Displaced Critique: Ehrenreich’s Fumbled History of the Spirit

barbara-ehrenreich2I am a huge fan of the Baffler; it’s one of the few magazines I actually subscribe to, because I think its content is almost always worth materially supporting. It occupies a particular space in left-leaning journalism, critique, and opinion-writing, critical of capitalism but also frequently self-reflecting and doubting, it’s a magazine that encourages critical thought all around–certainly something to be celebrated and supported. I’m also a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s work, especially her journalism on income inequality.

So I am slightly pained to find myself here preparing to heavily criticize Ehrenreich’s “Displaced Deities” in the most recent issue. It’s a piece so full of confused generalizations and self-confident nonsense that I’m not wholly sure where to begin. I suppose I might start by pointing out that it is a response of sorts to another piece in the same issue, Jackson Lear’s “Material Issue” (which itself is full of problems which I plan to address in this space at a future point). This issue of the Baffler is quickly shaping up to be my least favorite ever–and I haven’t yet finished it.

Ehrenreich hopes in this rather short article to propose an explanation as to how and why western thought has trended to what some have called the dis-enchantment of the universe. She proposes a timeline, beginning in our prehistoric past, when humans populated our world with innumerable spirits, a spiritual-religious position generally referred to as “animism”. Under animism, each individual material entity is seen as having a unique spirit, or at least the potential for one. Each rock, each tree, each stream might have a unique spiritual identity. From this perspective, Ehrenreich argues, the world was seen as rich with agency, vitality, and meaning.

Next, she says, many human societies gravitated towards polytheism, in which only a few dozen deities were recognized as real. Here, individual material entities were largely, if not completely, drained of their spiritual particularity. For the polytheist, if rocks possessed any sort of vital essence, it was under the aegis of a deity of rocks and stones–all rocks would be unified under a single spirit. Thus the spiritual world was delimited, constrained, constricted. From the polytheistic perspective, humans were a bit more lonely in the universe, Ehrenreich argues, and we were no longer able to feel ourselves in direct communion with our immediate surroundings.

Finally, Ehrenreich laments, the sterile age of monotheism descended upon humanity like a stultifying cloak. Now there was only one deity, abstract and distant. Agency and vitality were utterly drained from material reality, all of it being concentrated on a transcendent Being beyond the limits of materiality. For Ehrenreich, this sets the stage for the modern scientific (or scientistic) view of the world as as lifeless machine, utterly determined by the laws of science. She concludes that this view of life is inimical to political and environment justice, and yearns for a limited re-enchantment of the world, even as she admits that such a thing is not possible.

Now, in its simplest version, her conclusion, at least in its broadest outlines, seems to me quite valid and worth consideration. The idea that modern (and at least some varieties of post-modern) thought has generated for itself a perspective in which the world is vacated of any agency or subjectivity is well-founded, and I think Ehrenreich is absolutely correct to wonder about the ethical ramifications of such a view. But her attempt to lay the blame for this state of affairs on monotheism is historically, philosophically, and theologically incoherent.

It’s worth pointing out that, right at the outset of the article, Ehrenreich establishes her argument on a dubious premise: “One measure of the “vitality” of creation might be the number of gods or spirits thought to exist at a given time.” Now, she admits that any given criterion here would be difficult to justify, but she nonetheless carries on the remainder of her argument without even attempting to make such a justification. And this is crucial, and unfortunate, because this criterion largely amounts to equal parts question-begging and meaningless generalization.

The first concern we might have here is that Ehrenreich seems to be making her argument about quantity and not quality of life–or vitality, or subjectivity, or value. Indeed, she says as much: “It is the numbers, though, that concern us here.” But this surely results in an absurd conclusion, for if we are to judge the degree to which a spiritual or religious system recognizes vitality in the universe, then, according to Ehrenreich’s above criterion, we should prefer a system that multiplies spiritual entities endlessly. One spirit per object would rapidly be seen to be far too limiting. Why not ten, or a hundred? Why not claim that each material being has an infinitude of spiritual essences contained within it? (It’s worth pointing out that, accepting Ehrenreich’s criterion, Scientology is the best spiritual system on offer today, considering its claim that each human has many thousands of thetans associated with it–nevermind that it sees this diversity as the main problem to be solved).

But the other problem with her criterion is that the systems of thought she wants to criticize according to this criterion actually don’t violate it: polytheistic and montheistic religions simply don’t deny the existence of a multitude of spiritual beings in the world. The big change that occurs between animism and polytheism and then especially from polytheism to monotheism is not whether the world is populated by legions of spirits–animisms, polytheisms like (certain versions of) Hinduism, and monotheisms like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and (other versions of) Hinduism all agree on this claim. The point of contention is just what the status or identity of these beings is.

