CARMELITE LIBRARY LECTURE GIVEN ON THE 4th OF MARCH
David Tacey's lecture 'Spirituality and Religion in a Secular Age' is also available in pdf from the Library Please request at this email firstname.lastname@example.org
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born. – Matthew Arnold1
We live in a period of history in which public opinion is privileging
‘spirituality’ above ‘religion’, and where the latter is regarded with a good deal of
suspicion. ‘Religion’, as the term is used in popular discourse, refers to religious
practices based on creeds, doctrines, beliefs. With modernity and fashion weighted
heavily against tradition, and sceptical of belief in any form, the term ‘religion’ has
come to carry a negative connotation. ‘Spirituality’, as this term is used today,
refers to the personal pursuit of the sacred, often expressed in untraditional ways.
In an individualistic and non-communal society, this tends to carry a positive
connotation. Spirituality in the West is influenced by Eastern philosophies, and the
turn to the East is forcing spirituality and religion even further apart.
I sometimes imagine spirituality and religion as separating continents, which
were once fused and formed a stable platform for Western civilisation. But a
rupture has occurred in the continental plates, and the foundations of Western
culture have been shaken. The separating paths of religion and spirituality indicate
that the West is in crisis and we live in a time of radical transition. This continental
drift has impacted hugely on religious institutions, causing them to lose public
authority and bringing them to the point of near collapse. But along with this the
social and psychological foundations of the West have been disturbed as well.
The construction of spirituality and religion as opposites is anomalous from
an historical point of view. ‘Spirituality’ once referred to the living core of religion
and the capacity to appropriate religion in a personal way. While those who
attended weekly services and recited creeds were said to be ‘religious’, those who
wanted to take faith a step further, experience religion from the inside, and
establish a personal relationship with God, were said to be ‘spiritual’. But in the
public arena today, spirituality has little or nothing to do with formal religion, and
refers to all forms of activity that concern the search for meaning. As American
theologian Sandra Schneiders concedes:
We have to recognize the linguistic fact that neither religion in general nor Christianity in
particular any longer controls the meaning and use of the term ‘spirituality’.2
Some religious people say spirituality has been hijacked by the secular, and that
may be the case, but it is now an historical fact, and cannot be changed or reversed.
Recently the idea of ‘secular spirituality’ has emerged in popular and scholarly
discourse, a term which would have been viewed as contradictory a hundred years
the ascendancy of spirituality
Reflecting on the new patterns in society, historian William Johnston writes:
To the surprise of many, the term spirituality has become democratized since monastics
first disseminated it. Ideals that for centuries an elite viewed as virtually unattainable now
prompt spiritual growth in everyone. In a word, a ‘spirituality revolution’ during the past
thirty years has democratized pursuit of holiness.4
Ten years ago I published a book called The Spirituality Revolution,5 which was
based on my experience of teaching a spirituality course to university students. The
students seemed secular and irreligious on the outside, but in their inner lives I
discovered a profound hunger for the sacred, which was not noticed by the
education establishment, which adopted the view that religious life was private not
public, and of no educational or social interest. But nor was their often intensely
religious inner lives noticed by the religious establishment, which adopted the view
that young people are overwhelmingly secular and disbelieving.
Here is the nub of the problem: they may well be disbelieving, but that does
not quench the thirst for the sacred outside the established systems of belief.
Indeed, as I will go on to argue, I think the age of belief has ended, and we are
entering a new era of faith, based on experience. Religion won’t go away, but it
will keep changing its form. The philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that the
enigmatic ‘re’ at the start of religion ensures that this phenomenon will re-turn, revive,
re-new. ‘Religion is that which succeeds in returning’, Derrida writes.6 Just
because the values and attitudes of today are not churchy, does not mean they are
not religious in the broad sense of respectful toward the sacred. Religion has
returned but most of us are unaware of its return. Another French philosopher,
Frédéric Lenoir said recently:
God is not dead, but in a state of metamorphosis. The sacred is taking on new forms and
resurrecting some very old ones. We are currently experiencing one of the greatest
religious transformations ever known to man.7
If we look for God in the old places, with old expectations, we will have to
conclude that God has disappeared. The same is true for religion: it has
disappeared, if we are looking through the old lens. The present compels us to be
prophetic, to move beyond conventions and see with new eyes the presence of the
sacred in a secular time.
