Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 29, 2010

The Promise and the Pitfalls of the Spiritual Renaissance in the West

“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Ps 63:1

In recent decades, sociologists have noted a sort of spiritual awakening in Western culture. Project Canada 2000 noted that 70% of Canadians claim that spirituality is important and 75% acknowledge they have spiritual needs. Down across the border the Newsweek/Beliefnet poll of 2005 documents that 79% of Americans claim to be spiritual.

N.T. Wright argues in his book Simply Christian that the suppression of religion and spirituality during modernity is now starting to come to the surface. Speaking metaphorically, Wright argues that spirituality is like a natural spring of water that was paved over by modern industry and philosophy. Now, however, the spring is bursting through the pavement because it cannot be suppressed anymore. There is a growing awareness among many people that the social conditions of modernity do not fit or fulfill the deep spiritual needs of humanity.

This spiritual awakening holds a lot of promise for the church. Since people are more willing to engage in discussions about spirituality, the church has an opportunity to be extremely relevant as they help people who are disillusioned with modernity find God again.

Yet, while there is a spiritual awakening, there is also a consistent distrust in organized religion. In fact many of the discussions about spirituality in our contemporary culture are focused on individual religious experience rather than spiritual traditions. Much of the spiritual renaissance has been shaped by individualism and pluralism.

As we respond to this dynamic in culture I believe we need to be careful not to sacrifice the rich biblical traditions for a more popular individualistic spirituality. One of the pitfalls of the spiritual renaissance is that it tempts us to make spiritual experience the authority rather than the scriptures.

Eugene Peterson sums up the situation well when he writes: “I want to counter this widespread practice of taking personal experience instead of the Bible as the authority for living. I want to pull the Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them as the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self.” (Eat This Book, 17)


  1. Amen Phil. Well said. Would be great to see this spiritual awakening move people towards the church.

    Peterson’s next line is dead on too: I want to place personal experience under the authority of the Bible and not over it.

  2. I posted this rather quickly and upon further reflection I realize that there is much more to discuss on this issue.

    I’m interested to hear what people think we should do in response to the spiritual awakening in the West?

    While I have asserted that we ought not to sell out to a trendy / individualistic spirituality, I do think that the church needs to be creative in how it responds to our spiritually hungry culture. Thoughts? Ideas?

  3. I am currently reading Simply Christian and wishing daily for people to dialogue with on the content. N.T. Wright has such a wide, deep, connected theology that I must read and reread sections many times. The idea that spirituality is an irrepressible movement that lingers as an undercurrent and at times surfaces in, and shapes society is part of the echo of God’s authorship, according to Wright. I see people who are absolutely hungry for and yet in opposition to anything connected to the Christian church, which should be the main current of this irrepressible flow. Perhaps this is the fault of the Church. T.V. evangelists, crimes against children by clergy, lack of tolerance, and lack of grace are a few areas that I think have turned people away. However, what people cannot turn away from is the innate need for a relationship with the Creator. What a difficult situation for us to be in! How can we be relevant in this world when we have made ourselves untrustworthy? I think that when we begin to open dialogue and commit to be relevant, thoughtful, and authentic with the gosple and in our relationships, we might find ourselves meeting the needs of a spiritually hungry society. Of couse this is not THE ANSWER. But perhaps a place for us to begin to move.

  4. Mary said, “I think that when we begin to open dialogue and commit to be relevant, thoughtful, and authentic with the gospel and in our relationships, we might find ourselves meeting the needs of a spiritually hungry society.”

    I couldn’t agree more! Well said Mary. I think authenticity and integrity is so key for us to connect with our skeptical culture. Many of the reasons why people are skeptical of the church is because the church has often given a bad name to the gospel and the person of Jesus.

  5. Reformation tradition is heavy on preaching, surely very important, but with a 6 minute attention span maybe we should rethink the modern service . Perhaps there is a place for meaningful liturgical practices. But the worship experience is really for the believing person, what we do outside of the church walls is where the action is .
    Keep on exploring…………….paz en Cristo

  6. Gil has a great point. But all of life’s “places” are important for us to live true to our faith.
    Another thought: I was just reading pages 80 through 88 in Wright’s Simply Christian. He is talking about the repeated theme of restoration, diobedience, and restoration again throughout the old testament. The thought that confession each Sunday is a way that I participate in God’s historical theme of restoring a relationship of His creation to Himself occurred to me. Ponder with me, will you? Why am I so amazed by that thought? Are you amazed too?

  7. Interesting thoughts Mary. As both you and Gil have pointed out there are some historical liturgical aspects to worship that can really reach out to our common human experience. I actually think that the corporate act of confession is one of the most “seeker sensitve” aspects of worship because those from the outside get to see the congregation humble themselves before the cross and articulate a common brokenness. It is a moment of authenticity and integrity, which our culture longs to see from the church.

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