I’ve recently been doing some reminiscing. Maybe I can expect this to happen more often now that I’m over 40. The more I have behind me in my life journey, the more fun stuff there is to rummage through.
For whatever reason, today I remembered what it felt like to read a particular book by Tom Beaudouin. I think the year was 1998. I had joined the church for the first time months before, and in doing so found myself in this strange new world. It fascinated me in many ways, and it was good for me with where I was at. I did a lot of growing there. Still, “my world” of the outside seemed very different than that of the inside of this institution. And in many respects, it seemed that stuff was happening on the outside that might have been spiritually healthier than on the inside.
Beaudouin went far to validate that sense. In Virtual Faith: Generation X and the Quest for Irreverant Spirituality (and yes, my screenname is a tip of the hat to Beaudouin), he argued that the gritty, angst-ridden counter-institutional spiritual movement was a prophetic indictment of an institutionalized religion that had grossly missed the point. I would say for one to actually get this, one has to understand that there truly is a category of people who are “spiritual, but not religious.” And, from my experience, many in the church do not. It has been my contact with the church through the years that strengthens the validation of Beaudouin’s claim.
Institutionalized Christianity simply has an emphasis that can’t function well with the individualism of the non-religious. For the institution, everything that is of importance is “corporate.” Corporate worship. Corporate meals. Corporate mission. Indeed, the Church is the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, etc. Perhaps nothing illustrates how much the corporate reality dominates more so than the sacraments: baptism and communion.
While in seminary, we read an atrocious theology book by Alister McGrath (whom I consider to be a terrible theologian perhaps best left unread). In it, he argued that there were two basic types of theology, personal and corporate. Of the two, only corporate theology is authoritative.
This seems to be exactly Beaudouin’s point. It is this very mentality about spirituality (which really can’t be distanced from theology, since that is little more than how we think about and articulate our spirituality), that the non-religious spirituals prophecy against. He separates out the corporate “sacraments” and the personal “sacramentals.” The distinction is important. Sacraments are clean, communal, abstract expressions of faith. Sacramentals, on the other hand, are about what I will call “real” spiritual life. It’s what spiritual life is like when the rubber hits the road. It’s messy. It’s imprecise. And it finds expression through such things as music videos, tattoos, kitsch, and bling. Contrary to what McGrath would have us believe, it is the personal spirituality, embodied in the sacramentals, that is truly authoritative as it speaks to and from an authentic individualized human quest for something more, rather than some abstract idea of what should be.
We have all heard about the dangers of “empty ritual.” Ritual doesn’t have to be empty. Personally, I love sacraments and sacramentals both. They speak to me in somewhat different ways. I adore the formal liturgy of communal engagement. There’s a power atmosphere there unique to that kind of event. But what makes ritual meaningful is the extent to which it is born of one’s personal experience, the extent to which it resonates with one’s own faith journey, the extent to which it is personalized. By definition, sacramentals will always have more depth, even if the church is unable to perceive that.