BOSTON — Underneath the biggest cult story in the US in 20 years lies an enduring question: What is spirituality?
Much of the reflection on the millennial sect Heaven's Gate, and the leader who compared himself to Jesus while leading his adherents to death, centers on the "spiritual" aspect of the tragedy.
Cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite's "spiritual philosophy" of the soul hit Page 1. Internet groups chat on "New Age UFO spirituality." One ex-Heaven's Gate member says Mr. Applewhite's "physical body was born in Houston, but his spiritual self was on a higher level."
Yet pastors and theologians say all this indicates how widespread, casual, and even devalued the idea of "the spiritual" has become in the US. They say a new level of "spiritual talk" among Americans may show a healthy longing for a higher or richer sense of life. But it also flattens or distorts a concept that had a distinct meaning inside churches and synagogues - of something genuinely "holy" or "divine" rather than merely psychological.
"The word spirituality is in such wide use today that it has lost its focus," says Gabriel Fackre of the Andover-Newton Theological Academy in Newton, Mass. "The closer we get to the year 2000 it seems, the more we will hear the phrase, from popular as well as cultic and esoteric movements."
Popular usage of spiritual has grown in mainstream culture as well as in churches and synagogues. Last Friday, for example, when the Rev. Martin Luther King's son met with James Earl Ray, in prison for killing Dr. King, the son, Dexter King, described the meeting to reporters afterwards as a spiritual experience that helped him "complete ... a spiritual circle."
Under the Protestant discourse that held sway, at least in many religious traditions, for much of the 20th century, spiritual suggested the nature or presence of God, the Holy Spirit. For the faithful, spiritual or spirituality was also tied to a deep moral sense - including a sense of history, responsibility to a community, and of truth as a meaningful concept.
In recent years, the word's usage has undergone dramatic change. It means everything from emotional fervor or intellectual excitement, to a sensual experience, to the description of a "family" like Heaven's Gate that hoped to join a UFO being who resembled ET, the loveable alien in the movie by Steven Spielberg.
Today, rock star Madonna describes herself as "spiritual." The recent film "Michael" about an angel on earth offers "both laughs and spirituality," says a reviewer. Spousal abuse is due to "spiritual weaklings," writes a feminist. One New Age healer asks audiences to "do something spiritual" for themselves. "Spiritual decorating" - arranging furniture in a way that is calming, for instance - is a fad. Yoga masters offer "spiritual massages" to eliminate "bad energy."
"I had a member tell me his daughter's wedding was the most spiritual moment of his life," says one local pastor, adding "He may have been confusing emotional with spiritual there."
THEOLOGIAN David Wells, author of "No Place for Truth," feels people use spiritual to challenge secular trends. "Modern life at a time where God is so marginalized can feel like a windowless room. People want to cut a hole in the ceiling. If you are mowed down by a secular culture, wounded, you feel a yearning for what is non-material." But, he adds, "there is a fundamental difference between this and Christian or Biblical forms of the word."
Experts point to three causes for the new use of the word: a backlash by the 1970s to a secularism that tried to eliminate spirituality, a new dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants after Vatican 2, and the popularity of Eastern religious ideas that use the language of spirituality.
"By 1972 we saw a shift from a cold secularism to a rebirth of spirituality as a viable category of personal identity," says Craig van Gelder, an expert on Christianity and culture at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Constructing one's spirituality becomes the project of the 1970s and '80s."
"After Vatican 2, you found many in the Protestant world gladly accepting a new word, spirituality, which was a new way of speaking about a religious inner life of prayer," says Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School. The word became "democratized among lay Catholics and Protestants" in the 1970s, he adds. Zen Buddhism, transcendental meditation, yoga, and other Eastern beliefs began to take hold among baby boomers, many of whom watched rock groups like the Beatles journey to the East.
Today, much of the coinage of spirituality is pumped into popular culture via various expressions of New Age. The broad category includes pagan and earth religions, new variants of the 19th-century versions of theosophy and spiritualism, and a host of healing techniques that essentially rely on the human mind to cure the body.
"In our postmodern situation, where words can mean anything, it is not surprising a cult like Heaven's Gate can reemerge," says Dr. Van Gelder. "In the postmodern world, in the spirituality of the '90s, God means whatever you want. There's no objective sense of the reality of God."
WHAT 'SPIRITUAL' MEANS
* Definitions of "spiritual" have evolved over time. The earliest meaning was incorporeal, the opposite of material. It was also used in relation to those things controlled by God. More recently the term is equated with intellectual, mental, and supernatural.