Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Laderman: Expanding Our Concept of the Sacred

I was recently looking through past articles posted at Religion Dispatches and found one I thought I'd draw attention to here. The article is by Gary Laderman, a scholar I have mentioned here previously. Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University, and the author of Sacred Matters, with the long but telling subtitle of Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (The New Press, 2009). Laderman's work in religion dovetails with my own interest in spirituality and pop culture and much of what he has to say in Sacred Matters could likewise be applied to phenomenon I have researched such as Burning Man Festival and hyper-real spiritualities.

The article is titled "ARIS Survey Gets 'Religion,' Misses Boat." It's point of departure is the American Religious Identification Survey . Laderman notes how various segments of American culture presented certain features of the survey, but in the process missed a significant facet of how Americans construct their religious identity and engage in a spiritual quest. Survey takers tend to think of religion in certain traditional categories related to God, Scripture, and participation in institutional worship settings. But Laderman suggests this misses a large part of the picture:
What if there were more to religious life in America than belief in God? More holy possibilities than those outlined in the so-called “Great Religions of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—or other sacred texts like the Upanishads in Hinduism or the Tibetan Book of the Dead in Buddhism?

What if religion is better understood as a ubiquitous feature of cultural life, expressed through and inspired by basic, universal facts of life and fundamentally biological phenomena in human experience: suffering and ecstasy, reproduction and aging, family and conflict, health and death.

If traditional ways of thinking about religion miss an essential part of religious practice today what then might contemporary spirituality look like? Laderman continues:
So what if the sacred is not only, or even primarily, tied to theology or religious identity labels like more, less, and not religious? We might see how religious practices and commitments emanate from unlikely sources today: science and the pursuit of truth; music and the social ecstasy of concerts; violence and the glorification of warfare; celebrity worship and technological wonders; heroic doctors and evil villains; funereal spectacles and sexual compulsions; the Super Bowl and sacrificed soldiers; Elvis and drugs, both legal and illegal.
Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Laderman's suggestion it is worth considering. Perhaps we are missing out on understanding a significant part of America's spiritual quest because we're asking the wrong questions. And we're asking the wrong questions because we're not thinking about the sacred in the ways that increasing numbers of people are doing so. Perhaps the church needs to start asking new questions and think more holistically about what the sacred encompasses.


TonyTheProf said...

Didn't Paul Heelas do something on this with The New Age Movement. The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford, Blackwell, 1996), The Spiritual Revolution. Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality (co-authored with Linda Woodhead, Oxford, Blackwell, 2005.

The latter was based on a detailed survey of Kendal.

John W. Morehead said...

Yes, that's correct, and I think this is similar and overlaps.