New Spiritualities Require Discernment

By Egan, Robert J. | Compass: A Jesuit Journal, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview
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New Spiritualities Require Discernment

Egan, Robert J., Compass: A Jesuit Journal

"To one who can read the signs of the times, nothing is more significant than the mystical revival that is now taking place. Happily, we are in the midst of a deep, quiet, vital movement of the race toward a more satisfying sense of the unseen reality." The phenomenon of "new spiritualities" makes me think of these words, which appear on the dust-jacket of an edition of Evelyn Underhill's Practical Mysticism published in 1915. And I wonder: how new is this phenomenon?

Most of these "new spiritualities"--which seem to us as well like signs of

the times--are drawn from the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, which are centuries older than Christianity, and interest in these teachings has been growing in the West for more than two hundred years. They helped shape aspects of Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Zen and Vedanta have had disciples in North America throughout most of this century. Even Jacob Needleman's popular study The New Religions, which discussed a wide range of eastern spiritualities "attracting hundreds of thousands of Americans," is now twenty-five years old.

Other "new spiritualities" are influenced by shamanism, by the mystical teachings of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Judaism or Islam, by the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas, or by western esoteric traditions of magic, alchemy, astrology, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry--most of these also several centuries old. Interest in these phenomena, including a fascination with "the occult," has a long history as well. All these influences have been flowing through the diverse cultural trends that since the 1960s, for better or worse, have come to be described as "new age consciousness."

Whatever we should call these currents of spiritual teaching and practice swirling around us today, "new" hardly seems the right word. Certainly there are some new elements in the mix. And of course, these older traditions always new to somebody. Like Christian mysticism itself, they seem to be almost continually in the process of being "discovered."

But what are we to make of these developments? Are they signs of a spiritual reawakening, a "mystical revival," that may shake us free from our materialism and positivism? Are they omens of cultural exhaustion and a regression to superstition and magical thinking? Do they reveal something to us about the deficiencies of contemporary Christianity? Will they reinforce our drift into narcissistic self-preoccupation and political apathy? Or could they rekindle our capacity for kindness, responsible citizenship and fidelity to our commitments?

These are questions that require clear thinking and disciplined study. They also require discernment. As individuals and communities, we need to figure out the real significance of these movements and what they have to do with the truth about human beings and the mystery we call God. This means that if we are to assess what is happening and what is being asked of us today in such a way we remain responsive to the Spirit of God, we need to listen carefully, to pray, to consult our hearts, and to speak sincerely with one another.

Discerning Spirits

Among Jesuits, and among their friends and colleagues, "discernment" is a key word, loaded with history and emotion, a word heard often and in many contexts. This talk about discernment inspires mixed reactions. Some take it very seriously as a religious practice crucial for the Christian life and central for Ignatian spirituality. Others view it skeptically, fearing that it disguises lazy-mindedness or self-deception. And others merely shrug and roll their eyes, suspecting that such talk masks hidden agendas and power relationships, covering them up with vague and fashionable language.

Discernment in this context means "discerning spirits," a kind of critical reflection on the wellsprings and dynamics of our own thoughts and wishes, an examination of our dispositions, feelings and deeper motives, with an eye to making solid judgements and good decisions in tune with our better selves and God's desires for us.

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