Monday, June 23, 2014

Collage Spirituality: Your faith is a mess, but it's what you have to work with

Our religious lives have always been like quilts, sewn together and stitched, never cut from whole cloth. It has been the great goal, perhaps the Holy Grail, of some religions (not to mention their leaders) to gather communities of like-minded believers who adhere completely to their systematic and dogmatically sound teachings.

I think sociologists would argue that even in the best of cases, the purity of faith assumed in the adherents of these traditions is an illusion. Even the most faithful (sometimes especially the most faithful) of any religious tradition are always still syncretistic, weaving into their quilts scraps of cloth dropped from the wagons of other caravans, lost in the busy mess of diverse exchanges and dyed into colors almost beyond recognition.

Collage Spirituality

The argument I'm making here is simple, and has two steps: I'd like to point out that the postmodern practice of spirituality is like collage; I'd then like to emphasize that it isn't increasingly collage-like, but rather illustratively collage, and simply collage in the way postmodern developments make possible in new and intriguing ways.

We can probably mess around with which type of art this type of faith formation is most like. It might be assemblage, composite faith constructed from found objects. It might be pastiche, faith formation in imitation of other faiths. It might even be d├ęcollage, the tearing away or cutting off of portions of faith to make art from what remains. Perhaps most of our faith is a hodge lodge, a heterogenous mixture, confused and disorderly, but really the only thing we have to work with.

However it gets put together, the point is that no faith is systematic, and it is always woven together from almost too many sources to mention. It is in all likelihood passed on from parents and adult mentors. Sociologists like Christian Smith emphasize how traditional young people are, taking on the faith traditions of their parents. Interestingly, however, the children don't adopt the faith tradition their parents think they are passing on. Although the average North American parent thinks they are passing on Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, in point of fact Smith discovered that they are passing on an assembled, culturally dominant faith Smith titles Moralist Therapeutic Deism.

That, all by itself, is interesting and scary, that whole cultures can pass on a faith without largely being aware of it.

But it gets more complicated than this. We are each one of us individuals, and individually made. In a secularized era, with the emergence of spheres of influence (especially the emergence of the private sphere over against the public) we are each of us weaving together spiritualities influenced by the shared spiritualities of our communities (in North America I would argue the dominant spiritualities are just for the sake of arguments sake--capitalism, athleticism, militarism, and
liberalism--pretty much in that order) and assembled from the unique experiences of our own personal life.

Which is to say that the spiritualities we think we are exercising aren't in point of fact the spiritualities we are exercising. We'd like to think we are Christian first, and only shoppers second, but the truth is quite the other way around. Our greatest liturgies take place in football stadiums, our trust is in a military-industrial complex not God above all gods, and what ties us together are some solid but modified versions of Christian culture that we might loosely label the Liberal worldview.

All of that is contestable. Scholars could argue which ones influence the most, and how much. But what is not arguable is that all those traditions influence our spiritualities in various ways. And that they influence more than we know, are aware, or are willing to admit.

Then there are "traditional" spiritualities, the spiritualities we think we are exercising when we are exercising them--meditation, Buddhism, Christianity, atheism--and then within those traditions--Roman Catholic Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Nietzschian atheism--subcategories we adhere to even when they fail to inform our daily life as much as the latent and more dominant spiritualities that daily wash over us and almost overwhelm us.

Strangely, the faith traditions we self-identify with and adhere to most strongly are typically not the spiritualities that actually form our daily habits the most. We are almost all capitalists, for example. The fact that some of us are Lutherans is a minor point, not something that makes us much different than others as compared to the dominant spirituality of late modern capitalism.

The Individualism of Collage

Robert Bellah identified this phenomenon (of individualism in faith) quite early in his research, noticing that people he interviewed put together individual faith to such an extent that it could be said they practice their own individual religious tradition. Each of us, in this sense, could name our religion after ourselves. I practice Clint-ism. It is an admixture of Christianity, spiritualities I have picked up by being white, American, male, a reader of books, a hipster, educated, midwestern, and more. In one sense it is not my own, because it is assembled from many sources. But the precise way it is is assembled is uniquely mine.

I tend to think all of this is just fine, within reason, because it is really the way it has always been. Israel never purified itself completely of the religions of the place it occupied. There were always altars on the hills to various gods, and the houses remained full of idols other than whatever was designed to worship the LORD. In fact modern scholars don't even think the Israelites went into the promised land and killed off its inhabitants. There seems to be no record of that other than in Scripture itself. In reality, they probably moved in and mixed with the peoples there.

What's remarkable here is how much of a center was held to the Israelite faith even as it mixed with neighbors. One might even argue that it was and is a more resilient and enduring faith precisely for always having been woven together with others. The Genesis narrative is not sui generis, it didn't drop out of the sky. It has resonances and is probably related to the creation stories of other cultures. Yet it is related while different. That's a difference with a difference.

