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2012 Archives

TEXAS FAITH: Are Oprah, Deepak and the "God Within" school good or bad for religion?


The following ran in the May 1, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology Professor William Lawrence and political scientist Matthew Wilson provided expertise for this story.

May 9, 2012

By Wayne Slater

In his new book, Bad Religion, author and columnist Ross Douthat argues that since the 1960s, institutional Christianity has sunk to a low place - chock-a-block with heresies. Among them, the "God-within" theology that he ascribes to modern-day practitioners like Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Douthat suggests that bad religion is any religious expression that doesn't go through formalized, orthodox channels. Or as writer Charlie Pierce boils down Douthat's thesis: "Christianity would have been infinitely better off is somebody had stopped the banjo Mass in its tracks." But doesn't Douthat fundamentally have a point? Aren't the formal channels of church, synagogue or mosque, of Buddhist temples or the Hindu Vedas -- aren't they all supposed to rein in makeshift, even self-indulgent, flights into "bad religion"? Put another way, can you find spiritual enlightenment outside a formalized religious structure and, having found it, still be a good Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jew?

The question this week is this: Have Oprah and Deepak and the proponents of the "God Within" school caused more harm than good? Have they contributed to the deinstitutionalization of religion? And if so, is that okay?

Our Texas Faith panel weigh in with a thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion with some provocative ideas. Here's one: "Ultimately, the difference between an organized Church and a mass of unaffiliated spiritualists is the difference between an army and a bunch of people with guns."

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Personal, individualized spirituality is a vital part of any full and healthy religious life. This is why all of the religious traditions with which I am familiar (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) actively encourage believers to develop and nurture their personal connection to the divine through prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and individual acts of "everyday holiness." Clearly, formalized participation in religious rituals or affiliation with religious institutions is not enough; true spiritual life requires a more intimate connection with the divine. In this respect, the "God-within" practitioners have a point--although not an especially novel one, since the need to cultivate a personal spiritual life has been acknowledged by the world's major institutional religions for millennia.

Where the "God-within" movement goes astray is in presenting, either explicitly or implicitly, this personal spirituality as an alternative, rather than a complement, to participation in a faith community. At the core of the Christian tradition (and others as well) is the notion of communal worship. The disciples did not work out a series of individual relationships with Jesus, where the nature of Christ and what He expected varied idiosyncratically according to what "worked for them." Instead, they came together to a common understanding of the miracle of the resurrection and the mission of the Church.

Those who knew Jesus best did not, after the resurrection, disband and retreat into private contemplations of the Divine. Rather, they set themselves assiduously to institution-building, firm in the belief that the Good News could best be understood, lived, and propagated in communities united by common beliefs and practices. They did not seek masses of individual, atomized Christians, each left to work out the mysteries of faith according to his own devices; instead, they sought to create Christian churches, where believers and their leaders could serve as encouragement and correction for each other on their common journey of faith.From the very earliest days, the apostles realized the dangers of false teaching--propagated often, then as now, by those who seek to conform the Gospel to their own lives, rather than vice-versa.

In downplaying the vital importance of these sustaining communities of faith, many in the "God-within" movement have indeed done great harm. While there are certainly exceptions, my sense of these do-it-yourself spiritualities is that they tend to be vacuous, undemanding, and not especially coherent, either intellectually or theologically. Being entirely self-referential, they lack the groundedness provided by sacred texts, the accumulated wisdom of centuries, or even the insights of others. They encourage a deinstitutionalization of religion that, by a whole host of objective measures, is socially harmful (as studies show that those who participate actively in organized religion are more engaged in their communities, more generous to charity, and more politically participatory than others).

Ultimately, the difference between an organized Church and a mass of unaffiliated spiritualists is the difference between an army and a bunch of people with guns. One has the wisdom and effectiveness that comes from an institutional history, common set of rules, and acknowledged command structure, while the other does not. I leave it to the reader to decide which is more likely to achieve its objective. ...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

In America, there is a long history of pursuing religious enlightenment outside the structures of established religions. In the 18th century, a Methodist lay person named Robert Strawbridge appointed himself to preach, baptize, and celebrate Holy Communion without any ecclesiastical authorization. In time, when Methodists developed institutional systems for authorizing persons to preach and celebrate sacraments, Strawbridge was given a life-time exemption to continue his activities. In subsequent years, spiritual entrepreneurs became prevalent in the American religious landscape. Charles G. Finney made "new measures" such as revival meetings with an "anxious bench" devices for religious renewal. Aimee Semple McPherson created her own religious movement. Oral Roberts launched crusades for healing. Cowboy Churches line the roadways of Texas. And television screens flicker with the images of those who preach, teach, heal, and raise funds without any necessary connection to established any religious authorities who have vetted the credibility of their claims. That is before one even considers the fringe groups like the Branch Davidians or the variants of the Latter Day Saints led by Warren Jeffs.

Yet these endeavors have existed alongside the established religious bodies that served as standards by which such random groups can be measured. With the emergence of self-help gurus ranging from Oprah to Chopra, it becomes necessary for Americans to ask whether we have available a working definition of the term "religion." This is not an academic or hypothetical question. It is also a civic and constitutional one. Since the United States Constitution provides certain guarantees to religion, it seems important to know what a "religion" is. Perhaps one answer is that each individual is then free to devise her/his own definition. But that will require granting constitutional protections to individuals' feelings. That is an impossible standard to grasp. And it leads, both in civic and religious life, to the notion that everyone becomes her/his own god.
The problem, in a society that eschews an established religion, is that no authority other than free religious establishments exists to decide otherwise.