American author, Sam Keen, recently published a book entitled, Hymns to an Unknown God. The book is outstanding—not because it is deep, but because it is typical.
What Keen, who is no novice to religion since he holds both a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in the philosophy of religion, does in this book is to draw hard the distinction between spirituality (the spiritual quest) and religion (church life), legitimating the former and somewhat denigrating the latter.
He calls himself a “trustful agnostic,” a “recovering Presbyterian” and wears a question mark rather than a cross around his neck. He sees himself as a searcher on a spiritual quest.
But the path of spirituality, in his view, is not the path of organized religion. “Every religion begins with the answers,” he asserts, the spiritual quest “begins exactly the opposite. It begins with the questions.” Within spirituality, unlike religion, “you don’t just surrender. You don’t just obey.”
Moreover, in the spiritual quest you never, in this life, really arrive. For him, once a person settles into the practice of a religion, he or she can no longer claim to be on a spiritual quest. Spirituality has been traded in for religion.
In saying this, Keen speaks for our age. Spirituality is in, religion is out. Typical today is the person who wants faith but not the church, the questions but not the answers, the religious but not the ecclesial, truth but not obedience.
The churches are dying right in the middle of a spiritual renaissance. More and more typical too is the person who understands himself or herself as a “recovering Christian,” as someone whose quest for God has taken them out of the church.
What’s to be said about all this? Is this good or bad? Are we growing up or are we setting human pride against God?
To my mind, it is all of these. What is happening is both good and bad. We are healthily moving beyond infantile submission even as we are, at the same time, arrogantly asserting human pride against faith’s perennial call to obedience.
To begin with, the churches must take this critique seriously. Why are so many people who are sincerely searching for God not turning to the churches? Why is there so much disillusionment with organized religion?
It is futile to argue that the world should perceive us, the churches, more kindly. You can’t argue with a perception! Better to admit our shortcomings. We are, right now, far from being the community we should be: We are intellectually slovenly, we don’t live adequately enough what we preach, we close off questions prematurely, and we radiate too little of the charity, forgiveness and joy of God.
We are not offering enough. Small wonder we are not attractive.
But the Sam Keens, bent on their spiritual quest, must also examine themselves. There are some hard questions that should be asked here too: Isn’t the spiritual quest, when it distinguishes itself from organized religion, a little too glamorous, too easy, too stoic, too saccharinely noble, too individualistic, too clean and too non-committal to ever lead to real self-sacrifice—which, in the end, is what the spiritual quest is all about?
Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, the great saints, these were not glamorous, anti-heros, Hamlet-type figures, bent on an individualistic spiritual pursuit, understanding themselves as soaring above an intellectually dull and unwashed pack, hanging loose, unable to give their obedience to anything or anybody.
Neither were they afraid to link themselves to actual communities with all the sin, pettiness, dirt and compromise this brings. Jesus was content to die between two thieves, mistaken for someone who was naïve and who had compromised the truth.
In the end, to define spirituality as distinct from religion gets us off the hook in terms of conversion. Why? Because, at the end of the day, one does not have to make a commitment to a real community and one can always escape the crucifixion by continuing the quest.
Bluntly put, I don’t see a lot of people with question marks around their necks being crucified. There is too much glamor and too little commitment in it. Moreover there is also some intellectual dishonesty in it.
The pure quest that does not want a hard answer is ultimately trying to avoid something, actual commitment. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “Thirst is made for water; inquiry for truth.” Sometimes what we “call the free play of inquiry has neither more or less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given than masturbation has to do with marriage.”
The spiritual quest is about questions—and it is also about answers.