It is time to make a distinction between tourists and pilgrims. To the casual observer they may look alike, but they are not and they do not arrive at the same destination. The world does not need any more spiritual posers, lord knows we have enough.
A crisis of faith is probably a necessary step in spiritual maturity. There are few other ways to make one’s faith one’s own. This was certainly my story. I was a philosophy major in college. In my junior year in a course on existentialism I read a short story by Miguel de Unamuno, “Saint Emmanuel The Good, Martyr.” It is the fictional story of a Roman Catholic priest who lives an outward life of devotion to church and community while struggling with an inner life filled with doubt—particularly skeptical about belief in life after death. Having grown up the son of medical missionaries and surrounded by “professional” Christians this story struck home. It made me examine whether all my childhood beliefs were based on a convenient lie reinforced by a familiar and safe community. It shook me to my spiritual and intellectual core. This was the start of my making my faith my own. Forty-seven years later I still have the book in which this story was read on my shelf as a road marker on my spiritual pilgrimage. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Periods of doubt and existential questioning of one’s faith are not only common but necessary for spiritual growth. Unfortunately, too few churches acknowledge this experience and provide a safe place for unsafe questions. We must start to provide space for the "dark night of the soul."
This silencing of doubt is a factor in the growth of “spiritual, but not religious” or self-described “religious nones.” Today we live in a world were the default position is one of no faith, not faith. So no faith is the easy, unthinking posture for many. When surveys report an increasing number of young people identify as “religious nones” or “religiously unaffiliated,” the media headlines read this increase as if we are seeing an uptick in atheism or a generalized disinterest in spirituality. This is a wrong interpretation of the data. But this data is significant and this religious shift almost unprecedented. Over 40% of young people fall into this category. This represents the largest demographic shift in the religious composition of America in recent memory. Vast numbers of young people no longer identify with the religious traditions of their parents and no longer participate in traditional organized religion.
In the academy it has been long assumed that the “secularization thesis” was inevitable. The media has also tended to follow this view. It was assumed that as science, capitalism, and urbanization expanded under modernity, religious belief would wither and die. Visions of progress assumed the natural diminishment of religion. Max Weber called this process “disenchantment.” This thesis is widely discredited in the social sciences, though it is still assumed as axiomatic by many in the academy and media. Modernity does not necessarily lead to disenchantment.
So to understand the data correctly about religious nones, one must assume that the decrease in interest in the church does not mean a decreasing interest in faith or spirituality. In fact, young people are more open to exploring their spiritual haunting when it is approached within a more open frame. Young people are the first post-Enlightenment and post-secular generational cohort. They eschew binary either-or abstract assumptions about reality, and they reject a view of secular as a subtraction from religion.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, shows how the word “secular” has changed over time. Until recently, “secular” was used as an offshoot of the Enlightenment as a binary conflict of ideas: faith vs. reason, Christianity vs. atheism, and religion vs. science. The “secular” was a story about something being subtracted from religion. The rise of the New Atheism, in this view, was both expected and celebrated.
But this is not the whole story.
For in contrast to this binary Enlightenment view of secular, Taylor and most young people today have a completely new understanding of the word, something closer to a “spiritualized secularity.” This sensibility is captured in the opening lines of Julian Barnes memoir, Nothing to be Frightened Of. He writes, “I do not believe in God, but I miss Him.” Here one finds a thoroughly secular sensibility that is at the same time thoroughly open to the transcendent. Rather than a dark world without windows, here is a world where light from the cracks in the wall fills the room with yet… unidentified light. This contemporary view of secular is the sense that life can be lived fully within the natural frame with the haunting sense that there might be something more. It is this openness or haunting that makes it so different from past perspectives. In this sense, “secular” is not a subtraction, but a place where an addition is possible, sought, and explored. And this feeling is more than a passive intellectual curiosity, but a genuine fear of missing out that prompts a proliferation of alternative explorations of the transcendent. In a “been-there-done-that” world, the first move in this exploration is not usually the traditional Christian church but it is to alternative forms of spirituality. The “spiritual, but not religious” is simply an expression of this non-binary open third way. Many who set out on this new spiritual pilgrimage operate from within this open “post-secular” frame.
