Oprah and the trouble with our DIY spirituality

Opinions are mounting about Oprah’s new documentary miniseries, Belief. In the Atlantic, for instance, Jonathan Merritt offers an evenhanded critique. While praising the production, Merritt also highlights a potential hurdle for many viewers: Oprah’s “millions-of-ways approach to faith.” It is, he says, “a muffled but constant drumbeat.”

Diana Butler Bass, on the other hand, sees this as the series’ most import feature.

“[W]e are living through a period of intense spiritual democratization,” says Bass. “Across the planet, people are taking responsibility for their own versions of meaning and, in the process, are remaking faith in ways that are more inclusive, more personal. . . .”

Oprah’s Belief “reveals” and “narrates” a cultural shift from “top-down religion” to a bottom-up variety, where “even people who faithfully maintain distinctive religious identities are engaging in do-it-yourself spiritual journeys” and “appealing to personal authority.”

In this the show embodies the approach of its creator.

Mix and match

In his book, Where Has Oprah Taken Us? author Stephen Mansfield identifies and describes four pillars of Oprah’s take on faith and spirituality. Nos. 2 and 3? “Opposing religions can be casually blended” and “Religions can be redefined at will.”

Not only does this approach disregard what various religions and traditions say about themselves, it elevates the individual over them, who now arbitrates for himself what’s true, what’s good, what’s beneficial, and so on.

Here’s how Bass tries legitimizing this self-arrogation:

The shift toward spiritual democracy is changing the actual nature of belief. For the past few centuries, the word “belief” has, in English at least, become shorthand for “opinion about.” . . . With the move toward personal engagement with faith, the do-it-yourself revolution of religion, the word “belief” is returning to an older connotation of the word. Before “belief” came to mean “opinion,” it typically referred to devotion or trust. It was an experiential word, and not a philosophical one, that indicated what a “believer” held dear or loved. “Belief” was a disposition of the heart.

This argument imbues our modern, mix-and-match spirituality with an air of authenticity, even tradition. We’re going back to the “older,” truer view. But Bass is getting sloppy here.

3 kinds of believing

The change in the meaning and use of the word belief was first highlighted by Wilfred Cantwell Smith—from whom I presume Bass borrows this idea—in the late 1970s.

As he says in Believing: An Historical Perspective, belief once referred to our commitment to a manifest truth. Summarizing Smith’s summary, “I believe in God” meant “Given the reality of God, I’m with him. I trust in that reality and live accordingly.” It’s taking our subjective experience and aligning it with an objective fact. Call this believing 1.

In the seventeenth century, things began turning. The emphasis moved from trust to assertion. “I believe in God” now meant “Given the doubts some people have about the matter, I have decided for myself that, yes, God exists.” It’s primarily about asserting a contested fact. Call this believing 2.

In that regard, contra Bass, we’re closer to 2 than 1. But what’s really going on is that we’ve moved onto what we can call believing 3, which is not about aligning our subjective experience with an objective fact—like subscribing to a creed in the older sense of the practice—but elevating our subjective experience to something approaching objective fact.

The criteria for truth is now just what we fancy as such. Hence, Oprah’s million ways and the your-truth-my-truth language we employ. This is not a return to an older use of the word belief. It’s a novel reinterpretation of the concept.

Blissy blissy joy joy

Some people are critical enough to see through it. In Linda A. Mercadante’s new book Belief without Borders she interviews people who identify as spiritual but not religious. In her research she found millennials tended to be more skeptical about the DIY approach. One of her younger interviewees, for instance, rejects what she calls “blissy blissy” mixing-and-matching.

But this kind of critical engagement is not the majority report. Bass is right about this much—Oprah is channeling a significant shift in how we practice religion and spirituality. It’s one, in Mercadante’s words, that

instinctively, rather than consciously, combines elements of Eastern and Western religious thought, folk religion, spiritualism, “free-thinking,” as well as popular versions of scientific and psychological theories. And this spirituality is one strongly shaped by certain American values—often derived from Western religious roots, especially mainstream Protestantism—like progressivism, egalitarianism, free choice, pragmatism, and individualism.

This is not a return to an older sense of belief. It’s negating that older sense and replacing it with whatever tickles you today.

Image credit: Luke Vargas.


  1. Oprah is a good person, but she is No theologist. She turned me off years ago when she discounted the Truth of the Bible. You can’t ” pick and choose” .

  2. I accidentally tuned into one Oprah program some years ago during which a number of Christians pointed out to her that Christian faith requires more than the Therapeutic Moralistic Deism she holds dear. Most pointedly the Scripture which says: ” And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

    Oprah ignored them. But one cannot say she had not been confronted with the truth. As the ancient Christians once said, She acts in malice.

  3. Good article

    However, I do credit Oprah with opening a spiritual dialogue with many that have either never experienced this dialogue or have long since found it to have inflicted them with a punitive, hateful God that perhaps none of us could have any true unity or communion.

    Something worth considering here is the very different orientation of ‘colonization and conquest’ vs ‘exploration and healing’.

    One of my favorite Orthodox Saints, St Innocent of Alaska, exemplifies this orientation of ‘exploration and healing’.

    His exploration taught him the Aleutian language and the translation of the Gospel into words the native Indians could understand. His healing allowed him to take what was enduring like their sacred feelings for the departed and find an Orthodox Christian expression both Orthodox in substance and Aleutian in it’s character.

    Contrast this with the massacre of ‘heathens’ that was justified in the name of God in the ‘civilizing’ of this country’s native populations.

    There is something relevant to this discussion that orients us away from this desire for conquest and possession ….and the sense of power, security, and control we can infatuiate ourselves with.

    God is sovereign and mysterious and often hidden in the sacredness of the Other we are quick to condemn and slow to understand.

  4. I think the ancient “belief” as demonstrated in the apostolic era was abandon with the organization of religion. The religious organization with their creeds and dogma became more concerned with their existence being sustained than they were or are in true spiritual belief. Those who are truly seeking God rely on His authority, His guidance not that of organized religion which has a self serving agenda.

  5. J

    Every time I read or hear what OprahdeeOpradah puts our there my heart shivers and my toes curl. I call it the Chinese restaurant menu approach to religion. Pick one from Column A, two from Column B and a free fortune cookie for prophetic misguidance. You can send back what you don’t like and double down on the MSG. (Miss Serving God.) I call her the Auntie Cripes.


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