Tim O’Donnell’s apparently self-published book A View From the Back Pew offers readers a personal memoir of a spiritual journey that reflects this new spirit. The author is a business entrepreneur, former newspaper publisher, and most importantly is a former Roman Catholic. He writes about the journey he took from a rather traditional Roman Catholic upbringing, which included the requisite run-ins with narrow minded and physically abusive Nuns to the realization that he was free to embrace the God within. In large part this book is a product of what O’Donnell calls “The Deal,” a pact he made with God while a college student studying in Rome. He had a spiritual experience that led him to abandon college and pursue his fortune, which he would then use to serve God. When the Roman Church seemingly didn’t have much use for his gift, once he had made his fortune, he chose to strike out on his own and use his fortune to tell his story.
The book itself alternates between stories from his life that carry him to the point at which he could share his sense of the life in the Spirit, with his reflections on the nature of this life – including sharing his own doctrinal perspectives. In the epilogue O’Donnell provides the window by which the journey can be evaluated. The title of the book comes from a more recent experience in Rome, where he is sitting in the back pew of the chapel where he had worshiped as a college student. At that moment, he realized that “one could come to communion with God from within. In a rush of overwhelming understanding, I knew the Church was a man made institution that could not deliver a man to where God really dwelt” (p. 256).
As you read this book you can’t help but sympathize with his struggles, though as a Protestant I have to be careful not to embrace too eagerly a negative portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church (Protestants have been known to do this). But while I can understand why O’Donnell felt hemmed in by the institutional forces of religion, I also found myself needing to raise questions.
Although I could critique this book on theological and historical grounds that wouldn’t seem to make much sense. That critique might sound defensive, and I’m not sure the author would find my critique all that compelling. So, for the most part I’ll leave those issues alone. What I would like to do is raise some questions about tendencies I see in the “spiritual but not religious” movement, which are exemplified in this book, that do concern me.
I’ll start with O’Donnell’s relationship with Roman Catholicism. It is clear that his understanding of Christian faith is wrapped up tightly with what he learned and experienced growing up in the Catholic Church, especially his education in Catholic schools, including those encounters with rather physically abusive nuns. This schooling introduced Tim O’Donnell to a rather narrow view of faith, one that was rigid and punitive. There were, of course, signs of grace here and there, but these seem to be the exceptions. Although O’Donnell knows that there are other forms of Christianity, including Protestantism, he doesn’t seem interested in them. Like many who emerge from the Catholic context it’s hard to break free of this orbit. As we often hear – once you’re a Catholic always a Catholic, even if you’re a lapsed one. So, much of his argument with institutional Christianity is wrapped up in his experiences of the Catholic Church. Ironically, even though he is disenchanted with traditional Christianity, it is this faith tradition that provides the foundation for his own reflections. This Catholic Faith provides the lenses through which he reinterprets his own experiences.
More problematic in my mind is what I’ll call the “infatuation with Gnosticism” that is so prevalent among many “spiritual but not religious” folks. The idea that the Gnostic texts were excluded from the canon by a narrow minded religious institution seems to give them added authority. Whether it is the recent hullabaloo over the Gospel of Judas or the popularization of gnostic gospels in The Da Vinci Code, the idea that the Church tried to suppress alternative versions of the Jesus story has caught on in the popular mind. In an age that distrusts institutions, this process of canonization, rather than being an example of divine providence, is a sign that the church knows something to be true that they don’t want out. And what is that truth? Well, often the truth is that there is a pathway to God that bypasses the institution. But what we don’t see in this engagement with the Gnostic texts is a recognition that Gnosticism tended to be elitist (after all the Gnostics saw themselves as possessors of secret knowledge), docetic (by and large they denied the value of the physical/material world), and they also tended to be anti-Jewish (Marcion – one of the heroes of Gnosticism – believed that the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the world – which was evil – and not the God of Jesus). The existence of these texts do remind us that the early Christian community was diverse, but I would question the enthusiasm with which their message is being received, without much further examination of them.
The biggest concerns that I have about this movement, which are exemplified by the life of the author, relate to two areas that I think are related. First, there is the issue of a moral/ethical vision, and the second has to do with community.
I’ll deal first with the matter of ethics/moral foundations. Although, the author appears, from his own self-description, to be a man of high moral standards – he exhibits these in his business practices – I’m left wondering about where these standards were derived. My sense is that they were instilled in him by his Catholic upbringing. Despite this, I don’t see much concern for social justice in this understandings of spirituality. He criticizes the Catholic Church for excluding women from the priesthood, but that seems to be part of his overall reaction to the narrowness of the institution. I may have missed something, so I’d be glad to hear from the author about his vision of social justice, but something that did stick out was his rather angry rejection of a statement by a Catholic college professor that wealth was evil. Since the author wants to include Jesus in his own spiritual self-understanding, I’m wondering what he makes of Jesus’ rather regular denunciations of a pursuit of wealth, including his call for the young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor or his suggestion that one can’t serve God and wealth. So my question is – if I am my own religious authority, who is in the position to challenge my moral/ethical standards?
The final concern that I have about the “spiritual by not religious” movement has to do with the individualism that is prevalent in this movement. O’Donnell, like many in this movement, has essentially created his own religion to fit his own perspectives (yes I know that to some degree we all do this). He is, by his own admission, the author and founder of his faith, which is rooted in the supposition that we are all somehow God incarnate. That is, while he honors Jesus, he believes that we can all be Christs, and he tries to interpret biblical texts in that light. As I read his interpretations of these texts, many of which are filtered through his embrace of the gnostic gospels, I found his interpretations to stretch the meanings beyond what they’re capable of holding, but again my focus isn’t on the doctrinal side of things. My concern is with the individualism that undermines the call to community. O’Donnell doesn’t say this, but there is a sense that if Christ is within us, and that all we need to do to find God is to look within, then why would we need a community? We are essentially spiritually self-sufficient. And if we’re self-sufficient then no one or no institution can challenge my sense of what is true and what is right. In the end, not only is the institution unnecessary (and human-made), but community is unnecessary? But as I read the biblical texts I see in them a call to community. Paul speaks of the church not as institution but as the body of Christ. It is a living being, in which every member is important. I’m wondering what will happen to the spiritual lives of those who have no connection to a community that challenges and supports one as one takes the journey of faith. I struggled with how to respond to this book, because I don’t want to come off as defensive of my tradition or the institution. I must admit that the institution and the tradition needs critique. At the same time, while I found O’Donnell’s book to be a well-written and expressive of his own journey, I believe that there are important questions that need to be posed to those who have embraced this “spiritual but not religious” idea. And these questions need to be asked now while this movement is growing at an increasingly fast pace, so fast that it is in many ways leading to the emptying out of the church that employs folks like me. So, I do have a vested interest in this conversation.
What we on the institutional side of things can learn here is that there is a strong sense of disappointment and frustration among the populace. The traditional institutions aren’t speaking to their hearts or their minds. The question is why? Why do people feel the need to strike out on their own? At the same time, I wonder if this new movement pushes the pendulum of institutionalism too far in the other direction, and what that will mean for people’s journeys as they become less and less connected to traditions once held? These are all questions that I pose to further the conversation, and not cut it off.
This review is offered as part of the TLC Book Tours,
which provided this review copy.