Secularisation and individualisation are the keys to the ascendancy of
spirituality. Without the empowerment of the individual that comes with modernity
it would be impossible to conceive of the rise of spirituality to its present heights.
Spirituality is full of the excitement of individual exploration, whereas formal
religion carries with it the weight of history and the burden of tradition. Religion is
viewed as collectivist and communal, without much attention to the individual
spiritual journey. Many people have deserted Western religions for Eastern paths,
or for a life of secular disenchantment. Spirituality has thus been pried apart from
the traditions that gave rise to it. But since Western civilisation is now overwhelmingly secular, there seems little chance of spirituality being brought
back into the religious institutions by order of their authority. The original context
of spirituality is still found in seminaries and monasteries, where, for instance, we
find such traditions as Jesuit, Benedictine or Carmelite ‘spiritualities’. But this
ecclesiastical use of the term is now marginal, compared with the vast numbers
who appropriate the term in a different way.
Spirituality is no longer the province of theologians or churches but regarded
as an essential aspect of human personality, shared by everyone regardless of their
membership of institutions. It points to the capacity to intuit or bear witness to a
spiritual dimension of self and world, and the capacity to form a relationship with
this dimension regardless of religious hierarchy. The spiritual revolution is not so
much anti-clerical as it is a product of an individualism which ignores religious
hierarchies and pays them no attention. In a sense it is Protestantism taken to a new
extreme, in which religious traditions are disregarded. Many secular people are not
antagonistic to religions, as the churches imagine; they simply don’t care about
them. To say they hold them in contempt is to overestimate their concern. Indeed
the word ‘religion’ is often used as an insignia for that which is no longer relevant.
Today it has become common for people to say that they are ‘spiritual but not very
religious’, whereas this would have been unheard of a century ago.
In an historical sense, the term spirituality has undergone a reversal: it once
referred to those who were very religious, and now it refers to those who are not
very religious. The spiritual has been wrenched out of traditions and made an
aspect of human character and society. Spirituality has fantastically expanded as a
term, and refers to many human endeavours and interests, whereas the term
‘religion’ has fantastically contracted. Religion was once a large circle inside
which spirituality was a smaller circle, and now they are reversed: spirituality is
the all-encompassing arena, and religion(s) are optional extras within that arena for
those who are so inclined. As time goes by, fewer seem inclined to take up formal
religious pathways. Formal religion is no longer essential, as it was, for instance, in
the 1950s, when I was a boy.
Since the late middle ages, a huge amount of human experience has been
seized from the churches and brought across into the secular domain. I would
suggest that the spiritual is the most recent aspect of our experience to be
appropriated by the secular. First, governance, political authority and economics
were secularised, then the law, morality and ethics were appropriated by secular
humanism and the nation state. Now spirituality has been captured and hauled
across to the worldly side. It is indeed a revolutionary impetus, and not one that
can be easily reversed. Hundreds of years ago, the churches relied on their
authority to call people to spiritual order, but in this regard the horse has bolted.
Religious authorities who try to recapture their former authority are laughed at by
the secular majority, or not noticed at all. Sometimes religious people ask me, as a
investigator of the spiritual in society: When will people come back to churches
and return to worship? I am often lost for words when I am asked this question.
Such people are unaware of the extent of the secularisation process, and I cannot
see this being changed any time soon.
Religions are no longer entrusted with the task of discerning our spiritual
orientation, and are connected in the popular mind with moralism, piety, hypocrisy,
homophobia and misogyny. Most recently, an epidemic of child sexual abuse,
which has been unearthed across the Christian world – and pushed in our faces by
the secular media – has further reduced the credibility of Western religion.
