- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

First of a three-part series

On a recent Friday in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, lunch-hour visitors filled Grace Episcopal Church to hear Bill Henegan speak on spirituality in a rat-race world.
"I was making tons of money," says the 49-year-old former marketing executive. His priorities began to shift, he says, after the day in 1991 when he watched a Seattle sunset and heard the booming voice of God.
"You're not going to do this much longer," the voice said.
Two years ago, Mr. Henegan finally dived into what he believes is his true calling, as a spiritual healer, founding an institute called "Innerwork."
The talk by the Virginia husband and father was the ninth in a yearlong Friday series at Grace Church. The lectures feature traditional Christian and Jewish speakers, says the Rev. David Bird, the rector, and also "those who are in the new wave of religion."
That wave seems to be crashing across America, though, to be sure, many Americans recoil from the wave, regarding it as "goo-goo," more sentiment than substance, feel-good sentiments that make no real demands on either intellect or heart.
But in an era when loyalty to doctrines and denominations has waned, a new American behavior called spiritual seeking has surged. Its quarry is personal experience, the sacred, the soul.
It occasionally includes a return to the "spiritual classics," works from all great religions. Far more often it focuses on healing, health or mental peace as opposed to assurance of eternal salvation or escape from its flip side, damnation.
Like Mr. Henegan's "Innerwork," the new spiritual mood is changing American religion in many internal ways. Externally, the map of U.S. religious life has stayed remarkably consistent for the past 50 years.
More than eight in 10 Americans claim Christian affiliation a quarter each Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant, and 8 percent black churches. Two percent are Jewish, about 8 percent say they are "other," and another 8 percent say their religious affiliation is "none."
"There's slight growth in the evangelical side and slight decline in the mainline Protestant side," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago School of Divinity.
Four in 10 Americans claim to have attended church or synagogue in a given week, a rate that has stayed about the same for 50 years. Similarly, the "unchurched," those who have not been in a sanctuary for worship in six months, have remained at about four in 10 in the same period.
Despite the appearance of stability, many observers argue that something is about to give way in religious life. Change likely will become most pronounced in the black church and in places were immigration is heaviest. Spiritual seeking with its emphasis on individualism, choice and quest for meaning also will exert profound changes on traditional religion.

Spiritual, not religious

"The spiritual quest culture is permeating the whole scene," says sociologist Wade Clark Roof, who completed a decade of surveys of the religion of baby boomers. "The seekers are not only 'out there.' They're also people who go to church."
A recent report, "The Next American Spirituality," done by pollster George Gallup Jr., reveals Americans' spiritual thoughts and activities over a 24-hour period.
One-third had a roller-coaster day of spiritual highs and lows. Thirty percent felt "indescribable joy" during their day. Nearly 40 percent had opened a Bible, and 60 percent had felt part of God's plan.
Yet the biggest response was to the word "spiritual." Nearly 80 percent expressed a desire to "experience spiritual growth."
Mr. Gallup says that embrace of the "S" word over the "R" word should not come as a surprise. For several decades now, most Americans have said religion will decline. Now more than ever, 80 percent agree that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue."
The scene of the spiritual search, moreover, has lost all the hard outlines once provided by institutions. It is taking place in small groups, and the book market on the topic has burgeoned so much that the editors at Publishers' Weekly informally give it a separate genre, "generic spirituality."
The temples and churches of the spiritual quest culture have become the workplace and the home, where people seek "the sacred in everyday life." One researcher has spoken of "the congregations of one."
Naturally, this spiritual wave is getting harder to define as it spreads, Mr. Gallup says. "At the very time it grows in popularity, spirituality has become more and more an elusive term."
Still, some characteristics stand out:
For baby boomers, "the spiritual" first emerged as a therapeutic tool, Mr. Roof says. But that self-help aspect has expanded and matured as boomers age and rear children.
One in three Americans defines spirituality without reference to God or a higher authority.
Spirituality is what half of Americans say they would definitely engage in each day if their lives were not so hectic.
Until the 1960s, the spiritual was found by "dwelling" in a religion, but now the operative word is "seeking," says sociologist Robert Wuthnow. He says the search pays off only when it ends in "practice-oriented spirituality" a routine of either study, prayer, worship or service.
The new spirituality has moved American religion away "from what is beyond us to what is within us," Mr. Gallup says. It has no use for doctrine, and picks and chooses from various Scriptures. It is as likely to quote from Lao Tzu and Bob Dylan as from Jesus Christ.
Spiritual seekers are not building new edifices in the way Jews, Mormons, Christian Scientists and Hindus have done to establish their spiritual identities in America.
Spiritual seekers are part of the small-group movement, which often meets in homes for Bible study or other religious discussion and is said to include four in 10 Americans.