That is to say–and here I will focus on monotheisms–monotheistic systems recognize a multitude of spiritual beings, but only one creator. All spiritual beings apart from capital-G God derive their existence from the will of God. But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist; in fact, understanding them as creatures necessarily assumes their existence. But Ehrenreich seems to confuse these two extremely different claims, arguing that monotheism functions as a basic denial of the existence of any spiritual vitality apart from a God who was little more than a distant abstraction. Of course, even a cursory glance at Jewish and Christian Scripture, or early Christian theology–replete as both are with discussions of angels and demons and even lowercase-g gods–will reveal this claim to be simply false.

And this brings us to a more obvious problem with Ehrenreich’s piece, apart from the basic conceptual confusion which seems to motivate it at it core. Ehrenreich frequently makes historical claims that are simply false, suggesting that she didn’t both to research any of her claims at all. For example, she claims that the Christian belief in the Trinity is an example of a “steady drift back towards polytheism”–a claim that would incense, of course, every major Christian theologian ever. Consider as well her claim that “the Reformation…downplayed the Trinity.” First off, it should be pointed out that the term “Reformation” covers a wide array of institutions and movements that were culturally and theologically diverse. Even the most generalized account would recognize four differing reforming movements in 16th century Western Christianity: Lutheranism, (the Calvinist) Reformers, the Anabaptists, and the English Reformation. So, right off the bat, one has to wonder which of these specific movements Ehrenreich means to refer.

But even if we overlook this woeful over-generalization, it should be plainly said that none of these four movements “downplayed the Trinity.” Now, there have been movements that arose within Christianity that did downplay, or even remove, Trinitarian thought from their doctrine–the Unitarians, of course, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)–but none of these is “the Reformation”.

yhwhFor another, and perhaps the most serious, example, let’s shift back a bit chronologically: Ehrenreich repeats the claim, often found on internet message boards but much less often in any scholarly work on religious history, that there was a deity named “Yahweh” among the Canaanite pantheon whose adherents, at one point, insisted on worshiping to the exclusion of any other deity. The fact is that there is no evidence of any such deity among the pantheon, and indeed, “Yahweh” is not a name at all, but a specific transliteration into Latin characters of the tetragrammaton: YHWH, which is probably best translated as “He Who Is” or “He Who Will Be” or various other statements focused on Being in a more or less absolute sense. This “name” then is actually a sort of non-name, a proposition meant to point to God’s ineffability. The idea that there was a god named “Yahweh” (who was perhaps a storm- or war-god) among the Canaanite pantheon has no firm textual or archaeological basis.

Finally, it must be said that at precisely the point where I think Ehrenreich’s point begins to strike true–in critiquing the hyper-individualism of modern thought–she misses an opportunity to un- and re-cover a wealth of ethical and philosophical insights. This is because, and this is course not news to anyone who has read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, both texts, especially the prophetic books of the former (e.g. Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah) are incredibly incisive works of ethical reasoning. If one is looking for a sound ethical basis for critiquing the borderline-solipsism of western philosophy since Descartes, one should see in Abrahamic montheism an ally. Instead, Ehrenreich engages in a lazy conflation.

All of this generalization and historical falsehood points to a basic conclusion: Barbara Ehrenreich just doesn’t know much about the history of religions, the philosophy of religion, or theology. And, of course, that’s totally fine. She’s not a scholar of religion, or a philosopher, or a theologian. She is not required to be an expert in any of this, or even vaguely educated on these topics, if she’d rather not be. Her contributions to journalism around class and income inequality are invaluable; pointing out that she probably has nothing really useful to say about religious history is sort of like saying that the Pope shouldn’t be performing open-heart surgery: it’s not necessarily a critique.

Unless, of course, the Pope decided to have a try at being a surgeon, without bothering to receive any training. Likewise, I would never take Ehrenreich to task for not knowing much about religious history, philosophy, or theology, except that she decided to submit an article on these topics for publication in a magazine. Most people are ignorant about most topics. So long as we don’t present ourselves having something intelligent to say about those topics, that’s perfectly fine–there’s far more knowledge in the world than there is lifespan to gain it. But having read this train-wreck of an article, I am left simply wishing that Ehrenreich–or the editors at the Baffler–had realized that she probably wasn’t the best author for this kind of piece. Again, that’s not to say I don’t want to read anything by her–in fact, just the opposite is true! I’d love to read more of her work on topics she has researched tirelessly and thought about for decades. Nickle and Dimed is a contemporary classic for good reason. Ehrenreich is an intelligent writer who has often focused on topics that need more focusing-on. But she’s just not qualified to write about the history of religion, and her article here will, I fear, do more to either confuse readers with no previous interest in the topic, or convince people to hold on to long-held un-analyzed and simplistic perspectives on religion, rather than encourage well-informed critical reflection on the issues at hand. Considering my respect for both Ehrenreich and the Baffler, this saddens me–and I hope in the future both endeavor to do better. (It should be pointed out that this hope may be misplaced in Ehrenreich’s case; much of the confused psuedo-theology on offer here is present in her most recent book, Living with a Wild God).

