Newsweek‘s spiritual hard-sell.

Newsweek‘s “Spirituality” theme issue would barely merit mention as anything other than a crass attempt to peddle holy holy (a la the not one but two times Jesus has appeared on the magazine’s cover the last year, each time to herald breaking news of, uh, a 2,000-year-old religion) were it not for its passive-aggressive attempt to contain belief, religion, the divine, and the spiritual in a box built by Protestants. A new-agey priest named Keating writes that we live in a “world of ‘hungry people, looking for a deeper relationship with God.'” To which Newsweek‘s Jerry Adler responds: “For most of history, that’s exactly what most people have been looking for.”

No, it’s not. A personal relationship with a God more interested in your heart than His Word is a modern innovation, dependent on Martin Luther, not to mention the Enlightenment idea of an individual self to have this awesome “relationship.” And then there are the billions of people over the ages who had more than one God to choose from, or a God that you just sort of obeyed and avoided, or a God before whom you were so sinful and meaningless that the idea of a relationship was just absurd, or who did without God altogether. Adler’s “most” brings to mind the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemo-sabe?”

But making those kind of distinctions is not how Newsweek does the news. Newsweek preaches kairos, time out of time. In the world according to Newsweek, it is always right now, and however “we” think (see the magazine’s “Conventional Wisdom” feature in the front of every issue) is how we have always thought. Ever thus the Family of Man.

With all due respect to the smart folks at Beliefnet, who sponsored a survey with Newsweek, we must take issue with the questions by which the two publications attempt to gloss over the many feuds, fights, and honest differences within that “family.” Newsweek trumpets a figure of 79% who describe themselves as “spiritual” as opposed to 64% who say “religious.” Combined with the special edition’s portraits of shiny, happy, pluralist believers — environmentalist fundamentalists, “A New Welcoming Spirit in the Mosque,” an African-American Baptist Buddhist, Kabbalah for everyone — the implication is clear. CW says: Spirituality, hot; dogma, not.

But the numbers are misleading, not least because the survey, as published, never bothers to define “spiritual” as opposed to “religious. Even by the survey’s results, the majority of folks choose “religious” as their first identifier. But the 24% who openly say “spiritual but not religious” may not all be as touchy-feely as one might suspect. That’s a phrase we’ve heard from the mouths of a great many fundamentalists — secular and sectarian. “Religious,” as a word, is most definitely in the decline; but rigorous, sharply defined beliefs are not. We’ve prayed with self-described fundamentalist Baptists who called themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and debated with ardent secularists who called themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and danced around bonfires with witches — dogmatic to the extreme — who called themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Maybe you call yourself “spiritual but not religious,” too. That’s fine. But don’t call that news.