MY WAY: THE PERILS OF CANADIAN-STYLE RELIGIOSITY
Orthodox speaker Frank Schaeffer sometimes speaks about the old song "I Did it My Way", suggesting it is the theme song for American-style religion. Certainly, there is much truth in this, and the tendency to seek "custom made" spiritual life is as alive in Canada as it is south of the border. Yet Canadian-style religion has some added complexities when compared to its souther counterpart, and it is these complexities which make Canadian spiritual life more spiritually dangerous than American. Why is this so?
1. Rampant Relativism. Americans boast a society that is very diverse, yet national pride and identity mean most Americans believe they are right in their chosen lifestyle and practice, while those who oppose them are wrong. Freedom is the key word south of the border - even if this means the freedom to be wrong.
On the other hand, Canadians are noted for tolerance. This is a misnomer, however, since one must only tolerate something with which one disagrees. What Canadians are really talking about is relativism, and lack of discernment, a fundamental unwillingness to make public decisions that divide right from wrong. After all - don't such divisions just hurt other people, and make us judgemental?
The grasp of this relativism has reached even private spiritual life, however, undermining the ability of Canadians to make deliberate spiritual choices to do anything, for fear it might either (a) offend family or friends, or (b) constrain their own behaviour in the future. We may recognize the Orthodox Church to be true, but to join it would be too much to handle; what if it was difficult, and I wanted to leave? What if moral decisions - an unwanted pregnancy, tithing, helping other people in need, or filing an honest tax return - called upon me to "put my money where my mouth is"? Relativism frees us from all this, allowing us to change what we do, and what we believe, to suit any given situation, even though it means living a lie.
2. Imaginary Authenticity. We are a culture that likes things that are new - new houses, new babies, new stereo systems. Old things require more work, and more patience, and more loyalty. To develop a deep relationship with someone, time and effort is required. Canadians recognize that it is much easier to be "nice", to avoid any deep contact which could cause conflict. This is evident in spiritual life as well. Those who attend church seek something "uplifting", and want to leave church "feeling good"; whether this makes a positive impact on our soul, or helps to free us from the passions of anger, lust, and greed that enslave us is all a secondary question. This is, of course, the exact contradiction of authentic spiritual life, which requires ongoing struggle against our sins and passions, the Medicine of the Holy Mysteries, and humility between brothers and sisters, if we are to obtain any holiness.
One of the Church Fathers tells us that we know we are making real spiritual progress when we see more and more of our sins, since we are then beginning to see ourselves with the eyes of Christ, and we can have some hope that we are actually growing and being healed. Canadian-style spirituality takes the opposite route: keep the music playing, and if there's a problem, please just keep it private - we prefer it that way.
3. Spiritual Delusion. The Church Fathers often speak about spiritual delusion, or prelest. This occurs when an individual believes that they are on a solid spiritual path, and have great certainty of the rightness of their spiritual direction. One recalls an individual who once commented on the question of spiritual delusion, "If I were in spiritual delusion, I would know it!". Of course that's exactly the point: we don't know it, and we need the spiritual objectivity of a spiritual father or confessor to see it (the very reason it is the practice of the Orthodox Church to require confession at least once a month: to avoid delusion).
Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby comments in some of his work on religion in Canada that many people believe they are "spiritual, but not religious", attending services once in a while, but living an active prayer life at home. Most say they attend church about once a month. In his surveys, Bibby always asks the supplementary question, "Have you attended in the last week? The last month? The last six months?" In almost all cases, the response is, no. When the "spiritual but not religious" are asked about the actual details of their "personalized" spiritual life, the realities are equally inconsistent.
What does this tell us? Our own spiritual weakness, our bad habits, our addiction to work and a media-driven life - none of these allow us to be reliable measures of our own spiritual life. Neither do they give us the strength to struggle successfully against our passions - indeed, they feed our passions to own things, to possess and to use people, and to become numb to the spiritual realities of our own life, when we lose Christ, His Church, and the Holy Mysteries as our strength.
It's almost as if someone planned it that way - and of course in Canada, we have.