Thomas V. McGovernSeptember 01, 2016
Choosing Our Religion by Elizabeth Drescher

Oxford University Press. 344p $29.95

You can tell this book by its cover! The cover shows five empty boxes under symbols for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. A large red check mark fills the space outside all the boxes.

Elizabeth Drescher, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California, writes with amiable skepticism in this book, subtitled, “The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones,” a group that now makes up nearly 25 percent of the general population. Drawing on national surveys on the sociology of religion, she sketches the space outside the traditional boxes, having listened with keen empathy to the stories of women and men, mostly white, urban and suburban, and predominantly aged 18 to 49. They responded to the typical prompt: When someone asks, “What is your religion?” what are you most likely to say? And then to her follow-up: How would you describe yourself spiritually?

Drescher tells many road stories about becoming and being a none. Extended quotations from in-depth interviews suggest tentative directions for navigating a new terrain. What she reports will vex readers predisposed to fixed travel plans and will elicit considerable anxiety in the clergy and parents who continue asking: How did they lose their (my) way? Even baby boomers who marched away from religion as “seekers” may feel disoriented.

Be prepared to set aside the divine compasses used by Augustine and Dante’s pilgrims to journey through regions of the Inferno and Purgatorio to reach Paradiso. Thomas Merton’s 20th-century geography, which led him inexorably from the secular world to Gethsemane and finally to the Dalai Lama’s mountains, will seem too predestined. Imagine instead being an eyewitness to Job’s travails or an embedded journalist with the Exodus wanderers but without God’s guiding voice in the days and darkness. Listen patiently for transcendent moments that appear when least expected. It could be beneficial to rediscover the words, healings and loving acts of Jesus in the Gospels as your AAA Triptik.

Understanding “nones beyond the numbers” requires a paradigm shift from studying religious ideas and observances as complex as Manhattan, Kan., to interpreting a spirituality as diverse and global as Manhattan, N.Y. Orthodox certainties—about fashioning church programs or designing scientific investigations into “believing/belonging/behaving”—have been deconstructed to qualitatively map those lingering experiences that stimulate “becoming and being.”

Drescher writes that to become a none is to “religiously manufacture a spiritual self-invention.” Nones left behind the faiths of their mothers and fathers after critical incidents of perceived hypocrisy, sometimes with anger or profound sadness over ministerial insensitivity or downright cruelty, and after being bored silly by vapid preaching. Faithful “somes” ask: How do we get them back? Zealous entrepreneurs respond with new packaging strategies, marketing slogans with technologically hip media to seduce a Sunday drive-by to a mega-church or enrollment in an online program that inspires and connects those with a taste for holiness.

After critiquing stereotypes of the unaffiliated’s “whatever,” without commitment, Drescher offers an excellent tutorial on “being none,” “prayer among the unaffiliated,” “a Good Samaritan/cosmopolitan ethics of care” and “raising the next generation.” I paused often, asking myself her questions, creating my own dialogue of discovery with her respondents and thinking hard about how best to synthesize their authentic perspectives. Why have family commitments, loving friendships, the earth and its creatures and gathering for meals always been so central to a spiritual life? How, when and with whom do the experiences of prayer connect us to transcendence and the sacred all around us? Why are empathy and compassion acts of courage, requiring clear heads, open hearts and resilient discipline? How do children learn to be lifelong learners about justice, mystery, being good and the grace of community?

Choosing Our Religion parallels themes explored by recent research in two other disciplines. Positive psychology scholars and practitioners like Martin Seligman suggest that well-being can be mapped using the markers of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Pathways to this end can be derived from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies, including the daily practice of common denominator virtues like wisdom, humanity-love, justice, courage, temperance and transcendence. In her historical analyses of the transformative powers of religious traditions, Karen Armstrong evaluated Axial Age (900 to 200 B.C.E.) sages. Their outside-the box teachings in violent times and cultures inspired people’s experiences of ritual, kenosis, enlightened self-knowledge, suffering, empathy, compassion and transcendence. Jesus and Mohammed inherited a world ready, albeit unreceptive, to these seeds of spiritual consciousness. Either of these scholarly templates could be used to capture continuity in the none’s changing choices.

A quotation from John’s Gospel introduces the final chapter: “The spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8). Drescher summarizes how nones differ from the religiously affiliated:

  • Relationships that highlight intimacy and changing patterns of connectedness are the starting point for a spiritual life;
  • Spiritual and cosmopolitan differences are to be expected and respected until they make no difference;
  • New technology reorients affiliation and spiritual engagement to be networked, provisional, pluralistic and pragmatic, and no longer hierarchical and prescribed;
  • Caring compassion transcends ideology or theology as the core of a meaningful spiritual life.

Nones are not interested in being “re-captured,” going back through a narrow gate. When asked if they are looking for a new religion that would be right for them, 88 percent said, Thanks, but no thanks. Yet, “Becoming None does not erase or overwrite whatever came before it, whether that includes elements of cultural identity, spiritual practices, moral values or re-configured personal relationships.... Nones shape spiritualities that alternately draw a boundary and bridge their religious past and present.”

Drescher counsels readers that “It seems a far better spiritual investment to listen more deeply to their stories so that we can develop a richer, more complex story of the American spirit.” Exploring the open spaces illuminated in Choosing Our Religion may invigorate composing our own spiritual identity stories, as well.

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