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.