Douthat on Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson's article "Dry Bones: Why Religion Can't Live Without Mysticism," from the Feb. 26 "Spirituality Issue" of Commonweal, inspired today's column from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Like Fr. Imbelli (who blogged about the article here), Douthat quibbles with Johnson's view that the mystical (or "esoteric") dimension of religion is suffering from neglect.Douthat observes (in some agreement with Johnson) that traditionally "esoteric" aspects of religion are growing in popularity, but divorced from their "exoteric" contexts: "In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what weve done with every other kind of human experience: Weve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market." I wonder whether he also read Barbara Mujica's article "Teresa of Avila: A Woman of Her Time, a Saint for Ours," from the same issue. Mujica discusses the contemporary popularity of this particular mystic and considers what may be lost in embracing a too-narrow, ahistorical view of Teresa.

Today the tension between organized religion and personal faith is more prominent than ever. Many people turn to New Age cults to satisfy their spiritual longing, unaware that traditional religions do offer an alternative to the mechanized rituals that have come to be associated with them. Every year some of my students who have grown disillusioned with the institutional church read Teresa and exclaim, I didnt know this was part of Catholicism!

Together, Johnson and Mujica's articles explore some of the questions Douthat raises today. And of course, there's more on these topics in our archives. Lawrence Cunningham's February 2006 overview of "Catholic Spirituality" is worth revisiting, as is Luke Timothy Johnson's own 2006 take on popular religion, "Keeping Spirituality Sane." Is there anything else you think Douthat's readers should check out while they're here?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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