Easy inroads

If the new spiritual quest culture is a crashing wave one United Methodist theologian calls it "spiritual tsunami" its foremost cause is a secularized society, most researchers say.
This culture also spreads quickly in a consumer society based on all-American individualism. It has easy inroads where there is less formal religious instruction of youth, and where people hold beliefs that reject traditional Judeo-Christian precepts.
Both entryways, spirituality watchers say, are wide open.
Today, 70 percent of American parents tell pollsters that they give their offspring religious training, a jump from 60 percent in the 1970s. When teens are polled, however, only a third say this is so. Most Americans, meanwhile, reject the idea of good and evil as moral absolutes, and a quarter break from biblical traditions by believing in reincarnation.
"Reincarnation comes up a lot," says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a University of Maryland psychology professor who did a nationwide survey of adults ages 18-29 from 1994 to 1998.
Political scientist James Reichley, who attends a Presbyterian church, thinks people have turned away from doctrinal religion and toward spirituality to feel more comfortable in a diverse society.
"I think it's a reaction to pluralism," Mr. Reichley says. "It's a way of transcending the diversity in America."
Yet he doubts that a spiritual movement can develop or have a productive impact without having roots in a tradition and that usually means holding on to some basic, timeless beliefs.
"Doctrines respond to real questions, like free will or good and evil," Mr. Reichley says. "I don't see anything wrong with arguing over doctrines, as long as we're not going to persecute each other."
For better or worse, doctrinal beliefs are not part of how most American adults define their religion: Their religion is defined by belief in God and an affiliation to a denomination they were reared in or now attend, with little emphasis on its specific creeds.
That seems to hold with many young people as well.
"They say they are members of a particular denomination, but when you ask what they believe, they believe all kinds of things," Mr. Arnett says.
For years, public polling has found Americans from 18 to 24 the least religious segment of the population.
"Tolerance is important to this generation," Mr. Arnett says. "They are reluctant to say, 'This is true, the only true way.' "
Take the 27-year-old Catholic woman Mr. Arnett interviewed in Missouri. She attends Mass weekly but says all beliefs are about equal. "Religion is like a shoe that fits everyone differently," she says.
The majority of young adults have similarly ambiguous views, while 25 percent are nonbelievers and 20 percent hold orthodox religious beliefs.
Still, Mr. Arnett says, "They concede that they will start attending church again. They see it as part of being a moral person."
Going to church is linked to rearing children, but with the oft-stated caveat: "We won't force anything on them."
The market for spiritual seeking may have found many interested consumers in this age group. They have more free time than previous generations. They marry later, live longer and have time to shop around for religious ideas, like shopping for shoes.
"They have this extended period that we've not seen before. So they want to look at everything and think for themselves," Mr. Arnett says. "The question is whether religious institutions can survive under these conditions."

Unconventional approaches

To reach those who no longer darken church doors, some traditional religious groups go to bars.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has begun "Theology on Tap" meetings at a pub on Wednesdays, now meeting at Mackey's on L Street. The meetings have drawn more than 300 persons a night. Tonight's topic in a six-part, "six pack" series is "I Never Thought I'd Be Catholic."
"It's been instantly successful," says Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, whose Young Adult Ministry sponsors the meetings. "It's a way of bringing faith to young Catholics who are inactive."
At the unconventional Cedar Ridge Community Church, 65 percent of the congregants who come to Sunday services haven't been to worship since their youth.
The church, on a historic farm in Spencerville, Md., hews to an evangelical tradition but attracts participants by being "seeker-friendly" conducting worship and other activities in creative and informal formats.
The Rev. Brian McLaren, founding pastor of the church, likes to avoid labels and calls it "a C.S. Lewis-type" congregation. He argues that in today's culture, churches must change or die.
"Churches that think about incremental changes are not going to make it," he says.
Mr. McLaren has written a guidebook for spiritual seekers, "Finding Faith." The world they live in today, he says, is one in which everyone tells competing stories, all ranked equal, and that includes different stories about God.
"People have to resolve their view of God first," he recommends. "There are many views, but they basically boil down to, 'There is no God, everything is God, there is a God.' "
After that question is firmly settled no small matter in a post-Christian culture then the seeker can move on to a tradition, a Scripture or a core set of beliefs.
"I don't think the essential doctrines of Christianity will change, but I think their formulations will change," Mr. McLaren says.
The pastor points to the historically contentious doctrine of the Trinity, the cause of Christian schisms throughout history but the very heart of the historic faith. Today, he says, the Trinity might have to be preached as the cosmic principle of love and unity.
These days, says the former college English instructor, it is hard to find people who say they are not spiritual.
"Being spiritual is more than being nice," Mr. McLaren says. "It is more like saying, 'Don't be overly rational.' "

