Searching For Purpose
Searching For Purpose
BY PETER C. EMBERLEY
Spiritualism is on the rise as baby boomers seek meaning and direction in their lives.
Baby boomers — the 8.1 million Canadians born between 1946-1964 — 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 direction 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 Humanitarian in Ottawa.
"What we really need today is a spiritual version of acidophilus," muses a devotee at Baba Haridass’s asthanga yoga centre on Saltpring 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 to be scraped off our systems," she explains. I learn during the next few days that she is a best-selling author and accompanied 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 in at the centre of a makeshift altar draped with an embroidered tablecloth. . . . 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 Reiki. 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. . . . "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 Opes Dei and Tridentine Catholicism.
Three seekers, each searching for spiritual consolation and sanctification. Where none of these three baby boomers is seeking, however, is 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 the 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 babyboomers are uninformed about the richness and diversity of their own religious traditions, their plaits 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 or 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 clamor, 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. . . . 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 non-exclusive God.
Row after row of books on spirituality . . . pilgrimages, spiritual labyrinths and wellness retreats; and television shows proliferate. . .
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 scared texts. On weekends, dozens of groups meet in empty convents and churches, participating in Alpa 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 immortality. Their bodies — objects of 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, 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. 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."
Peter C. Emberley, Searching for Purpose
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