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Corine Nicolaou's Nones

Corina Nicolaou’s,  A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)


This is a somewhat troubling book, for if Nicolaou’s characterization of the “Nones” is as it appears it might be, this group will be a difficult group to evangelize.   In standing back after reading her four-year journey across America in search of religious meaning, a few things surface. She and her fellow Nones, at least in her mind, are secular humanists with concerns about social justice, the welfare of the planet, and our interconnectedness as a species of homo sapiens.  Not bad so far, but that is basically all there is.  She, and perhaps the other Nones, even part company with the Deists of the 17th-19th centuries, who professed a belief in some type of Divine Being who created the world and then basically let it be.  Those Deists were wary of any and all claims to Revelation, but they admitted there was a Divine Being.  According to Nicolaou, all religions have their “good” side and their “social justice” side.  She abhors any type of “truth claims,” however, and defines God, if she does so, as merely, “that which unites us all” (p. 266).  The one thing that turns her off, and actually makes her skin crawl, is if someone purports to have the “absolute truth” (also p. 266).

As far as her survey, she almost dismisses Catholicism, the little attention she pays to it.  Her first unit on Christianity reads like a survey of Jacob Neusner’s World Religions in America (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 2000, 2003).  She goes from house of worship to house of worship trying to understand this Jesus of Nazareth, but never once does she seem to understand or even explore what the Incarnation actually means.  To Nicolaou, Jesus was a good man who founded a religion, right up there with Mohammed and the Buddha, but she doesn’t seem to get any kind of understanding of what Messiah meant to first century Jews or that there was a larger picture involved.  In her survey of several types of Protestantism, she does note the curious fact that several of them try to copy different Catholic practices, like introducing a variation of the Stations of the Cross, or copy the Eucharistic celebrations, etc.  Her cursory look at Orthodoxy is even less dramatic, and she fails miserably to even encounter what any type of high Christology or the transcendant side of Jesus Christ might mean.

She was raised to a certain extent alongside Jews and if there is one faith she tends to fall back on, it may be Judaism, but it is more the culture and not the faith.  The end of the book has her dropping cake crumbs into the Pacific as a way a letting go of her sins, a practice she remembered from Judaism.  The attentions she pays to the meaning behind the Seder Supper (p. 143-144) and what it might mean to be a “missing spark” of a Jew (p. 129 f.) had me wishing she had explored the real meaning behind Christianity with at least that much depth.

She learns how to meditate in Buddhist circles, but moves from one version of Buddhism to the next so quickly, she never has time to drop anchor in any of them.  That is perhaps the problem with the whole book.  She is not about discovering faith for herself.  She is more about trying to validate her own version of living, without dropping anchor in any one place.  She is the religious “gypsy” if one wills, a type of person who is religionless and who chooses to remain that way.  To actually admit there might be objective truth to one of these versions of faith would call for a radical reorienting of her life, something she is not willing to do.  Underneath that may be her unwillingness and much of today’s society’s unwillingness to admit there is objective truth and we are not our own truth constructors.

She finds value in ummah, or the Islamic honoring of humanity as one community and the duty that that imposes to care for the poor.  She encounters her own limitations in trying to observe Ramadan, and encounters a type of humility, but it is not a humility before the Creator, but before her own humanness.  Toward the end of the book, when she makes it to Washington, D. C. and is able to “worship”: in the Pentagon chapel and come to terms with the fact that she was in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 only a short distance from the Pentagon, she first attends, or she says “worships” at an All Saints Day Catholic Liturgy and “takes communion since she feels she had earned it” (p. 254).  She is more moved during that visit, however, by the fact that she is able to participate in Islamic prayer in this chapel, in a building that was bombed because of Islamic extremists.

Nicolaou frequently uses the term, “worshipping” as applied to herself, but I wonder what she really means by that term.  Is she giving praise to our collective humanity?  Nowhere does she admit there may be a metaphysical or ontological reality of Presence.  For those of us who desire to evangelize the Gospel of Jesus Christ, perhaps the best option is to listen closely to how she describes herself and her fellow Nones:

I belong to a growing segment of the population that doesn’t necessarily possess a spiritual blueprint.  We have access to vast quantities of information  and a huge array of options.  Now what?   (p. 270)

She does not see herself as an atheist, nor does she think her fellow Nones do either, and she characterizes other Nones as folks who are:

“out there, open minded, hungry for information, craving spirituality”   (p. 271).

Preoccupation with individual freedoms and rights and relativism are out of hand, and they are beginning to shape an entire global culture.  I’m not too sure how one challenges the Nones to make that leap of faith, that Kierkegaard spoke of in his Fear and Trembling, or that C. S. Lewis spoke of in diving into the arms of God and allowing God to catch oneself.  At the heart of the argument will have to be the claim that objective truth really does exist.  Faith is only encountered, I think, in the leap or in the jump toward that truth.  Superficially grazing from one option to another with no commitment to any makes everyone a knight of infinite resignation and the world a much poorer place.  Nicolaou says Nones are craving spirituality.  Armed with the Scriptures, our rich Catholic tradition, and the SPIRIT, we may have to listen more closely to the inquires of the Nones to be able to help them discover that that same SPIRIT that is at the heart of their search leads all to the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit as the way, the truth, and the life.  Veni Sancte Spiritus!