The National Catholic Review
William A. Barry

With this well-written and insightful new book Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, continues his exploration of the changing nature of contemporary American culture and religion already begun with Growing Up Religious, After Heaven and Loose Connections. The premise of Creative Spirituality is that we can learn much about changing spirituality in the United States by studying artists who practice spirituality. His research team searched out and interviewed 100 artists in four geographical areas: northeastern Pennsylvania, northern California, the Santa Fe and Taos region of New Mexico and New York City. Artists indicated their interest in spirituality by agreeing to be interviewed and were allowed to define spirituality in their own way. While definitions of and commitment to spirituality differed widely, Wuthnow believes that there are enough commonalities to provide insights into contemporary American religion and spirituality.

Each chapter introduces the reader to a few of these artists in some detail and then tries to educe from their interviews some threads that throw light on the theme. For example, in the first chapter, Learning from Artists, we meet a wood sculptor, a watercolorist, a singer-composer and a dancer and read their responses about spirituality. Wuthnow finds, within their diversity, some unifying elements. They all show a strong conviction that some mysterious being or force exists who (or which) is somehow experienced. Indeed, often they describe their art as collaboration with this mysterious presence. Wuthnow argues that these artists are not unlike many of their contemporaries who are not artists.

In Chapter Two, Driven to Explore, the selected artists enable Wuthnow to explore the difference between casual spiritual shoppers and serious searchers. The latter cannot help themselves. Whether by temperament or because their spiritual searching awakened creative impulses, artists seem to be among those who have found it virtually impossible to ignore the spiritual implications of personal dislocationsome unsettling personal experience, for example. But those most likely to engage in intense spiritual exploration are those who have had childhood experiences of the sacred. Such artists, and their contemporary counterparts, may look like spiritual shoppers, but the intensity and the tenacity of their spiritual search makes them quite different. The other chapters explore various themes regarding making sense of oneself in a fragmented culture, art itself as a spiritual practice, the implicit theology in artists’ spirituality, the relation of body to spirit, artists and the environment and millennial visions. The final chapter, The Way of the Artist, summarizes the volume.

What can we learn from artists about our times and about ourselves? Clearly the practice of art itself requires personal discipline. But so does the practice of spirituality. Practice means devoting deliberate periods of time to cultivating one’s relationship with God, especially through such daily devotional activities as prayer and inspirational reading or through participating in worship services or opportunities to serve others. Obviously, such practice is poles apart from casual shopping for new spiritual methods. Second, the very creativity of artists should remind established religious communities that the God they worship is mystery itself and infinitely creative. Rather than look on artistic creativity with suspicion, religious leaders should encourage it. Artists ask questions; they do not give answers. Thus they point to the Mystery who cannot be comprehended or predicted. Wuthnow notes that most contemporary Americans live complex lives that require creativity, not blind obedience to orders. It is odd, then, to think of religious institutions as places where all the answers are already known and where discretion in what to think or do is discouraged.

I found the book rewarding reading. Wuthnow is a man of broad empathy and penetrating intelligence. I did wonder how he controlled his own bias in his interpretations of the interviews, but that is a minor caveat. The book helped me to understand some of the strains and tensions of our culture that make life a challenge for everyone and that drive many to seek spiritual ways to meet the challenge. He also gave me insights into how artists live and work and he increased my admiration for their devotion to their craft and to their search for meaning. Finally, the book encouraged my own continuing search for the Mystery we call God. I look forward to further results of Wuthnow’s exploration of the changes in American culture and religion and recommend the book to those who engage in ministry.

 

William A. Barry, S.J., the author of numerous books on prayer and spiritual direction, is co-leader of the tertianship program for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus in Weston, Mass.