Religious extremism is linked in the popular mind with violence, terror and warmongering
fundamentalism. These are some of the issues that have served to
tarnish the brand ‘religion’ in our time, and as a result ‘spirituality’ has been
awarded the task of doing what was once noble in religion, that is, connecting us to
the sacred and circumscribing for us the purpose of our existence.
We still do not have reliable figures on the extent and scale of the
‘spirituality revolution’ of which William Johnston speaks. This is because our
secular society is not particularly interested in the sacred and hopes it will go away.
On the other hand, religious institutions are not interested in a phenomenon that
does not reflect positively on their own status, or put bums on seats. Churches are
not thrilled to learn of their continuing demise, or of the rise of a social trend called
‘spirituality’. Consequently religious surveys ask predictable questions of the
public, such as whether they attend church services, and how often, but rarely do
such surveys explore the interior spiritual lives of members of the public. Secular
sociologists are not interested in personal spirituality either, since it contradicts
their view that society is becoming more rational and less religious. Only gradually
are researchers finding the courage to see the new patterns that are emerging in our
spirituality as religious experience
In today’s social climate, it will not win popular votes to point to the
ongoing connection between spirituality and religion. For a start, the word ‘spirit’
inside the word ‘spirituality’ is a religious term. Although many try to dissociate
spirituality from religion, and make it synonymous with wellbeing, health or
happiness, the term continues to have religious connotations. ‘Spirit’ may not refer
to the holy spirit, but it does point to an unseen, life-supporting power that has
links with religion. Another link is the idea of connectedness, which is common to
religion and spirituality. Whenever I ask young people to define their spirituality,
they tend to reply: ‘spirituality is connectedness’. They tend to list about four kinds
of connectedness: connection to the soul or inner self, to nature and environment,
to people and cultures, and a few speak of their connection to a cosmic principle or
Spirit. In saying this, they seem unaware that religion means connectedness, even
though they denounce religion in the same breath. Religion comes from the Latin
religio, meaning ‘to reconnect’ or ‘bind back to’. It refers to the innate impulse in
human beings to connect to the source from which life springs. The origin of the
term religion contains the spiritual dimension that modern parlance denies or
In my view, what is called ‘spirituality’ is a variant of religion, or more
precisely, it refers to what used to be called religious experience. Spirituality is
informal religion in a secular time. I dare not say this to most of my students, who
would become restive if I adopted this line. But what I see happening in our
civilisation is a profound shift in the structure and direction of religion. It is
apparent to me that the religious impulse will not go away, not even in secular
conditions. As David Hay puts it, the religious impulse is ‘ineradicable’.8 It is what
binds us to the sacred, and importantly, it is what binds us to each other. Those
who advocate spirituality without religion don’t seem to understand that they are
pursuing connectedness in a highly disconnected way, and often in isolation from
each other. If spirituality remains personal, the spirit becomes frustrated and does
not reach fulfilment. Spirit requires a sharing community, because spirit by
definition is not a private possession but a force that courses through our lives and
reaches beyond them.
This is another way of saying that spirit commands us to love, to love one
another, to love the natural world, and to love the source of our lives, which has
traditionally been called God. Love cannot be experienced alone; even hermits and
monks who pursued spirituality in monasteries and remote places felt themselves
to be connected to others through spirit. Spirit longs to be shared and
communicated; it is a transpersonal force that requires transpersonal goals. The
health of the individual is based on his or her ability to relate to and love others,
and this is true of society. If society is not animated by the flow of spirit and
ultimate meaning it suffers. The bonds that create community dry up, and people
become enclosed in egotistical cocoons, generating the alienation of suburban
living. In our world, it is hard to avoid living cocooned or buffered lives, because
society promotes individualism above community. But individualism and the
fulfilment of spirit are antithetical.
