My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am a sucker for any book that has the word geography in the title. I enjoyed this book but ultimately it disappointed me. It does a very good job of helping people with a crisis of church or religion. Her lesson seems to be that one should be and do rather than think. Taylor reminds us that we have a body and the body is Sacred. She shows us many ways to express one's spirituality by stopping and smelling the roses, fully experiencing life, and performing service to others. She states, correctly I believe, that one can find God and the Sacred anywhere in the world and in nature. You don't have be in a church or go off to an ashram. There are altars throughout the world where you place them. Inspiration from a beautiful sunset is an altar that is just as spiritually valid as a ritual performed in a church, if you allow yourself to see that Sacredness. You don't have to discount your own spiritual experience to a religion. Taylor proceeds to then show how we may find God and the Sacredness of our existence in the aspects of ordinary life...our jobs, family, health, pain, and loss. Digging for potatoes can be a spiritual exercise in the value of dirt and remembering that we are made of the same. Hanging underwear and bath towels on a clothes line to dry is flying prayer flags. "Pain makes theologians of us all."
What I found disappointing in the book was that it did not, for me at least, seem to address a crisis in faith. Being fed up with church--the rules and regulations, the obsession with sin, the constant promoting of the brand (to enter the kingdom of God you must do _______), the gossip, congregational politics, national organizational politics, the dinners, Bible classes, ad infinitum--is one thing. Yes! Chuck it all and go find God in nature and self revelation. But a crisis in faith, deeply felt doubts about the existence of God and the debilitating suspicion that you have been hand fed a line of BS is something altogether different. One is not going to look for altars for something that does not exist.
James Fowler wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, a book that I have, shamefully, attempted to read more than once and set down out of laziness and lack of intellectual discipline. Fowler describes 7 stages of spiritual development, which you can find a nice summary at Wikipedia:
M. Scot Peck offered a simpler model in The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace reducing Fowler's 7 stages to 4 based on his own experience. Peck's description is more compact and easier to understand. You can find a good abridged version here:
According to Peck, level 3, skepticism, doubt that may express itself in various degrees of agnosticism or atheism is a necessary stage within spiritual development. One must suffer a period of doubt or disbelief in God as well as organized religion in order to advance to level 4 that of a mystic. While I can not vouch for the general truth of this statement, I can vouch that it reflected my spiritual experience--not that I have approached anything close to a mystic, failed mystic perhaps.
In the abridged version of Peck's stages of faith in the link above we find:
Despite being scientifically minded, in many cases even atheists, they are on a higher spiritual level than Stage II, being a required stage of growth to enter into Stage IV. The churches age old dilemma: how to bring people from Stage II to Stage IV, without allowing them to enter Stage III.
There in lies the problem for me with An Altar in the World. Taylor seems to solve the age old dilemma by simply ignoring it. She wonderfully provides a solution for those who are fed up with the church, but she does not adequately address the problems of those who are fed up with God. Must we doubt God before we can find Her in a sunset, the flowers of the field, or the joy of hanging wet clothes on a line and see prayer flags? I am not smart enough or spiritual enough to say. But I do know that 50 years ago when the church drove me away with its obsession with sin, rules and regulations, showing me a sunset was not going to persuade me that God exists. I had to have my period of being pissed off at not only the church but God as well.
Perhaps her new book to be published in a few weeks Learning to Walk in the Dark will address a crisis in faith.
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