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.

0 Responses to “Spirituality: Informal, implicit, invisible…”

  1. Martin F.

    Maybe these “Sheilaisms” aren’t religions at all, but just beliefs/habits that people form in order to make sense of the world. If they don’t involve a deity then I would say they definately aren’t little religions. Besides, don’t we all decide “what is true” and “put together the amalgam of spiritual elements that make the best sense to [ourselves]”? Some rely on the “experts”, while others don’t–maybe because they have found that many of those “experts” really didn’t know what they were talking about.

  2. John Stackhouse

    Martin makes a good point, as long as we define religion in what scholars call the “substantive” sense–namely, we call something a religion because it has a certain element in it that we recognize as religious. In Martin’s case, that seems to be belief in a deity.

    But scholars also recognize what we call a “functional” definition of religion, and by that we mean something along the lines of Martin’s definition of “beliefs/habits that people form in order to make sense of the world.” Whatever is one’s guiding philosophy of life, the core around which one wraps one’s ideals, one’s map of reality, one’s values, and one’s hope for the future–whatever that is, is functioning for you as a religion.

    It is in this second sense that I write about Sheila-ism being a religion–a self-composed religion in the functional sense.

    As for finding that some experts are not so expert, or exceed their expertise–we’ve all had that experience, and Martin is right to warn us to be careful whom we trust.

    Indeed, many people are so spiritually hungry and so grateful for words of guidance and hope that they do not look critically enough at their religious leaders, as the Bible encourages us to do. There are wolves indeed in sheep’s clothing among God’s spiritual flock (to bring Aesop and the New Testament together). One thinks of this week’s arrest in Miami of a couple of Brazilian church leaders who were carrying $50K+ of cash….

    Anyhow, the point is to weigh up carefully and thoroughly the claims of, say, Billy Graham, or the Dalai Lama, or Deepak Chopra, or Oprah Winfrey, or James Dobson, or whomever you look to for spiritual guidance. These matters matter, so let’s each give them the attention they deserve.

  3. fustianist

    I’m mostly sympathetic to the line of thought expressed in your post. But I think the issue of trusting expertise is rather more complicated than suggested.

    I take it your argument goes roughly like this: (1) in the cases of fixing dishwashers, picking stocks, and replacing my teeth, I give way to the authority of experts, (2) the case of religious belief is relevantly analogous, hence (3) we ought to cede to authority in the case of religious belief as well. Once we recognize this, the interesting question becomes one of which source of authority to believe.

    I don’t know that I disagree with the basic thought here, but I think the argument, as it stands, is easily challenged. So let me raise two objections, with the goal of furthering thought on the matter.

    A) It’s not clear to me that the second premiss is right. We don’t, in fact, cede to authority in all areas of thought, and it’s not entirely obvious that we are making irrational distinctions in not doing so. As Plato noted, when it comes to things like training horses, coaching athletes, and building ships, we generally recognize experts in the respective areas and give way to their authority. But when it comes to ethics and politics, everyone considers herself the expert. When a pro-lifer meets a pro-choicer, the pro-lifer is likely to stick to her views even if she finds out that the pro-choicer happens to have spent magnitudes more time studying the issue (and assume here that she has studied it with the appropriate intellectual virtues of open-mindedness, commitment to truth, and so on). Is the pro-lifer unreasonably stubborn and/or arrogant? I don’t think so.

    It might be suggested in response that the reason it is not unreasonable for the pro-lifer to stick to her views is because there are also pro-lifers with a great amount of expertise on the issue. Since the experts disagree, the rest of us are free to pick the side we wish to. But this strikes me as a misguided line of thought. It just doesn’t seem to be getting at the heart of the issue. Suppose on some controversial issue most of the experts fall on one side of the issue — should the non-experts now cede to the experts? It doesn’t strike me as if they should. Rather, it seems to me that expertise really does function differently in different areas. I don’t have a good story for why the case of ethics should be different from the case of horse-training (though I suspect that there is an interesting story to be told), but I am quite confident that there is a difference. Despite being in a philosophy department myself, I must say that I would not recommend that people put too much faith in the pronouncements of applied ethicists!

    Once we grant such a difference, we can no longer assume that religion falls into the category where we cede authority to experts. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that it doesn’t. In our era of Western thought, it is probably fair to say that experts are more likely to deny orthodox religious beliefs than non-experts. Suppose that’s true. Should ordinary people in the pew feel threatened by that fact? It’s not clear to me that they should. It might also be worth thinking about how many experts the “foolish” early Christians could have appealed to.

    B) Even if we grant that we should cede to authority, we’re not quite at the desired conclusion yet. One might think that the Sheila-ist is trusting authority — indeed, the problem is that she is trusting far too many of them. Perhaps the idea is that one should pick only one authority for each domain of thought (i.e., one dishwasher expert, one kind of dentist, one kind of religious authority, etc.). There might be some merit to this idea. For example, it might increase the chances of ending up with a coherent set of beliefs (this is suggested by the post). But does this really work? What if I have reason to think that the different experts in one domain are experts in different aspects of their domain? Perhaps I think that one dishwasher expert is the person to go to if I have questions about old dishwashers and another one is better if I have questions about new dishwashers. This might be true even if they both claim to have expertise about both old and new dishwashers. Likewise, perhaps I think Reformed types have the most to say about the importance of the Word, Roman Catholics have the most to say about the Eucharist, the Orthodox have the most to say about incorporating elements for all five senses in the liturgy, Mennonites have the most to say about the importance of caring for the poor and weak, and so on. I suspect that many Christians would still be quite happy with my story. But I might go on: the Buddhists have the most to say about detachment, the Hindus have the most to say about the spiritual side of sexuality, … By now most of us Christians are likely to be rather uncomfortable. But where did we slip from reasonableness to unreasonableness?

    I’ll stop rambling now. I think the issues here are very interesting and I worry about them quite a lot. But I have yet to come up with a satisfying story for what is going on. Mostly, I’m confident that in at least some cases one does not need to cede to one’s epistemic superiors, but that in all cases disagreement should dispose us to further reflection.

    – Sydney Penner

  4. John Stackhouse

    Mr. Penner raises a number of good points–to many to respond to in this way. I’ll just say two things.

    He’s right to question any appeal to authority that jettisons our individual responsibility to decide things, and especially the Most Important Things.

    All I’m arguing, I think, is that we consider carefully what experts do say, including classical “experts” such as Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus, about the religious matters we consider. To presume that we are just as capable of deciding upon spiritual matters as they are is to presume too much, I daresay–even as we do, indeed, finally have to decide for ourselves what we, at least, will believe and do.

    That’s my main concern about Sheila-ism. And my secondary concern shows up in Mr. Penner’s penultimate paragraph. I’m quite pluralistic about lots of religious matters, including the idea that we Christians can actually learn some things from people of other faiths.

    But I don’t think we can mix and match any old way we like without both intellectual and moral incoherence. You just can’t seek nirvana and seek fellowship with God; you can’t believe in reincarnation and believe in a resurrection; you can’t privilege spiritual contemplation above everything else and work diligently for political and social renewal. You have to make some hard choices, and those choices usually mean adopting one or another set of coherent propositions, values, and practices.

    And sets of coherent propositions, values, and practices of this sort are normally called “religions,” right?


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