I think that the main problem with our world right now is that there’s just not enough spirituality.
I had gone to a local café to get out of the office and try to get some reading done, but I quite literally couldn’t help but overhear the preceding assessment/diagnosis of the plight of the planet and its inhabitants taking place at the table beside me. It was a couple of university students, if their meticulously dishevelled and painstakingly ironic appearances were anything to go by. The more enthusiastic of the two—the one doing most of the talking—had evidently taken a few introductory philosophy and religious studies courses, judging by the peppering of his discourse with references to Gandhi, Jesus, Plato, and the Bhagavad Gita (not to mention a reference to that most estimable of Zen masters, Phil Jackson). The other young man seemed more interested in the Shakespeare he was trying to read, but he seemed content enough to allow the spiritual wisdom to pour forth unabated from his friend.
The conversation meandered on along well-worn paths. Gandhi’s quote about being attracted to Jesus but not his followers had made its obligatory appearance, as did the predictable declaration that the great religions and the best thinkers of history were basically all saying the same thing, namely, that we just need to love each other and recognize that we’re all beautiful and unique in our own way. Oh, and we should celebrate diversity. There was mutual exultation in the fact that they were both “spiritual but not religious.” I felt privileged to bask in the glow of such wisdom. Imagine our good fortune! All of the spiritual insights of the ages, all of the tortured philosophical wrestling and wrangling, culminating in the stunning discovery that we’re all wonderful and basically right in our own way, and that love is all we need. And tolerance. How lucky for us to live in this unique historical moment when we finally realize that the history of human thought has been leading to, well, us and to our most dearly loved and effortlessly maintained assumptions about the ways of the universe.
(Having solved the riddle of existence, they moved on to Beyoncé’s new album. Can you believe that she didn’t even advertise it in advance?! That was so genius…)
Of course, anyone who has spent any time at all studying the world’s great religions and philosophies knows very well that the notion that they are all saying essentially the same thing is laughably absurd, and that it is an insult to these traditions to claim that they do (not to mention spectacularly arrogant to presume to declare what these traditions were and are really saying). But aside from this, what struck me most about the exchange at the café this morning was the utter unwillingness to consider the possibility that God or truth or “spirituality” or whatever term is in vogue these days might, rather than validating/endorsing/blessing everything about who we are, what we think, and how we live, actually challenge or confront us in some way. The idea that “God,” rather than being some kind of exalted placeholder to lend an air of sacredness to our preferred beliefs, might actually demand something from us or summon us to change seemed not even to cross their minds.
The season of Advent is drawing to a close. We are looking forward to celebrating the arrival of Immanuel. We love this time of year, with its good news of God becoming one of us—God with us, God to comfort us, God to save us, God to inspire, protect, and rescue us. God taking on human skin and in so doing, demonstrating how immeasurably much God thinks of human beings.
But there is sobering news at Advent, too. God with us and God for us is also God to judge us, to expose us, even God to frighten us. The Scriptures that we read throughout the season vacillate between the good news that Israel’s God is coming to restore and redeem and the news that when Israel’s God comes, his winnowing fork is in his hand, that crooked paths in the wilderness will be made straight. God with us, in addition to pointing to the embrace of God, also means God coming to call us away from our idolatry and error, away from injustice and abuse of the poor, away from pretentious religious preening and posturing, and toward righteousness and humility.
Advent should inspire and comfort us, and it should fill us with hope. But maybe it should also scare the hell out of us. It should alert us to the truth that there are crooked things in our world—us, for example!—that need to be made straight. It should remind us that God is not the projection of an assortment of twenty-first century Western ideals (or any other ideals from any other time and place in human history, for that matter). And it should drive us to our knees before the One full of grace and truth, the one who alone has the right to demand that we live up to our humanity and to tell us what that means.