A new dimension of pluralism has recently dawned on me. A lot has been made of the “spiritual but not religious” here at Wondering Fair and elsewhere. In previous posts, I’ve talked about how religious pluralism—the idea that all religions are basically the same—runs aground logical inconsistences and originates out of a desire to be tolerant and inclusive, two prime virtues in the industrialized West. In these posts, however, I haven’t considered what makes pluralism possible. Sure, there is a long and important history of pluralism in North America. Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James definitely come to mind as early proponents. More recently, John Hick and Karen Armstrong make a case that religions are cultural universals trying to get at some divine, but ultimately unknowable, reality.
But as important as it is to think through the implications of pluralism and its growing popularity in and outside of the church, I think it’s equally imperative to consider religious individualism, which I would argue is the precondition for the pluralist approach. This realization hit home for me this week when reading Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart (1985). In this classic sociological text, Bellah interviews scores of Americans and asks them questions about everything from love and marriage to citizenship, politics, and religion. In a passage that has been widely discussed ever since, Bellah interviews a woman named Sheila Larson about her religious beliefs. Her response is more telling of an individualistic culture than perhaps she ever realized:
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.
Clearly, Sheila’s statement here elicit many avenues for discussion, but what interests me most about these words is the apparent ease and comfort with which she speaks. Whatever else Sheilaism might be, it does not seem to be a complex theological or philosophical system that has been worked out after a lifetime of reflection on the great existential questions. More likely, then, is that Sheilaism is the product of a cultural mood that’s so apparently sensible and uncontested in Sheila’s mind that she can speak these words without worry of protest or sanction from others. This would not have been the case a few hundred years earlier, as Bellah makes clear in his historically instructive follow-up: “How did we get from the point where Anne Hutchinson, a seventeenth-century precursor of Sheila Larson’s, could be run out of Massachusetts Bay Colony to a situation where Anne Hutchinson is close to the norm?”
Without going into a long history lesson which I’m probably not qualified to deliver anyway, suffice it to say here that, as with pluralism, there is a long history of individualism which has been stamped into our modern (American) culture. Indeed, many of the stories which animate the North American consciousness—stories about lone rangers and rustic cowboys who trailblazed the frontier, stalwart cops and detectives who catch the bad guys in spite of their thankless bosses, and the commonplace rags-to-riches immigrant success story—are individualistic to their very core. These stories, I would suggest, are the preconditions for pluralism because they elevate individuals like Sheila to a place where traditions are suspect and all authority outside of oneself questioned.
Before I close, let me say that I’m glad we live in a world where Sheila doesn’t get banished from society simply for voicing what some would consider unorthodox beliefs. Individualism, for all its perils, has its merits as well. But individualism left alone and unchecked misses out on what participation in a Greater Story can offer. From the Christian perspective, this offer entails a deep understanding of self formed by a relationship to One impervious to the whims of culture or opinions of others. Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote a few years back,
To discover who I am, I need to discover the relation in which I stand to an active, prior Other, to a transcendent creator: I don’t first sort out who I am and then seek for resources to sustain that identity.
In a spiritual marketplace today replete with its own logic, stories, and resources, let us seek the courage to be individuals who search for truth in conjunction with a community that can help us find it.
 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 221.
Good read, Paul. Thanks for posting.