Dr. John Young 3/9/08
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
American Spirituality: Restless Souls
A recent Pew Forum survey of 35,000 Americans reveals that almost half of Americans today are spiritually restless souls. Time-Union Religious Editor Jeff Brumley called me to get names and contacts for young UUCJ members to use in his February 26th article about the survey, but ended up featuring a more mainline couple of spiritual seekers. The Pew survey found that 44% of Americans today have left the religious traditions in which they grew up, that at least one in four between 18-29 have no religious affiliation, and that 12% describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” The mainline Protestants, like Methodists and Baptists, and the Roman Catholics have been the biggest losers to other denominations. Almost 1/3 of Americans were raised Catholic but less than ¼ of them now identify as Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church is maintaining its numbers only through Hispanic immigrants; nearly half of Catholics under age 30 are Hispanic. Brumley says that people are looking for “come as you are religions, for churches that are friendly and relevant.”
Columnist Ellen Goodman followed up with a March 3rd column: “Americans choose religions like busy shoppers in a mall.” Only 51% now identify as Protestants, and the fastest growing category is the 16% who identify as unaffiliated. Goodman argues that “the idea of religion as a personal choice seems thoroughly American—as American as religious tolerance, and increasingly these two ideas may be related.” She points out that 60% of Americans still say that “religion plays a very important role in our lives,” and that only 4% identify themselves as agnostics or atheists; so, while religion as old ways and immutable ideas is collapsing in popularity, huge numbers of Americans are involved in an often intense personal spiritual quest.
“When religion was cast in stone, we were more likely to cast stones. It may be that the new pluralism and the framing of religions as a choice are what are making us more accepting. This enables people to be more thoughtful about what they perceive to be true and right rather than inheriting what passes down to them. 40% of all marriages now are of mixed religious traditions, including ‘none of the above.’ We take coexistence pretty literally. We drop in and out of church, U-Hauling our beliefs off in search of a better fit.”
Our congregation and denomination are certainly beneficiaries of these trends and choices. Our congregation has basically doubled in size and diversity since I arrived in 1999. But if millions of Americans are leaving the faiths of their childhoods and looking for more relevant and pluralistic spiritual homes why aren’t Unitarian Universalist congregations growing like the often officially non-denominational but frankly Christian and evangelical mega-churches?
I think it depends a lot on what kind of choices people are looking for. Increasingly American society seems to be dominated by and obsessed with a prosperity gospel and an easy culture that concentrates upon casual comfort, consumer fulfillment and handsome packaging. In the non-denominational mega church, you literally have a shopping mall experience. The music sounds like popular music, the ideas shared are positive and undemanding, and you just need to do what you want do. You have a feel-good experience, and many of your needs are easily met. I think our denomination and congregation needs to learn from the technological sophistication and contemporary insights about getting people involved and fulfilling their needs. However, our UU niche in the spiritual market is for people who are seeking a religion that demands their best thinking, challenges their comfortable prejudices, and asks them to become ethical activists and devoted seekers for their own spiritual depths. We are very contemporary and American, but we are not easy or simple because life is not easy and the world is not simple.
I highly recommend the book Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, from Emerson to Oprah, written by Princeton professor Leigh Eric Schmidt. He argues that a religious liberalism based on individual religious experimentation which combines mysticism, cosmopolitan religion, and progressive ethical activism is, has been, and will be the foundation of American spirituality. You often come to me seeking the roots of your own spiritual quests and explanations for how you can put together the diverse strands and influences of your ideological lives and emotional commitments. I think you will find in Schmidt’s book a forceful summary of the roots that hold you close and the wings that set you free.
Schmidt deftly traces this American romance with the interior life from Emerson to Oprah, from Whitman to Obama, from William James to Zen basketball coach Phil Jackson. He unearths the deep Emersonian roots of American spiritual seeking, the combination of mystical quest, spiritual universalism, and progressive politics that characterizes American religiosity. The United States has increasingly become a culture which was spiritual more than religious over the last century. It is also characteristically a culture where secularity and spirituality have bolstered instead of diluting one another. It turns out that our liberal spiritual tradition is neither the stigmatized oxymoron of its Christian right critics nor the therapeutic capitalist conceit of its secular left critics. Instead, it is the poster child for the Spiritual Left and the basic evolving model for American spirituality.
The Spiritual Left is transforming the old religions of authority into the new religions of the spirit, the descendents of Emerson and Whitman. Although it grew out of the Protestants’ commitment to individually interpreted scripture and the Enlightenment’s commitment to political religious liberty, it became a distinct religious and political ideology with the Transcendentalist Unitarians in the middle of the 19th century, who first popularized the concept of spirituality as preferred to religion. This new spirituality aspired to individual mystical experiences and feelings, valued silence, solitude and meditation, emphasized the immanence of the divine potentially in every person and certainly in nature, a cosmopolitan appreciation of spiritual variety and diversity, an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice through the reform of society, and a clear emphasis upon creative self-expression and adventurous spiritual seeking.  Unitarian, Universalists and their spiritual kin had a sweeping effect on American religious life and spiritual aspiration.
