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Spirituality books both meaningful and mundane

By Robert Wuthnow
University of California Press, Berkeley, 277 pages, $29.95

Harold Fickett, Editor
Paraclete press, 200 pages, $20


One of these books I enjoyed; one I found wanting. Both attempt to take the pulse of religious thought in the United States in the late ’90s and both find that pulse quickened.

Wuthnow provides a good working definition of “spirituality” for our purposes here. “At its core,” he writes, “spirituality consists of all the beliefs and activities by which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God or a divine being or some other concept of transcendent reality.”

Wuthnow and a research team interviewed 200 people about their spiritual journeys and devotional practices. In addition, he drew material from existing research and “several dozen large-scale opinion surveys.” The result, however, is a book that is difficult to get a handle on. Its premise is accessible enough -- that the character of spirituality seems to be changing -- and so is the books’s argument that people have been losing faith in traditional religions, the “spirituality of dwelling,” and have been negotiating from among a variety of spiritual disciplines a personal belief system, the “spirituality of seeking.”

The problem, Wuthnow says, is that there’s a lack of commitment and a dearth of discipline in merely seeking. He therefore proposes a third alternative which he calls the “spirituality of practice.”

But before we get to that, here are a few of my reservations. In a decade-by-decade approach, Wuthnow traces spiritual thought through the last 50 years, but I found nothing compelling or revealing in these chapters. They read more like a series of Time magazine cover stories except that the writing isn’t quite as lively.

Another objection is that the book totally ignores the rise of feminist spirituality. How can a book that purports to be a survey of “spiritual thought in America since 1950” fail, except for the briefest of mentions, to acknowledge what Marcus Borg, a noted author and professor of religious studies, calls the single most influential development in spirituality in the 20th century?

I also found the book to be unnecessarily repetitive, occasionally contradictory and the personal stories, for the most part, mundane.

And now for Wuthnow’s spirituality of practice and my ultimate disappointment in the book. By “spiritual practice,” he means those intentional ways of seeking contact with the divine and of relating one’s life to the divine. These practices, which might be Ignatian spirituality, meditation or devotions found in Judaism, Buddhism or Islam, require of the practitioner the discipline, commitment and self-reflection found lacking in those who merely seek. Furthermore, if carried out faithfully, these practices are their own reward.

Egregiously omitted from the book, however, but for three banal pages toward the end, is any mention of Christian service as an aspect of spiritual practice, and most of what was mentioned centered on the “service” of massage therapy. Nowhere in the book does Wuthnow include social justice as an expression, result or mandate for spirituality. His entire research base seems suspect if peace and justice issues are nowhere to be found, or else we have become far more self-serving than I am prepared to acknowledge.

More to my liking is Things in Heaven and Earth, which consists of 14 essays by professional writers who, at the invitation of Harold Fickett, reflect on the nature of human existence vis-à-vis the supernatural. All the contributors, he knew from previous writings, are open to the possibility of God’s intervention, and all in one way or another articulate why living in a supernatural world seems demanded of them.

Admittedly, I enjoyed some essays more than others, but whatever your personal belief about angels, the supernatural or divine intervention, there is something noteworthy about each piece. Of particular interest to me was Madeline L’Engle’s “Knowing Things Ahead of Time” in which she writes about her disconcerting ability to, “know things.” I think most people have had an occasional, uncanny foreknowledge, but L’Engle writes, “We all have many abilities that we have lost as we have settled for Western pragmatic thinking.” (Read J. D. Salinger’s short story, “Teddy.”)

But it was not lost on my good friend Karen who had sensitivities far more prevailing than most of us, who accepted it, as does L’Engle, more or less matter-of-factly, as a gift and who lived and died by her ability to know beyond the knowable.

The other essay that I really, really liked is Luci Shaw’s “Living in the Gap” about all the ways God reveals God’s self to us, not the least of which is through imagination, creativity and the arts. The whole essay is so informed, so rich and so thought-provoking that it must be read, without hindrance of paraphrase. In fact, it warrants reading and rereading.

The various essays in the book could easily serve as meditations and prayer starters. They would also make excellent reading for small Christian communities or just meaningful dialogue among friends.

The most provocative, yet most comforting thought of all, however, from the two books combined comes from Shaw’s essay. She quotes psychiatrist Gerald May: “We have this idea that everyone should be totally independent, totally whole, totally together spiritually, totally fulfilled. That is a myth. In reality, our lack of fulfillment is the most precious gift we have. It is the source of our passion, our creativity, our search for God. All the best of life comes out of our human yearning, our not being satisfied.”

In the margin I wrote, “What a relief.”

Judith Bromberg is a regular book reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999