Understanding Spiritualistic Influences From Culture



The prevalence of spiritualism in the world is, at worst, an omen of the impending crisis and, at best, a sign of the soon-coming of the Lord.

Kwabena Donkor

Spiritualistic phenomena have long been of interest to Christian churches not only because groups who teach or practice them often claim to be Christian, but many Christian ministers and laypeople invariably come under their influence. Seventh-day Adventists are keenly interested in the subject because of the church’s understanding of the role of spiritual­ism in the endtime context.

This topic carries the suggestion that culture is a stimulus for, or source of, things spiritualistic in nature within society. Culture today, and indeed throughout history, has been the vehicle for spiritualistic influences. First, there is the need to define clearly the terms spiritualistic and culture as they are being used in this context.

The term spiritualistic is related to the word spiritual. The latter may be used positively as an adjective to distinguish material things from those pertaining to the spirit. In this sense Paul describes the resurrect­ed body: “sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44, NKJV). The term spiritualistic, however, is also employed as an adjective for spiritualism, the system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication (especially through mediums) with the spirits of the dead that abide in a spirit world. From a Christian perspective, it is possible to be spiritual without being spiritualistic. Second, the term spiritualistic may broadly embrace all ideas and practices pertaining to, or of the same kind as, spiritualism. Thus, in this use of the term we may include notions of spirituality rooted in the view that the human world and mind replicate a more wholistic universe of life and mind, where the material world is organically linked with a spiritual realm.

The term culture is somewhat difficult to define. It has been rightly described as a concept in process.1 In a brief, fascinating account of the history of culture, Kathryn Tanner observes that although the word culture had old linguistic roots in Latin relating to the tending of crops and animals, and while it was long known that human societies differed in customs and practice, only in modern times was the idea of different ways of living asso­ciated with the word culture.2 The association of these two ideas led easily to the development of the modern Western concept of the civilized per­son as a cultured person. The subsequent move from a civilized/cultured person to a civilized/cultured society was a natural one. “High culture” evidenced a process of education and refinement and, by extension, the prod­ucts of such a process, namely, patterns of thinking, works of art, and lit­erature, etc. In the context of the Enlightenment, being “civilized” or “cultured” acquired a secular tone. The civilized or cultured person was one whose sense of meaning to life derived from secular rather than biblical principles. Similarly, the cultured/civilized society derived life’s meaning from secular rather than Christian principles. Furthermore, since these secular principles were uniform in nature, the Western high-cultured society was conceived universally as not being “manifold, and vulgar and unstable, and contentious, and ever-varying, but one, and noble, and secure, and peace­ful, and the same for all mankind.”3

British cultural evolutionism, however, nudged the modern concept of culture toward the view that “the culture of any society was that society’s best ideas, its accumulated knowledge.”4 Consequently, we begin to see an aspect of differentiation and particularity being added to the developing understanding of culture. Therefore, on the one hand, modern British cultural evolutionism included ideas of contextualism and functionalism that paved the way for the contemporary anthropological view of culture as “a group-differentiating, holistic, nonevaluative, and context-relative notion.”5 On the other hand, the contemporary notion of culture in the West is largely the result of critiques and reconstructions of particular tenets of the modern view, using postmodern principles of “interactive process and negotiation, indeterminacy, fragmentation, conflict, and porosity.”6

The contemporary anthropological view of culture underlies this writing. Culture in the West is still as modernity conceived it, “a construct that describes the total body of beliefs, behaviors, knowledge, sanctions, values and goals that mark the way of life of a people. . . . In the final analysis it comprises the things that people have, the things they do, and what they think.”7 It is the totality of a people’s worldview. The contemporary view of culture is different only in the sense that the constituent elements of culture are now understood from a postmodern perspective. Hence, culture takes on a temporal, provisional, and developmental, or processive, outlook.

Having defined the terms spiritualistic and culture, it may be help­ful to restate the purpose of this article. Since contemporary Western culture em­braces a postmodern worldview, we may express this focus of topic as an exploration of how the postmodern worldview in the West influences or promotes spiritualistic beliefs and or practices in contemporary culture.


