Soul Concern


Toward the end of the second episode of Bill Moyers' recent PBS series "Genesis," there's a moment that seems to encapsulate the conundrum of the modern spiritual quest. The participants have been discussing the notion of suffering and the spiritual path when Walter Brueggemann, a professor of Old Testament at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., mentions his two grown sons.

"What worries me most," he says, "is that they are tempted to live in the world that is generated by TV consumerism. It is another made-up world. And I believe that the true situation of most of us in U.S. culture is that we are pulled apart by not wanting to choose between these two narrative worlds."

The idea is taken up by Roberta Hestenes, president of Eastern College in St. David's, Pa. "That gets back to who we are as humans," she suggests. "Are we, for instance, primarily economic beings? Are we consumers? And is the way we're to define ourselves in terms of getting, and spending, and having, and acquisition, and all of that? Or, as the story tells us, are we responsible, moral beings?"

Such questions have been relevant throughout human history, but these days, they seem particularly charged. On the one hand, consumer culture tells us that our salvation lies in accumulation, encouraging us to define ourselves as much by demographic standing as the more subtle shadings of our souls. Meanwhile, we seem increasingly hungry for some kind of spiritual affirmation--a hunger that accounts for developments as apparently unrelated as the rise of fundamentalism and the popularity of angels, past-life regression and other indulgences of the New Age.

"Underlying all this," says Peter Gilmour, a faculty member at Loyola University's Institute of Pastoral Studies in Chicago, "is a real quest for meaning that's born out of chaotic times. We live in a world where there are a lot of changes taking place at a rapid rate. And whenever there's rapid change--which is characterized by a certain kind of chaos--it leads to questions about meaning, as well."

Perhaps the ultimate paradox is that, in a society given over to commerce, the mechanisms by which we pursue spiritual discourse are often those of consumption itself. Thus, although it may be ironic for a biblical scholar like Brueggemann to complain about TV consumerism from the soapbox of a television studio, it's also emblematic.

Over the last year, spirituality has grown into a potent force in the media marketplace, with PBS series like "Genesis" and Hugh Hewitt's "Searching for God in America" attempting to re-contextualize age-old issues, and Joan Osborne's Grammy-nominated song "One of Us" imagining a deity who rides the bus, as lonely and confused as any human being. At the heart of these explorations is a sense of spirituality as something profoundly personal, an endeavor that is less about adhering to the tenets of a particular tradition than bending them to fit the exigencies of their interpreters' lives.

Books dealing with spirituality and religion seem to be a cottage industry of their own. Even as worldly a figure as Stephen King has gotten into the act, constructing his latest saga of good and evil, "Desperation," around an 11-year-old mystic with a pipeline to God. This need to personalize the ineffable reaches its apotheosis in what amounts to a new generation of spiritual memoirs, where various modern seekers record their stories in specific, often idiosyncratic, terms.

Given our obsession with confession and autobiography, the profusion of spiritual memoirs should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, it is a diverse subgenre, encompassing books like Kim Chernin's "In My Father's Garden," about the attempt to navigate a middle ground between politics and spirit, and David Rosenberg's "Communion" and "Genesis: As It Is Written," in which David Mamet, Mary Gaitskill, John Barth and others contribute essays about their experiences of the Bible.

At the same time, there is a certain sense of shared perspective, which emerges in conversations with three authors in the field:

Mark Matousek, a former editor at Interview magazine, whose "Sex, Death, Enlightenment" recounts his halting passage toward meaning; Joan Tollifson, author of the journal-cum-autobiography "Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up From the Story of My Life," which traces her self-exploration through meditation and retreat; and poet Kathleen Norris, a "generic Protestant" who describes her experience as an oblate to a Benedictine monastery in "The Cloister Walk." These writers are after a way to invest their lives with meaning while keeping in touch with themselves. As Matousek explains, " 'Spirituality' is such an overused word, but all it's about is paying attention. It's as simple as that."