Modern Myths: Science vs. Religion

“Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos is so threatening.” This is the subheading to a recent article on the controversy over Neil de Grasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, which began airing earlier this year on Fox. Alternet‘s Adam Lee examines the public outcry of many fundamentalist Christians over the show’s portrayal of the history of the universe; as the show is hosted by an astrophysicist and focused on the scientific exploration of outer space, it is unsurprising that the creation stories related in Genesis are not discussed. For those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture, of course, this is a thrown glove, an invitation to ideological combat. Lee, however, sees the issue in much broader terms: for him, this debate between scientists and fundamentalists is really the manifestation of a much deeper and absolute tension between science and religion on the whole.

Massive volumes have been penned on the idea that science and religion are locked in existential combat, and I have neither the space nor the expertise to go into detail here. A Google search or perusing of Wikipedia’s article on the subject can provide a better introduction to the scholarly debate on this narrative than I ever could. The short summary of what I think you will find in those investigations is this: the idea that religion as such and science as such are locked in some unavoidable ideological war is, simply put, a myth–in the full meaning of that word. It is not only mythical in that this narrative is untrue in many respects (i.e. many scientists are religious, many believers are fully accepting of science, and historically, a vast amount of scientific discovery has been achieved by people who were deeply religious and spiritual) but also in the more pernicious sense: this narrative is mythical in that it forms the backbone of a polemical stance that thinkers committed to a certain vision of modernity employ to discredit their opponents and give the impression that readers and listeners must pick a side in this great battle between progress and knowledge, on the one hand, and ignorant superstition, on the other.

But here, in the small space of a single blog post, I want to focus in on one particular claim that Lee makes–let’s return to his subtitle: “Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos” is so threatening.” Many readers will likely find this claim barely worth mentioning, because the assumptions behind it are largely accepted as obviously true. The uncontroversial nature of this claim only drives home how successfully the “conflict thesis” has been accepted in contemporary thought, for the claim is, theologically and biblically, simply untrue. What Lee is describing here–the idea that humanity is ontologically located at the center of reality–can be called anthropocentrism, an idea which is actually closely tied to Enlightenment humanism–not biblical religion. The assumption of human importance in the universe is the bedrock for social contract theory Liberalism and the application of scientific knowledge to the development of industrialism through technology, all tied up in the modern assumption of historical “progress” towards brighter and better futures. But this view is simply not central to Jewish or Christian religious thought. Somehow, however, many people today–even highly intelligent and well-educated people–seem to think that Abrahamic theology is tied deeply to an anthropocentric vision of reality.

This modern confusion is more complex than a simple historical and philosophical misattribution, though. Anthropcentrism’s consequences are meted out to various ideologies in a specific and ideologically-guided way. What we tend to see as the good aspects and achievements of an anthropocentric culture are attributed to science, technology, and liberal democracy, while the bad aspects or failures of anthropocentrism are attributed to religion or traditional culture. Thus, vaccines, air-conditioning, airplanes, computers, and the moon landings are all proof of the glories of scientific living, while the atom bomb, global warming, and the indignities of modern life are attributable to reactionary, unenlightened religious or tribal thought.

But the problem isn’t just that there is ideological cherry-picking here, there is also a mass of unexamined and baseless claims. There are few, if any, sections of the Bible that lend themselves to an anthropocentric reading. It is true that Jewish and Christian Scripture broadly claim that human life is purposeful and inherently meaningful–that God, the creator of all that is somehow cares for us–but humans are by no means placed at the center of creation. Indeed, the Bible is a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, text. God, not humanity, is at the center of the biblical universe, and it is only in relation to God that humanity can “cash in” its potential, so to speak. Far from being concerned only or primarily with the immediate material concerns of human beings, the Bible stresses that only in consciousness of and service to the Reality that transcends immanent being can humanity understand its true identity. Human life is recognized as fleeting and, in immanent and material terms, almost trite:

Consider, for example, Psalm 103: 14-17 (note that I have left all gendered pronouns referring to God in place; the reader should not take this as my approval of such pronouns. All quotes are from the English Standard Version):

For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Humanity is “dust” and “grass”, formless and fleeting: it is only by God’s continual creating and sustaining act that humans exist, and it is only in God’s loving act that we can have any hope. This same theme is present throughout the Bible; consider Isaiah 29:15-16:

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Here again, any sense of human autonomy from the Ground of Being and Becoming from which it sprang is quashed–only through understanding of the meaning of existence, which is objectively determined apart from humanity, can the particular human harmonize themselves with the reality in which they live. Again, humans are not the center here, but rather a periphery offered meaning and importance precisely to the degree that they conform themselves to the Center, which gives them being in the first place. The writer of deutero-Isaiah continues this theme and even the same metaphor in Isaiah 45:9:

“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Job also takes up this theme of human impermanence and seeming unimportance, even demanding that God leave him alone to enjoy what little passing pleasure he might:

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.

This lament, the opening of chapter 14, is later met with God’s reproval in the closing chapters, which maintain humanity’s determined and circumscribed existence while maintaining both God’s transcendent Otherness and sovereignty. Again, there is little room for a hubristic, anthropocentric reading here.

