Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM


Spiritualism is on the rise as baby boomers seek meaning and direction in their lives

PETER C. EMBERLEY December 28 1998
Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM


Spiritualism is on the rise as baby boomers seek meaning and direction in their lives

PETER C. EMBERLEY December 28 1998


Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM

Spiritualism is on the rise as baby boomers seek meaning and direction in their lives

Baby boomers—the 8.1 million Canadians born between 1946 and 1964—are the best educated, most prosperous and pampered generation in history. As they move through their middle years, however, many boomers are discovering that something is missing. Increasingly, they are looking for deeper meaning, greater satisfaction and new directions in life. In this essay, Carleton University political scientist and philosopher Peter C. Emberley writes of the search for spiritual purpose, much of it occurring outside mainstream religion. A baby boomer himself, Emberley, 42, is also director of Carleton’s College of the Humanities in Ottawa.


"What we really need today is a spiritual version of acidophilus," muses a devotee at Baba Haridass's ashtanga yoga centre on Saltspring Island. She is talking about a herbal purgative, and confiding why she is enduring yet another round of one of yoga's excruciatingly uncomfortable contortions. ‘There’s a lot that has to be scraped off our systems,” she explains. I learn during the next few days that she is a best-selling author and accomplished consultant, yet despite prosperity, influence and all the conventional signs of success, she turns out to be a very unhappy person, profoundly alienated from the world, and seeking. In Buddhism. Vedanta. New Age. Kabbalah. Angels.

• A farmhouse in Ontario. A candle burns at the centre of a makeshift altar draped with an embroidered tablecloth. Surrounding it are crystals, gems, leather pouches, a feather, a knife, tiny ivory skulls. Each item has been placed to evoke the four cardinal directions, each representing, in turn, the four elements and the four humours of the body. We sit in companionable silence, trying to expand our awareness and work with our occult spirit guides to achieve “synchronicity.” The healer explains that during her own dark night of the soul she realized that the human world was torn and afflicted, the result of centuries of drastically constricting the range of human experience. Now, “we have to ground our energy in the earth, and open our crown chakra to the universe,” to reach “being where we are.” And she, too, seeks. In Shiatsu and Reike. The human potential movement. Celtic spirituality. Goddess worship. Wicca. Archetypes.

• The bells toll loud and long at St. Herman of Alaska, the English-speaking Orthodox church in Edmonton filled with converts and the curious. Soon, mournful but sublime plainchant fills the room, and the priests begin their circumambulation, their silver censers emitting ribbons of incense sanctifying it as sacred space. The 90-minute liturgy covers a lot of experiential ground—from sin and confession to forgiveness, thanksgiving and love—uniting tradition and pageantry and re-enacting the wonder of creation imbued with grace. “After centuries of beating the magic out of religion, we are looking again for a little enchantment,” says a sometime parishioner. And so he, too, seeks. In the United Church’s community of concern. The Anglican Church’s prayerbook society. Anglo-Catholicism. In Opus Dei and Tridentine Catholicism.

Three seekers, each searching for spiritual consolation and sanctification. Where none of these three baby boomers is seeking, however, is in the mainstream. And they are not alone. For many of the baby boomer generation, “spirituality” is not happening in the churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. Canada’s premier chronicler of religious belief and affiliation, Reginald Bibby, offers incontrovertible data on the decline of membership and weekly attendance in the mainline faiths. In 1945, 60 per cent of Canadians claimed weekly attendance and 82 per cent professed membership; in 1990, only 23 per cent attended regularly and 29 per cent claimed to be members.

While many baby boomers are uninformed about the richness and diversity of their own religious traditions, their plaints and hostility are understandable. Many women have no further patience for a patriarchal church that evolves glacially at best. Sexual abuse or hypocrisy by some clergy, historical injustices perpetrated by the churches on our aboriginals, unwillingness to accommodate progressive forces—all have dimmed the attraction of institutionalized religion. “In church, it’s all just yada, yada, yada,” says a lapsed United Church parishioner. “We were no longer moved and touched by wooden rituals,” claim Jewish and Catholic Canadians at an ashram in the Himalayas. With their exotic swami, by contrast, “we’re listening to revelation, to live scripture.” Charismatic Christians, Lubavitcher Hasidics, Sufis and New Age shamans all testify to the scriptural adage—the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. We hear in this clamour, perhaps, the death knell of 20th-century religion, institutions no longer vital with the spirit that engendered them.

But it is premature to herald the “death of God.” Today, thousands of Canadians are embarked on complex spiritual searches. While increasingly they may not attend church, 65 per cent of baby boomers, according to Bibby, say “spirituality” is important to them. Very few baby boomers admit they are “religious.” They say they are “spiritual,” a signal that they are distancing themselves from the authority of creed, dogmatic theology and institution, in favour of a nonexclusive God.

