The Common Good
March-April 1999

The Future of Faith

by Joan Chittister | March-April 1999

Wuthnow's "ecclesiastical chaos theory"

"Nothing is more repulsive," Carl Jung wrote, "than a furtively prurient spirituality; it is just as unsavory as gross sensuality." There are, in other words, some types of spirituality that themselves smother the spirit, that hold the heart in check, that substitute ritual, dogma, doctrine, and canonical hearsay for the real thing. All spirituality is not the same, the comment implies. Shop carefully.

In an age of massive spiritual eclecticism, scientific challenge to age-old truisms, permeable national boundaries, and major theological developments in every major religion unlike anything we have ever seen before, the warning sobers. Like ants let loose from an ant farm, the world has scattered in search of Truth: to the East, to New Age bookstores, to denominational fundamentalisms of the most rigid kind, to self-styled gurus, to the inner search.

Robert Wuthnow's After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s looks the phenomenon in the eye and explains it in a way that more than makes sense—it makes for a whole new way of dealing with it. Wuthnow, a professor of social sciences and director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University, not only tells us what has happened to religion in America and why, he tells us what has happened as a result. And it is not what we may have thought. According to Wuthnow's analysis, all of which touched my own experience of religious reality, things are far better than we may realize.

Given our culture's high mobility and the breakdown of global boundaries, we have, Wuthnow contends, moved away from the spirituality of institutions—and their emphasis on laws, church-going, family, and social mores that characterized the rural, small-town culture of the prewar period—to a place in the soul beyond the parochial. Left without the comfort and luxury of lifelong institutions to guide us as we moved from place to place, and confronted with institutional breakdown everywhere, we found ourselves with rules that did not apply and questions that had no answers. In search of spiritual meaning in a highly psychologized culture, we retreated to the exploration of the self, Wuthnow explains, in a plethora of self-help exercises where personal analysis became its own end.

FINALLY, LEFT WITH a concentration on inner impulses and a new consciousness of the self that, good as those things may have been, went nowhere beyond the self, a new tide swept the spiritual horizon. The "spirituality of practice," with its consciousness of the sacred and the right-heartedness and right-living that flows from it, began to emerge everywhere. People remained, for the most part, in the traditions that had formed them, but sought a great deal more than the churches themselves had to give. Rather than the routines, rituals, services, and gatherings provided in every congregation, people began an eclectic search for those practices they felt brought them personally most in touch with the sacred. The results may look like the unchurching of America, and indeed to some extent they may be, but, Wuthnow argues, they indicate anything but the loss of spirituality. Rather, they explain the great resurgence in spiritual values as well as the integration of the material and spiritual dimensions of life. The path is an impressive one indeed.

The spirituality of practice has brought people to a new level of personal spiritual responsibility. They impose on themselves the routines of sacred asceticisms. They recognize the value given by monastic traditions to the repetitive processes of search. They begin to see themselves and their place in the universe differently. They begin to see the world differently. Rather than being simply faithful members of any given denomination, they become spiritual citizens of the world, nourished by the spiritual history in which they function but not limited by it. A new spiritual person, Wuthnow implies, is beginning to emerge.

It is a very positive picture of ecclesiastical chaos theory. In this paradigm, people have not left religion; they have gone beyond it.

Wuthnow takes us into people's lives as well as into ideas. He helps us to recognize ourselves and gives us hope that our own confusions might really be a new kind of clarity. Most of all, he gives us faith in the future of faith and shows a spirituality that calls us beyond ourselves. In my opinion, this book is not only worth reading, it is worth meditating upon. It makes sense out of life, even mine and yours.

JOAN CHITTISTER, O.S.B., a Sojourners contributing editor, is an author and lecturer, and founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, in Erie, Pennsylvania.

After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. Robert Wuthnow. University of California Press, 1998.

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