Winter 1982, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 312-325.

Roger Haight:
      Spirituality and Social Justice: A Christological Perspective

Psychological and sociological categories are subordinate to Christian symbols for expressing an authentic spirituality of struggle for social justice in our world.

Father Haight, S.J., is currently teaching theology at Regis College in Toronto, Canada. In 1979 he contributed the article "Institutional Grace and Corporate Spirituality" to this journal (vol. 31, pp. 209-20, 324-34).

WHY the concern in theology and in spirituality today for those issues labeled "social justice"? The present-minded will ascribe it to the rise of liberation theology in the last decade. Those with longer memories will recall the social upheavals and activism of the sixties. Those who know history will see the parallels between present concerns and the Social Gospel movement at the beginning of this century and the social concern underlying much of Christian theology in the nineteenth century.

Liberation theology, sixties' activism, Social Gospel -- all of these events and many others are signs of a deep and continuous Christian awareness. In a general way, it may be said that this constant concern for social justice is part of a general awareness of our human responsibility for the world that accompanies historical consciousness. When this awareness is coupled with a recognition of the massive human suffering that we witness in the world today, the union seems to have sparked a concern that something can and should be done about it. All people of good will who witness or are aware of human oppression become concerned about social justice. The question is whether and to what degree Christianity and specifically Christian symbols mediate this concern.

In this brief essay I wish to argue that they do, and I intend to show how particularly Jesus Christ, who is the center of Christianity, impels Christians toward a concern for social justice. To begin I offer a brief definition of spirituality. I then describe the way in which theology comes to bear on spirituality in its own distinctive way. The third and fourth parts try to illustrate this last point by showing how theology may in fact influence spirituality in the case of Christology. In effect they will offer a theological underpinning for a spirituality that is concerned with social justice as well as an argument for why Christ draws Christians in that direction. The final section will offer a conclusion in the form of a comparison between a spirituality motivated by a concern for social justice with an ancient and classical spirituality, in order to show the parallels or analogies in their structure.


The following definition of spirituality is offered by Hans Urs von Balthasar: Spirituality is "the way a person understands his or her own ethically and religiously committed existence, and the way he or she acts and reacts habitually to this understanding.(1)

The first thing to be noted about this definition is the fact that it has two parts: the way a person understands his or her existence, and the way that person acts. I will refer to the second aspect, a person's action, as the primary level of spirituality. Primary spirituality is existential; it is the concrete manner in which persons direct their lives. The secondary level of spirituality is the understanding of the self and of oneself in the world and in history and before God that corresponds to the way one behaves. Theoretically there ought to be a correspondence between the way a person thinks and the way that person acts.

The definition of spirituality as primarily consisting in the way people live their lives is significant for a number of reasons. It is important, first of all, to exclude from the outset every dichotomy between the religious and the secular spheres of existence. Another slight shift occasioned by this definition is that from this view of spirituality it follows that every single human being who is adult and not incapacitated has a spirituality. Although spirituality is something of a Christian word, it refers to a reality that all people share in common. Some spirituality is intrinsic to human existence as such. Even the word religious does not remove spirituality from the sphere of ordinary human existence if the term religious is understood subjectively as ultimate concern. José Miguez-Bonino, for example, has shown that even atheists, in this case Marxists, have a spirituality.(2)

Thus one can say that there are innumerable spiritualities, both non-Christian and Christian. A non-Christian spirituality is the way any non-Christian leads his or her life relative to the way human existence is ultimately comprehended and understood. A Christian spirituality is a specific way of life of a Christian or a Christian community according to their understanding of reality as mediated through their Christian faith.

The issue of spirituality is everywhere the same; it is the question of being in or living in the truth. Is one living one's life authentically, that is, in the way human life should be lived? Is one in harmony with the intentionality of human existence itself? Has one surrendered one's freedom and the whole direction of one's life to what is ultimately good and true? In religious terms, the question is whether or not one is authentically united with the ground of being. In short, is one united with God in one's actual being, in a unity that can be constituted only by one's understanding and one's action? One is the way one lives. And one lives according to what one loves or desires. To what in this world, then, does one, and should one, hand over or commit one's love?


