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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Mollie's Quest


Among the people we interviewed, no one remembered the sixties more fondly than did Mollie Stone. "That era changed my entire life," says the single mother from Massachusetts, her face beaming as she recalls her years growing up. Those years came right at the peak of the youth counterculture: drugs, sex, rock-and-roll music, civil rights demonstrations, antiwar protests, all were familiar to her. Living in Westchester near the love-ins and be-ins of New York's Central Park, she had a head-on confrontation with all that was going on, and she loved it: "It was the culture that I liked...the sixties' culture and everything that it represented."

What was it about those years that she liked so much? Was it the political activism? Yes, partly. The demonstrations and protests all created a sense that she was involved in something exciting and was helping to build a new heaven and earth. Was it psychedelics? Yes, that was part of it, too, even though she was not as heavily into drugs as were many others at the time. Hallucinogenic drugs opened up ways to expand consciousness, which for disaffected youth at the time was a means of escape. Getting high led to psychic adventure. But there was more to the sixties than politics or drugs, there was also freedom. Freedom from the old conformity. Freedom to break out of social structures that impoverish and exploit. Freedom to be yourself. In Mollie's words: "It was get[ting] out of what was oppressive and rigid and limiting, and you know, death-like to the spirit." Her choice of words reflects a deep concern for the inner life—that the spiritual not be smothered by a harsh social order. Several times during the interview the word "spiritual" came up: She was a free-spirit, a spiritual person, someone concerned about her children's spiritual values. Whatever the 1960s was all about, it had to do with something deeply spiritual.

The term spiritual often summons up vague and outdated imageries. In the minds of many, spiritual implies otherworldliness, or some notion of disembodied powers moving freely in mysterious ways. Western culture is riddled with dualisms, a good example being the way in which spirit is thought of as the opposite of the body, or as distinct from that which is worldly. A spiritual person, it is said, is someone who has escaped the concerns of this life, choosing instead otherworldly or ascetic ideals. But for Mollie, this is not true. For her, spiritual means just the opposite: something very worldly, having to do with relating to the earth and sky and animals and people; and something very bodily, having to do with health, happiness, and feeling good about herself. Mollie's spirituality arises out of her own experience. In its truest sense, spirituality gives expression to the being that is in us; it has to do with feelings, with the power that comes from within, with knowing our deepest selves and what is sacred to us, with, as Matthew Fox says, "heart-knowledge."1

Knowledge like this does not come easily. For Mollie, it took the stormy experiences of the 1960s, which transformed her consciousness and gave her a new awareness of who she was as a person. This came about while she was still in her teens, and not without a great deal of pain. She had a strained adolescence, left home estranged from her parents, and she still doesn't have a very close relationship with them. But out of that cauldron of intense experiences her horizons were greatly expanded—beyond her conventional, upper middle-class upbringing, and beyond her family's rather casual religious practices. Like many in her generation, she found middle-class, materialistic values and ideologies oppressive and stifling; in a capitalist society, profits are always a central incentive, and often at odds with the goals of racial equality and justice that were so important to her. Traditional religious observance as she knew it in her Jewish family seemed distant from, and irrelevant to, what was happening around her. Synagogue ritual was impersonal and empty. Magic and mystery appeared to have been lost in a culture that had become excessively rational, objective, scientific, or as she says, "death-like to the spirit."

Mollie's disillusionment reached far deeper than was the case for most young people. She was skeptical of religion that seemed to make no difference in people's lives and very critical of a class structure that allowed whites to benefit from the labors of impoverished blacks. For her, the two were inseparable. Something was wrong with religious ritual removed from everyday life and with religious practices that were indifferent to how people are treated. Religion seemed so captive to the status quo, so supportive of a particular group's interests. Middle-class piety struck her as hallow, with its concern with proper belief and behavior, with faith that was more comforting than challenging, and with moral respectability. She was not alone in her feelings. As many commentators writing on American religion at the time observed, the churches and synagogues gave expression and legitimacy to a set of commonly held cultural values such as progress, security, conformity, and confident living—all wrapped up and called "the American Way of Life."2 And, of course, there was racism and the legacy of racial discrimination institutionalized within religion.3 For Mollie, the sixties shattered the easy blend of bourgeois values and traditional religion, provoking serious questions about the very foundations of life itself. Philosophy and politics, faith and ethics, the worlds around her and within her—all were bound up together. In this sense the 1960s was more than just a social protest or getting high, it was a spiritual crisis.

Molly still remembers, and articulates very clearly, what happened during those eventful years growing up and how her world took on new meaning:

The world outside of upper middle-class suburban Westchester opened up for me as it hadn't before. And that included the inner world, which I think was partly due to drugs and the kind of spiritual emphasis that began to appear around that time. And also the outer world of going to marches, going to rallies, and seeing all those hundreds of people that were united on a single topic, of like-mind, or had a strong feeling about something.

Mollie, like many in her generation, no longer believes that turning to drugs offers much help. She is among the many of her age group who have changed their mind and no longer endorse the legalization of marijuana. Almost three-fourths of the boomers we interviewed, in fact, now oppose its legalization. As a counselor in the public schools, she deals with children every day whose lives are messed up because of drugs and alcohol. She has left behind much of the celebrated freedom of the era and is now more concerned with getting on with her life, raising her children, and beginning a new marriage. She seldom thinks about marching or demonstrating anymore: The old era of social protest and dreams of building a better society have long since passed. Just two things are important for her now, her family and her own spiritual growth.

