Monday, July 11, 2011

$piritual Bazaar

Genevieve Walker:

What does religion mean? It’s a question that Lofton’s work hinges on. The message of Oprah usually gets described as spiritual, and spirituality and religion are kept separate by most religious studies scholars. The word “religion” is roughly defined as a belief in a superhuman being. This belief includes practices and worship. There was a time, religious historians say, that religion was easy to pinpoint because people were defined by their beliefs, practices and traditions of worship. Now, with the sheer number of people and faiths intermingling, believers are consumers of religion. “As this consumerizing process evolved, the contents of religion have become less otherworldly and more tied to behaviors and thinking associated with the secular work of business, sports, entertainment, and healthcare,” Porterfield and John Corrigan write in Religion in American History (Blackwell Publishing 2010).

There are some who say religion no longer exists in the way we knew it before the turn of the 20th century. They say our actions and traditions are not tied to a belief in a higher power, and are not governed by religious law. This argument says we live in a secular era. Then there are those who say we live in a post-secular era, where religion is not gone, but has been re-integrated into our lives after our secular phase. But there is also the cultural preoccupation with self-help mantras and yoga that are examples of something undefined––spiritual maybe––or vaguely religious. Like living a life according to Oprah’s likes and dislikes. Lofton argues that religion is not gone, but that it changed in direct proportion to our consumer behaviors, and that ignoring these vaguely religious preoccupations would be a misevaluation of contemporary religion.

This reminded me of something else I read recently:

We no longer count on a community to provide the context in which we can be recognized; we can be anywhere and continue to act like ourselves. Whereas the horizons of local familiarity once limited what we could imagine for ourselves, modern life has situated us in broader “abstract systems” — standardized ways of doing things and ubiquitous cultural reference points, universally recognized procedures and authorities. Tradition — “how things are done here” — has been fatally disrupted. We can enter an elevator in any city or an Italian restaurant in any American town and understand what to expect and what to do. And thanks to the universality of money and the pervasive norms of capitalist market exchange, we trust we don’t need a personal relationship with a pub owner to get a pint.

One of my consistent criticisms of the SNR crowd is that their disposable, buffet-style beliefs often fail to be genuinely transformative, instead reinforcing a hyper-individualistic consumerist identity sorely in need of questioning. I don't suggest that things were better or more genuine when religion was the unquestioned background to that community context within which we used to define ourselves, of course. But I do have enough respect for that aforementioned transformative potential to feel that something important may have been lost when our middle-class educated suburban professional lifestyles became the uncritically accepted norm around which our beliefs have been arranged like so many shelf decorations. To get Nietzschean about it for a moment, it's hard to imagine placid Oprah-style affirmations ever profoundly inspiring someone to create great works of art, say.