The Marketing of "Spirituality":
Discerning its Spirit

Fr. Michael Plekon / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall 1996

Any trip to the bookstore these days is bound to bring one smack up against not only a substantial market trend in publishing, but something much bigger, namely the booming business in spirituality. bAt Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, or even at the local CostCo, or other discount megastores, there is a parade of teachers of the spiritual life, from entrepreneurs such as Marianne Williamson and DeePak Chopra, from respected authors such as the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the Philokalia (the classic collection of Eastern Church teachers), to best selling writers such as Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul) and the incredible record of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, whose book, The Road Less Traveled, this summer celebrated over 660 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list, with bulk orders still being made by booksellers!

As Americans, we are most sensitive and susceptible to trends in marketing. Any excursion to shop-- for kids' clothing or our own, for entertainment resources, for home technology-- tells us this. We face a barrage of experts advising us on virtually every aspect of our lives from diet and relationships with spouses and parents to our careers and how to secure our futures financially. It is perfectly understandable that we should also be surrounded by spiritual guides, experts in the realm of the soul, who can put our spiritual house in order along with our bodies, our investments and our relationships. After all, America is a marketplace, and the churches have no monopoly, it would appear, on matters spiritual. In fact, as mainline denominations weaken, vendors of all kinds of spirituality are multiplying.

Now it is difficult not to be cynical when talking about this spirituality marketplace, stuffed as it is, with so much obvious nonsense. Yet there is clearly truth. Yes, Truth involved here. At the bottom of this fascination, even obsession with experience of the spiritual dimension, we find what Fr. Alexander Schmemann, In Celebration of Faith, 3 vols. (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1991-95), identified as the deepest yearning of the human heart, the emptiness that only received a name when it was revealed to be our hunger and thirst for God, for our only true identity as his children, created in his image and likeness. Fr. Alexander pointed out again and again in writings, lectures and sermons all through his remarkable life, that even for very religious folk, church members, and active parishioners, the most faithful Orthodox, nothing in our spiritual practice really makes sense without its Ground -- God -- and without an authentic connection to how we live. None of the feasts and fasts, the sacraments, prayers, icons, make any real difference in our lives, unless these wonderful parts of our faith refer us back to the God who loves mankind, as we hear so often in the liturgical prayers, and unless we refer these to what we actually say and do everyday.

It is this genuine, one could say, practical faith that one finds, not surprisingly, in M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978), and which, despite some other questionable elements, has produced the book's stunning selling success for almost two decades. Unlike Norman Vincent Peale's long-lived The Power of Positive Thinking, Peck does not avoid human selfishness and weakness, real evil and suffering. Rather, he grapples with these and not abstractly but through gripping case studies. Much of the book is also in the first person, Peck allowing us into his own life, with its failures and victories. The style is clear and direct, free from impenetrable jargon, though full of the language of psychology we have all absorbed. The very subtitle -- "A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth" -- is a veritable flashing billboard, these hot topics grasping our attention and concern. Unfortunately, Peck establishes something of a trend in this approach to the spiritual life. While implicitly recognizing the cohesiveness of a tradition and community of faith, he does not identify with such a churchly reality except in the most general, non-specific way. While it is clear that his clients' struggle for integrity in self-discipline and love brings them up against the reality of grace, of God's gift of healing and life and the strength to pursue these, there is a lack of particularity in his presentation. Put another way, there is a peculiar generic quality to both his case studies and his conclusions, a character that makes them accessible to a very wide readership, hence in part the book's success, but also the reason for its being, in the end, unsatisfying.

One could tear apart most of the alleged spiritual experts mentioned, blast their hodgepodge approach to spirituality, uncover the profit motives in their books, videotapes and conferences, condemn their errors and spoof their superficiality. And many, though not all, richly deserve such treatment. Yet following Fr. Alexander's own rule, one not original to him but consistently practiced by the Fathers and Teachers of the Church and the very apostles themselves, particularly Sts. Paul and John, we ought to carefully "discern the spirits" of these experts and this passion for spirituality, to see whether they are of God or not. In so doing, we might also pursue the further principle of "putting the best construction" on what we find, looking for the truth and what is good wherever we look - God's own attitude toward his creation, towards each of us, after all.

In The Road Less Traveled there is much to praise and some to criticize. To his credit, Peck offers no quick-fixes, no instant recipes for holiness. He reminds us that to find peace and joy is to accept these as gifts from God. But such a realization only comes through hard work, struggle with one's own ego and weakness, effort to love the neighbor before us, real change in ourselves, repentance and God's transformation. Moreover, Peck reminds us that the spiritual life is not another, unusual activity we add to what we already do, certainly not something magical or occult, separated from the ordinary people and tasks and places of our lives. Such, of course, is always the temptation, not only with exotic spiritual practices often borrowed from other religious traditions. For many, it feels different, better, to pound the drums and sing Native American chants, sit in Zen meditation, swirl in Sufi sacred dance, ponder Buddhist scriptures. Yet the same dangers both of isolation and inversion exist within one's own tradition. We know all too well of obsessions with liturgical rubrics and weeping icons, with details of fasting. It is not rare to encounter among us fanatic adherence to rules of prayer, fascination for monasteries and other places of retreat and pilgrimage, endless hunts for the ideal confessor, parish, priest ... The last place one would look for God, for holiness and wholeness, is precisely where such are to be found, in the "paradise of the present," in one's immediate life, family, work, precisely what true teachers, such as Fr. Schmemann, Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Men, try to tell us.

If anything, then, Peck can pry us out of our delusions about spirituality, particularly in the current craze. His practical vision can put us back on track in the rich, specific spiritual life we possess already within the Church and her Tradition. Our daily bread is not money and power, but communion with the Bread of Life, Christ. And this communion is given to us, first in the eucharistic chalice of the liturgy, next each day in the feast of the Bible, particularly the prayerbook of the psalms and the very words on Christ in the Gospels. Finally, each of us has more than enough opportunities to become what we have received: bread, food, goodness, "for the life of the world," of those around us. The contemporary passion for spirituality has its sad sides. In it we see the consequences of being homeless from a community of faith and its tradition, confusion, restless sampling of others' ways, ultimately, still deep dissatisfaction. Yet, in discerning the truth within such a trend, the Gospels' invitations are heard again: "Come and see ... be transformed, for the Kingdom of heaven has come among you."

P.S.: What to read? Real sustenance among much fast food? Some personal favorites:

  • Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation (NY: New Directions, 1962)
  • Olivier Clement's mistitled yet superb anthology, Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press, 1995)
  • Fr. Alexander Schmemann's books (all SVS Press, Crestwood, NY):
    • Great Lent
    • Of Water and the Spirit
    • The Eucharist
    • For the Life of the World
    • and particularly, Celebration of Faith -- selections from his Radio Liberty talks to the unchurched in Russia on the basics
  • A new voice is that of Fr. Alexander Men', the Russian priest assassinated in 1990 for his renewal efforts. Collections of his work appearing:
    • Christianity for the Twenty-First Century (NY: Continuum, 1996)
    • Awake to Life and On Christ and the Church: House Conversations (Torrance, CA: Oakwood, 1996)
  • Soon, we -- Fr. Alexis Vinogradov and myself -- will have republished Paul Evdokimov's Ages of the Spiritual Life, his fine vision of living the faith in our time, and a volume of translations from Fr. Schmemann's journals, an eloquent record of his own encounter with God in a most active life.

Fr. Michael Plekon is Associate Professor in Sociology and Religious Studies at Baruch College (City University of New York), and is attached to St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls NY.

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