The danger of do-it-yourself spirituality

DIY spirituality
mikecogh, Flickr

I was reading Tom Wolfe’s 1976 New York magazine article, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” and I was struck by the similarities with today.

A significant change occurred in the culture after World War II, one that really manifested in the middle 1960s. Widespread economic growth allowed people previously unknown levels of self-indulgence. The focus on the self from all angles — economic, spiritual, psychological, etc. — began to intensify through the 1950s and ’60s.

The “common man,” said Wolfe, “was . . . getting quite interested in this business of ‘realizing his potential as a human being.’ But . . . he crossed everybody up! Once more he took his money and ran — determined to do-it-himself!” Finally by 1976, Wolfe said that Americans had created and were practicing a DIY cult of Me.

“The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold,” wrote Wolfe. “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)”

Not much has changed, has it? If anything the trend is today so pronounced and its alternatives so distant that we’re unaware of just how narcissistic we’ve become — even in the realm of faith.

In his book The Transformation of American Religion sociologist Alan Wolfe observes time and again that religious expression is increasingly personalized and self-directed. We look for churches, programs, and ministries that cater to ourselves in ways previous generations did not.

As denominational influence wanes, says advertising professor James B. Twitchell, “people are cobbling together their own personalized spiritual plans.” Our social media activities — writing, linking and sharing — have the effect of “collective belief making,” he says; “you’re designing and crafting your faith.”

And we’re not just sticking to the confines of Christianity. According to a 2009 survey by Pew,

Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).

The danger of DIY spirituality is in defining the boundaries for yourself. Clearly, many Christians don’t feel the need to draw the bounds around traditional orthodoxy. Whatever seems good and useful is adopted and adapted.

But how can a person evaluate such mystical experiences? If we limit the criteria for judging to what we possess in our own toolboxes, we run the risk of simply confirming what we want to hear. And the easiest person to fool is yourself.

The church does not deny that powerful mystical experiences occur, but when you read the desert fathers and others from the church’s monastic tradition, you’ll find an awareness of — a vigilance about — self-deception. That vision of the light might be bogus or, worse, demonic. One does not get the feeling that Lone Ranger Christians are so ready or able to admit that their brilliant insights might be delusions.

In traditional Christian practice, there is no DIY, no self-made spirituality. Spiritual practices and disciplines are more like gifts that we receive from brothers and sisters who precede us and travel with us. They help us use them, counsel and guide us.

A full and well-rounded spirituality cannot be a self-directed spirituality. Despite how it might look, such a pursuit will be almost definitionally narrow and fraught with delusion, not enlightenment.

"Thank you, I am a Mormon and my love for Jesus Christ is only surpassed ..."

Why Mormons aren’t Christians
"Two kings were about to wage war against King Ahaz. Isaiah comes along and gives ..."

Is the virgin birth really predicted ..."
"Praying three times a day is the Jewish prayer schedule. Blessing the Lord seven times ..."

Why pray the hours?
"So do you have any evidence that the Greek version is more authentic to the ..."

You’re reading the wrong Book of ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Vivek

    HI Joel, in response to your article, I like to quote an excerpt from J. Krishnamurti’s ‘The Awakening of Intelligence’…. Because I strongly feel that being bound by a system or ‘procedure’ given my a particular religious organization can be very limited and also misleading.