Spiritual memoir dates back at least as far as St. Augustine's "Confessions," in which the cleric revealed the secrets of his formerly profligate life. In fact, a case could be made that memoir itself is a spiritual discipline. Peter Gilmour, who explores the notion in his soon-to-be-published "The Wisdom of Memoir," contends, "It's talking about God by telling stories about ourselves."

But whether overt or covert, he explains, "There are two mileposts in the dynamic of writing a memoir. The first is the actual experience itself--what you choose to tell about--and the second is when you actually choose to create the memoir. Between those two points, you have the reflective process going on. The memoir not only includes the experience but also the reflection. So the internal dynamic produces a sacred text because reflection on life experience is one of the fundamental sources of revelation."

What makes memoir so dynamic, Gilmour believes, is that "it extends the definition of who is an expert, and who is a theologian. We really have a breakdown of these traditional categories in which the whole role of expertise is changing and becoming more grounded in people's individual perspectives."

Certainly that's true when it comes to Matousek, Tollifson and Norris; of the three, only Norris was raised with "strong religious roots," and even she strayed after high school because "the liberal church was bent on demystifying itself, and if religion was just one more branch of politics, I wasn't interested." Matousek, for his part, was bar mitzvahed "to please my grandpa," but it wasn't until years later, when his friends started to contract AIDS, that he embarked on a modern-day vision quest in Europe and India. And Tollifson had to bottom out on alcohol before she could begin her process of discovery, moving through revolutionary politics and Zen Buddhism, and eventually entering the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in upstate New York.

Despite their divergent backgrounds, Matousek, Tollifson and Norris have in common a sense of spirituality as a living, breathing force, less a function of any specific tradition than an essence that moves through them all, as in Aldous Huxley's "Perennial Philosophy," which, Matousek explains, "boils down the world's traditions to five basic precepts." Considered in such terms, there is little difference between, say, Norris' conception of monastic discipline and Tollifson's more formless meditative practice, where "there is just openness, or nothing that can be put into words."

Even the language the two women use to describe their experiences is strikingly similar, whether it is Tollifson's reflection on the need to "stop and listen deeply," or Norris' notion of "sitting still and listening" to understand what you feel.

The point, Tollifson suggests, is to move beyond "identifying ourselves as this body / mind and discover what we really are, which has to do with this moment, now."

Norris agrees. "Ultimately," she says, "it's easy to put ourselves at the center of the universe, and my own practice brings me back to the fact that I'm not. That's spirituality, too--being reminded that you're selfish. It gets us out of the trap of self-centeredness."

This selfishness, Norris contends, is encouraged by the jagged jump cuts of commercial diversions, and she sees in spirituality a framework for reconnecting with our essential selves. "In the consumer culture," she says, "there's so much pressure to draw us away from who we are. But do we need all this stuff in the first place? The importance of spirituality is that it grounds us and helps us not get totally sucked in." This process includes what, she notes, "a Jungian would call 'confronting the shadow' "--that is, taking stock of and trying to understand feelings like pain and emptiness, not to dismiss or wish them into nonexistence, but to integrate them into our lives.

"Monasticism," she explains, "provides a context for states like loneliness. This has a lot to do with the fact that it is a lived thing, a daily thing--not a theory, but a practice. In the monastic tradition, you spend time trying to discover what your loneliness, anger, fear is all about."

That's a revolutionary concept in a society where excuses have replaced responsibility and negative emotions are to be avoided at any cost. But, as Matousek points out, "Spirituality without negativity could never mean anything to me because I could never be a saint. Real spirituality involves working with your evil, it doesn't disqualify you."

Matousek's attitude reflects a fundamental human desire for mystery, for a sense of life that is somehow fuller than we can understand. "We have a need for magic, a need for revelation," says critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom, whose new book, "Omens of Millennium," argues in favor of the gnostic understanding that God is not some external force but resides within.

These matters, of course, used to be the province of organized religion, but over the last few decades, changes in society have rendered such a relationship problematic for many. Bloom says there's nothing peculiar about that; a certain estrangement from tradition is "the true temper of American spirituality," although he believes that it's much more prevalent now. "We are a country," he says, "as we approach the millennium, where there's a profound alienation from organized religion, which has left intelligent, spiritually questing individuals unfulfilled."

