Baby Boom Spirituality: How Well Does Religion Go with White Wine and Brie?

Although I now blush to acknowledge it, one   afternoon when I was a junior in college I placed a pomegranate before the picture of a well-known Eastern mystic. This happened in a Transcendental Meditation Center which had set up shop near campus. Once the fruit was in place, my instructor turned to me and began to intone my mantra. I promised never to reveal it, but you can hear it in a dozen movies set in the mysterious East — it’s that prolonged, aching vowel which throbs on the soundtrack while the camera pans the spires of Baghdad. I politely repeated it, and when my instructor (whom I saw a week later taking the law boards) was satisfied, he led me to a bare room and left me alone so that I could go on repeating it. But the mantra did not improve on acquaintance. I gave up the whole business before summer vacation. Still, like certain tunes that won’t go away, the mantra strays into my mind now and then, a final retreating echo of the odd campus culture of the early 1970s.

I suppose what I was seeking on that spring afternoon was what one Freudian writer has called a “manipulable sense of well being.” The point of the mantra, apart from putting me in touch with the infinite Ground of Being, was to make me feel well-adjusted, healthy, at ease with things. This was a major undergraduate preoccupation at the time. Everyone was busy “getting their heads together.” The phrase sounds antique now, but you always heard it from classmates who were dropping out for a semester. They would pack a copy of The Prophet and a few James Taylor albums and head for Cape Cod or some vale of Kashmir. Generally, they came back more crazed than ever. But the quest never abated. The goal was an interior peace which could be manipulated, like the graphic equalizer on a sound system. This, I submit, is the great and seldom achieved prize of modern secular culture, and it’s not surprising that the search for it is often conducted through a maze of religiosity.

Once out of college, we had a great deal of money thrown at us, but prosperity did not make anyone abandon the search. Indeed, it created an uneasiness which is not to be found in societies reared on scarcity. The wraith and ghost of it were reported in magazine articles with titles like “Baby Boom Blues.” But it would be a mistake to reduce our vague complaints to sociology. Yes, we are subject to pains that would be difficult to explain to a Masai herdsman, but we are also heirs to an interior restlessness which St. Augustine diagnosed 1600 years ago: “We were made for thee, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Whether he likes it or not, man is driven to transcend himself. What the money did for baby boomers was to multiply the possible substitutes for the Almighty.

God and Mammon

The competition between God and Mammon is probably no more heated today than in the past. The American formula has always been, in Henry James’s words, “to make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t `mind,’ anything.” It’s noticeable that those baby boomers who make enough money to live out the Jamesian scenario (they tend to be on Wall Street) have mid-life crises earlier than most. As for the rest, the trance of merchandise is broken now and then, and they look around for something to believe in. For my generation, this hunger for transcendence has generally fastened onto four activities: sex, politics, health, and finally — when nothing else seemed to work — religious faith itself.

Sex, as Malcolm Muggeridge has observed, is the mysticism of a materialist society. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, baby boomers enjoyed a window in this particular area which was unprecedented and is not likely to be open again. Sex had once been the religion of a handful of intellectuals and bohemians; after the Pill, the whole middle class got into the act. But the window is closing now, especially for women who have finally figured out that “sexual liberation” is pig heaven for men. The smorgasbord of sexual diseases, moreover, has put recreational sex on a decidedly unspiritual level. I recently heard about a contemporary — a friend of a friend — who spent months trying to seduce a particular woman. After they finally got into his apartment, turned out the lights and disrobed, she announced that she had herpes. They played records instead, and no one called anyone angel of the morning.

The only party still pushing sex as a spiritual anodyne is the New Age movement. Its sexual message derives from Tantric Buddhism, whose obscenities and superstitions spread through northern India in the early middle ages. But I think most of us, once past the hormonal onslaught of adolescence, would tacitly agree with a remark of the late George Homans, one of the last great Boston brahmins to get tenure at Harvard. Professor Homans would pause during his lecture on African kinship patterns, look down on his undergraduate sociology class — a sea of denim and work shirts — and say impressively: “Let’s come off it, ladies and gentlemen: sex is not that important.”

If money and fornication did not quite satisfy our higher impulses, politics seemed a more sure thing. Political commitment as a substitute for religion is, of course, the spiritual syndrome of the twentieth century. “Instead of eternal life,” wrote Malraux, “we have the revolution.” I matriculated at one of the flash points of the student revolt. Politics were everywhere on campus: shouted from megaphones, handed out in dining halls, sponged up overnight on shop windows; you could not escape it in the darkest depths of the library stacks. Before the end of freshman registration, we quietly put aside the notion of an Ivy League campus as a place where one reclined in the shadows with a volume of Plutarch and prepared for the days of rage.