I see ourselves as on the way to a new understanding of religion, but we are
going by way of personal spirituality, which is a stage we are passing through. It
might be a stage, however, that takes some time to overcome. Once people realise
that personal spirituality is unsatisfactory, we will enter the next phase of a religion
that encourages spirituality as the foundation of its practice. The crisis of religion
has been caused by historical development and social change. The ecclesial
institutions have not kept pace with modern life, and have not presented a credible,
believable interpretation of their creeds. Modern people cannot respond to
supernatural miracles and wonders, to metaphysical certainties and claims that are
made by traditional faiths. As Bishop Spong put it: ‘A God the mind rejects will
never be a God the heart can adore’.9 The modern mind rejects a great deal of
religious systems, and in an age of science the claims of religions are impossible to
accede to. The theistic worldview, with a God above the skies, angels, spirits,
demons, Satan and hell does not tally with modern experience and cannot be
assimilated. The cosmos of the Bible is even more problematic than the invented
worlds of contemporary science fiction or science fantasy. An existential rupture
has set in between what religions espouse and what people are prepared to accept.
The dogmas of theology seem at best anthropomorphic and in need of
deconstruction, at worst, delusional in their capacity to talk about metaphysical
entities and beings that no one can confirm. This sets the scene for widespread
doubt, questioning and atheism.
The religious institutions have been marooned by history. They are based on
an ancient three-tiered cosmology (earth, heaven, hell) that was undermined by the
findings of science and philosophy, and have not been able to provide an account
for themselves that stands up to the tests of science and philosophy. A modern
apologetic could have been found, but it would have required throwing out a great
deal of theology, creeds and statements of belief that the churches had become
attached to. They clung to their ancient creeds for security, but as they did so the
world passed them by. They maintained business as usual, and hoped people would
be gripped by their revelation. But with the widening gap between experience and
tradition, they lost their hold on the population, especially the educated sector.
Most people were being educated according to scientific principles, and one of the
main principles is to question received truth and test all beliefs against one’s own
At this point, with the hunger for experience generated by the scientific
attitude, the religious institutions might have shifted direction, from wordy creeds
and religiosity to religious experience and spirituality. But this did not happen, as
the tradition had become fixed in its ecclesial ideology. Spiritual practices, which
would have spoken directly to modern requirements, had been largely forgotten or
ignored, or, as in the Catholic tradition, confined to monasteries and contemplative
can Western traditions win back the soul?
The tragedy of our time is that the faith traditions still don’t ‘get it’. They are
out of touch with modern conditions, and do not understand that modern people
will not accept beliefs and handed-down traditions. But, paradoxically, and this is
the key to understanding modernity, while rejecting beliefs and second-hand
knowledge of the sacred, modern people hunger for first-hand experience of the
sacred. This is what Derrida meant when he said, ‘Secularisation is only a manner
of speaking’.10 It is a manner of speaking, because it only accounts for life at the
surface. Beneath the secular surface, people are as desirous of the sacred as they
ever were, only this desire is expressed differently. In recent times, philosophers
and sociologists have had to radically revise their presuppositions about secular
society, with this subterranean life in mind. In The Desecularization of the World,
sociologist Peter Berger writes:
Secularization on the societal level is not necessarily linked to secularization on the level
of individual consciousness. Certain religious institutions have lost power and influence
in many societies, but both old and new religious beliefs and practices have nevertheless
continued in the lives of individuals.11
Because the surface of life is secular, and the depths are not, this makes reading
modernity extremely difficult. We can almost say opposite things about
contemporary life and both can be right. For instance, there is a widespread view
that thinking people tend toward atheism, but in view of a resurgent religious
impulse, one of Derrida’s followers, Gianni Vattimo, can write: ‘Today there are no
good philosophical reasons to be an atheist, or in any case, to dismiss religion’.12
The ball is back in the religious court, but why doesn’t religion recognise this
and respond to modern need? The answer is simply because the religious impulse is
in a state of metamorphosis, and not recognised as such by tradition. The impulse is
no longer churchy, no longer channelled into existing forms, but exists in an
inchoate condition. It has reverted to a pre-theological state and is not easily spoken
to by theology. It needs to be drawn out and educated, but this cannot be done by
the confessional faiths. We have a disjunction between desire and convention, or
spirit and form. This is another way of talking about the continental drift between
spirituality and religion. The West does not yet know what to do about this crisis.