The Contemporary Turn to Spirituality in the West

A discernible religious phenomenon in contemporary Western culture is a turn in the understanding of spirituality away from the predominantly Judeo-Christian based notion that had held sway for nearly 18 centuries after Christ. Christopher Partridge writes extensively on the phenomenon of occultare,8 a term that has been coined to depict the situation in which “Western societies, while becoming increasingly secular on one level are also permeated by a vast reservoir of spiritual ideas, beliefs, and practices drawn from a variety of traditions and places.”9 James A. Herrick also writes about a New Religious Synthesis that has been occurring for the past three centuries, blending strands of religious thought, and spawning in the United States alone from 1,000 to 2,000 new religious movements in the 20th century.10 On his part, Wade Clark Roof comments on the rise of “an eclectic mix of religious and spiritual ideas, beliefs and practices” at the level of popular belief, and he provides the following evidence for this observation on new Western spirituality: “widespread belief in angels and reincarnation; the appeal of religious and quasi-religious shrines, retreat centers, and theme parks; interest in metaphysical and theosophical teachings; prosperity theology and ‘possibility thinking’; and large proportions of Americans reporting mystical experiences.”11 Observers of the contemporary spiritual landscape conclude that the prevalence of the new spirituality on public consciousness is attributable to a rather loosely connected network of practitioners, the publishing industry, and the media.

There are a few more things to be noted about the nature of the new spirituality besides its eclectic outlook. “The individual spiritual seeker exercising innate rational power is central to the new spiritual views,” writes Herrick. “At the same time,” he adds, “the spiritual seeker may acquire hidden knowledge from ‘nonphysical Teachers,’ or spirit entities equipped to assist the process of spiritual evolution to higher levels of awareness.”12 In her very insightful article “The Subtle Energies of Spirit: Explorations in Metaphysical and New Age Spirituality,” Catherine L. Albanese explores the continuities between the metaphysical tradition in America and New Age spirituality against the backdrop of what she describes as a “contemporary vernacular religious horizon suffused with notions of ‘spirituality.’”13

Albanese comes close to identifying the nature of the new spirituality when she concludes that both metaphysicians and New Agers have understood spirituality in terms of what she calls “subtle energies.” The new spiri­tuality is “kinetic spirituality,” emphasizing flow, movement, and change; and Albanese concludes that “spirituality in the metaphysical movement, especially in its present-day New Age manifestation, means working with the energies of the moment, ‘going with the flow,’ and seeking, as earlier metaphysicians, to combine all of the cultural currents that act as catalysts in our time.”14

The contemporary spiritual scene in the West has a long history. There is a sense in which all cultural developments that have sought to move the Judeo-Christian tradition off the center of religious thought in the West may be seen as catalysts for the new spirituality. There are antecedent fac­tors in the long cultural history of the West worth exploring for two reasons. Apart from showing the influences of past cultural developments on the present spiritualistic tendencies, it demonstrates how consistently culture has been the vehicle for spiritualistic influences. Factors in the medieval/renaissance and modern periods have prepared the grounds for the spiritualistic tendencies in contemporary postmodern culture.


Cultural Antecedents of the Medieval and Renaissance Period

The seeds of the present form of contemporary Western spirituality may be traced to early mounting interest in mysticism during the medieval period. One main source of this interest was the introduction of Hermetic teaching into Florence through the Greek manuscript Corpus Hermeticum and the tireless promotion of a Latin translation of it by the humanist Marsilio Ficino. Among the more prominent scholars of the Renaissance who lent credence to the occult Greek and Egyptian teachings contained in the hermetic works were Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Gior­dano Bruno (1548–1600). Several emphases in hermetic teaching filtered through Western culture and shaped popular thinking about the super­natural, including the following: an emphasis on spiritual experience over physical that made time, space, and history irrelevant; a pantheistic view that saw divinity in everything; and an unspeakable and indescribable view of divinity that made mysticism the highest spiritual experience. Equally relevant was the hermetic view of humanity as the product of a long spiritual evolutionary process. Garnering interest, and having a great deal of influence at about the same time as hermetic teaching, was the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah originated from Jewish sources as a system for personal spiritual development by means of secret insights. Like hermetic teaching, the Kabbalah has a bias for the spiritual, and coupled with the belief that human beings are an emanation from God, it created a deeper sense for things mystical and magical in Western culture.

