10 Things Everyone Should Know About Modern Spirituality

Why we're living in times of great promise...and peril.


Sometimes there are new ways to get to old places.
Sometimes there are new ways to get to old places.

We're living in interesting times.

Modern spirituality sits at a unique – rare, even – point in history.

The current spiritual scene in the modern world is providing us with opportunities for both great promise…and great peril.

“Crisis” might be too strong of a word. But both "danger" and "opportunity” seem appropriate.

Not to be too dramatic, but we could be on the verge of a new spiritual Renaissance, if we do it right.

Or, we could flub it up if we don't.

Let’s explore.

1. For the first time in all of recorded history, all of the world’s spiritual traditions are at our fingertips.

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Llama, unveiling the fall fashion line.
Thomas Merton and the Dalai Llama, unveiling the fall fashion line.

Religious and spiritual teachings that were once considered to be “exotic, foreign, and strange” are now just a few clicks away. Beliefs, teachings, even individuals are now accessible in a way that was unthinkable only a short time ago. Want to be up close and personal with the Dalai Lama? No problem – hit YouTube, and you’re practically sitting right there in the room with him, almost instantly.

Remember: only a few hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a printing press. Every single book had to be written by hand. “Amazon” was a river.

Today, a book could be published and billions of people could read it that day. Assuming you have a pretty decent publicist.

Culture has always evolved. But today, the pace is blistering.


2. There’s more freedom than there used to be.

Another rarity in human history:

Many of us right now, at least in some places (unfortunately, too few) are free to practice spirituality/religion – or not – as we choose.

This freedom is precious. And rare.

Again, look at history: the norm is someone in power ramming something down the average person’s throat, like it or not. Usually, it happens politically. Sometimes, that "ramming" is softer, where it only happens culturally. (Eg, wearing a "Scarlet A," peer pressure, the occasional shun, public flogs, and so on.)

But right now – knock on wood – at least here in the United States, I’m not being forced to practice this, that, or anything. I don’t wake up in fear of being burned at the stake, stoned, or being imprisoned for heresy. (And - quick aside - for this I am beyond grateful to all the people, forces and ideas have played a role in creating this, and continue doing so.

I don’t have to practice any religion if I don’t want to.

At the same time, I can drive down the street and browse through thousands of books about every major religions, minor religions, secret religions, fake religions, non-religions, anti-religions, etc. I’m able to join, audit, “check out,” or convert to anyone who will have me.

It wasn't always like this. Again: this kind of freedom is rare.

Of course, like all freedoms, this is fragile and can be lost easily. I don’t take it for granted.

But now, the key question: what to do with this freedom?


3. There is a “spiritual marketplace” like never before

Just choose what you want! It's as simple as that! Right? Umm...right?
Just choose what you want! It's as simple as that! Right? Umm...right?

There is a lot of disruption going on, quietly, almost secretly. In business they might call it “creative destruction.”

Just a little while ago – say, back in the “wild west” - there was usually just one main general store in town.

Then one day, there were two general stores.

A little while after, a shopping center.

Then a mall. Then a mega-industrial shopping complex that’s almost a small town unto itself. Then 2, 3, 5 mega-industrial shopping complexes all within a few miles of each other.

The same thing has happened with religion.

Gone are the days when there's one corner church or “spiritual store” in town.

Here are the days where you have dozens, hundreds, thousands of different options to “shop” from.

Enter a new breed of spiritual shopoholics.


4. This is creating an environment of “do-it-yourself theology,” “pick-and-choose religion,” “all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet,” etc.

We’re no longer necessarily stuck in the religion we’re born with.

We’re able to, for lack of better words, “customize” our spirituality to an amazing degree.

For anyone seeking answers, there are plenty of folks out there eager to provide them.

For better or worse.

The all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet is open.


5. If we approach it properly, this can create incredible opportunities.

Let’s be honest: sometimes the tradition we were born into just wasn’t a good fit.

If Little Johnny was too much of a “free-thinker,” questioner, doubter, or just didn’t like sitting still or singing hymns halfheartedly and only caused trouble for the kind old pastor…it usually wasn’t all that good for Johnny. And it usually wasn’t all that great for the dear old pastor, either.

