So far this week I have heard the following from various friends: One is having shoulder surgery but wants to stay away from pain medications. He is consulting a homeopathic practitioner instead. Another couple we know has a child with the flu. I asked my wife if it was swine flu, but she didn’t know because the couple avoid doctors and use a naturopath instead.
Another couple has a little kid with bad eczema which they’re treating with NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique), a kind of magical practice, combined with the application of olive and tea tree oils as recommended by a local rabbi’s wife.
What the hell is going on?
These are all normal, intelligent, educated people. You probably read about the 13-year-old Minnesota boy
whose parents think he is a “medicine man” and who is refusing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer in favor of alternative health cures. Doctors give him a 90 percent chance of survival if he follows the conventional medical therapeutic path, and 95 percent chance of the cancer killing him if he doesn’t.
This kind of stuff — alternative medicine, do-it-yourself medicine — is incredibly popular, thanks in no small part to the Internet which encourages self-diagnosis and self-treatment, with information and pseudo-information all jumbled together unedited. Have you tried anything like this yourself and found relief from medical problems? I’m interested in understanding, not judging.
I was puzzling over it all when I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times
column today about the movie version of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons
. (I’ve seen it. It’s not bad.) Douthat makes the point that apart from being a skilled storyteller, Brown also has a theological agenda. It isn’t merely about being anti-Catholic. Brown’s mega-popularity reveals
the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.
What exactly is wrong with making money? That part threw me off, but Douthat’s observation is otherwise on target. Brown’s readers, his followers, think you can patch together a do-it-yourself version of Christianity based on Web-spun conspiracy theories and ancient tall tales about Jesus the family man.
We are becoming an Alternative Nation, with everyone serving as his own physician and his own rabbi, priest, or pastor. We make it all up as we go along. God help us, and forgive us, the Internet is our Mt. Sinai.
If you sense some skepticism from me, even some hostility, you’re right. Yet I have to admit I’m guilty of being an alternative dabbler myself. I identify as an Orthodox Jew, and that’s how I try to to live my life, if often stumbling. But ideologically and philosophically, within the broad and capacious sphere of traditional Jewish spirituality, I’m an unrepentant magpie.
The really traditional Jewish path is to choose a school of thought, or better yet inherit it from your ancestors, and select a single rabbi steeped in that particular approach as your spiritual advisor. Orthodox Judaism has many such paths available, from rationalist to mystical. Modern Orthodox, Chasidic, Yeshivish, and countless sub- and sub-sub-variations.
But like many other returnees to Orthodoxy from secularism, I find none of these by itself totally satisfying. I pray from a Chabad siddur, a prayer book edited with kabbalistic intentions in mind. The relatively recent rabbinic figure who I find most compelling is the German modern Orthodox sage S.R. Hirsch, who wrote his Torah commentary about 140 years ago and who emphasized worldview formation, scrupulously avoiding any hint of mystical influence. These two facts about me by themselves are paradoxical if not contradictory.
There is no one rabbi I follow. I learn about Judaism as I’ve always done, mostly on my own, from books. This is not the traditional approach, which encourages communal Torah story under rabbinic guidance. My religion is really a do-it-yourself Orthodox Judaism.
As far as I can tell, the kudzu-like growth of non-denominational Christianity, coupled with the withering of the historical Protestant denominations, arises partly from the same reluctance to choose a defined tradition and stick with it, excluding all the others.
The extent to which Americans like me are picking-and-choosing their sources of enlightenment, with little to guide them but amateur instincts and very subjective gut feelings, is enormous and massively under-recognized. Because I wrote a book called Why the Jews Rejected Jesus
, I get email inquiries all the time from Christians, some with Jewish background, who are trying to find a path that validates both their Jewish inclinations and their Christian commitments. I sympathize with them.
When my wife introduced me recently to Leonard Cohen’s music, which I instantly adored, I read up on his idiosyncratic mix of Orthodox Jewish and Zen Buddhist spiritual practices. I was charmed and intrigued.
What’s going on? I believe it all goes back to an observation I made in the first entry I wrote in this blog. Most of us are widows and orphans
, as the Bible often puts it. Spiritually, we are cut off from the rich springs of genuinely organic and authentic tradition by which our ancestors were sustained. There was a break in the generational transmission process. This is one cost of the age of secularism we live in. We are trying to figure things out for ourselves. Groping, sometimes blindly.
This is evident from our incoherent religious culture. But it comes out too in the way we treat our medical problems. We don’t trust “Western medicine” in the same way that we don’t completely buy any precisely defined religious tradition.
We seek meaning in the most unlikely places. In physical fitness — a religion for many of us. In the environmentally friendly cars we drive — the Prius (very big here in Seattle). Or in the foods we eat. Who can doubt that things like organic food (also very big in Seattle), locally grown produce, the Whole Foods phenomenon, and so on offer not merely healthful nutrition but nothing less than meaning in life for many people?
Sometimes the pathos and vulnerability of it all just break my heart.