One’s attitude toward spiritual exploration is also worth considering. I had dinner recently in New York City with Guy Reid, a Scottish Zen Buddhist documentary filmmaker focusing on the spiritual perspectives of NASA astronauts. Guy complained to me that many who are involved in do-it-yourself (DIY) spirituality are dabblers rather than true seekers. He went on, one can go to Nepal as a tourist or a pilgrim. Depending on which, he concluded, you will not arrive at the same place.
Pilgrimage makes demands on its participants. Many modern spiritual seekers resist these demands and are disengaged from the study and disciplines of any given tradition. Spiritual posers are not OK; they are dabbling tourists. Experienced Burners decry “Burner Virgins” who attend Burning Man as tourists. They are considered frat boys on a road trip. There is much more to be found at Burning Man than sex and alcohol. A genuine spiritual pilgrimage is not wanderlust, tourist curiosity, or Disney distraction, but a decided journeying for the purpose of spiritual growth.
There are four things that characterize a pilgrim that sets them apart from tourists:
1. Longing – The pilgrim is motivated by a sense of lack or need. The pilgrim is haunted by the fear of missing out and wanting to connect with a deeper reality and a larger sense of meaning. Pascal said that there are two kinds of people: those who seek and those who do not. It is a truism of ancient wisdom that “Only seekers find.” Pilgrims have a restless longing, a relentless spiritual itch.
2. Community – Often the pilgrimage is a solitary journey, but it's often enriched by others who share their stories along the way. Arduous walking and fascinating storytelling are essential ingredients of pilgrimage. Marketing guru Seth Godin reminds us that those we travel with not only make the journey more interesting, but also make it more meaningful. He writes, “It’s because being surrounded by people on the same journey as you causes you to level up. Your path forward is pretty simple: Decide on your journey and find some people who will cause you to level up.” There is spiritual value in company. Pilgrims join with those who help them level up.
3. Experience – Pilgrimage demands going somewhere, usually a place that is arrived at with some difficulty. It’s a dangerous journey. Pilgrimage involves mud, rain, dust, and cold—the kind of elements that test one’s resolve, place one outside one’s comfort zone, and makes the arriving all the more sweet. It’s more like a mudder race than apres skiing. It includes facing one’s emotional wounds or even physical wounds, sexual abuse, drug/alcohol abuse, or overcoming PTSD. My wife says never trust anyone who doesn’t walk with a limp. Pilgrims inevitably walk with a limp. They get to a point where all their rose-colored lenses are cracked and they have no other option than to see reality as something larger than themselves. Pilgrims walk with a limp and they keep on walking.
Moreover, this is not merely a head-trip, but one that involves the entire body. Facing the foot blisters and sore muscles, the emotional wounds and fatal flaws are an intrinsic part of the process. Pilgrimage is a holistic experience and is not something one can read about in a book. The journey is the “thin place” itself, the liminal threshold that one must experience.
4. Reflection – Finally, pilgrimage involves self-reflection, connecting one’s personal story to the current journey. This involves more than a quick selfie. The Women Empowerment Movement is an example of this as women are much better than men at being vulnerable. There's a big push today to being open with mental health, asking for help, and finding communities of support. It may require journaling and retelling one’s story through the lens of the pilgrimage experience. It involves the humility in asking for help. It means embodying the liminality of the pilgrimage and being vulnerable to the process.
New Copernicans understand the language of pilgrimage, the open-ended seeking for a new world and a larger story. Genuine spiritual pilgrimage is not for posers. Spiritual authenticity begins with embracing the journey, even in the midst of doubts. And so from my dorm room in college 47 years ago to today, I have been on a meandering spiritual adventure that continues.
Today finds me in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival, where I had lunch with the Trevor Project founder and actor James Lecesne. He is a portal of grace, the most Christ-like Buddhist gay activist I know. I was so blessed to be with him. I am so grateful that my spiritual journey has led me to this friendship.
Modern life is full of distractions and diversions that will keep you from things that matter. Young people today—even more than their parent’s generation—are aware that an open-ended spiritual exploration is not something to be missed. It is the first step of growth in finding meaning and fulfillment in your life’s story. You are invited to this adventure....
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