Worship Shift: Americans Seek Feeling of 'Awe'
Jan Uhrbach is changing the focus of her life. The New York law partner, who is Jewish, is leaving her firm to study the Torah. "I've been finding myself more willing to acknowledge and act on my spiritual feelings, my sense of God," she says. "I used to think that kind of thing was weird or embarrassing."Skip to next paragraph
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Marta Vogel hungers for more reverence. The Bethesda, Md., mother and writer now church hops, trying Quaker quietness and Methodist celebrations, but is still searching. "I'm a word person. I like sermons," she says. "But I also want awe, and reverence. Who knows how to explain that? But it is something early Christianity did have."
Call it, perhaps, the impulsion of the heart.
While the late 1980s are depicted as a sterile time for faith, the late 1990s show signs of renewed spiritual seeking among a small but growing swath of Americans. Worshippers are now thirsting for experiences that deeply move them - not just intellectually but emotionally, spiritually.
"People aren't looking just for answers," says Mark Noll, a well-known historian of Christianity, "they are looking to feel something more."
A greater emphasis is now being placed on what traditional churches have called "heart" and "soul." Also known as the "affective" side of faith, this shift involves a fuller engagement of the worshipper than the cognitive mind alone - and may include diverse types of prayer, music, celebration, healing, or some other form of deepening one's daily communion with Deity.
"Both on the elite level and at the popular laity level ... people are going back to pre-modern sources of Christian spirituality,' says Richard Mouw, dean of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "[In the 20th century] we've heard about the disenchantment of the universe. What people desire is a re-enchantment."
Jonathan Sarna, an expert on Judaism at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., similarly observes, "I'm finding less security among people in the view that through raw intelligence we can solve everything," speaking of the broad reawakening to Jewish traditions of healing and spirituality. "That was the view I grew up with in the 1960s. But it broke down throughout the 1970s and '80s."
In fact, the religious stirring has been so active that some of the seasoned faithful who lamented a spiritual barrenness now warn about a flood of self-centered fads and a lack of discipline among seekers.
"There's some real ferment out there," says Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of divinity at the University of Chicago. "But is this 'seek and ye shall find?' Or is it just another sampling of the smorgasbord of possibilities that culture is offering up for our consumption?"
A shift toward the affective dimension is found across the spectrum - Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Sufis, evangelicals, New Agers, the "unchurched," parents, and clergy.
Not that the shift represents a majority. Nor is anyone talking about a "Great Awakening." Rather, it is described as a response to everything from social chaos to a failure of conventional religion. Too many experts, "too much information, not enough meaning" are common refrains. "A lot of people come to this out of broken lives," one minister said.
Finding God in Gregorian chants
Those seeking an affective experience look for it in everything from solitude to the grandeur of nature. They can be found in stadiums across the US filling with evangelical Chosen Women and the Promise Keeper men who vow to renew their affections as husbands or fathers. They help fuel the popularity of new kinds of music - from sonorous Gregorian chants to the post-techno Christian songs of rocker Moby.
And they are trying new faiths or crossing long-held denominational borders. Today, for example, Baptists visit Russian Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics become evangelicals, Methodist ministers go on Benedictine retreats of silence. Even volunteer work like Habitat for Humanity has been described in religious terms, as an "experience of unselfishness."