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Inventing spirituality

Rev. Jack Van Ens

A cartoon depicts a couple dressed to the nines as they leave church. The church architectural style is Gothic as this husband and wife greet the pastor after worship. He is attired in a robe, resplendent with the colorful paraphernalia clergy from traditional Christian churches wear. The husband says to the preacher, “I’m afraid this is auf Wiedersehen, Padre. I am setting up our own little religion.” I’d laugh more if this response didn’t bring me to tears because it’s true.People are ditching traditional Christianity for concoctions of their own invention. Not that long ago, if God did not seem close at hand, spiritual searchers went from the Presbyterian camp to the Episcopalian household of faith. Less frequently, a Jew found Jesus, emerging as a Messianic Jew. Or, a Christian soured on a faith that supported slavery in the past, so they found their spiritual identity among Muslims today.Now the religious landscape has changed. People sit down with themselves and invent their own homey brand of spirituality. It’s a religious shoe that fits better than the ones offered by traditional religions where they feel pinched.It’s the difference between the John Elway and Michael Jordan parties announcing retirement. Both superstars walked away from the games they loved. A commentator wrote about how brittle the Jordan retirement day seemed. “The send-off was flat. Not simply flat but chilly.” Everybody knew that an ice age separated Jordan from the Bulls’ general manager, Jerry Krause. Pundit William C. Rhoden reported: “This was not an emotional farewell, rather an icy goodbye that had the finality of a divorce, not the cuddly warmth of retirement. This was a flat ending for a man whose career has been built on drama. Yesterday there was no emotion, no video highlights.”Vividly contrasting Jordan’s goodbye was the emotional bash as John Elway bid farewell. Management, usually the tough guys, wept. Quarterback Elway, Denver’s darling, cried as he admitted he wanted to keep playing but his body couldn’t deliver the goods.Many on a spiritual search look askance at traditional religions as too formal in style and too thin in spirituality. Rather than buy their next spiritual clothes off the rack from a religious Brooks Brothers, these folks become eclectic. They beg for some spiritual inspiration here, nab some more over there. They act like an eager shopper who mixes and matches apparel, receiving from one clothier what another shop does not carry. Don Lattin, who co-authored “Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium,” admits, “there’s no name-brand religions anymore.”What’s replacing them are individual spiritual quests where people invent rather than borrow from faith traditions already defined. The apostle Paul advised young Timothy to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” How? By being “nourished on the words of faith and the good doctrine you have followed.” Paul warns Timothy to stay away from “godless and silly myths” (I Timothy 4:6-7). Now those in search of spirituality do the reverse. Without remorse, they jettison doctrine of traditional religion for a mishmash of what seems appealing and makes them feel deep down that they are in touch with a higher power.Stanley Grenz describes a 50-year-old California woman named Rita McClain. McClain has flirted with a number of different religions in her lifetime, ranging from Pentecostal Christianity to a more sedate American Indian spirituality to contemplative Buddhism. Recently, she settled in with a faith of her own fashioning, making a shrine in her home. Rita’s homemade worship center includes an angel statue, a small bottle of sacred water that was blessed at a women’s vigil, a crystal ball, a pyramid, a small brass image of the Buddha, a votive candle, a Jewish prayer, a tiny American Indian basket, and a picture of her favorite tree. The locale of this mix-and-match worship center verges on the territory of Rita’s “inner landscape.” Here she bows to sip spiritual waters.Usually, any suggestion of self-denial is missing. Sacrifice is rarely mentioned. Rita scratches beneath the surface of life to get inside herself. Here she searches for security and strength. She hunkers down to enjoy what Eugene Kennedy warns is often warm fuzzy feelings that pop culture sells as a spiritual fix. Observes Kennedy in “Context”: “Soft spirituality is now commercializing everything from plain chant to rock anthems to Jesus. This sign of the times is more about shadow than substance. For the spiritual seeker, ‘soft spirituality’ is a mirage, not an oasis. The springs may run with Evian waters but there is no real nourishment here, just the illusion of refreshment. … “People select their spiritual delectables, much like ordering from a Chinese menu. A premier interpreter of religious trends, commentator Martin Marty, foretold many years ago how spirituality would surge without benefit of traditional religions. “The great problem for the future of the church is not ‘secular man’ but do-it-yourself religion. And there are curious versions of that; consumer-oriented religions, customer-oriented religions, market-oriented religions, in which you present all the options, and you find that certain people will pass up 50 things to find exactly the package they want. “I see them,” shudders Marty, “as the Bible-country counterpart to the people … who make up their own religion out of a little bit of Zen and a little bit of Martin Buber and some Tillich and some leftover TV religious pitchman, and you finally get a little mishmash package that doesn’t tie in to anybody else’s religion.”Such spiritual meandering appeals to many in our culture because the maker controls such mix-and-match inventions. This allows the creator enormous power to remove what makes us think too hard, sacrifice too harshly, and change too much. Moreover, mix-and-match spirituality looks much like its creator. So it feels homegrown to the devotee and doesn’t jar, dovetailing with what is already believed. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens heads Creative Growth Associates, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentation. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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