Self-Obsessed “Spirituality”

June 1999By Philip F. Kelly Jr.

Philip F. Kelly Jr. writes from Connecticut.

After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.  By Robert Wuthnow. University of California Press. 277 pages. $29.95.



Before embarking with Robert Wuthnow on what could be a rugged trek — through forty tumultuous years of “Spirituality in America” — the prudent reader will want to outfit himself with some basic equipment, such as definitions of terms. What is “spirituality”? And how is it related to religion?

“Religion” (from the Latin religare, to bind) refers to the union of human beings with the divinity. A religion consists of doctrines and practices which pursue and support this union. St. Thomas Aquinas says that religion is a moral virtue, subsumed under the virtue of justice, and encompasses the honor and worship due from human beings to God.

“Spirituality” in the Christian tradition refers to the response of the individual person, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, both to the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and to the community (the Church) created by that mystery.

Spirituality and religion are thus intimately related and interdependent. Or rather, they ought to be. How is it that today, in American parlance, “religion” and “spirituality” have come to connote not just distinct phenomena but almost unrelated pursuits?

After the Enlightenment dismissed the supernatural, “religion” could no longer mean man’s relation to the (nonexistent) supernatural, so it came to refer instead to men’s relations among themselves in cults: A religion now meant strictly a social and historical entity.

Independent of all such cults, however, there was thought to be a core of “natural religion” — precepts and platitudes conducing to human felicity and accessible by each person. But we no longer speak of “natural religion” today (just as we no longer speak of the “human nature” to which it was thought to be natural). When we wish to refer vaguely to each individual’s personal metaphysics or private epiphanies we now use the word “spirituality.” Thus a modern, secular American doesn’t think it nonsensical to say something like (and how many times have you heard this!): “I’m not a religious person, but I’m a very spiritual person.”

The two realms are taken to be not only separate but even antagonistic. If, as we so often hear today, “religion” means the gatherings of doctrinal conformists in special buildings to engage in ritual, recite a creed, and bow to authority, while “spirituality” means an individual’s bold quest into the unknown, an exploration that is self-guided, undoctrinal, and nonconformist, then what have the two to do with each other?

The reader who sets off into America with Wuthnow soon finds that in the background of After Heaven, overshadowing its explicit investigation, looms the standard American misconception that religion and spirituality can rightfully be mutually exclusive pursuits. For a reader who is both religious and spiritual, in the basic, pre-secularized meanings of those words, this is a disappointment. A further disappointment is that the journey through America with Wuthnow is not, after all, a tough but invigorating trek. It turns out to be more like a bus trip for tourists: We glide through the spiritual landscape while the driver recounts canned anecdotes about the scenes we pass. There is a groundless, detached feeling to the whole enterprise, and the Christian reader finds that Wuthnow, although he claims to be addressing developments in the practices of American Christians, displays little familiarity with Christian experience, belief, and practice.

Though Wuthnow does not muddy his boots by actually walking through the territory he has mapped out, the starting point he has chosen — the 1950s — is a good one. Since that time, religion and religiosity have indeed undergone cataclysmic changes in America. Transformations in attitudes toward authority and morality have altered the relations between believer and church. A methodical sociology of religion could (perhaps) identify structural changes within a society and discover their correlation with changes in religious belief and religious practice. But in this book Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton, neither displays American cultural changes adequately nor explains clearly their impact on American religiosity.

What he offers instead is a simple abstraction, a dichotomy couched in terminology apparently of his own devising: He introduces us to a purported conflict between the “spirituality of dwelling” and the “spirituality of seeking.” Americans of the 1950s, he says, had a “spirituality of dwelling.” Wuthnow intends this as a term of reproach: “Americans in the fifties chose largely to remain where they were, opting for security rather than risking their faith in a genuine search for spiritual depth.”

How odd that Wuthnow would turn the word “dwelling” into a pejorative! It’s an attractive and resonant word, one would think. But Wuthnow associates dwelling with stagnation. “Once one moves in,” he writes, “a home is mainly a place to take for granted.” Both home and church, Wuthnow claims, stifle individual freedom.

