Choosing our religion

/ 7 April 2016

To be honest, I receive a lot of books from colleagues – and even more from publishers – who are interested in my feedback or review of a specific text. Most of the time I glance at a book, get a basic sense of what it’s about, and then put it on one of a couple of piles in my office that are “books to be read soon,” “books to be read some day,” and “books I might want to give away.” Rarely does my initial skim of a book lead me to read it fully, let alone voraciously. But Elizabeth Drescher’s latest book – Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones – grabbed my attention and kept me riveted.

I highly recommend this book.

Drescher set out to interview people who claim the label “none,” or in some cases “spiritual but not religious,” in our census-bureau way of speaking about such things. Her book is a complex presentation and interpretation of what she heard. First and foremost, she listened deeply and carefully.

People who know me well will be familiar with my frustration with the label “unchurched” which so often attends to people who are outside of religious institutions. I much prefer to talk about the “unheard” – the voices of people we refuse to listen to, or want to describe in caricatures. Drescher helps us to hear these voices, she gives us the opportunity to “lurk” behind her as she talks with people from across the country about how they understand themselves and their processes of meaning-making around this most contested of categories,  “spirituality.”

That alone would be a worthy endeavor – and the appendices to this book offer a rich treasure trove of her methodological choices and survey questions – but this book is a much more significant contribution. Ranging widely across a variety of literatures (anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, media studies, congregational studies, theology and so on) Drescher has put together a stunning reframing of the experiences of people who claim these labels. She recognizes – and names – the fears and concerns that people within religious institutions raise about people who find their spiritual grounding outside of religious institutions, but she refuses to be captured by those explanations.  Instead she invites her respondents to share how they understand what they are experiencing and doing. She notes that rather than using the traditional modes of “believing, belonging and behaving that have fueled much recent discussion” …. These are “narratives that emphasized experiences of being and becoming” (14).

Her discussion requires her to explore issues of identity, community, spirituality, ethics, and parenting. These are everyday, ordinary, but profoundly important matters for all of us – and it just may be that those who define themselves as “nones” – far from the radical margins religious institutions want to claim for them – are actually at the center of the shifting religious dynamics we are experiencing. Drescher is keenly aware of current media studies scholarship, and she brings that to bear in her interpretations, offering me, at least, a lot of hope for what is emerging. She writes, for instance:

In the new media age, difference is less a distinguishing barrier between groups of individuals than it is an invitation to engage and explore the lives of diverse others. (60) Rather, new media practices of seeing others, seeing difference, expressing difference, and being in variously distributed relationships with religiously diverse others have an effect on how people regard religious difference in increasingly overlapping zones of private and public life. (61) But the logic of digitally integrated social practice encourages self-representations in which affiliational commitments are muted, expressing religious and spiritual perspectives in ways that signal a lack or a loosening of institutional, doctrinal, and ritual rigidity that might undermine social harmony and stability. (62)

She asks about resources that people bring to the task for sustaining themselves outside of institutional supports, and notes a wide variety of music, books, films, and other resources:

…resources set those who use them within configurations of community in at least three ways: (1) they provide common interpretive lenses; (2) they structure social relationships as resources are created, accessed, interpreted, and shared across loosely configured, often widely distributed, networks of people with similar interests and sensibilities; (3) they invite the imagining of a collective similar to oneself in most dimensions because of sharing one or perhaps a few dimensions (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious, Secular Humanist, Atheist, etc.) This collective can never be verified, but it nonetheless is understood and experienced as “real,” as “people like me.” (98)

It is clear from her study that far from being the “individualistic” or “isolated” persons so many religious communities fear the “Nones” are becoming, these respondents are instead deeply relational in their practices. She writes, for instance:

Mostly absent formally defined public spaces within which to practice their spirituality, the unaffiliated have gathered across various imagined communities of spiritual practice. (99) … for many Nones, broader spiritual networks, the relationships that sustain them, and the content they share often take on the aura of the sacred. (99) … the experience of community moves into more regular personal engagement, precisely because it is significantly enacted online. (101)

I was fascinated by her descriptions of the qualities that tend to “distinguish practices understood as “spiritual” or “spiritually meaningful” described by Nones:

• They are primarily relational, rather than either individualistic or institutional, highlighting interpersonal intimacy and connectedness. • They are most often embedded in the experiences, locales, and temporalities of everyday life rather than separated in time and space. • They are embodied, sensate, and social, more than cognitive, private, and interiorized. • They are provisional and practical, changing on the basis of new experiences, resources, and life stages and drawing on diverse resources across religious, philosophical and other wisdom traditions. • They are dynamic over time while remaining coherent within identity narratives. • They are often understood as transformational, highlighting personal growth and communal and social change. • They tend to highlight experiences of authenticity and connectedness in the present moment, rather than future-oriented expectations traditionally associated with “salvation” or various other afterlife schemas. (119)

Frankly, these are practices that I am seeing more and more often within religious institutions as well. They are the challenges set before those of us – like me – who claim the label of “religious educator” and want to help people connect their personal narratives with the narratives of religious peoples through time.

There is so much more I could say about this book. Drescher’s exploration of the ways in which prayer is experienced, or her discussion of how an ethics of care emerges, will both be sections I will draw upon in my classes. I’m also certain that her “four Fs of contemporary American spirituality – Family, Fido, Friends and Food (44)” will prove to be an enduring meme within my classes.

In any case, if you can only afford the time to read one book that will impact your leadership in the next couple of months, make it this one.