The Twenty-First Century finds people in great need of spirituality. In the Western world, particularly the United States, disconnecting and unplugging from our 24/7 news cycles and social media can be traumatic for many. Millions of people search for intimacy and relationships, but, sadly, find only superficiality and further isolation. What has happened to us? How can we be a nation of such richness compared to other countries of the world, yet be so poor in things of the spirit? How can people be in constant communication, yet feel so isolated and alone? The answers to these questions are complex, but not impossible to discover.
In this reflection paper, we will examine a spirituality that can serve people of the Twenty-First Century and the type of persons who may be attracted to such spirituality. We will also reflect on the life experiences leading to my developing this spirituality. I will identify the threads of a previous theology as distinct from this spirituality. Finally, we will take a look at possible types of service flowing from this spirituality and a rationale for inviting others to adopt this proposed spirituality.
From the earliest evidence of human life, people have needed a sense of belonging. The need to be with others, the need to speak and be heard is as essential to human life as air and water. One of the most treasured ways of communicating is storytelling, particularly from one generation to the next. It is how we discover the world and find our place in it. It is how we know who we are and what others have discovered. Storytelling is not only cross generational, it is also cross cultural. Traditions, beliefs and whole cultures have been preserved through oral tradition. The same may be said of our faith traditions as well. Stories are important, stories are vital. But what happens when parts of the story, so long accepted, so long believed, are suddenly presented in a new way? What happens when a recent scientific finding disproves and makes formerly unquestionable beliefs no longer “eternal truths?” How do people find meaning and hold on to belief despite the disproof of things once held so dear?
Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter, itinerant preacher, and healer, gathered a small group of believers around him. For nearly three years, he preached a message that was counter-cultural. His preference for the poor and those marginalized caused people in power a great deal of uneasiness. Political powers and economically prosperous people wanted him silenced. Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. That was supposed to be the end of him. But as Christians profess to this day, we believe on the third day he rose from the dead…and sits at God’s right hand.
This story of salvation was passed from the apostles and disciples who knew Jesus personally over two thousand years ago to our present day. That message has been “carried through history in a diverse community of disciples who have expressed it in vastly different cultures and climates.”1 What began so long ago in the apostolic church as a meal celebrating the teachings of Jesus - mercy, kindness, looking out for the weak and powerless - remembering his call to
service - has morphed into a rule-keeping, belief -professing, exclusion of anyone “different,” male-dominated, moribund club. The Catholic Church of Rome has become something Jesus would hardly recognize should he return in human form at this time in history. Religion has taken hold and spirituality has, for many, fallen by the wayside.
That is not to say that people of faith have been completely taken out of the equation. Holy women and men have always been present throughout human history both before Christ and since.
There have been countless holy ones who have been examples of lives lived in deep connection to the Divine, the Sacred. It is that connectedness that I believe people long for today.
Theologian, Elizabeth Johnson reminds us
…The good Jesus preached resounds like a drumbeat. . .
wherever this word is heard and practiced amid the joys
and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of people of this age. . .
working creatively for peace amid horrific violence;
struggling for justice in the face of massive poverty and
military oppression; advocating ecological wholeness for
the earth’s life-giving systems and stressed-out species;
educating the young and the old; healing the sick and
comforting those in despair; creating beauty; taking joy in
nourishing children and promoting freedom for captives.2
These are the actions that flow from a spirituality grounded in a loving God. They reflect a spirituality that connects people, gives them a voice and brings healing and wholeness to those who once felt disconnected and alone.
Johnson goes on to say “the institutional church itself often appears as an obstacle of faith being mediocre in preaching, numb to pressing spiritual needs and even sinful in actions taken and disastrously not taken in the face of sexual abuse of minors, misuse of church monies and other scandals.”3
To be sure, the human person may feel “decentered from a stable universe and insignificant in the face of modern science while God has become remote and distant.”4
People living in the 21st century need a spirituality that can blend the message God continually offers through Christ, and at the same time realize that scientific information and archeological finds, particularly as relates to sacred scripture, are not mutually exclusive.
