From the Dean: Angry Words on the Border

April 3, 2016

Not too long ago, someone running for the office of President of the United States would avoid criticizing the religious leader of a major denomination. Such criticism carried too high a risk – the potential loss of precious votes. But, last week the actions of Donald Trump highlighted the degree to which American culture is changing. He had harsh things to say about Pope Francis, and yet, went on to win big in the South Carolina primary election, with 32% of the vote.

What was Trump responding to? In discussing Trump’s harsh policy position in response to the large number of immigrants illegally crossing the border of Mexico, the pontiff had made a blunt observation: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges,” he said, “is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”

Trump fired back: "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian.” Trump, who claims the religious identity of Presbyterian, said that the leader of the Catholic Church would think differently about walls if ISIS took over the Vatican. Such an experience, he claimed, would teach the pontiff that strong borders and tough talk and action is what is needed to restrain the chaos and violence throughout the world.

So why did Trump suffer no immediate political cost for taking on a major religious leader who is one of the most popular people on the planet? Certainly one reason is that the Catholic population in South Carolina is only 7%. But, I think a more significant reason is that organized religious traditions do not hold the political muscle they used to wield in the public square. Religious traditions have been ceding ground for decades to the less easily defined and far more disorganized forces of the so-called “spiritual.”

Indeed, the latest PEW religious landscape study shows that the second largest “denomination” in the United States is now the religious “nones,” those claiming no religious affiliation. PEW’s research over the past few years suggests that people of faith are bailing out of religious denominations in large numbers. More troubling to religious leaders is that the pattern of decline is occurring across almost every demographic – people of different gender, race, socio-economic status and education levels.

Younger Americans show the largest decline--often vacating the pews in religious institutions to become a “spiritual not religious believer.” This pattern is particularly apparent with the millennials, those born between 1981 and 1989 and has captured the imagination of many people who study religion. This demographic grew from 25% in 2007 to 34% in 2014.  A deeperWashington Post analysis of the PEW report reveals a further important dynamic: nones or non-affiliated Americans (23%) now outnumber American Catholics (21%) and mainline Protestants (15%). The Post also noticed that those people in the non-affiliated group are not only less religious, but getting less spiritual as well. In 2007, 25% of the “nones” reported themselves to be atheist or agnostic, by 2014 the number jumped to 31%. Millennials are, in other words, becoming more secular.

Curiously, despite all the bad news about religion in the PEW study, spirituality has never had more credibility or currency.  Almost everyone, even those who are dyed-in-the-wool secularists, wants to have what spirituality promises to offer. Consider one of the more visible and cantankerous contemporary atheists, Sam Harris, who wrote Waking Up: A Spirituality without Religion—an odd titled book for someone who denies the existence of a Higher Power and exhibits regular disdain for all faith-based institutions. His book promises all the good things religions can provide, with none of the baggage. Did Harris compromise his principles to cash in on the worldwide spirituality craze?

It seems an increasing number of us want the undeniably good things that can come from practices and perspectives that grew from the womb of religious belief and practice.  But, we don’t want the baggage—the dross that can cling like barnacles to the hull of religious traditions. In fact, it is now common to speak of spirituality as something that is distinct, if not opposite of religion.  One of the more popular emergent spirituality writers shows this tendency in a passage that can be found in many books about emergent spirituality: 

“Enlightened leadership is spiritual,” says Deepak Chopra, “if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention.”

I think blues musician Bonnie Raitt captures the spirit of this spiritual-religious borderland in the most poignant fashion: “Religion is for people who are scared to go to hell,” she has said. “Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

But, if spirituality is such a hot topic, it might be good to know something about where the word originates. The Latin root for spirituality, spiritualitas, was first used in the early 5th century by St. Jerome, although theologians rarely used the term until the 12th century. By then, the word usually meant something in opposition to materiality, carnality, or mortality. In its most frequent usage, spirituality connoted what Ursula King has called a kind of “oppositional duality,” something “otherworldly, separate from our bodily and material needs, from time and space.”  Consequently, spirituality referred to a reality more easily defined by what it is not, than what it is. In the intervening years, people tried to get a better handle on the meaning of spirituality and its roots—the French being the earliest to catch on to the concept of different kinds of spiritualties that are best understood through the prism of national and regional religious identities. By the time you fast-forward eight centuries to encounter Svn Erlandson, the author coining the term “spiritual but not religious” in his book Spiritual but Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America in 2000, the two words have taken on such separate meanings that people refer to them as something substantively different.