For Bloom, "The answer can only be found in the individual." And Tollifson and Matousek seem to bear that out. Tollifson turned her back on her parents' agnostic Protestantism to search for meaning in the East. "There's so much truth in the Eastern vision of the world," she says. "There's a similar understanding in the mystical traditions of the West, but the Eastern view seems so much clearer to me."

Matousek has dispensed with the idea of tradition altogether, drawing from practices like Vedanta and Hatha Yoga to fashion a discipline all his own. "For me," he explains, "dualistic religion never made any sense. The idea of a jealous and angry God--of God up there and me down here--was a huge turnoff." Even now, he says, "I have never found a sacred tradition that completely satisfies me. Since we now have access to everything, there are teachings and traditions you can work on, but people have to make their own practices. Everyone has to be their own guide."

It's easy to be cynical about a mix-and-match spirituality, where ancient precepts are taken up and laid aside according to what may seem like little more than whim. In a recent Doonesbury comic, Garry Trudeau parodies this obsession with marketable sanctity by imagining "The Little Church of Walden Web Site." "This page," the church's pastor, Reverend Scot, says without a trace of irony, "is our Gen-X Reach-Out Center. We call it 'Rock the Flock.' "

And the December issue of Harper's features a long essay by Peter Marin that ridicules Michael Lerner and his "Politics of Meaning," an amorphous, New Age-laden program for eliminating the ills of the world.

Lerner's God, Marin writes, "this transparent and knowable God, this God who shills for every liberal notion to come down the pike, is a quintessentially American God, a God for our time, a designer God who demands nothing of us that we do not want for ourselves; who suggests no duty at odds with our dispositions; who can be twisted and shaped to fit every one of our dreams."

But while Trudeau and Marin may be right to vilify the easy assumptions and unremarked contradictions of the New Age, authors like Matousek, Tollifson and Norris are after something far more subtle: an explicitly practical spirituality in which the central concern is less about divinity than how one is to live.

"I don't think there's any difference between spiritual life and the rest of life," Matousek says. "People think spirituality means not having fun anymore, but really, it's about living with five senses in a multi-sensory world, about expanding your consciousness--whether in church, in temple or in bed with your lover." Norris notes simply that "most religions get kind of silly when they take on otherworldly concerns."

Ultimately, the point seems to be that spirituality is not about renunciation, but about forging a deeper engagement with the world. In that sense, there may be no more appropriate place than the forum of secular culture for the subject to be discussed. After all, Norris argues, "an important part of the process is being able to look at yourself and pull back, but not from the world. Instead, you pull back from yourself so that you can be there more for other people."

Tollifson's perspective is equally emphatic: "I don't think there's any way not to be in the world," she says. "There are just different ways. And it's a terrible mistake to think that meditation or spirituality means you have to be in a quiet place or in a retreat."

This winter, in fact, she will leave Springwater and return to the Bay Area, where her spiritual journey began more than 20 years ago. She wants to be back "in the larger world," but she's not yet sure how. Such a move may appear contradictory, but, as Matousek reminds us, "Life is a paradox. And isn't it inspiring once you look at it that way?"


Getting Into the Spirit

These are the books discussed in this article:

* "Searching for God in America" by Hugh Hewitt (Word Publishing, 1996)

* "Desperation" by Stephen King (Viking Penguin, 1996)

* "In My Father's Garden" by Kim Chernin (Algonquin, 1996)

* "Communion" by David Rosenberg (Doubleday, 1996)

* "Genesis: As It Is Written" by David Rosenberg (Doubleday, 1996)

* "Sex, Death, Enlightenment" by Mark Matousek (Riverhead, 1996)

* "Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up From the Story of My Life" by Joan Tollifson (Random House, 1996)

* "The Cloister Walk" by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead, 1996)

* "The Wisdom of Memoir" by Peter Gilmour (to be published by Rowman & Littlefield)

* "Perennial Philosophy" by Aldous Huxley (Borgo Press, 1977)

* "Omens of Millennium" by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1996)

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World