LOITERING AT THE GATE
Review of M. Scott Peck, M.D., In Search of Stones, and Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives
National Review 47:13 (10 July 1995)
In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting as censor morum, declared that America is a Christian people. Sixty years later it modified the claim, calling us a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. The difference between the two statements is profound, for almost anything can count as religious. Proof, were it needed, came in 1978, when the Court asserted a right to use pornography on grounds of the "spiritual" purposes that it served.
Where are we now? Some have gone so far as to characterize contemporary American pop spirituality by the motto ABC: "Anything But Christianity." There is some truth to the portrayal. Large numbers of us are willing to try Zen, yoga, channelling, séances, astrology, past-life regressions, transcendental meditation, the reading of omens, the chanting of mantras, the casting of spells, the use of charms, the induction of abnormal mental states by drugs, the cultivation of out-of-body experiences, the ritual offering of milk and honey to Sophia or of aborted babies to Artemis -- anything but faith in the one whom Christians call the resurrected Lord.
Because of the strangeness of these practices and associated beliefs, the ABC segment of our folk religion receives a great deal of attention. I suggest, however, that the attention given this segment is far out of proportion to its numbers. The greatest part of American pop spirituality seems to be formed by the confluence of two streams, neither of which can be characterized as simply ABC: a stream of people fleeing Christian orthodoxy who have paused, for some reason, on the way out, and a stream of people seeking Christian orthodoxy who have paused, for some reason, on the way in. If these two groups have much in common and are attracted to many of the same authors, it is because they are loitering at the same gate, comparing and exchanging their articles of luggage. They dabble with the beliefs and practices listed above, but they dabble with orthodox beliefs and practices as well.
The hypothesis may be wrong, of course. On the other hand, our two authors do seem to fit it rather neatly. As our first, Mr. Fulghum, represents the outflow from orthodoxy, so our second, Mr. Peck, represents the inflow. Their appeal to the lingerers around the gate is natural and understandable, and indeed their books are consistent best-sellers. Because neither offers a theological reason for lingering, one cannot help but wonder just what arrested their respective movements. In the former case one suspects a sheer sentimental attachment to congregational fellowship; in the latter, the awful weight of sudden and unexpected guruhood. Having passed in both directions through the portal myself, I am interested by such things. But because they are not such things as can be learned from books, let us consider the things that can.
In style and subject matter the works present a sharp contrast. From Beginning to End is a nostalgic collage of anecdotes and informal reflections on the subject of ritual. Fulghum, a charming and gifted storyteller, holds that repeated, patterned behaviors -- from reading the morning comics to celebrating the birth of a child -- provide a "sense of security" which is the "ground of meaning" and so "transforms the ordinary into the holy." Public and private, open and secret, spontaneous and arranged, all such habits are grist for his mill. In Search of Stones is a heavy, rambling journal of a three-week trip through Wales, Scotland, and the Lake District of England, undertaken by Peck and his wife to indulge their fascination with the stone monuments of prehistoric peoples. These megaliths are the motif for ponderous meditations on various topics including reason, romance, addiction, holiness, changing, religion, aging, parenthood, money, death, pilgrimage, gratitude, peace, adventure, space, time, art, integration, and despair. Though frequently confessional, the writing cannot be called autobiography because the author informs us that he is too clever and humble for that particular folly.
On the other hand the books are heterodox in similar ways. Biblical ethics? Fulghum asks a struggling couple in premarital counseling why they don't just live together; he sees sin in being non-inclusive to sodomites, but not in practicing sodomy. Peck praises his wife for telling a deliberate lie in the name of the Holy Spirit; while admitting that his numerous marital infidelities are technically sin, he says he cannot "condemn," i.e. repent them -- "I hope I gave as much as I got." The person of Jesus? Fulghum doesn't think the man is God at all. Peck thinks he is, but holds that his "spirit" is "in" everyone already -- presumably even those who would be distressed to hear of it. Salvation? Fulghum thinks self-help, successful psychotherapy, and being "born again" are all pretty much the same. Peck agrees, but adds that the salvation of the world also depends on a "technology" of social reform through improved communication -- of which he himself is an adept and teacher.
