Is Being ‘Spiritual' Enough?
Dealing with the spiritual-but-not-religious epidemic.
Two months after the wedding of my nephew, Joe, and his lovely bride, Laura, I went out to dinner with them. Their wedding had been well planned and beautiful, a ceremony containing so many thoughtful elements, I’d assumed they must be very religious. Later, though, I discovered it was Laura’s mother who was behind many of those touches. Being a nosy Catholic theologian, I quizzed the two of them over dinner. It was true, they admitted: they had enjoyed picking the readings for the ceremony, but as for religion itself-well, they saw themselves not as religious, but as spiritual. Hesitantly, I started to venture a response, then pulled back. “You’re going to use your twenty-four-hour rule!” said Laura with a laugh. We had just been discussing the topic of e-mails sent in anger and how regrettable they can be, and I’d explained my personal rule: If a message you’re about to send feels too heated, wait a day and give yourself a chance to send a more measured one. “Correct,” I laughingly agreed. Yet all of about twenty-four minutes later, there I was, plunging into the subject, animatedly sharing with them how both spirituality and religion had become very important for me around their age. I was gently attempting to prod them, and Joe felt the implicit critique. “You had your epiphany, and that’s great,” he said. “We haven’t had ours yet.” My nephew was quick to explain that he is a true fan of religion and of sincerely religious people-even envious, sometimes, of those who are able to live out their religion in an intelligent, committed manner. But he considered himself a spectator, not a participant, and moreover saw a basic distinction between spirituality-which he viewed as a felt connection to something deeper-and religion, a human construct rooted in tradition and ideology. He had other objections. In his view, while religion can sometimes provide a structure for spirituality, it can also be divisive and limiting. Further, most people inherit their religion, making it difficult for them to freely choose a faith later. For her part, Laura emphasized the difficulty of making exclusive commitments in this complex, pluralistic world. Like Joe, she said she wouldn’t mind believing in a religion, but it was difficult for her to imagine a particular religion being the “right” one. She saw “spirituality” as a vague concept, something akin to “finding yourself,” but also a positive one, suggesting a habit of being in touch with your inner core. For Laura, belonging to a particular religion would involve a type of equivocation, since invariably she would have to accept things she didn’t really believe. Should Jesus be thought of as God by Hindus and Muslims as well as by Christians? If she believed that, she mused, she’d have to hope that someday the entire world would be converted to Christianity. Yet she valued religious pluralism, and considered it both healthy and beneficial. She was comfortable with Hindus remaining Hindu and Muslims Muslim. Did this acceptance of other faiths neutralize the Catholic beliefs with which she grew up? The conversation is familiar to me. The day before I started to write this, one of my sons, a college student, informed me that he was no longer going to Mass. He said he would probably attend later in life, but for the time being, it didn’t really make any difference whether he went to church or not. I was fairly calm about it-even appreciative that he saw his disaffection as a stage he was going through. But a colleague I shared the news with barked in anger (no twenty-four-hour-rule there): “Doesn’t your son realize that if he goes to church every Sunday over the next twenty-five years, it will make all the difference-and that there’s no way for him to know unless he does it?” I recognize a bit of a Yogi Berraism to this logic, if not a full-scale Catch-22: my son should know something there’s no way for him to know unless he does it for twenty-five years. But, paradoxically, that is the truth of it; that is how religious knowledge is acquired. And that’s what I really would like to tell Joe and Laura. You won’t know whether to believe unless you let yourself try. That advice is a hard sell today. We live in a time when young people are caught in a double-even triple-bind concerning religion. Prominent cultural voices insist that faith is always a private, subjective matter; that apart from science, there is no such thing as objective truth. At the same time, a strong presumption in our heterogeneous society insists that tolerance is what makes the whole thing work. As a result, many young people are hesitant to assent to a self-limiting creed, first, because they don’t want to compromise their integrity or their authenticity by committing themselves to what is not objectively verifiable; and second, because they don’t want to seem dogmatic, rigid, or intolerant. As both Joe and Laura pointed out, most people acquire their religion through a process of