Her expanded horizons are still with her, and doubtless will continue to be. She continues on the journey on which she set out in the late 1960s, exploring one after another of the great world religions, macrobiotics, Native American and eco-feminist spiritualities. When she speaks of life—spirituality in the broadest sense—it has to do with interconnections: the self in relation to others, to nature, to the world. Hers is a holistic vision that places emphasis on integrating of body and spirit and balancing the cognitive and expressive aspects of life. Life is a whole, in both a metaphysical and mystical sense. All creation is united, the individual into the community and the community into nature. Hers is a coherent vision that moves away from the Cartesian split of subject and object so typical of much of Western thinking. To Mollie, such distinctions must be abandoned, for they are antithetical to spiritual well-being. Unity, peace, and harmony are her ideals, both personal and planetary.

The sixties gave her a vision of the "inner world" and "outer world" coming together in some meaningful whole. She had discovered the two could not easily be split apart: Marches and demonstrations on behalf of a better society had helped to clarify her own values and principles; and acting with integrity on the basis of those values and principles, she found she had to reject much of middle-class life, or as she put it, "get out of what was oppressive and rigid and limiting." She expresses the same holistic view toward the environment today: You can't feel good about yourself and about what you are doing if you are exploiting Mother Earth when you ought to be paying homage to her for food and the sun and the warmth and the rain. One must live in relation to the elements and must feel the harmony, the peace, and the power that come from being at one with the universe. Then, and only then, can the spirit survive.

Mollie Stone is exceptional. Her confrontation with the turbulent era in which she grew up was far more direct and intense than was true for most members of her generation. Her lifestyle today continues to bear evidence of its great impact on her—in her dress, her choice of music, the furnishings of her house. Spiritually, she is in a league to which few others we talked to would belong. But it would be a mistake to dismiss her as an aging flower child dabbling in esoteric and fringe spiritualities. Mollie wrestles with some fundamental problems now confronting Western religious consciousness. Her spiritual quest touches on concerns that are widely shared in her generation, though not always articulated as well or felt so deeply by many of her spiritual brothers and sisters. The truth is she embodies qualities of the spirit that, in milder form, are quite common in the boomer population.

William James long ago distinguished between tradition and experience, between secondhand and firsthand religion. Tradition has to do with what is socially inherited as distinct from experience, or that which is authentically the individual's own.4 For many boomers, this dichotomy is very real. Because they felt some distance from religious institutions when they were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it has not been easy for them to fit in as adults. The connection between one's deepest personal feelings and the institutional frameworks of society remains fragile. The world inside the churches and synagogues often seems far removed, if not downright alien, to life as experienced outside; the institutional languages of creed and doctrine often come across as stale and timeworn—hardly conducive to "firsthand religion." Yet as a generation many yearn deeply for a religious experience they can claim as "their own." The yearning for some kind of immediacy is expressed in many ways, in both traditional and nontraditional languages: centering one's life, focusing within, knowing God, getting in touch with yourself, the higher self, finding "it."

The concern is to experience life directly, to have an encounter with God or the divine, or simply with nature and other people, without the intervention of inherited beliefs, ideas, and concepts. Such striving is understandable, not simply because secondhand religion can be empty of meaning, but because only personal experience is in some sense authentic and empowering. Individuals are inclined to regard their own experiences as superior to the accounts of others, and the truths found through self-discovery as having greater relevance to them than those handed down by way of creed or custom. Direct experience is always more trustworthy, if for no other reason than because of its "inwardness" and "within-ness"—two qualities that have come to be much appreciated in a highly expressive, narcissistic culture.

As Mollie so aptly illustrates, inner experience is the wellspring of authentic spiritual and religious life. For out of this inner realm of the self—of feeling and subjectivity far removed from the outer realm of roles and relationships—arises a sense of what is true and right to that person's experience. This amounts to the realization of a vital truth: The spiritual and religious, to be meaningful, must relate to people's everyday experiences and give expression to their deepest feelings and concerns. A person must find his or her true self, and allow that self to assert itself, in order to be genuinely spiritual. Young Americans have come to these truths, in part, because of the inner-directedness of the 1960s and 1970s and its great emphasis on the pursuit of the self as an ideal: through values such as self-fulfillment, self-acceptance, and the intrinsic benefits of experience itself. All are values deeply rooted in the optimism, questfulness, and flexible conceptions of human nature characterizing American culture.

It has been said that Americans practice a "supply-side spirituality"—believing profoundly that abundance rather than scarcity, plenty rather than poverty, is our true spiritual condition.5 If this is the case, then abundance is to be regarded as natural, and anything less is deemed not in keeping with human potential. Building on themes articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the notion that humanity was entitled to an inexhaustible supply of possibilities and satisfactions—including the potential for divinity within every individual—forged a strong positive conception of the spiritual self, as a humanly constructed entity, always in process of becoming.6 The notion of entitlement also shaped a distinct religious ideal and aesthetic. If Americans could dream about unlimited material achievement, they could also explore a thousand spiritual ideals: images of themselves as healthy, energetic, and powerful; visions of America as a special place, where new things were done in new ways; voyages in time along a path of spiritual development toward higher spiritual ground; and a way of life that was affirmative, optimistic, confident, self-assuring, and prosperous. In this matrix of thought and expression, the well-being of spirit and of body, of inner happiness and material accomplishment, are intimately related and of a single order of reality. Life is a whole, and that wholeness itself is something always in the making.