Wuthnow salutes the 1960s for wrenching Americans out of the complacent conformity with which they dwelt, spiritually, in church and family. He says that non-Christian religions, rock music, and changing understandings of gender and sexuality began to provide Americans with something closer to “the broad variety of human experience.” Wuthnow seems pleased that Americans in the 1960s shed the constraints of revealed and authoritative religion in order, as he puts it, to “think through their options.” “The sixties,” he asserts, “questioned middle-class, white-bread definitions of who God was and of where God could be found, making it more uncertain how to be in touch with the sacred.” To this unsettlement he gives the favorable label the “spirituality of seeking.”

The new spirituality, says Wuthnow, was based on a new concept of freedom, which he characterizes approvingly as the shift from “freedom of conscience” to “freedom of choice.” Freedom of conscience, he explains, implies a homogeneous community in which “conscience speaks authoritatively about right and wrong” and the individual simply decides whether to agree or disagree. In contrast, freedom of choice belongs to an individual among “multiple communities” (that is, multiple truth claims); inside each person an “internal voice” decides “less between right and wrong and more between better and worse.”

If all this sounds naive — perhaps it is. The individual self that Wuthnow says was set free to be itself in the 1960s has, by now, been deconstructed and disintegrated beyond recognition. The term “alienation” has been used by many observers to describe the pass to which the autonomous self has come, and to this alienation can be traced many of the gripping illnesses that our society has contracted since the 1960s and cannot shake: drugs, promiscuity, violence, abortion, divorce. It is certainly arguable that when the choice between right and wrong is dismissed as specious or conformist — when I choose merely what I happen to think better or worse for me — then objective truth and morality collapse, and the integral self, supposedly empowered to choose, soon collapses as well. Thus self-expression, the ideal of the 1960s, has given way to self-obsession, the disease of the 1990s.

Though the author is a sociologist, much social fact is simply omitted. After roundly criticizing the religiosity of the 1950s, Wuthnow scarcely mentions the institutional churches again, seemingly assuming that they are irrelevant to the new “spirituality.” In the 1980s began a resurgence of evangelical churches in America that has been widely discussed; this movement is dismissed by Wuthnow as a collective burying of heads in the sand. A still more striking omission is his failure to address the enormous changes in the Catholic Church since the 1960s. To understand where his putatively new “freedom of choice” comes from, he might well have examined the Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes and elucidated its substantial — if inadvertent — contribution to the unmooring of individual conscience among Catholics, the largest single religious group in America. He also fails to measure carefully the impact on our religiosity of the explosion of affluence and consumerism in America since the 1950s; he notes only that affluence means more choices to choose among.

Wuthnow concludes by offering a supposed middle way between a spirituality of dwelling and a spirituality of seeking. This he calls a “spirituality of practice.” Essentially, this turns out to be a recommendation that the spirituality of seeking — regardless of religious or spiritual content — should be practiced regularly. He describes two model practitioners of this spirituality who are meant, I presume, to inspire us. One is a man who is a Methodist but also does the Ignatian spiritual exercises; the other is a woman who is unchurched but employs a hodgepodge of spiritual devices including unguided meditation. The man speaks of finding a closer relationship to God; the woman speaks of getting into closer touch with herself. They did inspire me — to get better acquainted with the work of St. Ignatius Loyola and to avoid what sent the woman spiraling deeper and deeper into her “self.”

With friends like Robert Wuthnow, the autonomous self hardly needs enemies. Had Wuthnow set out to write an indictment — rather than an approbation — of American spirituality since the 1950s, he could not have portrayed more compellingly America’s spiritual decline. He shows the frightening results of our devaluation of religion, our denaturing of spirituality, and our severing of them from each other. The picture he paints is of a country of homeless, churchless selves, each self claiming freedom of choice, each freelancing its own spirituality, all seriously adrift.

After Heaven reminds us, in spite of itself, how vitally important church, home, and family are, how fragile these sacred communities can be, and how much energy, commitment, and nurture they require from us even as they form, guide, and support us. The book constitutes an inadvertent invitation to rededicate ourselves to the tasks of Christian witness. It would seem particularly urgent to offer our young people the nourishing food of solid doctrine in place of the artificial sweetness of pop spirituality. The upcoming generations should be informed that there are deeper understandings of what the “self” is and does than anything Wuthnow offers here.

Particularly deep is the understanding offered by the Catholic Church. Against the elevation of the Self, the Church offers the elevation of the Host and Chalice, wherein man’s self-surrender to God and God’s to man take place, wherein the “religious” and the “spiritual” meet — and dwell.



Back to June 1999 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!