SPIRITUALITY: Daring New Horizons
The religion of the
future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid
dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be
based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural
and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Albert Einstein (1954).
The 1960s marked a quantum leap in our understanding of
Spirituality. Prior to that time, Christians focused on the spiritual life, which basically meant
how best to live out our religious faith in daily existence. However, this more
devoted attention to spiritual matters belonged to an elite class of clergy and
those in the vowed life. Only a mere
handful of lay people managed to attain a degree of spiritual accomplishment.
And within the ranks of those with a special vocation, the priest was special;
only the priest could serve as a spiritual director, the one considered best
acquainted with the care of souls.
In this earlier understanding, the following are among the
Spiritual Life belonged uniquely to Christians. Devotees of other
religions were deemed to be outside the Church and therefore beyond
salvation. Only Christians were capable of a spiritual life.
primary goal of the spiritual life was salvation of one’s individual soul,
beyond this vale of tears in the Heaven beyond this earth.
earthly preoccupations (temptations) was the primary means to attain
spiritual growth; this was to be done through prayer and penance, and was
normally considered to be either impossible or inappropriate for lay
spiritual life entailed special devotion to God through prayer and penance.
In this context, prayer usually meant recitation of fixed formulas, e.g.,
the divine office, the Rosary, along with some well structured formats for
silent prayer. Penance entailed fasting, various forms of bodily
deprivation, occasionally flagellation.
were expected to take responsibility for their own spiritual development
by following the Church’s guidelines on prayer and fasting. Consultation
with a priest frequently happened through the confessional.
did not feature strongly in living out of the spiritual life. For much of
Christendom, the celebration of Eucharist was understood as a clericalized
priority, related more to the sanctity of the priest himself rather than
to the spiritual life more widely understood.
in spiritual growth tended to be judged by endurance in pain and
suffering. Suffering for its own sake was deemed to be central to
spiritual advancement. The Cross and the crucified Jesus formed the
biblical basis for a “theology” of the spiritual life.
This approach to the spiritual life is embedded in a quality of consciousness
that is difficult to critique because it has enjoyed such unquestioned hegemony
over several milennia. Chris Clarke (2005, 234) describes this contextual
background as “. . . the shadow side of the triumphant rationality of the West,
a rationality which has cut itself off from mystical knowing, and repressed it
along with the economic repression of the poor.” This essay will explore what
is entailed in the contemporary reawakening of the mystical.
The Counter-culture of
Philip Sheldrake (1991) provides a more detailed analysis of how the spiritual
life was understood throughout the 2000 years of Christendom. He notes that in
the early decades of the 20th century, spirituality began to evolve
as a distinctive field of study with the launching of publications like Revue d’Ascetique et de Mystique in 1920
and the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite
in 1932. Despite such developments, for much of the 20th century
spirituality still referred to the spiritual life as described above. With the counter-cultural
upsurge of the 1960s, the term took on new meaning, one that has morphed into
several articulations since that time. The following are some of the relevant
features characterizing the spiritual awakening of the 1960s:
- A sense of rebellion against all forms of
- Denunciation of formal religion as staid, rigid and
- Spontaneous expression of religious sentiment (e.g.,
speaking in tongues).
- Religious ritualization of significant life-experiences
– outside and sometimes over against the formal (sacramental) practice of
church and religion.
- A widespread curiosity about, and interest in, Eastern
forms of meditation.
- A desire to explore mystical/esoteric wisdom through
dance, psychedelic drugs, ecstatic states, oriental practices (such as Yoga),
- Various movements to reclaim the sacredness of nature
itself, and live in convivial rapport with the natural world.
- As young people began to travel internationally, many
sampled the rituals and experiences of other world religions.
- Valuing experience over the dictates of formal
- A strange mixture of individualism and communal
- God as Holy Spirit gaining a new ascendency (as in
Charismatic Renewal and the Pentecostal movement).
For more on the above named features – and others – one can
check a range of scholarly analyses. I recommend Robert S. Ellwood (1994),
along with Wade Clark Roof (1993; 1999).
Harvey Cox’s 1965 bestseller, The Secular City,
prophesied that the rise of urbanization and the collapse of traditional religion
would pave the way for a brave new secular age. That prediction has not been
fulfilled. The new atheists – Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens
– have captivated a lot of media publicity, but not near as much attention
among rank-and-file people. Instead there has been something of a spiritual
renaissance ever since the 1960s, but so eclectic, diffuse and complex, it is
difficult to delineate its ingredients and discern its significance for our
Let’s review some of the key developments:
1. Spirituality has
become a subject in its own right, requiring a quality of research based on
a multi-disciplinary analysis. Spirituality has broken away from religion and
outstrips it on several fronts (cf. Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Religion tends
to be defined in terms of creed, ritual and moral code. Spirituality heavily
emphasizes a more authentic quality of relating
among diverse peoples, cultures and aspects of the created universe.
