Rising Spiritual Honesty?

Fr. Bryan Owen comments on a USA Today news story that’s been making its way around the religion blogs. It’s on what appears to be rising spiritual apathy among the young.

What struck me in this post was a quote from a guy who had written a book on the topic named Kinnaman:

Kinnaman himself says this: “‘Spiritual’ is the hipster way of saying they’re concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor, I’d estimate seven in ten young adults would say they don’t see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all.”

I think that what he says here is probably true for a certain segment of that group. But an even more important point is that we don’t all mean the same thing when we say “spiritual.”

But here’s the thing: I think it’s always been that way. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. Rather, I think society is more permissive about people expressing what they think on these matters. Church is no longer one of the main social glues in American life. You won’t be missing out or harming yourself socially or professionally if you don’t go to church. Without church being one of required elements of conformist culture, there’s a new freedom to just say what you truly think on these things and to act on it.

I believe that people come hardwired with differing levels of religiosity. Some people seem to be just fine with the hour a week on Sunday morning thing. Others seem to be ok with even less than that. Questions about meaning, purpose, what it’s all about are just on different places on their radar screen. Some, like myself, think that these are some of the most important questions that we can ask and are continually wrestling with them.

On the other hand, I think that our culture is also getting better at dulling us to the import and impact of these questions. My evidence would be the tremendous growth of the entertainment and mass media industries over the past century. Humans have always had news, sports, music, entertainment—but never at levels like this before, and never so closely aligned and coordinated around a global consumer culture.

Fr. Owen is right; the church has a hard row to hoe. But these are my take-aways:

  • Just know that different people are looking to satisfy different levels of apparent religious need. Not everybody is going to be hardcore church people (We sometimes forget that.)
  • However, there can be a real difference between perceived religious need and actual religious need. Crises—whether societal or personal—are often the great drivers that make people sit up and take notice and realize that there actually is a gap between their perception and their true reality (but crises usually only provide a short window after which they go back to sleep).
  • We need to be providing a clear understanding of what “spiritual” really means (or “religious” for that matter) and encourage people to figure out what they think they mean when they say it. That’s an important part of developing an honest and authentic spirituality.
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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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26 Responses to Rising Spiritual Honesty?

  1. Brian says:

    Wow! The nail on the head!

    I consistently score as an INFP on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. That’s the one that Kiersey associates with the epithet, “The Monastic.” It at once indentifies and validates my own inclinations, perceptions and experience as well quantitfying that I am a very rare beastie.

    It is a mistake to fit square pegs into round holes, and vice versa. However, I also believe that each and all of the types do not have a monopoly on their various ascribed strengths and weaknesses. Our dynamic amalgams of idealism, direct experience, rationality, religion, imagination, social rectitude, individualism, reflection, pragmatism, art, ethics, collectivism, humor, morality, performance, spirituality, creativity, etc., is what makes us all human and what makes each of us unique. To see, think, feel, believe, and especially to act in such a way that inflicts my solution on you, or inflicts others’ solution on me is a basic violation and grave folly.

  2. bls says:

    I think you’re exactly right about “different levels of religiosity” – and that it’s important to remember that! But then, this is why I think the case for the church needs to stand by itself – and not merely on the basis of “religiosity” or even “meaning.”

    The church offers, and has offered over centuries, many things besides: practical help in living; unique insights into the human condition; (proven!) health benefits; community; fascinating ancient texts offered for study; help – as you say – in times of crisis; even music, art, and culture (and the enjoyment thereof).

    Crucially (I think so, anyway), the church is really the only institution deeply and regularly in touch with the human past, all the way back to our origins. The church actually has a lot to say to people, even those who aren’t religious – if it would only get off its moral and “works righteousness” crusades at least occasionally! ;-)

  3. Brian says:

    Dear bls,

    I (as a nerdy, introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving type) whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of the attributes and riches of the Church. However, I believe it is error to think that it has something for everybody. The Church arose organically as the gatherings-out from the larger communities of the Roman Empire. I would say, in response to the Roman oppression and Imperial terror. Christians were the anti-empire, and the ones who were not cowed by Roman imperial terror. This was not lost on the public. I am convinced that the Empire co-opted the Church because it was becoming clear that the Christian courage in their non-violent civil disobedience was undermining the Empire’s grip on power through terror. This and subsequent, manifold, imperial co-optings has to be taken into account when receiving the Christian tradition these days.

    Nota bene that the Christian canonical texts were arrived at by the Ecumenical Councils gathered under the auspicies of co-opting, Imperial Rome. Also, I challenge you to find sacred depictions of a crucified Christ before the 10th century, and the Carolingian re-emergence of a bellicose, crusading, imperial Christendom. My point is not so much to engage in heresy, but to call for a critical reception of the Tradition as given, and to be particularly wary of modern-day co-option to purposes, and thusly resorting to means, that are not God’s or Christ’s or the Holy Spirit’s.

