In search of the spiritual
The 1960s did not penetrate very deeply into the small towns of the Quaboag Valley of central Massachusetts. Even so, Father Thomas Keating, the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, couldn’t help noticing the attraction that the exotic religious practices of the East held for many young Roman Catholics. To him, as a Trappist monk, meditation was second nature. He invited the great Zen master Roshi Sasaki to lead retreats at the abbey. And surely, he thought, there must be a precedent within the church for making such simple but powerful spiritual techniques available to laypeople. His Trappist brother Father William Meninger found it in one day in 1974, in a dusty copy of a 14th-century guide to contemplative meditation, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Drawing on that work, as well as the writings of the contemplatives Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, the two monks began teaching a form of Christian meditation that grew into the worldwide phenomenon known as centering prayer. Twice a day for 20 minutes, practitioners find a quiet place to sit with their eyes closed and surrender their minds to God. In more than a dozen books and in speeches and retreats that have attracted tens of thousands, Keating has spread the word to a world of “hungry people, looking for a deeper relationship with God.”
For most of history, that’s exactly what most people have been looking for. But only a generation ago it appeared from some vantage points, such as midtown Manhattan, that Americans were on their way to turning their backs on God. In sepulchral black and red, the cover of Time magazine dated April 8, 1966—Good Friday—introduced millions of readers to existential anguish with the question Is God Dead? If he was, the likely culprit was science, whose triumph was deemed so complete that “what cannot be known [by scientific methods] seems uninteresting, unreal.” Nobody would write such an article now, in an era of round-the-clock televangelism and official presidential displays of Christian piety. Even more remarkable today is the article’s obsession with the experience of a handful of the most prestigious Protestant denominations. No one looked for God in the Pentecostal churches of East Los Angeles or among the backwoods Baptists of Arkansas. Muslims earned no notice, nor did American Hindus or Buddhists, except for a passage that raised the alarming prospect of seekers’ “desperately” turning to “psychiatry, Zen or drugs.”
History records that the vanguard of angst-ridden intellectuals in Time, struggling to imagine God as a cloud of gas in the far reaches of the galaxy, never did sweep the nation. What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God. And a uniquely American acceptance of the amazingly diverse paths people have taken to find it. NEWSWEEK set out to map this new topography of faith, visiting storefront churches in Brooklyn and mosques in Los Angeles, an environmental Christian activist in West Virginia and a Catholic college in Ohio—talking to Americans of all creeds, and none, about their spiritual journeys. A major poll, commissioned jointly with Beliefnet.com, reveals a breadth of tolerance and curiosity virtually across the religious spectrum. And everywhere we looked, a flowering of spirituality: in the hollering, swooning, foot-stomping services of the new wave of Pentecostals; in Catholic churches where worshipers pass the small hours of the night alone contemplating the eucharist, and among Jews who are seeking God in the mystical thickets of Kabbalah. Also, in the rebirth of Pagan religions that look for God in the wonders of the natural world; in Zen and innumerable other threads of Buddhism, whose followers seek enlightenment through meditation and prayer, and in the efforts of American Muslims to achieve a more God-centered Islam. And, for that matter, at the Church of the Holy Communion, described by the Rev. Gary Jones as “a proper Episcopal church in one of the wealthiest parts of Memphis,” where increasingly “personal experience is at the heart of much of what we do.” A few years ago Jones added a Sunday-evening service that has evolved into a blend of Celtic evensong with communion. Congregants were invited to make a sign of the cross with holy water. Jones was relieved when this innovation quickly won acceptance. “We thought people would be embarrassed,” he says.
Whatever is going on here, it’s not an explosion of people going to church. The great public manifestations of religiosity in America today—the megachurches seating 8,000 worshipers at one service, the emergence of evangelical preachers as political power brokers—haven’t been reflected in increased attendance at services. Of 1,004 respondents to the NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll, 45 percent said they attend worship services weekly, virtually identical to the figure (44 percent) in a Gallup poll cited by Time in 1966. Then as now, however, there is probably a fair amount of wishful thinking in those figures; researchers who have done actual head counts in churches think the figure is probably more like 20 percent. There has been a particular falloff in attendance by African-Americans, for whom the church is no longer the only respectable avenue of social advancement, according to Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University. The fastest-growing category on surveys that ask people to give their religious affiliation, says Patricia O’Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., is “none.” But “spirituality,” the impulse to seek communion with the Divine, is thriving. The NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll found that more Americans, especially those younger than 60, described themselves as “spiritual” (79 percent) than “religious” (64 percent). Almost two thirds of Americans say they pray every day, and nearly a third meditate.