socialization, which depends heavily on the geographical area and family into which they are born. This seeming randomness throws into question the truth claims of any particular religious tradition. How can something be true if I happened into it by an accident of birth? And if it isn’t the truth, how can I, why should I, subscribe to it and exclude other, competing creeds? Such questions typify the quandary of intelligent young people, caught in a seeming paradox between spiritual longing and an inclination to “see through” religion. The quandary poses troubling consequences. The Joes and Lauras of America represent in many ways what is best about our society; yet their outlook carries substantial obstacles to faith. What happens when the best and the brightest cannot believe? And what should those of us who do believe say to them? My response to my nephew and his wife must begin with an attempt to reflect more deeply on the distinction they make between spirituality and religion. For many centuries, of course, religious people themselves have been making similar distinctions within the context of their own faiths, distinguishing between practices grown old and musty and ones that seem alive and new. The Jewish prophet Ezekiel described how God commanded him to preach to the dry bones, representing the people of Israel, and how God would then breathe life back into them (37:1-14). The New Testament shows Jesus using the pious pronouncements of religious leaders to lay bare their hypocritical lives. The distinction between dry bones and the spirit-between deadening faith and religion rightly lived-can be found in some form in every religion. What appears to be new in our time is the notion that an individual’s spirituality can be detached from organized religion altogether. This bifurcation is problematic, since an unmoored spirituality runs the risk of offering insufficient institutional challenge or direction. Some forms of individualism and self-actualization, divorced from community, only reinforce the worst elements of contemporary culture. As a Catholic theologian, I am highly suspicious of such individualism; as a scholar of religion, I want to understand it. When I was young, I stopped practicing my faith. I also stopped thinking about God, praying, keeping commandments, and living according to a sense of ultimate meaning. For me, the two abandonments went hand in hand. Not so with Laura and Joe. Even in the absence of a firm commitment of faith, they still feel a sense of meaning and, clearly, are striving to live moral lives. When Joe says that he and Laura haven’t had their epiphany yet, he doesn’t mean they haven’t had any epiphanies. In fact, with his talk about being spiritual but not religious, he implies that they regularly have epiphanies. What they have not yet had is the epiphany that would forge a deep connection between their spirituality and a particular religion. Regarding the claims a religion makes on one’s belief, Joe and Laura seem to see only two choices: (1) remain open to the claims of other religions while downplaying one’s own; or (2) be closed to other views and insist on one’s own. The first approach is similar to what theologian Paul Knitter calls a “mutuality model.” The second has been described as “exclusivist.” At Vatican II, the Catholic Church took what may be called an “inclusivist” approach, one epitomized by Karl Rahner, who held that human beings have a fundamental orientation toward goodness, truth, and love, and that at bottom this is an orientation toward God. When someone strives to live an honest, loving life, that person affirms God, whether or not she uses the G-word. A person might even call herself an atheist, and specifically assert that she does not believe in God; yet according to Rahner, if she answers the call to the transcendent within her being, she affirms God nonetheless, even if she doesn’t know it. Rahner called such a person an “anonymous theist.” He also believed that in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the drama of every human life is summed up in its fullest meaning. Those who have never heard of Christ, or never had the gospel presented to them adequately, are nonetheless offered the meaning of Christ’s life through God’s gift in the Holy Spirit. Thus, according to Rahner, anyone who responds to God’s call within them can be said to “accept Christ,” and he called such persons “anonymous Christians.” In his later career, after contending with repeated criticism about his terminology, Rahner stopped using the phrase, but the basic concept continued to inform his thought. Where the exclusivist model has the obvious difficulty of simply shutting the door to other traditions, the inclusivist and mutuality models, though more welcoming and positive, can end up standing for very little. But are there other possibilities? One way of addressing the issue-one that doesn’t fall into either trap-might be called a “coexistence” approach, or, as Knitter labels it, an “acceptance” model. I