Selling spirituality

I was black-banned. Well, my course was. It was when I was teaching at Macquarie University. One of the Christian groups on campus—the largest one—ruled that my unit on ‘spirituality in everyday life’ was a dangerous dalliance with the devil. They actively dissuaded all self-respecting, Bible-believing Christians from enrolling.  Granted, their beef was less with me than it was with the danger of any spirituality existing beyond the strictly patrolled borders of the Christian faith.

It’s certainly true that some in the more conservative corners of the church view any talk of spirituality a sure sign of theological syncretism. They conclude that the popular New Age fascination with the word renders it so woolly as to be dangerous and better left alone. I disagree. In my view, far better that we take our place at the table of popular conversation, no matter how broad—ensuring that a biblical perspective is heard—than to hive off on our own and to have a theological conversation with nobody but ourselves.

According to its origins, spirituality is a fundamentally Christian word and one we should never relinquish. That said, I agree that caution in our conversation is in order, but not a caution motivated by a fear of syncretism. In fact, there is simply too much to be gained from open, rigorous dialogue with other traditions that have shaped entire cultures just a profoundly as Christianity has shaped ours.  Appropriate caution is motivated by a wariness of contemporary forms of spirituality so de-sacralized and self-serving as to be nothing more than lifestyle accessories. It’s here that spirituality is ultimately cheapened.

In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that the replacement of tradition-specific religion with a more free-form search for personal meaning has resulted in a consumerist spirituality that promises the world but demands absolutely nothing: ‘In a sense, the most troubling aspect of many modern spiritualities is precisely that they are not troubling enough.’ These popular expressions of spirituality—now as pervasive within the church as outside of it—promote accommodation to the social, economic and political mores of our day yet ‘provide little in terms of a challenge to the status quo or to a lifestyle of self-interest and ubiquitous consumption.’

According to Carrette and King, what flourishes today is capitalist spirituality; one that ultimately serves the profit margins of the corporation; one that has so sedated us that we are no longer able to critique its underlying motivations. They note two developments as key: firstly, as a consequence of the European Enlightenment religion has been privatised, excluded from the public domains of politics, economics and science; secondly, from the late 20th century religion has been progressively commodified, that is ‘the buildings, ideas and claims to authenticity’ of traditional religions have been sold off in service of corporate profit and in the promotion of a particular worldview that serves the ends of the corporation. This is seen no more clearly than in the popular adaptation of spirituality in the workplace.

“The cultural ordering of spirituality in the business world exploits the transformative power of traditional ‘spiritual’ disciplines by reorienting their fundamental goals. Instead of the more traditional emphasis upon self-sacrifice, the disciplining of desire and a recognition of community, we find productivity, work efficiency and the accumulation of profit put forward as they new goals. In this context, spirituality becomes a way of developing incentives that are conducive to the corporate objectives of the employer. The ‘spiritual’ becomes instrumental to the market rather than oriented towards a wider social and ethical framework, and its primary function becomes the perpetuation of the consumerist status quo rather than a critical reflection upon it.”

In a culture fixated with self-preservation and self-actualisation, we are called to account by Jesus’ words, ‘deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’ Jesus describes the essence of spirituality as loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength and loving the neighbour as yourself. Ultimately, spirituality within any of the great traditions has far less to do with self-realization and everything to do with self-giving. If spirituality, whatever forms it takes, does not ultimately lead us into deeper expressions of community, interdependence and surrender to the call and values of God, then it’s a fraud.

3 thoughts on “Selling spirituality

  • I think you need to know your self in order to love your self.

    I have a problem with the exhortation to love your neighbour as your self,
    (indeed I think it is rather dopey)
    because many (perhaps most) folk neither know nor love their self.

    Merton has written that “If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him”
    (New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007)

    • In so many ways I agree with you, Patrick. I have been in pastoral ministry long enough to hear the real truth of what you say. I just think we need to be careful that we do not, inadvertently, allow these two commands–these two pillars of Christian spirituality–to be reduced or redirected into nothing more than a means of self-realization or a tool for personal well-being. If our spirituality stays there we have seriously diminished the call of our faith.

  • This is a great post on an increasingly important topic and I’m grateful for signposting me to the book. The commodification of spirituality is seductive and one that mainstream churches easily fall prey to whilst paradoxically criticising it.

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