To date, mainly Eastern paths have responded to the experiential spiritual hunger of
the post-secular West. Or to be more precise, Westerners have sought out Eastern
paths in desperation, and these pathways have responded. Unlike Western
traditions, which are caught in dogma and creed, the East is experiential in its
approach. It does not put dogma first, but individual human experience. The East
takes the human soul seriously, as a locus for the presence of the divine, whereas in
the West it is heavily discounted, a thing of suspicion, inferior to revealed truth.
Western traditions find the interior path to be distasteful and even irreligious.
This is because they do not have a positive image of human interiority. For Western
religion, original sin has tarnished the self forever, and there is no trace of God in a
self which has fallen from grace. However, in addition to original sin, there is
original blessing.13 Although the human ego has fallen from God, there is a deeper
self, a true self, which we might call the soul of humanity, which still possesses the
potential to connect with the divine. The spiritual potential of the soul is the basis
of mystical theology, and in the East it is called the Atman, which is the indwelling
presence of God. In the West we refer to the indwelling of the holy spirit, but it is
the least understood figure of the Christian trinity.
In its outward focus, Christianity has often insisted that the path to God is by
denying the self and attending to good works. But this style of religion only knows
the self as ego, that is, it does not see beyond the ego to the deeper reaches of the
psyche. As such, it tends to view interiority as narcissistic, a complaint frequently
made about interior pathways by conservative Christians. Thomas Merton often
faced this criticism, and in response he said the ‘mystical experience of God is not
and can never be a narcissistic dialogue of the ego with itself’.14 The denial of the
potentials of the soul, and the refusal to see the deeper self which lies beyond ego,
have long been offered as ‘reasons’ why orthodoxy in the West has repudiated the
mystical pathway to God. Such repudiation is not only wrong, it is against the grain
of the scriptures. In Luke, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about the dwelling place
of God, and he says:
The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo
there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.15
This mystical dimension of religion has been shut down by orthodoxy, and needs to
be opened up to new interest and scrutiny. Because that is precisely where the
modern world is looking for traces of the divine: not in tradition, history, miracles
or wonders, but in the living heart of our own ordinary experience. The modern
spiritual hunger is wonderfully conveyed in Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo.
Sagredo asks Galileo, ‘Where’s God?’ and Galileo’s inspired response is, ‘Inside us
or nowhere’.16 This is the gauntlet that modernity throws down to tradition: show
us the presence of God in our experience, or we cannot believe in God at all.
Instead of encouraging the new interest in religious experience, Western
authorities berate it and fob it off as irrelevant. As one archbishop said to me,
‘Spirituality is an unnecessary adjunct to faith’. Authorities block or resist the move
toward experience by asking pointed, moralistic questions, such as: Who do
modern people think they are? What gives them the right to think they can demand
more from the churches than they have offered for centuries? How can people
demand the spiritual understanding that was previously reserved for mystics,
monastics and saints? How can they ask for things that properly belong to the realm
of God’s grace? What has got into modern people? Is it the devil or a fallen angel?
Why this unholy hunger for transcendence? With this critical reception to the
modern hunger, it is little wonder that Westerners have gravitated toward the East.
As a university student, I had a close group of friends who had Christian
upbringings but all of them abandoned the West and turned East.
Western religious traditions have been caught unawares by the present
situation, and are facing the judgement of a world that is not impressed by their
highly developed, cerebral, and artificial theology. People want contact with God,
and are impatient with God-talk. Jung puts the situation well when he writes:
The modern individual has an ineradicable aversion for traditional opinions and inherited
truths. For him, all the spiritual standards and forms of the past have somehow lost their
validity, and he therefore wants to experiment with his mind. Confronted with this
attitude, every ecclesiastical system finds itself in an awkward situation, be it Catholic,
Protestant, Buddhist, or Confucianist.17
Jung believes that the project of religion is in jeopardy, not only Christianity but
every religion. Unless religions can place themselves on a more scientific footing,
and show people how they can experience in their souls what religions declare in
their creeds, he is pessimistic about the future of religions.
