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Mark Buchanan

We're All Syncretists Now

Not religious, just spiritual.

Allan Petersen, in The Myth of the Greener Grass, tells the story of a group of a dozen married women having lunch together. One woman asked, "How many of you have been faithful to your husbands throughout your marriage?" Only one woman out of the twelve raised her hand. At home that evening, one of the women who didn't raise her hand told her husband about the lunch, the question, her reaction. "But," she quickly added, "I have been faithful."

"Then why didn't you raise your hand?"

"I was ashamed."

I was reminded of that while reading Wade Clark Roof's new book, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Only, the question around the table isn't, "How many of you have been faithful to your husbands?" The question is, "How many of you would call yourselves religious?" According to Roof's research, a very small percentage of Americans would raise their hands—not because many don't attend religious services and engage in religious practices on a regular basis, but because they're ashamed. Very few Americans consider themselves "religious" anymore. No, as everyone from New Age aficionados to born-again charismatics to mainstream, middle-American believers are quick to point out, "I'm not religious—I'm spiritual." This is the new watchword, the shibboleth at the river-crossing between generations, that marks baby boomers from their forebears.

But what does it mean, spiritual? That's what Roof has set out to ask and to answer: to track, capture, and name the current varieties of religious— or spiritual—experience in America. What he's come up with is a kind of metaphysical seed-catalog, a bewildering array of groups and sub-groups, beliefs and opinions, views and world-views, much of it mixed and matched. At the same time his book is a kind of sociological taxonomy, an attempt to sift, sort, and narrow down the field of spiritual types into a few basic species. Roof comes up with five: Secularists, those who forswear religion as a force shaping their lives in any meaningful sense; Metaphysical Seekers and Believers; Born-Again Evangelicals; Mainstream Believers; and Dogmatists.

The thin thematic thread that holds these diverse groups together—with the exception in most instances of the Secularists and the Dogmatists—is what Roof calls a "spiritual quest culture," a sense that one's life is a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. Gone are the old verities: faith as a settled position, a set of revealed and received truths, an inheritance of time-honored traditions. Gone, almost, is the sense that faith's object is a Wholly Other God. What's supplanted all that is the notion that faith is a process of finding my own life's uniqueness and connectedness. It's about finding truth for me.

This process may be helped along by one or several faith traditions. What matters is that I choose my faith. I might frame it within a given religious system. Or I might, collage-like, decorate it with symbols, stories, liturgies, rites borrowed from a variety of sources, religious and otherwise. The role religious institutions—churches, synagogues, temples, mosques—play in this process is, in a sense, to deconstruct themselves: to stop acting as ancient and unchanging repositories of creed and ritual, and instead become clearinghouses of beliefs and practices: spiritual marketplaces.

Roof isn't suggesting that all religious institutions are becoming syncretistic (though he thinks that "to speak of 'syncretism' to describe this diffusion [of traditions and beliefs] is to perpetuate old, misguided notions of religious purity spoiled by contamination"). Rather, he sees many religious institutions adapting—for both survival's and opportunity's sake—to the ill-defined but very real spiritual yearnings of a generation that distrusts all institutions and is used to getting what they want when they want it.

American religion has always shown an entrepreneurial genius, a knack for both setting trends and chasing them. In the new Spiritual Marketplace, with the blurring swiftness and bewildering muchness of its trends, religious institutions are just finding they need to move faster. The time-lapse for adaptations has shortened to breathtaking speed. And the quest culture drives it all. American boomers are on a search for something bigger then themselves—the Meism of the 70s and 80s, Roof claims, has run its course. But they still insist—more than ever, in fact—that they are the final arbiters of what that something is. Roof writes, "'How can I feel good about myself?' emerged as a far more pressing question to many Americans than 'How can I be saved?'"

Consequently, American religion is a welter of contradictions. American Boomers want community, but on strictly individual terms. They want human closeness without feeling cramped or obligated. They want a personal God who doesn't ask much personally. They want mystery, but in a controlled, non-disruptive way. They want a faith that's fulfilling, practical, earthy, tolerant, transcendent, fun, empowering, morally serious without being morally demanding, a faith that restores wonder and deepens intimacy, and they want it not to cost too much or take up a lot of time.

They're both nostalgic for and scornful of the faith of their parents. They want a more flexible, nurturing, spiritually attuned environment in the workplace and more structure and routine in the home. They have no shortage of strong opinions about right and wrong, yet to a startling degree they embrace a moral and metaphysical relativism: when Roof asked how many in his survey field believed all religions were "equally true and good," 48 percent, including more than 25 percent of the Born-Again Evangelicals surveyed, said they did. (In another place, Roof says 50 percent of Boomer Evangelicals believe this, though he doesn't cite his source.) To the question, "Should a married woman who doesn't want any more children be able to obtain a legal abortion?" 48 percent of Evangelicals said yes, only 8 percent behind Secularists.