In yet another sense, the pursuit of self has led to a "rediscovery": that psychology and spirituality are not exclusive domains but are themselves integrally related. Though in modern times religious questions have often been taboo in psychotherapists' offices, the division between the spiritual and the psychological is actually a relatively new phenomenon. For millennia, shamans, witch doctors, and priests made no hard distinction between emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. All were aspects of an individual's fundamental relationship with a larger universe of spirits and powers. A sense of wholeness was essential to a person's well-being. Today this essential oneness of life is being reclaimed, or envisioned as something that ought to be reclaimed. The rediscovery of inner experience puts young Americans, often armed with the post-Freudian theories of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow, more in touch with themselves: asking questions about meaning in life; peak experiences; searching to find ways of feeling, and not just thinking about, their relationship to the surrounding universe; and exploring the authority and healing power of the nonrational, the mythic, and the dreamlike. The result is that psychology has become the vehicle for an emerging form of religiousness—what Lucy Bregman describes as "psychological religiousness," which she says is a new way of encountering sacrality and ultimacy.7

One factor in the rise of this form of religious expression is the enormous growth in recent years of the informal spirituality promulgated by Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon, and other Twelve-Step programs. Offering resources and guidance for recovery from various addictive dependencies, these programs portray individuals in a one-to-one relationship with God, or a higher power, before whom the person admits powerlessness (over alcohol, drugs, or whatever the addiction). The addict then takes an inventory of inner strengths as well as weaknesses; and through vigilance, prayer, and meditation, the person seeks to make amends in his or her life and to find the power and support necessary for recovery. Individuals see themselves in a spiritual journey, "letting go" of addictive behaviors and feelings and cultivating a sense of themselves as healthy and responsible people. This involves breaking out of the addict psychology and rediscovering the true self through honesty, surrender, acceptance, discipline, sharing, and serenity.

This bridging of the psychological and spiritual realms is given a huge boost in the flourishing self-help movement. More than two hundred different Twelve-Step groups now hold meetings across the country.8 Twelve-Step-based books are available not just for alcoholism and drugs, but for everything from overeating to "shopaholism," from sexual compulsions to religious addictions. Other manuals on spiritual growth readily extend the self-help principles for individuals dealing on their own with emotional scars resulting from abuse, incest, and rape, and for overcoming guilt, shame, anxieties, and fears of all kinds. Joy, harmony, growth, peace, love, enhanced creativity, and visions of a higher purpose are all held up as rewards to those who can find healing and turn their lives around. Religious and spiritual terminology is cast in general, inclusive terms, as found in the following description of spirituality: "Growing through connecting with your Higher Self and to a Higher Power—the God/Goddess within and without, Christ, Allah, Buddha, the All-That-Is."9 Popular books like M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth reflect a blending of the religious and the psychological.10 Spiritual growth and mental growth are considered one and the same. Such notions as sacrifice, discipline, and sin, from a religious vocabulary, are recast in psychological terms. Grace and love are shown to be the means by which a person recovers and grows. For many in the boomer generation who did not have a religious upbringing, or who have been cut off from organized religion, books like this one can introduce them to religious teachings and convince them that religion—defined broadly—is not so alien after all.

This turning inward is not limited to a handful of people on a spiritual quest, like Mollie. As shown in Figure 3.1 (below), a majority of the respondents in our survey indicated a preference "to be alone and to meditate." One question we asked was: "For you, which is most important: to be alone and to meditate, or to worship with others?" The purpose of the question was to distinguish between a spirituality associated with aloneness versus that arising out of worship in a group. Fifty-three percent said it was more important to be alone and to meditate, 29% indicated worship with others, and 18% said either both were important or they were unable to choose between them. Fourteen percent indicated that they actually practiced some type of meditation. These practices are more common among the better educated: among high school graduates, 9%; among the college educated, 16%; among those having done professional or graduate work, 29%.

Figure 3.1 Spirituality

A common theme in this turning inward is the emphasis on exploring religious and spiritual traditions. Exploration gets elevated to the level of a spiritual exercise in an age that is aware of the great diversity of religions. After the Beatles journeyed to India in the 1960s, many youth became excited about yoga and the mystical wisdom of gurus. Americans were exposed to Eastern movements such as Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, and Transcendental Meditation, and to indigenous traditions such as Native American religions. While the so-called "new religions" are far less visible now than two decades ago, the spiritual teachings of these and other religious traditions are well known today—probably more so now than then.

Interest in the paranormal and psychic experiences is widespread and appears to have increased during the 1980s: Clairvoyance, ESP, precognition, déjà vu, and related experiences of the "supernatural" are more commonly reported now than a decade or two ago, and more so among the college educated than among those with less education.11 Mythical and psychical themes find popular expression on the screen in such films as Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and more recently, Ghost. Bookstores across the country today carry paperback editions of the I Ching, the works of Krishnamurti, the writings of Joseph Campbell on mythology, the teachings of Starhawk, and scores of publications on Theosophy, witchcraft, the occult, faith healing, tai ch'i, nature cults, spiritualism, yoga, astrology, herbal medicines, crystals, channeling, neo-Paganism, and on other related topics. Exploration opens up new vistas, making possible a synthesis of ideas, beliefs, and practices, including the New Age possibility of "creating your own reality," as one of its slogans promises.

How widespread is this open, exploring approach to religion? Do many favor it over commitment to a single faith? Our survey suggests it is fairly common. We asked the following question: "Is it good to explore many differing religious teachings and learn from them, or should one stick to a particular faith?" Sixty percent of the respondents said they preferred to explore, 28% said stick to a faith, 11% could not choose or said do both. Like practicing spiritual disciplines, faith exploration is related to level of education: 52% of the high school educated endorse it, as compared to 66% of the college educated, and 69% of the postgraduates. Age, gender, and the other standard demographics seem not to matter very much. The fact that education correlates so well underscores the important role of higher learning in exposing members of this generation to alternative religions and of fostering an exploratory, more relativistic stance toward religion. For boomers, education and exposure to religions have been experienced together.

Figure 3.1 also shows three items that shed some light on the open attitude toward exploration as well as extent of exploration currently. Forty-seven percent agreed (and the same percentage disagreed), with the statement "All the great religions of the world are equally true and good." Overlooking the 6% without an opinion, this would indicate that about one-half of all boomers hold to a nonparticularistic view of religion. Older boomers are somewhat more inclined to this type of religious universalism. As to extent of exploration, 28% of all boomers say they "believe" in reincarnation, and 26% "believe" in astrology. Again, age and gender seem not to matter very much; neither is level of education very important, with the lesser educated perhaps slightly more inclined to these beliefs. While the appeal of both astrology and reincarnation seem to be growing among the better educated, there has long been an attraction to them, and to astrology especially, in the more traditional, marginal sectors of society. Now, it appears, their appeal is becoming more broadly based across society.

Spirituality and notions of deity are closely linked, and thus is not surprising that many in this generation are asking fundamental questions about the meaning and existence of God. To explore the inner self and its relations to the larger world is to open up possibilities of new symbolic constructions, or "pictures," by which humans imagine the ultimate forces shaping life.

Most boomers, like most Americans, believe in God. The polls repeatedly show that Americans overwhelmingly affirm such a belief: When asked, "Do you believe in God?," 94% to 95% respond, "Yes." Asking the question this way, however, tends to gloss over subtle differences both in conceptions of God and in conviction. Recent studies indicate, for example, that levels of doubt and disbelief are often greater than the polls would suggest.12 Among the better educated especially, doubt is fairly common. There is widespread variation as well in the images of deity that believers hold. Even among mainline churchgoers, imageries differ along lines of gender, anthropomorphic versus more abstract qualities, "soft" versus "hard" attributes.13 The religious imagination, it would seem, knows few limits. Much depends on how the questions are worded when people are interviewed: If respondents are given a chance to express doubt, often they will do so; and if allowed to draw distinctions in belief, they are likely to do so. Certainly this is true for the young adult generation, whose levels of doubt and uncertainty as well as alternative ways of believing are higher than for the population as a whole.

Almost one-half of the boomers we interviewed say they "never" doubt the existence of God; doubt increases with level of education, from 50% among high school graduates up to 65% among the postgraduates. The beliefs themselves are shown in Table 3.1(below). For boomers, as for Americans generally, there are very few atheists—only 1%. Agnostics, or those who say it is impossible to know if there is a God, are found in greater numbers—but still only 3%. Neither atheism nor agnosticism is as common as secular portrayals of the generation might suggest. Uncertainty is much more likely. Sixteen percent say they are uncertain but lean toward believing. Doubt, or lack of firm conviction, is thus far more common than hardened disbelief or skepticism about the unknowable. Another 8% affirm belief in a higher power. Both uncertainty and belief in a higher power are more common among the better educated. This leaves the vast majority, or 72%, who say they definitely believe in a personal God. Among boomers, this traditional image of God is held somewhat less so than for Americans as a whole, primarily because of the large numbers in this generation—almost one-fourth—who are either uncertain about their belief or who hold to a more abstract, nonpersonal conception.

Don't believe in God     1%
Don't think it is possible to know if there is a God     3
Uncertain but lean toward believing   16
Definitely believe in a personal God   72
Definitely believe in a Higher Power     8

Table 3.1 Belief in God

The whole question of religious imagination, or how the divine gets pictured symbolically, is enormously important, and touches upon the more subtle spiritual changes now underway among boomers. Most young Americans are quite traditional in their views: They think of God as a personal, supernatural being who hears prayers, watches over them, and often responds to their supplications. God is close and approachable, typically thought of as a loving Father, yet reigning over the world as an omnipotent and righteous being active in human affairs. This combination of attributes, both personal and powerful, has led to what might be called, in the words of philosopher and theologian David R. Griffin, the generic idea of God. To quote Griffin:

According to this generic idea or definition, the word God refers to a personal, purposive being, perfect in goodness and supreme in power, who created the world, acts providentially in it, is sometimes experienced by human beings, especially as the source of moral norms and religious experiences, is the ultimate ground of meaning and hope, and is thereby alone worthy of worship.14

Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and others all have their slightly differing "versions," but most Americans—young and old—can agree on this rather general view of God. Contemporary religious pluralism and trends in science, rationality, and secularity have helped to shape, often out of a defensive posture, a generic theism.

In the modern era, however, growing numbers have come to find this generic view of God rather bland and uninspiring. With so much death and destruction, tragedy, and evil in the world, some find it difficult to maintain a notion of an all-good, omnipotent deity. Although hardly the first to press this question, the boomers have grown up hearing about the Holocaust and have experienced so much in their time—assassinations of national leaders, the threat of nuclear warfare, environmental destruction, AIDS—that the question is given a new and pointed significance. The older patriarchal conception of deity appears for many in contradiction with the liberating forces bringing new life to minorities, women, and the Third World—sectors that have long been denied freedom and justice enmeshed in structures often legitimated by religiousleaders in the name of God. Moreover, many of the older notions about God seem out of sync with the modern world, where reason and experience are privileged over revelation and authority, where so much of what happens in life can be explained naturally, without recourse to divine intervention. In popular conception theism involves the notion of a God up there or out there somewhere, and thus distant and removed from life in this world. One problem with this image of humanity's relationship with the divine, as Matthew Fox points out, is that it stifles the soul. He notes, as Jung warned, that one way to kill the soul is to "worship a God outside you."15

This situation has led to a variety of responses—some a return to more orthodox religious views, others are more radical departure from them. The evangelical and charismatic revivals of the 1970s and 1980s served to infuse new experiential meanings into old images. For example, many young Americans affirm traditional belief in God by holding to highly personal images, as in the case of "born again" evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics. God is pictured in warm, familial images as one with whom you can have a direct, personal relationship, even daily conversations. This God is thought of in very human terms: God, as it were, is created in one's own image. Such imagery often coincides with a dualistic conception of an ongoing warfare between the forces of "good" and the forces of "evil"—that is, a conflict between a personal God and a personal Devil.16

Others have abandoned the older cosmologies and views about God, turning inward in their quests. This has led to an awakening of new and living—although often quite ancient—images of the divine. One is a view of God as creative power. When human beings are creative, they experience oneness with that power. Creativity is, in one sense, the ultimate experience. It characterizes all that is good—truth, beauty, love, hope, life itself. To be creative is to be godlike. Divine reality is thus not something removed from life, but creative energy flowing in all things. When we asked our respondents who did not believe in a personal God how they would describe what they believed, the two most frequently cited images were life force and cosmic energy.

