Book Club Channel
Living Into Focus: Read An Excerpt
On the Camino, it is customary to carry a special "passport." This identification establishes that one is an official pilgrim, authorizes one to stay in affordable hostels along the way, and—if it is stamped daily—qualifies one to receive a much-coveted certificate from the Cathedral of Santiago at the end of the journey. When acquiring this passport, pilgrims designate their motives as "religious," "spiritual," or "other." "Religious" means traditional pilgrimage priorities—prayer, penance, honoring tradition, reflection, et cetera. This was my category. "Spiritual" is vaguer, a motivation other than traditional Christian impulses but different from secular intentions or pursuits. Many in this category told me that they were "spiritual but not religious," a familiar notion in our culture. Those who labeled themselves "other" were on the pilgrimage for various reasons—the physical challenge, an opportunity to get away, an economical vacation, or a desire to hike a long distance in good company.
Although I confidently claimed the "religious" category, the "spiritual" and "other" folks intrigued me the most. There were so many of them and they raised startling and unexpected questions. Those pilgrims kept pondering the strange, unsatisfying ways that many of us live today.
Eugene Peterson, a writer who blends poetry and prophetic passion with what he learned as a pastor for some three decades, cautions that in current ways of life "the wonder has leaked out."3 That certainly rings true to me. We are all aware of a sense of hurry in our culture. In the last church I pastored, congregants identified busyness as their key spiritual challenge and asked church elders for help. The elders agreed that this was a significant concern but then took two years to get around to addressing the issue . . . because they had so much to do!
Some argue that we North Americans now in fact work longer hours and more days than we did a few decades ago. All of us agree that life feels increasingly full, hectic, and busy.
Plenty of evidence demonstrates the paradoxical reality that affluence leaves many unsettled and deeply dissatisfied. As William Greider suggests, "good times" do not automatically equal the "good life."4 Gregg Easterbrook convincingly shows that "society is undergoing a fundamental shift from 'material want' to 'meaning want,' with ever larger numbers of people reasonably secure in terms of living standards, but feeling they lack significance in their lives."5 As Bill McKibben observes: "Meaning has been in decline for a very long time."6
Surely it is no coincidence that as we become increasingly overwhelmed by demands and circumstances, our culture evinces deepening interest in spirituality. The evidence is all around. When I attended seminary in the early 1980s, I wrote a thesis about "prayer and peacemaking," but only two courses on prayer were offered. A couple decades later I taught at that school, and one could get a degree in spirituality. I now teach at another seminary, and it too offers degrees in spiritual formation. These schools reflect wider cultural trends. Consider the shelves and shelves of spiritual materials found in even the most secular bookstores now. Or films and television shows that deal with heaven, hell, angels, demons, healing, and God.
I am increasingly convinced that distracted busyness and exhausting lifestyles drive interest in spirituality today. The sense that there must be "something more" propels quests to find better ways. Folks motivated to live spiritually rich lives do not necessarily go to church, because not many Christians have offered the kind of help they need. Christian lives are just as fragmented and frantic. But seekers are looking nonetheless.