Spirituality at bargain prices

With the possible exception of the men and women who served in World War I and came of age during the glittering 1920s, no generation of Americans has been scrutinized more sharply than the baby boomers. Born in the 1950s, the boomers matured in a furnace of violence and cultural upheaval - that fiery decade from the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 to Watergate in 1973.

The nightmare in Vietnam, drugs, racial strife, and the sexual revolution fathered in boomers not the moral numbness of the lost souls depicted in the novels of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but something very different, a hunger for holiness. To feed this hunger, the religious marketplace in the United States has fostered in the last 40 years an astonishing efflorescence of options for worship, and they are as different from one another as wildflowers: transcendental meditation, Pentecostalism, esoterica, Sufism, Krish-na consciousness, Judaica, Zen Buddhism, astrology, fundamentalism, and many others.

In his new book, "Spiritual Marketplace," Wade Clark Roof contends that both the need and the nourishment are genuine. He believes that their impact on the boomers will empower them to lead us with courage and imagination into the third millennium

Roof, a sociologist of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, deploys interviews and statistical surveys as skillfully as anyone now mapping the cultural landscape. Few of the seekers he surveys, however, take seriously the idea that religion is a search for the truth, and this is because Roof has a concept of religion that skews his research from the start.

"Religion," he writes, "in its most basic sense is a story involving symbol, metaphor, and language, all having the power to persuade and to fan the imagination." Persuade what? Plainly, according to this view, it is not the function of religion to persuade the rational intellect. Thus, by definition, some boomers are marginalized - those who see that religion and truth are necessarily linked. Nowhere in "Spiritual Marketplace" is the value of moving beyond faith to rational understanding thoughtfully debated.

To trace the ancestry of Roof's postmodern concept of religion would take us back to Pascal in the 17th century. A brilliant mathematician and a devout Christian, Pascal was fond of distinguishing between l'esprit de gomtrie and l'esprit de finesse, between the rational and the intuitive mind. For him the former was useless in religion. He was scornful of the various demonstrations of God's existence invented by philosophers, such as the three proofs that were linchpins in the system erected by his contemporary Descartes.

But it was Anselm of Canterbury who much earlier propounded the most notable of all these proofs, an ontological argument so engaging that it has been attractive to contemplative Christians and professional theologians in every century since the 12th, when it was first published. Anselm's motto was fides quaerens intellectum - faith seeking understanding - and what his proof delivers is the essence and existence of the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham and Jesus, the very Being who, according to Pascal, is beyond the grasp of rational analysis.

The founder of Christianity rejected the idea that thinking and religion have little in common. To Pilate he said, "For this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth," and even more famously, he taught his followers that they could know the truth and that the truth would make them free.

Given the opportunity to open a stall in the spiritual marketplace, I would drape over the counter a banner bearing the words "Religion and thinking need each other," and if Roof stopped by for a sample, I would give him a free copy of Anselm's proof.

*Colin Campbell teaches English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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