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.