Row after row of books on spirituality line our bookstores (even a Whole Heaven Catalogue, a ’90s take on the beloved Whole Earth Catalogue of the ’60s and 70s) ; monthly publications in most urban centres advertise a dizzying array of pilgrimages, spiritual labyrinths and wellness retreats; and television shows proliferate with reports of neardeath experiences, special powers and angelic visitations—even the new craze of “spirituality in the workplace.”

There are also more subtle signs that another “great awakening” is occurring. Across the country, ordinary Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus meet weekly in private homes to study their sacred texts. On weekends, dozens of groups meet in empty convents and churches, participating in Alpha and Cursillo retreats, spiritual direction, meditation—awash in tears, but also, amid gales of laughter, experiencing the transfiguring power of love and belonging.

Why the renewed interest in the sacred? An obvious reason is that the baby boomers, whose mean age is 43, are brooding on their mortality. Their bodies—objects of so much pampering—are now showing the signs of decay. Many baby boomers for the first time are feeling fragile and vulnerable. Equally likely, with sick and dying parents, teenage children needing moral guidance, ugly custody battles, and careers and family in sudden unanticipated tatters due to severances and “restructuring,” many baby boomers are finally confronting primary questions of existence.

Some try to overcome the ‘ecstasy deficit’

Who am I? What am I truly striving for? What is the legacy I leave for the next generation?

They are struggling at mid-life to achieve order and meaning in their lives.

An increasing number now recognize that they are sated but unfulfilled, and are calling the modern project of autonomy and prosperity, and the collective destiny of progress, into question. An Edmonton computer programmer, who is taking a New Age offering called A Course in Miracles, acknowledges “the greatest insanity is to believe that the world can be managed, controlled and manipulated to avoid suffering.” An architect in Ottawa admits that when serious illness hit his own family, he realized that years of technical adeptness and confidence in human prowess had done nothing to prepare him for the reality of deep, aching pain and loss.

In opposition to the downgrading of artifacts in modern society to just “stuff,” baby boomers are milling around cases of sacred tools and artifacts—crystals, oils, smudge pots, dream catchers, pipes, mandalas—in stores like Vancouver’s Banyan Books or Toronto’s Omega Centre. Their actions betray a quixotic hope for an enchanted recovery of meaning embodied in things—some times out of nostalgia for old times, but as often out of a genuine desire to experience being part of a greater whole.

Each generation, inevitably, will bring its own cultural baggage to bear on the perennial search for the sacred. Baby boomers face many hurdles in renewing their faith, including unresolved issues lingering from the heady days of the ’60s counterculture. For the generation weaned on positive thinking and the inherent goodness of all human prompting, the old theological language of sacrifice, discipline, guilt and sin is a problem. So are doctrinal and creedal authority—expressions of a religion that is censorious, judgmental and restrictive, extinguishing openness and joy. Baby boomers’ schooling, after all, dwelled on creativity and originality. For some baby boomers, “God” has to be reconceptualized to mean the human aspiration to attain a higher consciousness, or the desire to realize one’s full potential. Baby boomers also struggle with the fitful relation of religion to scientific reason—how to reconcile the apparent contradictions of modern skepticism and ancient mystery, laboratory experiment and psychic experience, individual autonomy and cosmic piety. Nonetheless, many are having epiphanies or life-altering experiences that they know are neither neurotic illusion (Freud) nor an opiate (Marx), which have made them receptive to faith, perhaps even to the point of credulity.

How would one characterize the baby boomers’ spiritual searches? One answer is that some want something “more,” while others want something “less.” Those who want “more” are trying to add an enrichment to what they already have, realizing that in holiness they have found what modern science falsely dismisses as non-real, and that even moral or esthetic experience cannot replace. Looking for “more” means finding anchors, and—with St. Bonaventure—looking for the links, or the ladder of ascent, which connects human pleasure in the simple goodness of life to the active presence and goodness of God throughout creation.

Inevitably, some of this search takes the form of misguided striving. In some cases, baby boomers simply carry over the same cravings and expectations of modern life, by seeking in spirituality the next fix to overcome ennui. By turning to the sacred, some are still trying to overcome what sociologists have termed the “ecstasy deficit.” Growing up believing themselves entitled to peak experiences— through Dr. Spock’s gentle child care, Abraham Maslow’s “self-actualization” or The Joy of Sex’s premise that every woman is entitled to an orgasm—some baby boomers want “the challenge beyond all challenges,” as one lawyer at a cele bration of the life of the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen characterized her own search.

Among those baby boomers whose search is for something less, “the answer” has to be simpler and away from the noise and fullness of the world. The attraction of Buddhism, the Indian Vedas and mysticism lies in recognizing that vast pockets of human unhappiness stem from stubborn pride, senseless striving and entrapment by illusions. Instead of anchors, these baby boomers want to let go, seeking “space.”

For those pursuing “less,” the new strain of puritanism that runs through some of the baby boomers’ searches can take the severe route of flagellating mortification and world-hatred. It may begin with aversion to the body—a body that was over-indulged, abused and fatigued—and is now seen as an impediment to enlightenment. It may take the form of turning away from thought and speech, as when a yoga instructor in Vancouver tells her students “we have to cease the endless chattering, the mindless dialogue of the mind with itself,” and “sitting in silence makes it safe to be together.” It is there when “oneness,” glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and expressive gesture replace human conversation.

