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Spring Books

Measuring Boomer’s spiritual quest

By Wade Clark Roof
Princeton University Press, 384 pages, $24.95


In his newest book, religious commentator Wade Clark Roof examines America’s religious landscape and details the ways Baby Boomers have changed it. He credits the post-World War II generation for everything from America’s growing tolerance of religious diversity to its growing distrust of external religious authority, and his take on those changes is overwhelmingly optimistic.

Roof, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who traces his own religious beliefs to the unrest of the 1960s, argues against the stereotype of the self-centered Boomer and declares, “There is now greater spiritual maturity on the part of Boomer Americans.”

Measuring spiritual maturity is no easy task. Roof makes an admirable attempt by engaging his sources with probing questions that elicit answers far more nuanced than those evoked by religious pollsters. His earlier, best-selling account of Baby Boomer spirituality, A Generation of Seekers (HarperCollins, 1993), relied on similar survey and interview questions posed to more than 1,000 Americans born between 1946 and 1964. That research characterized the 76 million Boomers as “questers,” many of whom believe in God and embrace spirituality but remain deeply ambivalent about organized religion.

Spiritual Marketplace returns to the same topic and the same people. This time, though, Roof portrays a generation whose spirituality has matured from a perennial quest for self-fulfillment to a more focused search for depth and meaning. Only about a third of his original “dropouts” -- those who felt most alienated from organized religion a decade ago -- still fall into that category.

Slightly more of his interviewees now say they are involved in weekly religious worship, though Roof found a similar increase in those who are not involved at all. Roof admits that many Boomers still shop for beliefs that make them feel good and churches that keep them interested.

But Roof sees a trend toward stability in Boomer spirituality. “More of them now prefer to ‘stick to a faith’ rather than engage in endless ‘exploration of spiritual teachings,’ ” Roof writes. “As members of this generation grow older, they recognize that spirituality must be cultivated through practice, and that there is no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to spiritual depth.”

Roof’s earlier work divided Boomers into such broad religious categories as “loyalists” and “dropouts.” This book presents five new subgroups. Not surprisingly, Catholics and ex-Catholics are scattered across a spectrum that ranges from the orthodox believers he calls “dogmatists” to the Charismatic Catholics he lumps with born-again Christians.

Roof locates many Catholics in the category of “mainstream believers,” a group of “easygoing” believers who define themselves largely by what they are not -- born-again Christians or traditionalists at one end, New Age seekers or secularists at the other. He acknowledges that their lukewarm attitudes may spell trouble for religious communities.

A third of them say God is found within themselves, and religious structures may not be necessary. But Roof cites these believers -- and their mild, middle-of-the-road rhetoric -- to refute the idea that America is engaged in a bitter culture war between liberals and conservatives.

Roof’s categories expose the diversity of American Catholicism. They also expose a personal prejudice that seems to equate the concept of objective truth with “narrow minded” believers who cling to an “encrusted institution.” Such language -- and the bias it betrays -- undercut his credibility.

Roof is so eager to prove the spiritual maturity of the Boomers that he seems to find deep spiritual insights where there may be none. Whether describing the “self-discovery” of a woman who says spirituality is a “feeling ... however it feels is OK” or celebrating the “mental mobility” of a woman who cannot decide if her religion is Christianity, Buddhism or “Star Trek,” Roof adopts the relativist outlook of his subjects when evaluating their spirituality.

He fails to differentiate between Boomers who put spirituality and religion at the center of their lives -- whether in the form of evangelical Christianity or Zen Buddhism -- and those who barely dabble in their spiritual development. He elevates virtually anyone who ever considered spiritual questions to “seeker” status and leaves the reader wondering if his analysis is critical enough to be credible.

Despite those flaws and a dense academic style that makes for slow reading, Roof offers an insightful analysis of Boomer beliefs. For the American Catholic church, his insights are both encouraging and alarming.

Roof offers compelling evidence of a spiritual awakening that has made Boomers more willing to proclaim their faith, integrate it into their lives and explore it in depth. He predicts a future in which the casual believers will fall away from organized religion while the committed ones revitalize it.

Still, many Boomers remain suspicious, even dismissive, of religious tradition and objective religious truth. Reforms made to accommodate their distrust of authority or to attract seekers who may never commit could divide the church at a critical time in its history and repel Catholics who already feel lost in a sea of spiritual alternatives. The challenge for mainstream believers of all denominations, Roof says, is to strike the right balance between innovation and tradition, between openness to seekers and fidelity to the core believers whose constancy keeps the faith alive.

Colleen Carroll writes from St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000