New wave faith craze misses the key point

January 19, 1998|By Diana Butler Bass

WITH every second ticking closer to the millennium, Americans become increasingly obsessed with religion -- making spirituality the hottest trend around. The faith craze, however, has gone too far when even Self magazine devotes itself to ''your spiritual life.''

Self's year-end issue featured articles titled ''Why is Buddhism so Hip?,'' ''Spirituality for Beginners,'' ''Zen: Mind Gardening'' and ''Workouts to Soothe the Soul.''

'Transcendent casual wear'

Also included: a special fashion section showing $370 ''transcendent casual wear'' by Norma Kamali emblazoned with Gandhi's face. Of course, if Gandhi breaks your budget, you might opt for a $44 T-shirt printed with a Thai Buddha.

Self is only one example of the current commercialization of spirituality.

The publishing industry peddles similar ridiculous fare like the best-selling ''Conversations with God.'' Even Hollywood has joined the religion craze offering such films as ''Seven Years in Tibet'' and television's silly ''Soulman.''

Gandhi leggings? Brad Pitt as a Buddhist convert? If this is where the trend leads, call me the Grinch of spirituality. No more, Madison Avenue and Hollywood, please, no more!

This commercialization of spirituality comes as no surprise. Since the beginning of our nation's history, merchants and entertainers (sometimes in the guise of ministers or mediums) have sold God with great success. Selling spirituality is one of the things Americans do best. So, I am not really irked at Hollywood -- it is just doing its job.

What bothers me, however, is what this penchant to merchandise faith reveals about our national character: When it comes to spirituality, we are relentlessly shallow.

Contrary to Self magazine's fluffy inspirational issue, true spirituality is not primarily about ourselves. It is also about others. The inward journey becomes an outward journey; we go inside for healing and, in turn, reach out to the world. Spiritual seeking leads to charity -- an old-fashioned word meaning ''love.''

The contemporary trendiness called spirituality is little more than pop psychology -- a kind of feel-good, quick fix connection with the divine.

Serious spirituality is not quick. The inner journey takes time and involves questioning, doubting and exploring mysteries much greater than ourselves.

In this journey, we must come to terms with our religious upbringings, wrestle with the problem of evil and struggle with our own failings and mortality. Most of all, we must cultivate a relationship with God as God is revealed to us through scriptures and experience. None of this is easy, and no ''hip'' spirituality will ultimately lead to wholeness. For that matter, few traditional religions help much either. Spirituality is a valiant pilgrimage of joy and freedom.

About 20 years ago, I read a small book that continues to influence me today: Elizabeth O'Connor's ''Journey Inward/Journey Outward.'' In it, she makes the point that genuine spirituality is twofold: one, the inner quest, and two, ''servanthood.'' If the inner journey is hard, the outer journey of service can be excruciating. This spirituality loves others as we love ourselves; it gives to others and is dedicated to the well-being of every person in the world. The journey outward insists that in serving others we find God.

Consequently, true spirituality can never be trendy. It is too hard.

Occasionally, Madison Avenue or Hollywood points this out in books or films that are usually commercial failures. Case in point: the television series ''Nothing Sa- The contemporary trendiness called spirituality is little more than pop psychology -- a kind of feel-good, quick fix connection with the divine.

cred.'' While the spiritually juvenile ''Touched by an Angel'' makes money pushing pop religion, ''Nothing Sacred,'' a well-written and mature faith drama, flounders in the ratings.

A joy forever

I do not mean to imply spirituality is grim. True spirituality can be joyful, delightful and even fun. Nor do I wish to dampen the current enthusiasm for spirituality. After all, even trivial manifestations of faith can encourage people to seek after something deeper than immediate material gratification.

Not a fling

However, spirituality is not a collection of interesting mystical experiences. It is a textured journey through life and, hopefully, beyond.

As Jesus urged his followers, we should not embark upon it until we've counted the cost.

MA That's the cost to our souls -- not the $370 Gandhi leggings.

Diana Butler Bass, Ph.D., writes a religion column for the Santa Barbara News-Press and is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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