NEW NOTIONS OF COMMUNITY AND THE THRIVING NEW AGE

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Scholars have attempted to explain why New Age spiritual phenomena has grown in popularity in recent decades. Many discussions focus on the differences between New Age and ‘conventional’ World Religions. And more specifically, why the properties of New Age might be more attractive to the modern person on an individual level. Some thinkers go broader, looking at secular societies where New Age has flourished, to see what societal factors might give reason to the rise in popularity of New Age. But I would like to focus this article on a principle discussed little in academic circles: ‘community’.

In the literature, the term community may be used to discuss organizational structure. But thus far, it has been utilized little to explain how our changing notions of ‘community’ have made this the new, spiritual age. What constitutes as community has changed. In the past, a community might be a group of people that live in the same geographical area, people you are related to by blood or sanctioned binds (i.e. marriage or adoption), or people that adhere to the same belief system you follow. All of these determinates for community are fairly straight forward and definite. They have tangible boundaries. But now boundaries are being drawn in new ways that allow for more diversity within communities. I attribute this shift to globalization.

We are exposed to more diversity now than ever before. Scholars writing on New Age often identify globalization as a factor, but only as a means for greater availability of diverse spiritual beliefs and practices. But globalization doesn’t just give us more choices, it makes diversity a constant and integral part of our lives. We are getting close to people and ideas from different backgrounds. We are embracing diversity, and in turn, we are building communities that allow for and thrive on it. This new-found value for diversity is making homogeneity an unnecessary, and perhaps even undesirable, characteristic for communities.

In many World Religions, members are defined by and required to adhere to the same doctrines or spiritual law. They profess their beliefs, worship, and ask for guidance through the same sanctioned means. With our global world allowing for more diversity within defined communities, spiritual diversity can flourish in groups of supportive, open-minded groups, giving way to the ‘New Age’. We no longer need for communities to be united in every thought and action. Members simply need to have a mutual respect for one another and a common interest. In the case of New Age, that interest is personal / spiritual growth. While group members have that one commonality, their means of exploring that interest is not prescribed.

Under traditional religions it seems the means of exploring matters of the spirit are predetermined and enforced. The resultant, shared experiences bring about stronger community bonds among members. But New Age communities seem to be just as tightly knit without those sanctioned experiences. In New Age phenomena, the freedom of individual exploration provides flexibility to accommodate many deep and powerful experiences, while the respectful and open-minded nature of the group keeps members intact, involved, and interested.

GET OUT GO BIG

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Even in this global world of ours, especially in this global world of ours, we can get caught up in the daily grind. We hear about events from around the world, and yet sometimes we can’t see past the end of our own noses. Between twitter, to-do lists, work demands, Facebook, family obligations, schedules and smart phones we often lose sight of the big picture.

When your feeling bogged down or tangled up in the web of contemporary living, its important to reconnect with the big picture. For some of the spiritually inclined, this might mean thinking on or studying the divine or otherworldly powers.  For others in might be getting in touch with raw reality and the earth in its purer forms by getting out in nature. Whatever it takes to get outside of yourself and get a taste of the big wide world out there, do it.

Meditate or pray. Take a leisurely walk and take a new route, go somewhere new, get lost. Get out in nature and find a view point where you can’t see one man-made thing. Spend time with animals, maybe some big animals to remind you of how small you are in the world. Look up at the stars. Research the cosmos. Try something new, try being vulnerable, try letting go of some control and roll with the punches.

Get out and get your mind out of the rat race you have created for yourself and experience the world as it is without your constructions. Such efforts will not only bring peace to you, but help you function with balance. With a bit of perspective, you can keep overreaction and irrationality at bay. With our eye on the big picture we will become even more effective at our daily tasks, all the while staying focused on what’s important.

LANGUAGE & MEANING

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If you wanted to know the meaning of a word, you would look it up in a dictionary. Now that often means looking it up online rather than in a physical book. But the dictionary remains to be a useful and simple tool. Look up a word alphabetically and find the definition(s) listed behind, along with other useful information such as its grammatical part of speech. It is a very simple and straight forward process.