Marcus J. Borg (1942-2015), American New Testament scholar, theologian and author notes that “some people resist the impact of the modern world by becoming fundamentalists.”5 He adds, “Some give up on the notion of God, because the notion of God begins to seem incredible and incapable of substantiation.”6 Not all is lost, however, because “some seek to take seriously what the Christian tradition and other religious traditions say about God, or the sacred. They seek to integrate Christianity with modern and post-modern perceptions producing a revisioning of Christianity.”7
It is this revisioning we shall explore as contributing to a possible spirituality for people of the 21st century.
The perception people have of the sacred or divine influences their spirituality. If, for example, God is “out there,” or “up there” or far away, a person is less likely to believe God is close to them. God may be the all-knowing creator sitting in judgment, watching our every move, waiting to catch us, waiting to correct and chastise us. Borg calls this root image of God “supernatural theism.”8 Such a spirituality is about keeping the rules, having correct beliefs, being good now in order to get to our eternal reward later. This also encourages judging others and making it one’s business to keep others in line as well. Being different is not encouraged and can lead to exclusion from the group of believers. This spirituality does not permit change in understanding the sacred at work in transforming people and all of creation into something new. It denies Christ’s words: “Look I am making everything new (Rev.21:5).” Isaiah too, before Christ, foretold, “Behold, I [YHWH] will do a new thing! (43:19).”
Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century will need to be a “broad notion encompassing personal and/or institutionalized relations to the divine, a notion that at once includes and transcends religion.”9 A useful spirituality for people today must make “the transition from believing in secondhand religion to expressing firsthand a relationship with the sacred.”10 How we conceptualize God affects every aspect of our lives. It affects how we relate to one another, how we relate to creation and to our planet as part of the universe.”11 If a person believes in and worships a God who is separate from the universe, who worked six days then stood back, brushed off the dust and said, “I’m done here,” why would anyone be concerned about one another or our common home? When, instead a person believes in and worships a God who is Emmanuel (God-with-us) and whose Spirit helps create and re-shape everyone and everything, we want to be an active participant in helping make all things new.
Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, reminds us that “When human beings place themselves as the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.”12 An authentic spirituality for the Twenty-First Century will have to include concern for and care of all creation, including in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, our Sister, Mother Earth.
Sr. Joan Chittister, in her book, A Spirituality for the 21st Century, maintains we are a throwaway society whose mantra is progress and whose character is change.13 She proposes that “part of spirituality is learning to be aware of what is going on around us and allowing ourselves to feel its effects . . . and learning to hear what God wants in any given situation.”14 In the world today, possessions, position and power seems to be the great goods many people seek. Contrary to the wishes of the commercial world today, the spiritual life, the life connected to the divine is “a grace with which we must cooperate, not a prize to be captured.”15
A theology to help us cooperate with this grace is “a humble creation theology that reverences the incomprehensible mystery of God and a faith that loves the earth.”16 Karl Rahner points out that in every epoch we have different catchwords for God. One he uses is “holy mystery.” He notes, “Rather than being the most distant being, holy mystery is profoundly and personally engaged with all the realities of the world around us, including each questioning and yearning person, being concerned especially with the desperate and the damned.”17 Caring for the earth as we contemplate the God-creator who is with us, allows us to “gaze upon the beauty, intricacy and dynamism of the natural world as revelatory of divine Spirit.”18 Christian people, and others connected to the divine are “generating a new, natural theology quite different from the Enlightenment type based on philosophical differences.”19
Connecting with creation is important in any spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. Caring for our planet “becomes a matter of intense religious concerns for human beings are rapidly fouling and even destroying the primary statement of God’s glory.”20 Pope Francis further reminds us “Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structure of nature itself.”21
In 1963, by convening Vatican II, Pope John XXIII recognized that the church’s fear of worldly progress (e.g., condemning modernism) loomed as a pastoral disaster.”22 Thomas Merton spoke of our connection to God through creation saying “The world reflects who we are and what we think we are in relation to God . . . We are not asked to create an alternate world or to reject this one but to divinize it from within.”23
The people who may be attracted to a spirituality of connectedness to the divine will be people who seek relationships. Perhaps identifying those who will not be attracted to this spirituality may be easier.
