Selfish Spirituality, Selfish Religion

In a recent New York Times editorial, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster made a bold declaration: “Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another — abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness” (

Their basic argument is that spirituality has been utterly co-opted by a corporate mentality that has instrumentalized spirituality, or rather its practices, for the sake of making people more effective and efficient in their corporate work. A book on Selling Spirituality has made a similar point (, and a recent Huffpost blog argues along these lines in “Beyond Mindfulness” (

And so it goes, in the end, capitalism coopts everything—turning spirituality, whether from the East or the West, into instruments that soothe and smooth our consumerist angst and capitalist stress.

But let me push back on this sad state in my own bailiwick, conservative and liberal Protestantism. In my work on American megachurches, it has become ever more obvious that a part of the reason megachurches are expanding so rapidly is that their chief product is so clear and precise, if you trust Christ you will have eternal life, otherwise you’re going to hell. And, for liberal Christians, there is an equally clear message, though apparently much less enticing to Americans, God in Christ is about grace—grace and more grace. God loves you whatever you are or do.

I wonder if in all of these cases, spirituality and religion are being sold rather cheaply. In spiritual practices, you just have to learn to breath and practice yoga; in conservative Christianity just say you’re sorry and then accept Jesus and you’re home free. In liberal Christianity there really isn’t much you need to do at all—you’re loved anyway you are!

So, as they say, it’s all good. Well I wonder if this has gotten us what we want? Maybe it has, maybe this is way to do our spirituality and our religion, with fewer or no ethical or moral demands at all?

Who needs Moses and his commandments, or the Qur’an’s high demands for justice to the poor, or even Gandhi and his fasts and his marches for equal rights, or Jesus and his extraordinary demands in Matthew 25, where he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment….” Or, even my name sake James (the New Testament book Martin Luther wanted to toss from the canon), when he says in chapter 1, verse 27:  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Of course, this is too negative for the corporate boardroom, and too socialist for many evangelicals, and too puritanical for liberal Christians, so what to do?

Well, I sometimes go back to Immanuel Kant in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone to get a refresher course on ethics. Kant was quite clear that without a Moral Judge in the world to come, who perfectly judges good and evil and rewards the former and punishes the latter, the world is irrational and morally perverse. The Lutheran Kant condemned the Protestant doctrine of unconditional grace as unethical, since it gave rewards to the morally undeserving. Kant demanded a categorical imperative that what one does should only be done if one could make it a universal law for all people. This, for Kant, was righteousness—a righteousness that was neither cheap nor easy.

Try it this way, act toward your barista, the next time you order a coffee, in a way you would want to make a universal law. Or, only use the amount of energy in your home and in your transportation that you would want to make a universal law for all human beings on earth. Or, only live in a house the size that you think is appropriate for every single human being on the planet.

Now this isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy. And you won’t find it in a corporate branding campaign. You simply can’t sell it today. It is too demanding. It seems to me that we should reconnect our spiritualty and our religion back to the demands that they make on us. Hinduism and Buddhism make these demands, and certainly the religions I know best, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all make these demands. Maybe its time to remember, grace is important but don’t sell it so cheaply—otherwise it becomes another word for selfishness.

See Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone:



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