In one sense, none of Roof's observations is remarkable. The late historian Barbara Tuchman once accused sociologists of crawling on their bellies for miles, noses pressed to the ground, following every faint scent, tracking every crust of spoor, only to discover what everyone else already knew way back. Roof's research does give some interesting, even surprising, statistical backing to most anyone's anecdotal survey of the town they live in. It provides some helpful shading-in here and there of the sort of observations one might glean from a casual reading of newsmagazines or a random sampling of current movies, prime-time television shows, or popular music CDs. It offers a wider frame of reference for the conversation you may have had yesterday with your hair stylist, your kid's hockey coach, or your insurance broker. It's not news, though.

But as a field dispatch of American boomer religion at the fin de siecle, Roof's book should shock evangelicals into stepping back from their frenzied attempts to adapt to and catch up with the culture and ask themselves some hard questions. The question with which Roof ends the book is a good one to start: "Is the spirituality of this generation sufficiently grounded and robust enough to be transformative? Can it make a lasting impact on the course the country takes in the new century?"

Roof thinks so. In deed, all through the book, he makes plain his sympathies with the "quest culture"—hence his scornful dismissal of "Dogmatists." In an irony that Roof misses, the most dogmatic-sounding person his team interviewed is a woman who claims her church has finally come alive now that it's shucked all its hidebound traditionalism, its dogmatism. Roof's stock of phrases for describing Dogmatists reads like a glossary of liberal bywords: narrow, hateful, bigoted, rigid, tight, cold, close-minded. You get the idea.

Nowhere are Roof's sympathies so clear as when he takes issue with a much-cited passage from the influential book, Habits of the Heart. In that prescient work, first published in 1985, Robert Bellah introduced a woman named Sheila Larson whose religion, she said, was Sheilaism. Bellah found this alarming, a bad moon rising. Sheila was the icon of individualism at its dead end. But Roof sees Sheila as a kind of heroine—herald of a new creative energy and hunger, patron saint of those who wrestle with issues of personal loneliness and human suffering, who reject the sterility of old ways and come up with fresh answers.

Roof provides a useful corrective, showing the person behind the effigy that Sheila has been turned into, especially by conservatives, and he reminds us of the real flesh-and-blood drama that likely shaped her statement about Sheilaism. I'm reminded of Jesus' question to Simon the Pharisee when a woman of ill repute came and anointed Jesus' feet: "Simon, do you see this woman?" And the answer is, no, Simon is so blinded by prejudice, by the labels he puts on people, he can't see the woman. Over the past decade and more, conservatives have thundered from pulpits and warned in pamphlets about the dark dangers of Sheilaism. But few of us have actually seen the woman. Roof sees her, and in doing so rebukes our own blindness.

Nevertheless, the whole issue of Sheila not only poses Roof's question again but recasts it more starkly: Does spirituality have any real meaning outside historical beliefs and institutions? For a Christian, the question is yet more pointed: Can one be spiritual without the meaning of that being shaped and filled by creed, doctrine, dogma? Or sharper still: Can one be spiritual apart from the Holy Spirit?

In boomer culture's use of the term, spiritual has an infuriating slipperiness and murkiness to it. It means, according the various uses documented here, everything from greater self-awareness and personal empowerment to a sense that one is only a drop merged in the great ocean of Being, and everything in between. Spiritual, in current diction, is almost meaningless, a catch-all that catches nothing. The church can hardly capitulate to this. What is at stake here is not just interpretation but revelation, not just our pet hermeneutics but our entire epistemology, not just our favorite doctrines but the whole ground of our knowing. If spiritual can mean anything, everything, nothing, then the biblical world-view is dead.

Can one be spiritual outside the church, without submission to the church? When Roof documents, for example, that many Born-Again Evangelical believers no longer see the need to be part of a church community, he takes it for granted that there is no inherent contradiction in this. It might even be a good thing. But can you love Jesus and not his Bride? Can you be part of Christ and not part of his Body?

The general challenge this book raises for evangelical Christians is to take seriously the spiritual hunger of the quest culture—to "give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope you have, and to do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). The general challenge is to find ways to speak to the age without stridency, or mockery, or mere accommodation. But the specific challenge is to rediscover biblical ecclesiology: to come up not just with an apologetic for the church, but with the church as an apologetic for the gospel, for a distinctly Christian spirituality. The specific challenge for me, a pastor in the evangelical tradition, is to lead a church to be what God intended it to be: boot camp and hospital, homeland and outpost, Royal Priesthood and Holy Nation, sign and foretaste and frontline of the Kingdom come.

That so many in boomer culture, even among evangelicals, see the church as irrelevant, or an obstacle, to spirituality is more an indictment of the church than of the culture. The early Christians would have thought absurd any spirituality that was not played out, worked out, lived out within the bounds of church. To be turned out of the church was to be turned over to Satan. That so many boomers believe they have to leave the church to find God marks the height we've fallen from.

Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church, Duncan, British Columbia.

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