Traditional but not religious

The first thing that strikes you when looking at Frequencies is the scope of the project and the breadth of contributions it includes. The breadth of the essays is truly amazing—people, events, places, books, a CD, ideas. The project covers a lot of ground. And just for the pleasure of reading some of these essays, I’m grateful and moved.

I wonder, however, about two things. One is about form and one is about content.

  1. The question about form: Is this a genealogy?
  2. The question about content: What are the avenues of spirituality that the project maps?

With respect to the question about form, I wonder just what kind of genealogy the project traces, and if genealogy is the right word for the project at hand. The collection reads more like a buckshot of spirituality. Or a scatter graph of spirituality. It is—and maybe this is appropriate—too broad, too idiosyncratic, too peculiar, too diffuse to tell us anything at all about spirituality, except that those are the terms on which it makes itself clear to us. I could have written my essayabout any number of things (to limit it to just record albums, I could have written about Radiohead’s Kid A or Coltrane’s Live in Europe 1964 or the seminal praise and worship recording: 1971’s The Everlastin’ Living Jesus Music Concert). If spirituality is really as vast, encompassing, and peculiarly populated as all that, then I’m not sure a genealogy is useful. Or even possible. It might be interesting, as the contributions here certainly are, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about spirituality as a singular phenomenon or as an aspiration or as a very real element of people’s lives.

Certainly, the general leaning of the project is toward the spiritual-secular, anyhow. But, if you’re really going to trace the genealogy of this thing, we might want to include more avowedly “religious” voices here too. Not because they have a monopoly on the stuff, but because those of us who are secularists might yet be able to learn a thing or two from our counterparts who occupy other pews. One might conclude that religion and spirituality ought to be joined at the hip or that they represent separate phenomena or maybe that they were separated at birth, but however you genealogize, they are certainly related. It’s one thing to hear spiritual overtones in books or people, historical events or concepts of our choosing, but it might be something else entirely when one attempts to square the spiritual with the theological.

To be sure, squaring the religious with the theological won’t answer the genealogical question, and I don’t mean to suggest that we might find a genealogical answer to spirituality’s questions by looking to religion. Instead, I hope that my invitation might open the investigation even further—beyond the boundaries of social secular culture and curios. If we’re going to lead this conversation with such loose reins, the discussion might benefit from looking or listening to voices from religion—where spirituality seems so genealogically related, but so difficult to find.

With respect to question number 2, I keep coming back to something I read in a New Yorker article a few years back. It was a profile of David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s The Wire and now, Treme. Simon’s brother, explaining their Jewish upbringing in Baltimore, observed that they felt traditional, but not religious. This spoke to me, growing up in an observant-ish Jewish household where we were steeped in ritual, but certainly not in spirituality. If God were to have shown up on some occasion or another, my mom would have set God a place at the table and asked if He or She had any food allergies.

Traditional but not religious. Simon was talking about avoiding pork or performing ritual, but without the trappings or limitations of religion. It’s a powerful inversion of the preference for things “spiritual but not religious” that has become a refrain of postwar American religious preferences. The taste for the spiritual over the properly religious (whatever that is) has become a nearly orthodox, practically fundamentalist statement of faith for both Baby Boomers and those who study them.

Somehow, opting for spirituality over religion seems to create opportunities that religion closes off. Spirituality seems to suggest syncretisms and recombinations and possibility, while religion appears to offer little more than dogma, discipline, and the routine denials of the syncretisms that we all kind of already know are there.

And so, we have spirituality manifest in everything from pubic hair to Mark Twain’s Palestine with a freedom and writerly panache absent from the literature of most houses of worship. This, I think is a good thing, but moving so fully toward the spiritual and leaving the religious behind seems to accept too readily the overtones of the “spiritual but not religious” chorus. What about David Simon’s formulation of being traditional but not religious? What about being religious and not spiritual? Surely there’s something beneficial, helpful, even redemptive in those recombinations—even if we don’t call them “spiritual.” But the decision to avoid connecting one’s affinity for certain behaviors to something called “religion” seems questionable. As my friend and teacher Steven M. Cohen once said, “God is too important to leave to the religious.”

Surely there are other ways into and through the currents of transcendence, depth, and meaning-making that don’t approach religion and spirituality as an oppositional pair, or that don’t privilege spirituality as religion’s younger, hipper, cooler sibling. According to the implicit logic of Baby-Boomer religious tastes (as articulated by those who don’t define themselves as religious, of course), and by the framing of Frequencies, we might want to sleep with spirituality, but we want to avoid waking up with religion.

My two questions—about the genealogical nature of this enterprise and about the other avenues that spirituality might take—led me back, almost inevitably, to a single concern: the separation of religion from spirituality. The multiplicity of voices and phenomena captured in the essays, the multiple frequencies and resonances of the broader project, the dualities of form and structure, have led me back to the singularity of my question. And what more could I expect from an investigation of spirituality than that?

Originally posted on SSRC.

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