    [Excerpt from J. Krishnamurti’s ‘The Awakening of Intelligence’]
    “…..So when you are enquiring into this question, “What is a
    religious mind, and what is the quality of mind that is no longer
    experiencing anything at all?” – you must find out if the mind can
    be free from the demand for experience and can completely end all
    seeking. One has to investigate without any motive, without any
    purpose, the facts of time and if there is a timeless state. To enquire
    into that means to have no belief whatsoever, not to be committed
    to any religion, to any so-called spiritual organization, not to
    follow any guru, and therefore to have no authority whatsoever –
    including that of the speaker especially. Because you are very
    easily influenced, you are terribly gullible, though you may be
    sophisticated, may know a great deal; but you are always eager,
    always wanting, and therefore are gullible.
    So a mind that is enquiring into the question of what is religion,
    must be entirely free of any form of belief, any form of fear;
    because fear, as we explained the other day, is a distorting factor,
    bringing about violence and aggression. Therefore the mind that is
    enquiring into the quality of the religious state and movement,
    must be free of this. That demands great honesty and a great sense
    of humility.
    For most of us, vanity is one of the major impediments. Because
    we think we know, because we have read a great deal, because we
    have committed ourselves, have practised this or that system,
    followed some guru peddling his philosophy, we think we know, at
    least a little bit, and that’s the beginning of vanity. When you are
    enquiring into such an extraordinary question, there must be the
    freedom of actually not knowing a thing about it. You really don’t
    know, do you? You don’t know what truth is, what God is – if there
    is such a thing – or what is a truly religious mind. You have read
    about it, people have talked about it for millennia, have built
    monasteries, but actually they are living on other people’s
    knowledge, experience and propaganda. To find out, surely one
    must put aside all that completely, and therefore the enquiry into
    all this is a very serious matter. If you want to play with it, there
    are all kinds of so-called spiritual, religious entertainments, but
    they have no value whatsoever to a serious mind.
    To enquire into what is a religious mind, we must be free of our
    conditioning, of our Christianity, of our Buddhism, with all the
    propaganda of thousands of years, so that the mind is really free to
    observe. That is very difficult because we are afraid to be alone, to
    stand alone. We want security, both outwardly and inwardly;
    therefore we depend on people, whether it is the priest, or the
    leader, or the guru who says: “I have experienced, that is why I
    know.” One has to stand completely alone – not isolated. There is a
    vast difference between isolation and being completely alone,
    integral. Isolation is a state of mind in which relationship ceases,
    when in your daily life and activity you have actually built a wall
    around yourself, consciously or unconsciously, so as not to be hurt.
    That isolation obviously prevents every form of relationship.
    Aloneness implies a mind that does not depend on another
    psychologically, is not attached to any person; which does not
    mean that there is no love – love is not attachment. Aloneness
    implies a mind that is deeply, inwardly without any sense of fear
    and therefore without any sense of conflict.”

    • Joel J. Miller

      To seek with “no belief whatsoever” is fantasy. How else does one search and enquire if there is not a sense of search and enquiry? How else does one reflect upon the experiences of this quest, or evaluate what is found on the journey? To be conscious at all is to have beliefs. To insist on a “really free mind” as suggested here is the heigh of delusion.

  • Michael Teston

    There is a “razor’s edge” to much of these discussions around “spiritual but not religious,” “I don’t need religion,” and the list could go on and on. I’ve always been a little wary about our capacity as human beings to outsmart ourselves. I certainly would concur with some degree of wariness with Vivek around the constraining and limiting context of much that goes for organized (errrr. disorganized, I like to say) religion, systemic and institutional dry rot. But this is certainly not a new discussion. In the words of a Rabbi from Galilee, there is always the need for “new wineskins” less the “new wine of the kingdom” explode the old skins. The Galilean exposed that in his day and time and I suspect we are certainly living in such times ourselves. Faithfulness in life and living is indeed tricky when what both Joel and Vivek’s words contain the terrain we travel. May you/we walk the razor’s edge with courage and humility sipping the sweet wine of this season.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I wouldn’t say that traditional Christian spirituality is dry. To read the desert fathers and the mystic theologians of the church shows the reality is quite the opposite. To experience what they experienced — that’s something beyond my capacities to imagine. Anything but dry, I know that much. What if true courage and humility looks like taking up that mantel instead of trying to stich together our own?

  • This reminds me very much of your November article titled, “We are all Protestants Now.” You looked at how the majority Catholic vote in the US went to the candidate whose policies directly oppose the RC church’s positions. Your point both here and in that article appears to be that “DIY spirituality” cuts accross all religious circles in the US. I suspect that another element worth serious consideration is that the western culture (and, therefore, religious people within it) simply values religious convictions less. If religion isn’t as valuable as other priorities, who cares if you vote against your religious convictions?

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m glad you saw that connection. I think they are making very similar points. It’s something I find myself coming back to quite a lot. Generally, speaking I think you’re right about valuing religious convictions less. There’s Barna research that shows faith comes for many of us after job, family, health, etc.

      So who cares? My attitude is that we should be strengthening what remains. Starting with our own hearts and the spheres in which we live. A little faithfulness goes a long way. Let’s see how far.

  • Margie

    Great reflection! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this!

    • Joel J. Miller

      You bet!