The developing mystical/magical worldview received a boost from Neoplatonic philosophy, which was becoming influential among European humanists and intellectuals. Thus, it has been noted that by the 17th century the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy “extended to the Cambridge Platonists (more properly, the Cambridge neo-Platonists) and their greatest pupil, Sir Isaac Newton.”15 Key to Neoplatonism was the notion that to the diligent seeker of truth, the secretly coded cosmos could be revealed, even sometimes by spirits. The intermingling of science and magic, fueled by Neoplatonism, could be seen in the flourishing interest in astrology and alchemy during the 16th century. Herrick mentions Giordano Bruno and Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) as key figures in these developments. Bruno speculated that the “divine mind” or “world soul” is diffused throughout the universe, and because human reason participates in divine reason, the ability of reason is limitless. It is worthy of note that Brahe’s advancement in the science of astronomy was mainly to advance his own spiritual for­tunes since, in the developing worldview, spiritual development was ob­tained through scientific study of the cosmos.

One significant consequence of the blending of Neoplatonism and sci­ence was the development of a sense of a primitive core of all religions and a search for a universally harmonious theological system. Hence, the basis for religious pluralism was born, and with it the subsequent development, during the modern period, of biblical criticism through the influ­ence of such persons as Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) and John Locke (1632–1704).

From a religious perspective, the developments briefly mentioned above conspired to create widespread interest in mysticism. The extensive influence of the mystic Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) on German intellectuals beyond his times in the 19th and 20th centuries is generally recognized. His stress on a divine spirit in nature, the inherent divinity of the individual, and the role of contemplation in spiritual development was expressive of the mysticism of the times. Similarly, for the mystic Jacob Bohme (1538–1588), “the divine is continually expanding in search of self-knowledge, a process in which human beings may participate through contemplation.”16 In both Eckhart and Bohme, the subject-object, human­-divine distinction characteristic of traditional biblical faith was destroyed by merging humanity and divinity.17


Cultural Antecedents of the Modern Period

The development of biblical criticism during the modern period contributed in no small way to deny the centrality of the Judeo-Christian tradition in religious thought.

Biblical criticism. The humanists had prepared the ground for a full-frontal attack on biblical Christian thought. Reading Seneca, Plutarch, etc., the humanists thought they saw values comparable to that found in Christianity, a “discovery” that contributed to modernity’s skeptical attitude. The Bible could no longer be deemed to contain self-evident truths immune from reason’s critical judgment and evaluation. Furthermore, as the West made increasing contacts with new cultures, the thought of recovering a primitive belief from which the separate religions have emerged became very tempting. With this thought came the need, among Renaissance humanists, for building a religion based on classical sources, textual criticism, human achievement, and reason. For this program to succeed, the privileged status of Chris­tianity had to be questioned. Biblical criticism, denial of the historicity of biblical claims, and the favorable rating of Greek and Roman philosophical morality were no minor contributors to the humanist program.

Spinoza provided great impetus for biblical criticism. Not only did he question the dating and authorship of many biblical books and provided philosophical arguments against miracles, he also argued by means of the principle that “whatsoever is contrary to nature is also contrary to reason, and whatsoever is contrary to reason is absurd, and ipso facto, to be rejected.”18 By the beginning of the 19th century, David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) was putting biblical criticism into high gear with his Life of Jesus in 1835. Strauss argued for the mythical over against the historical in the Gos­pels, insisting that the idea of historical content in the Gospels must be relinquished. For Strauss, what is presented in the Gospels as historical is only the shell of a religious conception or idea that, rather than being inspired by supernatural divine agency, reflects a “higher intelligence,” which really is the spirit of a community. Herrick reflects on the significance of Strauss: “The enduring significance of the biblical texts is ethical rather than historical. This formula—spiritual truth in the absence of historical truth—was to become an important component in New Religious Synthesis thought.”19 For biblical interpretation, the gaping gulf introduced between history and spirituality amounted to an immense degree of interpretive plasticity that contributes to the pluralistic viewpoint not only in theology but also in contemporary culture.

