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The western shift in spirituality

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In the past few decades, many Westerners have moved away from traditional religion. How did we get here, and where are we going?

Whatever happened a few weeks ago now seems dated. Lately, it feels as if we are travelling at warp speed, witnessing a world of chaos and angst at every turn. Pondering that thought, I floated down the rabbit hole and began to conjure up memories of my childhood — how church and all the activities associated with it furnished such a solid grounding for my otherwise chaotic home life. Religion, doctrine, and community all provided a solid sanctuary for me.

Until it didn’t.

There was no one reason or particular motive that disconnected me, but, as I reflect, it clearly was a series of conscious and unconscious happenings, personally and culturally, that created the slow drift away.

The last time I went to church was a couple of years ago. It was Christmas and I was visiting my son in the town where I grew up and wanted, for reasons of nostalgia, to attend Christmas Eve service in the place that held so many positive memories for me. I remember a few days later madly scribbling my emotions on pieces of paper as my disbelief poured out in a river of heartbreak.

All the familiar faces of the elders were gone, only a couple now even recognizable. The walls were painted a cool blue, no longer reflecting the rosy pink that had been so warm and inviting. Small children raced about and tumbled over pews and when the minister spoke to the children about Jesus I didn’t hear about the teacher of peace and love, but more about a man who resembled “the Fonz.” 

We all know the old saying, “you can’t go back home.” Suddenly I realized what that truly meant.

So, how did many of us get on a “spiritual search,” even just consider it?

Without getting into a dissertation on how the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the systemic patriarchal culture, or even religion itself has impacted our severance from a spiritual life, let’s take a brief peak into what occurred in our own lifetime.

When much of society threw the religious baby out with the holy bath water, there seemed to be a collective decision that spirituality and traditional religion were somehow tied at the hip; and if we entered one the other would necessarily follow. The word “God” is so deep inside our DNA that it still conjures up the white-haired man in the sky and frequently requires a myriad of alternative explanations from a multitude of teachers.

While there is no single agreed-upon meaning of spirituality, some experts suggest modern spirituality is a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions, and Eastern religions.

For guidance, I turned to the research of Dr. Dick Houtman, sociology professor at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and his book The Spiritual Turn and the Decline of Tradition: The Spread of Post-Christian Spirituality in 14 Western Countries.

Many of us who are reading this article are aware the counter culture of the 1960’s was informed by modernity’s cultural discontent, which Houtman says took shape as a deepening condition of “homelessness” or metaphysical loss of “home.” This sparked attempts at cultural reconstruction to overcome our feelings of alienation. In other words, this spurred us to “look inside.”

It’s 1972, and how many of you can recall the Thomas Harris book I’m OK, You’re OK? It was Number 1 on bestseller lists for two years, and showed up as props or lines in TV shows from The Odd Couple to The Simpsons and Colombo, as well as in a wide range of songs, and in the opening shots of The Breakfast Club and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Psychology had entered the mainstream. This became the launch pad in the 80’s for books like In Search of Excellence and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Buzzwords like autonomy, flexibility, creativity, innovation, excellence, activity, readiness for change, people-first, and human resources all tapped into notions of freedom, self-transcendence and overcoming alienation.

Welcome “New Age”!  We have rejected religious traditions, institutions and doctrines, and placed our emphasis on the subjective life, where the primacy of personal experience has become part of the mainstream in the West. From the 1980’s onward, the media and pop culture embraced Shirley MacLaine; in the 90’s James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy; and onward to Oprah and Dr. Phil, etc.

While watching Oprah, I discovered Gary Zukav, who provided the gasoline that ignited my fire. The one that was almost extinguished because I too sensed “homelessness,” although I wouldn’t have named it as such. In fact, many of the people I encountered on my journeys have said, like me, they felt “there must be something more.”

As I see it now, those of us who are on the Spiritual Journey, or thinking about it, are all searching for “home.”

You Might Also Like: Check out this great article on how our values change as we age and become more wealthy?

Author: Lynda Casey holds a master’s degree in Wisdom Studies.
A cultural evolutionary, public speaker and playwright, she is creating a theatrical production called Feminine Rising.


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