It all began this past summer when an acquaintance invited us to go along with her to an Old Order Amish farm to buy eggs, asparagus and other home-grown vegetables. Before we knew it our family was not being treated like customers but like members of this Amish family. Our new friends invited us to spend the Fourth of July with them, baking shoo fly pie, churning homemade ice cream and watching the fireworks of a nearby town visible from the farm. My children were taken on a horse-drawn buggy ride and we marveled at how easily this family went about their daily chores without the benefit of all the technological gizmos we could not live without.
As unlikely as it seems, our two families coming from such vastly different cultural backgrounds developed an almost immediate sense of caring and respect for one another. They are no longer just the Amish people whose buggies we zip by at sixty miles per hour; they are our friends, whose home we are welcome in whenever we want to stop by (which is a good thing since we cannot phone ahead to let them know we’re coming!).
As a scholar of religion with something of an anthropological bent, my initial reaction was to treat this family as a research project: to enter their world, to analyze the culture of this unusual religious sect, to produce an ethnography of life in the Old Order Amish community. Instead, I wound up analyzing myself and my own cultural context, entertaining the question: Why do we live the way we do? rather than asking: Why do they live the way they do?
One aspect of my Amish friends’ demeanor that I find so engaging is the deep spiritual grounding they display absent any outward displays of religiosity. No crosses dangle from their necks nor adorn their walls, grace before meals is said in silence, and pious language never seems to cross their lips. Yet their lives are deeply grounded in spiritual connection. Compare this with modern American Christians who cannot seem to stop themselves from announcing their Christian identity by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with pious sayings, WWJD bracelets on their wrists, biblical verses tattooed on their bodies, and all manner of advertisement of religious identity.
For all the overt religiosity characterizing contemporary America, Americans are mired in near epidemic levels of anxiety and depression with an annual suicide rate of more than 30,000. I fear we have traded authentic spirituality for superficial religiosity much to the detriment of our emotional well-being.
The youngest member of this family is 19-year-old Sarah. When I am around her I cannot help but compare her to the 19-year-olds who sit before me in classrooms at Luther College. Don’t get me wrong. I have great affection for my students and am deeply committed to their personal and academic growth, and their educational accomplishments far exceed Sarah’s. Yet Sarah exudes an authenticity and maturity seldom matched by my students, enthralled as they are to the artificial worlds of Facebook, Twitter and all manner of digital “community.” Sarah seems comfortable in her own skin while so many young adults today struggle with deep issues of identity. One key difference is that Sarah’s life revolves around the real rather than the artificial: personal contact with flesh-and-blood human beings, regular contact with the natural world, and the rhythms of nature undisturbed by artificial contrivance.
While becoming immersed in Amish life this summer, I read the latest book by Jared Diamond, "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" Diamond makes a compelling case for there being valuable lessons that traditional societies living outside the umbrella of our modern techno-world could teach us, lessons that could help us live healthier, happier lives while raising self-confident and autonomous children. Those living in closer contact with the real world could be a source of great help to those of us who spend most of our time in the artificial worlds of our own making. I clearly have learned many of the same lessons from my Amish friends that Diamond has from the traditional societies he knows so intimately.
Now I am not ready to renounce the modern world and run off to live on an Amish farm, mind you. I have a cell phone (but not a smart one), I have a Facebook account (but not Twitter), and I surf the Internet on a daily basis. But more and more I am realizing that those who choose to live without these things have much to teach us about the real physical and emotional costs incurred by making a life of convenience and comfort our highest priority. I just hope we learn the lesson before it’s too late. Our very well-being as a society may be at stake.
Robert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."