But the Movement, as it was called, evaporated with astonishing rapidity. In the spring of 1970, after Nixon invaded Cambodia, the administration sent us all home early, free of final exams, so that we could work out our ideals elsewhere. Most of us headed for the beach and returned the next autumn to find that the revolution was over. One reason was that the ideological noise had become irksome. Trotsky’s idea of “permanent revolution” means turning up the political Muzak to full volume and keeping it there. Two or three semesters of this were enough. Then there were the militants, the true believers, whose behavior became a scandal to everyone mildly sympathetic to the New Left agenda. As we watched them spit and hurl obscenities at Irish cops who had families to support or shout down speakers who did not share their ideological prejudices, it seemed as though the characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed had finally opened an American franchise. The whole point of that novel is that radical nihilism is the offspring of a vague progressive liberalism. Were we getting a glimpse of ourselves a little further down the road? We drew back with distaste and became yuppies instead.

Marxism itself is merely a secularized version of Christian eschatology, while the more gentle forms of modern progressivism are the debased coin of Christian charity. I think it was Whittaker Chambers who said that liberalism is charity without the crucifixion. Marxism still has a mystical hold on American academics who have not heard yet that their Parisian friends are onto other things. Since none of Marx’s predictions have come true (except the one in The German Ideology that socialism imposed on under-developed countries would make those countries poorer), it is no longer even pretended that Marxism is a science. Thus freed from empirical reality, it has become for its disciples an esoteric system of enlightenment (not unlike medieval Kabbalism) which need not concern the rest of us — for the time being, anyway.

Eat Right

But everyone else’s political indignation slipped out with the ease of a cassette, and their spiritual impulses had to be parked elsewhere. For some there was a detour into drugs, but the flip side of the same impulse led to the local health club. Health is the last emergent post-Christian religion. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the former abortionist who is now a leader of the pro-life movement, remarks that modern man seeks “somatic immortality” instead of God. This obsession with Nautilus machines and herb tea was anticipated by Nietzsche, who predicted that the further man got from the supernatural, the more preoccupied he would be with health. The more fiercely Nietzsche himself turned against God, the more obsessed he became with the smallest details of his diet and physical tone. (“No meals between meals,” we read in Ecce Homo, “no coffee: coffee spreads darkness.”)

There is one other obstacle for baby boomers in their search for God which is so obvious that, like the traffic on Madison Avenue, it is easy to ignore: namely, America itself. The country is blessed with a vernacular culture that makes it the most amusing place to live in the history of the planet. This funhouse of a republic, however, is the enemy of the interior life. It will not let the mind be still. How do you explain genuine contemplation to a trivia-crazed young professional plugged into a Walkman? Interior silence, which every spiritual writer since Old Testament has pointed to as a prerequisite for finding God, is apt to make him so uncomfortable that he will start humming the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song.

The light-hearted tone of American life, so refreshing in some respects, makes it seem churlish not to shrug off ultimate metaphysical issues. Like death, for example. Whatever happened to death? For medieval man, earthly existence was like the swift passage of a night bird through opposite open windows of a lighted banquet hall; he was acutely aware of the darkness and mystery outside. But the baby boomers, reared in a paradise of distractions, have no trouble keeping such thoughts at bay. It is as though everyone born since 1945 were surrounded by Phil Specter’s Wall of Sound (Da Doo Run Run) and protected from any thoughts about what they are doing here and where they are going.

The sheer wonderland that is America — the “crush of strength” and “glittering in the veins” which Wallace Stevens felt driving on the Connecticut turnpike one night in 1954 — is enough to jam the higher frequencies. Such vibrations do not occur among the old stones of Europe. Toward the end of the film American Graffiti, a young Richard Dreyfuss stops outside an isolated radio station, looks up at the wires humming in the night and the winking red light of the transmitter which sends the voice of Wolfman Jack to every point of the compass, and experiences a kind of religious awe. Why go to church when the combination of technology and popular culture can provide such moments?

Yet a surprising number of baby boomers do go to church — or at least think that it is a good idea. If the available alternatives, from aerobics to Wolfman Jack, can only interpose a temporary ease, all that’s left is God. For millennia, religious impulses were taken care of by the Church. But in America, the pluralistic society par excellence, religions tend to behave like amoebas, dividing every five seconds. Talleyrand, complaining about the blandness of the cuisine during his exile here, remarked that America has 85 religions and only one dish. The ratio has probably not changed for baby boomers, even though they are dining out on octopus tentacles and mesquite-grilled free range chicken.