The Christian New Testament leans heavily on these images, continuing the insistence that the meaning–and indeed salvation–of humanity can come only via the human’s willingness to recognize and follow God, not on any human action itself. Thus James warns his comrades:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Here, even the rich person who seems in control of his or her life, with independent means and social power, is revealed as limited and contingent: the process of becoming will roll over them just as surely as it will over any other particular being in the world; death comes for all life. Similarly, the first letter of Peter directly quotes the lines from Psalm 103 above. And we have only skimmed the surface of this theme’s presence throughout Scripture: a number of other Psalms (e.g. 22, 90, 92) as well as Ecclesiastes explore the theme in greater breadth. But let’s not get carried away with quoting the text–I hope the point has been made.

This, of course, does not mean that religious people are often not anthropocentric in their thinking–but it does suggest, and I would say decisively so, that the source of this anthropocentrism is not their religiosity, but indeed the humanism that informs modern social thought. And here lies the interesting yet often unexplored tension within modern life. For it is modern social thought–social contract Liberalism in the Locke/Rousseau vein–that collides headlong with the scientific determinism of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially the Behaviorism of say, Skinner. The idea that human beings are largely determined and powerless in an often hostile universe is not at all threatening to a biblical view of the world–as we saw above, the Bible itself repeatedly asserts this very fact! It is humanism that finds this view of the world unacceptable and oppressive, for it suggests that humans, despite all our inventive cleverness and power, are ultimately unable to liberate ourselves from our material constraints. This would suggest that it is the largely unspoken yet ubiquitous classical Liberal view of humanity that, contradictorily, leads fundamentalist Christians to so vociferously reject scientific claims that seem to challenge an anthropocentric view of the universe, whether this is the Big Bang or evolutionary theory.

This will likely strike many readers as an odd claim, but, as counterintuitive as it is, I think its a much more accurate reading than the credulous pigeon-holing that Lee employs in his Alternet article. Fundamentalism, after all, is a religious movement that came about precisely to counter the rise of a robust Science in the 19th century; though its roots can be seen in resistance to early historical critical work on the Bible, it is not until geology and then biology undermined traditional readings of the creation stories that a full-throated ‘fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene. But this reaction already shows a major shift in the reading of Scripture, for creation stories that had meant to point to the mystery of creation had been bent–under the guiding rubric of humanism–to instead provide a firm basis for absolute human knowledge of the physical world. It is easy to forget that the basis for Evangelical and fundamentalist theology was and is (primarily) the Swiss Reformation–led by John Calvin, himself an avowed humanist. It was humanism that led to the idea that the Bible could be simply and directly translated–freeing the laity to interpret the text on their own, without ecclesiastical guidance (or interference, depending on one’s view). Although this certainly gave lay Christians more direct access to the Bible, it also meant that this highly diverse and ancient text was divorced from the cultural, philosophical, and hermeneutical context in which it was written–leading easily to a literalistic mode of reading in which the vast majority of the significance of the text is lost. This is, I think, precisely how the theocentric Bible can come to be read in a highly subjective, self-indulgent anthropocentric mode.

Thus, the real conflict here is not between religion and science, but between humanism and science. This seems paradoxical, precisely because we are so used to thinking of science as both the product of and servant to the humanist project: and again, medical, transportation, and information technology breakthroughs fit this narrative well. The last 2 centuries have been witness to an incredible surge in human knowledge, and that knowledge has led to human manipulation of the material environment in ways that have expanded human lifespan and quality of life (at least for those lucky enough to live in “developed” nations and of sufficient class status). This is an obvious historical fact. But of course, this same knowledge has also had its dark ramifications–not only in the development of military technology and the various negative “side effects” of industrialized society (pollution, rising levels of obesity, displacement of traditional culture, etc.) but also in the increased recognition of human beings as more object than subject. The Cartesian/Kantian view of human personhood as based in transcendental reason has collapsed. Humans now are immanent things, objects of science. This has resulted in massive medical breakthroughs–for only as a physical object can the human body be studied and healed scientifically–but it has also raised profound and unsettling questions: for can an object have intrinsic ethical value? When a person was understood as an immaterial soul, the separation of value and fact was not fatal to the maintenance of ethical realism. But if a person is no more than a body, how is a robust ethics to be maintained?

Herein lies the collision of what we might call “early” and “late” modernity: Locke, Rousseau, Descartes and even Kant inhabited a world of transcendent souls animating material bodies. Since the 19th century, this view of humanity has been challenged to the point of obsolescence: yet it remains the basis of our social thought. This philosophical view is necessary so long as we want to maintain modern liberal values of freedom and human rights, as well as the sense of human dignity, because there is no scientific basis for such claims. One cannot show, empirically, the existence of human rights. Nietzsche recognized that the collapse of transcendence meant the end of the old ethics just as much as it challenged old religious views of Divinity; Heidegger too saw the implications for classical Liberalism–and post-structuralist and postmodern thought has continued to drive home these conclusions. Yet, modern society remains caught in the limbo between humanist social thought and scientific determinism. It seems to me that the resistance to evolutionary thought and an “old” universe is as much about salvaging a sense of meaning to human existence–any meaning, religious or otherwise–as it is about defending a particular religious position. Fundamentalist Christians strike me more as the humanist canaries in the coal mine, rather than real countercultural traditionalists. And of course, they are far from the only people frightened by the conclusions of modern science and its manifestation in technology; lamentations of consumerism, the banality of industrialism, and the “disenchanted” nature of modern self-consciousness are common, especially among the artistic Left. What is perhaps unique about fundamentalists, however, is a recognition, even if it is pre-critical, that there is no “going back”–once one accepts the scientific view of the world, the realm of value and meaning seems forever lost.

