Over the past 20 years, I have asked Christians and atheists, poets and physicists, authors and activists to speak on air about something that ultimately defies each and every one of our words. This radio adventure began in the mid-1990s, when I emerged from divinity school to find a media and political landscape in which the conversation about faith had been handed to a few strident, polarizing voices. I longed to create a conversational space that could honor the intellectual as well as the spiritual content of this aspect of human existence.
The history of theology is one long compulsion to not, as St. Augustine said, remain altogether silent. The history of theology, and humanity, is also brimming, of course, with words about faith’s unreasonableness and limitations. One of my favorite definitions of faith emerged from an interview with a Jesuit priest—the Vatican astronomer George Coyne, who quoted the author Anne Lamott: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” I have thrown this line into more than a few erudite discussions, and it delightfully shakes things up.
That is all by way of declaring that I can offer only incomplete and humble observations to the question of what I have learned about faith, in my life of radio conversation and the life I have led alongside it. Faith is evolutionary in every culture and in any life. The same enduring, fundamental belief will hold a transfigured substance in the beginning, the middle and the end of any lifetime. So here are three things I perceive about the state of faith’s evolution in our world and in American culture right now.
The new nonreligious may be the greatest hope for the revitalization of religion.
The phrase “spiritual but not religious,” now common social parlance, is just the tip of an iceberg that has already moved on. We are among the first people in human history who do not broadly inherit religious identity as a given, a matter of kin and tribe, like hair color and hometown. And this is not leading to the decline of spiritual life but to its transformation. One might even use the loaded word “reformation.” This is reformation in a distinctly 21st-century form. Its impulses would make more sense to Bonhoeffer, with his intimation of “religionless Christianity,” than to Luther, with those theses he could pin to a door.
Masses of airtime and print space have been given over to the phenomenon of the “nones”—the awkwardly named, fastest-growing segment of spiritual identification comprising something like 15 percent of the American population as a whole and a full third of people under 30. I do not find it surprising that young people born in the 1980s and ’90s have distanced themselves from the notion of religious declaration, coming of age as they did in that era, in which strident religious voices became toxic forces in American culture.
The growing universe of the nones is one of the most spiritually vibrant and provocative spaces in modern life.
More to the point: The growing universe of the nones is one of the most spiritually vibrant and provocative spaces in modern life. It is not a world in which spiritual life is absent. It is a world that resists religious excesses and shallows. Large swaths of this universe are wild with ethical passion and delving, openly theological curiosity, and they are expressing this in unexpected places and unexpected ways. There are churches and synagogues full of nones. They are also filling up undergraduate classes on the New Testament and St. Augustine.
Nathan Schneider, a frequent America contributor, eloquently described to me during his interview on my show the paradox of his own spiritually eclectic upbringing and the depth of searching he and his peers engage when they encounter the traditions. He converted to Catholicism as a teen, attracted to the contemplative tradition of the medieval church and the radical social witness of people like Dorothy Day. But at Mass, he met many lifelong Catholics who appeared unaware of the riches of their own tradition and kept going “with a kind of inertia.” Meanwhile, among the unchurched, he found people who were grappling with the big questions. “They didn’t feel like they could really commit themselves to these institutions, but they were curious, and they were looking for something.”
I see seekers in this realm pointing Christianity back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart. I have spoken with a young man who started a digital enterprise that joins strangers for conversation and community around life traumas, from the economic to the familial; young Californians with a passion for social justice working to gain a theological grounding and spiritual resilience for their work and others; African-American meditators helping community initiatives cast a wider and more diverse net of neighbors. The line between sacred and secular does not quite make sense to any of them, even though none of them are religious in any traditional form. But they are animated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of creating “the beloved community.” They are giving themselves over to this, with great intention and humility, as a calling that is spiritual and not merely social and political.
There is a new conversation and interplay between religion and science in human life, and it has wondering (not debating) at its heart.