In his essays on psychology and religion, Jung argued that ‘the bridge from
dogma to the inner experience of the individual has broken down’. ‘Dogma no
longer formulates anything, no longer expresses anything; it has become a tenet to
be accepted in and for itself, with no basis in any experience that would
demonstrate its truth’.18 Several decades after Jung, philosopher Jacob Needleman
expressed the same insight in his work on the popular interest in gnosticism:
A practical bridge is needed to connect men to ideas, however great these ideas may
be.… Without this bridge, even the ideas of the greatest teachers become ineffectual or
destructive.… Without such a bridge, I stand before the ideas of the past as either a
believer or a doubter. Western religion allowed this bridge to fall, with nothing to take its
place. Ideas were presented merely as dogma. Men were urged to leap fantastically across
The authority of the church encouraged people to leap fantastically across the
chasm, which is what Kierkegaard called the ‘leap of faith’. Fewer are prepared to
make that leap, which is why the East continues to exert its attractive power, since
it empowers the individual to explore his or her own inner depths. In the sutras,
Buddha actually encourages followers to be sceptical of his own teachings, and to
trust their own experience. This philosophy of religion seems to be perfectly
matched to our post-secular condition, which is why Albert Einstein famously said,
‘the future of religion is Buddhism’, or, more precisely: ‘If there is any religion that
could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism’.20
mysticism as the bridge between spirituality and religion
In my view, mysticism can become the bridge between secular spirituality
and religious tradition. The mystics, like many of us today, were not satisfied with
second-hand knowledge of the sacred, but lusted after direct experience of the
divine. The mystics were prepared to break the rules and transcend conventions to
arrive at a personal experience of the sacred. As such, the mystics are our spiritual
predecessors, who give us a framework for understanding the contemporary
hunger. We are mystics in waiting, unsatisfied with hearsay and creeds, and eager
to confirm with our own experience the existence of forces beyond the mundane. If
the churches reflected on their mystical traditions, they would be in a better
position to understand the spiritual situation of today, and perhaps halt the flow of
creativity and talent to the East. But how do we convince the churches to take their
own mystical traditions seriously?
Although spiritual practices once flourished in religions, over the last few
hundred years theology has become an intellectual and heady enterprise. Mysticism
was not encouraged, but frowned on as indulgent, subjectivist and unnecessary.
Because religions felt they contained absolute truth, they saw no point in
experimenting with this truth in the crucible of personal experience or spiritual
journeys. The journey had already been untaken by tradition, and all people had to
do was follow its precepts and attend to its demands. This set religion on a collision
course with modernity, where only subjective, personal confirmation of truths
would prove to be acceptable. Tradition felt people were becoming insolent and
narcissistic, unwilling to accept what was good and true; whereas modern people
could not understand why tradition expected them to make gigantic leaps of faith.
Ironically, Western traditions are sitting on rich resources of mystical knowledge
and experience, but the caskets are locked and people are not invited to partake.
Mystics have always been regarded as a mixed blessing. The Protestant
churches, as part of their reaction to Catholicism, dispensed with medieval
mysticism as an obsolete and outmoded way of contacting God. To the reformed
churches, God was fully present in revelation, scripture and the historicity of Jesus.
It seemed irrelevant to have to reach for God in the dark and murky depths of the
soul, in interior and subjective experience. God for the Protestants was objective,
metaphysical and ‘out there’; the historical Jesus was compelling and there was no
need to explore the mystical Christ. Interior exploration was viewed as unnecessary
and even antisocial. There was no ‘secret sacred’, only a publicly declared
sacredness which is realised through worship, hard work and social action.
The Catholic tradition is in a better position to take advantage of the present
need for spiritual substance. But even the Catholic church finds itself compromised.