If the divine is found in creative energies, the divine "no" must extend to what which is destructive or demeaning of human potential. That which cripples the capacities of people—injustice, exploitation, the various "isms"—runs counter to human freedom and self-expression. Hence there is a close affinity between creativity and the post-sixties cultural emphasis on self-actualization: In fulfilling one's potentialities, one lives up to and embodies creative possibility. The kind of person one becomes depends on the capacity for creativity, or of grasping the growth possibilities. As John Denver once put it:

Love is everywhere, I see it.
You are all that you can be, go on and be it.
Life is perfect, I believe it.
Come and play the game with me.

Another image that has been rediscovered is God as Mother, which bears a close affinity with creativity. "What does God do all day long?" asked Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century mystic, only to answer his own question: "God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth."17 An extraordinary image, yet history is replete with maternal imageries in many eras. The Virgin, the Madonna, the Goddess, and Sophia are among the images that express a feminine archetype. In reaction to the traditional, patriarchal conceptions of God, many Americans today hold to feminine images: One-fourth of the boomers say they can imagine God as Mother.

Yet another attractive image is that of Unifying Presence. Over against the dualisms of God/nature, God/us, and body/spirit that have so long engulfed Western thinking, holism offers a balanced and integrated vision of reality. The self is the indwelling of God. The world is the abode of God. All is one, and one is all. In the tradition of the ancient Upanishads, we find the oneness of our Atman with the all. Or put differently, we discover the higher self, the transpersonal self that unites us at a mystical level with other selves—something akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson's notion of the "oversoul." And it unites us not just with others, but with nature and creation. This type of imagery is grounded in the earth and is deeply relational. Connectedness and the sacred web of life is the theme linking the self, the larger community, and the whole of creation—"all things in God and God in all things."18 Imageries giving expression to God as unifying presence would include: higher self, Cosmic Christ, Earth Mother, the world as the Body of God.

Along with the rising concern for spirituality and new imageries of the divine are shifts in religious vocabularies. Almost all of the people we talked to had an opinion about the differences between being "religious" and being "spiritual." While they did not always agree as to what the difference was, they were sure there was one. The two realms have become disjointed, according to the majority of our respondents. To be religious conveys an institutional connotation: to attend worship services, to say Mass, to light Hanukkah candles. To be spiritual, in contrast, is more personal and empowering and has to do with the deepest motivations of life. A practicing Roman Catholic in our study put it this way:

People can be spiritual and not religious.... To me religious is practicing ... going to church ... receiving Communion. Spiritual to me is just being in touch with your higher power, I guess.

It is interesting to see how this woman combines a Catholic conception of the religious with a nontraditional view of God and spirituality defined as being in touch with a higher power. Her response makes clear not only the mix of the traditional and the nontraditional, but the differing vocabularies for the religious and the spiritual. In a similar fashion, a thirty-year-old medical student, and loyal Presbyterian, told us that being religious is "to be in church and sing hymns and say prayers with people and go home and have it be Sunday." She identifies the religious with institutional activities and in a temporal dimension—Sunday as a special day. This is not unlike the views of most churchgoing boomers, who regard Sunday as special even though its religious meaning as sacred time has changed greatly. She describes "spiritual" simply as "thinking about things and contemplating." She mentioned, as did others, that reading is important in the pursuit of spirituality. As books, audiocasettes, and video resources have become more available, spiritual growth is viewed as something you can cultivate on your own.

A forty-year-old neurologist and Jewish agnostic married to a Seventh Day Adventist looks at the religious and the spiritual in the following way:

I'm certainly not religious, in the sense that I don't believe in God and I don't subscribe to standard religious doctrine; but I think I'm spiritual, in the sense that I have a very deep sense of world realities. I don't know where they come from...[My wife] says they come from God, of course, from Judeo-Christian tradition, which may be true, but I don't know...but I feel extremely strong about the importance of right action for others, being fair to others. A lot of these things came out of the civil rights movement. I have very strong feelings about that. I get extremely upset or angry when I see evidence of injustice or prejudice. And that to me, that's part of being spiritual. Another part of being spiritual to me is sort of this sense of reverence about the world, which I think religious people attribute to God or their relationship to God; for me, it's much more abstract. And again I'm not sure where it comes from, I think I'm probably more sensitive than most people, at least most people I'm in contact with, to reap the beauty of the world and history and life and how moving it is to wake up in the morning and see the flowers coming up and the clouds in the sky...

Religion for this man is doctrine and tradition, and spirituality is more immediate and experiential. He puts the emphasis on what arises out of an individual's own realm of experience, what comes through reading and meditation. Social justice and reverence for nature—two themes dear to the hearts of many reaching adulthood in these years—give shape to the meaning of spiritual for him as well. Interestingly, he credits his spirituality in large part to the civil rights movement and how it shaped his sensitivities to people; but his wife attributes it to God. A religiously mixed marriage and a spiritually mixed metaphysics!

Yet another respondent—a thirty-two-year-old Asian-American, reared Methodist but currently not active in any congregation—picked up on some of the same themes but also underscored a critical point about the relation of the religious and the spiritual. He observed:

You can be spiritual without being religious. I think religious...would be more specific. The faith is more specific, certain doctrines. Spiritual would be really general, wider. I think that's how you can be spiritual without being religious. Maybe even be religious without being spiritual. Show up for church and go through the motions.

Just showing up and going through the motions is what many boomers abhor about churchgoing. This generation cannot be understood apart from the disjunction between inner feelings and the broader institutional expressions. It is a huge gap, and one that is keenly felt by many persons. If the religious institutions—that is, worship services and religious activities—lack vitality and seem removed from their everyday lives, boomers are inclined to judge them to be empty and irrelevant. Worse still, just going through the motions of religious involvement can easily smack of hypocrisy to a generation that has felt estranged from social institutions and insists upon authenticity and credibility as prerequisites for commitment.