I am not suggesting that we side with the fundamentalists in their angry, anti-intellectual assault. I am, however, suggesting 2 things that I think Lee–and many others–have missed. First off, fundamentalist angst is primarily humanist, not religious. Secondly, they aren’t wrong for sounding the alarm–their outbursts point to a central contradiction in modern life, the gap between our social/ethical and scientific/technological endeavors. The haughty cultured dismissal of fundamentalist fear only proves the uncritical complacency of many pundits and commentators. In the final analysis, if we are going to affirm science and ethical realism, we will need a new synthesis, a new way forward, that is not dependent on the transcendental individualism of humanistic classical Liberalism. The alternative to developing such a new way forward can only be the ethical relativism that post-structuralism and postmodernity promise. I would argue that such a synthesis can actually only come by reaffirming the theocentric view we briefly touched on above–but that’s a topic needing its own post.

The Sky is (Not) Falling: On the Fears of a Shrinking Church

Source: Gallup; Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

Over the past few years, one hears more and more about the crisis facing organized religion: fewer and fewer young people are coming to worship services, and the share of people who identify as non-religious seems to be growing and growing each year. Sociologists and religious leaders alike interpret this as evidence for the looming death of churches in the coming decades. The panic among ministers, priests, and bishops is palpable. More and more dioceses and parishes are rushing to appeal to the “nones“, to stem the tide, to keep their numbers up. Into this frenzied discussion enters the “spiritual but not religious”, which I wrote about a few days ago: people, by and large, are still seeking spiritual fulfillment, truth, etc. but aren’t interested in religious communities or institutions. Church leaders seem to think that the church must change or die; the writing’s on the wall.

I take issue with this whole line of thought on two broad fronts. The first is a demographic skepticism: I’m not so sure that the fact that 1/3 of young people identify as not religious is necessarily the Sword of Damocles over the head of organized religion. Note that this means, presumably, that 2/3 of young people do identify as religious. Considering that we have been hearing about the coming death of religion now for about 200 years, it doesn’t seem to me that we are facing the end of organized religion any time soon. It’s also not clear that this trend will just continue steadily into the future; note how the social and political trends of the 1920s–general social liberalism, a sort of muted libertinism, and a turn away from organized religion–essentially reversed for a few decades, beginning in the 1930s. Then in the ’60s, these trends came back with a vengeance, only to again face a good deal of reversal in the 1980s. Many of these trends may be more cyclical than linear.

And this demographic skepticism, as it were, is I think only reinforced by the data that suggests that what bothers young people about religion is not religion per se, but the political and social stances that they associate with religion. Robert Putnam of Harvard defends such a position in this NPR segment:

I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”

But of course, there have been left-leaning Christians for centuries, and it’s simply not true that being religious necessarily means being conservative. In fact, the link between the two is probably very recent, the result of the party re-alignment of the 1960s, when Republicans, recognizing their policies were unpopular, sought to shore up support for their plutocratic economic policies by allying themselves with charismatic and opportunistic religious leaders, especially among Evangelicals. The irony is that the Evangelical movement was originally very progressive, for example many English Evangelicals were some of the earliest abolitionists, and the Pentecostal wing of Evangelicalism was largely a movement of working-class Christians who, for example, resisted Jim Crow and sought to build a racially diverse church.

And if the main problem for religion today, specifically Christianity, is its identification with reactionary politics, then the answer is relatively simple: stop supporting reactionary politics, which are, by my estimation, profoundly un-Christian anyway. In other words, the Church needs to pursue its real agenda, and not allow itself to be co-opted by the State or the ruling classes. Of course, this co-option has been going on since at least Constantine, but then again, resistance against this co-option, and protest movements and churches, have also been forming since that time, and one hopes that their counter-balancing effect can continue to keep the Church on at least something of an even keel. There’s good evidence, for example, that monasticism itself began as a sort of protest against the co-option of Christianity by political and social elites in the 4th century.

And this is where I really see the main threat of all this sky-is-falling public hand-wringing: so many church leaders think that, in order to survive, the Church basically needs to completely re-invent itself to meet the demands, essentially, of its consumers. In this view, the Church is a sort of business, and its losing market share. You actually see this sort of language in the discussion. But of course(?) the Church is not a business, and we don’t have consumers. Right? The danger of all this hysteria is that it seems we could really lose our way here. The threat to the Church is not that we might have fewer members in the coming decades, but that in the process of trying to appeal to a certain demographic of people–we would completely sell out on our real mission–to keep bodies in the pews, as they say. But our goal is not to simply have a lot of members, it’s to serve God, to follow the example of Christ, to act with loving-kindness to all people. If doing this results in many new members, as it seems to have in the earliest centuries, then excellent! And if not, then so be it our, our “business” is to try and perceive the Truth at the heart of reality and respond in obedience and love, not to be the most popular social club on the earth.

