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.”

A new phase in the spiritual development of the Western world

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.