Evolution and pantheism. In the wake of biblical criticism, the biblical view of origins was one of the first teachings to be questioned. Following modernity’s critique of the Bible and its worldview of creation, the Fall, and redemption, it was evident that a new explanation of the human condition would be needed. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) provided a watershed moment in the West’s understanding of life’s origins and development. Darwin was not the first to posit an evolutionary view of reality, but his idea of natural selection was a novel explanatory theory for how species gradually changed into separate and distinct species. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was not inherently progressive, he actually believed in evolutionary progress, virtually substituting divine providence with the natural selection dynamic. His early defenders, however, had a clear spiritual vision for evolution. T. H. Huxley (1825–1895), Francis Galton (1822–1911), and Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) all read into Charles Darwin’s theory a humanly directed evolutionary spiritual future for the human race. Huxley’s grandson Sir Julian Huxley (1887–1975) carried the re­ligious implications of Darwin’s theory much farther. His belief in transhumanism, a project in which human beings control the evolutionary process to transcend themselves and create a new humanity, envisaged increases in humanity’s aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual experiences. Spiritually, Hux­ley appeared to have a foundational concern for mystical experience. He observed that part of the goal of transhumanism was “to teach people the techniques of achieving spiritual experience (after all, one can acquire the technique of dancing or tennis, so why not of mystical ecstasy or spiritual peace?).”20

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), with whom Julian Huxley cor­responded, is deemed to be perhaps the 20th century’s greatest ad­vocate of spiritual evolution. For Teilhard, evolution as the fundamental principle of the cosmos was a nonnegotiable starting point. His interest in both science and religion led him to pursue relentlessly the following program: “Religion and evolution should neither be confused nor divorced. They are destined to form one single continuous organism, in which their respective lives prolong, are dependent on, and complete one another, without being identified or lost. . . . Since it is in our age that the duality has become so markedly apparent, it is for us to effect a synthesis.”21

Teilhard’s commitment to promote a new understanding of holiness after World War I meant for him that Christians needed to learn to recog­nize and revere the sacredness of matter and the cosmos. As he saw it, the experience of the cosmos is a necessary dimension of human experience that must be integrated into the Christian faith. Here is the core of Teil­hard’s mysticism, which is “communion with God through earth,” based on a new synthesis in which “the human being is united with the Abso­lute, with God, by means of the unification of the world.”22 Lewin observes, “Rather than supposing that the spiritual life supersedes the material, his­torical and experiential dimensions of being, Teilhard points to their con­fluence in a unity that establishes the irreducible meaning of every moment and every place. God is thus all in all.”23

The promotion of an evolutionary, monistic worldview, in which god is all in all, demonstrates the extent to which pantheism was rejuvenated in the modern era. The effect of hermeticism in Europe, coupled with the ideas of humanists such as Spinoza and Bruno, led John Toland (1670–1722), who coined the term pantheism in the 18th century, to reason thus: “If Bruno was correct that the universe was infinite, this left no room for a God who exists externally to it. Thus if there is a God he must be indistinguishable from the physical universe.”24 Essentially we are left with a universe in which there is only one substance, which is at once God and nature, body, and spirit (or matter and energy). The distinguished list of thinkers who embraced some form of monistic, pantheistic thinking include Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919).

Shamanism. According to the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, a broadly accepted definition of shamanism in the West is that it involves techniques of ecstasy. The shaman is able to enter into a state of ecstasy and participate “in the spiritual dimensions of reality, as a healer, diviner, clairvoyant, and psychopomp (escort of the soul of the deceased to the domain of the dead).”25

The developments previously noted contributed directly to the significant rise of shamanism in the West, especially in the United States. Modern spiritualism is generally traced to the mysterious rap­pings in 1848 at the cottage of Mr. John D. Fox, where he lived with his two daughters, Margaret and Kate. After devising a code in which a number of raps could indicate a yes or no, or some alphabet, the girls became medi­ums and participated in séances in various cities. Although the girls sub­sequently denied the authenticity of the raps and later retracted the denial, hundreds of others had become mediums, and spiritualism was already widespread.

The hysteria and popularity of spiritualism and the Fox sisters’ phenomenon at the time becomes understandable only in the context of cul­tural developments of modernity in the West. Frank Lewis observed: “It may seem strange that these events should have created such widespread and sometimes hysterical excitement, or that they should have initiated a movement which spread through the Unit­ed States and was soon carried abroad. The temper of the times offers part of the explanation. A religious restlessness was abroad in the land because there were then many for whom Protestant orthodoxy had lost its former authority. It was an era of religious innovations and oddities, of suggestions taken up and followed out in the hope of finding a new faith to replace the old. The implications of the developing sciences, especially of astronomy (and a little later of biological evolution), were beginning to be understood or misunderstood by the populace and many were fumbling for a new worldview which would better accord with those impli­cations. The popular fancy had already been taken by phenomena, not unlike those displayed by the Fox sisters, appearing in such studies as had then been carried out in France and Germany of mesmerism, hypnotism, animal magnetism, telepathy, and various evidences of supra-normal powers of apprehension.”26

