Easter Monday, 'choice', religion... and Anabaptists

By Martin E. Marty
5 Apr 2010

“Easter Monday,” Christian clergy call today. Rabbis probably have an analogous term for their well-earned day or week or fortnight off following holiday ceremonies.

After too much heavy, even sometimes traumatic, religion news lately, let’s use this opportunity to take a look at a different topic: choice in religion. It takes off from Evan Goldstein’s long article 'To Choose or Not to Choose' in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I commend to you, because it deals with much unfinished business on the 'choice' front.

Goldstein portrays Sikh-nurtured, Columbia psychology professor Sheena Iyengar - who, incidentally, is blind, but who has seen something that many overlooked and may still question.

Her thesis: While we cherish choice in supermarkets, commodities in general, and even in religious and spiritual life, an abundance of options does not necessarily yield happiness.

“In 1949 a typical American supermarket carried 3,750 items. Today that number is close to 45,000.” Yet Americans are grumpy. Illustrations of her thesis are abundant in Goldstein’s article, so I had to 'choose' which to lift. I passed over many more, unhappily, to get to the religious point, which is relevant here.

Every survey I have seen, suggests that choice is an enormous factor in American religious life today. Sometimes I ask audiences mentally to recreate great-grandmother’s world. My four would have gone through life in a Swiss or a German village, never meeting someone who was not of their faith.

Today choice seems limitless. Citizens can choose to be Buddhists, Zorastrians, Methodists, or Druids. Does choosing make them happy? Here Goldstein cites the debaters over happiness, led by psychologist Martin Seligman, whose controversial findings and proposals also prompt more discussion.

Is there any escaping 'choice' in a free society’s free market of free religion? Not really. Next weekend I am speaking at the Presidential Forum at Indiana’s Bethany Seminary, where “the social movement of Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites” assesses its present and projects its futures.

To anyone at a little distance, these groups seem homogeneous and settled. But the 'Anabaptist yearbook of their “tribes” – their word – lists thirteen different Amish, twenty-four Brethren, four Hutterite, and fifty-seven Mennonite groups, whose adherents, numbering from 15,000 to 127,000 in America, are aware of their differences from each other (and, I hope, of their commonalities).

Add various Society of Friends (Quaker) groups and you get the idea. Choice among these can be alluring and even fateful; some arch-disciplined groups formally 'shun' deviant members while other Anabaptists are impressively welcoming (I will be hosted by the latter sort at Bethany).

Fusing Seligman’s view of optimism and happiness with her theories about abundance, Iyengar interviewed six hundred citizens. Her findings confirmed Seligman’s shocker: “Reform Jews and Unitarians are depressed and pessimistic; Orthodox Jews and Calvinists are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and hopeful. The finding was quite uncongenial to everything I believed.”

Indeed, a few years ago conservative evangelicals advertised findings which revealed that they were more satisfied with their marital sex lives than were liberals. Are pick-and-choose 'spiritual' or liberal religious people so busy choosing that they don’t get to have pleasure in their choices?

I will not draw conclusions or try to spell out meanings and strategies as to whether Professors Seligman and Iyengar’s theses are right. Instead, I will take my own post-Easter 'week-off' and end it enjoying my friends, the Anabaptists.

Reference:

Evan R. Goldstein, “To Choose or Not to Choose,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 April 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Choice-Driven-Life-of/64587/

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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