Is the widespread talk about spirituality a new expression of the religious spirit to be embraced and applauded? Is the growth of “spiritual” programs and language in the fields of business, education and social work a new opportunity for people of faith to engage with the contemporary world? What tools and resources do we need to analyze the trends and answer these important questions?
In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (Routledge, 2005), authors Jeremy Carrette and Richard King engage the phenomenon of spirituality in contemporary society and its relationship with capitalism as a formative power in the modem world.
The book follows the development of the concept of spirituality and explores the interaction of capitalism with religious traditions of both East and West. Its basic theme is that religion is increasingly becoming a product to be packaged and sold, rather than an authentic expression of the religious traditions.
The book shows how spirituality has become an important consumer category in capitalism and the threat this poses to traditional religious faiths. It also points to how the articulation of spiritual perspectives can be a vital point of resistance to the forces of “The Market,” which now functions with a God-like authority in most arenas of human life.
The book draws on insights from social and cultural theory, the history of psychology, the study of Asian philosophies, postcolonial theory and, as an integrating discipline, the politics of knowledge.
The authors are well qualified for their work: Carrette has a background in religious studies from a sociology-of-knowledge perspective and King is a scholar of Indian philosophy and religion.
They bring the perspective of academics in philosophy and cultural theory rather than religious practitioners or theologians, although it is evident that they have a clear perspective on, and respect for, religious faith.
The scholarship behind the book is carefully researched and well documented. Yet Carrette and King wear their scholarship lightly–there is lack of jargon and a clear style that make the book easily accessible to the general reader.
They offer a cogent analysis of the co-option of religious metaphors and language by the forces of “the market” and neo-liberal theory that are now dominant and are seen as the only models capable of delivering effective outcomes in many different areas of social life. Their thesis is that this drains religion (of any authentic tradition) of its essential vitality and integrity.
However, the seduction and co-option of religion and its repackaging as a product in the consumer marketplace is not an irresistible process. They argue in their conclusion that we “must find alternative models of ‘spirituality’ that pay attention to the politics of knowledge, community and questions of social justice.”
I started reading the book when I was working as a consultant in the world of business and large organizations. I was also managing “spiritual care” professionals in a large Australian welfare organisation. Carrette and King’s analysis of the dynamics of the spirituality movement were uncomfortably close to the mark!
Now I am working again as a pastor in a local church context and their comments are even more timely. They make the point near the end of their analysis that “The very conceptual spaces of contemporary life have been ideologically soaked in the language and ideology of the market.”
This is not just a book for those involved in “marketplace spirituality” but for anyone who is trying to think and act from a position of faith within this “ideologically soaked” environment.
Jim Barr is a director of the Zadok Institute for Christianity and Society in Australia and ministers at CanberraBaptistChurch. This review appeared in “Soundings,” a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics at MorlingCollege, a Baptist school in Sydney, edited by Rod Benson.