The bewildering array of spiritualities in this country easily blends into a bland pabulum that goes down without any problem. Although there are those who try to follow the demanding precepts of traditional religion, most baby boomers find refreshment in a vague religiosity which does not interfere in any way with how they live. In a country where, as Philip Roth put it, “everything goes and nothing matters,” and where there is no longer any clericalism in any form except in certain communal isolates like the Hasidim in Brooklyn, you can do whatever you please while keeping an option on eternity. (Break glass in case of emergency.) The religious atmosphere outside the Bible belt is so soft and yielding that, even if you object to the idea of God, there is no incentive to rebel. The pure atheist in my generation is almost as rare as the pure mystic.

Distant Bells

If you are a lapsed Catholic you may, like the hero of Bright Lights, Big City, hear on Sunday morning a distant “echo down the marble vaults of your church-going childhood.” Or you may actually attend Mass, while inwardly setting aside any Church teachings which contradict self-prescribed notions of well-being. Anna Quindlen — whose recent “Life in the Thirties” column in the New York Times could have been subtitled, “How To Be an Apostate Catholic and Feel Good About It”—is a perfect specimen of baby boom religiosity. Quindlen asserts that she is a Catholic but goes on to say that she rejects any Church teaching which does not suit her: birth control, abortion, Sunday Mass obligation, you name it. “What I do believe in are those guidelines that do not vary from faith to faith,” she continues, oddly forgetting that abortion has been condemned by most major Protestant and Jewish theologians of the twentieth century. But Quindlen gets a frisson out of attending midnight Mass at Christmas and thinks it probable that she will want a priest at her death bed. So she is “Catholic.”

The fact that Catholicism (or any orthodox faith) has never understood itself in quotation marks does not bother Ms. Quindlen. Nor does the possibility that there might be such a thing as objective truth entailing a faith which makes demands. Kantian subjectivity is the norm here as everywhere—the isolated conscious as the ultimate arbiter. (Rilke’s image of modern man is that of a panther silently gazing from its cage.) It’s curious how the isolated conscious, despite its vaunted independence, seldom deviates by a single degree from the prevailing secular wind.

As the harder theological content of faith is played down or eliminated, so is the “sign of contradiction” which the Bible speaks about. Authentic Christianity and Judaism have always been counter-cultural. The toning down of the less comfortable aspects of revelation is nonetheless an ongoing project in almost every denomination. In these matters, it is the religious wing of the so-called New Class which sets the agenda. Who are these people? They are the “experts,” the “issues-oriented” bureaucrats, the little wheels that spin so furiously in organizations like the World Council of Churches and the U.S. Catholic Conference. No figure is more destructive of his own and others’ well-being than the man or woman who has no faith and yet makes a career of religion. These spiritual operatives are everywhere. They tend to be hostile to normative culture, use a vocabulary which neutralizes the traditional wisdom of language, and cultivate a form of nihilism which is so soft and yielding that fighting it is like fighting a mist.

In America, the religious New Class is in alliance with secularists who share the same political agenda but would go further in emasculating religion. The ace-in-the-hole of the latter group is the establishment clause of the First Amendment. They have succeeded to the point where the teaching centers of American life are no longer even “neutral,” so far as the believing Jew or Christian is concerned, but increasingly hostile. The American Civil Liberties Union, which functions as the legal arm of secular humanism, would like to remove religion even as a private referent from the public arena. To this end, it sent an agent to follow Congressman Henry Hyde into church on Sunday in order to argue that Hyde’s position on abortion was invalid because it derived from his Catholic faith.

But the notion that religion must never intrude on public life is purely a product of the secular forces unleashed by the Reformation. There is no such thing as a strictly private religion in either the Old or New Testaments, where the emphasis is entirely on a “community of believers.” If anyone in the Bible had an excuse for following his own private light, it was Saint Paul after his experience on the road to Damascus. Instead, he put himself under the tutelage of the early Church.

The idea that the metaphysical grounding of one’s behavior is strictly a personal matter, like a taste for cigars, was contested by, of all people, the comedian Jackie Gleason. Concerning his reluctance to part with Roman Catholicism, which he no longer practiced, Gleason remarked to a reporter from Time: “Whenever I hear someone say that religion is their own personal affair, I am irritated. Religion can’t be called personal. The health of your religion determines the compassion, sympathy, forgiveness, and tolerance you give to your fellow man. I have studied different religions to see if there was one more attractive for me. I only discovered I was seeking a religion that was more compatible to my way of thinking. I remained a Catholic. It wasn’t comfortable, but what religion is to a sinner? While I might not carry out my obligations in any manner to be commended, at least I know where I stand.”

