Spiritual Reinvention and the Andrew Greeley Principle

When the church neglects its practices, the culture reinvents them in secular form.

[1] The seminary where I serve celebrated the 40th anniversary of the dedication of its building in October. As I reviewed its history, I came across the comments of architects and seminary officials describing the significance of its design. At one point, their language chilled my soul.

[2] Seminary officials “insisted that the building must express the school’s basic concern for relating theology to all of life, the importance of the inter-relationship between the seminary, the world, society and other academic disciplines” (LSTC: Decade of Decision, Harold Skillrud, 1969). So far, so good, though mention of the church seems conspicuously absent from that list.

[3] Our building, a flat, three-story structure, designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood, in no way stands out as a “religious building.” It bears nothing to distinguish it as a place dedicated to the study and worship of God in Jesus Christ. No cross or other symbol adorns the exterior to suggest what is happening within its walls. It looks like thousands of other (largely bland) academic buildings constructed during the late 1960s, a situation that may soon change with the installation of a large cross on the exterior façade.

[4] What particularly caught my attention and chilled me was an architectural review that described the building as “refreshingly free of any trace of obvious religious symbolism, … [with] as much 20th century technology élan as the most advanced secular building.” The same could not have been said of an earlier design proposal that had included a chapel with “soaring stained glass panels.”

[5] At the distance of 40 years, “Refreshingly free … of religious symbolism” sounds quaint, the artifact of modernist fads long out of fashion and decidedly out of touch with the spiritual cravings of a much-changed age. Forty years ago, the architectural review valued balance, openness and fitting in with a secularizing culture. This meant avoiding obvious signs of the transcendent that would direct human eyes to the illimitable.

[6] This is dangerous business for the church, perhaps even a death wish. For there is that More for which human souls hunger in every era, suspecting, as we do, that we are intended for a great love and the transcendent joy of surrender to a life-giving purpose beyond ourselves. We ignore those needs–and the ways our faith heritage has addressed them–at the risk of growing irrelevance to the spiritual aspirations of our age.

The Greeley Principle
[7] This desire to be “refreshingly free” of visible signs of our religious identity calls to mind what has been labeled the Andrew Greeley Principle. A noted Chicago priest, professor, sociologist–and author of pot-boiler novels, Greeley is a loving and critical observer of his own Roman Catholic Church. The principle he posits can be summarized: Whenever the Catholic church neglects or downgrades a particular doctrine or practice, the culture will reinvent it in secular form within 20 years.

[8] I suspect this is largely true for the rest of us, too.

[9] My example (now a generation old): The church turns from the language of the soul as old fashioned and out of touch. Soon enough, a former priest comes along and writes a so-so book, The Care of the Soul, making millions of dollars offering warmed over, largely secularized versions of spiritual practices and wisdom the church neglected in her catechesis.

[10] The Greeley principle is nowhere more obvious than in the realm of spiritual practices. Our seminary recently hosted five visiting ELCA synod bishops. During a panel discussion over lunch, the bishops answered questions submitted members of our community. One question concerned their personal spiritual practices and which they’d commend to students. It’s a question one would think might be a softball for pastoral leaders of the church.

[11] It wasn’t. Perhaps they were tired. I would be if I ran their schedules. Perhaps they sought to point seminarians to practices they feared were overlooked. But I fear their pallid answers reveal a reason the broader culture tends to find our churches irrelevant and lacking resources for contemporary spiritual hungers and aspirations, particularly the desire to experience of God.

[12] One bishop indicated that riding his bicycle was renewing for him and that we should be serious about physical practices of personal renewal. Fair enough. Exercise is certainly much overlooked among clergy. A second bishop indicated that after preaching and teaching, reading the Bible and prayer are a bit too much like work to be renewing. His comments revealed a troubling lack of awareness of formative, meditative ways of listening to God in Scripture, to say nothing of ways of prayer that are more than just saying prayers. A third said listening to and meditating on church music renewed him, a practice certainly reflecting Lutheran heritage.

[13] But none of the group mentioned core spiritual practices from the church’s history– forms of meditative and contemplative prayer (e.g. lectio divina, Luther’s four-fold garland, the Jesus prayer, the daily office, centering prayer), worship, spiritual reading, the practice of hospitality, fasting, solitude, sharing in community, the mutual conversation and consolation of believers, confession, discernment, examination of consciousness or spiritual direction.

The Power of Practice
[14] Through such practices the Spirit not only does things for us but also in and to us, transforming our affections and actions that our lives might be more transparent to the mystery of Christ whom we bear. Practices allow us to encounter, experience and express God’s work of grace empowering us to love God with our whole heart, soul and life, as we come into love’s knowledge of Love Itself. Further, our socially-conditioned self–rooted in individualism, materialism, pragmatism and narcissism–is deconstructed that a new self might emerge.

[15] But the bishops’ equivocal responses showed little familiarity with the practices that nurture mature faith and usher one into greater intimacy with Christ. They offered no suggestion that a deep spiritual life, rooted in lively practices of word and sacrament, is the wellspring of faithful, joyous and vital ministry. Sadly, the crowd of seminarians sharing lunch with them received nothing to encourage them beyond the lethargy of much Lutheran spiritual practice.

