December 21, 2009
Searching for God
— Martin E. Marty
Last week Sightings looked at bearish signs on the front where religion is practiced (a bit less) in post-Christendom. This week instead of a bear we’ll note the chameleon-like character of religious commitment, or semi-commitment in the same part of the world. Our source, the survey of the week, came from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a reliable surveyor. It was much noted and commented upon; we’ll pick up on one of the best of these comments, in the December 11th Wall Street Journal, from Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, who can also be called reliable as well as perceptive.
The Pew summary picked up by Prothero reveals that the U. S. is a “nation of religious drifters.” In response I could exercise the historian’s yawn and ask, “So what else is new?” Haven’t we always been such? Immigrants brought their old faiths along and then often picked and chose among the options other immigrants brought, adaptations of these, or new inventions in the spaces between existing faiths. Revivals, awakenings, ethnic shifts, mobility, and religious marketplaces have always invited such drifting. But the Pew people can show that there are reasons to stifle the “nothing new” yawns and say that if there is not a qualitative difference from the past, there is such a big quantitative shift that it amounts to a change in the quality of commitments.
In the Lutheran and Episcopal parishes and their kin we know best, we hear members and clergy say, half-jocularly, that half their members seem to have been brought up Roman Catholic but they changed, just as we know several Lutherans and Episcopalians who turned Catholic. Still, such moves are ecumenically “all in the family.” Pew folks find more and more people being equally drawn to Buddhisms, Hinduisms, New Ageisms, and a bazaar-tent full of other options. Kate Shellnut in the December 11th Chicago Tribune tells how many, many young and youngish post-Christian people abandon Christian practice and hang out almost cultishly brunching at pancake houses, hoping in their “communing” to fill the void that is left as they drift.
Add to these other, similar evidences elsewhere, and you find not only the trails of serious spiritual journeys to new communities but highly individualistic ventures. As G.K. Chesterton noted, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything.
Prothero checks in: “As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can’t help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred.” He agrees with philosopher George Santayana that “American life is a powerful solvent” capable of “neutralizing new ideas into banal clichés.” Prothero worries that “this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world’s religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own. . . The store managers in our spiritual market place seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.”
Prothero notes that at their best, the denominations that had long sustained memberships offered different visions of the good life. “Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion, as we search, in love, for the next new thing.”
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.