Last week, I wrote about the “spiritual revolution” as described by religious scholars Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, philosopher Charles Taylor, and psychoanalyst David Tacey. I posed the question: Is the current turn toward subjectivity and inner experience is expressive of anything more than self-indulgent individualism?
While Charles Taylor observes that one of the main features of the new spiritualities of the modern age is their subjectivism and their focus on individual health and wholeness, he sees the accusation of “self-absorption” to be “an illusion” that is the product of the reified debate between those who insist on religious authority and those who reject such authority.
Taylor sees the actual spiritual experience of our modern era to be less polarized and more complex and striated than even Heelas and Woodhouse portrays. He notes that in the process of spiritual pursuit many practitioners will recognize for themselves the inadequacy of the purely individualistic self-development forms. So, he marks the movements from shallow or one-sided spiritual expression to deeper, more complex forms. In doing so, he critiques the descriptions of experience that Heelas and Woodhouse want to place in opposing camps, for instance, that between “heeding and conforming to a source of significance which ultimately transcends the life of this world,” as against “seeking out, experiencing and expressing a source of significance which lies within the process of life itself.” Taylor notes that practitioners of Taize or Buddhist meditations, which Heelas and Woodhouse place within the subjective milieu, may indeed rely on transcendent and even authoritative sources of instruction and belief.
Taylor also notes that people can effectively move between or integrate old religious formalities with new spiritual sensibilities. So, while he certainly notes the tensions that are casting these as polar opposites, he also insists that “if one can escape from this dialectic which propels people to these extremes, it should be clear that there are other alternatives, and that much of today’s spiritual/religious life is to be found in this middle ground.” What even the middle-grounders will not allow, however, are “a priori exclusions or inescapable starting points, which could pre-empt their experience.”
I like what Taylor says here because he places the spiritual journey within the authority of the person whose experience it is. Wherever the traveler chooses to pause, for nurture, rest, instruction, labor, it all becomes part of the experience, the movement. Spiritual community should be content, then, with providing resources, support, dialogue, and companionship for the journey rather than preempting experience with a predetermined and exclusive starting point, path, and destination. This is the model we are using at Christ Church.
Where do you see yourselves on your spiritual journey: a deep forest, an open plain, a hard dusty road, a miring bog, a backward track to find something lost, a contemplation upon a sunset, a middle ground between two or more paths, a fork in the road?