However, the two human and cultural forces of religion and spirituality are inherently and irrevocably linked. The so-called spiritualties of the vast majority of the religious “nones,” for instance, actually have definable and recognizable “religious” contours for anyone who has done any serious study of religion and the history of religious faith.

I would go so far as to suggest that this is a time for great opportunity for both words to come into their most holistic meaning. The fascination with spirituality offers religion a chance to reconnect with the source of its energy. Meanwhile, religion offers spirituality a lightning rod for its energy, a way of grounding, focusing, and distributing the resources of an individual’s interiority in such a way that a person can truly transform the world, through one’s being, not just one’s action.

Ursula King suggests the borderlands between religion and spirituality are rooted in Colonialism—a positive outcome from the evil of colonial occupation. During Colonialism, political and social structures allowed people of different religious traditions to begin practices of “border crossing” across religious divides. These early spiritual pioneers brought their “spirit words and world” into dialogue with other cultures. So, Hindu spirit words like moksha or liberation, and Buddhist spirit words like, nirvana or enlightenment entered the lexicons of other cultures, as did the word spirituality itself, which has been transported from Western Christianity into all the religions and cultures of the world.  

Those spirit words and worlds now circulate in the ether of our shrinking, flattening and “cybertizing” world. This is a world that is being set on fire by a new fascination and hunger for “spiritual experience” forcing the borders between religious traditions to crumble under its weight. While many people have recognized that religion is ultimately grounded in spiritual experience, some get lost in the words and concepts used by religious traditions to describe those spiritual experiences. Many religions have also struggled with the temptation to ground themselves in such concepts rather than experience, as concepts are easier to order and coordinate.

Carl Jung once said that many theologians seemed to miss the point of what many people would now call spirituality: “With a truly tragic delusion, these theologians fail to see that it is not a matter of proving the existence of the light, but of blind people who do not know that their eyes could see. It is high time we realized that it is pointless to praise the light and preach it if nobody can see it. It is much more needful to teach people the art of seeing.”

A more contemporary thinker does a good job describing the kind of experiences that an increasing number of people want to label as spiritual. In Donald Miller’s book, “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” he describes a profound, yet oh so ordinary encounter with a street musician. 

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.
After that I liked jazz music.
Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.
I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened.” 

This points to one of the reasons spirituality is proliferating, expanding into new areas, and supplanting affiliation with traditional religious congregations in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Religion is not helping God to resolvein many people’s lives.  So, the spiritually hungry are increasingly going out to look in other places, sometimes returning to their religious roots, sometimes ending up somewhere else, sometimes making up their own thing. Perhaps the only thing they all have in common is that people are getting more comfortable calling this “spirituality.”  

The Trump-Francis border clash offers a kind of interesting study of this relationship between religion and spirituality, and the attempt of a religious leader to help God resolve more deeply in people's lives.  Pope Francis has been deeply influenced by indigenous spirituality of his home country of Argentina. He knows that his own religious identity as a Christian is first and foremost grounded in a spiritual experience of Divine intimacy, one that awakens a whole raft of different type of emotions and virtues that are formative of the human spirit’s potential for greatness – empathy, compassion, solidarity, courage, steadfastness, and long suffering with others in the pursuit of justice. And, he knows this experience is contextualized by his Argentinian and Italian roots.

In his comments about building walls instead of bridges, maybe the pope is saying that if you have not had the spiritual experiences that allow you to feel the pain, fear, desperation and hope of an fleeing immigrant, if you are not moved to wanting to relate more deeply with such people and to truly understand their motivation to flee persecution and oppression–you miss the whole point of embracing an historic religion in the world. Many of the so-called “spiritual but not religious” have visceral feelings about these issues, often because most have known too many “believers” who can turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to human suffering.

Overall, I think the real story about the relationship between religion and spirituality is that some people are actually becoming increasingly religious and spiritual BUT in a new way. They are reprioritizing the horse and the cart, the chicken and the egg of their religious and spiritual meaning-making systems. Perhaps they are beginning to recognize an insight made more than half a century ago by a Jesuit mystic and scientist – Pierre Teihard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  

Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD