Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why "Spirituality" Instead of Religion?

This is not exactly breaking news to those of us in religious vocations: "Young voters want spirituality, but not necessarily religion."

A report entitled "Religion Among the Millennials" produced by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life and released this week found that one in four people 18 to 29 years old are unaffiliated with a religion. But that by no means makes them all atheists or agnostics. While there are always religious people among the unaffiliated, the numbers are significantly higher among the younger unaffiliated crowd. While they are less likely than those unaffiliated and older than them to believe in God, they are more likely to believe in life after death, heaven and hell, and miracles.

In fact, on some measures, the data suggest that these so-called millennials may be more spiritually thirsty than older generations. According to a Knights of Columbus/Marist poll also released this month, being "spiritual or close to God" was the most selected of any other "primary long-term life goal" among those 18 to 29 years old (other choices included "to get married and have a family" and "to get rich"). The rate at which they selected it was significantly higher than other generational groups, and nearly twice that of Generation X.

The Pew report is here: summary page, full report. Glenn Reynolds commented on desiring "spirituality" rather than religion, "Well, that's because religion often tells you to do things you don't want to do, or to refrain from doing things you want to do, while spirituality is usually more . . . flexible."

Well, yeah. "Spirituality" is religious Calvinball, a game featured in the comic strip, "Calvin and Hobbes." The rules of Calvinball are simple: there are no rules. Players make them up as they go along and any player may change any rule for any reason. That's what "spirituality" is.

Now, before you think that I'm digging in my heels like Mel Brooks' character, Governor Le Petomane in Blazing Saddles ("We've got to protect our phony-baloney jobs!"), I'm not. After all, the highest rate of young adults who are least likely to attend a church are pastors' children. (Think of a church corollary to what Bismarck said about sausage and laws and you'll see why.)

Nor is the move away from established churches a new development. Consider this critique and guess when it was written:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

That was written in 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he languished in Birmingham jail. Have we learned anything in the last 47 years? Consider this present-day critique by United Methodist pastor Michael Slaughter on the establishment church's preoccupation with growth for growth's sake:

We had achieved getting behinds in the seats, but I realized that all we had really done was accumulate crowds of spectators who were not moving toward deeper faith and service.

Many people in our churches today profess faith in God, but they embody the values of the dominant culture. They possess a soft-secular worldview rather that the worldview of Jesus. These folks believe in God and profess Jesus, but they trust the materialistic values of secular culture. (From Change the World - Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus, which I emphatically recommend, temporarily a free
Kindle download

So I am not exactly criticizing the young adults who retreat from establishmentarian religion, but they are mistaken if they think that self-made "spirituality" is any better. Professor David Bentley Hart explains why:

Even when we have shed the moral and religious precepts of our ancestors, most of us try to be ethical and even, in many cases, "spiritual." It is rare, however, that we are able to impose anything like a coherent pattern upon the the somewhat haphazard collection of principles and practices by which we do this. ... we assemble fragments of traditions we half remember, gather ethical maxims almost at random from the surrounding culture, attempt to find inner equilibrium between tolerance and conviction, and so on, until we have knit together something like a code, suited to our needs, temperaments, capacities, and imaginations. We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony.

... Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of "spirituality" as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel ... and so forth [making spirituality] indistinguishable from interior decorating

That the establishment Protestant church is failing to carry out its charter (with occasional exceptions) is, I think, undeniable. My prescription for reversing this deadly trend would occupy too many pages to post here. (Walter Russell Mead's essay about the Episcopal church is worth reading, but the leftist preoccupation he describes of that church is not the primary problem of the UMC today, though it is certainly a factor.) The point of this post is that for all the just criticisms that may be made of the American Church, private "spirituality" is not a solution. The hodgepodge of religious sensitivity without religious attachment results in religious-spritual confusion among the Millennials, says the Pew report.

Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Yet in other ways, Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults' beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago.

Exactly how a self-created spirituality that has no norms but ones agreeable to oneself is supposed to lead to eternal life in heaven is a deep mystery to me. This Pew report and another
one released in 2006, both said that young adults (up to mid-twenties was the surveys' cutoff) are becoming evermore strongly inclined toward private spirituality and withdrawing from organized religious bodies. But at the same time they tend to affirm very orthodox Christian concepts such as heaven, hell and judgment by God.

So my question is, can reliance on a self-created "spirituality" be reconciled coherently with orthodox concepts? I don't see how. For if God is going to judge us, it will surely be by God's standards, not ours.

Oh, heavens! Did I just say that God will judge us? Isn't that unacceptably judgmental of me to say that, to say nothing of God being so judgmental? Well, my question is this: if one does agree that there is a God who created the cosmos, then this God must be admitted to have both the power and the authority to dispose of the created order as he sees fit. The key thing is not what we wish to believe, but what has God revealed to us about the way he manages the created order.

