Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith By Barbara Brown Taylor

An Altar in the World: A Geography of FaithAn Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
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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  1. Thank you for the review. Sounds very transcendentalist. I cannot remember if the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed a crisis of faith or not, but my guess would be not. God was a given, while THE CHURCH, as an institution no matter which particular one, was subject to debate as regarding its tenets and practices. Did Ms Taylor have a crisis in faith that prompted this book or was she dissatisfied with her church experience?

  2. I don't believe that she had a crisis of faith. She remains an Episcopal priest and is a professor of religion at Piedmont College. She wrote of her experience in a book called Leaving The Church:

    From what I have gathered from reading reviews of Leaving The Church, Taylor became burnt out as a parish priest. At the same time, a rather prominent teaching position opened up and she made a rapid decision to leave the active ministry, but retained her ordination.

    My thoughts from An Altar In The World was that Taylor did not have a crisis of faith, but a crisis with the church, the rules, the regulations, some of the debates, and the artificial distance between her and the members of congregations. In Leaving the Church, she explained that their deference was "well intentioned" but "was as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum. I had the clear sense that I was supposed to stay on my side of it, where I would not get mixed up in things that were too crude or worldly for me." (Location 1714).

    In another passage she states:

    "The gap between my public persona and my pastoral role was always one of the more disorienting aspects of my job. In public, people treated me like the Virgin Mary’s younger sister. They watched their language. They shielded me from their darker natures. They guarded my purity. But sooner or later many of them needed a pastor, and when that time came neither of us could afford the pretense of my innocence any longer." (Location 1730)

    Taylor, Barbara Brown (2009-10-13). Leaving Church (HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

    In some ways I sense that Taylor has been taken to task for "abandoning" her parish, and I can't help but wonder how much of that is because she (1) was very successful at her calling, and (2) a woman. Clerics leave churches all the time for administrative and teaching positions and they never have to justify their decisions.

    Olga, thanks for your comment, always a pleasure.

  3. When I was a Junior in high school, I belonged to a group call FTA, Future Teachers of America. We used to go on weekend field trips to visit various colleges in California. I remember one specific trip when we went to University of Redlands and we met a group of hippies. I'd never seen a hippy and was amazed by them, their long hair, the headbands the girls wore with their long granny style dresses, I just wanted to stay and talk with them as they sat there on the grass, some strumming guitars.

    I remember one of the guys started talking to me and my girlfriends about religion and we all admitted we were good Catholic girls. He started disrespecting the church and we were shocked! You never said anything bad about the church! And one of the girls said that she would pray for him the next day at church and he said, "why do you have to go to a church to speak with God? God is everywhere, why do you Catholics have to put God in a box?" I was stunned! That made so much sense to me!

    Those hippies were communing with God just as much as I did in Mass, God isn't just in church, God is everywhere so why go to church? You will probably not be surprised to know that the argument did not sit well with my mom when I tried to explain to her that I didn't need to go to church anymore since God was everywhere and not in a box labeled St. Patrick's Church!

    1. Alicia, yeah I can imagine that your mom was probably not too terribly intrigued with hippie theology! I don't imagine that your parish priest was jumping up and down either!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.