Spirituality shuns formal doctrines, seeks to keep ritual fluid, flexible and
responsive to immediate needs, and adopts moral guidelines along the lines of
situation ethics. Formal religions tend to be based on patriarchal and
hierarchical structures; spirituality adopts relational networking, within
which individual autonomy is strongly cherished.
2. Spirituality expands
the notion of the sacred far beyond formal religion. It abhors the dualistic splitting between the sacred v. the secular, earth v. heaven,
soul, matter v. spirit. Spirituality is committed to celebrating commonalities
than upholding differences. It promotes bridge building seeking to transcend
binary distinctions, an aspiration captivated in words of to the Dalai Lama (posted
on Facebook, Sept. 10, 2012): “All the world’s major religions, with their
emphasis on love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote
inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in
religion is no longer adequate. That is why I am convinced that the time has
come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion
3. Spirituality marks a distinctive shift
on authoritative truth. It exhibits a strong dislike for magisterial
omniscience, and challenges the monopoly of truth adopted by patriarchal
cultures which favor rational discourse, formalized doctrines, rituals and
devotions, perceived to be best mediated through a hierarchical structure, with
males to the fore. For the new spirituality, truth belongs more to what in
former times was called the “sensus fidelium” (sense of the faithful) arising
from shared wisdom – across all religious traditions (and beyond) - evolving
through dialogue and mutual exploration, adopting structures that are highly
fluid and flexible. Authority here is best understood as the facility to
discern deeply, and its truthfulness is judged by the ability to generate
empowering outcomes – for person and planet alike. Revealed truth is perceived
to belong first and foremost to the web of life, and not to formal religion. It
is in this organizational realm that spirituality differs so radically from
formal religion; it is not at all clear how the new spirituality can hope to
impact upon human culture in a more structured and enduring way.
4. In the emerging spirituality, the ecological dimension is a central feature and often exhibiting
strong ethical values (while individual morality might be underrated). Care for
the environment, strong awareness of environmental threat (on several fronts),
and collaboration through networking to address urgent issues, belong
integrally to the emerging spirituality. The ecological awareness leads some to
embrace larger cosmological and scientific horizons as articulated through the
seminal work of the late Thomas Berry, and the insights of quantum physics.
These insights are often combined in the commitment to Creation Spirituality,
for which Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing
(1983) is often regarded as a seminal text.
5. Embodiment is
another key factor, with obvious challenges for an incarnational faith like
Christianity. Embracing the whole person (and not just the soul) is a primary
target of contemporary spirituality. How to nourish and love the body
appropriately is a complex challenge with several problematic issues
particularly around human intimacy and psychosexual expression. The embodied
dignity of all other organic creatures is also affirmed. Eco-feminism seeks to
re-integrate the abused female body with that of the often abused earth.
6. Representatives of the formal religions frequently
denounce the emerging spirituality as solipsistic
and excessively individualistic. The new emergence is often portrayed as a
free-for-all, with little regard for convention, tradition, or community. The
inherent individualism may need more discerning attention, as it may be arising
from earlier times when individual creativity and expression was frequently suppressed
– and even repressed – in a culture grossly preoccupied with patriarchal
control and domination (see the valuable insights of Douglas Watt in Clarke
(2005, 70-89). On closer examination, the new spirituality strongly endorses
communal allegiance but without the organizational strings and controls that
typify formal religions.
7. In 2005, British scholars, Jeremy Carrettte and Richard
King co-authored the book, Selling
Spirituality, critiquing the widespread abuse of spirituality to bolster
and advance commercial interests, through popular “new age” branding (also,
Heelas 2008). This is a timely reminder of how easily people are taken in by
gurus, teachers, and entrepreneurs who make big profits on the gullibility of
naïve spiritual seekers. While this deviation certainly needs to be confronted,
it should not distract from the positive potential and evolutionary
significance of the emerging spirituality. And the solution offered by Carrette
& King - namely, return to formal religion - is definitely not the way to
resolve the dilemma.
Horizons for the 21st.