Judaism, Christianity (and for that matter Islam) are practically alone among the world's great religions in insisting that what we know about God is known principally through God's initiative in revealing God's self to humankind. This is a key difference between religion, as usually conceived, and spirituality. Because of the individualistic (and basically narcissistic) nature of spirituality, divine revelation is usually not taken very seriously except where agreeable. There is no more common human failing than to imagine that God, however conceived, loves us just the way we are.

It does not work to make up your own code of conduct and think that integrity will follow. When I was in the Army I heard another officer described this way: "He fails to achieve even the low standards he sets for himself." Rare is the man or woman who does not fall short of even their own standards even though people set their own bar pretty low. Even meeting our own standards really means that we fail to become what God intends us to be.

The "do my own thing" impulse of spirituality imagines that religion is restrictive, constraining and oppressing, and that freedom cannot be found unless one frees oneself from religion's ancient superstitions, patriarchy and prescientific ignorance. That these criticisms are by no means entirely without merit makes their lure all the more attractive.

Yet it is no better that modern America as a whole no longer believes that there is an objective criterion by which to judge our choices because there can be no higher good than being able to make a choice in the first place. Therefore, all judgment, whether divine or human, infringes on choosing – and being able to choose apart from any standards but one’s own is a supreme concern of most Americans these days.

This is a purely modern idea. In centuries past, even before Jesus was born, true human freedom was emancipation from anything that prevented one from living a life of rational virtue, which Aristotle defined as "excellence made habitual," that enabled moral and ethical flourishing of both the individual and society. Yet this ideal, in the Gentiles' ancient world, was never more than that and apart from isolated academies never blossomed. Instead, in literally slavish devotion to the gods and political masters, the ancients lived almost entirely in material poverty and spiritual despair, a condition that reached its nadir in "the glory that is Rome."

Freedom is not simply the ability to choose. It is the ability to restrain and find mastery over our inborn will to selfishness and our own foolish or wicked choices. The freedom of God’s Law is freedom from the baser demons of our being so that we may discover the better angels of our nature. We are not free simply because we can choose, but only when we choose rightly.

For to choose poorly is to enslave ourselves to the impermanent, the irrational and eventually the destructive. Simply choosing, unconnected from divine guidance and godly standards, is to choose ultimately to reject freedom, to be enslaved to the bondage of the will, to what Paul called the body of death and finally to choose to perish rather than attain everlasting life.

The role of God’s law is to enable human beings to be released from the shackles of spiritual and mental bondage that prevent us from being saved in this life and the next. Through the teachings of the so-called "Old" Testament, we are guided to the divine goodness, which we can then perceive embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is not an individualistic endeavor. That formal religious bodies have achieved this goal only imperfectly does not mean that private spirituality is somehow automatically better. (See my 2008 post, "Let's hear it for hypocrites!"

I think what the Pew report reveals is a strong sense of religious yearning that (no surprise) the mainline churches are not meeting. The character and polity of those churches, as we know them today, are legacies of the World War II generation, for whom organization and unity were the way that the Great Depression was turned back and World War II was won. Theirs was a generation of joiners and builders. It is no accident that the boom of large churches followed the end of World War II, the ultimate triumph of massive organizations and systems analysis.

This was the time of what futurist Alvin Toffler called the Second Wave of societies. The First Wave was agriculturally-based and lasted from the end of the hunter-gathering period to the inception of the industrial revolution. Then came the Second Wave:
The Second Wave is the society during the Industrial Revolution (ca. late 1600s through the mid-1900s). The main components of the Second Wave society are nuclear family, factory-type education system and the corporation. Toffler writes: "The Second Wave Society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction. You combine those things with standardization, centralization, concentration, and synchronization, and you wind up with a style of organization we call bureaucracy."
Which almost perfectly describes the UMC today – committee bound, meeting ruled, glacially slow to respond to social challenges, and prizing standardized procedures, uniformity and maintenance of the status quo above almost all other concerns.

The problem is that young adults and our society in general have already moved into the Third Wave, the post-industrial society.
Toffler would also add that since late 1950s most countries are moving away from a Second Wave Society into what he would call a Third Wave Society. He coined lots of words to describe it and mentions names invented by him (super-industrial society) and other people (like the Information Age, Space Age, Electronic Era, Global Village, technetronic age, scientific-technological revolution), which to various degrees predicted demassification, diversity, knowledge-based production, and the acceleration of change (one of Toffler’s key maxims is "change is non-linear and can go backwards, forwards and sideways").
We of the institutional church are failing to comprehend that traditional doctrinal clams can be defended rationally on their own merits and do not require our now-antiquated structure to prop them up. That young adults still respect those doctrines, even if they do not fully embrace them, is evident from the Pew reports. But mainline churches generally, and the UMC specifically, have become their own obstacles in the propagation of our faith.

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