Here I wish to uncover the distinctive way in which theology can make a contribution to spirituality. To do this, it might be helpful to contrast this with two other approaches to the issue of spirituality, or two other spheres that determine one's spirituality: the psychological and the sociological.

The way we live and the way we understand is partly determined by the makeup of our personalities. This seems evident enough. Our temperament, the qualities of our particular personality, the limiting and the expansive elements of our character -- all combine to determine the unique shape of our own particular view of reality and reaction to it and hence our behavior patterns. For this reason, spiritualities are ultimately as numerous as discrete human beings. Hence an understanding of spirituality on both levels, primary and secondary, requires a psychological understanding of human existence. Especially on the primary or existential level, spirituality must unfold within the framework of the capacity and possibilities of the psychological makeup of any given person. The recognition of this today in the Roman Catholic church, the complexity of the human personality, and the ultimate psychological uniqueness of each individual has made psychology the main interpretative discipline for spirituality. At this moment in time, psychology has no rival as the hermeneutic mediator of spirituality. Know thyself in relation to your life and in relation to God means know thyself psychologically.

Another way in which one's understanding of reality and consequent behavior is shaped and formed is through society. Hence a way of understanding behavior patterns that flow out of life-commitments is through an examination of the social patterns that structure them. Gregory Baum has illustrated well how an elemental ethos, indeed, many of them are embedded in society and hence determine the values, ideals, and basic commitments of individuals and whole communities and thus shape their spirituality.(3) The basic mechanism of this process is through socialization; one grows into, and accepts as objective standards, the common ideas of the culture or society in which one lives. Or one's self is shaped by one's class as one accepts the values of a particular segment of society and actively, whether consciously or not, pursues its ideals. What is true of psychological structures is also true of sociological structures: it is very difficult if not existentially impossible to conceive ideas and live a life that is at variance with the culture in which one lives.

Still a third way in which our understanding of reality and the way we react to it is mediated through the religious community to which we belong. Our Christian tradition contains a whole set of symbols from the past which place us in continuity with a tradition stretching back three thousand years. In the Old and New Testaments one finds the most fundamental Christian symbols which concern God, God's relation to, and concern for, human life and society, and the way in which one should live in society according to this religious view.(4) If one is going to understand spirituality on an explicitly religious level, then, one must examine it through the medium of the religious symbols and ideas which govern it. Ordinarily, this is the task of theology.

At this point one can see the distinctiveness of a theological approach to spirituality. This can be stated in the form of a few questions. How deeply does one's religious vision really influence one's spirituality? Do the religious symbols that constitute our tradition really determine, and in what measure, the way we govern our lives? The problem is that these religious symbols are received into the particular psychological structure of each person, and are further determined by the sociocultural ethos of a place. Moreover, these symbols are old; they stem from a culture that is very different from our own. Do they have, as it were, a transcendent and transcultural value and meaning that is able to overflow the particularity of an historical revelation and influence our spirituality today? The distinctiveness of the theological approach to spirituality lies in its attempt to respond to these questions. It inquires into spirituality through the symbols of the religious community in order to retrieve their meaning for contemporary human existence and life.

At this juncture, I take theology to be the attempt to understand reality, not simply God, but the world, history, human existence, and God, by looking at this reality through the lens of the symbols of the religious tradition. These symbols are many: God, creation, providence, sin, judgment, grace, Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God. The whole enterprise of such a theology is based on some enormous and very basic assumptions. One is that these symbols, as ancient as they are, are still meaningful. A second is that these symbols carry some authority, an authority that is more than simply the extrinsic weight of the past, but an inner authority that comes with the truth that they disclose to one's experience about the nature of ourselves and reality. A third assumption, which is latent in the very nature of theology, is that the meaning which these symbols mediate may be normative for me and hence implicitly for others as well. In other words, why would one bother to accept an ancient symbol system if one did not believe that these symbols bear with them a truth that can cut through my particular psychological reaction to the world and even judge common social assumptions? Theology, then, is the attempt at, or the quest for, a normative spirituality.(5) It addresses directly the second level of spirituality, or "the way a person understands his or her own ethically and religiously committed existence." Its question is whether our traditional religious symbols have a meaning that determines on a basic level the way we react to human existence in our own situation and what that meaning might be.


In this section I shall propose an outline of how theology might be employed in the formation of a spirituality. I have chosen Christology as an area of investigation because it is the central one in Christian theology. Christology is an area of theological study that currently has generated a great deal of interest and has become perhaps overly complicated by subtlety and nuance. Edward Schillebeeckx, however, has provided in a single article a coherent outline for an integral Christology that responds to the exigencies of the problem of human suffering and oppression today.(6) Building on what Schillebeeckx has to say, I shall make only three points according to his method of correlation, that is, in response to a concern for the problem of human suffering. The first concerns the problem of meaning today; the second concerns what is disclosed in the life of Jesus; and the third is a statement of the second level of spirituality that emerges from this correlation.

The first point concerns the problem of meaning for our day to which the Christ event may respond, or to which it may give understanding. This question has to be more than just my personal problem if it is to illumine human existence as such. What then is the crisis of our time? I believe that Schillebeeckx is right when he suggests that it is the question of the meaning of historical existence which is raised by the degree, the sheer amount, of human suffering to which history bears witness. What does human existence mean when that human existence is so meaningless for so many? This is not simply the question of suffering, but the question of the amount of suffering that characterizes global human existence today. There is no need to document this; all are aware of it. The important point here is that it is a universal problem. It concerns everyone. Individuals or groups cannot ultimately claim that their lives have meaning while masses of others live out a seemingly senseless human existence. Because of the unity and solidarity of the race, apparent to us now more than ever, it is logically and, if one is sensitive, emotionally impossible to claim that my personal human existence is meaningful and fulfilled, while that of a third or a half of humanity is not. What is called into question, then, is the meaningfulness of human existence in this world, in history. What is the humanum? What does it mean to be human and to live humanly in this situation? More precisely, what is put into question is the meaning of the symbol of salvation. The tradition holds that Jesus Christ is savior and that salvation gives meaning to human existence. In correlation to that existence, what is the salvation that is mediated in the person of Jesus Christ?

What does one find when one looks back at the person of Jesus who, for Christians, is the center of their religious vision of reality and who as savior is the Christ? The response is found in the paschal mystery. Jesus was a man who preached the kingdom of God, the symbol in Jewish tradition for the reign of God's justice. He went around "doing good," not least for those outcasts most in need. Jesus' cause was the cause of God which was simultaneously the cause of human beings or human life. He was faithful to this mission right through to death, which is to say that the reign of God was more important to him than his own particular life. Because of that, Paul tells us, he was raised up into the sphere of God.

Where exactly in that career lies the salvific meaning we are looking for? Traditionally it was found in the resurrection of Jesus, the firstborn of many. But the resurrection in isolation does not respond to our problem today. In fact, a stress on the resurrection may even undercut the possible meaningfulness of historical life. The issue is the meaningfulness of human life in this world, here and now, and how I am to lead an authentic human life. Few are willing to say, at least about their own lives, and except in absolute despair, that life is senseless and arbitrary now, but will be meaningful in another life. The implications of such a view would not reflect well on God. The paschal mystery, then, is a whole, consisting of Jesus' life lived through death into resurrection. The salvation that his life mediates lies in the way he conducted his life. The response to the question raised in our time does not lie simply or only or precisely in the kingdom of God that is promised in the future, although this cannot be forgotten, but in the fragments of the kingdom of God that Jesus mediated in his "going around doing good," not simply in the justice that he preached, but in the justice that he effected in the lives that he touched.

