Zeitgeist is a handy word. It means the spirit of the age, the communal water of assumption we take in and can’t help but assimilate and/or push back from.
Two of the more interesting pieces this week were a blog post by Sam Harris about his work on his upcoming book on spirituality and a report from a college professor who assigns his millennial students to invent a religion.
Most of the religions my class invented incorporated Eastern religious ideas like meditation— especially meditation used for psychological growth or personal fulfillment—as well as ideas like reincarnation and karma. When Western religions were included, the pieces taken from them were such things as pilgrimage, like the hajj to Mecca required by Muslims, or rituals like prayer. But the prayer was of a particular stripe, always centering on personal—or even material—enrichment.
There were several components of religion that were glaringly absent. Not one of them had career clergy who were in charge of services, rituals, or care of the congregation. There were, for the most part, no regular meetings of the faithful. Some had monthly or annual gatherings, like conferences, but most were very individualized religions, centering on personal growth and enrichment away from a physical community.
So, right off the bat, this generation has dumped its religious leaders, its priests or gurus, and has dispensed with the obligation of coming together each week as a community. I guess, if there’s no one there to deliver a sermon or wisdom talk, what’s the point of gathering together once a week?
Here is Sam Harris’ description of his project:
I am currently under a book deadline, so long blog posts will probably be few and far between until the end of the year. The working title of the book is Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality. This title could very well change, but this should give you some indication of what I’m up to. My goal is to write a “spiritual” book for smart, skeptical people—dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.
Outcome? I’m thinking both will look a lot like Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Sam Harris pretty much left with points 2 and 3 and instead of “God” it starts out with “People should be good…”
Beginning to Suspect You’re A Bubble Boy
When you see this kind of alignment, it might be worth while asking yourself “am I being provincial?”
It is fashionable to complain about homeschoolers and other religious recluses. “How ignorant it is to only live within your philosophical bubble? True seekers of the truth step outside of the passing fad.” Yep.
Steve Jobs famously spoke for a generation in his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”
Did anyone in the crowd ask “then why should we listen to you?” or were they cowed by his enormous and obvious business success.
Religions are in a sense very old communal Ulysses contracts.
Why Go to Church?
This new page on my blog will deal with the question of how we find the bubbles we live within and how we explore them. Church, while of course its own bubble, bears the advantage of increasingly being distinct from the zeitgeist majority culture Americans increasingly live within. If you want to understand a majority bubble a minority bubble can be of tremendous use.
If the church simply echoes the majority bubble and it cheerfully imagines it’s walking the secular eschatological path of progress it is of little use. If the church is simply being a reactionary curmudgeon it is being of little use. The church can be of tremendous help for bubble boys and girls only if it has the rigor, discipline and honest to work its bubble well.
As Americans increasingly are bowling alone there are fewer and fewer strong minority bubbles that can be of service in helping us be a bit more broadly human than unknowing inhabitants of our plastic world. The church remains such a place.