Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 52-55.
After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. By Robert Wuthnow. University of California Press. 277 pp. $29.95.
Shopping for Faith: American Religion and the New Millennium. By Richard Cimino and Don Lattin. Jossey–Bass. 240 pp. (Includes CD–ROM.) $25.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Powers
These books have as their subject what one of them refers to as the changed "religious landscape" in the U.S. in recent decades. After Heaven is written by a sociologist who has numerous books and articles on American religion to his credit. Shopping for Faith is a joint effort by the editor and publisher of the newsletter Religion Watch and the religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Their different styles (one scholarly and meditative, one breezy and journalistic) complement each other, and both verify that while Americans are less traditional in their religious views than they once were, they remain, however confusedly, a religious people.
Robert Wuthnow’s book surveys historical changes in American spirituality. Despite the transience of much American experience and the seeming lack of deep roots, Americans traditionally settled in communities from which they did not stray far and in which the house of worship was the center of social life. "Indeed, the place where Americans could know God best was the local congregation," Wuthnow writes. This "dwelling–oriented" spirituality in which "organized religion [extended its] monopoly over spiritual practice" reached its zenith in the 1950s.
The bulk of Wuthnow’s book gives an account of "unsettled times," beginning in the 1960s, when religious practice became "seeking–oriented." Basing this portion of his work on interviews with two hundred people, supplemented by other studies and large–scale opinion surveys, Wuthnow charts the transformation of the sacred into something fluid and portable, more likely to be found in the God within us or in the angel at our side than in the stodgy old church on the corner. Those who came of age in the 1960s and the following decades are the first generation to be reared in a fully commercialized consumer society, exposed to TV since birth, which means they have had "opportunities to explore new spiritual horizons" unknown to their parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately, seeking–oriented spirituality often led to little more than dabbling in different spiritual practices, when not to downright silliness. The 1980s initiated a reaction to this permissiveness, reassessing the claims of traditional morality. Still, there has not been a return to dwelling–oriented spirituality, which, according to Wuthnow, is at odds with the transience of modern life and with our "complex social realities."
Experimentation abides, if more disciplined. Thus, "practice–oriented spirituality," the third and final spiritual style Wuthnow considers, provides a mobile spirituality (for the mobile postmodern man) that has an anchor of sorts in religious activities that are pervasive and repetitious. It includes "the vital element of sustained commitment, without which no life can have coherence."
When he links his assessments to research studies and opinion surveys, Wuthnow comes up with some interesting results—for example, that the people most likely to see angels or to believe in miraculous encounters come from families where similar encounters are part of their religious histories. One wishes he had relied more on such hard data. Since he takes as his subject something rather fuzzy—"spirituality," the ways in which people express their personal relationship to the sacred—he most often falls back on his two hundred interviewees. Unfortunately, Wuthnow takes all their claims about their spiritual life at face value, even such claims as that a given subject is closer to God while gardening on Sunday than going to church.
Without specifying exactly what our "complex social realities" are, he takes it for granted that they are more complex, uncertain, and dangerous than at any other time. His few examples of our complicated world (e.g., the "evil" of the Vietnam War—was not World War II evil and also more broadly experienced?) seem, on the contrary, to testify that "our time" is quite privileged, in fact so privileged that today we can hardly stop people from coming to America.
Our current prosperity and the attendant consumer choices do make for a bewildering spiritual marketplace, but a glance at the historical record would indicate that interest in miraculous and mysterious experiences, angels, or even channeling is not a function of booksellers or of "the uncertainty of the times" but rather an enduring feature of human life. It is not that it "has become harder to know God in recent decades," but that so much consumer choice may deceive us into making us feel it is easy.
It is in the final chapter, in which Wuthnow brings on stage two examples of "committed spiritual discipline" (a man who combines Methodist worship with Ignatian exercises and a massage therapist who has "her own religion"), that one recognizes the intellectual flaccidity that our prosperity has produced. Human nature being what it is, "private spirituality" only includes what appeals to its adepts. After removing all the hard things in traditional religious observance (those "boring" and "stifling" aspects that Wuthnow’s subjects complain of), you can’t help but succeed and feel good about yourself. Whatever their sincerity, one can’t help sensing that the people Wuthnow describes are somewhat spiritually impoverished for having rejected the richness of traditional spiritual disciplines and the rigor that accompanies such practice. At least the guy who gives up meat for Lent knows what it is to struggle with himself when he drives by McDonald’s. If he cheats, he might also feel bad about himself, something Wuthnow’s subjects avoid at all costs.
