Religious Isolation and the Ridiculousness of Play

I’ve been meaning to post some quotes from Jack Miles’ interview with The Sun for a […]

CJ Green / 4.29.16

I’ve been meaning to post some quotes from Jack Miles’ interview with The Sun for a while now, but somehow it’s gotten lost in the shuffle. It’s from the March issue on religion. Miles, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and ex-Jesuit, discussed the current fear of commitment in America (of which he, as a vow-breaker himself, is admittedly a part).

When asked about the recent Pew Research results, which show that young people are turning away from religion, and which we’ve blogged about at length, Miles says:

MilesJackYes, I’ve seen those numbers. Some claim that religion has faded because its dogma is contradicted by science, but I think it pays to look at the social pressures involved… [Young people] are no longer associating with others in secular areas either. They don’t join political parties. They don’t join clubs. They don’t vote. Whenever I ask my students about a given election, they rarely know that there is one going on. The last Los Angeles municipal election had a turnout of around 10 percent.

To be fair, I’m not sure Miles provided the best examples to support his claim–I know plenty of young people involved in both clubs and politics, and who are extremely emotional about both; but I can’t compare myself to the younguns of the past. Maybe they were even more political and clubby.

But I definitely agree with his idea that, on our walks to work, for example, we have a greater commitment to our headphones and cell phones than to the people we pass on the sidewalk. And maybe this isn’t the development of our plummeting value of humanity but rather an example of how as humans we don’t value other humans unless we have to. Because all people are needy, which is why we consume so much entertainment instead of taking the time to trust others to help us in our need (“There’s not a crazier motherf—-r than a therapist, man. They’re demented.” – Love, ep 3).

Americans are retreating into isolation–or perhaps isolation plus entertainment–and it affects not just our religious lives but our cultural and political lives, too. There are still certain events that bring people together–the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl attract large audiences–but they don’t involve any kind of commitment. They don’t affect our lives in any significant way. It’s easy in our culture simply to live alone with our spiritual desires, our sexual desires, our economic desires…

That kind of loose relationship is a fragmenting force in American life. It encourages people to depend mostly on themselves and always be ready to move on. It’s hard to be an economic freelancer, and equally hard to be a religious freelancer.

I’m not the only person I know who has troubling falling asleep without checking his phone, or who on so many nights can’t fall asleep without watching a little more Netflix. If the most reliable friend we have is entertainment, that certainly means the value of person-to-person gatherings will get pushed to the wayside.


If isolation stems from commitment issues, Miles (who says, “If you don’t join a team, you’ll never get into a real game”) explains that, for those of us with commitment issues, the worst that can happen to us is that we become a divorced ex-jesuit and wind up singing in an Episcopalian choir. It happens. Aversion to commitment may also, however, arise from paralysis in ignorance–not knowing the right path to take.

Miles doesn’t conclude that religion is the antidote here but that religion, like everything else, is learning to cope, too. Regardless of which side of the science/faith line we find ourselves, we are likely surrounded by some form of ignorance for how to deal and how to move forward: “We’re all stuck with ignorance as we move from quandary to quandary.”

In my old age I’ve gone from attending to what religion claims to know to focusing on how religion copes with unknowing. Sometimes it does this with faith. Other times it engages in practices–dance, song, pilgrimage, almsgiving, confession–that carry our lives forward…I can attend a religious service in which people are burning incense and ringing bells and marching about in funny-looking dress and think to myself, This is ridiculous! But then, all play is ridiculous.