What, then, is the salvation that Jesus offers? What is the second level of spirituality that is affirmed in his life and contained in him as in a public symbol? It does not lie in an affirmation that there is a God, nor even in a promise of immortality. Philosophers have affirmed this over and over again. Neither does it lie in Jesus' announcement of the reign of God. Utopias in themselves appear incredible to us today. The mere affirmation of another world or an afterlife may in fact undermine the meaning of actual history. Salvation appears, rather, in the way Jesus lived his life. His life was not simply an affirmation of the reign of God; it was the creation of the reign of God. Jesus is a revelation from God that says that the meaning of history is not simply there for human beings to discover; it is rather a possibility to be created by human freedom. History may indeed be meaningful or meaningless. But in Jesus one sees a human existence that is meaningful; and were it generalized or extended out into the social sphere of public history, the result would be a just social order, constituted by just social relationships, where the lives of the suffering and oppressed would be attended to through the institutions that human beings create. In short, Jesus reveals that meaningful history is possible. It has a possible, though not an inherent or necessary, meaning through God's power, if one is willing to accept and live in God's power.


First level spirituality, it was said, consists in the way a person reacts habitually to his or her religious and ethical understanding of human existence. Although treated here as a consequence of that understanding, it could just as easily be conceived as the basis of one's understanding. Theology emerges out of life. I will treat this basic level of spirituality very briefly in a formal way here and in a more descriptive fashion in the concluding section.

Christian spirituality, insofar as it is specifically Christian, is imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. Although this imitation of Christ has taken different forms in different periods of Christian history, still the fundamental dynamic of the Christian life consists in living out human existence in the light of Jesus Christ. This imitation is not to be understood as mimicking the outward behavior of a first century Jew; obviously enough we live in a different age. It is rather an allowing of the revelation or meaning disclosed in Jesus' life not only to illumine our own but also to determine the way in which we live. It is not a matter of simply understanding something new or different about reality; it is a matter of how the revelation of Jesus actually shapes the contours of how we perceive historical reality and react to it. Thus we have returned to one of our former questions: To what extent do Christians allow their religious and ethical vision, something that does not seem empirical but rather utopian, to govern their lives? Indeed, how can such a vision really govern the lives of Christians, given the fact of those other psychological and sociological determinants? How can, and how does, the salvation mediated by Jesus actually cut through our actual perceptions of human history as in large part destitute of salvific meaning for so many, and hence for ourselves, to suddenly make this history something positive? The response to this question really lies in first level spirituality. What has to be shown is why actual imitatio Christi is necessary as a prior condition even for the comprehensibility and real understanding of what is revealed in the life of Jesus.(7)

The revelation of Jesus that human history can be meaningful can be apprehended as credible only by a person who is actively engaged in creating that meaning. The principle underlying such a statement is really quite simple, and it applies to all existential realities. On the one hand, one cannot explain what freedom is to another who has never experienced freedom or acted freely. The phenomenon of human love is incomprehensible to one who has neither been loved nor loved. So, too, given our situation in which the massive degree of social injustice calls into question the meaning and value of corporate human existence and its history, the sheer assertion that such human living ultimately makes sense and is of ultimate worth cannot itself make sense unless it has some experiential evidence to back it. Without that evidence, such an assertion appears utterly gratuitous; it is in fact groundless, arbitrary, and incredible. On the other hand, when one actually works to build just human relationships, when one struggles to achieve the freedom of some human beings and actually succeeds in some small measure, there one has the real grounds, however tenuous, for asserting not only a meaning but possibly the meaning of history. In this experience one comes in contact not with an abstract idea of salvation; rather, one experiences it from within, by participation, in one's being a subjective agent for the creation of such a possible meaning. Salvific meaning here is not some idea of a comprehensive just social order. It is, rather, the effort itself to achieve such an order. Meaning here is in the struggle, a way of life, not the victory. Just as in the objective and exemplary case of the Crucified One, we too have to assert that the resurrection of history lacks coherence and sense unless it is a resurrection of a history that itself makes some sense and has some corporate value. The only one who can legitimately hope for resurrection and ultimate salvation is the person who somehow grasps the possibility of corporate salvation here and now by participating in it.