    I believe that the Military-Industrial Complex, Materialist, Consumerist, Corporate, Plutocracy, which I will refer to from hereon as The Borg, is the current manifestation of the Roman Imperial, Will-to-Power meme having survived in the West as a thoroughly infectious “selfish meme,” and having now crept virally over the planet. To try and fight fire with fire, to attempt to out-compete, or even just to compete with The Borg is folly and is to succumb to doubt, shame and avarice, thereby falling to the temptation of being taken to the “High Place” and offered the entire vista. It is to become ensnared by the metrics and methods of The Borg, and thereby ironically being assimilated into it.

    Preserving and promoting the institution of religion, as the Procrustean answer for everyone, is to run the pernicious hazards of established, organized religion of a greater society, which involves the taming institutionalization of mysticism and metanoia, charity, mercy and justice. Such a process is a little like trying to bottle lightning. The problem is in the bottling, and all that entails, the striving to contain for control and transmission, and quest for on-demand, predictable, standardized availability, even marketing and pricing.

    The problem is not in the lightning, which is always happening somewhere. I think that real spirituality recollects and reflects on the lightning. Real theology can deepen and extend the meaning and the call of lightning for us. Real religion would “go” where the lightning is, which would require discernment and flexibility, a willingness to move, to change, to shed, to risk, to be late, to be disappointed, but at least to go, to do, and above all to love.

    Real religion, or holy work, might set out to create some lightning of its own, instead of trying always to convince people that it has the one, true lightning bottled up in its tradition, or in its theology, and that there’s none around anymore to be had except out-of-the-bottle for sale here (though the heartening story still circulates that once a very long time ago a real humdinger of a storm passed through the world that changed everyone who lived through it, to tell of it).

    And there is substantial risk in thoroughly institutionalized religious organizations that those who rise through the ranks of lightning-bottlers are actually not the kind of people anyone would want do such a job – the selection process often unintentionally selecting for mere institutionalizers, arch-bureaucrats, insubstantial chameleons, and even ruthless sociopaths. Sometimes almost by accident, the real-thing occurs, but the causative conditions and antecedents are usually snuffed out pretty quickly by the chief lightning-bottlers, for such things are not good for business, in this model.

    We the Church have to be a real and very radical alternative to the appealing, entertaining, fascinating, seductive, bright-shiny-object, standardizing, canonical, smug, moralizing, competitive, greedy, addictive, voracious, intimidating, coercive, bullying, oppressive, enslaving, terrorizing, destroying, assimilating Borg meme. This would entail doing the holy work as non-economies-of-scale, rag-tag gatherings-out from and despite The Borg, and creating sanctuaries of courageous people living and loving in transcendant economies of love out in the open and against The Borg.

    So, get it right (above all the holy work), and then the buildings, the people, the healthy organizations, the vision, the commitment, the patience, the charity will be there and will grow out of the attraction of a genuine-article, alternative to the nearly all-encompassing ensnarement we are beginning to feel around out necks and our souls. Get it wrong (and become just another iteration of The Borg) focused on appealing to demographics, persuading and engaging in aggressive apologetics, growing the numbers, winning souls, maintaining and consolidating power, and developing effective bureaucracies, and you will have irrelevant, dwindling, aging congregations in buildings they cannot afford to maintain, and thusly with no budget for any semblance of mission, and so it goes.

  4. bls says:

    Hi Brian. I’ll just say one thing in reply: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

    Well, maybe just one more thing: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

    IOW, it sure looks to me as though Christ thought his salvation was meant for everybody…..

  5. Brian says:

    Truly, the world is not condemned, and Salvation is for all.

    I believe it’s just that It comes about not through the goal-oriented, getting-to-yes, ends-justifies-the-means, measurable-objectives, increasing-market-share, getting-people-to-buy-what-you-have-to-sell ways of the world. That is an acquisitive business model.

    The Kingdom of God is not a business model.

    Peace,

    Brian

  6. bls says:

    Well, I’m not sure how you got all that from my comment; I certainly didn’t say (or intend to say) anything about a “business model.” What I said was that the church has a lot to offer and can speak to many different kinds of people – and not only to the “hardwired-for-religion.” Which is what we were talking about, after all.

    I think you are seriously underestimating, anyway, the extent to which this happens naturally. The very fact that people in trouble come to the church for help is a perfect example of the fact that religion isn’t only for those naturally inclined to it. That’s the “mission” I’m most interested in – that the church is available when people need it – which doesn’t, btw, necessarily require a building or a budget. But there is such a thing, too, as finding delight and pleasure in companionship and discussion with others, and in ancient texts and in culture. These are, in fact, rather “anti-Borg” activities themselves.

