Instead of heading south for spring break this year, as most sensible people do, I went to South Dakota. I didn’t go for the beaches, but instead to visit the Jesuit community on the Rosebud Reservation. The cultural milieu of the “Rez” is fascinating, and the Jesuits who live there are fine hardworking men.
One conversation in particular got me thinking. We were discussing the summer Sun Dances, native religious rituals in which men dance—sometimes for several days without sustenance—and pierce their skin as a way of offering sacrifice to the divine. Someone remarked that at a Sun Dance he had visited the previous summer there were more German tourists than Lakota worshippers.
I found the incident disturbing in different ways. Though obviously not a practitioner of non-Christian “traditional” religion myself, I couldn’t help but feel that the practices of those traditions had been somehow cheapened when reduced to a spectacle for tourists.
For me the more disturbing question, however, is what the phenomenon of the Teutonic Sun Dance says about the spiritual grounding of Westerners. Is part of the reason so many German tourists find the Sun Dance so alluring the lack of spiritual sustenance in their own culture?
By coincidence, I was at the time reading Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on the recommendation of a classmate. The attractive main character of the novel, Larry Darrell, is what we might call in today’s vague parlance “a seeker.” His modest inheritance allows him to move to Europe and devote himself to study; when he needs a break from study, he tries his hand at various forms of manual labor. He spends a few months in a Benedictine monastery, but eventually he is drawn to India and its gurus, all the while asking himself big questions about God, evil, and the nature of existence.
There’s something decidedly appealing about Larry’s lifestyle. Those big questions are important, and how fascinating, how exotic, to move from place to place, from experience to experience, drinking it all in—the libraries of Paris, the countryside of Bavaria, the ruins of Greece, Italy, Spain, the East.
Predictably, Larry ends up rejecting Christianity. His grounds for doing so are a trifle juvenile, as the God he refuses to believe in resembles Jupiter more than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But more importantly, he chafes under the notion of moral judgment. Indeed his attitude toward sexual morality seems to be “whatever.”
This latter objection, if it can be called an objection, is quite common among the “seekers” I have known, among those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Among my “spiritual but not religious” friends, Buddhism holds special appeal, but this appeal often arises precisely out of its vagueness. For my seeker friends, Buddhism—exotic, distant, abstract—comes without ethical baggage. It allows one to talk about “love” and “God” without either of those concepts becoming real enough to make concrete demands. I’ve always wondered, how many seekers are really running away?
This is not to say that all of the “seekers” I have known have been moral cowards. One such friend once fasted for Ramadan to have the same experience as Muslims, and doing so certainly required some determination. But I teased her about being a “spiritual tourist,” and something about the situation seemed off to me, like the Germans at the Sun Dance.
Another time, shortly after my Peace Corps years, I was traveling in India with another “seeker” friend. We were visiting a Hindu temple in Madurai, and an elephant there was giving “blessings” for some nominal offering. The friend I was with said, “Why not get a blessing?”
I looked at her skeptically, and she responded, “Everybody needs a blessing. Can a blessing really hurt?” A part of me even said, “Sure, why not? Why not have the experience?”
Fortunately, another (louder, more authoritative) part of me answered, “The first commandment! The first commandment!”
So the elephant and I exchanged only polite nods.
There is undeniably something appealing in spiritual novelty, just as there is in any new experience. But I realized then, even if I couldn’t articulate it, that, though seeking after new experiences has its appeal, certain types of experiences require commitment, and commitment means forgoing other different experiences. To have the experience of marriage, for example, one makes an exclusive commitment to one other person, and not to others. One simply can’t have the experience of marriage without forgoing a whole range of other—potentially enriching—experiences.
So this is what, perhaps, disturbs me most about all the Germans at the Sun Dance, what Larry Darrell misses: it is fine to seek new experiences, and even spiritual tourism has a positive side. After all, who doesn’t want to grow spiritually? But certain kinds of spiritual experiences—and I would be so bold as to say the most meaningful kind—require commitment. Some experiences can only be had by going all in. There are some destinations a tourist will never reach.
Christianity is one such experience that requires all of us. If it’s a hobby, it’s not Christianity. Kierkegaard speaks of a leap of faith, and he’s sometimes construed as pointing toward something irrational, but I think the important point he’s driving at is that when we jump, we let go and jump. We don’t clutch onto a lifeline or try to shimmy down the face of the cliff. We can’t be neutral or detached, just observers. There are no tourists in heaven. If one is observing heaven from a distance, then one is someplace else.
Probably, in the end, “seeking” is not so bad. But there’s a difference between seeking and running away, just as there’s a difference between a tourist and a pilgrim. And for some destinations, a tourist visa just won’t do.