This, of course, does not mean we should ignore social trends. The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member, ordains both female and gay priests, something that I think it only did under extreme pressure, and perhaps even shaming, from secular voices. And I think this is a really good, wonderful thing. The Church certainly has a lot to learn from secular politics, philosophy, science, etc. We should not bury our heads in the sand or cut ourselves off from other communities. We’ve been wrong about a lot in the past and no doubt will be again. But just because secular society, taken as a whole, has been right about some things doesn’t mean it necessarily will be right about everything. I would certainly submit that though broad secular social pressure for women’s rights, gay rights, the rights of ethnic minorities, etc. have been absolutely correct, in other ways, the same sorts of social pressure are absolutely horrendous. Consumer capitalism, for example, is destroying communities, individuals’ mental health, and the environment, all in one fell swoop. Even a good deal of secular folks decry its materialism and de-humanizing shallowness. The Church was right to finally cede to pressure from the outside to ordain women and homosexuals; I think it would be dead wrong to accept pressure to continue accepting a more consumer-ized economic and social ethic.

In other words, secular society has provided a good sounding-board for the Church and has confronted it in many places were the Church desperately needed to be confronted. But the opposite may also–in fact, has also–been true. Let’s not forget that it was Christian leaders who spear-headed the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. In many ways, the complacent social and political stance of the churches throughout the 20th century was an aberration. The Church has often been a lone voice in defense of the oppressed, marginalized, and exploited in times past, where political and economic forces were rushing head-long to grind up vulnerable humans to serve the needs of the State and the Market. In recognizing the sins and hypocrisy of conservative Christianity, I think we are really finding our true, traditional voice in many ways.

This is not to deny that the Church was ever involved in oppression before the 20th century, of course. There were Christians calling for abolition, but there were also Christians trying to cite the Bible in defense of slavery. There were Christians advocating for women’s rights, but there were plenty obstructing the realization of those rights as well. Many priests and friars called upon the Spanish monarchy to end colonization of the Americas after seeing the horrors of the Conquista; but ultimately the Church obediently supported the Crown in its occupation of the New World and its brutal exploitation of native peoples there. I’m in no way arguing that the Church has always been on the right side of things, up until the 20th century. But I am saying it definitely has not always been on the wrong side of things. But the impression among many young folks, is, I think, that it has been. We simply need to stand up and confront conservative Christians and articulate a counter-narrative, one that is truer, both ethically and historically, than the one they are pushing.

And I think this is where we get to the real problem. Moderate, liberal, and progressive Christians don’t have a show comparable to the 700 Club, we don’t have dozens of talk-radio programs broadcast every day. We aren’t in the public eye; we’ve ceded the terrain so completely that in a mere 30 years, Christianity and conservatism have been completely conflated in the eyes of most Americans. This, I think, accounts for our demographic crisis. We’ve rather complacently sat around while the rug is pulled out from under us, and we wonder why people are uninterested in our community. The solution is not, I think, to try and appeal to a consumerized ersatz New Age spirituality, but actually the opposite: we need to embrace so much of our tradition that has been forfeited.

This can function in two critical ways: first, as we’ve discussed above, there is a legacy of counter-oppresive, pro-social-justice work in our community, from the very beginning. We need to make this explicit, we need to present a fuller account of our history. This should not mean ignoring or denying the evils and sins of our past, but simply also calling to people’s attention all of the good work the Church really has done, to show that our history, like all histories, is complex and variegated. Second, I think that what so many spiritual-but-not-religious people are seeking they will not find in the various ersatz spiritual movements and groups they are currently investigating. I could certainly be wrong, but I think people are hungry for something that is authentic and even traditional. I think they ultimately will want communities that welcome them with open arms yet also call them to accountability. They want to participate in something that can trace its existence back centuries, that ties them to their ancestors and to essential cultural foundations. For many in the West (by no means all), this means Christianity. But if we attempt to out modernize the the New Agers, we will lose everything that makes us unique and valuable: our traditions, our authenticity, and our heritage. We can accept the critiques of secular society without totally collapsing before them. We can admit the ways in which we have been oppressive, exploitative, and exclusive without abandoning our tradition altogether. And I think this is precisely what we must do.

