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Today's Church in America - Part One
Presented by Phyllis Tickle

Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

January 19, 2003
This talk is also available in audio

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When we speak of this as the century of the Spirit, we have to say that the first time that the Spirit was hearing us and moving with us happened on Azusa Street. But there is in that, also, the sense of physicalness that religion had lost in this country—a sense of body and soul belonging to each other--physical manifestations of the spirit.

In 19th century America people couldn't decide what it was they wanted, but they knew they didn't want what they had. The 19th century sees the coming of Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy. It is based on the premise that the soul and the body cannot be separated and that one belongs to the other. It is essentially another form of monotheism. The 19th century also gives us Mormonism, which is the fourth monotheism. It's the fourth of the Abrahamic faiths, and to treat it as anything else is ridiculous. That's exactly what it is. It is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism.

At the same time during the middle part of the 19th century, we've got Seventh Day Adventists. They were centered in Battlecreek, Michigan. Their great guru is a fellow named Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg, who was an M.D., began to experiment with baths and spirit and prayer and diet. He invented corn flakes and a bunch of other stuff that you eat. They were all playing with this idea of the body and soul belonging to each other.

Orientalism or spiritualism, what we would call the society of theosophy, is not indigenous to America. It came in from Russia, but it did affect us. 1902 and 1906 did not just happen in a vacuum. There's been a kind of pull into it. But it doesn't all coalesce. It doesn't become in-your-face important until you get to the 20th Century.

The reason I usually start with 1937 is that in 1937 we see the birth of an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous. Prior to 1937, if something wasn’t right in your life, you could not afford to say so. You could not afford to say, "I robbed a bank," or "My kid is guilty of fraud," or "My daughter is pregnant out of wedlock," or "I have a drug problem." The society around you, on which you depended, would have condemned you as a sinner and not right with God, and would have distanced itself. This would have been the end of you. You would have been seen as absolutely damned, and so you kept all of that locked up. AA came along and said, “You know, "it's all right to not be all right. We're all human. We all have our weaknesses. Let us get together over this weakness called alcohol and see if we can help each other."

It's the birth of the small-group movement. There were no small groups before 1937 in this country. It is the birth of that. It is the birth of the notion that sick people mutually afflicted can help each other more effectively and better than can hired, trained people. Take another body blow to the clergy. We don't go talk to the preacher about it, we talk to each other. One of the great ironies and amusements and wonderful things is that most AAs now meet in established churches, to which they dealt a body blow.

The other thing it does is, it says, "We can help each other. It's okay to not be all right. And we can help each other be better, and we can do it in small groups. But before you do it, you have to acknowledge that there is some higher power involved. You don't have to call it Jehovah. You don't have to call it Yahweh. You don't have to call it Brahman. You don't have to call it anything. But you have to acknowledge that the force is with you.” It is the first time that American religion pays serious homage at the altar of generic God.

That's the beginning in popular thought of the possibility that all gods are just different names for the same thing. That's the beginning of the notion that perhaps Allah and Yahweh and Jehovah are just different names for the same concept. It is an important thing.

In 1959, what AA calls the big book or the blue book went on sale in bookstores for the first time. For the first time, you could go buy one without going to an AA meeting. That is the birth of the self-help movement. Ten years ago, we didn't have a religion editor at Publishers Weekly. We had a guy who did one page once a month, because religion didn't matter in adult publishing much at all. It was just a tiny blur. But over those 30 years, from 1959-1989, you can watch the increase in self-help sales. I've had bookstore seller after bookstore seller say to me, even in the early 90s, what they used to take to the pastor's study they bring here to me.

The bookstore owners say when a customer goes to the back left-hand corner and stays more than an hour, they’ve got a big problem, and they're cruising my books to see which one of the books is going to address their particular problem. They'll always come out of here with at least one, and sometimes two books. It was the beginning of religion publishing when that blue book went on sale. After that came Hazelden, and all of those movements. The shrieking and the hollering movement and all of that.

In 1965 we changed the immigration laws. It doesn't sound like it's significant, but it was very significant. At the close of the 19th century we were building a lot of railroads in this country, and those railroads were all being built by Chinese. Because Asians, as a culture (if one can generalize), are marvelously productive and beautifully disciplined, the American labor force demanded that we close our borders to all people of Asian descent. That happened back at the turn of the century. I don't know whether you're aware of it or not. We demanded that anybody of Asian descent be sent back. You could not come into this country. So for that period of time, there was no Asian influence in American culture. Even those who were here, many of them were deported back to China.

Then we hit three mid-century wars, all occurring in Asia. American boys, then later American girls, went into those wars, and they met folk who were very good folk. They were so good they married a bunch of them, and they brought them home, and they became Asian war brides, or they became Asian war husbands with Vietnam. There began to be a softening of that Anti-Asian feeling, so that in 1965, in response to a great deal of public sympathy for the Asian folk, we changed the rules and opened the borders. What happened? They flooded in. And thank God. I say it reverently. They flooded into Hollywood and the West Coast, because that's the coast that's nearest to Asia. But this meant they flooded in where the media was. They flooded in, bringing with them Buddhism, Hinduism, and a culture that was totally comfortable in talking about the world of the spirit.

Buddhism is not a theistic faith. It's a non-theistic faith—only one branch, the Mahayana has a god that we would recognize as a god, but Theravada and the others do not. They are a system of conduct. They are a philosophy. They are a rope of meaning without a god figure. But they have enormous conversation with the interior world. So, with the flood of Asians, for the first time what has been a largely rural Protestant American experience, one that had no time or energy in its physicality for any kind of spiritual conversation, came face to face with the exclusive beauty, peace and strength of people who comfortably talked about the world that is nongeographic, who recognize that the space that's not here is still very real, is still very there.

You can watch Buddhism begin from the West Coast and spread. How many movie stars do you remember from 30 years ago who converted to Buddhism, who carried out the message. It swept across the country. It didn't convert us all to Buddhism. I began to get these wonderful books about [for example] how to be a Buddhist Jew. My favorite was how to be a Christocentric Jewish Buddhist. It was a mishmash. But it was the beginning of our having a rhetoric, if you will, a lexicon, a grammar for talking with each other about what it is to have a spiritual life. It is a big part of why, once the rope had been cut open, we reached in and grabbed spirituality out and began to play first with it.

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