THE GREAT PARADOX OF MODERN SPIRITUALITY
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Great Britain where the voice of the atheistic intelligentsia is dominant, the upper middle-class seem to feel they have outgrown their quaint old Church of England. Secularism in the media is strident and church attendance is thought to be in steep decline, so there was almost universal surprise when the “Soul of Britain” research project found that over 76 per cent of people in the United Kingdom admit to having had a significant religious or spiritual experience. David Hay and Kate Hunt wrote of this research, “If one looks at the figures on spiritual experience, they could well suggest that we are in the midst of an explosive spiritual upsurge.”
The numbers suggest we are in the midst of an explosive spiritual upsurge.
David Tacey, Associate Professor and reader in arts at Latrobe University Melbourne is the author of five books on spirituality and culture, and I interviewed him a number of times on my national talk-show ‘The Conversation of the Nation.’ In his book ‘The Spirituality Revolution’ he suggests that the current hunger for spirituality is a sign of a new phase in the spiritual development of the Western world. He argues for a bridge between the old and the new to help us find meaning and significance as we attempt to chart the course of this new world with its as yet unimagined challenges and opportunities.
The need for a bridge between the old and new
Andrew Greeley is another academic who has tried to build the bridge between the old and new in his attempt to probe the meaning of spiritual experience. In his book Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing, the research he did with William McCreadie shows quite clearly that profound and occasional mystical experiences are now quite common in Western society. “The evidence suggests there are in fact millions of people in our society who have such spiritual experiences with some frequency.” In the past people who studied these experiences of states of heightened consciousness tended to see them as transient schizoid or psychotic episodes. There is now evidence that these experiences are profoundly normal and human; that it is another way of knowing not just a distortion of feeling. McCreadie says, “If it is anything it is a heightened interlude in which the cognitive faculties of the person become sharper; they somehow know some things that they didn’t know before. This is because they sense they are freed at least for a moment from their ego defences and its distortions.”
A real and permanent new way of knowing
According to Greeley many who have this spiritual experience and happen to read psychological and psychiatric literature become impatient with the insensitivity of the writers who they say, “really haven’t been listening.” This is because above all else they have experienced a sharpening of their cognitive faculties. Their new capacity to see and know clearly is at the core of a rich and renewing spiritual experience.
As we progress beyond the olde worlde ‘religious’ terminology, and take on pseudo scientific terms in our striving to make ourselves understood, we become muddled and confuse people who are reaching for mystical clarity, not incomprehensible uncertainty, and are eagerly snapping up the even more olde worlde occult beliefs and terminologies, under the camouflage of New Age… Why cannot we be direct and – say what we mean in modern language and end confusion? MORE PEOPLE TODAY THAN EVER BEFORE IN HISTORY ARE SEARCHING FOR MEANING, TRUTH AND LOVE. THEY ARE LONGING TO MEET A TRUE SHEPHERD, TO BE FED, WATERED,HEALED, AND TO BE TAKEN INTO HIS SHELTER WHERE THEY WILL BE SAFE FOR EVER. WHERE IS THE TRUE SHEPHERD?
Sounds fascinating Mal!
Some good writing Mal, drawing these thoughts together. I do have some feedback on the first paragraph.
If “over 76 per cent of people in the United Kingdom admit to having had a significant religious or spiritual experience”, are you saying that the “almost universal surprise” is from the media, sociologists etc? This surprise puzzled me somewhat, given the plethora of spiritual experiences promoted and eargerly sort after these days. And then I learnt that this survey was done 14 years ago in 2000. Is this surprise still in evidence? Perhaps it should be referred to in the context of it’s timing? Also, I’m not sure how this surprise can be tied to declining church attendance, as many people’s significant religious or spiritual experiences are outside the church.