So What?

What all of this does is to legitimize micro-communal faith and bolster meta-resources for faith formation. It may be the case that little local communities of faith (and in the highly privatized modern era, each of us is our own micro-community) are just fine and quite resilient as they weave together their faith. Like quilters, they simply need the right resources, and what is woven together can be quite beautiful even if made from rather random shreds.

Really, there's no way to control this micro-communal phenomenon. Even in eras with high standards of religious conformity, people find ways to rebel. Rebellion may not even be the right word. Think of the Middle Ages. Roman Catholicism thought it was holding the faith together by keeping the Bible in one translation--Latin--and interpreted by trained clergy. Yet when Luther and Melanchthon toured the rural areas of Germany they were appalled not simply by the "ignorance" of the laity but even the ignorance of the clergy. They discovered people believed all sorts of different things, or perhaps believed very little of anything at all.

Melanchthon got to work on a loci communes. Luther got to work translating the Bible. Everybody got to work on various catechisms. They wanted to get the faith out, and also centered in some common doctrinal positions.

Now, in an era of hyper-proliferation of resources, everybody can get busy producing resources for each other and themselves, so the inaccessibility of the Bible has reversed itself, made distant by hyper-proliferation rather than hierarchical or language barriers. Now all the knowledge of the world is at our finger tips, on our phones, but is it accessed? Do the majority of believers actually live as if the Bible were only in Latin, untranslated and so only available through the preaching of a priest?

What I find promising, though, is how many people I know really are on various types of spiritual journeys, and they are finding all kinds of resources to tap into, threads and cloth and needles all over the place with which to quilt. If you've read this far, you're using my blog for this purpose. Earlier this week, I learned one of my parishioners, relatively new to Facebook, had happened upon a series of podcasts I've been doing on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Bible. She then compared my talk to a sermon by a Methodist preacher she had heard recently. Between that and their Bible-reading, this family was weaving together a faith, podcasts and sermons and mutual conversation and life and more.

These are the meta-resources. We now have access to a cornucopia of resources, so many as almost to be overwhelmed by them, so that the modern priest may actually need to be a d├ęcollage artist, helping us strip away the noise in order to focus on what is central. In an era of proliferation, curators of the essential become important. They are the indie bookstore owners, the magazine editors, the connoisseur, those who help us sort through everything available and create meta-resources that connect us with the right other micro-communities from which we can learn and with which we can network.

Two Worries

I can think of two things about this entire phenomenon that concern me somewhat. For the most part, I'm good with it. I'm so thankful to be able to participate in and contribute to a faith formation eco-system that is so open, distributed, diverse. I thrill to the idea that we might all accompany each other in our movement towards God, and that God accompanies in this movement as well.

I do worry, though, about whether or not the overall postmodern context allows us to be interested without being committed. In other words, I wonder about the social justice component of our new comfort with collage faith. We are free to be the most informed people of faith of any era. But what will we do with this? Will we sit with it in comfort, carefully sewing one corner of the quilt? In our freedom, can we be challenged at all? Can we hear the prophetic voice of someone like James Cone, for example, who argues "the life of Jesus also discloses that freedom is bound up with suffering. It is not possible to be for him and not realize that one has chosen an existence in suffering" (A Black Theology of Liberation, 107). It may be that in our assemblage faith, we have assumed a level of comfort that so distorts faith as to make it unjust and detached.

I also worry about the impact on real, concrete institutions and organizations. There are some things that can only be done when they are done together. Think of hospitals, or universities, world hunger organizations, or your local congregation. In this collage era, the religious can stay at home and still download the sermon, read the Bible off their Kindle, gather with a few like-minded souls Sunday evening to trade casseroles and pray over their meal, and call it good. But the larger social goods that come from the gathering of larger groups--unremarked but incredible goods like church choirs, church suppers, corporate worship, offerings of letters to congress, not to mention dollars donated in the offering plate that build and maintain buildings and pay salaries--may not be goods we want to lose, and it may be that the unanticipated consequence of the combination of collage faith with postmodern meta-resourcification will be a shift to every person a church, and every church a less frequently used but once beautiful building.

This last point is one of the scare tactics of the Luddites, so I mention it with some trepidation. More hopefully, I see all the time how meta-resources can strengthen and build up corporate faith. Small groups I meet with weekly or once a month use social networking tools to support one another in-between meetings. People go back to the sermon on-line to listen later, not as a first-listen, but for review.

And returning to the most basic insight, it has likely been ever thus. Imagine an ancient believer, crossing rocky terrain on a caravan. In the moments available to them, they would have climbed local hills to place rocks at shrines and altars, sought out Asherah-poles, stared up at night into the stars to wonder out their relation to the gods, chatted over campfires about the meaning of existence, shared stories to push back the darkness, quilted together a faith as best they could to warm them through the night, and make beautiful their inner spaces that sometimes peek out into the light of day.

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