Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Emerging Culture and Emerging Spiritualities: New Perspectives and a Fresh Agenda

The next time you visit your local Christian bookstore, notice where you find the books dealing with emerging spiritualities. They will be found in a section of the bookstore under the headings “cults”, sects, and various “isms”. None will be found in the missions section. In fact, the missions section of our Christian bookstores are usually thin in terms of the number of titles provided, and I would venture that few sales result from this category.

This phenomenon at Christian bookstores is paralleled in the hyper-specialization of certain ministries that address the emerginr spiritualities. These ministries are usually self-designated as “counter-cult” organizations. Although these ministries represent something of a cottage industry, and are prolific in terms of the production of tracts, books, and website content, they represent a very small segment of evangelicalism. They also appear to have very little recognition and influence beyond this narrow niche in the evangelical world.

This situation is curious in light of cultural changes in Western culture where the emerging spiritualities are increasingly influential. I am not arguing for the stereotypical “cult explosion”. I’m referring to a phenomenon that Christopher Partridge refers to as “the re-enchantment of the West”. Partridge notes that while the Western world has experienced a decline in traditional religious expression with the spread of secularization, this has not resulted in the disappearance of religion. Instead, as the West moves beyond secularization with its disenchantment of the world, and toward a re-enchantment and renewed interest in spirituality, traditional religious expressions, such as Christianity, are giving way to emerging expressions of spirituality. (See Partridge's article on this topic linked on the right hand side of this Blog under Western Re-enchantment. Partridge's thesis was later expanded into the book length treatment.) Quoting Robert Wuthnow, Partridge describes this shift in American religion as one away from “a traditional spirituality of inhabiting sacred places” or “a spirituality of dwelling” to “a new spirituality of seeking”. The increasing number of individuals in the Western world who are engaged in this spiritual quest are drawing upon a cultural ethos that includes “hidden, rejected and oppositional belierfs and practices associated with esotericism, theosophy, mysticism, New Age, Paganism, and a range of other subcultural beliefs and practices” (emphasis in original). These expressions of the new spiritual quest are no longer relegated to the fringe of Western culture, but are now mainstream and not only surface in popular culture, they often are influence popular culture itself to a significant extent, so much so that Partridge says we are witnessing a new “occulture”.

As this occulture grows in popularity the church will continue to find itself speaking a language of and expressing form of a spirituality that speaks less and less meaningfully to increasing numbers of people. In this new cultural context in the West, including America, traditional evangelistic and apologetic methodologies, as well as expressions of church, will be increasingly ineffective and culturally irrelevant.

What does all of this have to do with our Christian bookstore example that we began with? We have noted that evangelical responses to emerging spiritualities are marginalized, both within the evangelical subculture and beyond it. Yet the emerging spiritualities represent serious cultural phenomena, so much so that they influence popular culture to the extent that are defining the ways in which increasing numbers of Westerners think about and experience their spirituality. The time has come for evangelicalism to take the emerging spiritualities more seriously. Our conceptions of them and responses to them must move beyond the refutation of heresy. Although emerging spiritualities have been on the agenda of the counter-cult movement for quite some time, I suggest that it is time to place them on the broader agenda of evangelicalism, to be considered by other segments of the evangelical church. The evangelical missions community has begun to address this issue in recent years, and it may be time for the emerging church movement to consider it as well. While this movement's concerns for epistemology and ecclesiology in a postmodern context (at least this seems to be the major concerns in the American emerging church movement) are worthy of note, the significance of Western cultural shifts means that the movement must seriously engage with cross-cultural missions. From this vantage point the emerging church movement might make a meaningful contribution to the issue of the emerging spiritualities.

For a further exploration of this topic see Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture, Vol. 1 (T & T Clark International, 2005). Click the link on the book from on the Recommended Books section on the right hand side of this Blog below.

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