As a millennial, I am among a generation largely claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” There was a time when such a thing was unthinkable. In traditional societies, religious institutions framed our worldviews from birth until death, giving us clear moral dictates on what was right and wrong. The clear-cut moralistic maps of our place in the world made sense given our limited understanding of cultures outside our own. We did not depend on global trade and were able to close ourselves off from groups that threatened our sacred ideals.
With the explosion of global trade and communication technologies connecting the world into an interdependent web, we are increasingly confronted by individuals from a diverse array of cultural and religious backgrounds. Religious worldviews that have traditionally excluded anyone considered “different” are slowly adapting to this global society. The Catholic Church has admitted its faults regarding the treatment of Jews and other excluded groups. Yet, despite these changes within religious institutions, their reputations as moralistic systems of exclusion remain and millennials are choosing to find their spirituality elsewhere.
Millennials are finding this “unchurched spirituality” in meditation, hallucinogens, and a creative combination of practices originating from a number of traditions. In his book, After Heaven, Robert Wuthnow argues, “at its core, spirituality consists of all the beliefs and activities by which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God or to a divine being or some other conception of a transcendent reality.” Therefore, although religion traditionally held a capital on the beliefs and practices associated with a transcendent reality, individuals are increasingly finding alternative ways to experience this reality. Since the 1960’s in America, religion and spirituality have been increasingly perceived as separate entities. Just as one can experience spirituality without religion, one can also practice religion without spirituality. If spirituality is defined as that which connects an individual to God or a transcendent reality, there are numerous examples of how religion has failed in this regard. Consider religious contexts that have become hollow and stale, where adherents are inconsequentially going through the motions without any sense of purpose, community, or connection to a transcendent reality. It is this sense of religion without spirituality that has led many people to seek spirituality without religion.
Although this age of “spiritual but not religious,” prefers its spirituality non-institutionalized, we need to remember that institutions are not inherently bad. In sociology, social institutions are defined as systems that are necessary to a functioning society. Some of these include the education system, legal system, or healthcare system. These institutions are imperfect, but that does not mean we should do away with them altogether. Rather than doing away with religion altogether, we need to support religious institutions that contribute to human flourishing in a globalized world. “Spiritual but not religious” forms of self-discovery and introspection are useful tools for personal growth, in an ideal religious context, self-discovery and introspection are integrated into a larger system of beliefs and practices that further support both personal and communal growth. Interfaith communities are a contemporary example this form of religious culture in practice.
“Churched spirituality” and “unchurched spirituality” intersect in interfaith communities where faithful individuals recognize that their own religious tradition is only one among several equally worthy ways of pursuing spiritual practice. In his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel writes about his journey coming back to Islam after experimenting with a variety of religious practices. He writes the following: “The tradition you were born into was your home, Brother Wayne told me, but as Gandhi once wrote, it should be a home with the windows open so that the winds of other traditions can blow through and bring their unique oxygen. ‘It’s good to have wings,’ he would say, ‘but you have to have roots, too.’” Religious traditions carry rich insight into matters of the spirit. They also bind us together into communities that facilitates a deep sense of identity and belonging. Although religion has a history of exclusion and is often perceived as cold, impersonal, and unspiritual in contemporary times, it does not need to be this way. Religion needs to be reinfused with spirituality and made relevant to a younger generation characterized by the ethos of eclecticism and inclusivity. Interfaith communities are a prime example of how religion can support spiritual vitality in a globalized world.
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