  • This DIY attitude seems to be the natural extension of what the enlightenment did for philosophy and science. If we assume we can figure out the universe for ourselves if we just keep studying, then eventually we feel we can figure out God for ourselves as well. However, the deeper into reality we look (scientifically) the stranger things seem to get. I wonder of we are getting closer to a pendulum swing away from the enlightenment?

  • John Evans

    Hello Joel. I’ve been thinking on the idea of schisms within organizations and how it relates to your article. Schism seems to unavoidable in any large organization. Even the silly parody ‘religion’ of Pastafarianism has had a schism into ‘orthodox’ and ‘reform’. Yet, my understanding is that in the majority of schisms, both the parent and the child group believe the other has deviated from the true path for selfish reasons. That is, to put it another way, groups don’t tend to believe they are breaking away in order to obtain freedom from the tenets of their religion. Instead the belief is that they are seeking freedom from rules that prevent them from following the tenets of the religion faithfully.

  • RVW

    I must confess to being one of those DIYers. I’m a traditional, conservative Protestant who has found there to be no guidance in spiritual formation and development in my particular tradition (some even view talking about it as a form of pagan dualism creeping into the fold): this has led me to Orthodox practices, such as the sign of the cross, biweekly fasting, and the Jesus Prayer (among others). However, I do this alone. This led an Athonite monk that I’ve been conversing with to gently rebuke me. Taken on spiritual practices with a competent guide, he said, could be very dangerous. I agree, but I feel at a loss here: I’m not able to change traditions (long, long story) nor does my tradition actively work towards this sort of spiritual life. So I’m a reluctant DIYer.

    In other words, please do know that there are those who are in the DIY category not because of pride of “me”-centeredness (although I have plenty of that!), but out of genuine conviction about a certain set of practices without having the ability to do them consistently with their own strictures.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thank you for that perspective. Forgive me if you felt lumped into that larger category. It was painted with a broad brush, as I can now see. I feel very blessed for my path into Orthodoxy, which was relatively easy by comparison with some I know. Whatever your circumstances, there is tremendous virtue in being faithful within those confines. It’s part of denying yourself, picking up your cross, and following Christ. Whether those are family concerns, perhaps your spouse, I don’t know, but trust that God always honors faithfulness and the sacrificial love we show others. I feel at a loss to comment further, but my prayers are with you.

      • RVW

        Thank you for your prayers. I agree with the broader point of your article, that is for sure. Your follow-up is on the money as well: we are impoverishing ourselves and those we minister to by not having some sort of guidance. Lord have mercy on us all!

  • cken

    There is no such thing as DIY spirituality. Spirituality or the desire to grow spiritually can only come from God and can best be defined as the desire to be closer or more connected to God. Since most churches can’t be bothered with such trivial matters, you are left with no choice but to figure out how to become more closely connected to God on your own. Churches are good at giving specious cliched responses to questions on spirituality or the maturation of the soul. All those responses indicate is their real concern is growing their membership to increase the coffers. It always amuses me that most denominations think we should believe almost everything in Revelations but almost nothing in Acts. Churches talk about the power of God, but deny it as a matter of practicality; so how could they have any credibility as to spirituality?

  • Put another way: what are valid figures of spiritual authority, and how do we prioritize their influences in our lives?

    Scripture, tradition, other believers, and conscience are all common authority figures. How Good idea those to lead us is the Wotton oh the day.

  • Holy autocorrect, Batman! Let’s try that again.

    How God uses those figures to lead us is the question of the day.

  • Kenneth

    Let’s see, who’s discernment am I going to trust more? Mine, or some guy and organization who has an obvious vested interest in controlling my mind, body and pocketbook?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Are those the only alternatives?

  • “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

    Spirituality can mean anything. Which means it can certainly mean nothing at all.

    I do believe God wants us to be what we were meant to be…creatures with their feet on the ground.

    If there are any wings to be had, we’ll get ’em after we kick the bucket.

  • There are spiritual teachers who found inspiration in themselves and by themselves in situations of adversity with those around them convinced they were wrong. Then there were those who were situated in the most trusted of institutions, surrounded by advisers and who were highly trained, but who betrayed their vows. So, how do you generalize? Maybe all we can say is that are no ways to make the spiritual journey risk-free. It is always fraught, always hazardous, and the stakes are high. This is why right aspiration and right view are so important at the very outset. And how do you get that? Beats me.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I agree that isolation happens and may in some instances be unavoidable. Athanasius and Maximus the Confessor come to mind. But isolation is not normative or desirable. It might be forced upon us, but it is not something we should impose upon ourselves. Even an anchorite leaves his cell to take the eucharist with his brothers.