But the simple, straight forward nature of dictionaries can be misleading in terms of meaning. Meaning is so much more than definition. There is history to be taken into account, along with connotations and context. Dictionary definitions do little to help this. Events and people give words new meaning. You often certain groups ‘hijacking’ words for their own purposes, associating them with different meanings. Many times, these are controversial groups giving words new meanings that a perceived to be negative by the general populous. But not always. Often these new meanings come about quite innocently. For example, people of various spiritual traditions often use the same vocabulary to speak about very different ideas. A southern Baptist and a New Ager may both talk about Jesus Christ, but they use that term with very different meanings. It is not done intentionally to spite another group, but nonetheless it can cause confusion and upset.

Can we continue to use ‘hijacked’ words, or those imbued with new meaning, according to their standard dictionary definitions? Or will they be tainted with their new meanings forever? If there is one thing this conundrum ensures it is that language is alive and meaning is not static. Instead it is perpetually changing. Together we shape language, and determine what meanings remain relevant and which become obsolete. Meaning changes but it isn’t fickle, it’s a powerful force that changes how we view and speak about our world. Let’s remember that as we choose how to address each other, what to publish, and what to listen to.

THE DIVINE, ORGANIZED RELIGION & THE FAITHFUL

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This week the following question was posed to me, “How is the Church important to the world?” My first thought was, “It isn’t. The Church isn’t important to the world.” Immediately I started back-peddling to myself. I was shocked by initial, cold reaction. Surely the Church, or rather institutional religion as a whole, is important. If not, then it should be… shouldn’t it? Perhaps not.

In eras gone by, organized religion took on many functions now widely taken over by government. That type of importance is no longer a factor. Now the important functions of organized religion are spiritual growth and guidance on moral issues followers face in the world. That being said, religion in and of itself is not the driving force behind these functions. Religious institutions may help facilitate these functions by reminding us of the history of human – divine relationship, hopefully providing inspiration encouraging the continuation of the tradition. But organized religion is not essential for the faithful to experience spiritual growth or lead their lives in a morally upright fashion. The core is God, the divine. That is the ultimate factor at work in people’s hearts and minds. That is what’s important.

The divine will always take precedence over religion. I believe organized religion can find its importance leading initiatives on issues like socio-economic disparity, gender equality, peaceful international relations, access to affordable quality healthcare, environmental protection, and access to healthy and sustainably grown food. There are plenty of single interest non-profit groups that work on these initiatives, but I believe there is a place for a holistic stance by organized religion to take these issues head-on.

People can develop their own personal spirituality. But putting those beliefs to work and organizing enough man-power to make a difference takes organization, position, and means; all of which the Church has. In this scenario, organized religion finds its highly appropriate niche in service to the divine. I encourage the Church to start doing God’s work rather than working to be on the same plane as God. Let the divine lead people in spiritual endeavors and the Church lead them in godly action. Inward looking eyes need to turn outward, ready to acknowledge their position in the wider world with due thought and effort as to what that position should be. The divine is already at work in people’s hearts, now organized religion need to make a place for people to do God’s work and benefit from it.

THE RELEVANCE OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURE

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Many argue that religious scripture has lost its relevance and has little to teach us citizens of the modern world. The reasoning being that such scripture is tied too tightly to the era and culture in which the content took place or the text was written. I concede that the context of the stories and circumstances around their recording should be taken into consideration when reading and interpreting scripture. But I am a firm believer that there is a timeless value to volumes like the Bible, the Torah, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, the Yoga Sutra, and pagan mythologies that were not always considered ‘mythologies’. The reason being that across time and the cultural landscape of the world, humanity does not change all that much.

In all times and places, people’s level of humanity is about the same. All people have the capacity for kindness and wickedness, bravery and cowardliness, faith and doubt. Humans of today often struggle with the same questions as their ancient counter parts. Religious scripture provides many examples of ancient humans struggling with moral dilemmas and often their failure to discern right action, most often due to their broken relationship with the divine. The same scripture provides guidance rooted in a greater good. We make many of the same mistakes as our ancient counterparts, so why would we not consult the same stories and advice to better ourselves? How scripture manifests will depend on the times and cultural background of the audience. But all readers’ intentions should be the same: to become better people, and to act in the interest of something bigger than ourselves. I believe these intentions are innate to humanity, which ensures the continuing relevance of religious scripture.

