Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement

Article excerpt

A significant number of people today identify themselves as "spiritual but not religions," distancing themselves from continuing religions traditions of formation. Various explanations have been offered for this. This article claims that this phenomenon is the result of the influence of a new Romantic movement that began to emerge in the 1960s. Historians, sociologists, philosophers, and contemporary theologians give evidence for such a new movement, which is found in popular culture, and in postmodernism, neoconservatism, the new consumerism, and especially in the current spirituality movement. Romantic movements tend to disparage traditional religion and to affirm unorthodox, exotic, esoteric, mystical, and individualistic spiritualities; this is true of the current spirituality movement. The current spirituality movement also resembles Romantic movements in its ambiguity, and in its destructive as well as constructive tendencies.

Many commentators have noted the current cultural phenomenon of the large number of people, perhaps twenty percent of Americans, who are self-identified as "spiritual hut not religious." Some of these commentators have offered explanations for this phenomenon. Among these are Weber's idea of the "routinization of charisma" in organized religion, which may have turned off many seekers; the regular emergence in the religious traditions of renewal movements of which the spirituality movement may be an example; the unprecedented contact and interchange among the world religions; the suspicion of institutions of all kinds and the resulting search for something more individual, private, and experiential; and the authoritarian structures and social constraints of religious institutions which have become hurtful and destructive.1

Since this phenomenon seems to be limited to English and North American cultures, another possible explanation of it is linguistic. I refer here to the fact that the meaning of "spirit" (and thus "spirituality") in English is much narrower than its equivalents in the Germanic and Romance languages, in which it refers to all the uniquely human capacities and cultural functions.2 Tillich attributes this difference to the impact of the British empirical tradition which separated the cognitive functions of the mind from the functions of emotion and will, and identified "spirit" with the latter.3 Thus Geist became "ghost" and esprit became "sprite." This may have led some to see a clear difference between religion and spirituality. This linguistic factor, however, has undoubtedly been enhanced by the explanation for the phenomenon of "spiritual but not religions" offered below.

In this essay I will propose that a major reason for this phenomenon, which has not been noted, is that the current spirituality movement which arose in the 1970s is largely the product of a new Romantic movement which emerged in the 1960s. The current Romantic movement has influenced all aspects of our cultural life; the spirituality movement is in large part a product of this. Romantic movements always tend to disparage traditional religion and to affirm unorthodox, exotic, individualistic spiritualities. Romantic movements are also ambiguous, with tendencies which are destructive as well as productive. This ambiguity also attaches to the current spirituality movement.

What are the marks of a Romantic movement? Philosopher William Thomas Jones has described Romanticism as a complex syndrome of "biases" in the direction of what he calls the dynamic, the disordered, the continuous, the soft-focused, the inner, and the- otherworldly.4 Historian Craig Brinton portrays the Romantic temperament as "sensitive, emotional, preferring color to form, the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure, above all for the vicarious adventure of fantasy, reveling in disorder and uncertainty, insistent on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making a virtue of eccentricity. …

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