by Sean Fitzpatrick
EDITORS NOTE: The following is part of a series produced by cohorts in the Luce-funded Rothko Chapel project on spirituality and social justice. Other entries can be found here.
My grandmother’s family institutionalized her briefly when my father was in his mid-twenties. I was born a decade later, after she was treated successfully for catatonia in a Pennsylvania psychiatric hospital. She made her own jelly from grapes grown on trellises over the back porch of her home, and she gleefully fed my brother and I jelly sandwiches on white bread, minus the peanut butter. (Grandma could get away with that. They were so good.) She had a huge, smoky laugh and held court in her kitchen, where her many children and their families gathered most weekends to play cards and drink Shasta out of 1970s-chic aluminum tumblers.
A devout Catholic, she attended confession on a daily basis until late in her life. Her catatonia was entangled with her Catholicism. Over time, she became convinced that any action she could take in the world was sinful. So, for a painful time in the 1960s, she literally stopped moving.
I learned about my grandmother’s institutionalization in midlife. It wasn’t exactly hidden by the family, but it was never talked about, and my father claimed to know little about it because he was the eldest and had left the home by then. The story snapped parts of my life into focus. It let me see that I am part of a lineage, one that included my father’s undiagnosed, untreated struggles with compulsions and anxiety. I have written about my grandmother before, in an academic book that ostensibly explored the ethical dimensions of the imagination, but was really about my own struggles with religiously-colored anxiety about how I think, feel, and imagine. My preoccupations rhyme with hers.
Her story reëmerged for me when I read Helen Lewis’ recent essay “How Social Justice Became a Religion” (Atlantic, August 2022). It’s a provocative, frustrating piece. She sees in some expressions of our sociopolitical engagement the shape of religion, but a particularly unconscious, puritanical, unpleasant, and life-destroying kind. A transgender advocate protesting outside Netflix headquarters demands that a Dave Chappelle supporter “repent,” and Lewis sees the emergence of a judgmental, “moralizing” collective mania that paints the world in stark, self-serving colors of good and evil. She leans on John McWhorter, who in his book Woke Racism described contemporary antiracism as a new religion, dismissing it as irrational, intellectually impoverished and infantilizing of the Black community it intends to defend. Lewis gestures briefly at irrational and quasi-religious formations within QAnon and the right, but her focus is squarely on what she hints is a corrosive Puritanism within progressivism. Calling it religious, it seems, is calling it out as regressive.
Inexplicably, Lewis misses what is most interesting to me about her premise: the way our contemporary racial justice movements have engaged the moral imagination and channeled it into action in the world in ways reflective of religion (and often deeply rooted in traditional religious commitments and perspectives). She manages to see only moralizing, not rich and vital moral discernment.
I am an ambivalent defender of religious perspectives. My own path led me away from churchgoing Catholicism toward what often gets framed as the traveling tent circus of the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR), ungrounded in theology or scripture and uncertain of anything other than its opposition to rules and institutions. As with many emergent cultural forms, SBNR is an umbrella for a wide range of practices, beliefs and intellectual lineages that fit in the same category, because they represent alternatives to dominant forms. (For an excellent scholarly framing and overview, see Being Spiritual But Not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s), edited by William Parsons (2020).)
My flavor of SBNR is sometimes called psychospirituality; I’m a practicing psychotherapist and executive director of The Jung Center, a nonprofit organization that provides psychoeducational experiences inspired by the work of C.G. Jung and post-Jungian theorists. Jung had a deep respect for religious traditions, even as he was articulating a path for those who found themselves called to leave the meaning systems of their origins (including religions, or particular expressions of them) to answer the summons of their souls. He called this path individuation.
Walking away from Catholicism meant accepting the guilt that Jung understood as a necessary sacrifice for leaving a community, one with which I nevertheless remain morally connected. This kind of leaving has a vital purpose for that community; from Jung’s vantage, those of us who leave do so because we are called to discover what he calls compensatory values, which must then be brought back into community.
