Saturday, the New York Times published an op-ed in the Sunday Review section entitled, “Americans: Undecided about God?” by Eric Weiner, author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine. He identifies himself as a brand new (to me), but apparently fast growing spiritual demographic, the “Nones.”
He says that nearly 12% of the US are Nones (as opposed to nuns), and a quarter of young people (no age range given). What are the Nones? They are people who do not identify with any specific or organized religion, yet believe in “God.” They consider themselves spiritual, yet are ‘undecided’ and will explore a wide variety of ‘isms’ and probably cherry pick from each.
Weiner cites a Notre Dame/Harvard study that indicates this trend towards amorphous spiritualism is due to the increasing religious polarization of politics and how it drives folks away from both politics and organized religion. I think that is far too simplistic.
There are a variety of factors but I suspect the overarching commonality is a cultural elite seeking (quite successfully) to secularize the culture, yet running headlong into a human nature that senses a spiritual realm and can’t ‘go there’ to full secularism entirely, so they seek out what Weiner almost explicitly calls a pragmatic faith of believing in ‘what works.’ They’ve bought the idea that there are few if any absolute metaphysical Truths, so it is up to each person to determine the truths that make their lives manageable at least, or purposeful at best.
Weiner refers to a wide spectrum of spiritual writers from Christian G. K. Chesterton to the Dalai Lama to atheist Aldous Huxley, who suggested the idea of ‘human grace.’ Weiner proceeds to suggest the need for a “Steve Jobs of religion.” “Someone (or ones) who can invent … a new way of being religious…[that] would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.”
I find the idea of ‘human grace’ empty, a counterfeit. Grace is unmerited favor—getting good things you don’t deserve, like forgiveness from all of my wrongdoing, and a secure eternity. Human grace is real—we can forgive, but it is only for this life, and there is no assurance in it, and it has its origins in God, which Huxley obviously didn’t believe in, yet immersed as he was in a Christian infused culture, felt a need for some of the key benefits without the divine constraints. Furthermore, human grace is empty because it is somewhat dependent on the fact that we all screw up, so how can I not forgive you when I know full well I do the same kinds of things. It’s an exchange, a tit for tat. True grace comes from One offended through no fault of His own and who caused no offense in others.
But the largest problem with the Nones is their spiritual ignorance, both in terms of lack of understanding, and unwillingness to understand key spiritual principles. Some of these priniciples are:
1) Why would Jesus have gone to the cross if there were a kinder, gentler way of dealing with human evil and sin? If all we had to do was be nice to each other and think good thoughts to erase our sin, then He was a fool for letting them crucify Him. Sure it was a nice gesture, but worthless and foolish. If you think He did it as a gesture, go and read about crucifixion. Once you understand what He went through, you will conclude that He either went through it involuntarily, in which case He was a mere man and not worth the hullabaloo, or He went through it voluntarily. In this latter case, if it was ultimately unnecessary, then I will say it again, He was a fool. The only other option was that it was necessary, and we’d better pay real close attention to what He says about why and what the implications are for us. (Oh, I suppose there is one more option—He thought it was necessary, but it wasn’t. In that case, He isn’t a God worth putting faith into if He can’t think His way out of that one.)
2) Pragmatism is an extremely limited worldview. It does not inspire, nor lift us higher than personal survival and success. It has nothing enduring about it. It is good for this life only, so it is not worth fighting and dying for. To paraphrase St. Paul, if it is for this life only that we are nice and kind to people, especially to our hurt in stature, comfort, or survival, then we are to be pitied above all humans. In that case, it is better to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die and there is nothing beyond. Some may argue that we fight for our families, or the success of the species as a whole. That implies that pragmatism is evolutionarily bred into us as a mere instinct, and we are nothing more than a pre-programmed sack of cells. If that is the case, then there is truly no purpose in pragmatism than to promote existence, which has no purpose, so what’s the point? See Paul’s statement again. Furthermore, pragmatism quickly finds conflict in the extreme green movement that promotes the life of the planet above humanity. Radical environmentalism is definitely anti-pragmatic for the thriving of the human species (There is a LOT more to unpack here than I have space, so I’m going to leave the logic as an exercise for the reader. (How typical for an educator, right?))
3) God repeatedly says in Scripture that people will be offended when He is mentioned. Thus seeking to find a path that allows us to mention Him without embarrassment is fruitless.
4) The response to point 3 is “well, the God we’re talking about isn’t offensive. You’re just referring to your picture of God that is a bit of an egoist. He’s no fun, so come find a cooler Higher Power.” Fine. You can say that. I have one question. Do you let others define who you are, or are you you, and you have final say in who you are? How much more so for God that He should and does have the right and the ability to explain, define and reveal Himself? When you date someone long enough, or marry them, you learn more and more who they are, including things about them that are in conflict with how you want to live or how you wanted to manage the relationship, and you have to adjust to who they are and not redefine them to make your life easier. They are not the sum total of a cafeteria-created significant other where you’ve selected a couple of main traits, three sides, a drink and a dessert. In the same way, you can’t say, “Well this deity has the amazing wonderful miracle thing going, but that judgment feature needs to be deactivated or better yet uninstalled. This model over here however, is full of peace, love and joy, but not much ability to pull my butt out of the fire. I simply need more Godpower than this can provide. Is there an optional Turbo-boost I can add-in?”
5) Finally, for this list, I have to ask it. It’s the big one. No one likes it, but it is the ultimate question about any spiritual path. Is it True? In other words, does it describe accurately the world the way it is, adequately and accurately explain how everything got here and why, and where is everything heading and what do we or can we do about it? If this existence is more than illusion, then there must logically be an external framework, and it behooves us to examine it carefully, asking the hard questions of it, not merely in terms of our personal experiences, but also the big picture. After all, as much as we’d like it to be, it is not all about us, and we need a broader perspective than our little lives in order to make sense of things.
It is not sufficient to merely create our own narrative and call it metanarrative. We are too small and humanity too big, much more the universe to think our tidy bundle of nice catchphrases and 10 steps for a happy life can meet all of this life’s demands, much less those of any life to come.
One final thought about Weiner’s vision of a Jobsian worldview. It seems to me that a “straightforward,” “unencumbered,” “absolutely intuitive” religion would be hard pressed to simultaneously celebrate doubt. Doubt implies confusion over something that is not straightforward. Doubt is usually an encumbrance. Similarly, if someone is operating absolutely intuitively, they aren’t worried too much about doubt, they just do it. Jobsianism is sound-bite spirituality, vapid and incapable of sustaining someone through a real crisis.
I am worried for the Nones. I’m afraid that’s all they have, and none ain’t much.