It would seem that people who know the truth and have all the answers about God, Jesus or the divine would find this spirituality quite incomplete. People who take the sacred scriptures as a record of historical fact would also have a difficult time with this spirituality. The same might be true for anyone who is ready to remove the splinter from another’s eye before recognizing the log in their own. People who believe literally the words of the creation narrative, that humans are to subdue and control creation would not be interested in this type of spirituality. In the 1950’s America, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny - America should control the continent from sea to shining sea, was held as our divine right. It was ordered by God that America deserved all the beauty and bounty of our land. Not much thought was given to people of other nations and cultures. We were the best, the brightest, God’s most favored children. There are some people who hold on to this divine right belief. They most probably would find off-putting a spirituality of connectedness to the divine in relation to others and as caretakers of our planet and each other.
And so, the people who may find this spirituality attractive may be the people who are asking questions, people searching for more than power or possessions. The people who love our Earth and want it to be healthy and provide a beautiful and bountiful place for future generations will require a spirituality of connectedness. Dreamers, lovers, peace-makers too will most likely resonate with this kind of spirituality. A spirituality that allows another image of God (not simply male, authoritarian, unchanging, unapproachable other, distant from creation) will encourage women, in particular, to claim an equal partnership with their brothers as spiritual leaders in the Twenty-First Century. Not only Christians, but all those who search for the divine can find a place of welcome in this spirituality contributing to all their individual reflection of the divine.
Being a cradle Catholic, there was never a time in my life that God was absent. In the 1950’s growing up in a rural Mid-Western parish, religion rather than spirituality ruled in our home. We had prayers before and after meals, night-time rosary (draped over the dining room chairs in a modified kneeling position), and prayers before bed. Catechism classes were on Saturday mornings and intensified as we prepared for first penance, first communion and confirmation. We went to confession most Saturday and tried to “stay perfect” so we could receive communion at mass the next day. We followed the Ten Commandments, prayed to the Holy Family and learned the Baltimore Catechism. We sang in the choir, performed in the Christmas pageants and cleaned the church on Saturdays. We were a typical Catholic family. We didn’t go to other churches, never attended Vacation Bible School like our friends, read the Bible, and above all didn’t have non-Catholic boyfriends. Above all, we knew that God loved Catholics best. Perhaps the only really spiritual experience I can remember, as a child, was sitting on my maternal grandfather’s knee at Christmas time when he sang Adeste Fidelis. It was a holy moment and I always felt Jesus was right in the room with us.
Life in a religious community for eighteen years reinforced many of my family’s beliefs until the early 1970’s. Then the documents of Vatican II began to appear in English translations. Suddenly things that had seemed so concrete, permanent, and absolute, were crumbling around our feet. Fortunately, we had good leaders in our community who were able to lead us into a renewed connection God, to creation and to other people. We also began to practice social justice and take to heart the words of the Gospel in Jesus’ preference for the poor, the widows and the orphans. We began to pay attention to what was going on around us, to connect with the people we served and in doing so, connect to God.
Thomas Merton, Teillard de Chardin, Edward Schillibex, and Yves Congar were some of the writers to emerge after Vatican II. They offered positive and hopeful ideas about the church called for by the Council. The concept of the Church being all the people of God was something new and wonderful. The using the vernacular as the language of liturgical celebrations made participation much easier. And having the celebrant face the congregation had both good aspects and some not quite so good. Religious men and women in community were encouraged to go back to their baptismal commitment and draw their religious vows from that first commitment to Christ. There was also a great hope among many women, religious and lay, that finally they too might find a place of leadership in the Church. In 1968, Mary Daly published The Catholic Church and the Second Sex. Her book explained in detail the ways in which women were kept as second class participants in the Catholic Church. People came to see that the Church was a “major participant in the oppression of women, and not as an accidental historical development, but the major systemic problem was Catholicism itself.” 25
Consciousness-raising of women to the practice of exclusion and marginalizing of women in the Church continues to be an essential mission. Women have been completely excluded from the sacrament of holy orders. However, exclusion and marginalizing are not the only actions of the hierarchical Church. For many women, “the Church’s pastoral practice discouraged women from seeking divorce from abusive husbands, forbade the divorced to remarry under any circumstances, counseled women to accept spouse abuse as God’s will, commanded them to yield to marital rape and forbade them to use contraceptives to control the results of such abuse or to have recourse to abortion in cases of rape or incest.”26
