” (xvii). What does it matter if one lives out a Christian spirituality, if it is in the most powerful country in the world? What obligations do we have both to ourselves and our fellow human beings if we live and pray in this context? Nangle suggests that any spirituality in America today which lacks a strong prophetic dimension, ultimately results in greater sin. He writes:
I believe that the greatest sin committed by people of faith in the U.S. empire today is the omission of that challenging word. By and large our bishops, priests, religious women and men, and many lay people lack the training and the inclination to critique this empire, one which has the capacity for much good in the world but which in fact is doing so much harm(xviii).
The first three chapters of Engaged Spirituality take up in turn, the Incarnation, a political reading of scripture, and the practices of prayer and contemplation. What holds this triad together is established early in the first chapter—God incarnates God’s self in Jesus of Nazareth personally, interpersonally, and socially. The great misunderstanding of the Incarnation occurs when believers only consider Jesus to be active as a personal and interpersonal agent, and ignore the social and political dimension of his ministry. For this reason it is important to educate people regarding a political reading of scripture—for example, taking seriously the social, political and economic context of scripture. When this dimension is uncovered, we cease [End Page 101] spiritualizing events like the Exodus and begin to see that God wants all “slaves” liberated from their political, economic, and social oppression. This understanding of the Incarnation as well as this particular reading of scripture will lead to a different emphasis in the traditional categories of prayer and contemplation. We ought to pray, says Nangle, with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Social contemplation, rather than simply personal or interpersonal contemplation, ought to emerge from a...