Sunday 22 April 2007


Following my own recent attempt to coin a new term - 'faith-ism' - to capture some aspects of contemporary religiosity, I've just come across another - 'something-ism' - in an article by Nicholas Buxton for this week's Tablet. I had reason to be critical of the usually insightful Buxton in a recent post, so I'm glad to have this opportunity to praise something he's written. The article is a thoughtful appraisal of the relationship between spirituality and consumerism, woven into a report on a recent conference on religion, media and culture.

Buxton questions whether the widespread contemporary search for the 'something' that may be missing from consumer culture is necessarily evidence of a spiritual search. He notes that the press in Holland have coined the phrase 'something-ism' to describe the phenomenon, and wonders 'whether it indicates a resistance to consumerism or another manifestation of it'. He tends towards the latter view:

To me the search for something suggests a search for satisfaction of an altogether this-worldly variety. Something is missing from my life, which, if only I can possess it, will make me whole and complete. But what could it be? God? A flatter tummy?...The search for personal fulfilment and the search for God may look the same, but they might also be very different: let's not make the mistake of confusing something-ism with something it isn't.

I don't know. I think Buxton is spot-on in his critique of the consumerist nature of much contemporary spirituality, especially of the New Age variety, and the attempts of mainstream religion to find the right 'product' that will stem the tide of falling attendances. But I think he's a little harsh on spiritual seekers. Surely even the most self-centred search for personal fulfilment can be the starting-point for a journey towards something that Buxton and other believers might recognise as 'true' faith, and the dividing line between the two isn't as stark as he imagines?

I recall Buxton's erstwhile mentor from BBC2's The Monastery, Abbot Christopher Jamison, making a similar critique of contemporary spiritual seekers on Radio 4's Start the Week some months ago. Another guest took him to task, arguing that if people were adopting a 'pick and mix' attitude to spirituality, rather than opting for 'traditional' religion, it was at least in part the Church's fault for not doing enough to make mainstream Christian faith more credible for contemporary seekers. Surely if more people than before are looking for a 'something' that may turn out to be spiritual, then believers should make the effort to meet them half way, rather than dismissing their efforts as not quite the real thing?

Thinking about this further, you could argue that there's another way in which religious leaders bear some responsibility for the spread of a wishy-washy, consumerist 'something-ism', and it connects with my thoughts about 'faith-ism' last week. I suggested that among the underlying assumptions of the new 'faith-ism' gaining ground with religious leaders and commentators are a sense that society needs more 'faith', almost regardless of its content, and that any faith is better than no faith. This 'Any dream will do-ism' can be seen as reflecting, and indeed reinforcing the 'something-ism' that makes Nicholas Buxton uneasy.

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