A Nation of Mystics? Religious Gerontology and the Boomers

Article excerpt

"Are we a nation of mystics?" That was the question posed by National Opinion Research Center sociologists Andrew M. Greeley and William C. McCready, the answers to which they reported in The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 26, 1975). Results from the 1973 General Social Survey (GSS) showed that the prevalence of people who reported having selected mystical experiences during their lifetime was unexpectedly high.

Based on 1988 data from GSS, the follow-up work colleagues and I conducted on this topic (The Gerontologist, August 1993) revealed that the lifetime prevalence of some mystical experiences had increased considerably over the intervening years: 67.3% said they had sensed deja vu; 64.8% reported experiencing ESP; 39.9% noted spiritualism (contact with the dead); and 28.3% recalled incidences of clairvoyance. Furthermore, only 13.5% of respondents reported never having experienced any of these phenomena.


If the data on mystical experience are any indication, then those of us who conduct quantitatively oriented basic research in religion and aging are pretty much out to lunch. With the exception of a small area of research on prayer, a behavior with definite mystical components and sequelae, empirical researchers are missing the boat when it comes to, apparently, the most widely manifested phenomenon in the spiritual realm. We are systematically ignoring this phenomenon-and inner experience in general, whether "mystical" or not-in favor of discrete and measurable behaviors, public or private, consistent with the behavioristic and mechanistic biases inherent in behavioral science, behavioral epidemiology and biomedicine. In so doing, we are failing to lay the groundwork for the religious gerontology of the future, which, it seems, will have no choice but to delve into the mystical realm if it is to stay current with the most popular and salient expressions of spirituality in the older generations to come.

If these trends continue, then the realm of mystical experience-of inner, liminal experience of the numinous or holy or divine-will be increasingly relevant to gerontologists in the coming years as the boomer cohort ages. The increasing centrality and salience of personal experience as a defining characteristic of religious expression and a defining feature of one's spiritual life are prime examples of how this cohort differs from previous generations.

The religious gerontologists of the future thus will be surveying a much different religious landscape than is present today. This is not to say that religion or spirituality will not weigh as heavily in the lives of older adults, or will no longer represent a source of comfort and support, but rather that this salutary role will not be expressed principally through formal relationships with churches, synagogues or mosques. Older adults will find other ways to connect with the ultimate or eternal and draw meaning from these experiences. Eventually, a significant proportion of elders may emerge who value insights that would sound more at home in workshops at Esalen or Omega or Naropa or Elat Chayyim than in traditional liturgies.

There is some evidence that mainstream religions and religious denominations have recognized this trend and are beginning to prepare for the future. During a trip to Cincinnati, I visited the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the main seminary of Reform judaism in North America. Earlier that day, there, had been a brownbag presentation on the use of congregations as centers for holistic healing. Since then, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations-the synagogue arm of the Reform movement-has instituted a series of annual conferences for rabbis on this theme, and special services emphasizing spiritual renewal, inner healing and meditation are becoming commonplace in Reform synagogues throughout the United States.


The message for empirical religious gerontologists is clear. …