Tuesday, March 09, 2010

What Religion "Should" Be

In commenting on mysticism, I skipped over one of the elements of Ross Douthat's argument that deserves a bit more attention:
Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.
Douthat's argument about what religion should be is something of a conceit, but it does appear that the shift by major religions away from theology and into social justice and the culture wars has played a role in reduced church attendance and probably also in the democratization of religious experience. If you define your religion in terms that are divorced from theology, you're opening yourself up to competition from other religions and philosophies, and also from the secular world.

Is that good or bad? Douthat argues that it's good and bad, but then quotes a scholar to suggest that democratization makes religion, in essence, too easy. But while it's easy to caricature the modern American's religious experience as, "A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center", that's not the experience of most Americans - and it never will be. Just as the experience of being a cloistered monk is now a rarity, but was never mainstream.

I am not sure that fewer people will become "mystics" under a broadened conception of religion than became "mystics" while strictly adhering to the tenets of a formal religious faith. If Douthat's statistic on the prevalence of religious or mystical experiences is correct, arguably the number could increase.

So what's the problem? Is it truly that people might experience or interpret the mystical without sensing the presence of God, or at least Douthat's conception of God? That they might conceive of a God who is less sacred than Douthat's conception? Douthat admits that he's no mystic and is in no danger of becoming one, so what's the real difference? It would appear to be that people will worship "the wrong way" - they may be spiritual, even religious, but are much less likely to regularly attend church or accept the infallibility of a specific faith.

If you're a member of a faith that you see as imperiled, or if you are the leader of a faith, that would appear to be a problem. If you've embraced the democratization of faith, it's "no big deal" - your spiritual needs are being filled. If you fear the demise of your faith as an institution and spread its conception of what faith "should be", it's not so easy to turn back the clock.

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