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Monday, March 08, 2010

Shorter Ross Douthat: Bring Back Self-Flagellation!!
Posted by Jill | 5:23 AM
Funny how a columnist who comes from the side of the fence that rails against elites, longs for the days when profound spiritual experience was the exclusive province against them:
By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.

What’s more, it’s possible that our horizons have become too broad, and that real spiritual breakthroughs require a kind of narrowing — the decision to pick a path and stick with it, rather than hopscotching around in search of a synthesis that “works for me.” The great mystics of the past were often committed to a particular tradition and community, and bound by the rules (and often the physical confines) of a specific religious institution. Without these kind of strictures and commitments, Johnson argues, mysticism drifts easily into a kind of solipsism: “Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shariah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming.”

Most religious believers will never be great mystics, of course, and the American way of faith is kinder than many earlier eras to those of us who won’t. But maybe it’s become too kind, and too accommodating. Even ordinary belief — the kind that seeks epiphanies between deadlines, and struggles even with the meager self-discipline required to get through Lent — depends on extraordinary examples, whether they’re embedded in our communities or cloistered in the great silence of a monastery. Without them, faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns.

Maybe getting through Lent is a struggle because deep down, people don't see giving up Hershey bars as ultimately meaning anything. As for a faith that stands in judgment, I have to wonder about someone who requires the supernatural in order to take the moral fork in the road when such choices come up. I always use the pepper-in-the-shopping-cart analogy: When you get into the parking lot at the supermarket, and you see a bell pepper wedged between the top basked and the rest of the cart that both you and the cashier missed, do you just take it, leave it in the cart, or go in and pay for it? I'm not a Christian, I don't really practice any religion, and I always go in and pay for it. BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

Why is that so difficult that people need to create a punitive imaginary figure in order to do it?

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Blogger Unknown said...

Douthat would admit to faults, and thus it's not really precise to say he holds himself apart from his judgment of others.

Rather, while he'd admit to failings in his execution of efforts to construct a meaningful life, he clearly does not question his overall project, his objectives, his aims.

Whereas the rest of us are judged for our execution as well as for our sorry, misplaced goals as well.

So I'm sure he has his share of humility. Alongside a satisfaction that he's on the right track, even if he does stumble off the path every now and again.

Blogger Unknown said...
Ross Douthat is a shit-faced doofus.

Blogger PurpleGirl said...
...and I always go in and pay for it. BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

Why is that so difficult that people need to create a punitive imaginary figure in order to do it?

Because they would take it and say the it's the cashier's fault she didn't see it and ring it up. One time, long ago, I was buying some dinnerware and the cashier gave me my change... $10 too much. I was counting the change, saw the mistake and returned to the check-out and gave it back to her. She was shocked that I did. But as you say, it's the right thing to do.

Blogger D. said...
Re: Self-flagellation: Mr. Douthat can go first.

The thing with the mystic state is that it can come to anyone, at any time, regardless of morality, religion, or state of wallet. Mystic revelations are individual, not group phenomena, and they tend to expand one's horizons toward the ineffable. Mr. Douthat is confusing fanaticism (which is a group phenomenon) with mysticism.

Anonymous Orin T. said...
You have it all wrong. Christians have created a loving, forgiving figure to take on the sins of the world so that we don't have to feel guilty when we do the wrong thing.

Blogger Bob said...
There's a saying, "Nobody is more Catholic than a convert." Certainly fits Douthat. I don't know about this Hersey Bar stuff, I think observant Catholics are a little more serious than that. A friend of mine gave up Facebook. Made a simple announcement on Ash Wednesday & disappeared. It suggests that he's finding something else, like more time for his family, not sitting there twiddling his thumbs while he waits for Easter. This is not mysticism; it is oractice. The decline of Christianity in Europe has resulted in something called "Emergent Church." Douthat wouldn't care for this, as it tends to be anti-hierarchical, & emphasizes that the connection between Christians of diverse views is itself mystical, which is a very old view.

Anonymous PatD said...
Whatever Douthat is trying to say is beyond me. All mystics are spiritualists but spirituality does not require an element of mysticism. He falsely conflates the two to make some skeezy point as to how modern American Christiantists have hollowed out the contemporary religious experience.

Of course he is correct that those who use their sincere faith in order to establish some sort of political bons fides are just con men.

Anonymous mandt said...
"BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO" The right thing to do is give it to that homeless gal/guy, who sleeps on the sidewalk grate just down from that 'spiritual' food emporium called 'Whole Foods.'