A shifting spiritual quest

Americans have a long – and ongoing – history as spiritual seekers. But the ‘a la carte’ approach to religion expressed by many people today challenges religious institutions to find ways to embrace them.

In his speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, President Obama signaled that one thing hadn’t changed despite a decade of a “new normal” in the lives of Americans.

“Our character as a nation has not changed,” the president said. “Our faith in God and in each other – that has not changed.”

He went on to quote one of the most moving and comforting passages in the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.”

That text, written well over two millenniums ago (and translated into English 400 years ago for the King James Version), speaks of the need to reject fear and acknowledge God’s goodness, presence, and power.

Its inclusion in Mr. Obama’s speech signals that Americans haven’t forgotten their long history as spiritual seekers.

Yet that ongoing spiritual quest is taking on new forms, some of which can seem troubling at first glance. Polls show many outward signs of religious activity, such as attendance at religious services, creeping downward. A new suspicion of the motives and aims of institutions – whether political, commercial, or religious – is on the rise.

At the same time belief in God and interest in spiritual matters continue to rank highly in polls of Americans of all ages.

Today more Americans seem to be striking out on their own in their quest for spiritual progress, taking an “a la carte” approach to their religious beliefs.

America is evolving toward a place with “310 million people with 310 million religions,” says religious pollster George Barna, adding, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs – our clothing, our food, our education” – and our religion. A survey of Protestant pastors in the United States showed that 62 percent think the importance of being identified with a particular denomination will diminish over the next 10 years.

Shaking the dust off a religious practice that’s devolved into nothing more than habit, ritual, or routine certainly isn’t a bad thing. Active seekers, not sleepy slackers, are more likely to find what they are seeking.

Many teens and young adults also seem more eager than ever to show their compassion for others through community service work, whether in the US or overseas. Much of it is faith-based. And they’re less likely to hold onto religious, racial, or other prejudices against groups.

That’s to be applauded.

At the same time they’re likely to see their spiritual quest as not necessarily the same as someone else’s – or their truth the same as another’s. They are less likely to want to identify themselves with a specific denomination than are older Americans.

What may be lost “going it alone” – without a tie to a formal group of worshipers – is “a vital support system in the pursuit of a deeper relationship with God,” Mr. Barna says.

The challenge for America’s religious organizations now is how to embrace today’s spiritual wanderers while staying true to their own founding vision.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.