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."

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."

Small, more intensive study groups that emphasize fellowship and healing, or an active study of Scripture, are one of the most popular vehicles for "growth," "change," and even "redemption" in churches and synagogues. More sermons today speak of "letting go" or "opening up" - to higher sources of guidance or grace, says Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes, author of "The Good Book."

"The essence of faith has always been a ... visceral connection to God," says David Cooper of the Jewish Heart of Stillness Meditation Center outside Denver. "Many Jews are coming back to that."

Ms. Uhrbach was inspired by the blend of celebration and devotion she found at the Bah'i Geshuron temple in Manhattan. "My intellectual side was always developed. But I began to integrate it with heart and soul when I saw these highly functioning people who took God seriously."

Ms. Vogel from Bethesda found some churches featuring children's theaters or social causes as the main event on Sunday. She didn't mind; but felt it wasn't enough. "If I can't find some feeling of reverence at church I feel cheated," she says.

The desire to be moved and to increasingly integrate faith into daily experience is also evident in seminaries and divinity schools:

* At the relatively secular Harvard Divinity School, a prayer group of Orthodox Jews, various Christians, and Buddhists, now meets weekly. The group asks how disciplined prayer relates to their academic inquiry - and challenges liberal theology's tendency to assume God is not available or knowable. "We find that prayer shifts our priorities in relation to the theological material," says organizer Sarah Coakley, a professor there. "When you are no longer just studying, but praying, you ask what difference the experience makes. You have to question your vision of God. Most of us slay early on our idea of God as some anthropomorphic being in the sky."

* The evangelical Wheaton College Bible Department last year held a conference on "Spirituality in the Evangelical Tradition," considered a departure. "Twenty years ago, no one would have thought of such a thing," says Dr. Noll of Wheaton. "Ten years ago, no one would know what it meant. But today, it seems a response to a yearning that intellectuals in previous generations would have been embarrassed about."

* The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, a conservative school that long stressed cerebral wrestlings with Jewish texts, has begun to offer seminars and informal talks on spirituality, nurture, and the subjective nature of faith.

Historically, say many scholars and theologians, the demand for a deeper-souled faith is as old as the impulse described by Augustine in the 3rd century: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

In the Protestant spirituality of the 18th and 19th centuries, say historians, religious "affections" were considered the heart of faith. " 'Affections' is a word that has lost its meaning," says Dr. Platinga. "It's a word that goes past the emotional to mean an inextricable wedding of heart and mind deep in the individual - from whence we issue a series of wholehearted 'yeses' to good and 'noes' to evil. It used to be central to faith. It probably has to be relearned. But I think some people are, or are trying to."

Seeking faith or sensation?

For many serious religious thinkers the main issue is discerning between real faith, and emotional sensation. Some are bothered by cheap references to "spirituality," or efforts to sell "good news" in ways that bypass the life of the church, and offer easy answers. They say real spirituality is often found in a struggle to act and think in moral ways, and to share in a like-minded community. Nor can a feel-good affective approach be an escape from the spiritual realism required to confront sin and hate.

"There's a lot of hostility to churches, and to the disciplines they require, in some of this new stuff," says Dr. Elshtain. "Church is more than a support group for 'me' and 'my' private brand of spirituality."

"Faith has always been heart and mind together," says Seattle author Marva Dawn. "Faith is not just a one time experience, remember. It is also how we live the rest of our lives."

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