Synopsis: Young Master Douthat reads what somebody else said about Mysticism and Modern Society, enjoys it enough to create a Lite version.
I'VE noted before that my own religious instruction, which lasted until I was old enough to say "I'm staying home" and make it stick, took place in a Mainstream Protestant denomination so theologically liberal it makes your eyes sting. Practically anarchic. As I read its tenets today I get the impression I'm still a member in decent, if not Good, standing. That theologically liberal.
It's not that a swingin'-medallion-wearing Sammy Davis Jr. was our hip young pastor; Sammy was more welcome in Vegas, if you get my drift. We weren't encouraged to Do Our Own Things, or Find Our Own Bags every Sunday. In fact, I don't recall being encouraged to do much of anything. Liked the singing part, and the stained glass. The semantics largely centered around how we differed from Catholics, which gave the whole thing the air of a perpetual pep rally before the big game with a hated rival, except the rival was supposed to be more pitied than hated, and all the cheerleaders were just waking up from heavy sedation.
And yet somehow I came away from it with an oddball love of theological dispute, which I suppose is why the people who run these carnivals wanna get you early and keep you from learning about the 19th century as long as possible, or forever, whichever comes first. For that matter, I remain somewhat unconvinced that most loudly professing Christians have ever really adjusted to the discovery of Fire. So there was no way I was passin' this dude up:
Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.
You gave up meat for lunch for Lent? What, even pickle loaf? Don't sell yourself short there, Ross. You're a goddam plaster saint.
This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith.
Okay, again, I'm definitely commin' at you from Luther Land here, but since when hasn't the Roman Catholic Church been about worldly expression of faith, with a minor in hair shirt? On the other hand, I think we can safely say that over the past thirty years American Protestanism has pretty thoroughly auctioned off its birthright on eBay in exchange for a solid merchandising deal. Unless you want to argue that Hucksterism has always been one of its major tenets. At any rate, who missed this while it was going on?
Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.
Reagantots. Sheesh. It just never occurs to you to look, does it? Those things aren't mutually exclusive, and they aren't equal. The reason there's a divide isn't focus. it's the unyielding opposition to the other guy's focus, which is largely one-sided. Since Paul VI, with the exception of a thirty-day break, the hierarchy of the Roman church has been coming down on the side of the "conservatives". Personally, I sorta lost the distinction between Catholicism and a single-issue PAC 'long about 1973, and it wasn't because its spokesmen were out on the hustings for social justice.
Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.
In fairness to 1962, back then if you had "a religious or mystical experience" you were more or less expected to do something about it, like become a better parent, help the less fortunate, or give up swindling widows and orphans for a living.
In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market.
Not to mention "discovered huge reserves of corrupt pitchmen and pigeons ripe for fleecing."
No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.
I tried that tantric sex on the table thing, myself. It makes it hard to keep a straight face during supper.
This democratization has been in many ways a blessing. Our horizons have been broadened, our religious resources have expanded, and we’ve even recovered spiritual practices that seemed to have died out long ago.
Too bad we didn't recover the embarrassment which killed 'em, while we were at it.
The unexpected revival of glossolalia (speaking in tongues, that is), the oldest and strangest form of Christian worship, remains one of the more remarkable stories of 20th-century religion.
Especially remarkable, since we know, we know empirically, that it's utter nonsense.
Now, before we get to the "But…" that's been hanging over this thing like a rotten tree branch for four paragraphs, let's just note something about this convenient Ecumenicism. The Church hasn't suddenly gone lax on the question of Sufism, or Buddhism, or Lingam Massage, and Lord knows that Douthat isn't going to include Paganism--the country's fastest-growing religion--in that litany. It's no measure of "spiritual democratization" that you can invent a yogic Pentecostal crystal-wearin' Sufi; it's a measure of the sort of religious diversity Christian "conservatives" would love to ignore, or imprison, but can't anymore. It's not a theological argument, it's more patting yourself on the back for your tolerance because you now are forced to recognize what you used to denounce. It's like forgiving Galileo in the late 20th century, then announcing that science is on your side. It's precisely the "conservative" MO on Civil Rights in this country: oppose until that's no longer tenable, then hope the glacial slowness of your "conversion" means there's no one left alive who remembers where you started from. The real answer is that this isn't a theological observation at all; it's a political program. Posit that all these "spiritual" paths are essentially the same, then argue that their mystical (and mythical) combined weight brings heft to your own politico-religious arguments. "85% of Americans believe in God" is always, somehow, supposed to transubstantiate high school biology into "humanist religion", or plop two tons of Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Somehow it's never supposed to make you mind your own business, or respect other people's, or keep your plerophory to yourself.
And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish.
Yeah, I guess it just sorta snuck up on y'all over the last thirty years of a major political party--it's the one you're a member of, Ross--screaming for America to return to its materialistic religious fundament.
It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success.
Yeah. Go figure. Oh, well, it's not like you spent ten years spewing culture war claptrap and GOP talking points while claiming Jesus agreed with you, eh Ross? Nothing like a clear conscience to help a man sleep at night.
Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi;
And here's the interesting thing about that: it's not supposed to, although you can find people who'll argue that it's not supposed to be undertaken as just a series of flexibility exercises. It's a practice. (We mention this only because every time some American Christer starts talking Ecumenicalism you can set your watch by how long it takes him to mischaracterize Hinduism or Buddhism as sorta weird offshoots of the divinely accurate Semitic religions, except with brighter colors.)
spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
I dunno, Ross; I'll always think of you as Thérèse of Lisieux. Excepting, of course, that she cured blindness, and you make me think of it as a mixed blessing.