[16] Unfortunately, this is not surprising. The ELCA evidences little awareness of the nature and value of spiritual practices, and even lower levels of actual practice. I regularly read the reflections of pastors who send me their parish newsletters. Recently, one mid-career pastor reflected upon a phrase she heard often in seminary and since: “non-anxious presence.” She writes of pastors: “We are the ones who are supposed to stay calm and impartial when conflict arises in the parish. This calm is supposed to emanate from a wellspring of inner peace, the peace of God. At my Lutheran seminary, I was given no clue as to how to foster a spiritual life that would make way for inner peace. I was just supposed to have it.”

[17] The pastor went on to describe her efforts to engage in spiritual practices that move her more deeply into that peace of God for which she hungers, and which she finds necessary for pastoral ministry.

Lutherans and the New Spirituality
[18] Ten years ago, in After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s, Robert Wuthnow indicated that the American spirituality has moved into a new historical phase. A spirituality of seeking and journeying, a kind of spiritual tourism, is giving way to a spirituality of practice in which people cultivate a relationship with the sacred through committed use of regular practices, such as forms of meditative and contemplative prayer, journaling, retreats, study of Scripture and spiritual classics, etc.

[19] Implicit in this movement is the awareness that no one develops a serious and sustaining relationship with God without cultivating that relationship. It takes time and effort on a regular basis. The spiritually hungry in our culture will quickly look past churches which have not been serious about preserving, practicing, examining, teaching and modeling those faith practices through which God is known and experienced.

[20] Lutherans are not well-positioned to respond to this new spiritual posture. Too many congregations are not prepared to help those seeking bread that satisfies the soul. They don’t know the practices from the deep history of their faith tradition. Consequently, they are unable to teach, model and use them to lead others into intimate relationship with God.

[21] This contributes to a practical atheism, an eclipse of God-consciousness in church life. Despite our confession, do we believe that we can know and walk intimately with God, speaking as friend and companion? Do we live as if God is personally knowable, or are do we imagine those who speak of such divine intimacy are strange or naive? Do we exude confidence, knowing we have we something eternal to offer those who no longer believe they can live by bread alone?

[22] If not, the Greely principle suggests we should not be surprised when people run by us on their way to the bookstore, to the retreat center, to small spirituality groups, and to those people and congregations who offer a concrete, livable way into intimacy with the divine. When the church doesn’t lift high that which it is uniquely equipped to give, human souls will look for substitutes. This seems a logical corollary of the Greeley principle.

Digital Confession
[23] The internet is an increasingly common way people bypass churches in their search of the sacred. Here again the Greeley principle seems to apply.

[24] The practice of confession fell on hard times among Roman Catholics following the close of Vatican II in the mid-1960s. In the minds of many Catholics, the council downplayed the necessity of the sacrament.

[25] This year Catholic dioceses across the country launched a marketing blitz to revitalize the practice in which only two percent of Catholics regularly engage, according to the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Fourteen percent say they go once a year; 42 percent say they never go. A separate study done through Catholic University in Washington D.C. found that 26 percent went to confession in 2005, down from 74 percent in the early 1980s.

[26] The marketing blitz seemed effective in a few cities, though it’s too early to know if it will last. But it is interesting to recognize that confession, too, has crossed over into popular culture and not just in the grotesque spectacles on the Jerry Springer Show. Among politicos and celebrities, Larry King and Oprah Winfrey are preferred sites for public contrition.

[27] Far more prevalent and significant, however, are chat rooms and confessional sites that are wildly popular on the internet. In April, USA Today reported that daliyconfession.com receives as many as 1.3 million hits a day. Other sites such as MySpace and Facebook similarly offer venues in which people feel safe sharing what they have done wrong and seeking guidance.

[28] Typically, it is young people who frequent these sites. One of the throng, Sarah, says she finds a “mini-support group” where she can share her conflicted feelings about an addicted parent. “The idea of confessing isn’t necessarily about right and wrong. It’s about unloading a burden,” Sarah says. “It’s almost cathartic.” Others said that reading on-line confessions reassures them that they are not alone or unusually flawed. They can vent their frustrations, speak their secrets, unload their burdens and apologize for transgressions without fear of reprisal.

[29] Meanwhile, most churches offer, at most, a de-personalized, sanitized corporate confession of sins in which the real burdens and secrets of human souls are not named–and where no one can talk back, personally offering forgiveness or assurance. Not that dailyconfession.com does any better. No forgiveness, no absolution is offered. It provides a religionless reinvention of confession that does not–and cannot–offer what the church can, but seldom does.

[30] Recently, two students independently approached me about serving as their confessor on some regular schedule. Like those that confess on-line, they, too, wanted and received a safe place to unburden themselves, but they got much more. They were able to sit with someone who will listen and pray with them. They received the touch of human hands blessing them. They savored the scent of healing oil anointing their brows. And they heard words that are uniquely ours to speak: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins … .”

Greeley and Human Hunger
[31] I suspect those who visit the internet confessionals aren’t looking for or expecting such absolution. But they do want some blessing of their humanity–and to know the healing reality of human community, even if it is only virtual, letting them know they are not alone. That is a weak substitute for what the church offers–or can offer when it takes itself and its practices–its treasures–seriously.

[32] The Greeley principle suggests that we must carefully tend our faith practices–and understand the human needs they address. Those needs are as perennial as human nature, including the need for spiritual community, the desire for transcendent love and purpose, the hunger to experience God. Human beings don’t sit quietly by when their needs are ignored. They find and invent substitutes, especially when the church neglects or grows “refreshingly free” of its peculiar gifts.