The Rising Interest in Spirituality Today
David Tacey, Ph.D
This is an extract of a talk given by Dr David Tacey at the January 2002 Convention of The Theosophical Society in Australia held in Adelaide.
There is growing interest in spirituality in the wider community today, but because matters of the spirit are so divisive and productive of conflict we have to make real distinctions between spirituality and fundamentalism. After the events of 11 September 2001, we have to be very careful when we talk about the rising interest in spirituality, and differentiate clearly between creative and destructive forms of spiritual interest.
Spirituality: Mystery and Tolerance
Spirituality and fundamentalism are at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Spirituality seeks a sensitive, contemplative, transformative relationship with the sacred, and is able to sustain levels of uncertainty in its quest because respect for mystery is always paramount (Tacey 2000). Fundamentalism seeks certainty, fixed answers, and absolutism, as a fearful response to the complexity of the world and to our vulnerability as creatures in a mysterious universe. Spirituality arises from love of and intimacy with the sacred, and fundamentalism arises from fear of and possession by the sacred. The choice between spirituality and fundamentalism is a choice between conscious intimacy and unconscious possession.
Spirituality is capable of remaining with ultimate questions, but fundamentalism wants answers: hard, fast, and furious answers. Fundamentalism can arise in any spiritual tradition, whether Christian, Islamic, Hindu, or even in modern ideologies such as Freudian or Jungian psychology (Tacey 2001). Spirituality ultimately produces a state of mind that the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, that is:
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. (in Armstrong 1993: 398)
This is surely a condition to aspire to in our torn and broken world, especially since the ‘sacred’ is being invoked by warring parties and hostile forces who are absolutely sure that God is on their side. If we were less certain of our beliefs, and more receptive to mystery and wonder, we would paradoxically be closer to God, more intimate with the spirit, and more tolerant of our fellow human beings and their differing conceptions of the sacred.
Secularism Under Pressure
The confusion of spirituality and religious fundamentalism causes many rational and reasonable people to reject both, in the belief that humanity is better off without the sacred, since it seems to be at the heart of contemporary and historical conflicts. This desire to distance society and its institutions from the sense of the sacred has been foundational in the creation of the modern secular state, which has chosen to put ‘religious matters’ to one side, so that the business of living, educating, informing, and governing the people can take place ‘unimpeded’ by irrational impulses. But the ideals of secularism, however well intended, are inadequate for life, since our lives are not rational and we are hugely implicated in the reality of the sacred, whether or not this is acknowledged.
Spirituality in Theosophical Perspective
Spirituality is the cultivation of a personal relationship with the sacred. It is the intuition that there is a deeper level of reality, a level we are not always conscious of but which we can apprehend in moments of insight or vision. Spirituality is the gradual awakening of this depth dimension, and a longing to know it more fully and intimately. In theosophical terms, spirituality is the recognition that traditional or public teachings of the church are only one part of the story, that there is a ‘hidden wisdom’ behind or within the public teaching, and that the churches mostly do not inform us about this depth because they don’t seem aware of its existence. Spirituality seeks this hidden wisdom or inner truth, and it affirms, with Theosophy, that ‘There is no religion higher than truth’.
The theosophical movement, originally founded in 1875, speaks to the modern condition insofar as it recognises that no single religion holds a monopoly on truth, and that there is a universal spirit which can be discerned in all the world’s traditions. In 1875, such a recognition came as a great shock to the Christian church, which believed it possessed the greatest truth of all, but today Christianity is more humble about its status, and is being forced to recognise the universality of the living spirit. Thus Theosophy was a prophetic movement that was far ahead of its time. It made the world aware of the plurality and diversity of spiritual truth more than a hundred years before such awareness became popular and widespread in the ‘multi-cultural’ era of our present day.
Spirituality develops an interior life and taps the deepest sources of desire, revealing our mystical longing for unity with creation. Although spiritual depth is not discernible to the ordinary eye, it is discernible to insight, and we are guided by intuition through the hidden universe of the spirit. The awakening of spirituality often goes together with an activation of the journey motif: a desire to go beyond the known, to travel into unfamiliar territory, to befriend things that were formerly unknown. We experience this journey as a movement toward integrity, away from anxiety and toward an experience of wholeness. Sandra Schneiders has said: ‘Spirituality is the attempt to relate oneself as a personal whole to reality as a cosmic whole’ (2000: 4). This personal wholeness remains potential and is never fully realised, but it is tasted and glimpsed, and we are never the same again.
