American Society for the Study of Religion

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.

The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition.

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