The following is a reflection on Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual But Not Religious by Joe Hoover, SJ.
In a religious and political climate today that fiercely grapples for position on precisely what American values are and where they are rooted, it is helpful to realize in more depth what American religious pursuit has traditionally been about. Though it came out more than ten years ago, the historical survey Spiritual But Not Religious makes a timely contribution to this discourse in pointing out that a strain of independence has been running through American spirituality for a very long time. Those who think that the United States was founded on the same kind of church-going faith that we have today, for instance, are mistaken. As author Robert Fuller points out, only a small number of colonialists were churchgoers. By the time the Revolutionary War came, a mere fifteen percent of Americans belonged to any church. Most of them practiced religion, but not solely rooted in Christianity. Early America was rife with “fortune telling, astrology, folk medicine, witchcraft and divinization.” He goes on to note that “[f]rom the outset, Americans have had a persistent interest in religious ideas that fall well outside the parameters of bible-centered theology.”
The freedom embodied by those without religion–then and now–is mirrored somewhat by those with religion. “A sizable percentage of church members have little loyalty to their church’s theological traditions,” writes Fuller, speaking of today’s Christians. In America, the market reigns, not just in economics but in the culture as a whole, including the spiritual. A competition of ideas is suited well to a society so founded on individualism (or at least the appearance of individualism.)
Many of us in this country live out of this American seeker tradition perhaps without realizing it. We try to find the commonality in all religions. We look for churches with the best music and most inspired preaching. We are very comfortable not adhering to every teaching or exhortation of our faith. In fact, we are often quite proud of that. (For Catholics, see: birth control, gay marriage, the death penalty, the Iraq War, pre-marital sex, going to confession, et. al.) One could say, in fact, we ascribe to a kind of unified American dogma of individualism. We must all think for ourselves. Anyone who doesn’t is totally out of line!
In delineating this American spiritual approach, a number of helpful themes run through Fuller’s book. One of these is summed up in his discussion of “channelers.” Channelers is a broad definition fitting into a variety of paths for those who attempt to let their lives become a vessel through which a higher power can work. For them life is about living up to one’s potential; turning every hardship into spiritual growth; seeing existence as a process to get one to a higher state; observing how our own thoughts create our reality and the reality of the planet around us. Channelers thus have a responsibility to shape those thoughts accordingly to provide the best possible outcomes for the planet. Another theme revolves around certain core beliefs of American religious life. We are a chosen nation in a covenant with God. We are rooted in evolutionary science and a culture of continual progress moved by that Creator. Our society is powered by the free individual whose work ethic can bring success and respect. It is safe to say that no matter one’s particular religion, most Americans ascribe to these basic beliefs. In this sense, then, as noted, it is easier for Americans to slide in and out of relationship with an institutional religion as long as we continue to stick with our core American spiritual beliefs and values. And, indeed, our wariness of an over-rationalized, or bureaucratic, or lifeless, or over-emotional religious practice can be a positive thing. It can lead to a healthy seeking spirit that is always going deeper into the inexhaustible mysteries of God.
It also can lead to a kind of spiritual homelessness and an inability to trust anything. Spiritual But Not Religious is a good mirror to put up to people and give them a chance to deepen the truth of their journey. To let them realize that in their spiritual seeking they may not be as original as they think–that in fact they may be simply reacting to “traditional” religion. This may be done not to shame people into crawling back to the faith, (in fact, many churchgoers themselves would be helped by such realizations) but to help them move beyond what may be a reflexive antagonistic posture they have taken against their childhood beliefs.
In light of my own, limited, study and practice on the edges of non-Western religion, I also found it very helpful to realize that for Americans over the years, “Eastern teachings were typically severed from their historical and cultural context. Hinduism and Buddhism were transformed into a psychological tonic designed to assuage the spiritual malaise common among middle class Americans.” While there is nothing wrong with religion being incarnated in a context, there is a problem if we pretend this particular incarnation is the full story of that religion. The danger is that we may turn a religion into a series of propositions that we want to believe about the world anyway. We may do this rather than taking that religion on its own terms, with its less savory teachings as well as its accessible ones.
And when that spiritual path–Buddhism, let us say–does not with its meditative practice and striving for detachment assuage our malaise, we will simply move on to something else. Or take the idea of karma. Instead of being as it is in the East: “a fatalistic resignation to powers beyond one’s control,” in the West karma is taken as “the secret to an upbeat spirituality.” This is fine, as long as the philosophy of karma helps practitioners attain holiness. But again, it is important to be aware of what one is doing. If our conception of karma comes around somehow to bite us, we shouldn’t be surprised. We have to know fully what we are getting into.
There is one deeper, unasked question at the heart of Spiritual But Not Religious. Unchurched spiritual seekers take truths as provisional until something more enlightened comes along. The question, then: do we ever really know that truth we hold if we only plan to hold it for the time being? Can we ever know a whole way of life, get down into its gritty core, the paradoxes and poetry of a spirituality or religious path, if it is always ready to be shown the door?
At the same time, might the “spiritual but not religious” find a balance between accepting the few fundamental truths of a religion while still being reasonably wary of the leaders or the institutional machinery of that religion? To take a marriage analogy, can you root down into the basic truths of your marriage even while disagreeing with some of the negotiables? Might you accept the truth of your wife’s love for you, the commitment you have made together, while disagreeing with, say, her tepid enthusiasm for recycling? Or even her political affiliation? Can a seeker find this kind of balance, or does the seeker have to keep everything provisional: never even marrying the wife who will cancel out his vote, never accepting a faith whose every tenet he does not agree with?
To put it another way, will seekers ultimately be fulfilled if they are always only seekers? This might sound like a leading question, heading toward only one answer: No. But I can imagine even the most devout religious person giving testimony that says, simply: Well, my religion just makes sense to me. No one has convinced me that there’s something out there better than God becoming one of us, showing us how to live, and being willing to die for us. If it’s there, I haven’t found it yet. Christ is still the center of my life. This may be very convicted, but it also has the tinge of the seeker. The “churched” seeker, as mentioned earlier, may have more in common with the “unchurched” than he or she realizes. Individual seeking is very American, but it may also be very human, and humble. We simply don’t know for sure, and never will, until we reach the end.
For the “spiritual but not religious,” it is up to them–and those who walk with them–to discern if their search helps draw them closer to God and to the ultimate purpose of their lives. It is also up to them and their community to pay attention to when that search–possibly through a lack of lived commitment–begins to frustrate their deep longing for the holy.