Beyond the Limits of our Puny Selfhood
Well, here’s a breath of Friday fresh air from the New York Times. It’s an article by Leigh Stein called “Influencers are the New Televangelists” and it compares modern-day social media quasi-spiritual wellness influencers like Glennon Doyle to religious hucksters from yesteryear like Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The comparison is apt, in my view, even if the content of their message could hardly be more different.
Stein offers a lay of the land that is familiar to many of us by now:
Many millennials who have turned their backs on religious tradition because it isn’t diverse, or inclusive enough, have found alternative scripture online. Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton.
And we’ve found a different kind of clergy: personal growth influencers. Women like Ms. Doyle, who offer nones like us permission, validation and community on-demand…
Our screens may have shrunk, but we’re still drawn to spiritual counsel, especially when it doubles as entertainment.
It’s a popular message, obviously. Spirituality as entertainment and wellness and self-congratulatory politics and therapy? Who wouldn’t want that? Well not everyone, apparently. Stein was down with the program for a while, but eventually grew weary of it due in no small part to the pandemic:
I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.
I’m trying (and failing, evidently) to resist quoting this whole article, but Stein eloquently points to profound human needs that go beyond what today’s Instavangelists are serving up:
Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?
Stein concludes her article thus:
There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can possibly provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?
My first thought after reading that paragraph, and last sentence in particular, was a kind of smug, “Wouldn’t that be something?” My second thought was, “Hmm, how many churches are asking these ‘fundamental questions’ on a regular basis? How many churches are regularly drilling down into the existential needs that Stein finds lacking in Influencer culture: ‘Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?'” What if people like Stein made their way back to real churches after this pandemic and found little more than either updated versions of what Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson were hawking back in the 80s or real-life versions of the cocktail of wellness, politics, and therapy that some, at least, are discovering to be unsatisfactory online?
I recently read a kind of odd novel by Joshua Ferris called To Rise Again at a Decent Hour about a dentist who has a mid-life vocational crisis combined with a bit of a wobble in his devout atheism. At one point in the story, he encounters a billionaire named Paul Mercer who had traversed the spiritual landscape in search of something to scratch his existential itch, and ended up empty:
He looked into Jainism, into anthroposophy, into Krishnamurti. He liked Judaism. He admired the Koran. He chuckled through the Dianetics. He had no respect for what he called the Churches of Welcoming All: Unitarian, Baha’i, the rest of humanity’s tender mercies. He required something that looked evil in the eye, that understood the meaning of mercy to be justice commuted by grace, and that contended with the fact that death was nothing he was going to adjust to, to make amends with, or overcome.
I think this is something like what Stein is getting at in her article. We need more honest assessments of ourselves, of the human condition, of the darkness which resides within us, and of the shattering mystery and glory of being itself. We were made for more than the spiritual marketplace is serving up these days. So much more.
Feature image source.