For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.
My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:
Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)
Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.
My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. I have found that the “empty gestures” of life, the little rituals — touching glasses before drinking, going through the meaningless exchange of “hi” and “how are you,” etc. — have felt more and more important and necessary. Dressing “properly” has also become a concern for me, as I reject the enforced casualness of the previous generation of academics.
In this, I may be falling behind the historical dialectic, however. A recent New York Times op-ed proclaims that the hipster ethos of niceness and do-it-yourself-ness is ultimately about self-branding and salesmanship. It’s as though the old gestures of courtesy, after being abolished in favor of the rawness of market relations, have been taken back up by those very market relations.
I developed detectors for this kind of thing early on, as my evangelical upbringing made me very suspicious that people who were apparently very sincere and friendly actually had an agenda — and they often did in that setting, either to sell a self-image of themselves as happy Christians or to sell Jesus to the outside world. The emotionally manipulative services were part and parcel of this: they were always selling salvation, dressing it up with music and drama and moving stories and pop psychology, selling it even and especially to those who had already bought it time and time again.
There was no end to the sales pitch, and that was part of what made my conversion to Catholicism seem like an appealling option: from the Catholics, I detected a spirit of “we’re doing this with or without you — you can take it or leave it.” After years of compulsory spontenaity, there was something satisfying about the ritual, the routine, in its very arbitrarity, its clearly being imposed from without.
And now, of course, emerging church hipsters are embracing liturgy with their “ancient/future” faith, just as hipsters are embracing niceness — and even “proper” dress (though most introduce some excessive or out of place element in order to “ironize” their reclamation of older styles).
Yet it seems to me that there is more in the “religious but not spiritual” lifestyle than simple hipsterism — or more precisely, less. It is perhaps the case that beneath the trappings of courtesy there really is no “sincere” core other than self-seeking and beneath the empty ritual of religion there is no “deep” spiritual experience other than groundless speculation or pleasure-seeking. Yet it may be possible to repurpose those empty gestures as something other than a weapon in the self-seeking arsenal — a way of leaving people alone, of making space for them, of refusing to make use of them.
For example, I dress “properly” as a professor in part to make it clear that I embrace that role and don’t expect us all to act like we’re personal friends, all on the same level. Even in the democratic ethos of the discussion model at Shimer College, it’s an illusion to pretend that a person with (at the very least) a decade of concentrated education over the students and with the authority to assess their performance is simply one class member among others, and pretending that everyone is on the same level opens up the door for all kinds of manipulation and abuse of teacher-student relationships. I go through the ritual of exchanging niceties to cushion the blow of a personal encounter, to allow us to acknowledge each other without skipping straight to making demands on each other (whether utilitarian or emotional). And although I no longer attend mass, I would still prefer an “empty” liturgical observance if I were to go to church, because that ritual element leaves each person’s individual experience alone — it doesn’t demand spontaneous outbursts of praise, or feelings of intense guilt and repentence, or really any inner experience at all.
In a world of forced niceness, where even the lowest-paid service workers have to pretend to be your sincere friend, where we all have to put our best face forward and sell ourselves constantly, there is something, if not revolutionary, then at least refreshing about the empty gesture that simply lets someone be.