Whether the search is for “more” or “less,” two common themes emerge. One is the belief that spirituality is primarily a turning inward to a wisdom secreted deep in their inner being. It may take the form of seeking the primitive—the inner child or Holy Spirit, or returning to the early life of the church. Hoping for a truth the world has missed, they look to a charismatic minister, messiah, shaman or healer; these baby boomers search for a new revelation, a new creation, known-only to themselves or the anointed few.

The second theme is that like all “great awakenings” there is also a “great refusal.” For baby boomers, world-alienation takes the form of deep cynicism about everyday life, work and institutions, politics and community. “It’s the wild, wild west out there,” says a charismatic Christian at the 1998 Billy Graham Mission in Ottawa, in the wake of a rousing hymn about being a “warrior of the ages.” “We are in a demonic trap of our own making,” preaches a Catholic priest. There is a growing defection from the world, ranging from “only a god can save us,” to gullibility about special powers, spiritualism and miracles. While much of the contemporary world was made in their image, there is a creeping homelessness among boomers.

It may be in the nature of religion to be outside of, even against, the world—as conscience or witness to an uncompromised truth. A sense of the fallenness of the world is often a pre-condition for spiritual awakening. But in renouncing family, work and community as indices of meaning to human action, such trends may also stimulate fantastical private religions or intolerant cults. As we proceed into the next millennium, we should expect a proliferation of these errors.

One implication of these trends, in an age where all concepts are melting into thin air, is an increase in “fideism”—the will to believe something, anything, even the most irrational, in preference to believing nothing at all. Propitious omens, imponderable khans and mantras, mawkish emotionalism parading as visitations of the Holy Spirit, venerable, white-haired, beard-stroking gurus straight from central casting, florid appeals to our wounded, dysfunctional selves—dispose some baby boomers to credulously anticipate the Rapture and Second Coming, to recognize themselves as the faithful remnant, and engage the unwashed in a raw “inyour-face” religiosity.

Nevertheless, however easy or fashionable it may be to be cynical about the baby boomers’ spiritual searches, the reality is that many of them are simply looking for a little grace and an opportunity to express indebtedness, fidelity and reverence. There is a ferment occurring in this country, and no church will emerge untouched by their renewal of spirituality.

In the light of the baby boomers’ spiritual searches, there are three challenges ahead for us in the new millennium.

The first challenge dovetails with a process already under way—the attempt to restore a sense of community, against the tide of scenarios that see the world peopled by isolated consumers seeking satisfaction in the market, connecting transiently for reciprocal advantage. The renewal of community, however, needs more than political will. It needs a source that replenishes and confers staying power. And since community virtue risks turning moralistic and irascible, conviction also needs the countervailing sense of humility. The answer in both cases is openness to the transcendent.

A vivid testimony to the need to reconnect community and transcendence lies in the empty church pews, particularly in those faiths that bought heavily into the modern processes of liberalization, and whose leaders came to understand charity primarily as succouring the oppressed, wounded, forlorn and abandoned. To be sure, the greatest test of faith may come where the life of the spirit meets the afflictions of the flesh. And for thousands of Canadians, there could be no hope were it not for the shelters, food banks and missions sponsored by the churches. Edmonton’s Mustard Seed, Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission, Drumheller’s M2W2 prison project offer poignant illustrations of true faith at work. But service disconnected from mystery—the awesome experience of the infinite and the holy—soon withers and dies. The suffering to which the liberal churches so visibly minister may be a signal of a deeper, darker affliction that only the awesome mystery of transcendence can cure.

The second challenge lies on the other side of the equation. For baby boomers who have “done the epiphany,” the question is how to sanctify one’s life through the public organization of spiritual order. Religion has nearly always been an anodyne to mortality and worldweariness. Scripture calls the faithful to be salt, light and leaven—subtle metaphors revealing the role of faith in the world. These are, in my estimation, preferable to the more ham-fisted or treacly metaphors of acidophilus, synchronicity and roots.

The third challenge is perhaps the greatest of all—that to churches and to intellectuals. Many seekers are encouraged to believe that faith is opposed to reason, as the heart is to the mind. In the wake of the profound re-examination of modern science characterizing this decade, we need to negotiate a more nuanced relationship between faith and reason. A new synthesis of faith and reason would be a corrective to two dangerous tendencies of our time: technological power without humility, and credulity and sentimentalism towards the supernatural.

Some philosophers are talking a great deal again about the nature of happiness, saying the Greeks had it right in their noble images of human striving fulfilled in self-sufficiency and exultation in achievements. But perhaps happiness as striving is not the beall or end-all. The genuine test of happiness, as G. K. Chesterton once pointed out, is gratitude. Maybe what we are all searching for is a little sanctity.