(Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle, written by Don Lattin.)

Several of its readers have noted with amusement that the San Francisco Chronicle’s new column on religion and spirituality runs in a section of the newspaper that also features stories about sex, fashion, fitness, and fun.

Others have noticed that the “Seeking” column runs in the Sunday newspaper, not on Saturdays. Traditionally, religion columns run in Saturday newspapers, atop paid advertisements from churches inviting you to stop by on Sunday morning.

“Seeking” was born after the Chronicle’s editors and their consultants surveyed people to find out what they wanted in their new, improved Sunday paper. To their surprise, the word “spirituality” kept coming up. Then someone remembered that the Chronicle already had a religion writer. Maybe he could stop writing so much about churches, one editor said, and start writing about “spirituality.”

Now, religion editors understand that spirituality sometimes arises within the walls of churches and synagogues. But it’s also true that we live in a “postdenominational era,” a time of declining loyalty to name-brand religion, when being “spiritual” is just another lifestyle choice, marketed like any other consumer product or service. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where “spirituality” stops and “health and fitness” starts. Sometimes, they’re so close one doesn’t even have to turn the page of the Sunday Living section to go from one to the other.

This all came to mind when I was reading a new book by Amanda Porterfield, The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late Twentieth Century Awakening. Porterfield teaches religious studies at the University of Wyoming.

One of the things they teach you in religious studies classes is that there have been two or three “Great Awakenings” of religious fervor in American history. The Great Awakening broke out in the 1720s in the Protestant churches in New Jersey and spread to New England in the 1730s. It and later religious revivals were marked by emotionalism and spiritual feelings so intense that the established clergy and churches of the time couldn’t contain them. They were the birth pangs of today’s evangelical and Pentecostal movements.

Porterfield sees another historic shift in the spiritual and social awakening of the 1960s, the one that brought us gurus, encounter groups, free love, psychedelics, yoga, meditation, goddess worship, Zen, vegetarianism, holistic health and, finally, columns about spirituality and sex rubbing up against each other in our Sunday newspaper.

In her book, Porterfield traces the roots of this late-twentieth-century awakening back to Jonathan Edwards, the best-known preacher from the first Great Awakening, and through New England Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau.

In 1844, Thoreau translated the classic Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra, from French into English and published it in the Transcendentalist journal Dial. American fascination with Buddhism and Eastern mysticism was later refueled by theosophy, an ancestor of what we now call the New Age movement. American religion has always been a blend of piety and practicality. We’ve always valued individualism, in our capitalism and our Christianity.

We have this idea that all Americans deserve a direct line to the divine, whether we’re Catholics, Protestants, or Jews. That longing for a personal, experiential connection with God can be expressed through Pentecostal Christianity, Catholic monasticism, or Eastern mysticism. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether we’re shaken by the Holy Spirit, born again through Jesus Christ, or touched by the power of the latest guru to hit the West Coast. Americans want a faith they can feel and “a religion that works.” And that desire is fulfilled by a wave of recent studies purportedly showing a strong connection between physical health and religious belief.

Porterfield shows how, in the past forty years, the disenchantment of Vietnam, the importation of Buddhism, the rise of feminism, the growing interest in holistic health and the secular study of religion, among other things, got us to where we are today.

Her book is not light summer reading. Her arguments are not always convincing, but anyone who claims she can show that a Puritan preacher is Shirley MacLaine’s spiritual patriarch scores points for trying. “Only when one recognizes the New England Transcendentalists as heirs of American Puritanism does the connection between contemporary American spirituality and Puritanism begin to make sense,” Porterfield writes. “The identification of spiritual life with the recognition of the beauty of being, expressed in the work of the eighteenth-century Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, would be endorsed by many recent proponents of spirituality.”

Porterfield’s book may not be a page-turner, but it is an intriguing history of ideas, an intellectual retelling of the long, strange trip.


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