Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Title: Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age
Author: Katherine Ozment

First line: One night five years ago, I heard a strange noise outside the window of our brick row house near Boston.

Review: I've got a lot of complicated feelings about this book, and reviewing it requires a little coming out and disclosure.

I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the national office for the denomination. I'm married to a former seminarian. And until a few months ago, neither of us were members of a church because we both struggled with religion, religious organizations, and our own personal faith beliefs (but we've spent a decade searching for a church home).

Ozment's book immediately intrigued me because of the title (and subtitle): I know we're in a historical era of "spiritual-but-not-religious" and "nones", or people who identify as having no religion, and my wife and I are among those many.

From the subtitle, I had hoped this book would help me wrestle with the conflict I experience of yearning for some kind of faith community while resisting religion, but the "search" in this book is more about Ozment's personal journey toward finding meaning and purpose and belonging for her family.

The book's narrative style is Salon and Vanity Fair-ish interviews with thinkers -- mostly professors -- about religion ("He wore glasses and had thinning gray hair, and he reclined on a tan chenille couch in his art-filled living room, his shoes off and his pale blue golf shirt open at the collar.", p100) combined with reportage about Ozment's own experience at a religious or spiritual worship gathering.

She shares tidbits about coming up against the results of her family's lack of spiritual home -- children who don't know what the Golden Rule is or that an angel isn't a woman doing yoga -- and the attempts she and her husband have made to create a kind of spiritual community for their family. These admissions all resonated with me, as my wife and I have tried to create a faith home, of sorts, out of our circle of friends, especially now that we have a child, and our attempts haven't always been successful.

However, not all parts of this book worked for me. I will confess I bristled at Ozment's articulation of Unitarian Universalism (especially her insultingly flip description that it is a "well established 'religious lite'" option) but I'm going to refrain from evangelizing because it's not really appropriate. (But please don't let her opinion of UUism put you off checking out your local UU church!) I also found myself bored by the summary of studies about the state of spirituality in the US, likely because the research and articles she cites are ones I've used at work. I suspect others who aren't so immersed in the topic will find it new and interesting. And finally, I found Ozment made firm rulings about the various spiritual and religious services she attended in a way that seemed to imply the reader wouldn't like it either, which disappointed and frustrated me. I had to remind myself this wasn't a workbook for finding a faith home, but really a memoir of one woman's journey.

In the end, it seems Ozment and her husband decided to embrace their religious culture anyway -- a decision that echoes my own. Two months ago, my wife and I decided to formally join our local UU church; it fits me theologically and the church is minutes from our new house. My wife loves the diverse congregation and lovely group of children that our son can grow up with. We've decided to split time between that church and a local Quaker meeting, because that fits my wife's theology more, and we appreciate the Quaker values of pacifism and witness. We celebrate Christmas because our families do, even if we don't identify as Christians, and we are honored to celebrate holidays that speak to our friends. Rather than feel guilty for some of this picking-and-choosing, we enjoy having those cultural connections that remind us we're part of something bigger, deeper, longer, and older than us.

For those readers, however, who were hoping for a more secular end, I wonder if this book will satisfy. Despite her warm embrace of and sympathy toward atheists and those who reject religion, ultimately she returns to the traditions of religion (even if she avoids the theology). I'm not sure she offers a good alternative, either.

Ozment has a robust resources section that includes a kind of spiritual self-interview as well as a very long bibliography sorted by topic.

A timely book that takes on the heavy topic of religion in a light manner, this is an easy heavy read (if that makes sense!). While not a book that wholly worked for me, it is one that speaks to a hunger that so many of us are experiencing. In a time when talking about religion -- especially during this election season -- can be so fraught, it was refreshing to read about faith removed from moral judgment.

Genre: Non-Fiction (Religion / American Culture / Parenting / Theology / Self Help)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Wave (6/21/2016)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Read Harder!

1 comment :

  1. I'm very happy to see that you and your wife and your son are creating a family culture that meets your needs and the goals you have for your family. Although my own beliefs differ greatly from Ozment's I can certainly understand the desire to create a cohesive, meaningful framework within which to raise a child - that is a goal I definitely share with her.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!