These figures tell you more about what Americans care about than a 10,000-foot-high monument to the Ten Commandments. “You can know all about God,” says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelist, “but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” In the broadest sense, Campolo says, the Christian believer and the New Age acolyte are on the same mission: “We are looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” And what could be more mundane than politics? Seventy-five percent say that a “very important” reason for their faith is to “forge a personal relationship with God”—not fighting political battles.
Today, then, the real spiritual quest is not to put another conservative on the Supreme Court, or to get creation science into the schools. If you experience God directly, your faith is not going to hinge on whether natural selection could have produced the flagellum of a bacterium. If you feel God within you, then the important question is settled; the rest is details.
As diverse as America itself are the ways in which Americans seek spiritual enlightenment. One of the unexpected results of the immigration reform of 1965 was its effect on American religiosity. Even Christian immigrants brought with them unfamiliar practices and beliefs, planting on American soil branches of the True Jesus Church (from China) or the Zairean Kimbangu Church. Beliefnet, the religious Web site, sends out more than 8 million daily e-mails of spiritual wisdom in various flavors to more than 5 million subscribers. Generic “inspiration” is most popular (2.4 million), followed by the Bible (1.6 million), but there are 460,000 subscribers to the Buddhist thought of the day, 313,000 Torah devotees, 268,000 subscribers to Daily Muslim Wisdom (and 236,000 who get the Spiritual Weight Loss message). Even nature-worshiping Pagans are divided into a mind-boggling panoply of sects, including Wicca, Druidism, Pantheism, Animism, Teutonic Paganism, the God of Spirituality Folk and, in case you can’t find one to suit you on that list, Eclectic Paganism.
Along with diversity has come a degree of inclusiveness that would have scandalized an earlier generation. According to the NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll, eight in 10 Americans—including 68 percent of evangelicals—believe that more than one faith can be a path to salvation, which is most likely not what they were taught in Sunday school. One out of five respondents said he had switched religions as an adult.
This is not surprising in the United States, which for much of its history was a spiritual hothouse in which Methodism, Mormonism, Adventism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nation of Islam all took root and flourished. In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences. There is a streak in the United States of relying on what Pacific Lutheran’s Killen calls “individual visceral experience” to validate religious ideas. American faiths have long been characterized by creativity and individualism. “That’s their secret to success,” says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “Rather than being about a god who commands you, it’s about finding a religion that empowers you.”
Empowerment is at the heart of Pentecostalism, which has burgeoned from a single Spirit-touched believer at a Kansas Bible school at the turn of the last century to 30 million adherents in America and more than half a billion worldwide. Marching under the Pentecostal banner is a host of denominations whose names roll off the tongue like a voice from heaven: Church of God, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Assemblies of God. Among them is a tiny Brooklyn storefront church whose sign grandly proclaims the Cathedral of Deliverance. This is where 43-year-old Ron Cox, who left his mother’s large Southern Baptist church in his teens, now lives and works as an assistant to the bishop, Steven Wagnon. He tried Hinduism, but it failed to move him; looked into Buddhism, but lost interest when a Buddhist couldn’t tell him the meaning of her chant. But one summer night recently, guided by the voice of God to a Pentecostal revival in full-throated swing, he was transfixed by the sight of worshipers so moved by the Holy Spirit that they were jumping, shouting and falling to the floor in a faint. Soon he, too, was experiencing the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit. Once, it seemed to lift him right out of his body:
“I felt the Spirit come upon me, and it was an overwhelming presence. It was bliss. I thought only 10 or 15 minutes had passed, but three hours had gone by. And I remember just shouting, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!’ ”
The bliss Cox felt was mingled with awe—the Holy Spirit was inside his very own body. That helps explain Pentecostalism’s historical appeal to the poor and marginalized: rural Southerners, African-Americans and, more recently, Hispanics and other immigrants. It is burgeoning in the developing world. “For people who feel overlooked, it provides a sense that you’re a very important person,” observes Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. By the same token, people with social aspirations preferred other churches, but nowadays Pentecostalism—the faith of former attorney general John Ashcroft—has lost its stigma as a religion of the poor. And elements of Pentecostal worship are invading other denominations, a change that coincided with the introduction of arena-style screens in churches, replacing hymnals and freeing up people’s hands to clap and wave. Naturally, there is some attenuation as you move up the socioeconomic scale. Babbling in foreign-sounding “tongues” turns into discreet murmurs of affirmation. “An atmosphere that is joyous, ecstatic and emotionally expressive is appearing in all kinds of churches now,” says Harvard’s Cox, “even if it’s not labeled Pentecostal.”