Or the opposite: if Little Susie, by nature, is an overly disciplined, reads Kant and talks like Spock's younger sister, maybe she didn’t exactly thrive in her loose, free-flowing Taoist commune.

Sometimes customizable spirituality can be a good thing.

It doesn’t take much to look around and see that there are a lot of crazy ideas floating around out there, including some of those bandied about safely within some strains of organized religion.

And the ability to move away from those, and toward better ones, is a good thing.

(Of course, it’s always the other folks’ beliefs who seem crazy. Who the “other folks” are, exactly, always changes, depending on who you’re talking to.)

But here’s another secret: this has always been going on to some degree.

Even when there was only “one game in town”… every individual still approached that “game” in their own personal way, and emphasized certain things (beliefs, practices, doctrines etc) over others. At least a little.

It’s always been personalized to some degree.

Today, it’s just more. By an order of magnitude.

This is the opportunity.

For you, me, and the other individuals who are lucky enough to experience this today…this can be a golden opportunity. We no longer have to wear the hand-me-downs of whatever spiritual doctrines we inherited from Uncle Jimmy.

We can find the approach that fits the shape of our soul.

This offers the potential for a real burst of creativity, new horizons, a new Renaissance. “There’s gold in them thar hills!”

But of course, this opportunity has a flip side.


6. Take it from Homer: there are hazards to designing your own religion.

"Boy, everyone is stupid, except me!"
"Boy, everyone is stupid, except me!"

There’s something we can learn from Homer Simpson. (And Bruce Almighty, and others.)

Do-it-yourself religion can be hazardous.

In the classic Simpsons episode "Homer the Heretic", Homer refuses to go to Church one cold Sunday morning, and has what he declares as the best day of his life. And - shocker - he likes it. And from that point forward, he basically starts designing his own religion.

It doesn't go well.

While this won't tell us everything we need to know about the topic, we can say this: learning whatever we can from Homer will probably be more pleasant than learning the hard way.

Just to name a few…the risk in “designing your own religion” is that:

  • You build your own blind spots into it.
  • You build your own biases into it.
  • You can easily avoid everything you should face, and face everything you should be avoiding.
  • You can easily be easy on yourself in all the areas where you should be hard on yourself, and hard on yourself in all the areas where you should be easy.
  • The opportunities for rationalizations are endless.
    The opportunities to “let yourself go,” spiritually speaking, are endless.
  • The opportunities for self-delusion are endless. (After all, if you’re the founder of your own religion, who's to say you're wrong?)
  • "You," or who you think you are, or your own ego, might actually be a pretty huge part of the problem.
  • And many others.

And of course, there is the chance that you just might be flat-out wrong. About some seriously major stuff.

And all this can seriously mess up your life.

And not just that. It can also potentially, seriously, mess up (insert a thousand qualifiers here)…your “soul.”

Great opportunities come with great risk.

But of course, a lot of folks are cruising this very road, right now.

And we almost have a name for them.

7. The “Nones,” aka the “Religiously Unaffiliated,” aka the “Spiritual but not Religious” are on the rise.

The “Religiously Unaffiliated” are now the world’s third largest religious group, after Christians and Muslims.

It’s roughly a fifth of the American public. And a third of adults under 30, as measured in 2012.

Just to be clear: these aren’t atheists. For these folks, the “sacred” (however you might define it) exists, and is real, and is important.

It’s just that no organized religion has a monopoly on it anymore.

Or seems to really talk about it anymore, in a way that really seems to click.

“Agnostic” might be one term for these folks. “Spiritual but not religious” might be a better one. “Nones” is another (as in “none of the above”). Or maybe “spiritual homeless.”

Certain folks are interested in exploring the essence of religion, and avoiding the non-essentials. Some would describe this as pick-and-choose spirituality - often meant as a derogatory term. But the implication is that things used to be better when X religion had a monopoly, when the church on the corner was the only game in town. The implication is that picking and choosing is always a bad thing.