Theosophy arose out of this environment with one of its found­ers, Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), postulating an evolutionary cosmos in which all things progress “from lowest to highest, from bad to good, from small to great . . . upward, onward, to something more perfect, more Divine.”27 Both Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky, theosophy’s cofound­ers, were committed to moving spiritualism beyond its populist, democrat­ic image to a more genteel, scientific phase. Hence, spirit manifestations to them were caused not by “mediums channeling disembodied spirits of the dead. . . but by ‘adepts’ who, because of their initiation into mysteries, were able to manipulate occult forces in accordance with occult laws.”28 But the continuities between theosophy and earlier spiritualistic traditions is seen by noticing to whom Olcott referred in his first presidential address on No­vember 17, 1875: “Albertus Magnus, Alfarabi, Roger Bacon, Cagliostro, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Fludd, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Henry More as well as to the Chaldeans, Kabalists, Egyptians, hermeticists, alchemists, and Rosicrucians.”29 On her part, Blavatsky’s preoccupation with Indian thought is on record, consistent with her embracing of the pantheism advocated by European writers from Pythagoras to Spinoza. She asserted, “The universe is itself Brahman. This is the philosophy of Spinoza which is derived from that of Pythagoras; and it is the same for which Bruno died a martyr.”30


Spiritualistic Influences in the Postmodern Culture


In what way does postmodernism support spiritualistic influences in contemporary Western culture? Given our definition of the term spiritualistic, the question takes the following specific form: How does postmod­ernism influence the notion of spirituality?


The Essence of Postmodernism: Reflections of Modernism

In order to fully address the question raised above, it will be neces­sary to give a brief overview of postmodernism’s theoretical commitments. Intellectually, postmodernism encompasses a variety of viewpoints; yet in spite of the several positions, there seems to be agreement on the fact that foundationally, the postmodern outlook is anti-modern,31 particularly in its rejection of “Enlightenment rationality.” It is worthwhile, then, to out­line the key modernist principles that postmodernism rejects:

1. Objective rationality. Nature, because of its orderly structure, has laws. Further, there is correspondence between reason and natures laws, which means that by eliminating subjective and personal fac­tors from the knowing process, certain and objective knowledge is possible. With the help of reason, the truth of reality can be described.

2. Referentialism. Implied in modernity’s descriptive approach is a certain view of language, namely, that language is representational. In other words, language refers to and represents facts of reality.

3. Harmony. A logical consequence of the rational structure of reality is the principle of harmony. This harmony is based on the overall rational and orderly structure of the universe.

4. Individualistic autonomy. Modernity spawned the individual knower as the model of the knowing process. While autonomy did not mean lawlessness (since universal natural laws were presup­posed), it imposed an intellectual obligation on individuals to assess truth for themselves.

5. Foundationalism. Foundationalism argues for justifying all beliefs by building them on indubitable and incorrigible bedrock founda­tional beliefs.

The five points about knowledge mentioned here were related directly to how reality was visualized. The scientific explorations of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) helped this process. In Newton’s view, nature could be described mathematically. Newton postulated a mechanical view of a world made up of hard indestructible particles called atoms. These are objects of sense experience whose separations and motions are accountable for observable changes in nature.

Postmodernism represents a rejection of the modern quest for “objective knowledge” as well as the rest of the points mentioned above. This criticism of modernity’s quest of objective knowledge lies at the foun­dation of Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction. Key to this project is the rejection of logocentrism, “the idea that understanding or meaning, can be given a fixed reference point by grounding it in logos, some fixed prin­ciple or characteristic of reality; in other words, in a presence.”32 Against modern foundationalism, postmodernity inclines toward holism. Holism means that instead of beliefs being grounded on solid foundations, beliefs are supported by their ties to neighboring beliefs, and ultimately to the whole. With holism, no beliefs are inherently unrevisable; thus, the hall­marks of holism are corrigibility, perspectival plurality, and process.