The Australian Situation
Recently I was asked by a Sydney newspaper journalist if Australia was a spiritual country, or if it was primarily unspiritual. This question begs a lot of further questions, not least of which is how we define spirituality, and how we go about looking for it. If we are talking about spirituality in the conventional sense of church-related or ‘religious’ spirituality we would have to concede that Australia is a worldly or secular society, where religious traditions appear to be dying or at least radically declining.
But our worldliness and secularism could be a kind of official mask or disguise, hiding a great deal of spiritual longing and activity that takes place, as it were, below or beneath the secular persona. We may not be traditional in our spiritual tastes, but this should not lead us to conclude that we have become identified with worldliness, or that Australians have somehow turned away from spirit. It is important to recognise that ‘secular’ does not mean ‘profane’, and that the secular condition is one in which spirit continues to exist, although in forms that tradition might find hard to recognise.
From where I stand, it looks like Australia is going through a spirituality revolution, and there has never been more longing for the spirit and therefore more hope for the future. For instance, I am personally aware of interest in spirituality in dozens of areas of human concern and professional enquiry. Over recent years, I have been invited to give talks on spirituality to conferences based on these areas: healthcare and nursing, adolescent health, social work, psychiatry and medicine, psychoanalysis, psychology and psychotherapy, outdoor and physical education, religious education, architecture and landscape design, business management and leadership, anthropology and sociology, environmental activism and ecological concern, and Aboriginal reconciliation and the political process. It seems to me that we are in the midst of a spirituality revolution, as virtually every traditional discipline or area of knowledge struggles to come to terms with the postmodern interest in spiritual matters.
The Spirituality Revolution
One of the major cultural shifts in recent times is the relocation of spiritual activity from the religious to the secular domain. This shift is a universal social phenomenon, and is not, of course, limited to Australia. In his study on Reference Works in Religion, the American historian William Johnston said:
To the surprise of many, the term spirituality has become democratized. Ideals that for centuries an elite viewed as virtually unattainable now prompt spiritual growth in everyone. In a word, a ‘spirituality revolution’ during the past thirty years has democratized pursuit of holiness. (Johnston 1996: 131)
In the United Kingdom, the situation is even more dramatically evident, because the UK, unlike the US, had become almost thoroughly secular during the modern period. And yet, commenting on a recent popular survey called ‘The Soul of Britain’, David Hay reports:
The ‘Soul of Britain’ project found that seventy-six percent of people in the UK admitted to having had a religious or spiritual experience. The figures contrast radically with statistics showing how church attendance is declining in all the mainstream Christian denominations. But if one looks at the figures on spiritual experience, they might suggest that we are in the midst of an explosive spiritual upsurge. (David Hay and Kate Hunt 2000: 846)
Commenting on the situation in North America, Sandra Schneiders writes from Berkeley, California:
Spirituality has rarely enjoyed such a high profile, positive evaluation, and even economic success as it does among Americans today. If religion is in serious trouble, spirituality is in the ascendancy and the irony of this situation evokes puzzlement and anxiety in the religious establishment, scrutiny among theologians, and justification among those who have traded the religion of their past for the spirituality of their present. (Sandra Schneiders 2000:1)
We can say that this shift is part of the contemporary trend toward the breakdown of traditions and traditional communities, and the ascendancy of the individual in a fragmented, postmodern society. This is a sociological fact, and cannot be denied: as churches empty, spiritual enquiry soars as never before. But apart from the breakdown of tradition, there are obviously other factors involved in this massive shift.
From Perfection to Wholeness
One such factor could be that religious tradition has supported a far too narrow conception of holiness or sacredness. The sacred ideal has been expressed in traditional terms as a search for spiritual perfection, with a strong emphasis on moral or ethical purity. The code of perfection aspires to a heavenly ideal that leaves out a great deal of life, especially sexuality, the life and vitalities of the body, and our earthly or embodied aspect. There is a new sacred ideal current today, and that is the ideal of wholeness, giving rise to holistic rather than perfectionist ideas and values about spiritual life. As Sandra Schneiders has said:
Spirituality is a project of life-integration, which means that it is holistic, involving body and spirit, emotions and thought, activity and passivity, social and individual aspects of life. It is an effort to bring all of life together in an integrated synthesis of ongoing growth and development. (Schneiders 1989: 675)
Part of the reason why traditional religion fails to capture the spiritual interest of the present is because it operates upon an old ideal that the ‘spirit of the time’ has rejected as partial, inadequate, and life-denying. Our age has not necessarily rejected Christianity itself, but it has certainly rejected the ideal of perfection in which premodern Christian spirituality was cast.
