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Spiritual Improv

Dear James,

I am late in welcoming you home for the holidays. Before I could see you, your parents whisked you away for a skiing vacation. Perhaps we can catch up in person before you begin your final semester.

Since you asked, I am eager to discuss with you the provocative lecture by your provost that I attended when he was in town a couple of weeks ago. It's easy to understand his popularity. He is an uncommonly gifted communicator. (Why do schools convert their most gifted teachers into administrators?)

But Professor Davis created quite a stir when he talked about the so-called "no religionists." Of course, the failure of many college students to go to church does not need a sociological explanation. Even back in my day at Rutherford College, Pillow Presbyterian and Bedside Baptist were favorites on many Sunday mornings, especially during finals.

Your professor insisted, however, that more was involved here. This new behavior is different because it stems from a sense that institutional connectedness is unimportant. Here too, I need to be persuaded. Prophecies of the demise of the church are not that unusual, even in the Reformed world. You remember when one popular radio Bible teacher proclaimed the end of the church age a few years ago. And more recently, even our congregation saw the exodus of a few families who discovered the "home church movement." (In God's mercy, two of those families have recently returned.)

The provost told us that these "no religionists" are a faster growing demographic than the "new atheists." Davis also urged his audience to withhold judgment about this new spirituality. I am aware of the value of an open mind. But someone (Chesterton, I believe) once observed that the purpose of an open mind is to close it every once in a while.

The more I reflect on this subject, the more I suspect the influence of media and technology on the American religious landscape. So-called spiritual seekers must choose from an ever-expanding number of options. We can find God wherever and whenever we want—beyond "online worship," there is blogging and twittering. Just as the democratic effect of the Internet breeds skepticism toward the established news media (we have gone from trusting Walter Cronkite to trusting Matt Drudge), so does today's spirituality question established forms of religion.

What the Rutherford professor fails to consider is that spirituality without religion makes communal and corporate expressions of Christianity incidental for the believer's faith. Spirituality becomes just one more niche in a religious marketplace, and the individual consumer is sovereign to determine his own brand. And just as we see in sales and advertising, this form of consumerism favors novelty and creativity over the settled and established. The result is spiritual improvisation—on-the-fly spontaneity, making and creating immediate responses on the basis of personal experience and feeling. A popular recent book has likened the Christian life to jazz: so pilgrimage has evolved from walking to dancing.

In this ubiquity of choice, organized religion of any sort begins to look passé. It seems to give people the same choice that Henry Ford offered car buyers a century ago: "You can have any color you want, as long as it is black." In this context, the prospects for denominations, whether conservative or liberal, seem as grim as that of the American auto industry.

Of course, no one, including your professor, is eager to state matters that starkly. I admit that I found Davis to be particularly objectionable when he urged us to view this as a glass that is half full—after all, he noted, there is a turn toward spirituality in this generation. He also recommended civility: get along with those who are improvising differently. So the way in which we hedge our religious convictions is to turn them into opinions and feelings, which are far less stodgy than doctrines. If we can cobble enough of them together we can create our very own personal mosaic of faith.

I simply cannot bring myself to be that confident. The fragmentation and incoherence of all of this is surely a liability and not an asset (no matter how "authentic" it seems). In the end, let me leave you to consider how much spontaneity is actually taking place here. These new seekers claim that they refuse to "go with the flow." But that is precisely what they seem to be doing, don't you think? John Calvin argued that the ignorance of divinely ordained authority leads inevitably to "private madness." The "no religionists" despise God's gifts, and they prefer new works over simple obedience to God's will. Even better than Calvin is the language of our Confession of Faith: "But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men."

Wouldn't it be ironic if belonging to and worshiping at a church like Franklin Street OPC were actually biblical, the way that God saves his people? Maybe you can bring that up with Professor Davis before you graduate. As a senior, you have nothing to lose.

Fondly,

Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2009.

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