    The church is catholic, and meant for everybody. It’s a hospital (as the saying goes), not a country club.

    • Brian says:

      Sorry bls, for the misunderstanding. I think we agree essentially, again what you give as examples of Church is the out-gathering I speak of, that is the holy work.

      The problems I see start to happen when the guest house/house of healing/house of compassion that is the hostel/hôtel/hospital/hospice becomes a chain (not a problem in itself) but then there starts the risk of creeping more and more toward “chaininess” and away from churchiness, where activities and ways of relating are changed often in order to obtain more members per se. To me, there lies the slippery slope, with the ubiquity of The Borg, for compassionate and charitable activity that is evangelism to morph more and more into active, focused, goal-driven, slick, tricky, persuasive marketing strategies. There is a temptation to worry if we’re not “bringing in the numbers.” I believe there is work enough in the building and maintaining of the sanctuary, the holy work, which people really need when they need it. Often once they’ve found it, they stay for the sanctuary and to pay it forward. So, If you build it they will come.

  7. bls says:

    No problem, Brian – it’s always interesting to talk about these things. Another interesting topic of conversation is that of our role in creating “the Kingdom of God.” I.e., do we have a role at all? Or is the Kingdom something we have no hand in whatsoever, nor any real conception about, it being the notion and work of God alone? More and more I think the latter….

    • Brian says:

      Dear bls,

      I am reminded of our gracious host’s recent post, Quick Musing.

      Perhaps, it is all only Grace, and our role and obligation as created beings is realize this, convert and then to worship. A bit too Greco-Roman/Scholastic for my taste as the only answer, but it is certainly possible that The Kingdom of God is at hand despite anything we do or do not do, and all our best intentions, strivings and machinations are vain.

      btw, sorry Derek for hijacking the post, I got carried away with material that had stuck in my craw for a long while, but which I had not quite articulated to myself, much less to others.

  8. Derek Olsen says:

    No problem—good discussion! Sorry I’m so late to it. We’ve been dealing with head lice with the girls in addition to all the usual craziness so I’ve not had a chance to jump in…

    I guess where I’d attempt to speak to the whole conversation is to reiterate that the Body of Christ is a body. It is an organization inherently. And it must be so. You really can’t be a Christian by yourself; you have to gather with others and together figure out what embodied love of God and neighbor truly look like.

    The trick, then, is to stay rooted to our roots lest our social expectation of organization as corporation take over and drive us in unhealthy directions.

    • Brian says:

      Pediculosis capitis is no fun!

      I agree. It’s interesting to learn and see all adverbial (when, where, why & how, etc.) conditions under which, despite any & all reasonable & rational expectations, the Church has taken root and grown, and does take root and grow.

  9. Nixon is Lord says:

    Religion is boring. I don’t go anymore because the few times I’ve gone, it’s been boring. And the times when people were saddest or happiest when there, it seemed the most pointless. Weddings don’t need a “blessing”; funerals are either depressing or boring enough without clergy or hymns.

  10. Brian says:

    Thanks, Nixon!

    I hope you will corroborate that I did not put you up to making your comment.

    Religion is just not for everyone. Going through manifold contorsions to be relevant, interesting, persuasive, and apparently entertaining, to all is not just a diminishing returns proposition; it is simply, flat-out impossible.

    Such endeavors would only serve to water-down and secularize what we have to offer to those who find benefit of it. We should offer holy work: charity, worship and hospitality, i.e., sanctuary; not salesmanship nor showmanship.

    Winning over the Nixons of the world will not be accomplished by anything we do.

    Peace to you, Nixon.

  11. bls says:

    Hey Nixon: It’s interesting that you bring up funerals as an example of “Why religion is boring.” Because way before I belonged to the church – I never set foot in one except for a wedding or a funeral for like, 35 years – it was a funeral service that really impressed me, and at which I gained even a respect for the church that I never lost. The service made me realize that the church had something really important to say, in fact – even though I myself didn’t come back for years.

    At that time, I lived in a house with a few other people, including an old woman, most of whose friends had already died. When she died, the local Catholic church held her funeral – and it was a beautiful thing. She didn’t have any money, or any important “standing” in the world. But the church held a formal funeral service for her, as if she had been the most important person in the world. With almost nobody in the church, sung and said prayers were offered for her, and her cloth-draped coffin was censed with incense, and the white smoke rose in the church along with the prayers.

    I realized then that the secular world has absolutely nothing to compare with this, and would never have held such a fine and beautiful service. First, she wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And second: In the secular world, people are only as important as how much money they make, or how much influence they have. Only their family cares about them enough to make their passing important – and sometimes, depending on peoples’ circumstances, it doesn’t even get that good. Third: the secular world, by definition, doesn’t really care about the “holy,” or believe in any real way that peoples’ individual lives and deaths matter a great deal. Unless you’re “important” in some way, according to the current values of the world or society, you’re mostly kind of forgotten. You’re an afterthought.

