Spiritual Friendship after Religion: Walking with People while the Rules Are Changing by Joseph A. Stewart-Sicking
The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking's Spiritual Friendship After Religion: Walking with People while the Rules are Changing is an erudite and provocative book on a matter of great importance. How does culture influence spirituality? What is spiritual friendship, why is it important, and how might one be good at it today? The purpose of this book is to answer these questions. It is also to render accessible recent scholarship on culture and spirituality for academic classrooms like Stewart-Sicking's own: vocationally diverse, spiritually eclectic, and ambivalent toward religion. His central thesis is that in order to practice the needed ministry of spiritual friendship today, Christians should accept the invitation from culture to change, practice paying attention to God in ways that are grounded in but ultimately transcend the Christian tradition, and make room for those who are truly Other [End Page 118] by living lives of hope, joy, and self-giving love. In this review, I briefly summarize each chapter and then discuss what I think the book's strengths and limitations are.
The first chapter argues that culture is comprised of four pervasive trends that present unique challenges and opportunities to the spiritual life, and the ministry of spiritual friendship in particular. These trends, which he returns to throughout the book, are fluidity (in which relationships are flippant, fragile and impermanent), commodification (where happiness is constituted by a consumer's infinite freedom to choose between unlimited resources), the secular search for control (in which meaning and value are harvested within what Charles Taylor dubs the "immanent frame"), and diversity (where absolute truth is contested by sacred and social difference).
In chapter two, Stewart-Sicking defines spiritual friendship broadly as "a special type of friendship that offers a space of freedom in which we can be honestly ourselves and explore our deepest spiritual longings (28)." He also draws our attention to a spiritual friend par excellence: the twelfth century Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred, who referred to friendship as "the guardian of the spirit" and wrote that the love and sweetness friendship produces is integral to our pursuit of the good life, is for Stewart-Sicking a striking example of the continued relevance of the Christian tradition (29).
Drawing on the work of Alexander Shai, chapter three argues that change should be our first step on the spiritual path and that, in our fluid culture, spiritual friends must help one another take it. Central to change is an attitude of "holy indifference," a reliance on grace, and the recognition that the images we have for God are ultimately unworthy of our faith. This book is strongly apophatic.
Answers are (usually) not the answer. Virtuous solidarity is. This is Stewart-Sicking's thesis in chapter four, which explores the question of how to be a spiritual friend in the grip of suffering and an individualistic culture.
Happiness is not something that can be purchased and owned. Nor is it tantamount to a good feeling. Following the work of Albert Borgmann on "focal realities" and Alasdair Macintyre's theory of human flourishing, chapter five argues that happiness and the joy that accompanies it require "practices that must be carefully cultivated in real, embodied settings with others" such as discernment and critical consciousness raising (93).
In the end, chapter six suggests, being a good spiritual friend is about getting our hands dirty in the slow and painful process of cultivating supernatural hope. True happiness is found in service to others, not our fleeting wishes for personal and unlimited pleasure. It is the result of abiding in the love of Christ, together.
In the conclusion to Spiritual Friendship after Religion, Stewart-Sicking articulates his method of cultural interpretation. With the help of Christian ethicist Samuel Wells on theodrama he develops what he calls "spiritual improvisation." The aim of spiritual improvisation is "to engender trust and fearlessness in the unscripted drama of life" (126), encourage spiritual practices that exemplify radical openness, and give ourselves "up to God's purposes each moment, saying yes to where the Spirit blows and letting go of our desire for a map" (129). Stewart-Sicking hopes that spiritual improvisation will be of lasting use to spiritual friends as they encounter moral problems that necessitate novel solutions, like what to do with tradition after established religion. [End Page 119]
For the most part, Stewart-Sicking far surpasses his goals in Spiritual Friendship After Religion. He lucidly renders accessible recent scholarship on culture and spirituality in a way that will be exceptionally useful in the classroom. Seamlessly, he explains how the work of Albert Borgmann, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Bruno Latour, and Alexander Shaia (among others) might inform the neglected ministry of spiritual friendship. Provocatively, and courageously, he offers a manifesto on how Christians might relate to culture today. Will we be equally courageous and live up to this call to learn how to be good spiritual friends to one another in our world?
Given the title of the book, it is curious that Stewart-Sicking does not mention when and how religion died. Or whether it really is dead. Despite the latest PEW data, to which we should all have a more critical relationship, as Robert Wuthnow's Inventing American Religion asks of us, the fact remains that the majority of people in the world are religious now and are likely to remain so. The first chapter is tilted "Just as it Is." So, we should ask: for whom? Methodologically, this book soars too high above the trees. A deeper discussion of "culture," a term that is itself in disrepair among anthropologists, should take ethnographies that explore local and empirical questions about religion, spirituality, and friendship more seriously.
Stewart-Sicking aims to help us make room for the truly Other by promoting responsible interfaith dialogue. He cautions us against a superficial misappropriation of another spiritual tradition. This is very good. In the end, however, he fails to do so because he does not make room for the unapologetically religious Other. This is unfortunate. Lest we unintentionally bury the Other, we need to think more critically about whether we should continue shoveling dirt on an imagined grave marked "religion." Like the rest of our idols, change can become an idol unworthy of our faith too.
Paul Houston Blankenship is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Theological Union. His dissertation is an ethnographic study on the spiritual lives of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Presently, he teaches in Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry.