Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.


The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition. (The Holy Christian Orthodox Church, a relatively new denomination not affiliated with the global Orthodox church, has made him a saint.)

But his inclusion on the list of “saints,” however informally, at my otherwise extremely traditional Episcopalian church speaks to a wider trend in both religious and secular spaces alike: the proliferation of “secular saints.” These are people whose lives, ideals and – at times – martyrdoms have made them into ideological and spiritual leaders and models, reflections of lives we wish to live, or wish to be able to live.

Note this: “ … Reflections of lives we wish to live, or wish to be able to live.” That, I believe, is the operative phrase here.

About the same time as I came across the RNS piece, I also found this essay about the importance of ritual — religious mostly, but seemingly non-religious as well — to human aspirations and our sense of well-being.

It was published by Aeon, a Britain-based, nonprofit, online magazine of essays with highbrow leanings. Written by another fiction writer and broad cultural critic, Jay Griffiths, it contains this paragraph:

For Indigenous Australians, ritual sings the natural world into continued life, in a diffuse and enspirited relationship between the Dreamtime ‘past’ and the present. The Dreamtime surrounds the present, having created the landscape and order of the world, giving meaning and profundity to life and reflecting cosmic order, while rituals of the ‘ordinary’ present, in turn, sustain the ‘extraordinary’ Dreamtime order. In Bali, the ferocious flamboyance of the traditional cremation of a king unbuckled a terrible divinity from the very clouds: arrows that turn into flowers, coffins shaped like lions, snakes of cloth, doves flying from the foreheads of women committing ritual suicide. In his book Negara (1980), the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes the lexicon of sensuous symbols in Balinese ritual, including carvings, flowers, dances, melodies, gestures, chants and masks, writing that the state rituals of classical Bali were ‘metaphysical theatre: theatre designed to express … the ultimate nature of reality and … by presenting it, to make it happen’.

Further down, there is this:

In the dominant culture, ritual is often a stale, wilted word, as dusty and songless as Christmas decorations glimpsed in midsummer. Many people profess no clear religion and lack formal rites, and yet, even in ritual-poverty, a yearning persists to rekindle it from a stub of a candle, a petal and a word. There is a perceptible need for that numinous Other Place to which ritual gives passport – where no one is exiled and none a foreigner, and there is a defiant fecundity in contemporary ways of answering that need to give wishes wings.

Once again: “… That need to give wishes wings” — a reference to religion’s aspirational core.

It won't be easy by a long shot, but if religion journalism, and popular religion writing in general, is to survive it's current unwinding, I think it's imperative that gatekeeper editors need to be more open to running copy produced by the likes of Burton and Griffiths.

Why? Because in my view that’s where religious expression is headed for many, including a goodly number, like Burton and I would include myself, who remain connected to mainstream faith groups.

Local reporters: if you haven't already, reach out to sources from beyond the religious mainstream. One place to find them is in the world of scientific inquiry into the sociology and psychology of religion. Sources for that include RNS-affiliated ReligionLink, the American Sociological Association’s religion sections and the American Society for the Study of Religion.

But they’re just a start. You might also try your local academic institutions and, of course, every-day religious leaders from your area; be sure to give both traditionalist and so-called progressive naysayers their opportunity for inclusion in the conversation.

Now, what about those cargo cults?

Cargo cults — as the term generally refers — are a phenomenon the rose in the South Pacific during World War II, when outside militarily forces displayed material possessions previously beyond the worldly knowledge and imaginations of many of the indigenous tribal populations they encountered.

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It's no surprise that these populations wanted a piece of what they conceived to be limitless prosperity. It's also no surprise to me that in their innocence they turned their aspirations into a religious quest.

That just seems to be the way we hairless apes roll.

Because, putting all theological judgements aside, how at its essence is aspiring to a place in heaven rather than hell --  via prayer, ritual and even certitude in a particular belief -- all that different?

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