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Spirituality in the 21st Century

A TIO Editorial

The story goes that late in the sixties, seminarians at Pacific School of Religion, an historic Protestant seminary in Berkeley, California, chained themselves to the furniture in the president’s office with the following demand – We want a course in spirituality!

That they had to nudge the law’s boundary to be heard reflects the Protestant distrust, half a century ago, of spirituality, mysticism, and personal experience as a path to the Divine, except within the confines of creed and community.

Early this year Pacific School of Religion produced a day’s retreat for the public (and prospective students) titled “Spiritual Snapshots,” featuring the spiritual practices of several dozen different traditions. As reported in TIO, it was so successful that they will be doing it again.

This radical turn-around, a sudden welcoming of all matters spiritual, has blossomed throughout the culture, in media and social media, influencing education, public and private, from kindergarten to graduate school, including seminaries. UCLA, hardly a religious school, has become a leader in studying the relationship between learning and spirituality, and numerous universities have related programs. The emerging Spiritual But Not Religious community, as detailed in this issue, claims well over 30 million adults in the U.S.

Spirituality and Interfaith

A similar, subtler shift regarding spirituality is going on in the interfaith movement. Religious leaders who first stepped forward as interfaith bridge-builders have historically been wary of connecting at the level of Spirit. If you wish to attend a worship service at any Parliament of World Religions, it will be led by a single tradition, never several. Recent popes have made a habit every ten years of inviting the world’s religious leaders to gather in Assisi. They talk together at length, but they pray separately. In some interfaith organizations, to this day, the very notion of ‘interspirituality’ is a kind of third rail, never to be touched if you want to keep your constituency with you.

This interfaith quarantine of spirituality has been undermined in numerous ways from the start. Huston Smith’s World Religions did more than teach us about the world’s religions. We've learned how Smith, a Methodist to this day, meditated for years with Zen Buddhists and practiced Vedanta with the Ramakrishna community. Closer to home for most of us, in neighborhoods across America, Thanksgiving interfaith services bring together ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and elders from all sorts of traditions to sing, chant, and pray together. Since its founding in 1988, the North American Interfaith Network has never had a prohibition of spiritual practice or of shared leadership in worship, ceremony, or ritual. And if one tradition offers a special service for the larger community, other traditions are encouraged to do likewise. Similarly, the United Religions Initiative Charter has no rules about sharing spiritual practices and talking about what that means. The Interfaith Center at the Presidio, a member of both NAIN and URI, has sponsored programs about interspirituality for a dozen years.

Brother Wayne Teasdale (1945-2004), a Catholic monk, coined the term “interspirituality,” and for him it was not to be banned but embraced. He died too young, but a burgeoning community follows in his wake, talking about much, much more than sharing worship. Their work has never been closely tied to the interfaith movement, but that is about to change.

Brother Wayne Teasdale

Brother Wayne Teasdale

This month marks the launch of The Coming Interspiritual Age by Kurt Johnson and David Ord, an ambitious first attempt at a kind of unified field theory integrating science, social science, philosophy, religion, and spirituality. Many will quarrel with them. This month’s TIO features an interview with the authors and reviews by a Buddhist, a Christian, and a Jew, all interfaith friendly but firmly grounded in their own traditions. They each have ‘issues’ with the book, but they applaud its intention and much that it contains. If nothing else, your vision will be expanded and you will be faced with delicious information and questions most of us haven’t considered before.

The rest of the ‘spirituality’ contributions in TIO this month are fascinating stories drawn from half a dozen interfaith spiritual journeys, culminating in a profile of Marcus and Mary Braybrooke. Marcus, a TIO Correspondent and monthly contributor, is known as the historian of the interfaith movement. But Ruth Broyde Sharon’s story underlines how spiritually grounded this interfaith couple is. As the accompanying bibliography suggests, they are Christians who drink deeply from the spiritual wisdom of all traditions and remain pioneers in sharing it with the rest of us.