It has undergone its own reformation, which replaced the old mystical theology
with systematic theology. With modernisation, the mystics were viewed with
ambivalence, as figures of disturbance who upset the serenity of the institutions.
Mystics were on fire with God, which meant they were unpredictable quantities and
might not have experiences that conformed to established beliefs. The Catholic
church only canonises those mystics who conform to doctrine, and such honours
are bestowed long after they are dead and unable to cause further trouble. The
Jesuit writer William Johnston, who spent decades studying Zen Buddhism and
finding parallels with Western tradition, believed that the Christian prejudice
against the mystical needs to be overcome. He writes:
Today we are face to face with a new world that is attracted by mysticism and is
impatient of irrelevant and wordy speculation. Now we are entering into dialogue with
the mystical religions of Asia. In these circumstances a revival of Christian mysticism
will certainly come. Indeed, it is already with us. Will the much neglected mystical
theology become the centre of all theology? Surely this is the way of the future.21
I agree, and the most insightful mystics in recent times, such as Thomas Merton
and Bede Griffiths, like Johnston himself, spent much of their lives trying to
understand Eastern mysticism and why it exerted such a mesmerising influence on
Westerners. Each of them realised that Western religion was in a crisis of relevance
and the East could provide enormous help in recovering the interior dimension of
religious life. West and East ought not be seen as competing with each other: both
are trying to access the same ultimate reality, but from different sides. It is simply
that the West took the extraverted route – the presence of God in history, revelation
and tradition – whereas the East took the introverted route – the presence of God in
experience, subjectivity and consciousness. We have arrived at an ‘Eastern’
moment in the West, and rather than turning literally to the East and abandoning
our tradition, we might consider cultivating a more introverted pathway to divine
The theologian of the Second Vatican Council, Karl Rahner, said:
The future Christian will be a mystic or he [or she] will not exist at all.22
When I first read this, I thought it was a tall order, and could not imagine ordinary
folk in my own community becoming mystics in order to achieve faith. But
knowing as I do the obstacles to faith today, and the impossibility of belief, I now
agree that unless people struggle to find an authentic personal connection with the
sacred, they might never achieve faith at all. Rahner added:
By mysticism we mean a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of
Each person will have to find his or her own way to the soul, and this is not an easy
task. It requires a journey to the depths and an awakening of the person to the spirit.
If we want God in our lives, this demands of us far more work and toil than had
hitherto been the case. If we can recover religion as a spiritual pathway, and not
merely as an ethical code, we might win back its power. Something more primary
than morality has to be stirred and awoken. This is the spirit of the person, which
has to be searched for, encountered and experienced.
between old and new
To conclude this paper, I would say we are in a period of transition at
present, and the decline of the old is more apparent to us than the rise of the new.
We should observe the passing of the old with respect, but remain alert to the
potentials of the future. It is still too early to tell how the new will manifest.
Today’s spiritual landscape presents an avid desire for the sacred, but
precious little awareness about how to invite it into our lives. Spirituality without
religion can be self-defeating to some extent. If spirituality is desire for the sacred,
religion is the memory which holds the priceless wisdom about what the sacred is
and how it can be achieved. Religion provides us with cultural memory, a common
language, a sense of community and a heritage. The modern individual needs all
the help he or she can get, and the pursuit of spirituality without cultural memory,
common language, community and heritage often seems doomed from the outset.
However, the established religions are not opening their coffers of wisdom to the
masses, but are asking them to accept the finished products of creeds, dogmas, and
rituals without wrestling with the raw materials of their own souls. Religions
provide us with the destination, but do not offer us a Way, the means of approach,
the points of entry. We cannot just accept religion, we require an initiation into it.
Mysticism is the untapped resource that can reconnect (religio) modern
passion with traditional wisdom. If spirituality is the pursuit of the sacred, often
conducted with a wilful or hungry attitude, mysticism is able to teach us how to
receive the sacred, rather than just go in search of it. In modern spirituality, there is
more searching than finding, because the way in which the search is conducted can
alienate the sacred from our lives. Searching without finding is expressive of the
consumer society in which we live, and to some extent modern spirituality
replicates the conditions of consumer society. The myth of personal spirituality,
where we are constantly searching but not finding, and where this search is
conducted privately without communal bonds or responsibility, is a myth of
individualistic society which has not yet been seen through.