A related problem for contemporary religious consciousness is the reification of the religious. When the institutional forms of religion become fixed, objective entities—that is, abstracted as a belief system or somehow set apart from the everyday world, as has happened in Western traditional—there is real danger that they will get cut off from the inner meanings and feelings that gave them life to begin with. Religion risks losing its subjective and experiential qualities, thus becoming ritually dry and unmoving. The world "religion" derives from the Latin religio, which historically was used in a variety of ways: to designate a greater-than-human power, to refer to the feelings that people have in responding to such power, and to the ritual acts by which people expressed their awe and respect in relation to such power. In every instance, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith points out, religio embraced the human capacity to perceive meaning and design in life, "to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension."19

It is this latter quality—of seeing, of feeling, of acting, in a unified manner—that many boomers find missing in organized religion. Whatever religio might once have expressed, it does not always do it very well in a world that is very pluralistic, highly compartmentalized, and secular. Hence some of them do more than just drop out of the churches and synagogues; they turn to serious metaphysical quests on their own in hopes of finding a more fulfilling way of believing and living.

Mollie is one such person. She numbers among a small but a very significant portion of the population: highly active seekers, or people for whom spiritual and metaphysical concerns are a driving force. These are people who are more than just interested in spirituality, or who might occasionally pick up a book on the subject: They are deeply involved in their own personal quests. For them, life is a journey, an adventure that leads to new discoveries, and to insights that can flow only from experience and autobiography. Journey implies a hope for the unity of things, for combining thought and feeling, doing and being, the inner and outer worlds. Journey conveys the notion of ongoing movement, or as Tex Sample says, "a living, moving, experiencing, feeling, deepening, growing search."20

A distinguishing feature is that these intense seekers prefer to think of themselves as "spiritual" rather than as "religious". They feel most acutely the tension that exists between spiritual experience and its expression in conventional religious forms. For such people organized religion can become, as the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, "the major enemy of the religious experience and the religious experiencer." This happens, Maslow asserts, when "people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefine religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, antireligious."21 Put simply, for such seekers deeply concerned with the experiential and the mystical, religious institutions can be stifling.

Mollie feels stifled by the religious. This comes through in a question asking about the meaning of the terms "religious" and "spiritual". Her responses reveal that the two have to do with quite differing identities:

INTERVIEWER: Religious and spiritual are two different things?
          MOLLIE: Yes, they are. With religion you have to choose one, you have to be locked in, which I don't want to be.
INTERVIEWER: Is spiritual more open?
          MOLLIE: Uh huh. It's like an individual definition of your relationship to God and nature and religion and family and humanity.
INTERVIEWER: And this allows you to draw from various sources and traditions, if it helps you in your relationship to God and the rest of humanity?
          MOLLIE: Absolutely. In fact, there's so many great teachings in all the religions, how could you ever choose one or the other? I can't.

Following Mollie's lead, we have defined these highly active spiritual seekers on the basis of how they view themselves. In the survey we asked respondents, first, if they considered themselves in any way to be religious. We chose to keep the question open-ended, letting the respondents decide for themselves what the word "religious" might mean and if it appropriately described them. Eighty-six percent answered yes, 14% no. Of those who said no, we then asked the follow-up question: "Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?" Sixty-five percent of those who had rejected a religious identification said yes, they considered themselves "spiritual."

As shown in Figure 3.2 (below), this group of intensely spiritual-minded people constitutes about 9% of the boomer population. Compared with others of their generation, they are older, more of them are white collar and professionals, and they are better educated. However, they earn less in their jobs and careers. More are female. Fewer are married. They are more liberal in political views. As we would expect, these seekers have low levels of institutional religious involvement.

Over 35 years of age    54%    62%
Some College 53 72
White Collar 60 67
Professionals 28 31
Earns $40,000+ annually 45 37
Married 66 54
Female 50 54
Liberal Political Views 26 44
No Religious Affiliation  7 24

Figure 3.2 Spiritual Seekers

Several features of this sociodemographic profile are worth noting. In some respects the seekers resemble those Yankelovich identified a decade ago who were greatly concerned about their personal self-fulfillment: the well-educated, upscale, liberal-minded professionals.22 They are the spiritual counterparts to his more secular searchers. Preoccupation with self-fulfillment appears to have declined since then, but our seekers still express such concerns more so than others. For example, 32% of seekers as compared to 28% among all others, agreed with the statement, "I feel the need to find more excitement and sensation in my life," one of the items used in Yankelovich's research. Yet in other respects they differ. The seekers are now older, and somewhat different in lifestyle and outlook than the younger boomers who are more conservative politically and more traditionally religious. That they earn less than average income is telling: they are well-educated and liberal-minded, but not so upscale. They share an idealism and dreams of a more just and compassionate world but have not benefited economically as have many others of their generation. Many have scaled down their expectations and work in the lower-paying service professions such as teaching, nursing, social work, and counseling; some operate small businesses as artists or sell their crafts. Switching jobs and careers is fairly common. Some are like Alex, the suicide in The Big Chill, who "choose to experience life through a seemingly random series of occupations."

Beyond this basic profile, we inquired into their family and religious backgrounds and current social networks. Some have argued that a liberal family background was conductive to religious experimentation for those who grew up in the 1960s.23 Nonreligious and very tolerant religious parents, the argument goes, generate a more open, exploratory approach to religion than conservatively religious parents. Permissive child-rearing patterns are said to encourage a more flexible, less traditional style of religious commitment. Dr. Benjamin Spock's influence especially has been singled out as contributing to more permissive child-rearing patterns for the baby-boom generation.

