(RNS) — Media Stories about religion they often focus on corruption in religious institutions, alliances of politicians with conservative Christians, and institutional abuses of power. These important stories need to be reported. But there is another dimension of religion that has an impact on our society: religious values inspire people to face difficult social issues, their beliefs help them reframe problems in hopeful and life-affirming ways, and their spiritual practices sustain them. in their fights.
Several years ago, I searched for stories that captured the social dimension of religion and spirituality, and was struck by how often humanitarian work is led by religious people—up to 90%, according to research by Anne Colby and William Colby. . for his 1992 book “Some Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Compromise.”
My search finally turned into a project at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Following the example of William Jamesone of the founders of American philosophy and psychology, I decided to draw on the experience of exceptional individuals, those people whom James called religious geniuseswhose experience he believed told us much more than that of ordinary people.
Working with several dozen freelance journalists from around the world, my team at USC has identified and profiled 104 “spiritual role models” engaged in remarkable humanitarian work inspired by their faith, representing 13 traditions from 42 different countries.
Here are a few we profiled:
Tom Catena he is the only doctor for a population of nearly a million people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He is an evangelical Catholic whose first stop every morning at 6:30 am is mass before heading to rounds and surgery.
mama maggie runs a large program for children and families living in the slums of Cairo that includes 100 day care centers. As a Coptic Christian, she spends up to two months a year at a local monastery praying for the children and the program, keeping her cell phone close to her to consult with her staff when problems arise.
Kushil Gunasekera He left his successful sales career to serve more than 400,000 people in 400 Sri Lankan villages, providing scholarships and computer training for young people, paying medical costs for the elderly and improving living conditions, risking his own financial solvency. Living by the credo of “the more you give, the more you have to give,” the Kushil Buddhist credits his daily 30-minute meditation for helping to keep him motivated for good.
We found that there is sometimes a dark side to many of these humanitarian workers. They suffer from vicarious trauma and have a potential for burnout. But his example offers a source of information about the effect of religion and spiritual practice on humanitarian work.
There are common spiritual practices that cross faith traditions: prayer, meditation, corporate rituals, daily periods of study and reflection, and regular retreats. These practices tend to develop a unique “heart”, full of compassion, empathy, selflessness, courage and humility. The “value” shown by the specimens may be something genetic, but it is also learned.
At the same time, spirituality is not a distinct quality that can be separated from other influences in their lives: nurturing family, interaction with mentors, and the support network of a community. Spirituality seems to be the sea in which these unique individuals swim.
Despite their challenging environments, Spirit Exemplars are highly resilient. Your beliefs work to reframe your circumstances in redemptive ways, offering a vision of hope and possibility, further bolstered by spiritual practices. In fact, the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann It says that we do not practice because we believe, but that we believe because we practice.
Scholars sometimes make the distinction between intrinsic and fundamentalist religion which is authoritarian. The specimens we have studied fit into the category of intrinsic religion. The Reverend Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest we profile, measures all beliefs by whether they are loving, not by whether they are part of church dogma. This conviction guides efforts from Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest prison reentry and gang intervention program.
James believes that there are multiple levels of consciousness that include fantasy, dreams, theoretical reflection, and awareness of an unseen reality connected to religious faith. Spiritually motivated humanitarians are well aware of that reality beyond the material world.
Spiritual practices trigger this access to a non-material world, an awareness of ideal relationships associated with the sacredness of all beings, the rights and dignity of all people, and hope and possibility regardless of circumstance. This realm of consciousness becomes “real” in engaged spirituality, when prayer and contemplation usefully connect with people in need.
Cynics see the realm of “faith” in the unseen, to use James’s terminology, as a mere “illusion” or an “opium” to soothe the pain of the oppressed. A philosophical pragmatist, James says the proof is in the pudding. It is not the “roots,” he said, but the “fruits” that count when evaluating religion: the children cared for, the gang members transformed, the lives saved, all point to the reality of the wide variety of religious experiences.
The philosopher linda zagzebski He has argued that exemplary individuals contribute to moral discourse and ethics because their lives and actions are worthy of emulation. They provoke an emotional response, Zagzebski said, which leads us to emulate them.
Negative media coverage of religion is necessary and helpful because it provides a critique of “extrinsic” religion, a religion that is corrupt and authoritarian. But something is lost if that is the main coverage of religion. At this moment in human history, which seems too focused on cynicism, we need heroes to emulate. Heroes who have discovered some of the levers of resilience. Heroes who give themselves to a cause and have found purpose and meaning in their work.
One place to look for such heroes is among people committed to humanitarian work who are inspired by their faith, sustained by their spiritual practices, and reframed each day with hope and possibility because of their beliefs in an unseen reality.
(Donald E. Miller is director of strategic initiatives at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and author, most recently, of “Being Human Again: An Oral History of the Genocide Against the Tutsi.” The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)