Anne Lamott writes in her spiritual autobiography Traveling Mercies, “Religion is for those who are afraid of Hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been through it.” I agree, in some ways. We all have seen how “religion” can be—and often is—dry bones. Formalism without meaning and spontaneity, structure without life—these are some of the phrases that have come to describe many people’s thoughts about religion. Still, religious studies classes at Harvard and other Ivy League schools—as well as UBC—are filling up. In Chapters Bookstore there are aisles of shelf space given to religious books. Still, and here Lamott’s quote takes flesh, based on church attendance Vancouver is perhaps the most ‘secular’ place in North America. People crave spiritual experience, and a vague notion of “spirituality” but are leery of ‘religion.’
There are a few characteristics of this “fad,” if it’s fair to call it that, that strike me as odd. The first is how private it is. Overhearing a conversation at Starbucks a few weeks ago I heard a person report to a friend “…Then she started asking me if I was spiritual, and kept asking questions. Now believe me, I am deeply spiritual! But it’s private—I’m not gonna tell her about my private spiritual life.” It’s quite amazing really, that is, how the spiritual side of our lives has become more private than our sex life.
Second, while we are rightly becoming more aware of third world exploitation—we’re buying fair-trade even though it cost more. We, the West, are engaging in other forms of exploitation, namely, religious exploitation. I think of the young businessman who has statues of Shiva and Buddha, and perhaps a Greek Orthodox cross in his house and upon a dinner conversation says, “I hate the west, all we care about here is getting money.” The irony, of course, being that with all his warranted distaste of Western society he really is deeply Western—his home décor proves it. He has brought together different religions for the sake of his own stylish spirituality and thus shown disregard for what the statue of Buddha ultimately means, say, to the Buddhist. Like the woman who doesn’t care about fair-trade as long as her coffee is rich and bold, he too, ultimately, doesn’t care about the deep history and meaning of Buddha, along as his spirituality is personally rewarding and savvy.
What is striking about contemporary spirituality is how self centered it is. This, I must say, saddens me. However, Lamott is still very right. Spirituality does appeal to those who have experienced hard times, or as she puts it, “hell.” The Christian message, though, is comforting as it maintains that true hope ultimately comes, not from a tradition, but a person—the person of Jesus Christ. When troubled, remember that, reach through the spiritual confusion of our present time, all the way to Christ. He is the one who offers a real hope—in a real relationship.