Schmidt divides the book into seven chapters focusing in turn: on mysticism, solitude, world piety, meditation, the paradox of freedom and self-surrender, seekers, and being gentle with yourself. He traces the roots of American mysticism straight to the Transcendentalists and extends it through Unitarians Joseph Priestley, James Freeman Clarke who founded the field of world religions at Harvard, Francis Peabody who developed social ethics at Harvard, and Thoreau who all saw themselves both as spiritual mystics and scientific naturalists and felt that these two were not in conflict but were complements to each other. In the 20th century, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and King, and continued the Transcendentalist’s convergence of political progressivism, socioeconomic justice, and mystical interiority as the heart of the rise of a Spiritual Left in American culture.
Henry David Thoreau became the model for American’s quest for spiritual solitude, based on an appreciative but realistic reverence for nature and perceiving solitude as a potential remedy for the diseases of self-absorption and self-reproach which a market-dominated world seemed to magnify. William Alger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Thomas Merton pushed these views forward. William James and Alfred North Whitehead defined religion as what an individual does with his solitude to apprehend the relations with the divine they conceived.
Walt Whitman set the foundations for a spiritual democracy in which all individual quests were respected and none were beyond criticism or reform. Thomas Higginson, Lydia Child, WEB Du Bois, personified a new world in which all religions had sympathetic connections and every person, including women, Hindus, Muslims, and Negroes had vibrant souls. People needed to become more cosmopolitan in their sympathies and more responsive to diverse scriptures.
Felix Adler, a rabbi’s son and the founder of the Ethical Culture movement was among those who drew American’s attention to the need for meditation even in a rational humanism. Effective freedom needed spiritual disciplines: quiet reflection, focused meditation, patient journaling. These disciplined spiritual practices were needed to turn abstract mysticism into effective living, and these spiritual practices need an active ethics of love and compassion, in which people could lose their self-centered natures through the services of others. Between1894 and 1916, Sarah Farmer created and nurtured the Greenacre Community just across the river from Portsmouth, NH, in Eliot, Maine, where all these trends were openly explored. Liberated American spirits were beginning to realize that freedom had to been seen in the context of finitude, autonomy in the light of resignation, and self-assertion tempered by chosen surrenders. 
Religion was being redefined as the universal search for meaning. Religion could only be saved if it became spirituality. A Quaker academic, Rufus Jones, became the most influential writer on mysticism and the inner life in the first half of the 20th century. He almost single-handedly transformed his small Quaker denomination into the purveyor of spiritual wisdom. It again combined the American spiritual foundations of mysticism, spiritual cosmopolitanism, and activist social change. Writer Aldous Huxley, religious scholar Huston Smith, and activist preacher Howard Thurman continued to model the rational, activist seeker mentality.
Most of us probably know the Desiderata, which begins “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste” and reminds us later “to be gentle with ourselves.” The words were written by an Indiana businessman named Max Ehrmann who was also a Harvard-trained philosopher, and I will make the Desiderata and Max Ehrmann the basis for my workshop and service at our O’Leno retreat at the end of April. Schmidt’s book concludes with Ehrmann because he believes he represented the enduring popularity of such sentiments and exemplified the combination of freedom tempered by an activist social conscious, mysticism tempered by rationality, and tolerance empowered by spiritual democracy and clear-eyed spiritual universalism.
Liberal religion is neither the Radical Right’s oxymoron nor the secular Left’s therapeutic conceits. Instead, liberal religion is the foundation and evolving model for American spirituality. Millions of Americans are using their freedom to consume spirituality that is as unhealthy as most fast food and as fragile and excessive as much of what is in the shopping malls. Certainly the prosperity gospel and independent mega-churches are as popular and seductive as other elements of our celebrity, entertainment, consumer-obsessed culture, but it also as hypocritical as the outworn tenets of fundamentalism and orthodoxy that it claims to replace.
Liberal religion is neither fast spirituality nor easy-answer religion. It promises and demands a spiritual democracy that asks each of its participants to discover and nurture their own inevitably mystical experiences of mystery and wonder, to rationally understand and practice a cosmopolitan spiritual ideology, and to put their principles into practical actions of social reform and cultural transformation. It asks them to grow their religious roots and to stretch their spiritual wings. We are not peripheral to America’s spiritual past, present or future, but central to what American spirituality has evolved to be and can more fully now become.