Empowerment requires intensity of effort; Americans like the idea of taking responsibility for their own souls. This may be why Buddhism—a religion without a personal god and only a few broad ethical precepts—has made such inroads in the American imagination. “People are looking for transformative experience, not just a new creed or dogma,” says Surya Das, a U.S.-born Tibetan lama whose spiritual journey began in 1970, when he was a student from New York’s Long Island named Jeffrey Miller. “The Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount are already there.” In most Buddhist countries, and among immigrants in America, the role of the layperson is to support the monks in their lives of contemplation. But American converts want to do their own contemplating. Stephen Cope, who attended Episcopal divinity school but later trained as a psychotherapist, dropped into a meditation center in Cambridge, Mass., one day and soon found himself spending six hours every Sunday sitting and walking in silent contemplation. Then he added yoga to his routine, which he happily describes as “like gasoline on fire” when it comes to igniting a meditative state. And the great thing is, he still attends his Episcopal church—a perfect example of the new American spirituality, with a thirst for transcendence too powerful to be met by just one religion.
People like that could become panentheists, too—a new term for people who believe in the divinity of the natural universe (like the better-known Pantheists), but also postulate an intelligent being or force behind it. To Bridgette O’Brien, a 32-year-old student in the recently created Ph.D. program in Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, “the divine is something significant in terms of the energy that pervades the natural world at large.” Her worship consists of composting, recycling and daily five-mile runs; she describes herself as “the person that picks the earthworms off the sidewalk after the rain to make sure they don’t get stepped on.” Those seeking a more structured nature-based religion have many choices, including several branches of Druidism. “I talk to my ancestors, the spirits of nature and other deities on a regular basis,” says Isaac Bonewits, a 55-year-old New Yorker who founded one of the best-known Druid orders. Wicca, the largest Pagan sect, with an elaborate calendar of seasonal holidays and rituals, is popular enough to demand its own military chaplains. Un-fortunately from the political standpoint, Wiccans refer to themselves as “witches,” although they do not, in fact, worship Satan. This confusion led President Bush, when he was Texas governor, to urge the Army to reconsider allowing Wiccan rites at a military base, with the comment “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion.”
Unlike Buddhists, Catholics cannot take sole responsibility for their souls; they need the sacraments of the church to be saved. But they, too, have experienced a flowering of spirituality, especially among the “John Paul II Catholics,” who were energized by the late pope’s call for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Since it arrived in the United States in 1957, the “cursillo” movement has initiated more than a half-million American Catholics into the techniques for seeking a direct communion with God. Cursillo, which means “short course,” involves a three-day retreat of silent contemplation and lectures that lean heavily on the spiritual vocabulary of evangelism. Also on the rise is the Adoration of the Eucharist: shifts of silent prayer, sometimes round the clock, before the consecrated host in an otherwise empty church. (You can do the same thing over the Internet; one site says it received 2.5 million hits in a year for its unchanging Webcam image of an altar and a monstrance.) “It’s been surprisingly popular,” says Robert Kloska, director of campus ministry at Holy Cross College in Indiana. “You wouldn’t think in modern society there’s such a yearning for silence and mysticism, but there is.”
Kloska is less enthusiastic about the other manifestation of spirituality he sees on campus, an affinity for “high-energy, almost charismatic prayer and worship.” Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which got its start in 1967 when a Duquesne University group on a weekend retreat felt a visitation by the Holy Spirit, now runs thousands of prayer groups in the United States, where worshipers may speak in tongues or collapse in laughter or tears. “Young people got tired of hearing that once upon a time people experienced God directly,” says historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago. “They want it to happen for themselves. They don’t want to hear that Joan of Arc had a vision. They want to have a vision.” It’s a little more problematic when the Holy Spirit visits during a regular mass. Clayton Ebsch, a retired technician, was enthusiastic when a charismatic priest took over Precious Blood Parish in Stephenson, Mich., even after some of his friends left for more-traditional parishes. Still, he found that speaking in tongues didn’t come naturally. “It was just unfamiliar, speaking gibberish and jibber-jabbering,” he says, although he sees one virtue in it: “It humbles you.”