first discovered the concept in the work of the progressive Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. He wrote that he had encountered ultimate salvation in Jesus of Nazareth; but, having declared that, he held himself ready to enter into dialogue with others. He did not assume that other traditions were lesser versions of his own, or that they were somehow included in his; or that all traditions, including his own, were somehow incomplete. While a committed believer, he was, in principle, radically open-minded toward all. In recent years, this coexistence model has gained in popularity; Benedict XVI holds a sophisticated (albeit conservative) version of it. It balances nicely the two demands of being faithful to the core beliefs of one’s Christian tradition while meeting the urgent need for global mutual respect and openness. A downside, as I see it, is that for someone who’s still undecided, the coexistence model may impede the making of any real decisive choice, since in considering other faith traditions, it implies that we really don’t know enough to make comparisons or final judgments. That’s fine for those who already accept the unsurpassable uniqueness of Christ and Christianity, but not much help for those who don’t. So the final part of my response to Laura and Joe would address the complex relationship between faith and truth. Many of the issues my nephew and his wife raise reflect the basic presuppositions of their largely secular world, and I need to question some of them. For example, there is a modern tendency to treat religion as though it were merely a support system for an ethic that relies on belief and ritual as part of its motivation. There is also a sense that religion, while perhaps not without some social benefit, is nonetheless a purely subjective matter, since it deals with truths and values that cannot be proved scientifically. Science is objectively demonstrable and based on universal principles. Religion is particular and belongs to the private sphere alone. I want Joe and Laura to understand why these cultural presuppositions are questionable. The matter of truth cannot be handed over carte blanche to science; on the contrary, acknowledging the truth of other human activities and modes of understanding is critically important. That molecules are composed of atoms and that Christ is present in the Eucharist are truth claims of very different orders, of course, but that does not diminish the validity of either. In a deep sense, truth is comprehensive and one, even though the means by which we come to know certain things may vary. Within all the various realms of cultural meaning, the most basic human activity is our attempt to understand. Part of our search for meaning consists in seeking the truth about all things, through a human quest that by its nature remains open to error and revision. I want to encourage Joe and Laura to continue to seek the truth, but not to allow the culture to limit how they do so. In science, we attempt to understand and to verify the truth of the realities we observe in nature. In faith, as in love, we sometimes accept as true things that are beyond our immediate understanding, because we sense they have their own validity and integrity. Of course, various truth claims made within the context of a religious tradition can neither be fully understood nor empirically verified. But my own basic life commitment to Christ, to God, to the Christian community, to the human community, and to God’s creation ought to be apparent in how I live it out, even as the imperfections of how I do so are also apparent. I would urge Joe and Laura to recognize the truth discovered in the laboratory of people’s everyday lives. When my nephew says that he is envious of people who are religious, I sense that although he stands outside a tradition and cannot see his way clear to embrace it or an alternative, at some deep level he still stands inside it, even while rejecting it. The reality is that his own heritage and identity are not simply posed there, in front of him, to be examined and then either accepted or rejected. They are also behind him, to either side of him, and within him. It is like the ocean, in which one swims, that connects the swimmer with others in that ocean. He is going to have to fight the undertow much longer if he plans to emerge completely free of it on the sandy shore. My advice instead is to find a way to, well, go with the flow. Laura and Joe, let me complete my rather lengthy response to you in this way: The modern world has hoodwinked many by imposing on religious questions a scientific burden of proof they were never meant to carry. Look out and don’t sell yourselves short! And if you see my son somewhere out there, as you float in that great ocean, maybe you can even have a conversation with him. In the twenty-four hours after my son told me he was no longer going to Mass, I realized that he is more likely to take his cues from dynamic young people like you than from his dear but old dad.