Mysticism teaches us that the sacred is already close at hand, and God is an
intimate presence, closer than our own breath. If spirituality is about searching for
God, mysticism reverses this process, and shows us how and why God is already
searching for us. Mysticism can take much of the anxiety and fast pace out of
spirituality, and alert us to the fact that our task is not so much to grab at things
with consumerist delight, but to ready ourselves for the incursion of the sacred that
is always already present. Without this perspective, spirituality can be futile and yet
many are unaware of this fact, because society decries religion and does not see its
true value. Spirituality without mysticism is a quest without arrival, a search
without destination, a pursuit without the realisation that home is close at hand.
Private spirituality is no solution to our individual or social problems, but
that is where many of us are caught today, because the traditions do not speak to us
and we can’t return to them in their current form. Only when the traditions
rediscover their mystical pathways and sub-traditions, will they be able to address
the nature of modern spiritual hunger. We are caught between a religious
dispensation we cannot embrace, and a pursuit of spirituality that, although
fashionable, often leads to alienation. My sense is that many of us are in denial of
these problems, and young people in particular seem to be under the illusion that
personal spirituality will be the ultimate solution, they just need to practice it more
often, and things will work out. It is very difficult to live between the times,
because such times do not present us with the conditions that make a fully rounded
spiritual pathway possible. If the civilisation is fractured, if the continental plates
are drifting, we experience this as internal confusion and discord. The individual is
only as whole or complete as the social conditions allow him or her to be. The
popular new age movement, which is a product of consumerist society, ignores
these issues and treats spiritual matters as if they are entirely individualistic.
1 Matthew Arnold, ‘Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse’ (1855), in Kenneth Allott, ed., The Poems of Matthew
Arnold (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), pp. 285-94, 288, lines 85-6.
2 Sandra Schneiders, ‘Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?’ The Santa Clara Lectures 6:2, 2000,
3 Peter Van Ness, ed., Spirituality and the Secular Quest (New York: Crossroad, 1996).
4 William Johnston, Recent Reference Books in Religion (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 131.
5 David Tacey, The Spirituality Revolution: The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality (Sydney: HarperCollins,
2003; London and New York: Routledge, 2004).
6 Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone’ (1996), in
Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo eds, Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 39.
7 Frédéric Lenoir, in an interview with Nouvelles Clés, found online at:
8 David Hay, Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006), p. 15.
9 John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (New York: HarperOne, 2007), p. 54.
10 Jacques Derrida, ‘Epoché and Faith: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’ (2000), in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin
Hart eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 32.
11 Peter Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Publishing, 1999), p. 3.
12 Gianni Vattimo, in Derrida and Vattimo, op. cit., p. 29.
13 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (Santa Fe: Bear, 1983).
14 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961; New York: New Directions, 1972), p. 52.
15 Luke 17:20-21.
16 Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (1940), in Ralph Manheim and John Willett, eds., Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays,
Vol. 5 (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 23.
17 C. G. Jung, ‘Psychotherapists or the Clergy’ (1932), CW 11, § 516.
18 C. G. Jung, ‘The Psychology of Christian Alchemical Symbolism’ (1951), CW 9, part 2, § 276.
19 Jacob Needleman, The Sword of Gnosis: Metaphysics (London: Arkana, 1986), pp. 15-16.
20 Albert Einstein, ‘On Religion, God, and Philosophy’, in Alice Calaprice, ed., The New Quotable Einstein
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
21 William Johnston, Mystical Theology: The Science of Love (London: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 58.
22 Karl Rahner, ‘The Spirituality of the Church of the Future’, in tr. Cornelius Ernst, Theological Investigations, Vol.
20 (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1981), p. 149.
23 Rahner, ibid.