Monday, 12 May 2008

Pentecost sermon: Spirit lite

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It won’t go away. The spirituality craze I mean. I thought it might. This is an age of faddism, and it’s also an age when most people have the attention span of a gnat, but it looks like spirituality is here to stay. Now it’s even made the telly. Not long ago Channel 4 brought to our screens a “reality” programme called Spirituality Shopper. The former triple jump star and media Christian Jonathan Edwards shadowed a bunch of very sad sods as they sampled in life what you will find in print in the “Mind, Body and Spirit” section of Waterstone’s, picking-and-mixing – very postmodern – everything from crystals to the Kabbalah. These shoppers hoped that these “therapies” might provide a quick fix to cure their sick souls, but apart from the odd buzz they were disappointed. Through all this bathos Edwards somehow managed to keep a straight face, when no doubt he was thinking, “Well, duh!”

I’m being very critical. But I promise that this is going to be an evenly balanced sermon – I’ve got a chip on both shoulders! Wait till I get to the church! But for a time I want to continue to deconstruct what you could call “Spirit Lite”.

I’ve already hinted at one criticism – it’s a market phenomenon, it’s a product for consumers, its therapy is purely retail, it’s the religious result of late capitalism’s only moral value, choice. Karl Marx would have a field day with it.

That’s the economics of it. The psychology is even worse. For at its centre is not the Spirit – indeed the spirituality business should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act – no, at its centre is the self, indeed the narcissistic self. Narcissus, you may remember from Greek mythology, was a Greek Brad Pitt, gloriously good-looking, and all the girls adored him; but Narcissus broke their hearts because he and himself were already the perfect couple. One of the admirers he slighted decided not to get mad but to get even, so she prayed to the gods for redress. The great goddess Nemesis answered her prayer, decreeing, “May he who loves not others love himself only” – which, of course, Narcissus already did! Then one day as he bent over a pool to get a drink, Narcissus saw his own reflection, which was, literally, drop-dead gorgeous, as he swooned, fell into the water, and drowned (although another version of the story has Narcissus so fixated on his image that he stares himself to an anorexic death). Just so Spirit Lite has been called “religion for the L’Oreal generation: ‘Because you’re worth it’” (Giles Fraser). It is indeed a form of grooming, a feel-good faith that makes no more demands than your hairdresser.

Then there are the philosophical problems inherent in Spirit Lite, a series of false dichotomies. One is the cloven fiction of soul and body which issues, on the one hand, in Spirit Lite’s preoccupation with states of consciousness, and, on the other hand, in our cultural obsession with thinness and fitness. But human beings are not souls and bodies, we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies – we are psychosomatic unities – and if you try to cut us in two you end up, symbolically, with the zombies so chillingly portrayed in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Another phoney dualism is that between soul and mind. This fits with the dumbed-down anti-intellectualism of our age. To adapt one of my favourite sayings from Dorothy Sayers, spirituality shoppers would rather die than think – and most of them do. Their critical faculties have gone into hibernation. The last thing they want to hear about is rational analysis of their enthusiasms; indeed scientists, with their rigorous experimental testing of hypotheses, are the bête noirs of Spirit Lite. And is it a coincidence that the “Mind (it should be “Mindless”), Body and Spirit” section at Waterstone’s is at the opposite end of the shop from the philosophy section?

And then there is the bogus dualism of private and public. Spirit Lite is personal, it’s what you do in solitude, society and its institutions are a distraction. But quite apart from the fact that it is quite simply impossible for there to be private experiences unmediated by language, culture, and traditions, all of which are quintessentially public, can you see how irresponsibly self-serving is this untenable position? Above all, how indifferent it is to challenges to one’s life-style and politics, to quaint notions like self-sacrifice and civic duty? Let wars be fought, let children starve, let the planet go to blazes, who cares as long as I’ve got inner tranquillity.

