Spirituality makes a comeback

A recent Pew survey points to a drift away from institutionalized religion and a robust tendency towards spirituality. I’ll leave … Continued

A recent Pew survey points to a drift away from institutionalized religion and a robust tendency towards spirituality. I’ll leave a detailed examination of the numbers to others, but I think Catholic America needs to revisit the spiritual side of religion expressed in the term “spirituality.”

In the history of Catholicism, spiritualities arose at moments of crisis to renew the Church. Franciscan spirituality, for instance, emerged at a time of increasing commercial wealth that had created a new class of urban poor. The Franciscan spirituality added a new charism to Catholic virtue. While it was eventually approved by the hierarchy, Franciscanism at its core is spirituality arising from among the faithful.

It may be a good thing to see the rise of spirituality in contemporary Catholic America, even if the hierarchy does not command the movement. It proves the vitality of the faith, although it probably will require a lot of hard work to keep this energy focused on renewing today’s institutionalized Church.

Church leaders run the risk of ignoring the current rise of the “NONES.” This is a category for religious surveys developed by my colleagues Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar and incorporated in the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS) over more than two decades. A NONE says to the survey that he/she has “no particular religion.” But the NONES are not the same as atheists. The NONES may deny the importance of institutionalized religion but they do not share the atheist’s common belief that the spiritual world does not exist.

A special characteristic of the current spirituality among the NONES is the inclusion of practices taken from religions like Wicca, Santería and Buddhism in forging eclectic new mixes. It would be a mistake, I think, to view this rising phenomenon in the United States as a result of intellectual confusion, ignorance or superstition. While none of us are immune from error, much of the new spirituality is in fact focused on a person’s encounter with spirits. Thus, for instance, the new survey found that 29 percent of respondents had experienced contact with spirits of the dead. Notice that this is not abstract “belief that ghosts exist,” but an actual lived experience. While atheists might use reason to state a priori that such contact is impossible, or a bishop might declare that such reports are “unconfirmed by ecclesiastical authority,” it is clear that, among a sizable group, lived religion trumps fact-denying declarations from professional nay-sayers.

Spirituality that recognizes living contact with spirits is especially important to the Latino segment of Catholic America to which I belong and which is a large and ever growing part of the Church’s future. Our Catholicism has always had room for spirituality based on the sentiment: “If you have talked to a Puerto Rican and he/she has not mentioned the spirits, then you haven’t talked to him/her long enough.”

I would not say that every reported experience with ghosts is automatically to be accepted. However, even when we Latinos and Latinas doubt the divine origin of a particular reported spirit manifestation, we recognize that the spiritual world does actually exist and is not bound by normal, ordinary rules. Moreover, even when the manifestation is attributed to the devil or restless spirits, we do not deny that the manifestation may be real – we instead invoke divine protection as a response to the reality of evil spirits.

Latinos and Latinas are not the only ones to have such views. The Irish often are wary of “the little people,” and Italians are not the only ones to fear the “evil eye” (as reported in the survey). Renewed interest in Celtic or Mediterranean spirituality includes such elements.

Contact with spirits occurs in the “paranormal:” It not an imagined realm, but a spiritual dimension of humanity that exists alongside the merely rational dimension of life. (“Alongside” is after all a meaning of “para” in “paranormal.”) It remains to be seen if institutionalized religion will expand enough in the future to embrace this aspect of contemporary spirituality. Past Catholicism gloried in paranormal manifestations like levitation, the stigmata, and apparitions that framed our piety. The return to a spirit-filled spirituality may be in the future of Catholic America.

  • ccnl1

    You must be joking!!!”Past Catholicism gloried in paranormal manifestations like levitation, the stigmata, and apparitions that framed our piety. The return to a spirit-filled spirituality may be in the future of Catholic America.”Reality 101:Past Catholicism’s misadventures into the paranormal were the start of its downfall. These ridiculous paranormal notions of levitation, apparitions and stigmata if regenenerated to go along with the flaws and errors in its history and theology will simply hasten its total obsolescence. Wake up Mr. Stevens-Arroyo, this is the 21st century!!!!!

  • persiflage

    A. Stevens-Arroyo says:’A special characteristic of the current spirituality among the NONES is the inclusion of practices taken from religions like Wicca, SanterĂ­a and Buddhism in forging eclectic new mixes. It would be a mistake, I think, to view this rising phenomenon in the United States as a result of intellectual confusion, ignorance or superstition.’Such cross-fertilization is very likely a good thing, and certain to take the edge off of the religious absolutism that afflicts fundamentalist believers, whether they be Protestants, Catholics or Muslims. We’d like to see this eclectic trend toward the inclusion of disparate spiritual possibilities reduce the toxic effects engendered by religious purists everywhere, and theists in particular. After all, the world of the paranormal was the foundation and origin of most religious belief to begin with…….

  • cornbread_r2

    While Anthony Stevens-Arroyo acknowledges the obvious cultural differences claimed for the attributes, motives and actions of putative spiritual beings, he somehow fails to draw the equally obvious conclusion: that spirits only exist between people’s ears — in their minds. If spiritual experiences were real, wouldn’t they be the same for everyone regardless of one’s cultural heritage or place in time?More worrying is that he thinks communing with spirits is a good thing. That might be true if everyone’s perception of spiritual beings was exclusively that of chubby, rosey-cheeked cherubs dispensing puppies and luv the world over, but unfortunately many people also perceive spiritual beings telling them to perform unspeakable acts against their fellow creatures. And how does one determine if the spirit talking to them is a good spirit with only good intentions, a malevolent spirit with equally evil intent, a good spirit pretending to be a bad spirit for some mysterious reason, or vice versa?As an atheist, I would not say that spirits are an impossibility. As a reasonable person I can only say that I haven’t experienced them and note that *every* time these claims have been empirically investigated in the past they have been found to be baseless.

  • ccnl1

    Cable Show Alert!!!!”Letting Go of God”A “must see” for all is Julia Sweeney’s take on the Christianity that is being shown on Showtime (12/29/2009, Comcast, Philly area). With great humor, honesty and preparation, she lampoons the old and new testament, Catholicism, Mormonism, Buddhism, religion in general, the Pope, Karen Armstrong and Deepak Chopra.