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Life's answers: Is religion in the mix?

We still ask the big questions seeking the meaning of life, but the search seems more personal, suggesting a shift from tradition. Two books tackle the struggle.

September 21, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

"Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!" wrote William James, whose seminal work "The Varieties of Religious Experience" stands today as one of the most important texts on spirituality and religion seeking.

Nearly a century later, the search for religion is still playing out as a theme in books, both in texts and fiction, but the ways in which it is sought are changing. The protagonist of last year's Booker Prize winner, "Life of Pi," for example, was so eager for religion he embraced three of them at once. And while the story, on its face, is about a boy's survival after a shipwreck, it has issues of faith at its core.

Now, two new books are, in their own ways, addressing the subject: "The Transformation of American Religion" by Alan Wolfe (Free Press), a sociologically based look into the manner in which Americans exercise their religious beliefs, and "Jamesland" (Knopf), a novel by Michelle Huneven, limning the spiritual journey of a few quirky Angelenos.

In the United States, which has been characterized as the most religious nation in the West, a formal, institutionalized view of religion has historically predominated. Yet Americans may be moving away from this model, both books suggest, toward the kind of religious experiences James examined, experiences that are intensely personal and may often take place outside formal religious settings.

"Religion in practice looks very, very different than the way religion is talked about" in the culture at large and, particularly, in politics, says Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, speaking on the phone. "Some people want us to believe that religious people are dogmatic, narrow-minded and sectarians, while others want us to believe they're holy and capable of saving the world."

In reality, he says, neither extreme is accurate. In fact, few of the perceptions of Americans as believers reflect their actual practice.

"I come across people who say they don't like religion, but they like faith," Wolfe says. "They identify religion with institutions and hierarchies, and faith with a kind of inner quest for spiritual force." This outlook, he says, marks a significant change in our self-image as Americans.

Inflation takes hold

There's much to celebrate in this shift, Wolfe says, pointing to the nation's embrace of religious pluralism and tolerance and applauding the sheer inventiveness infusing contemporary belief. "The entrepreneurial character to American religion: You have to admire that."

But the counterpoint of that, he says, is that churches are tending to water down their messages to attract more members, an effect Wolfe calls "salvation inflation."

He uses his experience as a college professor and the phenomenon of grade inflation to explain. "Students are doing less and less work and they're getting higher and higher grades for it." With religion, he says, people are expected to do less and are rewarded with grace much more easily.

Traditionally, he explains, religion has also helped people focus on the significant questions of life, those that have a kind of intellectual content and require struggle: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What are my obligations to others? "I do not see that many of our religious institutions are asking those questions," he laments.

It is exactly this issue of struggling with crucial life questions that Michelle Huneven, a Los Angeles-based writer who sometimes freelances for The Times, set out to explore in her novel "Jamesland."

"The question to me -- at least when posed by my characters -- is a spiritual cry for practical information," Huneven explains, sitting in her wildly beautiful Altadena backyard on a blazing L.A. morning. Religious institutions may or may not help us find the information we seek, she says, but religions do tend to be vast storehouses of spiritual knowledge. "Turning to them, we can find unbelievably good practical information which can improve our relationship to what is."

What kind of practical information? "Feed the hungry. Remember to breathe. Trust intuition as a form of emotional intelligence. Find and do your life's work. Forgive, or at least try. Get out of yourself for one damn minute every now and then. Try to face what is."

Sometimes, she explains, we are introduced to these principles via religion and sometimes not. Still, by following them, most people live happier, more productive lives.

Huneven, whose first novel, "Round Rock" (Knopf, 1997), looked into the gritty spirituality experienced from alcoholism, has an affinity for writing humorous tales about unlovable people in harsh settings, oddball characters who win readers over with their courageous, if halting, tussle with life.

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