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New spiritual movements challenge the church

By Paul Titus

Contemporary religious and spiritual movements offer refreshing ways to understand and express the divine. Yet rejecting mainstream traditions can lead to such pitfalls as self absorption, amorality, or prejudice.

To avoid them it is necessary to be open, accountable, and aware of the political nature of all beliefs and practices.

These are among the conclusions Dr Rachel Kohn reaches in her book The New Believers: Re-Imaging God. In her book Rachel examines current schools of thought in Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism as well as New Age spiritual movements inspired by feminism, environmentalism, and psychology.

Exciting new ideas have emerged as Westerners have engaged different faiths and scientific ideas, she says. Reforms in the major world religions have challenged commonly held religious beliefs as have new understandings of witchcraft, goddess worship, and human relationships with nature.

“For example, Buddhism has undergone an interesting transformation as it has been westernized. Traditionally Asian Buddhism was hierarchical, patriarchal, recalcitrant and the very antithesis of modernity. In the West Buddhism has been re-imagined. It has engaged with social action and gained a more radical vision,” Rachel says.

“Judaism has also gone through enormous change. The Jewish renewal has been influenced by Eastern meditation and Judaism’s own mystical tradition, the Kabbalah.

“The Kabbalah too is engaging contemporary ideas. Its descriptions of creation have been re-examined in light of contemporary cosmological theories such as the Big Bang. The ancient texts give a new way to connect to contemporary scientific understandings.”

Rachel says if we think of theology as a way to describe God, then it is a set of metaphors. Metaphors are a feature of language, so new metaphors create new visions of our experience of God.

“Environmentalists and feminists now use the metaphor of Gaia to understand the earth as goddess and source of life. The Bible too uses feminine metaphors. It compares God’s love to a lioness protecting her cubs.

“Religious language has always been highly imaginative. Think of God as the burning bush or a voice in a whirlwind as in the book of Job. People must grasp for ways to describe the transcendent realm and the source of life.”

At a time when new ways of understanding and expressing the divine abound today, many churches are declining, Rachel observes. As people’s lives become busier and more demanding, there are fewer and fewer people in church on Sunday morning.

“No doubt churches feel new spiritual movements have invaded their domain and religion is dying. The churches have lost some of their authority.

“We are also seeing a shift away from an emphasis on social justice and ethical issues. There is a renewed interest in relics, ritual, and sacred talismans. In the 1970s there was a move away from this but now there is renewed interest in the power of relics. People are seeking an emotional, aesthetic, or artistic experience through religion.”

Rachel believes the new spiritualities challenge juvenile versions of religion that treat humans as unthinking robots. But she is also critical of contemporary spiritual movements. Some, such as the human potential movement tend to equate God with the self and lead to a high degree or narcissism.

Others have over-reacted in their critique of traditional religion. These include feminist spiritualities that imagine God as solely female.

Nor are contemporary spiritual movements immune from becoming closed and sectarian.

“I hope the new believers do not become fanatical zealots but genuinely reflect on the challenges of spiritual living. We can become too politically correct and not critique other religions. It is important that people of different faiths engage one another and the problems we all face.”

Rachel Kohn holds a PhD in Religious Studies and has lectured in Canada, Britain, and Australia. She lives in Sydney and produces programmes on religion for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. See www.rachelkohn.com.