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But the strictures that orthodoxy places on its mystical seekers, the emphasis on hierarchies of goods and ordinary duties, also do honor to the words of Jesus—who insisted, after all, that he had come to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. And they’re a useful reminder that the promptings of one’s inner self aren’t necessarily identical to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the God Within isn’t God at all, but just the ego or the libido, using spirituality as a convenient gloss for its own desires and impulses. Sometimes your books and teachers are right, and what seems your Highest Thought is really emanating from the lower reaches of your soul. Sometimes God might offer you a less consoling and more demanding insight than Gilbert’s delighted discovery that He “dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” To exclude or minimize these possibilities, as so many modern mystics do, is to risk baptizing egomania, divinizing selfishness, and leaving few legitimate ways to distinguish the God within a Mother Teresa from the God within a Jim Jones or a David Koresh.

Most Americans are not Koreshes, mercifully. But neither are they fulltime mystics or professional philosophers—or even professional writers like Gilbert, equipped with book contracts that enable them to spend a solid four months in spiritual seclusion. For people leading more ordinary lives, reducing religion to the God Within and only the God Within doesn’t create a vast population of budding Teresas of Ávila. It just provides an excuse for making religious faith more comfortable, more dilettantish, more self-absorbed—for doing what you feel like doing anyway, and calling it obedience to a Higher Power or Supreme Self.

The result isn’t megalomania but a milder sort of solipsism, with numinous experience as a kind of spiritual comfort food rather than a spur to moral transformation—there when you need it, and not a bother when you don’t. It’s the church of the Oprah Winfrey Network, you might say: religion as a path to constant self-affirmation, heresy as self-help, the quest for God as the ultimate form of therapy.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics 

Boredom is actually a crucial warning sign— as important in its own way as physical pain. It’s a sign that our capacity for wonder and delight, contemplation and attention, real play and fruitful work, has been dangerously depleted.

I am horrified at the hours I have spent, often in the face of demanding creative work, scrolling aimlessly through social media and news updates, clicking briefly on countless vaguely titillating updates about people I barely know and situations I have no control over, feeling dim, thin versions of interest, attraction, dissatisfaction, and dislike. Those hours have been spent avoiding suffering— avoiding the suffering of our banal, boring modern world with its airport security lines and traffic jams and parking lots, but also avoiding the suffering of learning patience, wisdom, and virtue and putting them into practice. They have left me, as the ring left Bilbo, feeling “all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

— Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

You might decide to simply have as good a time as possible. The universe is a universe of nonsense, but since you are here, grab what you can. Unfortunately . . . [y] ou can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes. You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it. You may still, in the lowest sense, have a “good time”; but just in so far as it becomes very good, just in so far as it ever threatens to push you on from cold sensuality into real warmth and enthusiasm and joy, so far you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you [think you] really live.

— C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” as quoted by Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Saints and art

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.

— Joseph Ratzinger

Many American teens have limited geographic freedom, less free time, and more rules. In many communities across the United States, the era of being able to run around after school so long as you are home by dark is long over. Many teens are stuck at home until they are old enough to drive themselves. For younger teens, getting together with friends after school depends on cooperative parents with flexible schedules who are willing or able to chauffeur and chaperone.

Socializing is also more homebound. Often, teens meet in each other’s homes rather than public spaces. And no wonder: increasing regulation means that there aren’t as many public spaces for teens to gather. The mall, once one of the main hubs for suburban teens, is much less accessible now than it once was.19 Because malls are privately owned spaces, proprietors can prohibit anyone they wish, and many of them have prohibited groups of teenagers from entering. In addition, parents are less willing to allow their children to hang out in malls, out of fear of the strangers teens may encounter. Teens simply have far fewer places to be together in public than they once did. And the success of social media must be understood partly in relation to this shrinking social landscape. Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are not only new public spaces: they are in many cases the only “public” spaces in which teens can easily congregate with large groups of their peers. More significantly, teens can gather in them while still physically stuck at home.

Teens told me time and again that they would far rather meet up in person, but the hectic and heavily scheduled nature of their day- to- day lives, their lack of physical mobility, and the fears of their parents have made such face- to- face interactions increasingly impossible.

— Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

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(via Lawrence Lee Magnuson)

Depersonalizing God

America was founded, in part, by men who found the idea of an ultimate mystery offensive, and set out to rationalize this paradox away. This was the great appeal of Deism, to Thomas Jefferson and many others. Deist theology reconciled Christianity’s contradictions by depersonalizing the Christian God, making him a First Cause rather than a constant active force in history—a clockmaker who stands forever outside the universe he’s built, unmoving and unmoved.

But while Deism was reasonably satisfying as a philosophical school, it was sterile as a religion. A clockmaker God could provide no consolation, little guidance, and no grace, and Deist theology had nothing of significance to say about the kind of numinous experiences that have nourished and sustained the world’s religions. The Deist God was forever inaccessible, forever out of reach, and anyone claiming to have encountered Him was either deluded or a fraud.

Small wonder that from Emerson and the Transcendentalists onward, the Deists’ American descendants have often been more attracted to the opposite approach—to a faith rooted in mysticism, which starts with the direct experience of an ultimate Reality and then tries to reason from this unmediated experience to a coherent understanding of the Almighty.

Like Deism, this understanding inevitably depersonalizes God. He is no longer Yahweh, no longer Jesus, no longer Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; instead, He’s “Being,” “the Soul of the World,” “the Highest Thought,” or “the experience of supreme love.” But where the Deists’ depersonalization pushed God into the empyrean and out of reach, the God Within’s depersonalization makes him absolutely accessible.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics