One of the most helpful books regarding religious change in North America is Robert Wuthnow's After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.
In this very readable study, Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, sees a pattern playing out in American spirituality over the last half century. ”¨He describes this pattern through the ingenious use of one of the central stories in the Old Testament: the Exodus.
In studying the Exodus, Wuthnow asks: "How would we describe the spirituality of the Hebrew people after they left oppression and slavery in Egypt?"
Then he asks a series of smaller questions:
Who were their clergy? Their main clergyperson was a prophet - Moses. He was in charge of leading the people through a harsh land: keeping the people fed, safe from marauders and focused on God's plan for their lives.
Where did they worship? They worshipped in a tent - a temporary structure that could be raised and lowered each day.
What did God look like? God was on the move. God was a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the people through the wilderness.
What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about survival. Would they have enough food and water to make it from day to day? Was the life they were headed toward better than the life they had left behind?
Eventually, the Hebrew people do leave the wilderness and settle "the land of milk and honey." As they set up homes, farms and villages in the new land, their spirituality changes. So, Wuthnow asks the same questions again:
Who were their clergy? Their clergy were priests - individuals skilled in administration and ordering communal life.
Where did they worship? They worshipped in temples - permanent stone structures suitable for a settled people.
What did God look like? God was thought to reside, to touch the earth, in the Holy of Holies, a special place inside the temple.
What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about invading armies, and they were concerned with establishing laws that would make communal living both possible and faithful.
According to Wuthnow, American spirituality moves back and forth like a pendulum between these two types of spirituality. He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people in the wilderness "a spirituality of seeking." He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people who have settled the land "a spirituality of dwelling."
Which spirituality seems more like you? Are you a seeker? Or a dweller?
I look forward to hearing your responses.