America: land of spiritual hunger

Many in the US yearn for a 'religion of the spirit.'

From flourishing megachurches to potent voices in the political arena, the growth of conservative Christianity is fully on display. Many attribute this growth to Americans' desire for an anchor in a swiftly changing world, a set of rules to live by.

Yet the surge in spiritual seeking beyond the bonds of organized religion continues apace as well. Less than half of Americans attend church in any given week, though only 2 percent say they don't believe in a higher power.

In recent polls, 84 percent say spirituality is important in their lives, and 62 percent consider themselves "deeply spiritual."

How did America become a land of spiritual questing?

Leigh Schmidt, religion professor at Princeton University, takes issue with what he sees as a facile analysis of the "new spirituality" that has tied it simply to watershed events of the 1960's and New Age philosophies. Nor is it always, he says, an outgrowth of the occultism in early American life, as some have asserted.

In Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Dr. Schmidt explores the cultural roots of this broader search for meaning. He finds its origins in the intellectual circles of early 19th- century America and its evolution in "the rise and flourishing of religious liberalism in all its variety and occasional eccentricity." Criticizing the orthodoxies of their day, liberals exchanged piety for spirituality.

What could be called the "Spiritual Left" goes "deep in the grain of American culture," he says. "It is here for the long haul."

In its commitment to individual searching, reconciliation among faiths, and social progress, this spiritual left is "not a rootless baby-boomer quest," he insists, "but a more deeply grounded and complex exploration of a cosmopolitan spirituality."

While it includes romantic, even naive elements, he notes, it is also rooted in the yearning for a more direct relationship with God or the divine that feeds the deepest hungers of the heart.

Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendental Club in 1838, Schmidt presents his story largely through the inner lives of prominent figures - individuals who today might be termed "thought leaders." (Among them, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William James, Swami Vivekenanda, Rufus Jones, Sarah Farmer, Howard Thurman, Oprah).

It is also a tale of spiritual communities - Greenacre, Pendle Hill, Trabuco - where kindred souls shared the fruits of their searches and experimented with spiritual practices.

From Transcendentalists through Reform Jews and progressive Quakers, New Thought leaders, and proponents of Eastern religions, they imagined themselves to be charting a path "away from the old 'religions of authority' into a new 'religion of the spirit.' "

For some, it became a search for a universal spirituality that would seek common ground among faiths of East and West, and break down barriers and religious hostilities.

"Restless Souls" provides a vivid picture of the spiritual ferment of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and introduces many whose writings or speeches crystallized developing thought.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for example - minister, abolitionist, and advocate of women's rights - penned an influential essay in 1871, "The Sympathy of Religions," which pointed the way for the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

In the early 20th century, Quaker professor Rufus Jones of Haverford College wrote on mysticism; spurred development of the retreat center, Pendle Hill, outside Philadelphia; and popularized the idea of the spiritual seeker. (He also led the relief work of the American Friends Service Committee, which won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize.)

In the wake of the World Parliament of Religions, Sarah Farmer created the summer community of Greenacre in Eliot, Maine, as a center of learning on global spirituality.

For more than two decades, "under pines and in tents, mental healers communed happily with Hindu swamis, Buddhist practitioners, university professors, accomplished artists, and Concord sages," Schmidt says. It became "a holiness camp for religious liberals."

But the colorful Greenacre story highlights a major question still posed by those engaged in the spiritual quest: Are seekers to keep on seeking as a means of self-expansion or should they pursue an end to their search?

After much exploration, Farmer found her answer in commitment to the Bahai faith. Yet her decision sparked tensions at Greenacre and led to the community's decline.

For some seekers, the whole point is freedom and self-reliance - what some have criticized as narcissism or "religion as self-expression." Emerson called himself "an endless seeker."

For others, the aim is to find that deep connection to the divine which often involves self-abnegation and renunciation of ego. "The struggle at the heart of Farmer's spiritual journey ... - the tension between autonomy and self- surrender - has hardly disappeared from America's contemporary seeker culture," Schmidt says.

Like other historians, the author shies from analyzing the contemporary spiritual landscape, though he criticizes the penchant for describing it in economic parlance as shallow consumerism. Schmidt is alert to the weaknesses of the spiritual left, but also sympathetic to its serious purposes.

"Restless Souls" is an accessible though scholarly survey of a vibrant part of American spiritual heritage; it brings to the fore the substantive struggles in which "the primacy of individual experience is joined to a whole web of spiritual practice and social commitments."

He sees the spiritual left's history and global vision as a continuous if quieter counterweight to the religious right in "the outworking of American democracy."

Perhaps a striking illustration of its cultural influence came last week in a Newsweek/Beliefnet survey, which revealed that 79 percent of Americans - and a remarkable 68 percent of evangelicals - said they believe good people of other faiths can gain salvation, a position contrary to Christian orthodoxy.

Jane Lampman is a staff writer for the Monitor.

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