Our survey found support for the argument about liberal family backgrounds: Highly active seekers are more likely to come from homes where the parents attended religious services less frequently. Fifty-eight percent of seekers had mothers who attended religious services weekly, as compared with 67% of all others. Thirty-eight percent had fathers who attended weekly services, as compared with 50% of all others. Mollie Stone's own religious background is a case in point: Her parents were not very active in their local synagogue. These seekers come from all the major religious traditions. As to the child-rearing argument, there is even more convincing support. A majority (53%) of seekers described their upbringing as permissive, but only 29% of all others did so. They were less likely to have had close relationships with parents. One-half of them report a close relationship growing up with their mothers, and 19% with their fathers, as compared with 58% and 43% for all others, respectively.

As to social networks, seekers are more likely to be social isolates, or to have fewer strong social relationships. They have broken away from the churches and synagogues, an indication that they are not perhaps as socially anchored in their communities as are most other Americans. Conventional believers have their faiths reinforced through association with others of a similar outlook; but because seekers are more individualistic and eccentric in their beliefs, there is less reason for them to rely on the support of social networks. The lack of strong social ties is functional for them, freeing them to pursue their own personal spiritual journeys uninhibited by conventional sanctions. Again, Mollie Stone's experience is not that uncommon: She does not have many close friends or relatives who share her mystical views.

They also tend to have fewer friends who know one another, who live in the same area, who are from the same national or ethnic background, or who attend a church or synagogue regularly. Insofar as these are dimensions of social networks, such seekers consistently have fewer contacts. Perhaps the most telling question is the one that asks, "How many of your friends know each other?" Having friends who know one another implies greater density of relationships, that is, social interaction among them, and presumably greater reinforcement of worldview. On this crucial indicator, most Americans are four times as likely than the highly active seekers to say that "nearly all" or "most" their friends know each other (42% as compared to 10%). These people are, in fact, among the least socially embedded of any of the many constituencies—both religious and secular—that we looked at.

What about the religious and spiritual characteristics of seekers? Do they fit the descriptions others have found? Years ago, Ernst Troeltsch spoke of "mystical religion," by which he referred to a type of religion with an emphasis on "direct, inward and present religious experience."24 Troeltsch had in mind more than just the experiential aspect of religion, but rather a new, emerging form of religion with its own system of beliefs that was quite different from either the sectarian or churchly varieties of religion. In fact, Troeltsch envisioned this "third type" of religion as becoming increasingly common in the modern world because of its affinity with the trends toward greater individualism and personal autonomy.

Mysticism has several major characteristics. One is that union with God is possible through spiritual growth. This implies progression of the soul's relationship with the divine, or spiritual evolution, which is taken to be the proper goal of all such striving. A second characteristic is that religious experience is seen as an expression of a universal religious consciousness. Such experience leads to an acceptance of religious relativity and to the doctrine of polymorphism, or belief in the truth of all religions. Finally, religious and metaphysical ideas blend together in mysticism to form a monistic, or unified, worldview. Monistic orientations emphasize that there is one and only one ultimate absolute essence, which is the true nature of all apparently separate beings and things. Because of the rejection of dualism and of literal, cognitive truth in favor of experiential truth, syncretism of seemingly disparate religious and secular ideas is common. Grasping the meaning of life in intense "peak" or ecstatic experiences, mystics down through the centuries have appreciated symbol, myth, and fantasy because of their power of metaphoric interpretation.

Troeltsch argued that mystical religion is most likely to be found among the educated middle classes—those most likely to appreciate the freedom to interpret religious beliefs and symbols as they please. Individualism, personal development and self-fulfillment, and the pursuit of truth are all values of greater importance to the educated classes; they are also highly compatible with mystical religion. In comparison with either sectarian or church religion, mystical religion has to do with inner freedom and the experience and potential of the self rather than living by social convention or shared religious norms. The personal religious journey in pursuit of truth is seen as a worthy goal in itself, as more important than either affirming a particular creed or living by communal values. Hence mysticism is much more of a free-floating style of spirituality on the part of individuals and tends to lack strong communal or organizational expression.

Mystical religion does not easily lend itself to survey research, but we did ask one question we thought might be insightful to this type of consciousness. Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "People have God within them, so churches aren't really necessary." Right to the point, the question taps two views common to spiritual seekers: one, an immanent as opposed to a transcendent view of God; and two, an anti-institutional stance toward religion. As we expected to find, intense seekers are more likely than the rest of the population to believe that God is "within" us: Figure 3.3 shows that 60% of seekers view God in this mystical sense, whereas only 27% of the others do so. As expressed in its most radically individualistic form, God and self become one.

Figure 3.3 Highly Active Seekers: Beliefs and Practices

These mystics draw from a variety of religious traditions and are disproportionately inclined to believe in ghosts, in reincarnation, and in psychic powers. All of these phenomena appeal to experience and intuition—the bedrock upon which mystical New Age religion rests.25 As Figure 3.3 shows, they are also more than twice as likely to practice meditation. A direct, intense personal experience is the common, underlying theme of these beliefs and practices. Unity arises not from the beliefs and practices themselves but out of the experience of them. As Robert Wuthnow has observed, the mystical experience takes on authority as the only "real" or reliable way to make sense out of one's world.26 Like the visionary and the poet, the mystic does not discover the world, she creates it. For the mystic, Wuthnow goes on to point out, the very definition of reality itself is under human control: Through the mystical experience, order gets projected onto an otherwise incoherent reality. The emphasis on transcending ordinary life and experiencing deeper, more meaningful levels of reality. Mystics live in this world of projected order and meaning, in which visions are not uncommon and voices are sometimes heard, a world that is as "real" to them as it is strange and alien to many others, to religionists and secularists alike.

