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Life’s answers: Is religion in the mix?

Special to The Times

“Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!” wrote William James, whose seminal work “The Varieties of Religious Experience” stands today as one of the most important texts on spirituality and religion seeking.

Nearly a century later, the search for religion is still playing out as a theme in books, both in texts and fiction, but the ways in which it is sought are changing. The protagonist of last year’s Booker Prize winner, “Life of Pi,” for example, was so eager for religion he embraced three of them at once. And while the story, on its face, is about a boy’s survival after a shipwreck, it has issues of faith at its core.

Now, two new books are, in their own ways, addressing the subject: “The Transformation of American Religion” by Alan Wolfe (Free Press), a sociologically based look into the manner in which Americans exercise their religious beliefs, and “Jamesland” (Knopf), a novel by Michelle Huneven, limning the spiritual journey of a few quirky Angelenos.

In the United States, which has been characterized as the most religious nation in the West, a formal, institutionalized view of religion has historically predominated. Yet Americans may be moving away from this model, both books suggest, toward the kind of religious experiences James examined, experiences that are intensely personal and may often take place outside formal religious settings.

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“Religion in practice looks very, very different than the way religion is talked about” in the culture at large and, particularly, in politics, says Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, speaking on the phone. “Some people want us to believe that religious people are dogmatic, narrow-minded and sectarians, while others want us to believe they’re holy and capable of saving the world.”

In reality, he says, neither extreme is accurate. In fact, few of the perceptions of Americans as believers reflect their actual practice.

“I come across people who say they don’t like religion, but they like faith,” Wolfe says. “They identify religion with institutions and hierarchies, and faith with a kind of inner quest for spiritual force.” This outlook, he says, marks a significant change in our self-image as Americans.

Inflation takes hold

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There’s much to celebrate in this shift, Wolfe says, pointing to the nation’s embrace of religious pluralism and tolerance and applauding the sheer inventiveness infusing contemporary belief. “The entrepreneurial character to American religion: You have to admire that.”

But the counterpoint of that, he says, is that churches are tending to water down their messages to attract more members, an effect Wolfe calls “salvation inflation.”

He uses his experience as a college professor and the phenomenon of grade inflation to explain. “Students are doing less and less work and they’re getting higher and higher grades for it.” With religion, he says, people are expected to do less and are rewarded with grace much more easily.

Traditionally, he explains, religion has also helped people focus on the significant questions of life, those that have a kind of intellectual content and require struggle: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What are my obligations to others? “I do not see that many of our religious institutions are asking those questions,” he laments.

It is exactly this issue of struggling with crucial life questions that Michelle Huneven, a Los Angeles-based writer who sometimes freelances for The Times, set out to explore in her novel “Jamesland.”

“The question to me -- at least when posed by my characters -- is a spiritual cry for practical information,” Huneven explains, sitting in her wildly beautiful Altadena backyard on a blazing L.A. morning. Religious institutions may or may not help us find the information we seek, she says, but religions do tend to be vast storehouses of spiritual knowledge. “Turning to them, we can find unbelievably good practical information which can improve our relationship to what is.”

What kind of practical information? “Feed the hungry. Remember to breathe. Trust intuition as a form of emotional intelligence. Find and do your life’s work. Forgive, or at least try. Get out of yourself for one damn minute every now and then. Try to face what is.”

Sometimes, she explains, we are introduced to these principles via religion and sometimes not. Still, by following them, most people live happier, more productive lives.

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Huneven, whose first novel, “Round Rock” (Knopf, 1997), looked into the gritty spirituality experienced from alcoholism, has an affinity for writing humorous tales about unlovable people in harsh settings, oddball characters who win readers over with their courageous, if halting, tussle with life.

“Jamesland” features Alice Black, a biologist who is the great-great-granddaughter of William James and who finds herself in a spiritual crisis. Alice, who lives in Los Feliz, is befriended by Helen, a newly ordained minister whose congregation tells her to tone down the more religious aspects of her ministry, and Pete, a foundering chef, whose mother has become a Catholic nun working at a Glendale-based food bank.

Most of her characters are what Huneven would term “religiously averse” -- intelligent people who have discarded traditional forms of spiritual seeking. Though institutionalized belief surrounds the characters, the monumental experiences of the book take place in the midst of normal daily life -- having dinner together, supporting one another, trudging shoulder to shoulder to get by.

“Can people who have rejected religion -- its trappings, doctrine and vocabulary -- actually have religious experiences?” Huneven asks, letting the question sit unanswered.

Wolfe’s research seems to indicate that we’re moving in that direction. He confined his examination of contemporary religion primarily to Judeo Christian belief and visited churches and temples across the nation examining the dogma and doctrine of institutional belief systems. He compared that with how the members of those religions actually live, worship, interact with one another and the world at large.

Wolfe’s research identified specific trends altering American religion: In general, believers today are more likely than ever to change their religious affiliation, no longer satisfied with retaining the faith of their childhood. They balk at talk of sin and repentance, seeking instead a loving relationship with the divine. They worship in more enthusiastic -- and less ceremonial and liturgical -- ways, and typically know little about the theological grounding for their faith.

Though believers may identify themselves as Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or any other denomination and see themselves as belonging to a particular faith tradition, the ways they participate in their religious practices are more individualistic now than ever before.

These trends, Wolfe says, are fueled in part by the strength of our culture. “God is a very powerful force, but culture is a very powerful force also. When the two conflict, culture usually wins.” Taken as a whole, this transformation is “a mixed bag.”

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For Huneven, the book was a way to describe what is essentially a spiritual journey without using a distinctly religious vocabulary. “I wanted to write about how ordinary spirituality really is. Our human-sized struggles,” she explains over the cries of birds, “are the true mortal struggles. I wanted to communicate the down-to-earth modesty of most spiritual doings and to be funny about it.”

Huneven, who studied to be a Unitarian Universalist minister before turning to writing, has noticed many of the trends in religious practice that Wolfe identifies. “I think right now in America we’re seeing what one of my characters calls ‘The Variety Show of Religious Experience.’ People are looking into the world religions. Some dabble, some make lifelong commitments.”

But even if churches are “wimping out,” she says, people can and will find what they need. Any person who wants to make a profound spiritual commitment will make one.

“Institutional religion may not demand that much from us anymore, but life still can and does,” Huneven says. “And then, when the darkness descends, people turn right back to religion: Help! Help!”

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Book reading and signing by Michelle Huneven

Where: Skylight Books

1818 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.

When: Saturday at 5 p.m.


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