Other shifts include that of interest from meaning as reference to meaning as use. Meaning is a function of language’s role in a system of conventions: linguistic and nonlinguistic, of practices, and performances. Meaning is contextual, and language does not necessarily aim at an objective truth-status of a phenomenon. Additionally, in postmodernism, all human knowledge is historically contextual, local, and particular, yielding what has been called the “contextual thesis.”33 In the view of Diogenes Allen, with an embargo on all metanarratives, the conclusion is inevitable that “every understanding of reality is a function of history and culture.”34

Postmodernity represents, also, an antirealist metaphysics. Anti-realism is the view that insofar as there are objects, they are dependent on our experience, thought, and language. In other words, we do not encounter a world that is simply given “out there” but one that we actively construct by the use of concepts we bring to it. Physical reality is dynamic; the universe is not an existing entity that has a history; rather, it is a history (it is a multiverse); the world is not so much a “creation” as a “creating.”


Framing Spirituality in a Postmodern Culture

It is impossible to provide the details of all forms of postmodern spirituality. What we provide here are the broad principles upon which they are based.

The notions of holism, corrigibility, perspectival plurality, process, contextualism, and antirealism provide the cultural matrix out of which contemporary Western spirituality is woven. Just as the cultural context of the modern period affected the way spirituality was understood during the modern era, so is postmodernism defining contemporary spirituality. From this perspective, William Cenkner is correct in suggesting that we should understand contemporary Western spirituality within a “theme, counter-theme framework.” “Western spirituality,” he observes, “is a histo­ry of themes unfolding sequentially out of the past and into our present.”35 In Cenkner’s view, history of spirituality themes unfolding sequentially “strikes little resonance among us today. Resonance needs counter-theme, and only significant counter-themes create resonance. Too often dissonance is created by seeing in counter-theme either an ungodly challenge or a panacea. A balance must be struck. Theme without counter-theme is deadbeat; counter-theme without theme achieves a frequency that is beyond human hearing. In the language of Lévi-Strauss, we have to approach each page of contemporary spirituality not only sequentially from left to right, but also vertically from top to bottom in order to discover resonances.”36

Helpfully, Cenkner presents “four themes evolving sequentially out of our spiritual history and four counter-themes that have intersected with this sequence to create new meanings in spirituality today.”37 Spiritualis­tic influences within contemporary Western culture arise from the tension between modernity’s spiritual “themes” and postmodernity’s “counter-themes.” Each of these spiritualistic influences may be explored from four main perspectives: its goal, its spiritual context, its nature/essence/ontology, and the language in which it is expressed.

Goal of contemporary spirituality. Classical Christian spirituality understood its origin and goal to be God in the personal life. Hence, spirituality was generally understood as an awakening to God through an encounter described as an “intellectual and affective realization of the I-thou relationship of grace” and “the conscious experience of God.”38 Contemporary, postmodern culture has a counter-theme to this goal of classic spirituality, which gives rise to spiritualistic influences. Today spirituality is an awakening not to a personal God but to the greater universe. The result is that today it is not enough to experience the Spirit of God. Postmodern spirituality attempts to place spiritual experience “into processes that unfold new worlds of consciousness and mystery.”39

The grounds for this shift can be traced to several contemporary ideas and developments. One of these is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s influential evolutionary cosmology. Teilhard assumed a continually evolving universe to be a fact and tried to fit God into the picture. God in this view is the product rather than the cause of the whole universe, which is an evolving spirit or energy. In this scheme, humanity is not just a part of this evolving process but principal contributor to the evolutionary cause. Consequently, spirituality today is seen as the attempt to “bring into the range of experience the world of nature, the human community as social and political, the transformation of earth and consciousness.”40 Ultimately, Teilhard’s spirituality constitutes a form of mysticism. The philosophical speculations of Teilhard and others similar to his appear to have received a boost from what some see as a new pantheistic physics. Quantum theory started not only a new era in physics but also a new era in metaphysical speculation. With many scientists arguing for a fluid boundary between matter and energy, a similar conclusion is being drawn about the boundary between the material and spiritual.