In keeping with their intensely personal approach to religion, mystics are prone to critical views about organized religion. In the survey seekers emphasized the importance of arriving at personal beliefs independently of churches and synagogues. They tend to view such institutions as having lost the real spiritual part of religion and to look on their rules of morality as too restrictive. Having a direct and inward experience of God, it follows that seekers would have deep existential concerns: They think more about questions of meaning and purpose in life and about why there is suffering in the world. They tend not to accept necessarily the answers as provided them by a particular faith or tradition. They dwell on fate and the dilemmas of life simply because their understandings of why life is as it is are rooted more in their own biographies and experiences than in any grand religious narrative that purports to provide answers for all times and in all places.

One feature that makes mystical religion attractive is its adaptability. It encourages not just religious syncretism, but also blends easily with secular systems of thought, including the arts, philosophy, and science. The mystical types in our survey are more likely than those who identify themselves as religious to endorse the view that "science may someday find answers that religion has long been concerned with" and to disagree with the statement, "Science and religion will always be in conflict." They are more inclined to hold to a scientific rather than a biblical view of creation. They are also more monistic, holding to a unified conception of reality. They are inclined toward a oneness with nature and the material world and to feel a sense of kinship with other species.

Today's seekers understand the forces governing their lives and shaping the world along the same lines as mystics always have. According to Troeltsch, Wuthnow, and others, they should be less likely to hold to a traditional theistic view of God, or supernatural forces, as influencing their lives, and more likely to advance social scientific or psychological explanations. For many college-educated men and women who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, the languages of social forces and of self-exploration are very attractive and meaningful. These are modes of reality construction, or ways of understanding themselves in relation to the world around them, appropriate to contemporary life. And for such seekers this is quite common: They are much less likely to believe that a transcendent God shapes their lives, and more likely to point to people in power and new insights they have learned about themselves as influences. Mysticism finds easy compromise with contemporary culture especially the scientific and therapeutic cultures, which adds to its appeal for many boomers alienated from the religious establishment.

Yet for all its positive affinities with contemporary life, mysticism has some weakness. One is its difficulty to sustain. A mystical meaning system requires one after another confirming experience, since it derives not from historical traditions so much as from a mental or spiritual conception of life. Mollie knows fully well this problem: She works hard at creating new experiences that build on what she already believes. Power lies in the visual image of how her inner and outer worlds connect; visualizing how they connect is the way to her felt realization of the higher self. In keeping with the shamans of earlier times, hers is a pilgrimage of the visual—a "homestead of the mind"27—that draws from the resources of her mental and emotional faculties. Mystical visions help to sustain a particular metaphysics, and thus have the power to transform life; but because of their fleeting and transitory character, the realities, and any transformations that flow from them, suffer from the lack of a strong social base.

Mysticism naturally resists an institutional structure, and so is not easily passed on from one generation to the next. It lacks shared rituals, an affirming community, a sense of belonging. Mollie knows this problem, too: She worries that her children may suffer from a lack of commitment, that they will not fully understand the teachings she would like them to know about. She works at finding ways for her children to participate in the ritual sweat lodges. She wants them to know about Jewish and Native American beliefs. But this is not easily accomplished outside of formal structures. There are limits to what she knows and can teach her children; and despite her genuine enthusiasm, she can never fully convey her experiences, feelings, and excitement to her children. Without ongoing rituals and a strong communal base, she is always "working at" how to make it all real within the family. Many boomers outside of organized religion expressed similar frustrations about how to bring up their children with moral and religious values, a frustration often intensified by their own lack of understanding of religious teachings.

Yet another weakness of mysticism is its incoherence. Mollie knows of the unity she wants in her life, but it does not come easily; indeed, much of her frustration lies in her inability to arrive at a sustained and coherent present worldview. Getting the inner and outer worlds together poses problems, especially when she tries to integrate so many differing religious and spiritual teachings. She holds out strong hope for a holistic vision and experience she feels is possible, and that she feels she once had in her earlier years. This concern for balance is reflected in the direction her spiritual quests are taking at present—in her conscious and deliberate effort at combining Native American meditations and rituals with occasional visits to Quaker gatherings. The two groups are not all that different from one another in some respects. What fascinates Mollie about them and about some other groups, including Orthodox Jews, is that they have rituals that, as she says, establish "clear connections" and "create a kind of feeling around commitment to that belief system." It is how people practice a faith, or the links between beliefs and all of life, giving religion the force of a commitment, that most interests her.

Like many boomers, she would like a more stable set of family religious rituals, yet hasn't found the connections, the feelings, the commitment she is looking for. How can she commit herself if she doesn't feel that a particular religion pulls it all together as she would like? She has grown in her journey, but her quest is still incomplete. She wants very much to reclaim her Jewish heritage and bring it into her spiritual orbit. If only she could find a satisfactory alternative Jewish celebration, maybe her spiritual quest might be finally resolved. But try as she may, Mollie seems unable to get it together; her expectations of an alternative Jewish group and its accommodation to her highly syncretistic spiritualities are not easily met. Her dream of an encompassing vision giving her life a sense of unity has not been fulfilled; when she speaks of what gives her life the greatest meaning, she resorts to the language of "spiritual connections" and of "pieces" that fit into a larger puzzle. She's a bricoleur,28 one who tries to piece together a religious outlook and set of practices, yet with only limited success. Life for her remains a quandary, her quest unfulfilled.

To be sure, Mollie would not trade her quest for easy answers. Like many others of her generation, she is too much caught up in her ambivalence and alienation to ever find a comfortable home within organized religion. But she longs for more of a religious home than she has. For all the celebration of freedom and journey, she would like something more in the way of a group experience and affirmation of spiritual roots than she now has. So let us turn next to the opposite end of the religious continuum—to a "homestead of traditional faith"—to see what that experience is like for many boomers today. For only by exploring this other homestead can we begin to understand how the 1960s and 1970s have given us spiritual journeys for boomers that are so different from one another, and yet so similar.

Wade Clark Roof, "Molly's Quest," A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby-Boom Generation (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers)


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