I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as "broadminded," and so tend to say things like, "There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs." In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant -- specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.
Mind you, Sewell has not come to a particularly startling conclusion. It's all been said before — many times, in fact. Yet it does underscore, once again, the inevitable divide between a religion that recognizes an authority outside of our own individual wills and one that affirms a vague spirituality eclectically embracing, well, whatever happens to appeal to us at the moment. As it turns out, an eclectic spirituality, indiscriminately drawing on a diversity of incompatible traditions, cannot tolerate a genuine religion claiming that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific communities. The central issue is precisely one of authority. Do we accept an authority transcending our contemporary ethos and cultural prejudices, or are we in effect the authors of our own spirituality, borrowing what we approve and rejecting what we do not approve within these competing authorities?
It is fashionable these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. And why not? The dictionary tells us that the word religion stems from two Latin roots re + ligare, the latter of which means to bind, to tie up. To be religious means to bind oneself to a particular body of beliefs of which one is not the author. It means to accept that one is personally bound to a way of life and faith to which one submits or, more scandalously, to which one has been committed by others, most notably by one's parents or sponsors at baptism.
This binding character of religion is difficult for our contemporaries to make sense of, given the modern predilection for attaching personal obligations to the voluntary principle and the concomitant suspicion of all duties we have not freely assumed. We would prefer to go up to the spiritual smorgasbord, sampling a little of "the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk" without actually becoming a committed Muslim, Native Spiritist, Taoist or earth goddess worshipper. Many of us like to dabble in exotic spiritualities without having to identify with any one of them.
Sewell in no way breaks new ground with her newly discovered penchant for intolerance. Dabblers are compelled by their very dabbling to disdain those who will not dabble and who persist in believing the truth claims of one particular religion. Believing Christians, for example, read the Bible, not as one source of wisdom amongst many others, but as a single story of creation, fall, redemption and ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Taken on its own terms, this biblical story makes a claim on our lives that we dare not relativize for the sake of conforming to the contemporary canons of tolerance. Such purveyors of "tolerance" as Sewell are actually in the grip of an alternate redemptive narrative whose claims are just as exclusive as those of biblical Christianity and whose tiny communities are even more parochial.
Nevertheless, eclectic spirituality ultimately fails to satisfy, precisely because we are not autonomous. We inevitably submit ourselves to some authority because this is what we are created to do. If it is not to the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ, it will be to some other god of our own devising. Yet because this god is as fickle as our own protean personal preferences, it will not ultimately bring the rest that our restless hearts crave.