Friday, February 29, 2008

Gordon Lynch on the New Progressive Spirituality of the Religious Left

Gordon Lynch has quickly become one of my favorite authors. Lynch is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck University of London, and in my estimation, he is one of the more perspective and balanced scholars writing on religion and Wesern culture. Previously I had enjoyed reading his book After Religion: 'Generation X' and the search for meaning (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002) which discusses not only cultural and spiritual considerations related to Gen X, but which also includes discussion of Lynch's own spiritual journey as he migrated out of evangelical faith in the U.K. (see my previous interview with Lynch on this book's thesis here.) I have also enjoyed his contributions to the study of religion and popular culture, including Understanding Theology and Popular Culture (Blackwell Publishing, 2005), and his most recent work in this area as editor of Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture (I.B. Tauris, 2007). Last night I finished one of his contributions to religious and cultural studies in the form of The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007). As the back cover of this book describes, The New Spirituality addresses the "opposite" of the "Religious Right" in the form of "the emergence of a new generation of progressive religious thinkers and organisations on the 'religious left'. The New Spirituality is one of the first books to give a comprehensive and authoritative analysis of this burgeoning progressive religious movement."

Lynch identifies four key concerns identified with the New Spirituality that include: 1) "the desire for an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriate for modern, liberal societies," 2) "the rejection of patriarchal forms of religion and the search for religious forms that are authentic and liberating for women," 3) "the move to re-sacralize science (particularly quantum physics, and contemporary theories of cosmology)," and 4) "the search for a nature-based spirituality that will motivate us to try to avert the impending ecological catastrophe."

The author discusses the New Spirituality over the course of six chapters. The first looks at the roots of progressive spirituality which have connections to a long and rich tradition within the West, but which have also "been particularly shaped, though, by a range of cultural and intellectual movements that have become increasingly influential on western religion since the 1960s." The second chapter looks at the ideology of progressive spirituality that emphasizes "a lived ideology" where action is emphasized as much as thought. This ideology involves three aspects, including a notion of the divine as ineffable, immanent, pantheistic/panentheistic; and strong senses of nature and the self that are sacralized. Chapter 4 addresses how religion has changed in western societies with the rise of modernization. This chapter is extremely helpful as it summarizes the overlapping but different understandings of various scholars from differing disciplines as to their interpretations of this social, cultural, and religious phenomenon. Chapter 5 looks at the debate as to perceptions of demoralization in the West and how progressive spirituality is to be understood within the context of this debate. Chapter 6 concludes the volume with Lynch's discussion of what the future might hold for progressive spirituality.

This volume is significant for Christians in that not only does it discuss a popular, influential, and increasingly well organized and intellectual alternative to the Religious Right, but it also describes a spirituality that in some ways has developed in reaction to perceptions of the shortcomings if not outright failures of conservative expressions of Christianity. As Lynch describes this:

"The form of religion that is most commonly rejected by progressive spirituality is, as we have already noted, hierarchical religion grounded in a belief in a personal God who is removed from the cosmos. William Bloom refers to such forms of religion as being based on the idea of God as 'General in Command' or 'Chief Executive Officer'. Such religion, it is argued, is authoritarian - dictating what kinds of beliefs and lifestyles its adherents should follow. It is patriarchal - using its power structures to reinforce certain assumptions about who should hold power and what kinds of gender and ethnic identities, or sexual orientation, are more inherently valuable than others. It is rigid and inflexible - asserting timeless doctrines and moral codes without asking whether these are meaningful or constructive in a modern context. It inserts the need for religious authorities and institutions for mediating the divine rather than allowing people to pursue their spiritual search on their own terms. It devalues embodied experience and makes us suspicious and guilty about sexuality. It removes the sacred from the cosmos, and in doing so leaves a desacralized world ripe for capitalist, industrialist exploitation. It places salvation in a life and context above and beyond this one, rather than seeing the cosmos as the only real context in which issues of life and death, salvation and grace are worked out. Because of this, it is argued, traditional hierarchical religion has little to offer by way of a framework for an authentic spiritual search or to inspire constructive responses to contemporary problems." [emphasis mine]

In light of these concerns among advocates of progressive spirituality as well as increasing numbers of people in the West who would not directly identify with the progressive spiritual milieu, I believe this book should be considered esential reading for those attempting to understand a significant aspect of Western spirituality, particularly Christians interested in living and articulating a form of spirituality that avoids or at least appropriately accounts for negative perceptions of prevalent expressions of Christianty in the western world.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review John, sounds like an interesting book.

Anonymous said...

Morehead has more head than many and a big heart to boot. I gather from his tone in this quick review that he leaves the possibility open that this rising religiosity of the left is a spiritual phenomenon that might lead people to God and Christ . . . but perhaps he sees it merely as better than nihilistic skepticism. I would enjoy finding out by observing him, a devout evangelical Christian, in a dialogue with someone professing this progressive spirituality. This dialogue has to happen, actually, for the future health of the religious left and the right.

Randall Paul

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for your kind comments, Randy. This would indeed make for an interesting discussion, and I would love to pursue it one day. Until then, my discussion with Gordon on another of his books related to this will have to suffice: