The Spirituality of Reading

Gary Shteyngart recently gave a talk in which he likened reading to religious or spiritual experience. An agnostic himself, he sees the writing (and reading) of books as close to spiritual experience as anything. Responses here and here.

But technology also is something of a religion:

technology possesses a similar strain of divinity as literature: it enables us to overcome our physical existence and to connect. It offers the possibility of transcendence.

In response, Julia Jackson pondered the different experiences of reading physical books and an ipad:

When I read a real book, on the other hand, I leave my cell phone and laptop in the other room and sit on the couch, and suddenly it’s just me and the book and the characters in it. I am truly alone yet truly connected. When I read a real book, I am forcing myself to follow one stream of thought—that which the author committed to paper. In today’s world, this simple act is meditative, even transcendent. I am able to do something that feels very futuristic—cross space and time and peer right into the author’s mind—with a technology that has been around for thousands of years.

In the New York Times, John Schwartz muses on the difference between reading “real” books and “reading” audiobooks, or one supposes, an ipad or kindle:

The truth, it seems, is that the way we read, and our reasons for loving or disliking audiobooks, are deeply personal. They are expressions of self, so tied to who we are. If you belittle the way I read, you’re belittling me.

A couple of things interest me here. First of all, what does this mean for religions of the book like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? If one’s religious life is no longer centered on the physical reading of a text (and I rarely pick up a Bible to read it–I do almost all of mine on line), what is the impact on one’s faith and experience? Second, scholars have argued that it wasn’t only the relationship of individuals with the text that mattered, but rather that, in Christianity communities were shaped by texts, that Christian communities were reading communities (even when the reading was done aloud).

In the midst of this technological revolution, with all of its implications for religious faith and religious community, we may also need to rethink how we approach the sacred text.

Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost | First Things

Ruminations on the spiritual power of bourbon, from Walker Percy, nonetheless: Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost | First Things.

To return to more earthly spirits, bourbon is for Percy a way to be for a moment in the evening. Why might one take an evening cocktail? Baser reasons are: an addiction to alcohol, or the desire to appear sophisticated. Better reasons, according to Percy, are the aesthetic experience of the drink itself—the appearance, the aroma, the taste, the cheering effect of (moderate) ethanol on the brain. Another reason is that a drink incarnates the evening; it marks the shift from the active workday to a reflective time at home. One simply must choose a way to be at a five o’clock on a Wednesday evening. Instead surrendering to TV, Percy recommended making a proper southern julep. I prefer my bourbon as an old-fashioned, a drink that reflects the colors of an autumn day. “Love God and do what you will,” Saint Augustine advised. This presumes that you have allowed God’s grace to order you to love properly, and you have taken proper note of your own God-given gifts and dispositions. Then, praise God, and be.

Walker’s original essay can be read here.


St. Francis of Assisi–An otherwordly falling in love

Tomorrow, Grace will have a Blessing of the Animals at our 10:00 service. It is one way in which we honor St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is October 4. St. Francis is fondly remembered for his love of creation and especially of animals, but he was much more than that. Here is an excerpt from a reflection on America’s “In all Things” blog:

The story of Francis encountering the San Damiano crucifix wonderfully illustrates what the great Jesuit theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan called “the Law of the Cross.” What was that?

When Lonergan pondered our salvation, he rejected the idea that the Father causes it through any act of external intrusion into history.   For Lonergan salvation isn’t something God accomplishes without our cooperation. God certainly doesn’t declare our alienation to be at an end because we’ve killed the Son. On the contrary, God saves us through our being drawn by love into the cross of Christ. The knowledge of the Son’s gift upon the cross compels our conversion, because it calls us to love. Lonergan defined conversion as “otherworldly falling in love.”

We’re meant to look upon Jesus, as Francis did in that Umbrian chapel, and fall in love. And having fallen in love, as any lover knows, the entire world is changed.

The entire post, written by Terrance W. Klein, is available here.

More on the “Spiritual but not religious” dust-up

Jim Burklo:

Here’s another way to view the SBNR phenomenon: religiously unaffiliated but spiritually engaged people are in fact encountering God in real human communities that don’t look like traditional congregations, so why not celebrate that?

Diana Butler Bass:

Maybe the SBNR are pointing the way toward a different kind of church or a new kind of Christianity, if only those of us who still care about old denominations and traditions can receive the criticism of their absence and learn from it, even as it comes with a sting.

Kate Blanchard, who teaches religious studies, on the airplane conversation (and her own journey):

If all of this makes me boring to the confidently religious, I guess I can live with that. But I am actually quite fascinated by someone who takes the time to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” when they could simply have said, “Hmmm, interesting,” and put in their ear buds. It makes me feel less alone as I wander in my current religious wilderness. I am actually energized and encouraged by the quests of those who are seeking something true, even if they don’t know anything other than that it’s not religion.

Spiritual, not religious–another view

Amy Thompson Sevimli‘s perspective on the piece by Lillian Daniel:

What I have found, however, is that the phrase is almost always a gateway into a deeper conversation about their spirituality (even if it is about sunsets). It is an opportunity for them to talk about their faith and their experience of the church — which, by the way, has usually been negative.

And this:

Instead of fully engaging those outside our churches, we sit back and wonder why the mass of spiritual but not religious people don’t walk through our doors. But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?

My earlier take, here.

“Spiritual, but not religious”

Lillian Daniel rants about the passenger in the next seat in the airplane who says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” upon learning that she is clergy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the same experience, and the same reaction, both in my earlier life as a professor of Religious Studies (when I would usually pass myself off as a scholar of European History) and since I’ve been ordained a priest.

Of course, people who say they are “spiritual not religious” can be vacuous; but worship and life in Christian communities can be vacuous as well, as Trevor Wax reminds us.

Sometimes, such people are little more than individualist navel-gazers; sometimes, they are on quests for meaning and authenticity. Sometimes, they are burned out on organized religion, or worse. They are so damaged by life in communities of hate that they cannot conceive or ever experience the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, their journey has taken them away, as in the case of a woman I spoke with this week, who after years of faithful attendance, and active involvement in outreach, finds the liturgy no longer speaks to her soul. Instead, it is painting that feeds her soul. Sometimes that phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious” is a formula they’ve learned to help them deal with the absence in their hearts that they cannot comprehend.

Sometimes, we need to listen.