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So Does Aesthetic Sense.

Michael Lerner, Spirit Matters. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2000. 363pp. $22.95 (cloth).

Somehow the notion has spread among current religious social critics that spiritual life was eclipsed with the Enlightenment. The dark mystery of religion (the theory goes) shriveled up in the dehydrating glare; or else it went bankrupt and was bought out by science and industry; or else perhaps it descended into hell for three centuries. It didn't: it went into art, which discovered empirically through the childhood experience of nature and the adult experience of social and political agony how much of religion is still possible and necessary without "faith." Many of the great names in post-Enlightenment English writing -- particularly in the nineteenth century -- are the names of prophetic dissenters to the social order, who brought their ethical and aesthetic energies to bear upon social questions: Blake, Wordsworth, Ruskin, George Eliot, Dickens. Art became an in dependent spiritual force, as capable as religion -- sometimes a good deal more capable--of changing minds and opening eyes.

Michael Lerner's Spirit Matters -- apart from accepting the standard view of the Enlightenment and thus having to make excuses at every turn for its "reintroduction" of spirituality -- bears some resemblance to Ruskin's Unto This Last, a critique of economic theory published in the early 1860s. Both Ruskin and Lerner dispute the fundamental premise of political economy, that human behavior is motivated chiefly by avarice; both insist that money and goods do not satisfy all cravings, that neither the rich nor the poor need only material security. Both writers have an acute and lively sympathy for the spiritual lives of working people. Both set out point-by-point plans for establishing a humane economic order, in which people are educated to do work worthy of doing which will not irreparably damage the surrounding environment. Both insist that people can be educated to honesty and hopefulness -- that such education is not even difficult, if we do not mishandle the human propensity to love and loyalty and awe. Lerner's proposals are more detailed than Ruskin's -- perhaps they need to be, given that twentieth-century threats raised nineteenth-century threats to another order of magnitude; he outlines a sweeping reconfiguration of medicine, law, education, and working life. (Among his more specific suggestions: a renewable charter for all corporations doing business in the U.S., subject to review every twenty years by a citizen jury which will evaluate the corporation's wage scale, ecological practices, and general humanity toward its workers.) Lerner has an audacious imagination, a feeling for the inner lives of people at all economic levels, and an undisappointable persistence in the political realm. The book is a manifesto of what he calls "Emancipatory Spirituality"; at its best it might really emancipate.

Or almost. The trouble is that Lerner is Ruskin without an aesthetic sense. Where Unto This Last begins immediately with a compelling subtitle, "The Roots of Honor," Spirit Matters begins, "Thank you so much for opening this book! This book has arrived in your life at exactly the right moment." The first fifty or sixty pages seem to be an effort to woo religion-shy businesspeople to give "spirit" a chance, with the aid of emotionally inert mantras like "I am one part of the consciousness of the universe, a manifestation of the Unity of All Being." (Cabs Castaneda once said that if you want a spiritual practice all you have to do is go home every night and look at your family and realize that someday they're each going to die, and you'll soon have a spiritual practice.) The rest of the book reads like a naked effort to convince New Age people to think. God knows that's a worthwhile aim, but the seams of the book are so ragged, the shifts of agenda so palpable, that one is never sure whether Lerner is successf ully bootlegging intellect into anti-intellectual territory or giving so much ground that his central points turn to swamp underneath him.

Most problematically, Lerner writes about awe in a language from which the evocation of awe has been banned: the language of psychology, sociology, business, and advertising. Ruskin can bring awe whole into the consciousness by the mere shaping of a phrase; even in writing about painting he can throw off a sentence like "Every atom is in full energy, and all that energy is kind" and plunge the reader into metaphysical rumination. Lerner -- passionately as he argues for justice and equity -- is willing to settle for gooey, reductive locutions like "the YHVH-force of love and caring," which does a certain injustice to readers' minds. It's no coincidence that the motive force of Ruskin's prose was the King James Bible, and that the biblical English currently available to Lerner [biblical Hebrew being largely unavailable to his readers) is a language purged of earthiness, wordplay, grandeur, and incisiveness. Religious English at present is just another form of advertising. At worst this lack of serious contempo rary language makes Lerner despair of his readers' attention span; he is given to flashing the phrase "Spirit Matters" at intervals like a brand name. That's a very risky tactic; the humblest of working people can recognize it far off as hype. (My grandfather, a tool and die maker who left school at eighth grade, worked near a bread factory with a big light-up sign that kept flashing every few seconds, No Foolin' -- They're Good! "No good--they're foolin'," said he and his workmates. They would have found something to do with "Spirit Matters.")

Given the complexity of Lerner's thinking and the enormous potential importance of his ideas, one has to make allowances for his failures of expression--except that they are failures, and he is one of many religious and spiritual writers who rely far too much on the good will of their readers to supply missing links of coherence and tone, and ultimately a failure in the expression is a failure in the conception. It's not "pathogenic" Enlightenment cynicism to demand that love and awe receive adequate treatment in language before the body can respond with assent and commitment. It's the body's need to dance to the language it thinks with. In spite of his political passion, his admirable Jewish learning, and his tireless work with the "Politics of Meaning" in his magazine Tikkun, not all Lerner's atoms are in full energy yet. In the end it will be the people with the most compelling language -- still the unacknowledged legislators -- who decide whether his agenda stands or falls.

CATHERINE MADSEN is a contributing editor to CrossCurrents.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Previous Article:Proving God.
Next Article:It's About the Land.

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