In his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen introduced the world to “Sheila Larson.” Sheila described her belief system this way: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice . . . It’s just trying to love yourself and be gentle with yourself . . .” Bellah and Madsen called “Sheilaism” a “perfectly natural expression of current American religious life.”
A quarter century later, there’s another word that those seeking to understand American religious life should add to their lexicon: “liminals.” That’s the phrase used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their recent book, American Grace.
Putnam is best-known for his 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” which described the decline of civic and social engagement in American life. The title came from the observation that while the numbers of bowlers had risen, the number of people participating in bowling leagues had declined. Putnam saw this as a metaphor for how Americans were increasingly going their separate ways. This individualistic approach to American life depleted what he called “social capital”—the trust and willingness to cooperate that makes strong communities possible.
In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell examine the increasing reluctance of younger Americans to identify with a particular church or religious tradition. Contrary to what you may have heard, these people are not atheists nor agnostics: many claim to believe in a “higher power” and even a personal God. A quarter of them want a religious funeral!
What’s more, many of them have belonged to churches in the past, and may belong to one again. Putnam and Campbell call these people “liminals,” from the Latin word for “threshold.”
“Liminals,” in their words “seem to stand at the edge of some religious tradition, unsure whether to identify with that tradition or not.” As Putnam and Madsen told the Hedgehog Review, if you ask liminals one day what they are, they will say Catholic or Methodist. If you ask another time, they will say, well, they’re really nothing.
What we are seeing is not so much a march towards secularism as it is yet another example of Americans’ increasing preference to “bowl alone.” Liminals want the benefits of a tradition or community without putting in the work, including the willingness to subordinate your desires to a larger whole, which is what makes community possible.
This may be American as apple pie, but as I explain today in my “Two-Minute Warning,” which I urge you to go see below, there’s nothing Christian about it.
Christ cannot be known apart from His Body, the Church. As Martin Luther said, “he who would find Christ must first find the Church.”
From Jesus’ analogy of the vine and branches to Paul’s discourse on the parts of the body in 1 Corinthians, it is clear that we belong to something much bigger than ourselves. We cannot answer the question “how now shall we live?” on our own.
First published on our sister website, BreakPoint on March 28, 2012. Edited.