If this emerging Spirituality is an evolutionary development of our time, with
a rightness for this time, how do we discern its complex unfolding, naming
deviations that may be dangerous and destructive, and, more importantly,
identifying positive features that will enhance our lives culturally and
spiritually? It strikes me that the following are among the evolutionary
significant features that will require our skilled discernment as we move
deeper into the 21st. century.
Whereas mainline religion strongly emphasizes autonomy,
separation, superiority of magisterial truth, and difference from all that does
not belong to a particular faith-system, Spirituality seeks out connections,
commonalities, and relationships capable of empowering person and planet alike.
Frequently, this elicits the accusation of syncretism, which essentially means merging
together beliefs and convictions which should be kept separate. Why? Because,
that is fundamentally what is required by the standards of classical Greek
philosophy which has had an inordinate influence on all aspects of Christian
According to Aristotle, humans need to be rescued from their enmeshment in
nature – which today we tend to describe as a convivial relationship with the
natural world (see Abram 1996, 2011; Christie 2013). But for Aristotle, that
close affiliation could undermine the human capacity for rational thought and
perception. The proposed remedy was to set the human (particularly the male) as
superior to everything in the natural world, with the anthropocentric right to
control and govern. Lisa Isherwood, a British theologian, describes this Greek
influence as the tyranny of metaphysics (Isherwood 1999). It ensues in rigid
linear divisions of a type quite alien to the modern consciousness which desires
greater harmony, interconnection and affiliation with all other life-forms, a
more integrated cosmic and planetary interdependence believed to have been the
experience of humans for many thousands of years prior the emergence of Greek
To one degree or another all the major religions depict the human relationship
with creation as a flawed, problematic condition. And the prescribed remedy is
also widely consistent: grin and bear it, till you can eventually escape to the
happiness beyond, the final nirvana. This is radically different from the
emerging evolutionary consciousness of our times which sees human meaning,
growth and development as integrally linked to the earthiness of the planet and
the energy-empowerment of the entire universe (more in Phipps 2012). Hence, the
appeal for many spiritual seekers today of the new physics, the new cosmology,
and creation spirituality.
It is grossly irresponsible to dismiss this development as a new age fad. It is
a subconscious yearning for an earthly conviviality that humans have known for
most of their time on earth, one that is vividly re-visioned by the naturalist,
David Abram (1996; 2010). It is also a yearning for an ecological integration
essential to a reversal of the extensive destruction humans have caused to the
natural world, and essential if we are to evolve a culture based on justice, non-violence,
ethical care, and adult responsibility for the womb of our becoming.
3. Ecology and
A further appeal within the expanded cosmic and planetary
view is its innate ability to reawaken religious sentiment with a potential for
re-connection far more extensive and deeper than that of formal religion. This
sense of awe of supreme sacredness tends to be articulated through mystical
experiences, known to humans across all ages and cultures. In popular Christian
literature, mysticism tends to be described as a kind of absorption into God,
above and beyond all sense of earthly connection (see Dreyer & Burrows
2005). That exclusive understanding yield’s pride of place to the contemporary
sense of humans being called to befriend God’s creation, and find within it’s
amorphous sense of mystery tangible evidence for the God who not merely
inhabits but co-creates within the evolutionary dynamic of creation at large.
This new ecologically based spiritual immersion is elaborately described by
Douglas Christie (2013, 17, 36): “The term contemplative
ecology suggests . . . that there is a way of thinking about spiritual
practice that has an ecological character, or a way of thinking about ecology
that includes reflection on the moral or spiritual dimensions of experience. .
. . The aim of contemplative living, in its wider
application, is to address the fragmentation and alienation that haunts
existence at the deepest possible level and, through sustained practice, come
to realise a different, more integrated way of beingin the world.”
We also glean something of that same mystical intimacy from
the priest-geologist, Thomas Berry (2006), from the poetic writings of the late
John O’Donohoe (1997), from the feminist, Beverley Lanzetta (2005; 2007), and
even from secular naturalist, David Abram (1996; 2013).
4. Ritual Creativity
Spirituality tends to distinguish ritual from liturgy or sacrament, claiming
that the former prevailed for thousands of years long before formal religion
ever evolved, and today can be accessed through the rites of passage evidenced among first-nation peoples and among
tribal groups on a global scale. Such indigenous rituals are focused not merely
on key moments and dimensions of human experience but also embrace the seasonal
fluctuations that impact upon the fertility of the land and all the other
creatures inhabiting creation.