  • rumitoid

    Wonderful article. Great comments. Fascinating topic. Of course, just as the diverse opinions suggest, there can be no definitive answer. In AA there is the expression, “If it works, don’t fix it.” (Of Irish origin, I think.) But the questions have to be asked: what is it working for and toward? The process of Recovery in my experience reveals what once worked very satisfactorily becomes a detriment later. Another expression is, “Act your way into right thinking, don’t think your way into right action.” What is the action? Placing principles before personalities (both mine and yours). It is a form of non-attachment. This is to be done without the expectation of a particular result or reward. What appears to slowly develop is a nonjudgmental awareness, or what I prefer to take as what it means to “be still.” (Why strive for perfection when to be still is to know God.) Nondualistic, without effort, direction, or control. No goal or progress notes to keep or comparisons to be made. The results are usually shocking and painful realizations about oneself. What I once saw as noble in me becomes ignoble, what was righteous now profane, all of it pretty much the delusions of vanity. A “tragic grandeur” as someone once noted. Yet how do I know that this is not just another sincere delusion? For me, I have to answer, “Who cares.”

    Someone mentioned the lack of a defined path to draw ever closer to God by most churches. This is my complaint with the Church in general. Being “saved” and hidden in the righteousness of Christ seems to suggest that any work on onself is unnecessary; the spiritual gifts of kindness, gentleness, and so on will come as God sees fit. Or the spiritual gifts are used as another code of ethics for interpersonal relations. Turning the other cheek is not done out of love and compassion but duty or image. Fear and loathing suppressed. Seeking to be righteous morally replaces transformation into becoming as Christ was in the world, which demands profound and fundamental changes in our character.

    • rumitoid

      Ooops, I said “spiritual gifts”; I meant spiritual fruit. Was distracted by the TV momentarily. Sorry.

  • rumitoid

    This is more of my point. In nearly thirty years of being around AA, I have found, granted from a limited experience and no effort at research, that few share this same outcome to the Twelve Steps. Some barely or if at all appear to change and remain sober while others are catapulted into the fourth dimension and seem nothing short of saintly. Looking at the discipline, I feel, cannot adequately explain the results of that discipline or whether it failed or succeeded. There is no Universal Fact-checker. We are each unique.

    Perhaps the only problem was adherring to certain beliefs or ideals concerning what it means to be spiritual . Alcohol misled me in what it meant to be alive, so why not consider I might also be deceived in my perceptions of the spiritual realm. The loud-mouth, uncouth , arrogant, and opinionated person may reflect a spiritual pinnacle for that soul. And for me in relating to that person. A jigsaw piece finding its place (but not the one of my imaginings). The “snap into place” could mean accepting or objecting to their behavior, as their “snap into place” might be agreeing or disagreeing with my assessment.

    This does not make it situational or relative; it converts it to the heart before it is translated by the mind, with its ample store of ideas, opinions, and beliefs to handicap the spirit in its soar.

    Being truly non-dualistic instead of an imposed intellectual detente against polaritiies, is a heart connection. It surpassses all ideals and rules of morality. It is not directly about what is an established right and wrong, good and evil, but a dedication to what is for the ultimate well-being of another’s soul. Like Lady Gaga.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this useful piece. God made perspective and wants us all to have unique visions of the cosmos, and to this I say hallelujah. Screwtape, on the contrary, encourages one Christian to conquer another Christian with let’s-get-on-the-same-page theological banter (or bullying, as the case might be). Where does DYS come into play, or how does it play itself out. Well, it seems to me to have the great advantage of not being directed toward conquering other Christians. Solipsism, however, might be a problem. That’s a better problem to worry about as The Body of Christ than the problem of conquest.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Genuine Christianity is very diverse in its understanding and expression. One sign of that is that we have four Gospels, not one.

      • Tim Franklin

        One Gospel, four narrators.

        • Joel J. Miller

          Yes, but the point being made is that there are four different perspectives presented on the life of Christ. Early attempts to combine or edit these into one document were condemned. Despite its reputation among some in the culture, the church has always respected a basic diversity of perspectives.

      • +1

        God demonstrates his wisdom in variety.