In the century now past, certain kinds of religiosity turned themselves into boxes into which too little wondering could enter or escape. So did certain kinds of nonbelief. But this I believe: Any conviction worth its salt has chosen to cohabit with a piece of mystery, and that mystery is at the essence of the vitality and growth of the thing.
Einstein saw a capacity for wonder, a reverence for mystery, at the heart of the best of science and religion and the arts. And as this century opened, physicists, cosmologists and astronomers were no longer pushing mystery out but welcoming it back in. Physics came to the edge of what it thought to be final frontiers and discovered, among other premise-toppling things, that the expansion of the universe is not slowing down but speeding up. It turns out that the vast majority of the cosmos is brim full of forces we had never before imagined and cannot yet fathom—the intriguingly named dark matter, as well as dark energy.
Meanwhile, quantum physics, whose tenets Einstein compared to voodoo, has given us cellphones and personal computers, technologies of the everyday by which we populate online versions of outer space. In turn, these immersive, science-driven experiences are renewing ancient human intuitions that linear, immediate reality is not all there is. There is reality and there is virtual reality, space and cyberspace. Use whatever analogy you will. Our online lives take us down the rabbit hole, like Alice. We wake up in the morning and walk through the back of the closet into Narnia. The further we delve into artificial intelligence and the mapping of our own brains, the more fabulous our own consciousness appears.
I am strangely comforted when I hear from cosmologists that human beings are the most complex creatures we know of in the universe, still, by far. Black holes are in their way explicable; the simplest living being is not. I lean a bit more confidently into the experience that life is so endlessly perplexing. I love that word, perplexing. In this sense, spiritual life is a reasonable, reality-based pursuit. It can have mystical entry points and destinations, to be sure. But it is in the end about befriending reality, the common human experience of mystery included. It acknowledges the full drama of the human condition. It attends to beauty and pleasure; it attends to grief and pain and the enigma of our capacity to resist the very things we long for and need.
The science-religion “debate” of clashing certainties was never true to the spirit or the history of science or of faith.
Science is even a new kind of companion in illuminating this, the mystery of ourselves. Biologists and neuroscientists and social psychologists are taking the great virtues into the laboratory—forgiveness, compassion, love, even awe. They are describing, in ways theology could never do alone, how such things work; in the process, they are making the practice of virtues and indeed the elements of righteousness more humanly possible. The science-religion “debate” of clashing certainties was never true to the spirit or the history of science or of faith. But this new conversation and interplay born of a shared wonder is revolutionary and redemptive for us all.
The connection points I hear to monasticism and contemplation, nearly everywhere in the emerging spiritual landscape, are beyond intriguing.
The desert fathers and mothers, the visionaries like St. Benedict and St. Francis and Julian of Norwich and St. Ignatius Loyola—they all found their voice at a distance from a church they experienced to have grown externally domesticated and inwardly cold, out of touch with its own spiritual core. I see their ecumenical, humanist, transnational analogs among the nones. There is a growing ecumenical constellation of communities called the new monasticism with deep roots in evangelical Christianity—a loose network around the United States in which single people and couples and families explore new forms of intentional community and service to the world around. And there are technologists “hacking” the Rule of St. Benedict to build open, networked communities beyond the grip of the internet giants.
Meanwhile, even as many Western monastic communities in their traditional forms are growing smaller, their spaces for prayer and retreat are bursting at the seams with modern people retreating for rest and silence and centering and prayer, which they take back with them into families and workplaces and communities and schools. As the noisy world seems to be pulling us apart, many people in and beyond the boundaries of tradition are experiencing their need for contemplative practices that were for centuries pursued by professional religious classes and too often missing from the lives of ordinary believers.
In so many ways, I see the new dynamics of spiritual life in our time as gifts to the wisdom of the ages, even as they unsettle the foundations of faith as we have known it. This is a dialectic by which faith, in order to survive, has the chance to live more profoundly into its own deepest sense than it ever could before. I have no idea what religion will look like a century from now, but this evolution of faith will change us all.