The Vatican seems ambivalent about these developments. On the one hand, the church wants to keep the allegiance of adherents who have been deserting to evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Three quarters of Hispanic immigrants to the United States are Catholic, but the figure drops to about half by the third generation in America. On the other hand, the raison d’etre of the church is to mediate between the faithful and God. The future Pope Benedict XVI summed up the Vatican’s attitude back in 1983, when he wrote of the relationship between “personal experience and the common faith of the Church.” Both are important, he said: “a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind.” In simpler terms: Let’s not get carried away here. Emotions come and go, but the mass endures.
The quest for spiritual union with God is as old as mankind itself, uniting the ancient desert tribes of Mesopotamia with the Christian hermits on their mountaintops with American pop singers at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, poring over the esoteric wisdom encoded in early Jewish texts. And who can begrudge it to them? Well, David Blumenthal of Emory University’s Institute for Jewish Studies, for one. His view of the aspiring scholar Madonna is that “anyone who claims to be a Kabbalist and then sings in public largely in the nude is hardly a Kabbalist.” The mystical impulse in Judaism—kept alive for centuries by the tiny, fervent band of Hasidim, but long overshadowed in America by the dominance of the rational, decorous Conservative movement—is reasserting itself. The founding text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, conveys the message that God’s power depends on humanity’s actions. God needs our worship. “It’s the same impulse behind Zen Buddhism, Tibetan masters, Hopi Indians,” says Arthur Green, rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston. “The ancient esoteric traditions might have something to teach us about living in this age.” Even at Hebrew Union College, a citadel of Reform Judaism, provost Norman Cohen admits that “what the Kabbalah can teach us—how to have a relationship with God—has to be treated seriously.”
The Hasidim pray ecstatically; they dance with the Torah; they fast to achieve a higher spiritual state, and they drink wine for the same reason. With their distinctive black frock coats and curly sideburns, they are a visible and growing presence in New York and some other cities. Orthodox Judaism, of which they are a branch, is on the rise among young Jews who trade Friday-night dances and shrimp egg foo yung for a more intense religious experience. Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg calls the phenomenon “Jews by choice,” reflecting the reality that Jewish practice is no longer a tribal imperative. In a world in which practically every religion has its own cable-TV channel, to step inside a synagogue becomes an existential choice. “To me, that is the revolution of our time, and I don’t mean just Judaism,” Greenberg says.
In fact, the same issue is very much on the minds of America’s Muslims. Forced to define themselves in the face of an alien—and, in recent years, sometimes hostile—majority, the second generation especially has turned increasingly observant. Unlike their parents, they may attend mosque several times a week and pray five times a day, anywhere they can unroll a prayer mat. It has not been lost on them that the way to fit in in present-day America is to be religious. “When our parents came here in the 1960s or ’70s there was a pro-secular culture,” explains Yusuf Hussein, 22, who was born in Somalia but came to southern California as a teenager. “For us, being a Muslim is the way to forge our own identity, to move forward, to be modern.”
Islam emphasizes the unity of all believers, so American-born Muslims are shedding the cultural accouterments of the many countries from which their parents came, or the political freight of African-American converts. They are intent on forging a purer and more spiritual religion. “It’s easier being Muslim and African-American than just being African,” says Imam Saadiq Saafir, 60, whose journey took him from Christianity to the Nation of Islam and then to orthodox Sunni Islam. Muslims pray to God without the intervention of a priest or a religious hierarchy; he is never farther away than the Qur’an, which is the direct and unmediated word of Allah. “There are many ways to be spiritual,” says Megan Wyatt, a blond Ohioan who converted to Islam three years ago. “People find it in yoga. For me, becoming a Muslim gave me the ultimate connection to God.”
So, a generation after the question was posed, we can certainly answer that God seems very much alive in the hearts of those who seek him. We have come a long way, it would appear, from that dark year when the young Catholic philosopher Michael Novak was quoted in Time, saying, “If, occasionally, I raise my heart in prayer, it is to no God I can see, or hear, or feel.” To make the point, we gave Novak, who is now 72 and among the most distinguished theologians in America, the chance to correct the record on his youthful despair. And he replied that God is as far away as he’s ever been. Religious revivals are always exuberant and filled with spirit, he says, but the true measure of faith is in adversity and despair, when God doesn’t show up in every blade of grass or storefront church. “That’s when the true nature of belief comes out,” he says. “Joy is appropriate to the beginnings of your faith. But sooner or later somebody will get cancer, or your best friends will betray you. That’s when you will be tested.”
So let us say together: Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Sh’ma Yisrael. Allahu Akbar. Om. And store up the light against the darkness.
With Anne Underwood, Ben Whitford, Juliet Chung, Vanessa Juarez, Dan Berrett and Lorraine Ali Autor: Jerry Adler