The term ‘spirituality’ no longer refers exclusively or even primarily to prayer and spiritual exercises, much less to an elite state or superior practice of Christianity. Rather, from its original reference to the ‘interior life’ of the person, usually a cleric or religious, who was ‘striving for perfection’, for a life of prayer and virtue that exceeded in scope and intensity that of the ‘ordinary’ believer, the term has broadened to connote the whole of the life of faith and even the life of the person as a whole, including its bodily, psychological, social, and political dimensions. (Schneiders 1989: 679)
There are times in history when the spirit appears to turn against religion and attempts to disassemble it, because tradition has grown too far from the original inspiration of the spirit. In thinking about the holy spirit, we might also reflect on the similarity between these words holiness and wholeness, or the holy and the holistic. The similarity is more than linguistic or accidental: the holy is that which longs for wholeness, and a holy spirit that longs for incarnation and embodiment is most likely very impatient with a cultural code that seems to make incarnation and embodiment difficult or problematical.
Hence part of the spiritual excitement of our time is the discovery of new forms of the sacred and new expressions of the holy. The old forms are no longer adequate, and there is a sense of adventure and experimentation today as we go in search of new understandings of the sacred impulse within our lives that drives us to a new understanding of self, society, and cosmos.
Water in the Desert
When I think about the dramatic rise of popular spirituality in our world, I sometimes think about the flooding of a river in a desert landscape. When I was a boy growing up in the arid regions of central Australia, I occasionally witnessed a strange and miraculous phenomenon. After we had experienced significant rains near Alice Springs, the normally dry and sandy bed of the Todd River would suddenly be transformed into a raging torrent, and the people of the town would behold the mystery of a gushing stream rising up from what seemed like nowhere. The high school I attended stood on the banks of the river, and after storms we sometimes received an announcement from the headmaster that we were to walk quickly and quietly to the banks of the Todd, to watch the river coming into flood. This might occur only once or twice a year, or in periods of drought, the river might never flood for years.
We were told by our geography teachers that the Todd was actually flowing all the time, but mostly we do not see it. Just below the ground and beyond our sight, there were bodies of moving water or underground streams, and in times of flood, when sufficient new waters had been added by rain, the water-table would rise up from its subterranean depths, and become a visible river, observable to our sight. Students and workers alike would cheer, whistle and applaud when the wall of water was suddenly apparent to our disbelieving gaze. To the people of the town, Aboriginal and European-descended, this was something of a mystical experience, a kind of apparition, and a dramatic event that brought excitement, interest, and unity to the district. You would almost not believe that a dry river bed could be transformed into a raging torrent unless you had seen it with your own eyes, and unless others had been there beside you, bearing witness to the same event.
I am reminded of this scene when I think of the rising waters of spirituality in our own time. After a long season of spiritual dryness and aridity, in which faith and intuition have been atrophied, a new river of spiritual possibility is rising up from below, with potentially great benefits to society and life. The river of spiritual life is always present and available to those who wish to gather at its banks, but sometimes whole societies and periods of time choose not to see it or be replenished by it. In Australia, as in most Western societies, we are about to witness a veritable flood of spiritual interest, and those who are unaware of the spiritual dimension of life are going to be placed in difficult and challenging situations. However, those with developed interests in the perennial philosophy of spiritual wisdom will be better placed to understand and benefit from the rise of spiritual water in consciousness and society.
Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, London, Heileman, 1993.
Hay, David and Hunt, Kate, ‘Is Britain’s Soul Waking up?’ in The Tablet, London, 24 June 2000.
Johnston, William M., Recent Reference Books in Religion, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1996.
Schneiders, Sandra, ‘Spirituality in the Academy’ in Theological Studies, 50 (2), 1989.
‘Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?’ in The Santa Clara Lectures (California), 6 (2), 2000.
Tacey, David, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2000.
Tacey, David, Jung and the New Age, Routledge, London and Philadelphia, 2001.
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Dr David Tacey is Associate Professor and Reader in Arts and Communication at La Trobe University, Melbourne. His book, The Spirituality Revolution (which includes a longer version of this article) was published in January 2003 by Harper Collins, Sydney.