The Spiritual Landscape
Is the World Any Thinner? No.
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Spirituality community here.
When Patheos invited us to write for this latest forum, I wrote to say that I'd be happy to contribute as long as I could challenge the premise. They generously invited me to do that and so here goes:
I am not at all convinced that we are living into a new era of spiritual consciousness. I don't think that the world is becoming "thinner," or that God is more available than ever before. And I don't think that we are living into an era in which we can or should dispense with religious differences. My reasons are these:
One: The argument that this is happening is not a new one. It's been made before. It wasn't right then and it's not right now. The vision of a religion-less spirituality without theological and creedal differences is as old as the Tower of Babel and in its latest form is simply the conceit of a post-Enlightenment and western notion that religious differences can be boiled away, leaving a common spiritual set of commitments. That's never been about a faith that anyone really held. It doesn't cultivate tolerance, because it sets aside difference as its precondition. And it's never been an ideal that the non-western world thought was possible or desirable.
Two: We aren't in a new era, certainly not in this country. The passing of high tide denominationalism is not the end of a two-hundred-year long historical development. It is the passing of a two-decade long exception to the history of a country that has always indulged in spiritual experimentation. (Thanks to Philip Jenkins for this insight in his critique of Robert Wuthnow's After Heaven.) It's also not a world in which, if God is more present, things are greatly changed. We just exited the most violent century in history and we are well on our way into a new century that looks like it is set to compete with the last one. (For just the latest catalog of mayhem, check any newspaper.)
Three: As Huston Smith noted a long time ago, spirituality might be the way that God gets traction in people's lives, but religion is the way in which spirituality gets traction in history and in communities. The spiritual but not religious will inevitably craft a theology and do so the moment that they begin describing their experience. And the deft, but completely misleading, notion that you can believe in God but do without content to that belief defies cognitive, social, and historical realities.
Finally: I suspect the latest passion for a religion-less spirituality is also rooted in our long-standing fear of change, our fear of a god who is bigger than ourselves, and the longing we all have to believe without being obliged to do or think anything in particular (i.e., a desire to be our own gods).
I am heartened by the breadth of spiritual interest that is alive in the world. I am delighted with the energy and immediacy of communication that we enjoy with one another about those concerns, even when we disagree. But I think that it would be a mistake to confuse those gifts with profound changes in God, our world, or ourselves. We are, for good and for ill, like those who have gone before us and those who will follow—people who are, as always, deeply in need of God and not the architects of our own reality.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/