Since Abraham left Ur for the promised land, we've been making religious pilgrimages to demonstrate devotion, find a closer relationship with God, or come to peace with ourselves and our faith. If pilgrimages of the past were arduous journeys to places of religious significance, today's are more varied, as this group of thought-provoking books demonstrates.
Donald Miller's Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road (Nelson; paperback, $13.99) is the lightest fare here -- and, actually, a slightly revised version of his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. It's the story of Miller and his friend Paul Harris, two vaguely post-college guys hoping to make it from Houston to Portland before their cash runs out. They sleep in their dilapidated VW van, surviving on beans and rice and the occasional free piece of pie. They hike the Grand Canyon, drop in on friends, flirt and fall in love with girls they meet along the way, bicker and watch the stars. In the background are deep questions about life and faith: Is Miller's "commercial, American version" of Christianity a fraud? Was Christianity "invented within the human story"? Or is it "a series of true ideas" that explains why we're here?
Miller (a bestseller among the evangelical college crowd with Blue Like Jazz, a series of essays about his "postmodern" Christian faith) writes humorously in a poetic, bohemian style that at times suffers from an overwhelming number of metaphors, often unexplained. "The smell of freedom," for example, "is as brisk as the air through the windows." He plays the role of the questioner throughout, but the book is more about his experience of questioning than it is about analyzing each question in depth. Awed by the beauty of nature, he determinedly finds his way back to his Christian faith, concluding that the point, really, is to enjoy the God who hung the mysterious, lovely stars.
While Miller is admiring the stars in Oregon, Bruce Feiler is holed up in a hotel room in Baghdad, listening to machine-gun fire and "wondering what would happen if a bomb exploded through the picture window."
In his third book tracing the Bible's origins, Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion (Morrow, $26.95), Feiler sets off for some of the world's most dangerous places to follow the key figures and events of the second half of Hebrew scripture: Joshua's conquest, the life of King David, the exile in Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple and the Diaspora.
Driven by world events, Feiler looks for seeds of peace at the root of religious conflict. In addition to the entwined biblical roots of Judaism, Christianity and (through Abraham) Islam -- the three religions that are Feiler's main focus -- he finds hope in the shared history of the "great belief systems" that emerged during the Axial Age -- including Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and Greek philosophy -- particularly the way they "took ideas from other cultures, rituals from rival faiths, and even notions about their deities from competing gods." Feiler's hope is that we will go back to this time of "interaction and accommodation": "The great religions were not born in isolation from one another; they cannot survive in isolation from one another." Much of this book is excellent, but this strand of thought strikes me as rather naive. Feiler establishes that many of the world's religions have common themes, but he makes a huge leap to the far-fetched idea that there was a period of peaceful collaboration to which we can return.
Feiler's journey convinces him that God is most interested not in land or kingdoms but in relationships with people, and that no "one group of people has exclusive claim to God." The best way to maintain a relationship with God, he suggests, is to live a moral life, to "redeem ourselves." While this is an understandable conclusion, given Feiler's goals, it will have little appeal to believers who would have to sacrifice all the distinctions of their faith to believe that only generic morality matters. Still, Feiler's careful writing and sweeping histories of the region provide compelling reading.
Pilgrim -- or Rogue?
George Crane, author of Beyond the House of the False Lama: Travels with Monks, Nomads, and Outlaws (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95), doesn't share Feiler's determination to be a peacemaker or please any kind of god through adherence to a moral code. By contrast, Crane's life is about fulfilling his own insatiable desires.
Crane's first book, Bones of the Master, traced his journey to Mongolia with his friend and mentor, Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai, to find the bones of Tsung Tsai's teacher and cremate them. Turned back by a sandstorm (and some poor planning), they planned another attempt. But Tsung Tsai decided that he is too old, that other work is more important, leaving Crane to travel alone. The new book is a record of his solitary trek.
Crane admits to being "a bad Buddhist . . . a broken Buddhist," and his version of Buddhism places more value on sex than on meditation. His "penis quest," as his daughter calls it, sailing through a near-hurricane, lurking in Paris, and finally wandering through the Mongolian desert, does not go unfulfilled. Crane's hook-up with a Mongolian girl slightly older than his daughter is not funny or romantic but sad. His neediness is enormous, as though he is attempting to fill an emptiness that will require filling again immediately by a different girl in a different place because love has failed him, or he has failed at love. He is equal parts fear of death and hopeless love of life, always "greedy for sensation."
Unfortunately, the book, like Crane's life, wanders aimlessly. He doesn't know why he travels, except that "Go!" is the one imperative he is capable of obeying. Writing has become his home. Although his prose is often startlingly good, ultimately he has little of value to offer readers. His book lacks a clear premise and ends somewhat abruptly, as if he has satisfied his word count and can finally get his editor off his back.
Faith and Science
Crane considers himself a citizen of the world because he can't stay in one place. Claiming that title with greater nobility is the Dalai Lama, whose latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Morgan Road, $24.95), attempts to improve the relationship between science and faith for the sake of the whole "human family." He writes as a humble student whose childhood fascination with a pocket watch and movie projectors -- things that seemed "miraculous" -- led to a life-long pursuit of scientific knowledge.
The Dalai Lama cautions against a worldview based solely on science because it cannot explain or address "the entire spectrum of reality," including such perplexing concepts as consciousness, morality and creativity. Yet he provides concrete examples of his own faith being strengthened by scientific studies and advises that some outdated Buddhist teachings, such as the flat-Earth "Abhidharma cosmology" and the "rudimentary physics of its early atomic theories" be brought in line with scientific discoveries. He also hopes that Buddhist expertise in the discipline of meditation may help advance scientific studies of consciousness.
But his greatest concern, because of science's life-changing potential (especially in the "new genetics"), is that we allow morality to guide our scientific endeavors and "bring our spirituality, the full richness and simple wholesomeness of our basic human values, to bear upon the course of science and the direction of technology in human society." Readers concerned with the interplay between science and religion will find this book a valuable and stimulating addition to their discussions.
America's Spiritual History
Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (HarperSanFrancisco, $26.95) provides a detailed history of the development of spirituality in America. He demonstrates that the 21st-century seeker movement, in which people piece together elements of various faiths and philosophies to create their own unique brand of spirituality, grew out of 19th-century American roots.
A professor of religion at Princeton University and self-proclaimed Emersonian, Schmidt tells the compelling stories of hundreds of pilgrims (from the well-known Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, to far lesser-known but equally intriguing characters), tracing countless books, events and philosophies (Transcendentalism, New Thought, spiritualism, Christian Science, Eastern religions) that shaped religious liberalism and drew this branch of American spiritual practice away from its Protestant roots. The movement's big idea endures, to the dismay of the orthodox among us: the belief that all religions are equal, and that individuals should be free to pick and choose from among their ideas and practices without being judged or casting judgment. Schmidt prizes the "depth and coherence" of this "progressive tradition" in which "the primacy of individual experience is joined to a whole web of spiritual practices and commitments."
Schmidt covers failures as well as successes -- including elements of crass individualism and consumerism, and the risk of allowing a philosophy of religious equality and freedom to morph into a bland, universal free-for-all devoid of the strengths that a diversity of faiths can provide. While not fully resolving these, Schmidt's book will prove a valuable handbook for those who want to understand the sources of American spirituality, as well as for modern-day seekers looking for guidance and historical perspective. *
Lori Smith is a freelance writer who covers religious publishing for Publishers Weekly.