January 2013. The inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama's second term was full of references to God. The invocation and the benediction were, of course, obvious times to mention God. The phrase "So help me God" ended both the Vice Presidential and the Presidential oaths. And the President ended his speech with "God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America."
Then there was the music. James Taylor sang "America the Beautiful" with its repeated reminder that "God shed his grace on thee." Kelly Clarkson sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" which ends with the plea "Protect us by thy might / Great God, Our King." And the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir offered a rousing version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the famous lines "His truth is marching on. / Our God is marching on."
We got the definite impression watching this event on television that the United States is a God-worshipping, God-fearing nation. As it says on the money: "In God we trust." And the Pledge of Allegiance is to both the flag and "the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times titled "One Nation Under God?" Molly Worthen ponders the drift away from traditional Christian congregations and the rise of a growing number of "nones" in the country — those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that this category now includes 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008. In addition, many of those leaving behind religious attendance and involvement call themselves "spiritual but not religious."
Although there have always been "nones" in America, they are more obvious now, especially in contrast to conservative Christian activists who have been trying to set the moral agenda of the country with their campaigns against abortion, homosexual marriage, and what they see as the ethical disarray of secularists. These developments prompted Worthen to conclude that "the temple of 'my personal opinion,' may be the real 'established church' in modern America."
Her view is just one of many pointing to the changing landscape of American religion. Here are more.
Christian Communities After Religion
In Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Beginning of a New Awakening, Diana Butler Bass presents the following statistics which reveal some of the critical changes taking place in our times:
- "Since 1960, the number of Americans claiming belief in God went from a "most emphatic" 97 percent to 71 percent — a 26 point drop."
- "Only 20 percent of the population attend church each weekend."
- "Roughly 44 percent of Americans have left their childhood faith in favor of another denomination or religion or by dropping any religious affiliation at all."
- "By 2010, in a stunning change, America's third largest religious group — and one of its youngest — is 'unaffiliated,' an independently minded group, with no single issue, theology, or view of God."
Bass challenges Christians to acknowledge that there is much work to be done: "to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, to form new communities, and to organize ways of making the world a better place." Her vision for the new spiritual awakening in Christianity revolves around relational community (belonging), intentional practice (behaving), and experiential belief (believing). She presents a vivid portrait of both the problems and the potential of Christian communities after religion. Check out her response to the question "Why are people rejecting the word 'religious' in favor of the word 'spirituality'?"
A Third Way Beyond Religion and Secularism
In Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivers a cogent and fresh vision of a third way beyond religion and secularism that can lead to unity and a global community based on trust and reverence for all.
All religions, according to the Dalai Lama, have provided humanity with teachings about inner values (kindness, honesty, patience, and forgiveness) that can serve the common good. At the same time, many religions have promoted divisiveness and war based on ideologies of exclusivism. This activity has been roundly criticized by secularists who yearn for a world beyond conflict between "us" and "them."
As an alternative to the long and senseless battles between science and religion, the Dalai Lama suggests a spirituality that moves beyond the limited purviews of secularism (progress, materialism, consumerism, etc.), science, and religion to an ethics that promotes the oneness of the human family. See this excerpt on the values that lie behind the Dalai Lama's vision.
A Bad Rap for Three World Religions
In Religion Gone Astray, the Interfaith Amigos, Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, sadly admit that three of the world's religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) have justifiably gotten a bad rap for doctrines, attitudes, and actions which violate the core teachings of the Abrahamic traditions. For Jews, that core teaching is oneness; for Christians, unconditional love; and for Muslims, compassion. In addition, individuals and institutions of these religions have not been true to the spiritual practices which undergird the core teachings: for Jews, the weekly reminder of meaning and purpose in the Sabbath; for Christians, the cultivation of forgiveness and renewal; and for Muslims, the spirituality of mind and heart. In this excerpt from their book, they identify the positive core concerns of each Abrahamic faith. This kind of interfaith confession of errors and affirmation of what they offer the world is a sign of changing attitudes.
