Numbers reported today by Charles M. Blow of the New York Times confirm what I hear often in my classes – more and more young people today affirm being “spiritual,” but not “religious.”
Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago that Americans – informed by a spirit of equality – would find “forms” to be unbearable. Forms – whether as “formalities,” as boundaries, as rule-based distinctions, as disciplines – would be rejected as largely arbitrary limits upon the democratic freedom of individuals. He predicted that “formal” religion would decline in adherents, but that “exhalted forms of spirituality” would spring up to take their place, ones that would be noteworthy for their expansiveness, their absence of boundedness, their resistance to limits or chastening, and would manifest themselves as a kind of fanaticism. Moreover, he noted that this kind of “spirituality” would not be in contradiction to modern forms of materialism, but would exist comfortably alongside materialism.
All this is to be expected. Americans dislike most “formalities.” Most of our contributions in the culinary area have been to transform every food type into ones that can be eaten by hand, on the run. Increasingly the use of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” have disappeared from the vocabulary of our young. Etiquette more generally has ceased to be a subject worthy of inculcation. Architectural forms have increasingly sought to incorporate design features that reject classical formalism, lines and features that were meant to accentuate the reality of the natural world. In universities, formal curricular criteria have been abandoned for amorphous “distribution requirements,” and at some institutions have been altogether eliminated. The “formalism” of the Constitution has been rejected in preference for the idea of a “living” document that is subject to evolutionary change. In all these instances, “forms” restrict our freedom, and as democrats, we naturally bridle against them.
Spirituality is another kind of reaction against “forms” – this time in the religious realm – but, as with these other kinds of “informalism,” exists in order to overthrow the strictures and limitations that “forms” demand. As Blow reports, one woman arrived at spiritual “peace” by taking a vacation to Costa Rica, where she was able to overcome the “moral strictures” of her youth. Spirituality becomes the means to liberation, even dissipation.
Tocqueville argued that democracy would need forms, though it would seek their evisceration. Forms are necessary especially because democracy needs to inculcate the capacity for self-government, and self-government is achieved through an habituation in self-discipline that the forms provide. In so many areas of life today, it is obvious that our problems derive from our incapacity for self-governance, in the formal discipline of self.
What we need today is not a generation that is “spiritual, not religious.” I would argue that what is needed is the studied capacity to be “religious, not spiritual.” Let’s make that the new buzz.