Newsweek‘s latest cover package is a religion writer’s dream — 16 pages of prime editorial space to discuss American religions in their ever-expanding diversity and custom-tailored worldviews.
The package is strongest, though, when it focuses on the individual details: an evangelical in West Virginia who’s an environmental activist; life at a Southern California mosque; a Church of God in Christ bishop in Memphis who is the denomination’s president; an African American Baptist Buddhist; observant young Catholics at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Kabbalah teacher based in Boulder, Colo.
Jerry Adler, author of the mainbar, pokes justifiable fun at Time magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover package from April 1966:
History records that the vanguard of angst-ridden intellectuals in Time, struggling to imagine God as a cloud of gas in the far reaches of the galaxy, never did sweep the nation. What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God. And a uniquely American acceptance of the amazingly diverse paths people have taken to find it.
Adler (supported by reporting from six other Newsweek writers) makes some tooth-grinding generalizations himself, and one doesn’t need another 40 years to recognize them. Here are several.
A false choice
“You can know all about God,” says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelist [not to mention his decades-long career as a sociology professor], “but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” In the broadest sense, Campolo says, the Christian believer and the New Age acolyte are on the same mission: “We are looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” And what could be more mundane than politics? Seventy-five percent say that a “very important” reason for their faith is to “forge a personal relationship with God” — not fighting political battles.
Today, then, the real spiritual quest is not to put another conservative on the Supreme Court, or to get creation science into the schools. If you experience God directly, your faith is not going to hinge on whether natural selection could have produced the flagellum of a bacterium. If you feel God within you, then the important question is settled; the rest is details.
Has any Intelligent Design advocate ever suggested that Christian faith should depend on whether natural selection produced the flagellum of a bacterium?
In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences. There is a streak in the United States of relying on what Pacific Lutheran’s Killen calls “individual visceral experience” to validate religious ideas.
Examples, please, of atheists who put their faith in parapsychology or near-death experiences. Even one example would be nice.
“For people who feel overlooked, it provides a sense that you’re a very important person,” observes Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. By the same token, people with social aspirations preferred other churches, but nowadays Pentecostalism — the faith of former attorney general John Ashcroft — has lost its stigma as a religion of the poor. And elements of Pentecostal worship are invading other denominations, a change that coincided with the introduction of arena-style screens in churches, replacing hymnals and freeing up people’s hands to clap and wave. Naturally, there is some attenuation as you move up the socioeconomic scale. Babbling in foreign-sounding “tongues” turns into discreet murmurs of affirmation.
Actually, most tongue-speakers understand their gift as focusing on communication with God.
Syncretism in Cambridge? Shut up!
Stephen Cope, who attended Episcopal divinity school but later trained as a psychotherapist, dropped into a meditation center in Cambridge, Mass., one day and soon found himself spending six hours every Sunday sitting and walking in silent contemplation. Then he added yoga to his routine, which he happily describes as “like gasoline on fire” when it comes to igniting a meditative state. And the great thing is, he still attends his Episcopal church — a perfect example of the new American spirituality, with a thirst for transcendence too powerful to be met by just one religion.
Memo to Newsweek: At Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Mass. — easily the most theologically liberal seminary in a mostly liberal denomination — Stephen Cope’s experience is more likely to be the norm rather than the exception. To what extent this represents mainstream Christianity is far less clear.