The age of credulity

A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber predicted that Western science and bureaucracy would lead to "the disenchantment of the world" the loss of supernatural or mystical meaning.
But today a byword among some religion scholars is "re-enchantment." Boston University sociologist Peter Berger, a Lutheran layman famed for coining catchwords for the era, has called this "the age of credulity."
It is getting easier to believe anything or many things at once. The walls that once defined traditions and creeds now are breached by growing rates of interfaith marriage. The border lines of denominations also have blurred, and denominational "switching" is becoming more common.
Many religious leaders see a monumental realignment across denominations that is lining up cultural conservatives on one side and cultural liberals on the other.
The more traditional Protestants, Catholics and Jews who are pro-life and believe heterosexuality is the divine order, for example, now look across the aisle at liberals in their faiths who stand for "a woman's right to choose" and homosexual rights.
Mr. Roof, the sociologist, argues that in the seeking culture, religious institutions are labeled as either "religious" or "spiritual." Those who can present themselves as being some of both may have the edge.
This combination, he believes, is most possible in mainstream religions Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and evangelical where a historic tradition has an openness to some theological diversity and a humility about its claims to know "the truth."
This is the territory in which Caryn Cox, a native Washingtonian, found herself at the "Thank God It's Friday" talk at Grace Episcopal Church, where she is a member. Mr. Henegan, the speaker, talked not only about the voice of God, but about healing energy and the Hindu system of spiritual zones, or chakras, in the body.
"I believe as a Christian that Jesus was inclusive," Ms. Cox says.
In Mr. Roof's assessment, most spiritual seekers in this country want nothing to do with religious institutionalism. In turn, religious institutions based on dogma, biblical literalism or unbending tradition would reject any notion that they are spiritual seekers.
The lines are not hard and fast, however.
Mr. Henegan was reared in the conservative Wesleyan Methodist tradition, and he felt its resistance to his spiritual healing the day he visited the pastor of his hometown church in Pennsylvania.
"He said, 'You're not rooted enough in the church,' " Mr. Henegan recalls. "He believes that spiritual healing ended with the New Testament."
Meanwhile, Mr. Henegan has performed healing sessions for most members of his hometown church, longtime friends or acquaintances. Most of his recent speaking requests are coming from mainline churches, he says.

Spirituality's impact

Mr. Marty, the church historian, remains a booster of traditional organized church life. Yet he acknowledges that the new spirituality which he sees as "5 miles wide but 2 inches deep" is spilling over everywhere.
Younger clergy who are shaking up churches, parishes or synagogues to catch the spiritual wave, he says, should be commended for staying in their traditions: They serve as "moorings" for seekers, who are like ships at sea.
As a historian, Mr. Marty sees only three events in 20th century American religion that might be called "seismic." Whether spiritual seeking will rise to that distinction remains to be seen.
"What was utterly unforeseen in 1900 was Pentecostalism," Mr. Marty says. "It's a worldwide force and growing fast." The second seismic event was the resurgence of evangelicalism in culture and politics and the decline of mainline Protestantism.
A third seismic event was the 1965 immigration law that allowed world pluralism to enter the United States. "Statistically, it's a small number," he says. "But it changed how we think. We're just beginning to feel that."
Many today decry the decline of American church life because they compare it to a time of higher attendance in the 1950s, Mr. Marty says. But this activity was pushed up by a Cold War boom time of babies and homage to religion.
"If you compare today's church attendance with attendance in 1900, 1925 or in 1935, we're better off," he says.
"I don't think people will be as loyal or as rooted or as constant. But huge numbers of people are there every week," Mr. Marty says.
As far as predictions go, Mr. Gallup is equally uncertain about the true health of organized church life. But he sees glimmers of a turnaround in black faith which in polls at least shows signs of great intensity.
"Black churches could become the crucible for renewal of American faith and the wider society," he says.

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