That departure had multiple origins for me, and I know some of them will remain unconscious. But at this point in my life, two memories stand out. The first happened in the home of our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Fears, our beloved, chosen grandparents. According to the rules, they would not get to go to heaven because they weren’t Catholic. They didn’t even have a church. It worried me. And it was also deeply unjust, in a way I still feel.
One morning when I was in fifth grade at Our Lady of Fatima School in Lakewood, Colo., our religion teachers walked us across the school parking lot to an open wooded space on the other side of the fence, outside the school property. They told us to find a place for ourselves, apart from the others, and to sit in the silence. We could pray, if we wanted to. But we were encouraged to just allow ourselves to breathe, to notice what we saw, heard, felt. Like many experiences labeled mystical, it is difficult to communicate what, exactly, happened in me among those trees. But I left forever marked by the encounter, connected in ways I can’t describe to a greater reality than I had experienced before. And, crucially, it happened on the other side of the fence, away from the church, and was still somehow religious.
Looking back at midlife, it’s easy to see the threads that led from these experiences. Both took me away from the church, and yet I have remained connected. My moral formation is rooted in Catholicism; my interest in what we call social justice originated in the life of Jesus, who was most at home with the outcasts and the socially despised. A series of Catholic religious leaders, including two priests who work closely with the structurally oppressed people of the Global South, have been friends and mentors. One of them, now deceased, was a fiery prophet whose voice still unsettles me, challenging my complicity in the suffering I see and willfully ignore.
My spirituality has been shaped by marginalized Christians, the mystics who risked (and sometimes secured) excommunication because they shared personal experiences of the divine that challenged contemporary theologies and social orders. Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German priest and mystic, died on his way to Rome, where his theology was to be officially condemned. Teresa of Avila, the 17th-century nun, navigated xenophobia (her family were conversos, the Spanish name for Jewish people who converted to Catholicism to avoid death or exile), misogyny and fierce attempts to silence her on her path to sainthood. Eckhart and Teresa were boon companions in my master’s thesis work, which happened, crucially, in a religious studies program and not in a divinity school. I needed to be in the woods, on the other side of the fence, to feel more fully myself.
The Rothko Chapel gave me a great gift with its invitation to participate in their year-long “Spirituality and Social Justice” cohort, which came I think because I could represent the unchurched SBNRs. The Chapel locates itself at the intersection of art, spirituality and human rights. Its relation to religious traditions is also intersectional, welcoming all but dedicated to none, interested in what we hold in common and attuned to the real differences among us. I have attended many Rothko Chapel programs over the years, but my most meaningful experiences have been in a series of monthly meditations, led by practitioners of a range of contemplative and spiritual traditions. Practices taught with gentle hospitality, not theologies or creeds, guide the encounter with difference in this series. The Rothko Chapel’s singular physical space, and its carefully tended ethos, makes human connection across difference a spiritual value and a profound experience.
Our shared work in the “Spirituality and Social Justice” cohort affected me deeply, even as COVID precautions heightened my perception of the gulfs between our lived experiences. These were ministers and activists, artists and scholars, speaking candidly, sometimes prophetically, with respect and urgency. We began our work in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of us sitting in his hometown of Houston, where his funeral was held. Along with Rothko Chapel executive director David Leslie and director of public programs Ashley Clemmer, the cohort was facilitated by Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Rice University and founding director of their Center for African and African American Studies.
Dr. Pinn kept our attention on the “death-dealing injustice that marks our collective life in the United States.” It was not hard to do. Some of us knew people who knew George Floyd and his family. At one point in our discussions, Dr. Pinn said this: “[We need to move] beyond the assumption of equally shared responsibility for addressing white supremacy and anti-Black racism. It seems to me those who benefit (directly and indirectly) from the bias of the ‘system’ and claim a desire to transform it have the greater responsibility. With respect to justice work and obligation, we shouldn’t think in terms of equity of obligation.” (Pinn, 2021)
These words distill a simple ethical truth that is not easy to live. They trigger a guilt in me that paralyzes as often as it activates. They touch the memory of that fiery prophetic priest for whom nothing other than radical renunciation was sufficient. They evoke the uncompromising philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the anchor of my doctoral work, for whom our ethical obligation to others can be relieved only in death. They touch my grandmother, trapped in her body, unable to move for fear all moves are damning.