Behind this view lie certain suppositions concerning the very meaning of religion and of Christian faith in particular. Faith is not adequately described as belief; religious and Christian faith is not merely an acceptance of some truth. Rather, faith is existential and may be described, in Paul Tillich's phrase, as one's ultimate concern. Often our own faith is hidden from ourselves, so deep does it lie within us. Ultimately, our real faith can only be pointed to indirectly, for, as the center of our being, it is the logic of the sum total of our actions and responses to the world and other people. In this view of faith, the long-standing dichotomy between religion and morality is revealed as not only destructive but also simply false. We are not what we say or what we believe; we are what we do. What we really believe beneath our confessions lies in the logic of our actions. The issue involved in first level spirituality, therefore, is not believing the truth but living in the truth. An authentic spiritual life is one that participates in, and also mediates or actualizes, a possible transcendent meaning of history as benevolent and liberative for human lives. Ultimately this is where one's personal union with God is constituted and salvation is made real.


In this last section I shall deal in a more descriptive manner with the spirituality that consists in the human involvement in action for bringing about a more just social order. I wish to do this by making a comparison between such a spirituality as it would be realized today with one of the earliest forms of Christian spirituality, that of the Egyptian ascetics, as that emerged in the third and fourth centuries. That spirituality has been referred to as "a spirituality of combat." The same term has also been applied by several Indian theologians to the spirituality that is needed today if Christianity is to be involved in the problems of society and relevant to the struggle of the poor and the oppressed for liberation.(8)

The spirituality of the monk, and especially the hermit, was a religiously mediated spirituality, one in which a religiously mediated world view dominated over the psychological and the sociological. What the hermit, such as Antony, had in mind was one single thing, namely, union with God; and this consisted anthropologically in complete purity of mind and heart and a contemplative resting in God. The way to achieve this, however, was through combat. The demons had to be defeated. In the consciousness of the early church, the world and history were filled with an invisible population of fallen angels, or demons. They attacked the individual personality; and, in general, history and secular society were held in their power. They were the source of moral evil and ignorance in the world; and their chief strategy was trickery, imitation of the truth, fraud and deceit, by which means they blinded people to the truth. Although Christ defeated the demons, though he broke the power of their darkness and falsehood with his light and truth, still one had to struggle with them to remain in Christ's truth. The hermit faced these demons head on, alone and in solitude, and in heroic fashion. When he won, he won fame as well; he was a hero for Christians far and wide. But before the struggle, the hermit had to prepare for the battle. He had to live in community to learn obedience and tolerance and patience. Then he had to live with a teacher to learn the wisdom and knowledge needed for the ordeal. The strategy was simply stated but difficult to achieve; it consisted in self-knowledge and self-discipline. The hermit came to know himself with incredible psychological subtlety and gained mastery over himself, so that he could direct himself single-heartedly to God. The victory was heroic, not simply because it was so bizarrely countercultural or antisocial, a kind of martyrdom, but also because it was a struggle of cosmic dimensions, one that gained victory over the powers of death. In sum, three themes governed this form of imitatio Christi, three themes that govern monastic spirituality even to our own time: the first is self-knowledge, the second is its countercultural dimension, the third is the union with God that is its goal.

Any comparison between this spirituality and a spirituality of social struggle will require noting the changes in cultural values that mark our contemporary world view. We do not share the suspicions of Greek culture for matter and the physical, nor those of early Christians for society and this temporal world as such. We live in a world -- and history -- affirming culture, and we seek meaning for history in history, and not just outside of it. This, of course, is the problem with which we started. We do not believe in demons. We have found enough evil within the human personality, within ourselves, and within the structures of the societies we have created, to account for moral evil. Projecting the cause of evil in history to others of God's creatures rather than ourselves explains nothing, nothing about God and nothing about ourselves. We too seek for union with God, but not by an escape from history. Rather, we wish to be united to God by a commitment of our freedom, in one way or another, in history and to history. Finally, our view of human society is more democratic and certainly not antisocial. Thus we seek a spirituality that will characterize all Christians, not a heroism that is elitist but, as Leo O'Donovan has said, a faith commitment characterized by simple but deep courage.(9) Given these shifts of basic assumptions, what will a contemporary spirituality of combat for social justice in society, one that will still retain a remarkable structural similarity to the ancient one, look like?

