The print news media seem to be ushering in 2015 with the discovery of religion. The National Post before New Year’s carried a two-page spread on the turn of professional athletes to God. The Edmonton Journal reports “New thirst for spirituality.”
“Quest for spirituality world wide,” reports a Calgary Herald headline. “Counsellors noticing increased interest in life’s meaning as the world spins toward the millennium,” a subheading adds.
Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail tells us that “increasing numbers of people are looking for their spiritual roots.” But “they don’t want the kind of church they left years ago,” adds a subheadline, and another declares: “Jesus Christ makes a comeback in a new-time religion.”
As such articles frequently point out, this interest in religion (usually called “spirituality” to distinguish it from what goes on in churches) is quite a recent phenomenon. Four decades ago, American theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” had vanished from western culture and would never return.
“God is dead” theology, rooted in Nietzscheism, enjoyed a great vogue, especially in seminaries. Even within this decade pseudo-scientist broadcaster Carl Sagan routinely assured his television audience of the irreversible triumph of science and technology.
We are now seeing, in other words, a major shift. Two explanations are offered for this phenomenon. For one, advancing technology is gravely threatening our society, both socially and environmentally. Our capacity to wipe ourselves out becomes ever more difficult to confine.
More significant still, those most blessed with material success often demonstrate themselves as the least satisfied with it. The Toronto Star last month carried the story of Ed Shikatani, age 40. He had his BMW. He had his motorbike. He had toured the world. He had taken up para-gliding. “You go around and buy new toys and you say, `That’s not it, that’s not it, that’s not it.’ People were looking at me saying, `What do you mean? You’ve got it all.’ ”
So he attended a retreat in Ontario’s Thousand Islands area. “I focus in on my soul now,” he says. “It’s made everything more liveable. I’m more confident, more centred.”
Many of his friends are experiencing the same frustration he’d felt, he adds. “A couple of them weren’t happy with the way they lived, so they dumped their wives and got new ones, young toys. But they’re still not happy. It’s so funny. Now I can see it as plain as day in other people.”
Exactly what Mr. Shikatani has discovered he cannot really explain. From the outside, however, this so-called “new-time religion” looks very much like what used to be called “old-time religion.” That is, it lays great emphasis on what you feel and little if any on thought.
Old-time religion has some impressive credentials, of course. The apostles, who actually lived with Jesus, were not motivated by intellectual speculation, but by what they experienced. The great saints write of the immediacy of God in their lives. He is not something but someone, not an abstract but a living reality.
This reality is what people are now seeking, and they therefore have little patience with what they usually dismiss as “dull dogmas” or “outworn creeds,” or with “organized” or “institutional” religion.
The question, however, is whether they can long remain in this situation. The reason Mr. Shikatani can’t tell his friends how to escape their dilemma is simply this: When he tries to put his experience into words, he will find himself trying to explain what he has come to believe in.
“You have to believe there’s something out there,” he will say, or “something inside you.” His friends will ask, “What kind of something?” and his answer will inevitably turn out to be a theological assertion, the very kind of thing he once heard in church.
This Jesus, whose widening popularity even the Globe and Mail must now admit, spoke always of “belief.” He emphasized it again and again, a fact that people will very soon come to discover. They will also find you can’t have “belief” unless there is something to believe in, and when they try to express this–no matter how simply and directly–what they will be expressing amounts to a dogma. But you can be sure very few of them will ever call it that.