The New Spiritualities
Today there is an unlimited choice of ‘spiritualities’ on offer. Some are traditional while others are new and attractively packaged. Nor is it necessary for individuals to confine themselves to one particular brand of spirituality.
In fact, the mixing of spiritualities is encouraged; individuals are totally free to choose the mix and adapt the spiritualities depending on their own interests, feelings or needs.
Bridging the way
Spirituality has become a buzzword in recent years. Whether in universities, offices, industry, on the Internet or in sport, the term is popular. There is an ‘openness to spirituality’.
This interest is new, contrasting with an earlier materialistic emphasis. People are now more prepared to think in an open way about the human situation and human nature.
This has been facilitated by ‘postmodern’ thinking, in which human nature and life are understood in various, but always subjective ways, allowing a bridge to be constructed between the material world and matters relating to the spirit.
This contemporary approach has considerable appeal. Firstly, it makes few demands on individuals. You can live as you please because there are no moral absolutes, no concept of sin, and no accountability to a holy, transcendent God.
Nor is there any unique, objective revelation. No wonder such spiritualities are popular!
Secondly, the new spiritualities promote the delusion that humans are in some way divine. This appeals to the desire to be like God (Genesis 3:1-7) and evades the restrictions of our finite human nature. Although attractive, it is an illusion and deception.
Thirdly, being made in God’s image, people are often dissatisfied with materialism, faceless technology, consumerism, hedonism, promiscuity and all the other baggage of modern society. They are also disillusioned with politicians and their promises.
Consciously or unconsciously, they grope for happiness and fulfilment. Broken marriages; a soaring divorce rate; confused and sometimes abused children; and a violent society; are all further factors which stimulate the search for answers.
And the new spiritualities do offer assistance and happiness. Spirituality fills a vacuum that materialism and sensuality can not. It also introduces an element of mystery into life with its use of the imagination, symbols, meditative techniques and visual stimuli.
Fourthly, new spiritualities are perceived to be a ‘painless’ alternative to formal religion. There is no conceptual apparatus, no pressure to attend meetings, and one’s lifestyle can remain unchanged.
Fifthly, there is evidence that spiritually oriented programmes in the workplace make workers happier and improve productivity. One professor of business studies in California claims that ‘spirituality could be the ultimate competitive advantage’.
For these and other reasons there is a consumer demand for spirituality. Two contrasting examples can be helpful at this point.
Health and spirituality
Lancaster University’s Religious Studies department recently researched the practice of religion in England, focusing on the small Lake District town of Kendal in Cumbria.
The research revealed that there were as many as sixty alternative spirituality groups in the town, most of them offering their own brand of spirituality and attracting recruits.
Professor Heelas reports: ‘Alternative groups seem to be attracting an ageing cohort of people… It’s catering for people in the main with emphasis on the body and healing. People look first for a remedy for a bodily complaint but are then opened up in a holistic way much more. The body is treated as a thermometer – a bad back may indicate emotional problems or a lack of spirituality’.
Or think of the growing interest among Japanese university students in supernatural phenomena and the occult. One professor writes: ‘the Japanese people are drifting away from organised religions … [but] spiritual things that are often considered closely associated with religion, do not appear to have waned at all’.
Asked why so many people are attracted to religions and cultic groups in Japan, another professor, Toshimaro Ama of Meiji Gakuin University, said it was because humans crave to know the answer to questions about human existence.
Briefly, I want to sample the many currently available spiritualities so that we may appreciate the enormous challenge they present. Although there are traditional Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant spiritualities, it is the newer ones which are attracting the greatest attention.
Think, for example, of so-called ‘secular spirituality’. That is the title the Dalai Lama of Tibet uses in his recent book, Violence and Compassion.
He distinguishes between ‘two levels of spirituality’, namely, religion and spirituality. For him, spirituality relates to fundamental aspects of our human nature; it is this ‘secular spirituality’, he claims, that has sustained him in exile.
The ‘key factor’ for him is ‘a sense of caring for one another’ which is lacking in advanced, educated societies. This sense of caring promotes a peaceful mind and satisfaction. Here is how ‘you get fulfilment of your existence’ and it does not depend on religion!
‘Celtic spirituality’ is also popular because of its alleged ability to reconcile the material and spiritual. ‘We live in a fragmented society’, they tell us. ‘We’re all torn apart, pulled in different directions.
The Celtic brings us back to a redeeming, healing wholeness. It mends the split within myself between intellect and heart, mind and imagination. It mends my split with the earth and with material things’.
There is also ‘Earth spirituality’ or ‘Shamanic healing’. Some Canadian psychologists in Calgary now employ it in their work. ‘The psychology I learned in university had something missing’, reports psychologist Margaret McLeod, ‘because the spirit was missing. Shamanic practices are a way of tapping into the way spirit works deep within us’.
More popular is what is called ‘Eastern spirituality’ with its many versions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and others. They all have in common a belief in pantheism and monism.
Many versions of this Oriental ethos are associated with ‘New Age spirituality’ but the latter is distinctive in producing ‘a hybrid spirituality’ (Douglas R. Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age, IVP, 1991, p.131).
New Age spirituality combines the essence of Eastern religious thought with some elements of Western, Judeo-Christian thought, such as optimism and belief in progress, which are alien to traditional Eastern religions.
Then there is the ‘Goddess spirituality’, a pre-Christian nature-religion that worships ‘the One’ or ‘the Goddess’. This type of spirituality is expressed in a variety of creative ways, but often in the context of polytheism, witchcraft, proactive Feminism, and a profound reverence for the earth.
Within the New Age camp, there is also Dan Millman’s ‘Practical spirituality’. He mixes self-esteem guidelines with some Eastern/Western religious concepts in what has been described as ‘theological shoplifting’.
Millman is renowned for translating guru-talk into ‘practical spirituality’ which is a do-it-yourself spirituality based on his Five Principles for Life (‘show up; pay attention; express your truth; do your best; don’t try to control the outcome’) and his twelve ‘gateways to everyday enlightenment’.
These ‘gateways’ range from ‘taming your mind’ and ‘awakening your heart’ to ‘serving your world’ by unselfish actions.
Essentially, the new spiritualities tend to be pantheistic, syncretistic, doctrinally open, a-moral, subjectivist and relative.
Such spiritualities can be defined as the search for personal satisfaction, fulfilment and connectedness with oneself and creation. They are world-affirming and self-enhancing in their goal.
In the next article, I will describe the contrasting biblical pattern for a spiritual life, employing the theological criteria referred to in previous articles, namely, real revelation, relational revelation, redemptive revelation and restorative revelation.
However, a brief response is appropriate at this point.
No one but the living God, the Creator, Preserver, Ruler of the universe, who is also the Saviour, can meet the deepest human needs. Philosophy, earthly pleasures, materialism, social involvement and even religions, lack meaning and fulfilment. That is what the Bible teaches.
This is because the problems of sin, suffering, death and despair spoil all aspects of human life. ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
The answer? Listen to the Bible: ‘Fear God’, it says. Fear the One who is the cause of our existence. There is more: ‘… and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man’.
His purpose for us is good; ultimately, our reason for living is to glorify and know this glorious God.