Such a program would mean embracing both a left-leaning, even radical politics, while simultaneously re-asserting our liturgical, doctrinal, and devotional traditions. Such a program, at once leftist and liberal and traditional, may seem awkward, but in fact the Anglo-Catholic movement was, from the beginning, just such an intellectually diverse approach. I think it’s crucial that we not fall into the myopic trap of assuming that what has happened over the last 50 years is What’s Always Been. Let’s have the courage–and faith–to remain steadfast before God, accepting correction wherever it comes from, including from our secular fellow humans, but also standing firm on those issues where we know we have something valuable and crucial to the health of our society. The Church can be humble and confident, self-critical and self-assured. In fact, I think this is precisely what we must be. Let us remember the warning that our Lord issued:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Let’s remember what our real priorities are. Even if the coming decades see a smaller church, we should keep our minds focused and our vision clear: our goal is to seek God and spread the Gospel, not to simply fill pews or build endowments.

On the Importance of Being Spiritual AND Religious

[UPDATE: This post has been re-published in slightly-modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog.] At the beginning of this past semester, I was invited to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. I attend a small seminary, and it seems that this book was suggested as a way to encourage the vast majority of students who are clergy-in-training to confront the reality that religious institutions have lost both influence and respectability over the last 5 decades, to say nothing of the 2 centuries before that. The world has changed; and as they say: change or die. Bass–and by extension, my seminary, or at least whoever is in charge of suggesting preliminary reading material [UPDATE: a faculty member has informed me that the person who selected this book actually did not agree with much of what it contains. The discussion we had during orientation did not touch on any such disagreement, however, which led to my confusion on this. Of course it’s great to read things one disagrees with, but it’s also good to point out problems and errors in assigned reading!]–seems to have a very clear idea of what the Church must do to remain relevant to modern people, and she lays down the challenge, as she sees it, and her proposals for meeting that challenge. Simply put, I was unimpressed. To be both more honest and less generous, I was amazed and appalled by the shallowness of her analysis and the obvious pandering of her proposed solutions. Let me get to some details.

Bass is, essentially, a supporter of the “Spiritual but not Religious” line of thought. In short, proponents of this attitude want to pursue a personal spiritual “quest” but are uninterested in religious institutions, rules, or communities. This is a simplistic description, but this is part of the problem: the spiritual-but-not-religious attitude is itself a gross oversimplification, as if spirituality and religiosity were two distinct modes of action or being that one could pursue independently of each other and a whole host of other cultural, social, and political practices. It seems to be a reaction against a traditionalist, conservative, rule-obsessed 19th century Protestantism. But is a rejection of this specific type of religiosity a rejection of “religion” altogether? It seems to me that only someone who had barely reflected on the issues at hand could actually answer yes to this question. Bass spends considerable time in her book exploring what these words “spiritual” and “religious” mean to various people (pp. 68-71), and ultimately ends up admitting that the two words have such varied and diverse connotations that distinguishing between them is hard. In fact, in chapter three, she admits that post people want to be both spiritual and religious (p. 93). Nonetheless, throughout the rest of the book, she continues to operate with a hyper-simplistic and uncritical attitude that the two are diametrically opposed.

Part of the problem with Bass’s approach is the confusion between description and prescription. Is she simply telling us truths about the reality of the world? Or is she exhorting us to change our ways? Of course, the one could very well lead to the other, but the relationship between them shouldn’t be taken for granted. Take, for example, pollution. One might describe the reality that our world is increasingly polluted, and thereby recommend or prescribe moving to an unsullied mountain range, buying a hazmat suit, or investing in pharmaceutical companies making anti-cancer drugs. This is all perfectly logical, but there is a wholly different sort of response: maybe we should try to stop polluting the place we live in. So when Bass basically describes a modern world filled with people only interested in convenient, overly-optimistic, individualistic ersatz “spirituality”, is she simply telling church leaders how things are? Or is she recommending that we join the bandwagon? Personally, I would agree that this process is occurring, but I don’t think it’s a good thing, and I would call on the Church not to simply concede that people are no longer interested in what we do and therefore that we should completely change our mission. I would call on the church to be critical of something if it seems bad.

Of course, I’m not suggesting an inflexible traditionalism. We absolutely must be willing and able to respond to modernism. But that doesn’t mean giving in completely to it; modernism has both good and bad aspects. Let’s humbly accept the former while calling the latter what they are and resisting them. I support women’s ordination, the ordination of homosexuals, Christian engagement with environmentalism, theological engagement with modern philosophy, dialogue with our atheist and secular fellow citizens, and a full recognition of the separation of the church and state. These are all certainly modern developments, and I’m glad that the Church has been forced–and it was forced–to accept these critiques.

But modernism has also brought all sorts of bad things, and I want to be able to point those out, and hope that the Church will resist them. Science has brought all sorts of realy great things, but it’s also brought pollution, atomic weapons, and global warming. Modern society is much more tolerant than societies past, but it is also often extremely lonely and alienating. Capitalism has brought lots of choice at the cash register, but it’s also brought incredible exploitation and suffering for working-people. So let’s, by all means, accept the modern developments that seem good to us–and let’s fight the good fight against all the evils modernism has also brought. There’s no inconsistency here; plenty of things have good and bad aspects. And building a better world means discerning between the two.