BUSYNESS AS A SPIRITUAL HINDRANCE

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There are many magazines, articles, books, and speakers that expound on the importance of making time for a spiritual discipline. Spiritual discipline being anything from yoga, meditation, mindful doodling, or preparing a steamy pot of tea. Authors and speakers encourage the discipline aspect with easy to follow exercises to be added to one’s daily routine, “Carve 30 minutes out of your schedule and de-stress your day!”. Further, they insist on the effectiveness of little daily dedications, “See what a difference just 5 minutes each day can make!”

I’ve been wondering: Can such little time make any difference? Just 5 – 30 minutes a day? Can we make any true headway when our spiritual efforts are squeezed into an already packed schedule, and sequestered to their allotted minutes within the day? Many will say yes; and I agree to a point. I feel that these little moments in a hectic day serve to keep us on an even keel. I believe these moments of quiet introspection through the daily madness help keep our spiritual goals and inclinations at the forefront of our minds as we move through life. On a daily scale, I agree that these minutes make a difference. But are these snippets enough to make deep, lasting change?

Thomas Moore writes that the easiest way to lead a spiritual life is to reduce busyness (pg. 357). We’ve been told that we can do it all. We’ve been told that with planning, organization, and commitment we can become efficient enough to keep our worldly commitments and pursue spiritual goals. But do we actually need more unstructured time instead of a schedule filled to the hilt? Rather than operating at max efficiency, maybe we in fact need to do less. Perhaps if we slow down enough, a spiritual life will find us. Rather than being squeezed in and forced, spirituality will occur organically and be more likely to grow and thrive.

If this is so, then a new set of questions emerge: Is efficient scheduling a hindrance on spirituality with its free-flowing nature instead of a tool to ensure steady progress and practice as we’ve been told? With less pressing on us, could we venture further into the depths of self? If we did less and moved through life at a slower pace would the spiritual life find us? Is our fast-paced, modern lifestyle getting in the way?

What do you think?

 

 

Moore, Thomas. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, 1996. New York, USA: Harper Collins.

 

A SPIRITUAL RESPONSE TO THE WOMEN’S MARCH

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Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and others that follow no faith tradition many times think religion is archaic and barbaric compared to our modern, science driven understanding of the world. They believe that we have somehow moved past or out-grown religion. That it is something for the childish or feeble-minded. But from where I’m sitting, the standards of many faith traditions continue to be more advanced than the standard found in Western culture. Look at the political and social climate of the United States currently. We’ve just witnessed the inauguration of the most contested president elect in the country’s history. And the following day, a massive protest took place in the capital mall. Similar demonstrations went on across the country and across the world. All focus on the central idea of equality, and standing up to those who oppose it.

Despite our intellectual bounds, equality has not been achieved. The root problem is not implementation or the logistics in doing so. The reason we do not have equality is because many people do not want it. This applies to regular Joes, all the way up to decision makers on capitol hill. In order to be at the top, there has to be a bottom. Such a system obviously benefits the elite and privileged. But people at the bottom continue to support inequality as well. Why? Because America is the land of opportunity. If one works hard, they can work their way up, they can make their way to the top. Or so we’ve been told. With every passing day, the American dream seems to be becoming more of a dream than a reality. Which begs the question: Which is the barbaric system? The one that thrives on inequality for the benefit of few, or one that thrives on a divine sense of universal compassion, respect, and love?

God’s love doesn’t stop at rich, white men. Divine devotion is not dependent on gender, race, religion, or wealth. Sadly, at this stage of the argument, many Christians may be reaching for their bibles to look up versus on wifely obedience or smiting lowly non-believers. If so, I ask that you keep flipping to the gospels and look at Jesus’ example. Jesus extends God’s grace to sinners, Gentiles, women, the handicapped and the poor. In Him, God’s love knows no bounds. This universal aspect of equality is very much rooted in the divine, but it is more than appropriate and necessary in the secular world. I know church and state are separate with good intentions, but maybe man’s law could take note from God’s law in this case. God does not make trash, so why do we treat each other as so? God does not make second-class citizens, so why does our government treat us as so? We are all equal in the eyes of God, so why aren’t we equal in the eyes of our government?