Recently I perused the most recent Pew Forum study of American religion. The survey revealed that we are, increasingly, a nation of “religious drifters,” people who move rather easily from one spiritual affiliation to another.
Many Americans experiment with other spiritual practices and try on a variety of religious attitudes. Among Protestant Americans, it is more and more typical that one might begin life as a Baptist, flirt with Methodism as a teen, try on Catholicism at middle age and die an Episcopalian. And American Catholics, already enamored of the “cafeteria” where they pick and choose which aspects of Catholic doctrine to embrace, are increasingly likely to dabble in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Product of ignorance
As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero recently argued, this drifting and experimentation is correlative to the extreme ignorance of most Americans in regard to religious traditions, including their own. Studies show that the majority of Americans cannot name any of the four Gospels, and that an overwhelming number confess to knowing next to nothing of Islam.
Prothero observes that, in the early 20th century, the switch from, say, evangelical Christianity to Catholicism would have been experienced as the crossing of a chasm, whereas now it seems along the lines of changing brands of cereal.
He draws attention to the Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who long ago wrote, “American life is a powerful solvent, capable of neutralizing new ideas into banal clichés.” What he meant was that the tolerant egalitarianism so ingrained in the American psychological makeup can lead to a flattening out of difference, especially at the cultural and intellectual level.
How often do we hear some version of this: “Well, as long as you’re spiritual, it doesn’t really matter which religion you belong to.” Or perhaps this: “Deep down, don’t all the spiritual traditions say the same thing?” Once that assumption is in place, no one should be surprised that people hop from faith to faith or cobble together a personal belief system from the bits and pieces of many religions they find agreeable.
Now all of this might be utterly congruent with the ethos of a modern liberal society, but it is, I’m afraid, repugnant to the Bible. The decisive difference is as follows. On the typically American reading of religion, the choosing subject is ultimately in charge. Even when they say that they are surrendering to God, modern religion shoppers are the ones who are deciding and arranging their beliefs, throwing out the disagreeable and embracing the attractive.
For those who pick and choose elements of many religions, God seems to be a distant figure, the deep background of their spirituality rather than a person who has spoken and acted in decisive ways.
In the Bible, an entirely different scenario emerges: God speaks and people listen. The premium is placed not on the ratifying choice of the one called, but on the overwhelming authority of the one who calls. In Genesis, we hear how God called Abram, who was 75 years old, to uproot his entire life and go in search of a promised land. The old man didn’t ask questions or fit this call into the context of his former religious beliefs; he obeyed.
In the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, we learn how Isaiah received his vocation. He saw a vision of Yahweh in the temple and was shaken to his foundations. He then heard a voice that summoned him to be a prophet. Without hesitation, he said, “Here I am Lord, send me.” A few centuries later, Jeremiah was called, and when he protested his youth, Yahweh responded, “Do not say you are too young!” Then he obeyed.
In the New Testament, Jesus called James and John, and the young men immediately left their nets and their father and came after him. He summoned Matthew, who got up from his tax collector’s booth and followed. A saying of Jesus that neatly sums up this biblical consciousness can be found in the Gospel of John. During his Last Supper discourse, Jesus blithely tells his disciples: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”
To grasp the full import of those words is to understand why the religious drifter of today is out of step with the adventurous God of the Bible.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of WordOnFire.org.