We all reach for ways to navigate the world with integrity. If we had been born in earlier eras, in other places, we might live within a coherent, cohesive system of moral guidance and discernment, embedded in a culture and a single wisdom tradition. Our pluralistic, polyphonic moment pushes us back onto our own resources. Even if we have a deep commitment to a specific tradition, that commitment remains an ongoing choice, not an unconscious immersion, and within a single tradition there can be very different theologies. The prophetic priest, for example, opened me to theologies of liberation, which remain accepted, if debated, within Catholicism. We could choose other wisdom traditions, philosophical perspectives, the guidance of persuasive leaders or communities, perhaps with some social consequences but largely without fear of exile or death. (Though in my consulting room I have sat with those shunned by family and community for leaving their churches. The social cost of personal integrity can still be very high.)
Dr. Pinn’s simple argument – those enjoying the advantages of an unjust system bear responsibility for ending the injustice – is a moral summons. I am outside the fence of the Church, unbounded by a specific, rigorous theology and lacking the release of the confessional. No one can answer that summons for me.
Giving voice to my struggles with racial injustice violates a norm in contemporary antiracist discourse: stop centering the stories of white men. It is a norm that we could understand, with Helen Lewis, as an eddy of the puritanical river flowing through the valley of the woke. (Which might make this reflection the confession of a kind of sin in the middle of its commission.) If, like Lewis, I treat this as moralizing excess—hey, white men struggle too—it’s a knot I shouldn’t need to tie myself up in. But we can also understand it—I understand it—as an important moral value. White men are used to talking about themselves and reducing everyone else’s experience to their own. Close listening, not speaking, is the path of the least harm and the most growth.
Interrogating the use of my voice is also an essential element in psychotherapeutic ethics: Don’t center your own story. Clinicians cannot pretend that they are not present in the conversation. But every time we speak about our own experience, we risk reducing the patient’s story to our own, or replacing their work with ours. (And here another voice within me clears their throat: Applying this metaphor to the work of allyship is problematic, as it might suggest a healing role for the ally and a one-down position for people of color.) While we do not disclose the details of our experience to our clients in session, we do actively reflect on it, in the moment and afterwards in consultation with peers. Exploring how we experience the relationship is both clinically and ethically invaluable.
What keeps white people from engaging, and staying engaged, in racial justice work? That’s one conscious, proper question underlying this brief reflection. But the personal questions are more urgent. How do I live with myself in an unjust world that so clearly favors me? How do I avoid moral paralysis? A dear friend and mentor told me once: You don’t believe in hell, and you’re convinced you’re going there. And I am often convinced, in spite of myself. Like my grandmother was. Perhaps this is why the prophetic priest and the uncompromising philosopher drew me to them, and still speak within me.
Shaming and moralizing tend to show up where we grapple collectively with profound ethical questions. Defensive and performative, they are more likely to inhibit growth and empathy than encourage it. Dr. Pinn’s observation is not moralizing, but an urgent call for moral engagement. The creative power of the moral imagination overflows in our collective conversation about racial justice. No, it’s not a religion. But calling this conversation religious suggests the depth and breadth of its existential consequence. Beyond feelings of obligation or fears of damnation, It invites us to decide how fully we will choose to live in this world.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Sean Fitzpatrick is the executive director of The Jung Center, where he has worked and taught since 1997. Sean holds master’s degrees in religious studies from Rice University and in clinical psychology from the University of Houston—Clear Lake. He received his PhD in psychology, with a specialization in Jungian studies, from Saybrook University.
His book The Ethical Imagination: Exploring Fantasy and Desire in Analytical Psychology was published by Routledge in August 2019. Sean is a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum and serves on the board of the Network of Behavioral Health Providers in Houston. He is a psychotherapist in private practice and teaches internationally.