Such rituals are certainly understood as a dimension of
holiness, but do not distinguish between sacred and secular. Local elements
such as earth, water, fire, herbs may be extensively used. The facilitation of
such rituals tends to be based more on intuitive wisdom and natural leadership
skill, although increasingly one does witness a preponderance of the male over
the female. And the syncretism arising from religious influence, e.g, the
Pentecostal movement with native African Rites of Passage, can create outcomes
that are psychologically damaging and spiritually problematic.
5. Discernment through
dialogue and networking
In mainstream religion, discernment of
spirits refers to the need to distinguish between the influence of a good
or evil spirit upon a person’s desires and behaviors. It is an assumed quality
of many patriarchal belief-systems and therefore tends not to be cited
explicitly either in theological discourse or pastoral care. If the devotee
follows what the legitimate religious authority requires, then, there seems to
be an assumption that good discernment is guaranteed.
When the term is used, specifically in the Christian faith,
it belongs primarily to the care of souls as exercised in spiritual direction
or Retreat ministry. Rarely is the word used in a social, ecclesial context.
Here we evidence dualistic splitting within Christian faith itself, with the
spiritual dimension relegated a more private, personal and secondary role.
Advocates of the new spirituality view this as a deviation and abuse of
religious authority, to the point where those in authority seem to consider
themselves exempt from spiritual accountability, as long as they follow procedures
and directives laid down by higher authority.
Above all else, discernment
is about attending to the living Spirit, who is understood to function with
a creative freedom that cannot be tied down by any set of institutional norms
or procedures. This may well be the single most crucial factor upon which the
credibility of the new spirituality stands or falls. It is paralleled in the
wider contemporary culture by various movements to engage intelligence and
imagination in more collaborative ways, as in new methods of social research (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_research).
It embraces a more amorphous understanding on how wisdom is acquired,
appropriated and utilized, with strong emphasis on dialogue and mutual
collaboration. Of particular significance, is a new understanding of the role
of the Holy Spirit, reviewed in the next section.
6. The key role of the Holy Spirit.
In conventional Christian theology, God the Father comes first,
as creator and sustainer of all that exists. The Father sends the Son, to
rectify and redeem a flaw in creation, specifically in humans. And the Holy
Spirit is variously explained as a third mysterious force brought into being
through the mutual love of Father and Son.
Christian theology presents quite a confusing description of the Holy Spirit’s
role. According to Gen.1:1, the Spirit is at work at the dawn of creation,
infusing pattern and meaning into the chaotically unfolding process. This would
suggest that the Spirit is operative in all creative unfolding thereafter. Yet
Christianity claims that the Holy Spirit was not fully available to the Church
till after the event of Pentecost (about 2,000 years ago) and that the Spirit
only fully relates to the individual person after the reception of Baptism.
Sounds like the Church is trying to control the work of the Spirit, and not
doing so very ingeniously.
It strikes me that the new spirituality is infused (inspired?) by a sublime
desire to rehabilitate the Holy Spirit. Contemporary spirituality does not seem
to be consciously aware of this prospect, nor can it seek guidance through the
conventional theology of the Holy Spirit, itself hidebound by metaphysical and
doctrinal strangulation. Firstly, the history of theology seems to have had
long held reservations about the diminished role of the Spirit, playing
second-fiddle to Father and Son; the new spirituality wants to address this
imbalance, seeking a much more exalted role for the Spirit. Secondly, the
notion of the Great Spirit in indigenous spirituality (all over the world) incorporates
understandings that theology has never considered and that seem to be gaining
more significance in our time (more in O’Murchu 2012). Thirdly, the rapid and
extensive rise of the Pentecostal movement throughout modern Christendom seems
to be a sign of our time that deserves a far deeper discernment, a movement
that has been widely recognized but not investigated with either spiritual or
theological depth (see Martin 2001).
Are these three factors inter-related? Who
in the modern world is exploring their relevance, meaning or integration? And
what might be their potential to illuminate the spiritual awakening of our
time? These might well be among the most serious questions confronting humanity
today, particularly the millions hungering for spiritual meaning, and
expressing that hunger in ways that feel ever more scary for mainline
religions. In this essay space does not allow for further elaboration. I hope
to undertake that challenge in a full length book at another time.
Meanwhile, the Spirit broods where the Spirit wills. Fundamentalist religion is
certainly on the ascendency and is often the subject of formal research.
Spirituality is viewed more negatively, and often dismissed as a new-age phenomenon
or a post-modern social trend. The latter deserves a far more nuanced view and
a much more thorough investigation, not merely with the tools of standard
research but by researchers with a more discerning eye and an open heart for
the surprise, creativity, and unpredictability that characterize the operations
of Holy Wisdom in every generation.
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