So, when it comes to the spiritual-but-not-religious (this is getting arduous to write, from now on I’ll acronym-ize this SBNR), what does this mean? Well, Bass herself links the increasing desire for ‘spirituality’ with the development of consumer capitalism (eg. 41-43). It seems clear to me that the SBNR is the religio-spiritual manifestation of late consumer capitalism. It’s totally individualistic, and sees the Church/religious institutions as essentially businesses. Bass seems to be pointing out that these businesses are providing a ‘product’ that fewer and fewer consumers want–so why not change the product offered? That’s certainly the logic of the market. If Kellogg’s noticed that a cereal wasn’t selling well, it would be discontinued or changed, because that’s how the company can make more money and keep its shareholders happy.

But isn’t this sort of mercenary decision-making precisely the sort of thing that SBNR people would find offensive? The irony is that late consumer capitalism has so impoverished our sense of real community and the presence of Spirit that we are searching for individualized, customized, comfortable, convenient “spirituality”, even though it’s the very pursuit of this sort of thing that has impoverished us in the first place! Spiritual transformation is not a matter of finding an easy fit, a fun new practice, or following a trend. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not the sort of tagline you can put on a new yoga exercise or some new meditation technique (I am by no means dismissing yoga or mediation, which are ancient spiritual practices, but rather the insipid versions of these peddled by all-too-many Western entrepreneurs). It is a radical call to abandon every false sense of security, every false confidence we have, and trust radically in the mystery of God. Christianity, taken seriously, is intensely radical. I find SBNR so frustrating and aggravating precisely because it is hopelessly boring, so incredibly mainstream: it’s precisely what capitalism does to religion and spirituality. Lenin supposedly once said that capitalists would sell him the rope he’d use to hang them. Modern westerners will try to buy the very spirituality they so desperately search for because they have become totally consumer-ized. It’d be funny if it weren’t so damned sad.

Now, none of this means that Bass is wrong descriptively: she’s absolutely right to point out that this trend is happening and she is absolutely right that the Church must respond to it. But I would argue that we need to do exactly the opposite of what she proposes. I think that these various trends and fads–this hyper-individualistic, consumable ersatz spirituality–will flash and burn out like many trends before it. What people are really looking for (and I say this as someone who spent years looking myself!) is an authentic, enriching, challenging spiritual community. I’ve chosen each of those adjectives quite intentionally. The problem with SBNR is that it is none of them. It’s not the least bit authentic; SBNR practices tend to smack of a cobbled-together New Ageism. It’s not enriching, because it seeks to give a sort of shortcut for spiritual fulfillment, which is a complete contradiction in terms. And it’s not challenging because it simply reinforces our own narcissistic and self-congratulatory reflexes. It’s true that we often need to be kinder to others and even ourselves. But it’s also sometimes true that we need to be called out, be held accountable. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. SBNR is full of good intentions–but little else.

Finally, SBNR is in no way a community–it explicitly rejects community when it rejects religion. In seeking a spirituality that is personalized, individualized, and reassuring, we necessarily exclude a community. Of course, one of the problems with any community is that people–most of all other people, as Oscar Wilde pointed out–are so often boring, arrogant, needy, and upsetting. The trick, of course, is to realize that you are Other People to other people, and those same traits doubtlessly describe you. A religious community can keep us accountable, and it can keep us humble, and it can save us from the Great Adversary–our own high opinion of ourselves.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should accept the discipline of a community uncritically–and of course, many religious communities have been unduly, even unjustly harsh, intolerant, and oppressive to lots of people in the past. But SBNR is no magic bullet; it simply trades one danger for another–and it’s all the worse because it reflects all that is worst about late consumer capitalism. I am not suggesting that we be Religious but not Spiritual–I’m asserting what past generations, I think, took for granted: if one wants to be spiritual, one must be religious–and vice versa. They don’t work apart from each other. Spirituality without religion is a convenient, comfortable, self-congratulatory illusion; religion without spirituality is stale, dogmatic, and dead. Bass and other SBNR proponents have, I think, been so fully immersed in the logic of capitalism and modern individualism that they cannot understand any other way of looking at the world–even though this modern viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the very spiritual enrichment they so desperately seek.

The main takeaway of all of this, for me, is that much of what Protestantism discarded with in the 16th century–the sacramental, sacred, engaged, community-focused rites of medieval Catholicism–is precisely what modern Christians are yearning for without knowing it. Again, let’s not oversimplify: the Reformation was right to challenge the ecclesial abuses and warped theology of indulgences of the time. But I think in many ways, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Protestant Christianity became a wholly intellectual, private affair, a sort of legal transaction between God and an individual human being–instead of the loving, mysterious embrace of creation by Creator. But the solution is not some sentimental, anti-intellectual New Age nonsense. It’s a restoration of a balance between reason and emotion, devotion and theology, sacrament and study. For Christians, I think this begins by endeavoring to explore deeply what the Real Presence of the Eucharist means. This does not have to translate into acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation (it certainly doesn’t for me) but it means rediscovering the spiritual riches of our religious practice. The alternatives are a dead religiosity or a superficial ersatz spirituality. May the Holy Spirit guard us from both.