The Baby Boomers and Their Quest Culture
Wade Clark Roof's Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion was one of the first to map the "quest culture" of the largest generation in U.S. history. He charts five subcultures and reveals that many Baby Boomers have chosen to remain unaffiliated with religious institutions. Responding to this development, a broad and eclectic group of suppliers has arisen to serve Boomer needs and interests: self-help groups, retreat centers, spiritual seminars, New Age workshops, meditation recordings and an unending stream of books about spirituality and the world's religions.
Pick-and-Choose Approach to Faith
In Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millenium, Richard Cimino and Don Lattin hit the mark in a chapter titled "Searching for Self and Spirit." They discuss the phenomenon of experiential spirituality and the pick-and-choose approach to faith which has become the model for millions of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. The authors also predict the expansion of workplace spirituality, peace between science and religion, increasing links between spirituality and health, and the growing use of the media as a vehicle for spiritual insight.
Portrait of a Seasoned Seeker
In The Seeker's Guide Elizabeth Lesser defines spirituality as "a fearless investigation of reality" where one's deepest longings become a compass for the journey. She wisely lists the ten dangers of spiritual pride, including narcissism, superficiality, instant transformation, grandiosity, ripping off religious traditions, the inner child tantrum, and the guru trip. Providing a framework for a spirituality of wholeness, she covers mind, heart, body, and soul. Included are tips and practices for meditation, heartfulness, healing, death, unity consciousness, prayer, and working with a teacher. As Lesser has spotted the changes in American religion caused by the rise of contemporary American spirituality and proves to be a thoughtful, hospitable, and open-minded guide through the new territory. She suggests you begin by identifying your spiritual hunger.
Another Seeker's Spiritual Journey
No Ordinary Time: The Rise of Spiritual Intelligence and Evolutionary Consciousness by Jan Phillips presents another example of the adventures of putting together your own spiritual toolkit, as so many of today's "spiritual but not religious" and "nones" do. In this out-of-the-box imaginative work, Phillips blends creativity, mysticism, consciousness raising, and spiritual practice into startling and illuminating new configurations. She has created a new Book of Hours for "people conscious of their power and ready to co-create new sacraments and ceremonies that celebrate the Divine dwelling within us. It is a handbook for people committed to justice, peacemaking and spiritual integrity who are eager to evolve themselves spiritually and creatively." Along with prayers and reflections, there are many poems by the author. In an excerpt, Phillips shares some tips on being a mystic.
Borrowing from All Traditions
God Has No Religion: Blending Traditions in Prayer by Francis Sheridan Goulart is a spiritual/devotional book with prayers from all the world's religious and spiritual traditions. Goulart alludes to surveys indicating that almost half of all Americans under 30 and one-third of those over 70 think the best religion is one that borrows from all traditions. These seekers are exploring paths outside the bounds of the ones prescribed by institutionalized religions.
Rather than being seen as a rejection of a religion, the practice of using prayers from different traditions can deepen an individual's personal faith. As Karen Armstrong has pointed out: "By learning to pray the prayers of people who do not share our beliefs we can learn at a level deeper than creedal, to value their faith." Today's seeker has many prayer practices and prayerware (tools to assist us in our devotional life) to choose from and the author takes a brief look at lectio divina, mantra, arrow prayers, labyrinth, prayer walking or walking mediation, the inner light meditation, prayer journaling, and many other styles. The book is divided into sections on prayers of the day; for healing and hope; for gratitude and grace; of contrition and atonement; for the Earth and the animals; for peace and justice; to the saints, angels and ancestors; blessings; vows, pledges, and creeds; praise and devotion; affirmations and intentions; and litanies and mantras. Goulart's suggestions for adapting these prayers to your own needs is helpful, as are her concrete practice ideas. Here is a blessing by Caroline Myss that can be used by someone of any tradition or no tradition.
Movies on DVD
Higher Ground is a spiritual drama that challenges viewers to map their own journey of faith, asking questions, having doubts, and seeking a closer connection with God.
Corpo Celeste depicts the disenchantment of an Italian teenage girl in a Catholic confirmation class and her steps toward her own spirituality. She is on her way to being spiritual but not religious.