Contributed by Mothiur Rahman of New Economy Law, a legal innovation lab based in the UK, strengthening civic resilience for precarious futures.
Having been invited to give a UK briefing for the 2018 Conference for the “Project for Integrating Spirituality Law and Politics” (PISLAP), I have been reflecting on what it means to bring these 3 domains together of law, politics and spirituality. Many might associate law and politics together, but joined with spirituality? Modern notions of spirituality often see spirituality as a personal individual pursuit, separated off from the political that is social and collective by definition. Why is this the case?
This separation begins to make sense when one considers that the spiritual foundations of Christianity were being settled at a time when the idea of institutions and their functions were still in their intellectual infancy. Thus it is arguable that the manner by which “spiritual authority” was organized, institutionalized and made coherent in Europe (i.e. through the making of the Catholic Church before later schisms) led to a concentration of power, not necessarily because those who set about institutionalizing their spiritual beliefs had this ulterior motive in mind, but because of bad “organizational theory”.
Whatever the original intent, resistances to the institution of the Catholic church as a site of power and influence eventually erupted in the terrible uprisings, persecutions, wars, death and misery collectively called the “European Wars of Religion” in the 16th and 17th centuries. Such a toll of misery and death led to a new horizon in “organizational theory”, the notion of “State Sovereignty” as set out in the Peace of Westphalia treaties of 1648.
One can thus begin to understand how this European ancestral memory of what happens when the political and spiritual are brought together has led to the principle of “secularism”, that the institutions of power by which citizens lives are organized (currently the political and legal concepts of the State as sovereign body) and the institutions of spirituality (the Church) should not be brought together. However, one could very reasonably pause here and wonder whether the universalizing of the European experience through the principle of “secularism” crowds out other possibilities for democratic political and spiritual integration that are sourced from outside the lived experience of Europe?
The Unity of Being – the subjective shaping by which to observe the objective
As a person born in England, from a mother herself born in Bengal rooted to an Islamic heritage that I rejected when growing up; and being born into a legal system that granted British citizenship to such as myself born in the UK as a historic outcome of Britain’s colonial ventures; thus growing up with a secular upbringing and education centered on liberal values at odds with my mother’s roots; but with my belief in that secular liberal order shattered by seeing the open duplicity and contempt by which representatives of that order have foisted a false identity politics of Brexit onto its people for their own purposes; and now in my own personal life beginning to see the tangible horizon to my mother’s life and questioning the cost to that relationship as a consequence of my unconscious belief in the superiority of the values behind my liberal education; and now living through an Islamaphobic time with an authoritarian turn in the politics of Europe and wider; it is arguable that the circumstances pushing me to seek out such a question as in the above paragraph could only have arisen in the present moment.
This process by which to arrive at questions seems to me of universal application. We each are unique beings with unique lived experiences living through the circumstances that life gives, bringing each person to a horizon which, if they dare sail further out beyond the known horizon in their search for a life of meaning and worth, must find the questions buried deep in their experiences to draw the wind to pull them along.
What I am discovering through my journey into my experiences, going back to investigate the challenging space surrounding my negative feelings towards Islam, with a commitment to stay with the uncomfortableness of that proportional to my loss of faith in the superiority of the culture I was born to, is to discover an Islam unlike what I was projecting due to my upbringing. Granted I am coming to it from a Sufi perspective but that is even more powerful, to see how the heart, intellect and spirit could potentially integrate; to feel the freedom towards making choices in life that are conducted through reason and guided by conscience. This is the opposite kind of freedom which was my everyday experience and what I had sought as the goal of liberal individualism, to enjoy life “free from” a sense of duty or obligation to others outside my immediate family.
The unity of spirituality-politics-law
So, in response to the question I ask above, and beginning to feel into and own those aspects of myself that I am beginning to become cognizant of, I now discern the possibility of a distinction to be made between “the State” and what is “political”, and between “religion” and the “spiritual”, to enable a bringing together of the political with the spiritual and legal.
The distinction I make is that both of the former are organizational institutions of the latter individual capacities. In other words, the State is an institution of the political capacity we each have as human beings longing to meet each other, congregate, speak, reason and exchange ideas to organize ourselves for our collective betterment. And religion is the institution of the spiritual capacity we each have as human beings to ground the meaning of our lives through reflecting on our inner conscience. The legal then is our capacity to reason our way towards manifesting the institutions that best reflect and are aligned with our political and spiritual capacities.
That reason and conscience are the fundamental qualities of humankind is also the assertion in the 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document was a document of its time, arising as a recognition of the need to make meaning out of the intense suffering of people through two world wars and the deaths of millions of people. It was a document that made meaning out of the lived experience of grief and love of those times. The people of all nations of the world, through their representatives, came together to recognize the need to co-operate and set out fundamental rights so that such horrors would not happen again. Its Article 1 affirms two endowments as the fundamental qualities of being human, two endowments that all people and nations – Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and of other and no faith – could agree to. Those fundamental qualities were that human beings “are endowed with reason and conscience”. This affirmation of our capacity to use our reason to will our political lives into ones guided by our conscience, this is the integration of the political with the spiritual. The legal then is the manifestation of that integration.
Therefore, to integrate spirituality, law and politics for contemporary times, the challenge we face is to take action in similar fashion as the peoples of all nations did in 1947, but this time to have the imaginative capacity to bring into the present moment before it has happened the intenseness of the suffering of people and animals in a world that teeters on the brink into climate collapse and species extinction. To feel the moment alive and pregnant with the intensity of the potential to change course through actions we collectively take now.
A frame of 12 years has been given by the global scientific community – whether we have the collective courage to seize these 12 years is down to our reason and our conscience as expressed through the determination of our collective civic will.
Mothiur Rahman trained at CMS Cameron McKenna, a top 20 City law firm, and worked at Bircham Dyson Bell for 7 years as Senior Associate in its Governance and Infrastructure department. He has extensive experience of advising on a range of environmental and planning and public law related matters, with a focus on public authorities and the authorisation of major infrastructure projects. His inner drive is to help create more vibrant ways of living that bring out the full potential of human creativity and care, to help shape meaningful lives. He co-founded the Community Chartering Network to promote a community-led and participatory approach to planning and democractic decision-making. He recently completed a Masters in Ecological Design Thinking at Schumacher College in Dartington, Devon where he now lives and works (as a freelance legal practitioner supporting clients who are similarly driven to create an ecologically regenerative and more beautiful world).