It can be. But isn't it also the case that actually having a choice can be a good thing? And the important part - whether it benefits or harms us - comes down to how it's used?

Much about this can be explored more in depth (and hopefully will be), but for now, it’s pretty clear: the old-school mainstream organized religion options – the “churches on the corner” today – aren’t working like they used to.

At least for some folks…the old ways just aren’t doing the job.

Our culture, and the people in it, are evolving at the speed of light.

Our spiritual teachings need to keep up. And they aren't.

Or - many of them aren't.

But in a few small nooks...they are.

8. The days of “religion as a history lesson” are transforming into “religion as a new realm of experiences to explore.”

Religion, for some folks, is the core of their lives.

It’s the sun at the center of the solar system that all other planets rotate around.

For others, it’s merely a set of beliefs to memorize, or a signifier that defines your “tribe” and your membership in it, or just, well...a habit. Just something people do.

But in many ways, some subtle, some not, religion is transforming into something different.

It's transforming into a vehicle for a new realm of experiences.

That might sound a little far out, but it really isn't.

Meditation, “mindfulness,” contemplative prayer and yoga are just a few examples of this. Only a few decades ago, there was practically no widespread mention of any of these, anywhere in America.

Today they’re everywhere.

Sometimes “meditation” is merely a way to calm your mind and handle stress, “mindfulness” is merely a way to stop and smell the coffee, “prayer” is just a way to ask for stuff you want, and “yoga” is a fun way to get a firmer butt.

But other times, these can become something much deeper.

This can become a realm of experiences. Experiences that define you, mark you, change you, transform you. They can – sometimes – infuse you with meaning, purpose, and clarity, and even a degree of inner peace.

Much more interesting than history lessons.

9. Science and religion might at some point stop squabbling, team up, and truly elevate one another.

Science occasionally has some interesting things to say about all this.

Brain studies of meditators. Consciousness research. "Positive," transpersonal, and behavioral psychology. Studies of death and near-death experiences. Biofeedback used for meditation training. The list goes on.

Experiments aren’t just for white rats anymore.

10. For you and me, the individual souls navigating these crazy waters, it’s a time of great promise and great peril.

It's simple: do what you want! (Just don't screw it up.)
It's simple: do what you want! (Just don't screw it up.)

For the actual person wading into this environment, all of it can be both wonderful and completely overwhelming.

Not to mention confusing.

Real spirituality is now competing with false spirituality on an entirely new level.

The tsunami of contradictory messages about all this can paralyze us.

- or, just the sheer messiness of it all might convince us to abandon the whole project altogether and marathon Netflix all weekend, or watch videos of waterskiing squirrels.

It's pretty easy in this environment to just decide that thinking about all this just isn't worth it. It's all too much. And there are plenty of compelling distractions to compete with.

But while organized religion might not be knocking it out of the ballpark, at least for some folks…complete spiritual emptiness isn’t exactly blow-your-boots-off wonderful either.

So if you wade into this territory, it can all just become too big, too quickly. Knowing who or what to trust isn’t easy.

For anyone seeking answers, there are plenty of folks out there eager to provide them. Some are good. Many are bad.

Buyer beware.

We’re being forced to make choices our parents or grandparents might have never imagined.

And nothing has really prepared us for this.

But this is what we’re increasingly facing.

And this will continue.

Wonderful opportunities. Tidal waves of confusion. Penetrating insights. Frauds and phonies. Mass identity crisis. Transformations in how we think, feel, believe and behave. Creative destruction as various aspects of spiritualities mix, merge, evolve, disappear, and are born and reborn.

It’s possible to survive and thrive in this environment. It’s also possible to crash and burn.

“Thriving” in this environment meaning something along the lines of…well…getting more wise. More happy. (The real kind of happiness, not the phony kind.) More sane. Seeing more deeply into life. Dropping illusions, wishful thinking and naiveté.

"Crashing and burning" in this environment means...well, the opposite. In this situation, we can raise self-delusion to new levels.

These are definitely interesting times.

"It's all a question of story.
We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.
We are in between stories.
The old story, the account of how the world came to be
and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.
Yet we have not learned the new story..."
- Thomas Berry

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