In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting as censor morum, declared that America is a Christian people. Sixty years later it modified the claim, calling us a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. The difference between the two statements is profound, for almost anything can count as religious. Proof, were it needed, came in 1968, when Justice Douglas, speaking for the Court, asserted a right to use pornography because of the importance of “man’s spiritual nature.”
Where are we now? Some have gone so far as to characterize contemporary American pop spirituality by the motto ABC: “Anything But Christianity.” There is some truth to the portrayal. Large numbers of us are willing to try Zen, yoga, channeling, séances, astrology, past-life regressions, transcendental meditation, the reading of omens, the chanting of mantras, the casting of spells, the use of charms, the induction of abnormal mental states by drugs, the cultivation of out-of-body experiences, the ritual offering of milk and honey to Sophia or of aborted babies to Artemis -- anything but faith in the one whom Christians call the resurrected Lord.
Because of the strangeness of these practices and associated beliefs, the ABC segment of our folk religion receives a great deal of attention. I suggest, however, that the attention given this segment is far out of proportion to its numbers.
For the greatest part of American pop spirituality seems to be formed by the confluence of two streams, neither of which can be characterized as simply ABC: A stream of people fleeing Christian orthodoxy, who have paused, for some reason, on the way out, and a stream of people attracted to Christian orthodoxy, who have paused, for some reason, on the way in. If these two groups have much in common and are attracted to many of the same authors, it is because they are loitering at the same gate, comparing and exchanging their articles of luggage. They dabble with the beliefs and practices listed above, but they dabble with orthodox beliefs and practices as well.
Because the representatives of these two streams never offer theological reasons for lingering, one cannot help but wonder just what arrests their respective movements. One writer I encountered, a best-selling minister who loitered on the way out the exit, seemed to have a sheer sentimental attachment to congregational fellowship. Another, a best-selling psychologist who loitered on the way in, seemed burdened by the awful weight of sudden and unexpected guruhood. Having passed in both directions through the portal myself, I am interested by such things. But because they are not such things as can be learned from books, let us consider the things that can.
Particularly interesting is the selectivity of such writers' borrowings from orthodoxy. The second of the two fellows I mentioned borrowed a belief in the existence of various created spirits -- some of them angels, others deceivers. But he had no use for scriptural guidelines for telling them apart, much less for the scriptural prohibition of sorcery; thus he practiced unsupervised exorcisms of the ones he considered bad and “channeled” the ones he considers good. This is a good deal more than chilling.
The other was also selective, though in a sillier way. For instance the idea of Holy Communion attracted him, but heaven forbid that it should be undertaken with bread and wine, for the elements Jesus instructed his followers to use might suggest, he said, a “theological interpretation.” One fine Sunday, therefore, the good reverend sprang tangerines on his congregation, reasoning that the problem of dealing with pits and peels and so forth would encourage cooperation. Another week he tried animal crackers. Over time he also experimented with Gummi Bears, jelly beans, M&Ms, and Pop Rocks. Unfortunately the animal crackers provoked a free-for-all among the children, the M&Ms melted in the hands, and the Pop Rocks produced a lavender froth around the lips. His conclusion? “Reformation is never simple, never easy, never quick.”
So it is that people of two such different streams, some of them refugees from something like orthodoxy, the others just arrived from regions adjacent to Zen, converge at the gate and pause. Contemporary American pop spirituality is a theology of lingering, of loitering, of hesitation, a religion of the vestibule. It wants connectedness without commitment, reconciliation without repentance, and sacredness without sanctity. It wants to sing the songs of Zion in the temples of Ishtar and Brahman – or vice versa. God help us to know what we want and to want what we ought. God make haste to help us; God make speed to save us.