Mainstream Culture Embraces - but Redefines - Meaning of 'Spirituality'

By Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Mainstream Culture Embraces - but Redefines - Meaning of 'Spirituality'


Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Underneath the biggest cult story in the US in 20 years lies an enduring question: What is spirituality?

Much of the reflection on the millennial sect Heaven's Gate, and the leader who compared himself to Jesus while leading his adherents to death, centers on the "spiritual" aspect of the tragedy.

Cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite's "spiritual philosophy" of the soul hit Page 1. Internet groups chat on "New Age UFO spirituality." One ex-Heaven's Gate member says Mr. Applewhite's "physical body was born in Houston, but his spiritual self was on a higher level." Yet pastors and theologians say all this indicates how widespread, casual, and even devalued the idea of "the spiritual" has become in the US. They say a new level of "spiritual talk" among Americans may show a healthy longing for a higher or richer sense of life. But it also flattens or distorts a concept that had a distinct meaning inside churches and synagogues - of something genuinely "holy" or "divine" rather than merely psychological. "The word spirituality is in such wide use today that it has lost its focus," says Gabriel Fackre of the Andover-Newton Theological Academy in Newton, Mass. "The closer we get to the year 2000 it seems, the more we will hear the phrase, from popular as well as cultic and esoteric movements." Popular usage of spiritual has grown in mainstream culture as well as in churches and synagogues. Last Friday, for example, when the Rev. Martin Luther King's son met with James Earl Ray, in prison for killing Dr. King, the son, Dexter King, described the meeting to reporters afterwards as a spiritual experience that helped him "complete ... a spiritual circle." Under the Protestant discourse that held sway, at least in many religious traditions, for much of the 20th century, spiritual suggested the nature or presence of God, the Holy Spirit. For the faithful, spiritual or spirituality was also tied to a deep moral sense - including a sense of history, responsibility to a community, and of truth as a meaningful concept. In recent years, the word's usage has undergone dramatic change. It means everything from emotional fervor or intellectual excitement, to a sensual experience, to the description of a "family" like Heaven's Gate that hoped to join a UFO being who resembled ET, the loveable alien in the movie by Steven Spielberg. Today, rock star Madonna describes herself as "spiritual." The recent film "Michael" about an angel on earth offers "both laughs and spirituality," says a reviewer. Spousal abuse is due to "spiritual weaklings," writes a feminist. One New Age healer asks audiences to "do something spiritual" for themselves. "Spiritual decorating" - arranging furniture in a way that is calming, for instance - is a fad. …

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