Spiritual Guides

Pathfinders in the Desert

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Fred Dallmayr
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , December
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


We live in a desert of consumerism, materialism, and militarism. War mongering and environmental destruction expand the wasteland where solidarity and humanity should have flourished. How to find hope and paths out of this desert? How to remain attentive to the challenges without retreating into isolation and a flight out of this world, into some religious, other-worldly dream? This book suggests that the solution is to enter another type of desert: that of non-possessiveness, of contemplation, of spirituality. With the help of spiritual guides, we can find a site,or a “non-site,” where we can distance ourselves from the impact of destructive politics, consumerism, and destruction. Such spirituality nevertheless bases itself on a keen attentiveness to the deep problems that today are part of Western political and economic culture. Thus, the two types of deserts are related: one has to enter one in order to overcome the other.

Somehow, this may sound familiar. The book’s title seems to play deliberately on references to the desert fathers in early Christianity, presently so popular in much devotional literature. However, the combination of author, material, and topic for this book makes it an original contribution, even a somewhat surprising one, compared to these. Fred Dallmayr, the well-known philosopher and political scientist, engages with Paul Tillich, Raimon Panikkar, Thomas Merton, and Pope Francis as his main interlocutors and spiritual guides. At first glimpse, this is not the most obvious team, but the resulting book as a whole justifies the choice. 

What in Paul Tillich’s work can justify seeing him as a spiritual guide in contemporary times? Dallmayr reads Tillich’s early work on religious socialism and his political theology for this purpose, and points to his notion of the prophetic that addresses the sacred and the political in their tensional relation. Tillich balances the immanent and the transcendent in his notion of the Kingdom, and thereby, he can address the ambiguities of historical and political development. Dallmayr thus reads Tillich as one who is able toshow the way out of contemporary barbarism. 

Raimon Pannikar is also among the authors who have addressed the relationship between religion and the secular world in order to overcome their divisions and show how faith is deeply interrelated with political life. Both faith and politics are concerned with how to improve the human condition. His perspective also allows for a constructive approach to interreligious engagement and dialogue. Furthermore, by highlighting Panikkar’s critique of Western militarism, technocracy, and linear developmentalism, Dallmayr shows how Panikkar, like Tillich, develops a theology attentive to contemporary challenges in a way that makes religion address them critically and head-on. The spiritual and the political cannot be separated, a point that also implies that interreligious dialogue becomes imperative. It requires a personal metanoia, and a turn to what Panikkar calls “monkhood” that is constitutive to humanity’s humanity, as well as attentive to the needs of the world. 

Thomas Merton’s views are not distant from the monkhood of Pannikar. Merton’s combination of contemplative praxis and social and interreligious engagement is well known, and he is among the more obvious choices for contemporary spiritual guides. Merton is keenly aware that contemplation is not for the sake of the individual, but is a path to the Other. Solitude and solidarity are deeply connected. The way into solitude is the way to find other humans in God. Dallmayr also reads Merton’s engagement with Gandhi and with Buddhism as sources for his spiritual development, and as elements that underpin his social engagement and criticism. 

In Pope Francis’s speeches and sermons, he appears as a critic of social and political developments, and he has challenged some of the audiences of power in the West in uncompromising ways. Addressing warmongering and consumerism, as well as powers of exclusion and profit-seeking, he is an obvious choice among the guides that Dallmayr reads carefully in order to show that spirituality, even mysticism, and political resistance and criticism need to go hand in hand. 

In addition to the chapters in which Dallmayr reads these four guides closely and carefully, the two last chapters in the book engage with modes of religious spirituality he identifies outside of Christianity that share common concerns of joining the political and the spiritual. Here, he engages with Islamic mysticism and Buddhist practices of emptiness. Consequently, he provides here a constructive reading that makes apparent how mystical traditions can be seen as ways to critically approach contemporary Western political, economic, and spiritual culture. 

From a distance, one could say that this book takes issue with the position that defines or considers religious experience and spirituality as separated from the social and political dimensions of life. It is this approach that makes Dallmayr’s book original and challenging. He offers muchfood for thought and demonstrates, in my view convincingly, that the guides chosenstill have something important to say. His insistence that contemplative spirituality and mysticism have an internal relevance to political and social issues counters the views of those who see this mode of religious life as individualized and devoid of significance for such matters. Therein lies its most obvious contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Philosophy at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society in Oslo.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fred Dallmayr is Packey J. Dee Professor Emeritus in philosophy and political science at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Peace Talks—Who Will Listen? (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), In Search of the Good Life (2007), and Mindfulness and Letting Be (2014).



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