Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Most people who know me are aware that I dislike shopping. I’m obsessive enough to want to be an informed shopper, so I do a lot of research. At the same time, there are so many brands and variations available for every conceivable product that I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of options. The combination of my personality and the plethora of permutations can lead decision making about something as simple as buying soap to become a paralyzing experience. At some point, the temptation just to close my eyes and pick something is overwhelming.
Our personal fulfillment comes not from being made happy but becoming more holy. That requires commitment to Christ, not consumption of Christianity.It seems that for Corinna Nicolaou, religions in America have some of the same characteristics as the soap aisle. There are hundreds of options, and most claim to perform the same function. However, as a diligent shopper, instead of simply joining the nearest house of worship, Nicolaou elected to explore different religious options to see which one fit her best. This great shopping experience is the theme of her recent book, A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.
Nicolaou is part of the growing population of Nones that the pollsters keep telling us about. Instead of being cloistered in one religious tradition, Nones make a habit of avoiding identification with any particular faith. (I’ve now gotten the obvious puns out of the way, so we can move on to higher thoughts.) But this does not mean that Nones are atheists. “In fact,” Nicolaou argues, “most Nones agree that churches and other religious institutions benefit society and that they personally feel religious or spiritual in some way.”
For Nicolaou, the benefit religion provides is a sense of community, mutual support, and “helping us understand our role in the cosmos.” As these ideas suggest, despite being unaffiliated, Nicolaou came to her quest with preconceptions about religion. Those preconceptions shaped her quest and limited what she would find as she meandered through four major religions and hundreds of congregations over a period of several years.
Each of the first four chapters of the volume expounds Nicolaou’s experience in a different religion. In the author’s account of Christianity, the reader encounters complaints over close communion, surprise about gender roles in various denominations, and some sketchy interpretations of historical theology. For the Christian reader, one of the most significant values for this chapter is seeing the Sunday service through the eyes of a somewhat curious, moderately sympathetic, and extremely uninformed outsider. The ideas that Nicolaou picked up through the various church services give support to the value of a more liturgical approach to worship, because she seems to have gleaned more of the theological vision of churches which had formal services. She also notes the relative homogeneity of the worship services, with a cluster of hipsters at one congregation and a crowd of blue collar workers at another. These observations are enlightening.
After outlining her journey through a variety of Christian denominations in a semi-chronological manner, Nicolaou shifts to describing her experience with Judaism. She explores most of the major segments of Judaism from the Hasidic to the mystical cabalists. Again, we see the outsiders point of view as she pays attention to gender roles and cultural adaptations. Her tone is much less skeptical of Judaism, but perhaps because she admits to having some prior knowledge of the religion and its practices.
In her trek through Buddhism, it almost seems like Nicolaou has found a home. The non-Western ideas of truth that she finds in Buddhism resonate with what Nicolaou thinks religion ought to be. Instead of being pointed to the way things ought to be, Nicolaou finds herself being pointed toward accepting things as they are. But rather than stop her journey there, she presses on to consider the nature of Islam.
Of the four religions that Nicolaou explores, the only one whose doctrine she writes about in much depth is Islam. For the most part, in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, she documents a hurried shuffling from congregation to congregation as if attending a couple of services was sufficient to gain understanding. The deeper interaction with Islamic thought and the Muslim community likely reflects a desire to correct the many illegitimate assumptions that populate the common cultural conversations. Her outsider’s portrait of Islam is valuable in itself, as it illuminates the humanity of the faithful Muslims living in the U.S. However, by the end of the book, Nicolaou does not settle on faithful practice of the five pillars.
The conclusion is one that the reader might anticipate from the title of the project: the None remains unaffiliated. At the end of the book, Nicolaou reveals that, having considered four major religions, she’ll pass on all of them. She writes, “The problem, as I began to see it, was that in selecting one version of one belief system, I was rejecting all the others—or at least that’s how it felt.” It isn’t a distaste for religion that motivates her neutrality but a desire not to make a decision.
Aside from the sociological and doctrinal observations Nicolaou makes throughout the volume, the most prevalent theme of the book is uncertainty. In her conclusion she complains, “Our belief systems keep us feeling special or superior, which are just different ways of feeling isolated. But it’s not religion that’s torn us apart, because even lack of belief does the trick if clung to with white knuckles. To eliminate certainty—to take the conviction out of religion—changes everything.”
She’s right. Eliminating certainty (or even confidence), avoiding decision, and skipping the opportunity to commit to an understanding of truth changes everything. But is this a change for the better? Is such a faith more representative of the reality of the universe?
Nicolaou avoids this question. In her very brief defense of indecision, she explains her understanding of the None’s position: “Most Nones aren’t interested in who’s right. As far as we’re concerned, there is no right, only different paths to the final destination.”
This conclusion makes the reader wonder why Nicolaou began the journey at all. It makes little sense to go down the soap aisle if you have no intention of buying soap—unless the main purpose for soap is to enjoy the aroma of the perfume, in which case passing through the aisle is just as good buying soap and getting sudsy, but without the cost. Maybe the fun is simply in the shopping for its own sake.
The most striking theme in Nicolaou’s book is the consumeristic mentality. She evaluates every religion on its ability to meet her needs without making demands. This None’s story may not be the same as every None’s, but her search for meaning seems to be merely a search for affirmation. As a result, it was doomed from the beginning.
If there’s one key lesson in this interesting volume, it’s that religious consumerism will never satisfy. If our Christianity is about having our needs met, then we will, like Nicolaou, find ourselves disappointed and hopping from church to church. We’re not merely choosing a brand of soap; we’re committing to a truth that excludes all others. Our personal fulfillment comes not from being made happy but becoming more holy. That requires commitment to Christ, not consumption of Christianity.
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