In a second round of guest blogging, I’ve invited Bill Harper’s son, Blake Harper, to respond to the NY Times editorial on how many forms of spirituality have tended to regress to a kind of self indulgent therapy. Blake attends Middlebury College and has been a wonderful interlocutor over the years. His interest in philosophy and religion have blossomed at college and so we asked him to join our conversation, and, as you will read he is a worthy partner in exploring these fascinating questions.
As a frequent conversation partner with Professor Wellman and my dad, Bill, I too am happy to offer my thoughts on how the practices of authenticity has entered into American religion and spirituality. As a college student who is currently straddling the fence between their two professions of academia and ministry, I have a great deal of interest in this sort of thing. I also see on a day-to-day basis what bright, young, liberal-minded students focus on to satisfy their existential thirst. Sometimes it is religion, more often it’s spirituality, but most often it is a passionate concern for “the issues”.
Modernism’s turn to the subject and postmodernism’s turn to the system have created a lot of interest in issues of oppression as they relate to race, gender, class and sexuality. This is a good thing, and the philosophical developments that catalyzed it are compelling. However, at a popular level, these complex developments have trickled down to two powerfully prevalent maxims that college student will immediately recognize: 1) The exclamation, “Don’t judge!” often heard over Saturday brunch, and 2) “Who are we to say?” a phrase often spluttered after the inquisitor has downed two or three beers and is feeling rather confident in their new found epistemological sophistication. No shame guys, I’ve been there too!
The problem with these maxims is that they can render any religion virtually impossible to affirm. When self-discovery and authenticity are understood as the accumulation of confidence and well-being then we should not be surprised to see religion and spirituality making concessions to a therapeutic culture. Nor should we be surprised when science, the market and popular culture hijack certain religious practices and ideas to meet those ends.
In the last paragraph of his post, Jim makes a call for a spirituality and religion that once again makes moral demands on us. It reminded me of the time when a close friend confessed that she and her mother preferred goddess worship because they thought Christianity was “really patriarchal”. When I asked her, “What does your goddess spirituality ask of you?” She replied, “It helpes me realize my connection with the earth—” and quickly added, “beyond that I look to the Quaker tradition for moral guidance.” I keep this episode in my mind because it typifies so much of what college-aged students look for in their religion, namely, the ability to pick and choose; the avoidance of anything that has a whiff of intolerance, and the enrichment of a lifestyle rather than the transformation of it (see Moralistic Therapeutic Deists and Dispirited).
But here I’ll come in with my own dose of that impatient and youthful verve by saying that I’m tired of all this whining by the older guys. I want to do something, not just complain about it! Believe me, I’ve done a good deal of whistle-blowing and lamenting over the state of contemporary religious culture myself. So now, as the young guy with energy, I would like to say to parents, preachers, teachers and mentors – it is not enough to worry about this behind the closed doors of our online networks—for me, at least, it is not acceptable to remain silent when issues come up in our public sphere.
Taking action will mean challenging our friend’s values because they are our fellow citizens and we owe it to them – not because it will help us all in the long run, but because it honors the reason and love people strive to refine.
I am glad that Jim’s post ended with Kant’s first categorical imperative, because now I can finish with Kant’s second. Kant said that we ought to always treat others as ends in themselves and never as “mere means” to our own ends (like a bigger church or a more tolerant nation). We ought to evangelize, not to pad our pews or egos, but for the saving power of the Gospel. If this current therapeutic landscape is going to change we will need to be able to have the courage to sit down with our friends and say, “Hey, I am going to judge you and I wish you would judge me too but I hope to God that we can both do it in the spirit of love that will reconcile us to each other at the end of the day as ends and not as means to each other’s ends.”