• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Spirituality: Informal, implicit, invisible…

Does this sound like you, or someone you know?

A friend recently wrote in answer to a question about her interest in spiritual things:

“I am not entirely sure what path I am on, but I know I am headed somewhere…destination totally unknown. I question my own sanity frequently, yet I feel most of the time that I am one of the sanest people I know.

“I am disgusted by the degradation of society, astounded that morality is found in a sad few and lost in too many. I believe that common sense is my best friend, yet at times I feel totally irrational. I strive for good, yet somehow seem to have difficulty doing what is right all the time.

“I wish I had the strength of my convictions every time I need them. I lose the ability to love myself from time to time.

“Maybe I am on a spiritual journey and just haven’t recognized it. I’m sure I sound like a lunatic!”

No, chum, you don’t sound insane. You sound like more and more Canadians, Americans, and others who live in societies recently dominated by Christianity. As the tide of Christianity has receded, it has left various bits on the shore: Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the friendly face of Jesus, the Golden Rule, the cross (mostly as decoration), and everyone’s favourite Scripture fragment, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

These bits are then picked up–or not–by spiritual beachcombers who add them to their gleanings from, say, Buddhism (perhaps a morning and evening meditation guide, or maybe a weekend Tantric sex workshop), Hinduism (maybe vegetarianism, nonviolence, and a generic mysticism), scientism (faith that technology will solve all the technical problems while spirituality is improving our inner selves and relationships), and the occult (as in the fact that far more North Americans tell pollsters that they read their horoscopes for life guidance than read the Bible).

Scholars call this “do-it-yourself religion”–or, more technically, informal, implicit, or invisible religion. It is religion that is not formal, explicit, and visible, which is the kind of religion that most people mean by “religion” or “organized religion” (although I’ve spent plenty of time suffering pretty disorganized religion…). Non-scholars don’t bother calling it religion at all, however. They call it “spirituality,” and it’s what’s meant by the locution “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”–a phrase that would have been meaningless just a few decades ago.

In fact, it is spirituality that accounts for the large quotient of North Americans and others who tell pollsters or census takers that they have “no religion.” They don’t mean that they are atheists and materialists. Few people say that.

(Indeed, so few people mean that that I am impatient with those who think a really cool question to pose on campus is “Does God Exist?” Most people patently believe in a God or gods. The interesting questions are “Which God or gods exists?” and “What am I going to do about it?”)

Instead, people who say they have “no religion” (which we sociologist types enjoy calling “religous nones”–get it?) mean they do not adhere to any particular, “proper-noun” religion.

Except that they do. Robert Bellah and his sociological associates wrote about a young Californian woman they interviewed in the 1980s who told them of the religion/spirituality she had constructed for herself. Following this path, believing these things, caring about these concerns, and engaging in these practices brought her joy, peace, harmonious relationships, and fulfilment. And this spirituality had a name: “Sheila-ism.”

This is truly the implicit name of implicit religions: “[Your name here]-ism.” It doesn’t have to mean you worship yourself in some preposterous megalomania–although many people clearly have made a shiny little idol of themselves. What it means is that I decide what is true and I put together the amalgam of spiritual elements that make the best sense to me.

Of course, each of us does have to decide for himself or herself what is true and whom to believe. But I don’t try to even fix my dishwasher myself, or pick stocks for myself, or replace my teeth for myself. I investigate, think hard about what I’ve found, and then trust other people as more expert, more authoritative than I.

Many “Sheila-ists” have been burned by authority figures and authoritarian institutions, and naturally are shy of trusting anyone like that again. I truly sympathize. But the alternative is to trust yourself, and that’s scary in its own way, no?

Furthermore, the bits and pieces I might prefer don’t necessarily compose themselves into a coherent and trustworthy vision of the universe–or of me. Can I really believe simultaneously in astrology and modern technology? Can I really be happily self-centred and nobly altruistic at the same time?

If no formal religion or philosophy will do the job, then okay: We each will have to muddle through as best he or she can.

But if there is available to us a system of truth–however incomplete, however mysterious–and a company of likeminded followers–however imperfect, however odd–and a way of living–however paradoxical, however difficult–that does draw a clear map of things and does provide companionship and does offer a new, rich life that is aimed at the things that do really matter…well, I’ll drop my “John-ism” and go for this instead.

That is what I think I have found on my own spiritual journey. That is what I hope you will find, too. Don’t get me wrong: Better to have Sheila-ism than an even worse religion, and there are plenty of worse ones out there. But I think something even better than Sheila-ism–indeed, the true fulfilment of all that is best in Sheila-ism–is available.

So I hope you keep searching, my friend.

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