What I’ve Been Reading This Year

I have the impression that many people assume I only read books on spiritual themes. It’s true that in recent months my reading has included works by Christian mystics, including Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet (the book that most inspired Teresa of Avila to pursue contemplative prayer) and Teresa of Avila’s The Book of My Life translated by Miabai Starr. It’s been nourishing for my spirit to explore how these two spiritual classics intersect with each other. That said, I believe that spirituality is about our day to day lives and has implications for how we live as the human race on Earth. I’m passionate about the ways the spiritual dimension of life informs all other dimensions of our lives. That’s leads me to read other thoughtful and informative books that also have a significant impact on my thinking. Today, I want to share some thoughts about three of those books.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

While we watch the governments of the United States, Australia, and a few other countries debate whether the global climate is changing and what role humanity plays in that change, scientists have clearly documented global climate change. The evidence is found in things like the melting of glaciers, the rising of oceans, the rapid extinction of various species, and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. Elizabeth Kolbert presents a very well written text on the mounting evidence pointing to the sixth global extinction of life on Earth.

Over Earth’s history, there have been five separate massive extinction events. I suspect that people are most familiar with the extinction that killed the dinosaurs. That was just one of the five extinctions that resulted in life on Earth having to, in effect, start over again. Kolbert explains the five historic extinctions while exploring the coming of the sixth. The book is part travel log, part history, and part explanation of the current loss of plant and animal life on the planet. She presents complex issues with great simplicity and writes in a way that makes this book seem almost like a novel. Yet, her primary thesis is very clear: ever since humanity emerged on Earth, we have been changing Earth’s environment. The curiosity that has led us to explore the world has also severely damaged innumerable ecosystems. Unless we change our way of living on Earth, the result will be the sixth extinction. Is it too late for us to change course? Perhaps it’s worth reading the book to understand what’s at stake as well as what’s involved with changing the human impact on other species.

Unlike most other environmental books, Kolbert isn’t preachy nor does she attempt to impose guilt. As a journalist, she reports on what she learns from scientists and from visiting critical sites around the world that help to tell the stories of life’s extinctions on Earth.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in a region dotted by coal mines and steel mills. As an adult, I’ve lived in several different parts of the country: South Florida, the Southwest desert, the center of the Mid-West, and now the heart of the South. With each move, I’ve been struck by the differences in fundamental cultural values in each region. While I’ve been aware of these differences, I did not understand the origin and development of the regional cultures in the United States that are the foundation for today’s regional sub-cultures in North America.

Beginning with the colonial era, Woodard charts the course of the development of North America (including Canada and Northern Mexico) and considers how the unique differences in how various colonies originated in their establishment, the people who first immigrated there, and how each region related to the others. Today, we think of these differences in terms of red states and blue states, but Woodard describes eleven different regional cultures in North America that operate based on some fundamental values and assumptions. Based on living in several parts of the country, his analysis was strikingly accurate and helped me make sense of what I’ve experienced in the various regions of the country.

After reading this book at the beginning of the year, I gave copies to several friends who were also struck by the analysis Woodard provides. If you’ve ever wondered why America is the way it is and whether we can get past our political divisions, this is a book for you.

Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious by Linda Mercadante

Around the world, the fastest growing religious affiliation today is people with no religious affiliation. The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life has called these individuals “nones.” That’s because on forms that ask one to check religious preference, these are the people who would check the box of “none” or no religious preference. But that doesn’t mean that “nones” are atheist. The majority (at least in English speaking countries) would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” There’s been a great deal of discussion about people who are “spiritual but not religious” and what it means to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious.” Yet, little actual research has been conducted on the beliefs and life perspectives of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Linda Mercadante is a Presbyterian Minister and professor of historical theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. With a background in journalism, she interviewed approximately 100 individuals who label themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and discusses her findings in this book. It’s important to remember that Mercadante is not a social scientist but a theologian. Her book explains the phenomenon of being “spiritual but not religious” in the context of other literature related to religious studies and theology. As a qualitative researcher in psychology, I would have preferred a less biased analysis that allowed the words of those interviewed to speak for themselves. Even so, Mercadante has broken new ground in research that has not been examined with any great detail.

The research shows that there are clear differences among “spiritual but not religious” individuals based on age as well as the level of experience with organized religion. Mercadente was able to identify several sub-groups that share common characteristics of their experience.

Over the next few months, I plan to continue my own writing and research, but I’ll also continue to look for new books that help to expand my awareness of the many dimensions of life we share together. If there are any books you’ve recently read that you want to recommend to others, use the “comment” option and share what’s inspired you this year.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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