A View from the Back Pew -- Review

A VIEW FROM THE BACK PEW: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth. By Tim O’Donnell. Kansas City, MO: Linchpin Publishing, 2011. Xiv + 264 pages.

More and more people are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This new category of religious people is comprised mostly of people who believe in God or at least some “higher power,” but are either dissatisfied with institutional religion or have been hurt by it. They like God, just not the institution. This “new” breed of spiritually-inclined people tends to be eclectic, though their understandings of spirituality often reflect aspects of whatever tradition they may have been born into. In this new age of spirituality, where religious observance and institutional membership aren’t required or expected people feel free to strike out on their own, picking and choosing from among the various religious offerings. In this new world of spirituality, there is no central authority, but because of the entrepreneurial spirit that is inherent in this new age, one can either choose to be one’s own spiritual authority or attach oneself to one of the many spiritual guides who have emerged in the age of new media. Ultimately, in this age of spiritual eclecticism the individual is the final arbiter of truth.

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.


David said…
Once a Catholic, always a catholic.
Robert Cornwall said…

Or so it seems!!
Steve Kindle said…
Bob, you have given us a very helpful analysis of "individualized spirituality." As you know, I share your concerns and appreciate your critique. But I do take exception to one of your notions: that the fixing of the biblical canon is a product of divine providence. The presumption is that God handpicked 66 books out the hundreds of contenders and shepherded them into the official canon. If God, over a short period of a few hundred years, is capable of shaping a final and fixed canon, surely the world should be in much better shape with a couple of thousand years yet ahead to devote to other purposes. But, perhaps, God chose a lesser goal than, say, ending world poverty, or keeping the world safe from atomic destruction. At least we have a canon. A canon, by the way, which has not made “Christendom” united and unequivocally plain, but in a state of constant feuding.

The canon as divine providence is a view that only those who appreciate its fixing can claim. And once we admire this body of books, what then? Off to war we go. (Another aspect of the claim of divine providence that is troubling to me that I will just note here is that it supports the notion that these books are “inspired,” that they may as well have been written by God and are therefore inerrant. What a quagmire that is!)

This has resulted in all of us having to resort to creating “a canon within the canon,” that is, coming up with what we believe best represents the overall import of all 66 books. In the process we ignore many of the competing voices that end up in others’ canonical reductions. Ironically, we are reduced to the very thing you fear: an individualized spirituality. So, we are really no better off with a canon than without one until we can figure out just how these 66 books can be authoritative. Good luck with that!

I think the lesson here is that we need to quit playing pope and accept a wide range of sincerely held beliefs within and among our Christian communities. After all, that’s the way it’s always been; we just don’t like it. Apparently God does, that is, if you believe in divine providence as behind Christian outcomes.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for the critique of my critique. I might have said it differently, but my concern isn't to defend divine providence, but rather to note my difficulty with the idea that the church was somehow suppressing something that was "better," but was a threat to the institution. Not all texts in the canon are of equal value, but taken together, I'm not convinced that the church got this thing wrong, even if divine providence wasn't involved, but I'm open to being corrected!
Unknown said…
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Unknown said…
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David said…
"we need to quit playing pope and accept a wide range of sincerely held beliefs within and among our Christian communities."

That's what I meant (by small c) catholic. United in our differences. The most inclusive view is sure to be the correct one.
John said…
I have to agree with Bob on this point of the canon of Scripture. I acknowledge the risk of idolizing the texts, and of extremist interpretations, but those risks should be addressed separately from the authority of the texts. Those risks are inherent in the nature of any authoritative texts - compare the extremism of 'original intent' dogmatists regarding the US Constitution.

What drives my conviction is surely no more and no less than my faith, and in fact it was my coming to grips with the issue of the canon which drew me from my ardent atheism into my life of faith.

In the early nineties I embarked on a personal and private explorational study of the history, composition, and meaning of Christian and Jewish Scripture. I took on the task as an atheist, with no particular agenda in mind - - more as a hobby.

As I explored the text I came to appreciate the ancientness of the text, the miracle of its preservation, and the miracle of the extraordinary consensus among the ancients as to what was Scripture and what was not. And I came to believe that the unseen hand of God was at work in the lifting up of these texts, and in their preservation and in their translation from language to language.

And I came to a profound appreciation of the elegance of the narrative style of most Scripture. Because most Scripture has been cast in the form of narrative understanding is not obvious - there are few bullet points (like the Ten Commandments). Understanding is not the result of esoteric studies and arcane knowledge, but the work of the Spirit within the interpreter. Understanding requires constant interpretation and re-interpretation from generation to generation by the teacher/preacher (as initially only they could read the texts), and each new generation was, and continues to be, invited to explore the text from its own perspective for the wisdom, guidance, and Spiritual resources which (my faith convinces me) God has imbedded therein.

Finally, as an interpretational filter, I have heard no better than this: any interpretation of Scripture which leads the interpreter to disparage or exclude another, which supports violence, or which leads to any response which is less than compassionate, is a false interpretation, and compels the interpreter to re-examine the text before speaking out.

This filter can be a challenge in light of some of the more violent texts, but no one who takes on the prophetic mantle was promised an easy job.

And of course, this leaves open the question of the closing of the canon - but to re-open there would have to be consensus and that does not seem to be forthcoming for any other texts - emphasizing all the more the authenticity of the existing canon.

Yet I agree that "God is still speaking," and this happens most often in the process of authentic Spirit-driven interpretation.
Unknown said…
In the spirit of this article,

An amazing man spreading the faith in an unconventional way throughout New York City!


This cab driver is a Pastor!
A great read!!!
LisaMM said…
Just a quick note to say thank you so much for being on the tour. We really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on A View from the Back Pew with your readers!
Evita said…
Hi Bob,

I enjoyed reading your review, taking in all sides of the story and my only comment is really to answer your last set of reflection questions, which I find very important indeed, as someone who I guess would fall into the "spiritual, but not religious category."

To me why people are going out on their own, and the like of all that you mention is nothing short of human evolution. The "church" and all aspects around it may have worked for the past 2 thousand or so years, but it simply no longer works for the highest good of many people today. I don't mean to offend anyone, but to me it is not very different from having some appliance or any other physical or mental construct that has served a purpose for a time, but once a certain level of awareness is reached, it is simply no longer needed. It is outgrown.

Our conscious awareness of ourselves, our world and our Universe has expanded beyond any known previous capacity today, and is continuing to do so very quickly today. More and more people are awakening and seeing the bigger picture of all that is, rather then the institutions, limits and rules put in place by man for thousands of years.

I don't think for a second that moving away from religion is somehow denouncing community. There are numerous communities growing daily where people who have awakened beyond the religious confines are simply creating a more sustainable and compassionate Earth for all using new paradigms that serve the greater awareness and the needs of the people today.

We can choose to hold onto the old, or we can embrace the new, and walk into a new light of being. I understand that many people do not have things all figured out when it comes to their beliefs, but going with what the religions teach isn't any better in my opinion at all, just because that is the way things have been done for centuries. We are like the children who simply don't need our parents to do everything for us any longer, we want to venture out on our own and understand the world through our own experience, not someone else's.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thank you for your response to the review. I want to respond/refocus the conversation to the issue of community. So give me a little bit and I'll get the conversation going on it -- so keep watching!

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