Okay, hands up, I caricature a bit, but no more so than the church itself is caricatured by those who have left it for Spirit Lite. On the other hand, do they not have a point? And that’s the chip on my other shoulder: isn’t the very existence of Spirit Lite a symptom that something has gone seriously wrong with the church? Evidently a lot of people feel either that there is no room for them in the church’s conversation about God, or that this conversation is so trivial that for serious spiritual discourse they must look elsewhere, even if elsewhere is “far out”.

Moreover, has not the church itself colluded in the various forms of false dichotomies I have observed? The idea that the gospel is “fire insurance”, that the church’s business is getting souls to heaven, not to getting people right and whole on earth? The notion that theology is for scholars or egghead ministers, but don’t trouble folk in the pews with having to think through their faith, it will only disturb the simple faithful, not to mention the widely held view that science is at odds with religion? And, last but not least, the mischief-making mantra “Keep faith out of politics”? Have not the seeds of these weeds been blown into the world from the church?

Writing in The Guardian in response to a critique of Spirit Lite like my own, Jane Lapotaire, addressing church leaders, wrote this: What the church has “to face up to is that, for many people who need a spiritual dimension in their lives, the Church has patently failed them…. Yes, Channel 4’s Spirituality Shopper was banal. Yes, it was ‘consumer’ led; but don’t mock it. Because it’s the failure of your profession that leads to empty lives and the many who clutch at straws.” To which all I can say is, “Ouch!”

Well, not quite all I can say, as at least I’ve got to finish one of those boring sermons that are evidently evacuating the church! But even if I would want to question the assumption that the church must allow the world to set its agenda, there is much in what Jane Lapotaire says that rings true and confirms that the church is in no position to be smug and dismissive. In place of Spirit Lite we have to offer, if you like, Spirit Right. What will that look like? What kind of spirituality will it be? Three bullet points.

First, it will be a humane spirituality. It will be warm and welcoming, life-giving and earth-affirming. There will be none of Trollope’s odious clergyman Mr Slope in Barchester Towers about it, who “regards the greater part of the world as being infinitely too bad for his care,” nor any of Joanne Harris’ repressed priest in Chocolat, who regards physical pleasure as “the crack into which the devil sends his roots.” It will be holistic, keeping together what Spirit Lite would put asunder, recognising that the worlds of the prosaic and the miraculous intermingle – that, as spiritual director Eugene Peterson so graphically puts it, “’Pass the broccoli’ and ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ carry equal weight in conversations among the people of God” (adapted). Thus it will also be a humorous spirituality. And it will be honest too. So there will be a rigorous recognition of sin, but particularly sin in its insidious form of ecclesiastical self-righteousness and self-certainty. Hence the brilliant title of a book by the American feminist theologian Carter Heyward: it’s called Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right.

Second, it will be a heterogeneous spirituality (give me a break – I’m trying to string together some aitches!) – heterogeneous meaning diverse, varied, plural, inclusive. There will be nothing “gated” or sectarian about it, no pre-defining approaches according to our tastes or dispositions, no reducing community to a projection of ourselves, no getting rid of what displeases or even offends us. Rightly it has been said that “Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to orthodoxy, a willful removal of a part from the whole” (Eugene Peterson). Rather we will honour the different, value the strange, and pay particular attention to voices long silenced or marginalized, as well as to non-Christian voices too. We will be “catholic” in the best sense of the word.

And, third, it will be a heuristic spirituality, from the Greek word for “discovery”; that is, it will be a spirituality of pilgrimage. There will be nothing of the “we have all the answers” about it, rather the church will be what R. S. Thomas called a “laboratory of the Spirit”, fearlessly testing the truths we tease out in our tentative detections of divinity. But our explorations won’t be into anywhere else than the place where we are, nor into any other time than the present moment. And though we will be determined, we will not be in a hurry, we will be patient, and we will find time to waste time and play. Finally, we will resist the temptation of thinking that there can be spiritual progress in isolation from our relationships with fellow seekers, including the dawdlers, nor will we dictate the pace, for the head cannot move without the tail.

So: Spirit Right rather than Spirit Lite. But there’s a better word for it: Holy Spirit. Which is a pretty good aitch to end on, don’t you think?

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