May 2017

Against the Wind

Sociologist Wade Clark Roof writes, “It’s hard to dismiss the fact that the religious stance today is more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more experiential than cerebral, more private than public….” Well, I don’t doubt this statement. The evidence is everywhere. There are certainly positive dimensions in this development. It does, however, concern me.

On the one hand, who could be against a religious stance that is internal, that speaks to the individual, that is experienced, and that is private, not forced on other people? On the other, don’t the words “external, institutional, private and cerebral” load the dice? Sure, there are people whose religion is only external, institutional, public and cerebral, but I hope I am not one of them. I come out of a religious tradition, Catholicism, that emphasizes the “both/and”: both scripture and tradition, both faith and works, both the individual and the community, both mysticism and philosophy. Many of my fellow Catholics are critical of “the Institutional church,” meaning all those things that they don’t find compelling and inspiring about the Church. Truth to be told, there is quite a bit within the Church that doesn’t inspire: dull sermons, lifeless congregations, and uninspiring music. Yet, I don’t know of any movement that has lasted over time without assuming some institutional form. I also don’t trust experiential approaches bereft of serious reflection. What’s more, I think that anything you deeply love and care about is hard to keep private. Why would you want to do that?

The religious stance that Roof describes hasn’t developed overnight. One of the most eloquent champions of an experiential and private religion, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in 1841, “insist on yourself; never imitate. Do your thing, and I shall know you.” About the typical New England preacher, he sighed, “Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?” His essay, “Self-Reliance,” has been included in most anthologies of influential American thinkers.

Another major figure, Harvard philosopher William James, described religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude.” A few decades later, Alfred North Whitehead, another Harvard philosopher, wrote that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” The difference between now and then is that their plea for a more personal and experiential religion has become a rapidly growing movement, especially among young people.

In October of 2018, Pope Francis will convene another Synod of Bishops (and I hope this time it will include not only bishops, but also many young believers, seekers and some who are disaffected) to examine what is going on with young people and their religious lives. Our Institute will soon launch a major interdisciplinary study of the “spiritual but not religious” trend. Roof is right; the trend is real and growing rapidly. Recognizing its importance, we want to explore whether faith that is rooted in public witness, is experienced in a vibrant community, and fosters critical reflection—that is, a faith that is both spiritual and religious, has a future. In the meantime, I am very aware that I am going against the wind.

Recent Oxford Publications

Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility Among Jews, Christians and Muslims

“This explicitly theological and exceptionally engaging collection of scholarly essays represents trilateral dialogue in its most refined yet attractively challenging form.”
— John Borelli, Georgetown University