Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Simply Christian" and Spiritual Thirst

Last week I picked up Simply Christian by N.T. Wright for three reasons: 1) It comes highly recommended in various corners of the blogosphere, even touted as a new Mere Christianity, 2) I've never really read anything by Wright, except perhaps an article here and there in college or seminary, and 3) I wanted to argue with it.

It didn't necessarily need to be this book that I could have argued with. I've been meaning to re-read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity, and I just as easily could have started arguing with that instead. But I chose Wright because of the first two reasons listed above, but mainly to use it to discover where I stand nowadays on this or that theological issue. So there'll probably be an occasional post here and there as I look through this now.

The second chapter is entitled "The Hidden Spring," in which Wright presents a somewhat tedious allegory of a dictator who cements over all natural water supplies except the ones he pre-approves as being best for his people. Eventually, the springs break through the concrete, and chaos ensues. I just took two sentences to do what he feels the need to do in a page and a half. Anyway, here's his conclusion:
We in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call "spirituality," the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.
In other words, Wright argues that we've lately been experiencing a great rise in spiritual thirst that has been suppressed by things such as secularism, skepticism, materialism, and a relegation of belief to the sidelines of public life. The "official channels" such as institutional churches, have provided inadequate means to quench this thirst, and thus people have been searching outside traditional forms. Wright cites various New Age religions, among other things, as signs of this new quest undertaken by so many. But then he draws a strange conclusion:
[A]ll this fundamentalism, with militant Christians, militant Sikhs, militant Muslims, and many others bombing each other with God on their side. Surely, say the guardians of the official water system, all this is terribly unhealthy? Surely it will lead us back to superstition , to the old chaotic, polluted, and irrational water supply?

They have a point. But they must face a question in response: Does the fault not lie with those who wanted to pave over the springs with concrete in the first place? September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead...What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous "religion" and "spirituality" really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?
Wright's main point is that if a society tries to pave over "spirituality," people will seek to quench their thirst any way that they can. People will look outside "pre-approved channels" for this water if they are dissatisfied with what is offered.

The problem is with where Wright takes this argument in the quote above, arguing that fundamentalism is one answer to this thirst. Even more absurd is the implication that if "spirituality" hadn't been suppressed the way that it has, if people had been more free to explore and question and believe, an event like 9/11 wouldn't have happened.

This almost smacks of Falwell's "if only the secularists hadn't taken over this country" explanation.

As it was originally conceived in the 19th century, fundamentalism was a certain reaction to perceived "paving over" of religious belief, but it was and is much more a movement from within religion rather than a reaction to a larger societal problem. People who subscribe to fundamentalism of various forms don't go looking elsewhere to satisfy thirst; they seek to purify the water supply they already have--perhaps even one "proper channel"--and then seek to cut off all other supplies while claiming theirs is the one truly pure source.

In other words, fundamentalism isn't one more example of a larger spiritual ultimately seeks to be the pavement. Wright is correct that the pavement may begin as a reaction to this mindset, but fundamentalism only seeks to use their own brand of concrete. To suggest that secularism led to 9/11 is, to me, both to misunderstand the specifics surrounding that event and to misunderstand the causes and aims of fundamentalism.

This larger movement to satisfy spiritual thirst that Wright describes looks outside the usual means if it has to. Fundamentalism defines more narrowly what one may drink, and who may drink it. The latter, in my view, is a completely different movement.