The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century Gordon Lynch
“Religion is over – there’s simply no future in believing that traditional Christianity is in any way persuasive in England today”, was the comment from a Priest friend of mine working in a suburban town in the West Midlands of England. The assertion stimulated a great deal of thinking from a group of clergy who largely regard themselves as liberal or progressive. It is important for theologians to continue to explore the phenomenon of religion as it engages or inhabits a wide diversity of cultures and within society. Within these reflections, we must try to give account for the growth and development of the religious right and a religious fundamentalism whose voice and politics are strong both in Christianity and Islam.
Gordon Lynch proves himself to be a skilled guide in this area as he maps out the territory, analyses some questions, trends, thinking and opens up for his reader a number of scenarios for how belief might take shape in the coming century. This is an ambitious agenda that Lynch, as a skilled geographer, brings significant objectivity, empathy and wisdom to the territory. The tone here set by Lynch is in contract with the pessimism with that of Priest. Lynch might be described as a wary realist who brings his academic training to bear upon the questions in order to provide balance, critical reflectiveness and indeed some optimism for the survival of faith. Lynch accepts that the west is undergoing a major transition and in other writing has considered whether popular culture has indeed become a vehicle for spiritual aspiration. He offers a critique of the world view that argues that there is a set of values and beliefs that are developing in society and which will in the end replace religion. He is much more wary of the secularist argument, encapsulated in the bold statement by the Priest above, that religion simply cannot compete with the sheer force and movement of the tide of secularism. Understandably, Lynch describes the religious scene in America, where religion is far being dead – and indeed, in some places, is positively bursting with creative life. Let’s look at the main content of the book.
Chapter 1 introduces two key concepts. The first is of “progressive milieu” which is defined as a defuse collection of individuals, organisations and networks across and beyond a range of religious traditions that are defined by a liberal or radical approach to belief and a green or left of centre set of political attitudes and commitments.
Secondly, Lynch offers a definition of “progressive spirituality” as set out by “organic intellectuals” within the progressive milieu of western religion. The roots of this progressive spirituality, he argues, has emerged out of four concerns; a desire for an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriate for a modern, liberal society; a rejection of patriarchy and a search for religious forms that are authentic for women; a move to re-sacralise science and finally a search for a nature based spirituality which might avert our ecological catastrophe.
Chapter 2 describes the key elements of progressive spirituality, core beliefs and values. Chapter 3 describes the contours of progressive spirituality as an ideology to analyse organisations and networks that make up the progressive milieu. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the progressive milieu and progressive spirituality in a wider context – that is in the light of change and the changing face of religion and spirituality in our modern western society. Finally in Chapter 6, Lynch offers some modest conclusions within which he, as a wary realist believes that progressive spirituality will continue to develop within the broad framework of particular values and beliefs. One can almost feel Lynch planning his future publishing career out of the questions that he opens up in this concluding chapter.
Lynch offers some wisdom and hope for those of us who belong to the world of progressive belief in the 21st century. Those who search for theological truth need constantly to contextualise this search within a broader phenomenological study of religion. Our own beliefs and practices need to be interrogated for honesty, integrity and indeed results.
In this respect, the context of progressive spirituality is very attractive both for its definitions of religion and spirituality within the contemporary western religious scene and as a reminder that the theological agenda for movement, change and growth is often more creatively set by those outside of formal religion than those inside the ‘fold’. From this perspective, much of the contemporary concerns of ecclesial communities (how to read the sacred text; gender relations between men and women; power and sexuality;) seem to offer little wisdom for the task of understanding the nature of belief and how the geography of belief might help us to find direction on our journey. One wonders whether Christianity, for example, might be best served if some new alignments were forged (like Judaism) between “orthodox” or liberal or progressive streams?
This area of reflection is only one springboard into further work that is stimulated by Lynch’s writing and research. This is an important book and Lynch establishes himself in it as a leading sociologist of religion. The book needs not only to be read but acted upon if we are to live in a society where there is healthy debate about religion in all its shapes, forms, and variety. I hope that the pages of Reviews in Religion and Theology might continue to pick up some of these debates from a variety of faith perspectives.