Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review of Spirituality by Carl McColman

The full title of Carl McColman's Spirituality includes the subtitle A Postmodern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship With God. The inclusion of "postmodern" is misleading, save as a marker for the inherent uber-ecumenism espoused in the book. The popular view of postmoderns is apparently one where they will accept a more open approach to spirituality. Even the term "interfaith" is somewhat misleading, given how McColman is unabashedly Christian, albeit the sort of Christian conservative denominations would be happy to excise from the fold.

Spirituality is the just the sort of book I enjoyed reading when it was first published in 1997, when I was exploring religious expressions beyond the pale of my Baptist upbringing. McColman seems open enough to other possibilities to be accessible to a wider ideological audience, but still focused enough in his Christian identity so as to not wander overmuch at the religious smorgasbord many writers concerned with "spirituality" like to sample from.

Spirituality is a standard primer for the 21st century spiritual seeker who either has no faith background, has rejected the one they had, or is interested in augmenting the one they adhere to with other possible approaches. The chapter headings and content (Breathing, Wonder, Prayer, Community, to name a few) are standard for this open-approach to faith, mirrored in books such as Anam Cara by John O'Donohue or anything by Thomas Moore. It was the sort of book one found flooding the market in the late 90s as people engaged spirituality with a typical end-of-the-millennium hunger.

There isn't anything earth-shaking or radically new in this second printing of Spirituality. Nevertheless, I have to give kudos to McColman for his balanced treatment of the subject matter. Readers who remember my review of Spencer Burke's A Heretic's Guide to Eternity will recall that I took umbrage with the dichotomy between spirituality and religion. I worried I would be doing the same with McColman, but this was not the case. While McColman concedes that there are many who, for good reasons, distance themselves from religion with the term "spiritual," this is "a bit unfair to religion" (35). Since McColman's thesis is that spirituality is linked to culture, it follows that religious culture is a potential source for spirituality. I like this approach, which in academic circles, would be considered similar to Max Weber's approach to religion. It also includes religious spirituality without making the same sort of polemic Burke seems to in Heretic's Guide, which I have stated many times is an effectively semantic one.

This difference colors the whole of McColman's book. Many times I was worried he was denigrating into relativist fluff, he qualified his statement in a fashion demonstrating his serious and thoughtful approach. I also appreciated his emphasis on community as an essential facet of spirituality. Too many of the self-help approaches to spirituality approach the whole project of faith, to quote N.T. Wright, as a "do-it-yourself project." I recently read a news article about how DIY home improvements most often end up as "bring in the professional to fix my mess" instances. I think a spirituality without community often ends up the same, and I concur with McColman that "A world where spirituality is private is a world where belief in the Sacred is extraordinarily difficult" (33).

I'd recommend Spirituality for people who have recently been hurt by, or become disillusioned with, an institutional form of religion, particularly for Christians who are thinking of giving up entirely. That said, I must make the caveat that anyone who is uncomfortable with more extreme ecumenical positions will probably not connect with McColman. I've always said that "if your faith can't take a walk through a Japanese Tea Garden, it wasn't worth much to begin with," which is to say, if your faith can't endure an open-minded encounter with another faith position, it's not really worth having at all. McColman is comfortable in walking in other gardens, pagodas, mosques, and open fields filled with pagans. I am too, and if that's something you wish you were more of, then you'll probably enjoy and benefit from reading Spirituality.

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