Women today want to be part of the Church as disciples of equals. They wish to be rid of and no longer subject to the patriarchal system of domination. The continued use of such a model is “no longer a ‘woman’s issue’ but is a human issue intimately linked to the struggle of people of color, children, the mentally and physically disable, the laity, immigrants,, the poor and all those in society who are, for some reason, ‘other’ to the hegemonic group of white, western, affluent males.”27
But, as we reflect on the fifty years since the Council, we see how several Popes have tried to “walk back” the suggested implementation and inclusiveness for which so many people hoped. The male-dominated, closed membership and exclusivity of the institutional Church today is as bad as ever. Recently Pope Francis made his first trip to the United States. He came to Washington, DC, New York City and Philadelphia. In each city he met with all kinds of people. He truly welcomed the poor, the marginalized, prisoners, children, families, religious men and women. But in each city, he made time to meet with his bishops, archbishops and cardinals. The princes of the church surrounded him on every side. Liturgical celebrations with hundreds of male priests, deacons, altar servers were visible in each city. Women sang during the liturgy, participated in the choirs, and stood on the sidelines. “Women minister by permission of men on male terms, only in the spheres permitted to them by men.”28
Earlier in September, just two weeks before Pope Francis was to come to Philadelphia to meet with families, over 500 women and men gathered for a conference sponsored by Women’s Ordination Worldwide. We learned recently that a diocesan priest from California has been censured and removed from his parish ministry because he attended that conference and participated in it. In America, we have the First Amendment that gives citizens the right to speak, to assemble, to form an opinion. Evidently, such a luxury is not afforded members of the Roman Catholic Church. Many, many people have been shut out, excluded shunned and scandalized at some of the actions of bishops and priests of the Church. Divorced Catholics are denied a place at the sacramental table, people who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual are not welcomed either, just to name a few. And yet, people hunger to be connected, to belong, to connect to one another as well as to the divine. They search for meaning in their lives and they hunger and thirst for justice. They hear the cry of the poor. Jesus promised the kin-dom of heaven would be here among us. He made sure that the rich and powerful got the message that they would not be first in the eyes of Abba God. People long for spirituality in this Twenty-First Century.
Scientific discovery and advances in archeology, technology and medicine do not conflict with spirituality. For centuries the Roman Church fought science as the enemy of religion. Teillard de Chardin taught us it is not an “either/or”. It is instead a “both/and.”
With a spirituality that includes working for peace, struggling for justice, advocating for the poor, caring for the earth, creating beauty and joy, people will have opportunities for service in all areas of life. People will need to be practical in works of mercy. They will need for their prayers and spirituality to be inclusive and world-wide, not just local.
Reaching out to others, helping those in need, helping the stranger, the widow, and the orphan will have to become part of the daily living and the ordinariness of our lives. Letting go of our need for power, position and stuff will have to be a regular part of living too. Having the latest, the greatest, the priciest, and the best can no longer be the way we use the gifts of the Earth. Taking a stand, writing letters, contributing time or resources to a cause that will protect people, the environment or our globe will become our second nature. Encouraging one another in good works can be the light which sparks someone else to good works as well. One person, one community, one state, and one nation at a time, it can happen. In the words of Pope Francis, “God calls us to generous commitment, offers light and strength to continue on our way . . . does not abandon us or leave us alone and has united to our earth gifting us with love to find new ways forward.
What, may we ask should be our rationale for wanting to participate in such spirituality? St. Augustine, Fourth Century bishop of Hippo once wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” It is the divine spark of God resting in each of us that longs to be complete and whole. Just as the cosmos and creation is in evolution, so too are humans. A spirituality that calls us to take care of our earth, to share its resources fairly and justly makes us participants in the evolution. Pollution of air, water and land can only destroy. Once a species is obliterated from the earth, there is no way to bring it back into existence. It is gone, forever. Some of the practices of manufacturing, farming, and mining the earth’s treasures kill off many forms of life. There is a reason the World Wildlife Federation keeps a list of endangered species. It is a way to remind people that the earth is here for us to share with all creatures. Being willing to throw away things instead of reusing, recycling and reducing our need of things is another way a person can take part in looking out for our Sister, Mother Earth. Teaching our children, first by example and secondly by practice, can ensure the value of ecology and care for our land, air and water is handed to another generation.
The individual is not the only one who needs to be involved in this type of spirituality. Nations and their leaders too need to set priorities and legislation that will ensure our earth is cared for. Countries are dependent on one another to help preserve and protect the peace. When male dominated hierarchy is tempered by feminist vision,” competition and its ultimate escalation into war must give way to cooperation and sharing of resources as the basis of a just and last peace.”29 War and the destruction of ethnicities, races and entire populations cannot be acceptable. The military power available to many nations can destroy our entire planet. Sharing resources, education and altruism need to become descriptors of the way one country engages with another. “Inclusion must replace exclusion as the way to maximize power. Humans must begin to see themselves as participants, in rather than lords over, the fragile ecosystem that is our earth.”30 Our world is not used to the idea of collaboration over oppressive power structures making the rules with everyone else just going along; all of us need more practical opportunities to practice this “new way.” One thing is certain, “hierarchy in religious institutions and governments is the root of sinful structures that must be eradicated and replaced with an egalitarian vision and praxis if the human family and the earth are to survive and flourish is non-negotiable.”31
In conclusion, spirituality is important. Sandra Schneiders’ definition of spirituality is so clear: “It is the experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption, but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”32 It is a reality that helps people become self-less and concerned about others. It connects us to the divine and to one another. We cannot hold on to worn out religious piety that no longer appeals to people. Our planet is in trouble and it is up to each of us to do what we can in our own way, day in and day out to make things better. Now is the acceptable time, the work is at hand.
1Johnson, Elizabeth, Abounding in Kindness, Writings for the People of God,
c. 2015, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, Kindle edition, Loc. 158.
2Johnson, Loc. 134.
3Johnson, Loc. 168.
4Delio, Ilia, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, c. 2013Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, Kindle edition, Loc. 121
5Borg, Marcus J., The God We Never Knew, c. 1997, Harper One, NY, p. 6.
8Borg, p. 19.
9Sorin, Claire and Laurence Lux-Sturritt, “Women and Spirituality in 20th Century Writing: an Exploration into the Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Michele Roberts, Sara Maitland, Gail Godwin, and Toni Morrison,” c. 2011, http://era.revues.org/1732; DOI:10.4000/erea.1732.
10Borg, p. 10.
11Borg, p. 11.
12Pope Francis, Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home, c. 2015, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN, par. 122.
13Chittister, Joan, O.S.B., A Spirituality for the 21st Century, c. 1992, Crossroad, NY, p. ix.
14Chittester, pp. 4-5.
15Chittister, p. 7.
16Johnson, Loc. 191.
17Rahner, Karl, cited in Johnson, Loc. 577.
18Johnson, Loc. 692.
19Johnson, Loc. 707.
20Johnson, Loc. 857.
21Pope Francis, par. 117.
22Delio, Loc. 2147.
23Delio, Loc. 2165.
24Pope Francis, par. 246.
25Schneiders, Sandra M., Beyond Patching, c. 2004, Paulist Press, NY, p. 31.
26Schneiders, pp. 32-33.
27Schneiders, p. ix.
28Schneiders, p. 33.
29Schneiders, p. 25.
32Schneiders, p. 72.
Borg, Marcus J., The God We Never Knew, c. 1997, Harper One, NY.
Chittister, Joan, O.S.B., A Spirituality for the 21st Century, c. 1992, Crossroad, NY.
Delio, Ilia, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, God, Evolution and the Power of Love, c. 2013, Orbis Books, NY.
Johnson, Elizabeth, Abounding in Kindness, Writings for the People of God, c. 2015, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, Kindle edition,
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home, c. 2015, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN.
Schneiders, Sandra M., Beyond Patching, c. 2004, Paulist Press, NY.
Sorin, Claire and Laurence Lux-Sturritt, “Women and Spirituality in 20th Century Writing: an Exploration into the Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Michele Roberts, Sara Maitland, Gail Godwin, and Toni Morrison,” c. 2011, http://era.revues.org/1732; DOI:10.4000/erea.1732.