American Spirituality – What Does it Exactly Mean?

While the rest of the world is watching 24 (my partner Dave entertains himself by emailing me updates like Bauer just saved my beloved Ontario International Airport), I can’t afford to be emotionally brought to my knees this spring so instead I chowed down this lovely essay on spirituality in America over at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

If I had to check a box next to Religion, I would search for "Spiritual, not religious." This may seem like an odd designation – after all, I don’t believe in God nor do I believe in dualism (a soul independent of the body). But, I do consider myself spiritual in the New Agey kind of sense. I like buddhism, I like meditation, I like introspection, I’m starting yoga in March, I like the sound of waves crashing against the rocks as the sun sets. Most important, I am on an endless quest for truth, for meaning, for understanding. This attitude is all fuel for David Brooks’ fire who says “soft-core spirituality,” with its attendant “psychobabble” and “easygoing narcissism,” is epidemic.

In this essay Professor Schmidt outlines six characteristics of American spirituality:

• a yearning for mystical experience  or epiphanic awareness                  

• a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation                  

• a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to that presence                   

• a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a search for unity in diversity

• an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive reforms                   

• an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and adventuresome seeking                   

Now, if only a church existed to cultivate such an outlook! (More on that idea in our next exciting mission.)

9 Responses to American Spirituality – What Does it Exactly Mean?

  1. sarccastik says:

    interesting question….i never looked it the american spirtuality in the terms of Professor Schmidt….very interesting….good post

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    You know that we’re going to be starting a church, Ben. I’m nominating you for pastor.

  3. Anisha Desai says:

    Hi Ben- Reading your blog and keeping up on you from afar. Check out the Swedenborgian Church, right next to UHS. Shares some of the tenets that you put forth. From what I remember, they honor a wide variety of perspectives and beliefs about a higher being, or lack thereof, and also honor the human personal development, intellectual and spiritual curiosity and achievement. May not be precisely what you are seeking- but worth checking out. Also, a book recommendation for you: Pathologies of Power, by Paul Farmer. Hope all’s well and keep up the good work!

  4. JosiahQ says:

    But Ben, what DO you think of Brook’s critique of such spiritualism as “narcissistic”?

  5. David says:

    Perhaps you haven’t faced an issue or crisis in your life that might have caused you to look deeper at religion – but maybe you have.

    If you like meditation – you’re going to REALLY like Yoga.

  6. Martin says:

    There is a wider spanning idea that encompases your experience.

    Pantheism

    or failing that check out Kant’s
    Critique of pure reason.

    It’s safe to say that you are smart and receptive to a degree that you will have no problem understanding it all and im sure you will identiify with it strongly… dare i say Become One with the idea

  7. Ruth G. says:

    For me, spirituality is all about reverance and actually taking positive action… if people are going to live sustainably with each other.

    What we respect as precious and how we treat others are huge parts of what defines us.

    American spirituality is a good question… I’d been wondering if it even existed anymore!

    People now seem so brainwashed to only value “stuff” in America… they have all forgotten that stuff can easily be taken away… your true identity isn’t so easy to lose… but you have to build it for yourself. Day by day, do what you really support and believe in.

    Yes, I’m vegetarian… and for 20+ years that has been a major reinforcement to my spirituality everyday. I have the privilidge to participate in being a tiny part of “the solution” on so many levels… everyday!

    And there’s so much more that I can do… that I try to do!

    Like treat people with respect, educate ourselves and others, and use resources responsibly… respectfully.

    I’ve checked out the Bahai faith, not that thoroughly… but it seems pretty interesting and may help you on your journey…
    link to bahai.org

    … and just so you know for sure, in case you don’t already… some bitter people will dog you forever… they are hollow and will always try to tear down people with vision. Hopefully they will find some peace someday, but few I have found actually even try to do the work they need to do to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in… until they hit a wall. That’s where I think fundamentalists of all kinds get born… from hurt, bitter, close-minded people who are seeking easy answers.

    Sorry about the book here! I’m just so encouraged by your posting that I really got carried away.

    All the best

  8. Geoff says:

    Are these really new ideas?

    • a yearning for mystical experience or epiphanic awareness
    -humans have always wanted to believe in signs and wonders…raising people from the dead, being born again, turning water into wine, parting a sea, etc etc

    • a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation
    -“be still and know”..fasting, praying

    • a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to that presence
    -how do we explain such order in the universe? why do tribal nations believe in a higher power? we feel there’s something higher and more powerful than ourselves. we want to know and be known by that power

    • a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a search for unity in diversity
    -religious freedom? numerous different denominations?

    • an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive reforms
    -an eye for an eye. getting rid of hypocrites looking to make money off religion (ie throwing money changers out of a temple)

    • an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and adventuresome seeking
    -prayer, meditation, a high code of ethics. traveling in a wilderness 40 days/night, following a cloud by day, fire by night. Now thats one heck of an adventure.

    Now, if only a church existed to cultivate such an outlook!
    -it all sounds really familiar :) there’s a few thousand of them on every corner in the south :)

    sorry, i couldn’t resist :)

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Josiah – It probably is narcissistic, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. It’s ironic if you think all spirituality and religion should be selfless altruism, but that’s only ONE definition.

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