The stuff that was on the very outer fringes of cultural acceptability only recently is becoming mainstream in some very important ways. Yet we as Unitarian Universalists are missing this cultural sea-change and dooming ourselves to fundamental and, I suspect, quite permanent, irrelevance. We sit back and dismiss these movements out of hand – this hunger people have for something of significance that feeds their souls. We see it as somehow too “woo-woo” or “New Age”. Yet in our complacency, the world is passing us by very, very quickly. The folks who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, some of whom are referred to as Cultural Creatives, constitute approximately 20% of our population and probably reflect an even larger percentage of the demographic in more hip, urban and liberal areas where many of our churches exist.
As sophisticated UUs, I have heard us scoff at those who race after chimeric “spiritual” fixes – like The Celestine Prophecy or The Secret or “What the Bleep Do We Know” – and yet people who are seeking comfort in these things, and other ideas that are even stranger, have a deep human longing to become more whole and more loving people whose lives are rooted in something deeper than the shallow materialism of our age. This “pop” spirituality speaks of something much more profound - a human tropism towards the spiritual. It speaks of something that is emerging in our culture that has profoundly ancient antecedents. It runs so deep that it might even be irreducibly embedded in structures of human consciousness or even the fabric of the universe itself. The problem is that these popular forms of spiritual expression are ill-formed, lack depth, and are concocted out of ideas that seem to us rational folk to be patently foolish, confused and magical. In short, a throw-back to pre-rational superstition.
And many of them are. And yet…While this frothy spirituality oftentimes denies and condemns the deeper wisdom traditions, their ideas are the distant and sometimes barely recognizable relatives of the much deeper truths found in perennial philosophies and the paths of mystics in Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu traditions, among others. While the airy ideas of these facile trends lack depth and discipline, they can serve as gateways for literally millions of people to possibilities of real spiritual depth and profound experience. In talking with many UUs, the story is the same. Plenty of visitors, but few stick. Could part of the reason be because we are so very close to what they are looking for on paper, but fall short of embodying that promise in action, particularly with respect to spirituality?
As a faith that ostensibly draws on these well-grounded and respected traditions, we as Unitarian Universalists have the opportunity to deeply explore and live these truths and thereby offer to the world a path of depth, integrity and real meaning. But this way requires that we take our spiritual calling as seriously as we take our political one. It requires that we truly acknowledge the sources, not just with affirmation, but with incarnation. It requires discipline and study and devotion to spiritual practice.
Our denomination runs the risk of being swept into irrelevance. It continues to shrink in most appreciable ways and it is rapidly aging. We live in deadened humanism and narrow definitions of liberal political orthodoxy that have already been dismissed by our culture as fundamentally irrelevant. At this point, we have no voice that is resonating with those around us. Yet in our Sources we have latent depth and profound messages that, if taken seriously and coupled with spiritual practice, can not only revitalize our congregations but drive a new message of relevant political and social transformation.
Many leaders of cultural thinking point to emerging structures of consciousness that profoundly integrate the spiritual, the psychological, the intellectual and the ethical dimensions of life in ways that shape the soul. While this emerging consciousness is clearly not a panacea, and will raise its own problems, we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way ordinary people construct the meaning of their lives. It would be a shame to sit on the sidelines and only watch when we have the very real potential of dynamically participating in the emergence of a new order of human consciousness.
© 2007. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.