UW News

December 6, 2017

Martin Luther, Steve Jobs and aspirational faith: Q & A with UW sociologist Steve Pfaff on ‘The Spiritual Virtuoso’

UW News

Alongside the political polarization that has permeated seemingly every issue in American life, there is a similar dichotomy in religion.On one side are those who suggest religion is dying, that’s it’s irrelevant, a force for ill and oppression, explains University of Washington sociology professor Steve Pfaff. On the other are those who say religion is under attack, that the quest for freedom and diversity has sullied the culture and undermined the integrity of faith. And into this debate Pfaff decided to wade with a new book, co-authored with Marion Goldman of the University of Oregon.

In “The Spiritual Virtuoso: Personal Faith and Social Transformation,” Pfaff and Goldman focus on a different angle — not on the state of religion but on the strident beliefs of those whose work results in a common good. Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the book is meant to reflect on where religion has been, and where it’s going, Pfaff said.

“It’s not that religion is declining, or that people have lost interest in the supernatural or spirituality,” he said. “It’s that a lot of people who are interested in spirituality and religion and lives of holiness are assembling more eclectic personal religions. They may still have a foot in those traditional churches, but they’re also willing to place a foot someplace else.”

The book is available this month from Bloomsbury Publishing.


What is a spiritual virtuoso, and how does one incite change?

SP: A spiritual virtuoso is a person who seeks an active life of holiness, someone who is not just content to practice religion in the ordinary or routine sense but who really wants to become holy and excel at religion. The term virtuoso comes to us from music or athletics or other endeavors, where a person, through practice and commitment, aspires to be greater than the average performer. Max Weber [a sociologist of the 19th and early 20th centuries] observed that a lot of creativity in religion was driven by people who seemed to have an interest in excelling at it, who wanted to live a life in which they sought out opportunities for sanctification through aestheticism, ethical achievements or maybe a prophetic commitment to rectifying a wrong. In our book, we tried to expand on that idea by arguing that these people also sometimes engage in spiritual innovations that they wish to share. This kind of spiritual virtuosity can be the foundation of movements of change; these virtuosi are driven by the impulse to share or spread new techniques for holiness, new opportunities for religion, and to bring those from the realm of those who are highly privileged spiritually, socially and materially.


Can anyone become a spiritual virtuoso?

SP: Anyone could become a spiritual virtuoso, but that doesn’t mean that everyone wishes to be one. People vary in their desire and their capacity for intense spirituality. There are many spiritual virtuosi among us: Some of them are prominent, and some of them are working down the hall from us in another office. We see some of them in our churches, temples, synagogues or yoga studios, and some we encounter because they’re passionately in favor of social or moral causes. There are many of us who aspire to holiness, but we practice it in a variety of ways.


Your book draws upon three historical movements to make your case: the Protestant Reformation, the anti-slavery movement and the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s. What do these seemingly disparate movements have in common?

SP: When Martin Luther insisted that everyone could and should live a life of active holiness, he and his colleagues insisted on putting the tools in people’s hands. That gave people a chance to remake religion: first, Christianity, then the broadening of spiritual possibilities beyond that. One of the important innovations came about mostly because of the anti-slavery movement. In America and England in the 18th century, Anglo and American religions were being reshaped: There was less emphasis on the professional clergy, religious hierarchy and theological orthodoxy in favor of a private relationship with God. It empowered lay preaching and preaching by women and nonwhites, and it insisted on trying to give ordinary people a say in the moral questions of the age. The belief was that society was in trouble, and the only way to reform it was to unleash these moral and spiritual energies of common people who were spiritual equals of the elites. This was tremendously democratizing and really radical in its implications.

Steve Pfaff

Steve Pfaff

Virtuosi in the antislavery movement argued that you couldn’t really be holy, no matter how good you were, no matter how close you became to God, if you lived in a society that was enmeshed in sin. For them, slavery enmeshed everyone in sin. Ultimately, many denominations split on the slavery question, and the movement had enormous implications for American ideas about human rights, and for getting abolition on the national agenda.

With the Human Potential Movement, the idea was that American society had become too materialistic and conformist. The same kind of discontent that fueled the counterculture and 1960s social movements was also going on among religious people. It captured a moment that said American society could be different, less materialistic, more diverse, more experimental, less conformist. As a coherent religious and psychological movement, it didn’t last very long, but it had an outsize influence. A lot of things that were considered fringe before the late 1960s became commonplace, like yoga, transcendental meditation and Zen Buddhism.


How does Steve Jobs fit into all this?

SP: As a young person, Steve Jobs was extremely interested in a life of holiness, which meant exploration of Eastern religions at ashrams and in Zen monasteries — and psychedelia. Jobs was very effectively able to develop in Apple products a look and style that was different and was able, through his persona, his advertising, to portray Apple users as different from other people: more creative, less materialistic, less hierarchical. People like Jobs were masters at recognizing that people have a yearning for this holiness, for transcendence, for something other than the grubby, the material, the ordinary. But when commerce displaces religious commitment it can be hard to find one’s way to holiness; one loses part of what makes holiness meaningful.


You note that people today often cobble together their own belief system from a number of traditions and practices.

SP: Today, because of religious pluralism, immigration and the exposure to religious ideas through media, people have access to many answers to religious questions like, how do I be spiritual? How do I achieve holiness? What is the good life? So they have a choice: Do they stick with a conventional, highly organized religion and make a lifelong, exclusive commitment to that, or do they assemble something else? Maybe they put together a kind of mixed religious portfolio, in which they draw from the tradition of their birth, from traditions they’ve encountered, maybe from devotional books, or something they learned from a yoga studio. A third possibility is complete individualism, where people assemble a completely eclectic, personal religion. A lot of people who are worried about the coherence of religion or culture are afraid that most people are going to do that. My own hunch is that most people won’t. Part of what’s satisfying about many spiritual experiences is not just the personal and private but the collective. People want to worship together, engage in devotional practices together. A completely personal religion, drawn from many elements, is possible, but I don’t think that will ever crowd out other forms of religion. What I think will become predominant is that people will have a diverse portfolio, drawing on different religious traditions and answers to questions to pursue the imperative that began in the 16th century, that one can and should live a life of holiness.