    But the church, as it demonstrated that day, does care. And that is why I always have had respect for it – even when it has and does irritate me beyond measure – and why I ultimately joined.

  12. Brian says:

    I agree with bls.

    There is little or anything ennobling or redeeming about the oh-so, well-touted and incessantly-marketed Secular Way. I find its incessant bread-and-circuses “entertainment” to be an addictive (more like heroin, less like Cheetos®) hollow, forced, desperate and savage race-to-the-bottom hot mess, à la The Lord of the Flies. Even from an philosophically existential point-of-view, venerable religious, and in particular Christian, theology and tradition actually make something, i.e, meaning of and for each of us.

    Upon reflection, I prefer provision, remembrance, dignity and charity for those who are deemed secularly useless or worse – the infirm, the young, the less-abled, the elderly, and the poor (we are likely to be some or even each of these at some point), as well as the dead. The ultimate Truth about this life is that, “No one gets out alive.” Like it or not, deny it as you will, we will all become one of the dead, sooner, if not later. I further prefer, The Dead as our “Cloud of Witnesses,” in the Communion of Saints.

    I prefer all this Christian meaning-making to the secular value system’s preference for marginalization, oblivion and disposal of those not making a splash or at least generating or enjoying some profit. If you find that secular, cannibalistic, meaning-making show exiting and entertaining, so be it. Enjoy it while it lasts for you.

    I’ll opt for that boring liturgy, prayer and service endeavor, thanks.

  13. Harold Stassen says:

    You do realize that this old lady was dead and so completely oblivious? If you want to do something nice for me, do it to someone who’s alive. Literally blowing smoke, wasting money on someone who has ceased to be, is crazy.

  14. bls says:

    Taking that thought to its logical conclusion: the very best and most cost-efficient thing to would be to toss our dead loved ones out with the morning trash.

    (Fortunately, the church doesn’t charge anything to bury its dead. And given that my friend was 85 years old or so, she’d lived long enough to see funerals herself, and therefore she’d come to know she’d be treated with the same dignity and respect that she’d seen demonstrated to others. And she’d probably been baptized and married in the church, and had her kids baptized there, too.. I bet that was “something nice” for her….)

  15. bls says:

    (But, actually, I was wrong in what I said above. There was another important reason I’ve always had respect for the church – and in fact it had happened years before.

    I worked in a convent one summer during my college years, and there I met a man the sisters had hired as a janitor. He was mentally ill, but he was proud of being able to work there, and loved the church; he was always giving out little laminated prayer cards with pictures of the BVM on them. It was clear to me even then, as an atheist and total non-churchgoer, that he would have had basically no chance at all anywhere else; he’d likely have died in the gutter someplace, rather than having the dignity of work and a place to live and his own faith.

    At its best, the church makes it an important part of its mission to look after the poor and friendless, and believes in their worth and dignity. The secular world generally does no such thing; people like this are forgotten in our society (in most societies, actually – I think especially in modern ones), and nobody much cares what happens to them, or even realizes they’re alive.

    So, yes: the church at its best is about much, much more than “wasting money” on people. I mean, this really isn’t anything new; even Karl Marx called religion “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”…..)

  16. Harold Stassen says:

    Well, there is a provision for cadavers which allows you to not only get rid of bodies for free but allows them to be useful: donation to science and medical schools. They come, get the body with a legal document of donation and the doctor’s death certificate and take the body away. It doesn’t cost you anything. The body helps train the rising generation of doctors. And after they’re done with it, the remaining parts are cremated and scattered, at no cost to you.
    What is a BVM?

  17. Harold Stassen says:

    Tossing out a body, often more than 40 kilograms, out with the trash would be expensive and unhygenic. Much better to make cadavers useful and get them out of the way through medical donations.

  18. bls says:

    I agree that donating a body to science is a great thing to do; my Dad did it, and I plan to do it, too. It’s something that can easily be done either prior to or following a Christian funeral or burial service as described above; one thing has little to do with the other that I can see. (The body, BTW, is not “scattered” after it’s used for teaching; the dead person’s ashes are returned to their next-of-kin, who decide what to do with them themselves.)

  19. Harold Stassen says:

    You can tell the people that take away the body for science that you don’t want the ashes back; they will then scatter or dispose of the ashes as they see fit. Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to mine and they could put them out in the trash or recycle them for cat litter for all I care. Why waste time, money and trouble on bodies?

  20. Harold Stassen says:

    Why would you think handing out cards with cartoon characters on them is a worthwhile activity?

  21. bls says:

    Why would you think that whatever gave a suffering, mentally ill human being a little bit of peace is not a worthwhile activity?

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