I grew up in an immersive conservative faith. When I left home and opened to the wide world beyond, I’m not sure I used the word “religious” or “spiritual” for a good 10 years, except when making anthropological observations about others.
My return to taking this part of myself seriously again, and taking it seriously in the world, mirrors a pattern I see widening across boundaries of place, age and discipline. So many of us have come to adulthood with a more developed secular than spiritual identity. But then we find ourselves working in the arts, science, business, law, journalism, medicine, activism, teaching—whatever is our field. And we sense something missing: an impulse and accountability without which none of this will ever add up or go as right as it could. I entered an early career in journalism and diplomacy. I was ambitious but also idealistic, and I was increasingly unnerved by a poverty of inner integrity, generosity and humility in lives of great accomplishment at the top of these fields. A lack of introspection formed the disciplines they were shaping and leading. It still forms the highest levels of leadership and accomplishment that we’ve inherited, and these forms are now imploding all around us.
The very seriousness of this moment, the high stakes for which we’re now playing, is lending a new gravity to the spiritual enterprise. This spirituality is not your hippie grandmother’s flaky New Age lark. There is great variety and unevenness to the landscape, of course, but from where I sit there is also a visible maturing, a growing up. Like every move to adulthood, the emergent spirituality is opening to nuance and complexity. It is in fact reconciling false binaries that have divided us inside and out for the past few hundred years of culture, religion and science. Here are a few that especially intrigue me:
MIND/BODY — SPIRIT/MATTER
I imagine that people a hundred years from now will shake their heads at the way we’ve imagined physical and spiritual as separate or even at odds. These were distinctions born of the limits of our understanding. The religion of my childhood treated the body as an enemy to virtue. But when I left it behind for the enlightened world where scientific and rational were the only metric—“I think, therefore I am”—I was also operating with a diminished sense of human flourishing.
Science itself has now become a teacher and companion, not a foe, towards spiritual growth. We can now literally see that physical, mental and what we call “spiritual” are more entangled than we guessed, more interactive in every direction. Neuroscientists, biologists and psychologists are studying lived virtues like forgiveness, compassion and awe, heading into the laboratory to understand how to make them more likely.
And there’s something organic and healing about the corresponding way the new spirituality is often recovered and nurtured in the individual everyday by way of yoga or CrossFit or running or gardening or meditation or hiking, manifold pursuits by which we enliven our being by planting in our body. Embodied spirituality simultaneously engenders a sensitivity to the complex reality of others to and our relationship with the natural world. I have never forgotten a conversation I had early in my radio adventure with Matthew Sanford, a brilliant yoga teacher who has been paraplegic for three decades. He says he has never known a person to become more at home in their body, in all its flaws and its grace, without becoming more compassionate towards all of life.
COMMUNAL/PERSONAL — RELIGIOUS/SPIRITUAL
We are the first generation in the history of our species who do not broadly inherit religious identity as a given, a matter of kin and tribe, like hair colour and hometown. This freedom we have to craft and discern our own spiritual bearings is wondrous, but it is also stressful. There are good reasons that spirituality arose in a symbiotic relationship with religion. And as many of us deepen this part of our own journey, perhaps beginning in isolation, we often begin to reach if not for religion itself then to recreate many of the elements of spiritual grounding that religion has tended across generations: contemplation and ritual, service and community. Especially community.
The phrase “spiritual but not religious” has entered Western cultural parlance, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that has already moved on. I meet people who speak of being “religious but not spiritual”—holding a reverence for the place of ritual in human life, and the value of human community, without a need for something supernaturally transcendent. I hear scientists and non-religious or non-theistic people becoming more comfortable with the language of “spirit” and “mystery” and even “God” as not merely useful but perhaps necessary. They are revitalising these words less as ethereal concepts and more as anchors of the fullness of what it means to be human and who we are to each other. The writer and UU chaplain Kate Braestrup works with game wardens in the parks and forests of Maine. She describes what happens between people as the only litmus test she needs of the validity of faith and spiritual calling.
I mean it pretty literally that God is, if nothing else—and that’s a big if—but if nothing else, God is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other. And for me, that is actually enough. That cultivating it, that thinking about it, worshipping it, working towards it, taking care of it, nurturing it in myself, nurturing it in other people, that really is a life’s work right there, and it doesn’t have to be any bigger than that. God doesn’t have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together. Right? It’s plenty, just the God that I work with.
BEING/DOING — BELIEVING/LIVING
New generations have injected the language of “transparency” and “authenticity” and “integrity” into our common vocabulary. These are fragile words, like all words meant to convey deep truth, at risk of overuse and simplification. Behind them I hear a wise refusal to disconnect what we know from who we are, what we believe from how we live and who we are to each other. I sense a wise understanding too that this is not easy or ever “accomplished” but is rather the shape of a lifetime, a path of true struggle and true joy.
My ambitious younger self might have suspected that spirituality was about fleeing reality. It is in fact, at heart, about befriending reality. And that process makes us inevitably more mindful of vulnerability, reverent of questions, open to discovery and to change. It is moment-to-moment work for the sake of the world, but it begins and always returns to what is closest to home. One of my favourite teachers on this is the Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein. She said to me once, in a conversation about parenting,
Spirituality can be enfolded too into the acts of business or teaching or community organising or being a neighbour. This is what so many of us are learning. This is the choice we are making, the life adventure we are committing ourselves to walking and to walking together. The feardriven and fear-inspiring demonisation of the “other” that is rising in our global political midst is reactionary in the classic sense—it is a reaction to change that is in fact underway. But it is up to us to sustain and deepen this change, to keep it moving forward. And isn’t that always the hope of growing up? What a daunting and energising possibility we hold, to join spiritual wisdom to all of our other advanced forms of intelligence—and in so doing to live more fully into the meaning of human wholeness as individuals, communities and a species.