by Austin Roberts
In an interview with the Washington Post this week, Bernie Sanders opened up about the spirituality that informs his politics. His comments, although brief, were provocative enough to spark my theological curiosity. He rarely discusses topics like God or religion, preferring to stick to his core message of reducing wealth and income inequality. But this week, he confessed to a non-traditional belief in God: “To me, [God] means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” On the one hand, this isolated statement tells us very little about what Sanders believes. Various interpretations are possible. And yet I suggest that we take Sanders at his word that “God” somehow names the ultimacy of relation. Although I can only speculate, a certain theology can be unfolded that coheres with Sanders’ overall worldview.
It is no surprise that Sanders’ minimalist language about God diverges from traditional theisms, including those that are affirmed by nearly every other presidential candidate. After all, he self-identifies as both Jewish and secular, and he is not actively involved in ‘organized religion.’ He is a pluralist who claims to be “motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12…‘do to others what you would have them do to you…’” Furthermore, Sanders ultimately roots his spirituality in the idea “that we’re all in this together.” Considering his recent theological confession, this statement seems irreducible to a mere political slogan. Indeed, it implies a relational worldview.
Recalling his commitment to democratic socialism, which resists the individualistic basis of neoliberal capitalism, we might say that Sanders affirms a spirituality of the common good. This vision resonates with that of another democratic socialist, Martin Luther King Jr., whose prophetic Christian spirituality was also informed by a relational cosmology. In fact, King wrote his dissertation on the relational philosopher, Henry Nelson Wieman. Like Sanders, King viewed the world as “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This perspective profoundly shaped his activism and ethics of nonviolence. Thus both King and Sanders claim that, precisely because everything is connected, one’s own well-being depends upon the well-being of everyone else. As King put it, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” With this worldview in mind, it makes sense that Sanders’ politics and spirituality would be inspired by an image of God as ultimate connection.
But what does it really mean to think of God in such a way – as the vibrant ground of our relations? It does not immediately imply an anthropomorphic, monarchical deity. By drawing on the ideas of theologian Bernard Loomer (a student of Wieman who was later inspired by King), I want to suggest one way of interpreting Sanders’ notion of a connective divinity. For Loomer, God is the infinite source of relationality, or the network of creaturely relations. This is not an otherworldly divinity, but one that is wholly concrete and entangled within nature as its dynamic whole. As the “organic restlessness” in nature, it also enables self-creativity and communication. And although this divine web is an “urge toward greater good,” it is not unambiguously so. It therefore offers no guarantees for positive outcomes, so communities must work to continually create the common good rather than relying on supernatural forces. But this God of the multitude can ground the democratic socialist hope that exploitative structures are transformable in the direction of the common good – for they do not have the last word in a world of dynamic interrelations. As such, this relational theology might inspire the kind of courageous resistance that Sanders is so importantly calling for: “the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and when necessary, [to] take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed…is doing this country enormous harm.”
(Note: on Loomer’s theology, see The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context).