We are living in a moment of profound transition in the way many Americans understand and use religious ritual and practice. Not surprisingly, as with any transition in life whether personal, familial, or social, there are fault lines, divisions and serious misunderstandings that arise between people. Stated very simply; for millions of Americans religious rituals and spiritual practices no longer function as they have for millennia. They are no longer sources of identity or behaviors necessarily connected to a particular tribal or creedal identity nor acts embedded in a coherent or larger theological framework.
For people like Sally Quinn, religious rituals and practices are, with the best of intention, resources that can be used to create personal meaning and connection independent of their metaphysical contexts and belief structures. They are personal tools of meaning that one can choose to use as one feels appropriate to deepen one’s own self awareness and one’s own capacity for compassion and empathy. Obviously, from a traditional perspective this transformation of ritual and practice into a personal resource disconnected from any specific religious authority and any particular historic community is offensive and threatening.
Not surprisingly, but sadly, neither Sally nor her critics are capable of seeing the partial truth of each others position. Sally is mystified and her critics apoplectic and as is so often the case polarization ensues and none of us grow. Sally, a non-Catholic, used Communion not as Communion is “supposed” to be observed – her comment “notwithstanding transubstantiation” is sufficient proof of this – but as a way to commune with and connect to her dear friend Tim Russert. Sally employed Communion as a spiritual tool to evoke some sort of transcendence in an attempt to bridge the seemingly firm boundaries between death and life that saddened, pained, and frightened her and that distanced her from a person she dearly loved.
In her personal “spiritual” quest, she transformed an ancient practice that embodies the heart of Catholic theology and connects Catholics to Jesus and to each other into a personal meaning making tool. She was so caught up in the “spirit” of the moment and she so yearned for some deeper experience of reality that could comfort her in the face of the death of her dear friend that she did not even stop to think that tasting from someone else’s cup might be offensive. It never even dawned on her that for observant Catholics religious practices, especially a practice as “substantive” as Communion, might not be one more commodity or resource available for the taking.
In no way am I questioning Sally’s motivation. I believe her intentions were good and even ennobling. She is simply using religious practice in a new way. For post-modern Americans like Sally, who see themselves as spiritual and not religious, religions are tool boxes filled with wisdom and practices to be used to find personal meaning (here as an expression of love, respect, and connection with Tim Russert) and metabolized in a personal manner. But it would be good for those of us like Sally who choose to use religious practices from communities to which we do not belong for their pragmatic effect on our own consciousness to recognize that this is a significant shift. Rather than simply thinking that our traditional critics are crazy, nasty, exclusivists, we might be a bit more sensitive and recognize that from our critic’s perspective we are engaging in their community’s sacred practice without actually being part of or committed to their community. We are cashing in on spiritual capital we did not create without adding any value. Surely we can imagine how this could feel invasive or exploitative even if our motivations are pure. As we develop this sensitivity we might actually come to choose a little more judiciously how we use religious practices that “belong” to another community. At the very least we might use these practices with a sense of gratitude, honor, respect, and even humility towards the community that has kept them alive and who uses them in deep and profound ways. We might even find ways to contribute back to the community that has treasured these practices. This will help insure that we are not spiritual narcissists and just might mitigate a bit of the anxiety of traditionalists.
Of course, we Traditionalists in every religion are going to have to get use to this way of having our religious wisdom and practice used. With 25% of all Americans claiming that they have a different religious identity than their parents, 40% claiming that they have changed their religious identity at least once in their lifetime and intermarriage across religious boundaries increasing choice with regard to religious practice is here to stay. Traditionalist’s discomfort and even distress is understandable but we do have a choice. We can be judgmental and angry with those who taste and tour in the gardens that we and our ancestors have planted and tended and in which we live every day. But this will not change anything as the Pandora’s Box of freedom has been opened and we will only push away people who are seeking meaning and purpose. Perhaps, instead of anger we can come to realize that in some important ways this admittedly unnerving use of “our” religious practices and rituals is a significant upgrade from the dismissiveness and trivializing of religion that most intellectuals engaged in for so much of the modern period. Perhaps we can even learn to smile and laugh at how God works in mysterious ways to connect people and to model the deep security and confidence and love that ought to come from our religious commitments.