First of all, a spirituality of combat for social justice retains the ancient and inherently Christian aspect of being countercultural. Yes, the Christian is at home in the world and in history; but the Christian cannot identify with the world the way it is, especially in its social sinfulness and idolatry. The Christian accepts all the genuine values the world offers according to the standard of Jesus Christ; but the Christian is also deeply critical of society in the ancient prophetic and early Christian tradition. Therefore, the Christian is ready to fight, to struggle with the demonic where it really exists, namely, in two places, within the self and within society. For this spirituality, which is an imitation of Christ, one needs training if one is going to succeed or in any measure win. It requires first of all self-knowledge. Here psychology is a powerful weapon, but it has to be used in service of its ultimate goal; it will be integrated into the ideals of the Christian struggle and the goals to which the Christian life is dedicated. This Christian spirituality also needs training and knowledge of the demonic aspects of the structures of society. Today this is called social analysis. But if the structures of society are not only complex but also wily, ambiguous, and often filled with deceit, then this training must be solid and the knowledge learned; otherwise it will simply miss the mark. Here the sociological analysis of the determinants of human behavior is necessary in the formation of this spirituality; but it is subordinated to, judged by, and put into service of, the religious interpretation of what society should be and might be by the power revealed and released through Jesus Christ.

The ultimate goal of this spirituality is that which is at stake in any spirituality -- union with the cosmic or transcendent ground, intention, and goal of human existence and history: God. Ultimately this is a personal union with a personal God. But this spirituality recognizes that this union can be only a mediated one while we are in this world. As Paul admonishes us, we do not, and we cannot, live face to face with God in this world. Rather we are united with God by being united with God's will and by living in God's truth and salvific power. The moral and the religious converge in the struggle for a social justice that will give little bits of meaning to our history. In that struggle, one's union with God is constituted.

  1. Quoted in Reginald Cant, "What Does Spirituality Mean in the Modern World?" The Expository Times 89 (February 1978): 123.
  2. "Red Heroes and Christian Martyrs," in Christians and Marxists (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 133-42.
  3. Gregory Baum, "Spirituality and Society," Religious Education 73 (1978): 266-83.
  4. See, for example, the excellent survey of these symbols set forth in a brief space by John R. Donahue, "Biblical Perspectives on justice," in The Faith that Does Justice, ed. John Haughey (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 68-112.
  5. The term normative is fraught with ambiguities. For some it suggests a new theological extrinsicism in which a conservative and theologically mediated authority will dictate anew to obedient Christian consciences. As such it suggests a return to Christianity as diligent conformity to external normative practices. While I reject these interpretations of the word, I still feel constrained to use it here since I know of no other to express what I do mean. My understanding rests on the assumption that theology is a normative discipline at least in the sense that both Christian symbols and their theological interpretation do not admit of every form of human conception of reality and of every form of possible human behavior. Theology is normative in the negative sense that it can determine some kinds of human behavior as basically un-Christian. In a more positive way, the normative that is envisaged here is really the ideal that appeals to human imagination and freedom and thus elicits its power through, and not over against, human freedom.
  6. Edward Schillebeeckx, "Giving Names to Jesus Today: Living Tradition Thanks to Renewed Experience," in Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1981), pp. 50-63.
  7. I take this to be in line with the insight of ion Sobrino that an understanding of who Jesus is, is itself dependent upon discipleship, thus reversing the common sense view of the relation between understanding and action (theoria and praxis). This theme is a leitmotif running all through his Christology at the Crossroads (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1978).
  8. See M.J. Joseph, "Spirituality for Combat," Religion and Society, 25 (Bangalore: March, 1978): 55-69, as well as other articles in this issue.
  9. "The Courage of Faith: An Essay in Honour of William F. Lynch's Seventieth Birthday," Thought 53 (1978): 369-83.