Where They Stand

Most baby boomers prefer not to know exactly where they stand. They are comfortable with a vague, elastic faith that expands to fill the world after a pleasant Christmas service, then contracts to nothing when confronted with difficulties. In the strange and lurid atmosphere of American popular culture, this soft religious glow can take odd forms. I was in Memphis on the tenth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Pilgrims had arrived from all over. There was an all-night candle vigil outside the gates of Presley’s home, Graceland, while all day crowds filed past the tombstone in the “Meditation Garden.” Graceland has become the Lourdes of North America. I listened on the radio to a young woman saying that when she could not sleep at night, she talked to Elvis. Flannery O’Connor remarked that the modern South is “Christ-haunted,” but it can safely be said that lower middle-class whites of Dixie are Elvis-haunted. It should be recalled that at the time of his death, Elvis was reading a book about the discovery of Jesus’s skeleton.

I don’t think this sort of thing goes on in Europe. In Europe, you’re either in the Church or (more likely) out of it. There is less room for spiritual whimsy. But anything goes on this side of the Atlantic. A 20-year-old girl from Indiana with whom I once discussed religion told me that she had a great respect for it because at camp one of the other girls was a witch who slipped off into the woods and set up an altar to worship Nature and “it was really quite beautiful.” Shiva Naipaul, the late British journalist, toured America at the end of the 1970s and was appalled at the free-floating spirituality. The sheer innocence of the natives’ quest for various gestalts and satori made him think of the race of Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, who play and fashion garlands while the ravenous Morlocks plan supper below.

Thomas Mann had a less disarming version of the Eloi which fits the current American situation like a glove. In the pivotal chapter of The Magic Mountain, the good bourgeois Hans Castrop dreams of an Arcadian landscape where beautiful human creatures dance and sport in the foam, a place where “reasoned goodness conditions every act.” Soon, though, Castrop is drawn to a solemn temple which somehow seems at the heart of the matter. With increasing apprehension, he penetrates the sanctuary of the temple; there he finds two grey old women “with hanging breasts and dugs of finger-length” dismembering a small child.

We have not had the universal collapse of values which Nietzsche predicted would happen when the radical consciousness of the death of God took hold in the Western mind. There is still in America an ethical mood which feeds on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. “Niceness” is the public mode here, just as phlegmatic indifference is in England, but the temptation is to regard ourselves as being as good as our public manners. In America today, you can hold on to your isolated selfishness, you can be cold and egotistical in the more hidden channels of daily life, you can dismiss the one-and-a-half million children aborted each year as the private affair of others, all the while keeping intact a righteousness which can be turned up like a thermostat whenever a nicely choreographed moment of injustice occurs on the evening news.

Nonetheless, even in the area of moral decorum cracks are appearing. For example, on Wall Street, the epicenter of yuppiedom, there has been an extraordinary decline of moral standards. I am not referring to the occasional scoundrel caught by the SEC but to the whole mode of doing business. The generation of bankers now retiring had a severe understanding of the word “trust” and of what constitutes a conflict of interest. It was virtually pre-coded in their genes. Young investment bankers now think nothing of writing fairness opinions for corporate buy-outs they know are neither fair to the shareholders nor good for the public, so long as they pocket their million dollar fee.

On Wall Street, as elsewhere, the baby boomers substitute legalisms for morality. The current plague of litigation is an obvious result of the decline of spiritual consensus. With everyone cultivating his own private judgment about right and wrong, issues which used to be resolved by universal preconscious assent are now turned over the courts. Thirty years ago, the question of whether a woman can keep a baby she has carried to term as her side of a legal arrangement known as “surrogate motherhood” would never have reached the courts because it would never occur to anybody to draw up such a heartless contract in the first place.

Our still-solid bourgeois world puts one in mind of the aging Charlemagne, who made a journey along the Atlantic coast and saw the Viking sails slipping by against the horizon like black birds. He began to weep, clearly aware of the dangers that were to swamp the West after his death. Modem America has thus far enjoyed a dispensation from the meat grinder of what most people at most times have experienced as History. One wonders what will happen if the country is ever caught in its gruesome machinery. The New York Times Magazine and other journals discover a return to traditional religion every decade or so, but it may take an unprecedented cataclysm, a new Dark Ages, to turn back the tide of a secularism which so often appropriates a religious vocabulary for its own ends.


George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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