The book is readable, but, perhaps without wishing to do so, it embodies the market–fueled animus toward traditional values. Its prejudices emerge most strongly when Wuthnow discusses conventional folks, for whom "pursuing a disciplined spiritual life [means], at most, rediscovering the soft technology of uttering a brief prayer before going to bed." Just as many of his subjects find "organized religion" colorless and bland, so too, Wuthnow finds, are the religious practices of most people.
Yet I suspect there are lots of genuinely religious people who outwardly display few signs of "serious commitment to spiritual discipline." They are ordinary folks, like the shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem who afterward went back to their normal occupations. Isn’t the performance of such occupations—working, raising families, staying married to the person you wed, keeping a roof over your head, giving up meat for Lent—a "serious commitment to spiritual discipline"? The result of going through such motions is also a constant exercise of the inner life. As they carry out these tasks (and probably while dozing during the sermon on Sunday), some people are even guided by their faith in a loving God. Not everyone, let us remind ourselves, can be Teresa of Ávila or Simone Weil.
If Wuthnow had compared the people he describes in his final chapter with either of those ascetics, he might have brought out important differences between then and now in "committed spiritual practice." While contemporary practitioners spend time "reflecting creatively about who they are and how they can best deepen their relationship with God," the hard task of discovering what God wants of them seems never to enter their accounts.
Shopping for Faith, an oddly refreshing read, confirms that most people don’t take—and probably never have taken—the road less traveled; but it also confirms that people are searching for something. It too has a number of irritating composite portraits of individual seekers, but the authors are not concerned with the depth or shallowness of religious experience. The closest they come to evaluating this is in their discussion of the explosive growth of Pentecostalism around the world:
Whether these soul–shaking experiences and religious conversions are the true action of the Holy Spirit, hypnotic trance states, or some other psychological trick makes little difference. They feel real. They inspire people to change their lives and commit themselves to another power, whether it’s a higher power outside themselves or an inner voice crying out from the depths of their soul.
Cimino and Lattin take for granted a more or less traditional religious base that has been infused or assaulted by trends from the marketplace, some of which are religious, such as Buddhism, and some, such as feminism and psychotherapy, not. They use their surveys to make predictions about how religious practice will be affected in the coming millennium. Their focus is not private spirituality, but instead the changing character of denominations. The title says it all: churchgoing and spiritual practice are forms of consumer behavior. And though they do not say so, this behavior is increasingly irrational or, in the words of the religion business, "experiential."
Readers can learn much of interest in this book: about church–growth consultants, congregational–trend specialists, the International Church of the Four–Square Gospel, and Mormon missionizing among the nonwhite immigrants of California. There is also much to ponder for those of a conservative religious persuasion.
Here are some of the book’s predictions (dispersed throughout in bold face): in the "pick and choose" approach to faith of the future, experiential elements will enter into traditional Western religious teachings; churches that demand the most from their members will be the ones most likely to grow (while "mainline bodies will also shift toward a more conservative position to ‘become new players in the religious growth market’"); "even traditional institutions like Roman Catholic convents will bend to the dictates of consumerism and the plethora of spiritualities in the wider culture"; the small group movement will increase; congregations that are the most vocal about diversity will have less success achieving it; computers will forge links among individual believers and thus bypass denominational control; though the "religious free market" encourages diversity, in the long run the market favors congregations that have a strong identity.
The most useful aspect of this book on shopping for faith is the accompanying "shopper’s guide" in the form of a CD–ROM. When connected to the Internet, you can enter keywords on your computer, and you will be linked to an index of websites that is constantly updated, allowing you to tap into all sorts of spiritual resources. As we’ve come to expect from the Internet, there are lots of choices.
Though Shopping for Faith is informative, its references, even to statistics on church attendance and denominational membership, are most often not to primary but to secondary sources. The authors also neglect to tell us whether the predictions they offer are valid for the next five years or the next hundred. In such a volatile marketplace, I would not bet on the latter.
Elizabeth Powers is coeditor, with Amy Mandelker, of Pilgrim Souls: A Collection of Spiritual Autobiographies, just out from Simon & Schuster.