The books are also similar in their inability to make distinctions. Fulghum is what Chesterton called a "believer in all religions." After reasonably stating that "Prayer is talking to God," for instance, he adds "However you may define each of those five words, I'm comfortable. I'll make my circle of understanding as large as need be in order to keep the conversation going. We can get into semantics another time." However we may define the five words? However we may define each of them? We may give any meaning to "is," any meaning to "talking," any meaning to "to," any meaning to "God" -- and, completing the circle, any meaning to "prayer"? Yes, for this is how all Fulghum's definitions work. Prayer, he says, might be drinking coffee and looking out the window. God, he says, might be a person, a concept, or a process; a verb, a noun, or a plural noun. Presumably he might be electricity. Or good digestion. Or whatever you are "comfortable" with, comfort being Fulghum's functional substitute for truth.
Peck has less excuse for being muddled because he insists himself on the need for distinctions: "we ultimately belong either to God or to the devil." Ultimately, however, he has the same problem as Fulghum in making them. He has nothing but praise for the psychologist C.G. Jung, who believed that God includes the devil; and although Peck does not espouse that particular idea, he does (in other books) espouse the pantheist idea from which Jung derived it: that all things are part of a single divine unity. Another difficulty is that if Peck is really a pantheist he ought to be pumping nirvana, not salvation, but he cannot seem to tell them apart. In the same way he cannot tell the difference between Christian and Hindu contemplation; he groups all "the mystics" together. Both kinds begin by clearing the mind, so far as possible, of the devices and desires of the heart. But whereas in the former the mirror is cleansed so that it may more perfectly reflect the image of Christ, in the latter the mirror is cleansed so that there may be no more images; all is illusion.
One reason for the authors' inability to make distinctions is that distinctions seem like "discrimination" to them, and they are both convinced that the greatest virtue is not love, but "inclusiveness." Another source of confusion is their shared penchant for ponderous vacuities: for instance Peck's favorite definition of prayer, borrowed from Matthew Fox, is "radical response to the mysteries of life." Of course this definition excludes nothing, for what does it mean to radically respond to these mysteries? After all, Fulghum thinks that even his coffee drinker is in "deep connection through action with the unnameable wonder and mystery of life." Similarly, when Fulghum's neighbor walks the dog "he performs a ritual act of sacer simplicitas ... 'sacred simplicity.' Walking the dog is in truth a ritual of renewal and revival on an intimate scale." I don't know what Peck has in mind. Somewhere in the back of Fulghum's mind may be the idea that God can sanctify even the small things of life. But what Fulghum says is quite different: that small things sanctify life in and of themselves. By this reversal the skin of a truth is stuffed with an error, a frequent failing of both books.
Particularly interesting is the selectivity of the authors' borrowings from orthodoxy. For instance Peck borrows a belief in the existence of various created spirits -- some of them angels, others deceivers. But he has no use for scriptural guidelines for telling them apart, much less for the scriptural prohibition of sorcery; thus he practices unsupervised exorcisms of the ones he considers bad and channels the ones he considers good. At present he says he is inhabited by a "Spirit of Mirth" -- a claim which would be more plausible if In Search of Stones were less morose. Fulghum is also selective, though in a characteristically sillier way. For instance the idea of Holy Communion attracts him, but heaven forbid that it should be undertaken with bread and wine, for the elements Jesus instructed his followers to use might suggest a "theological interpretation." One fine Sunday, therefore, the good reverend springs tangerines on his congregation, reasoning that the problem of dealing with pits and peels and so forth will encourage cooperation. Another week he tries animal crackers. Over time he also experiments with Gummi Bears, jelly beans, M&Ms, and Pop Rocks. Unfortunately the animal crackers provoke a free-for-all among the children, the M&Ms melt in the hands, and the Pop Rocks produce a lavender froth around the lips. Fulghum's conclusion? "Reformation is never simple, never easy, never quick."
So it is that two such different authors, one a refugee from fundamentalism and the other just arrived from Zen, converge at the gate and pause. Contemporary American pop spirituality is a theology of lingering, of loitering, of hesitation, a religion of the vestibule. It wants connectedness without commitment, reconciliation without repentance, and sacredness without sanctity. It wants to sing the songs of Zion in the temples of Ishtar and Brahman. God help us to know what we want and to want what we ought. God make haste to help us; God make speed to save us.