Spiritual context of contemporary spirituality. If the goal of contemporary spirituality is to be awakened in consciousness to the universe, to which environment or community does one go to have this experience? This question addresses the second theme to which contemporary culture raises a counter-theme. Classic spirituali­ties are rooted in particular worldviews/religions with sets of disciplines developed to help devotees in their quest for spiritual growth. It is a spirituality that takes place within a particular tradition. From this perspective one could talk about Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian spirituality. Postmodernism, however, provides a “pancultural” counter-theme that embraces the East and the West. It is a spirituality that claims to eschew the insularity of traditional spirituality. It is what Scot McKnight calls “bricolage spirituality,” which he claims is to some degree now characteris­tic of much of Western evangelicalism and “stands in contrast to classical and tidy forms of spirituality.”41 It is the spirituality found in the emergent church movement; and it is ecumenical and interreligious. As ecumeni­cal, it raids the “storehouses of the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans for richer liturgies as well as prayer beads, icons, spiritual direction, lectio divina and a deeper sacramentality.”42 As interreligious, it borrows from the spiritual practices of other religions—yoga, Buddhist self-emptying, centering, etc. At the basis of this phenomenon is the spiritual yearning for a deep element of “vicarious experience,” meaning the desire “to experience what others experience in their religious faith even if it is at odds with their own religious experience.”43

Pause must be taken to reiterate that it is postmodernism’s new way of looking at reality that has introduced these perspectives on spirituality. In this regard the relationship between the evolutionary view of reality and the eclectic approach to spiritual development should be noted. Propo­nents of contemporary spirituality believe that because of the evolutionary paradigm there is a greater possibility than ever for humans to renew their myths and controlling images, in addition to having a new world of images to work with.

The nature/essence of contemporary spirituality. With regard to its nature, proponents of contemporary spirituality see the theme underlying traditional spirituality to be a dualistic worldview. In other words, classical spirituality proceeds on the basis of a distinc­tion made between nature and a God outside of nature. This dualism is also seen in the traditional distinction between spirit and matter, mind and body, and mystic and non-mystic. Contemporary spirituality proceeds from a counter-theme that is monistic. Already, during the modern period Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) had argued for a single substance in the universe that manifests itself both as matter and energy or body and spirit.44

Here again should be pointed out the role that contemporary scientific cul­ture plays in affirming the monistic nature of reality and thereby support­ing a particular version of spirituality. When modern spiritualism burst on the scene in America during the middle of the 19th century, then, was a dualistic model in which the so-called “spirits” of the dead communicated with humans through a medium. But with matter and spirit being conceived to be the same stuff, thanks to quantum physics, the spiritualists’ medium has now become a “channel” in the New Age movement. Catherine Albanese explains: “The human ‘channel’ is seen as analogous to a radio or video chan­nel, receiving waves of energy from out in space that are trans­formed into sound, sight, and meaning. Thus, in a relativistic quantum universe the human channel provides one conduit, one point of connection, between those who dwell within the limits of mate­rial human bodies and, hypothetically, those other ‘personalities’—sometimes individual, sometimes collective—who dwell beyond.”45

From the perspective of New Age channeling, then, spirituality means contacting spirit energy. This is possible because humans are said to in­habit only one plane of a multidimensional universe of several planes that are organically related. Through channeling, humans are able to make conscious contact with the other planes.

The language of contemporary spirituality. The final theme that Cenkner draws attention to is the theme of language. The language of classical/modern spirituality is religious language—more specifically, the language of Scripture and theology. The language of contemporary spirituality, however, is borrowed from secular disciplines. Biology, anthropology, paleontology, and physics have been key contrib­utors. Here, the increasing use of the language of science is particularly evident. Albanese observes, “Now there is talk of ‘bioenergy’ and ‘electromagnetic fields,’ of ‘biofields,’ ‘bioplasmic energy bodies’ and ‘subtle energies.’”46 From particle physics, the boson, one of the only two particles that are said to constitute the whole universe, has been endowed with spiri­tual properties. Indeed, it has been argued that all the fundamental forces that bind the universe, such as the electromagnetic, the gravitational, and the nuclear, are made of bosons.


Popular Cultural Media in Contemporary Spirituality

So far, the discussion on how culture exerts influences of a spiritual­istic nature in society has been at the level of ideas. Worldviews are essentially cultural products that embody concepts that lend themselves to spiritualistic manipulation. But culture supports and develops spiritualistic interests further through popular cultural media such as literature, films, video, music, etc. Without the latter, it would be difficult to visualize how common folk could connect with spiritualistic­-laden intellectual ideas of culture.

The ability of popular cultural media to translate intellectual world­view ideas to the general populace is based on the general principle that popular media as part of the “public sphere” can form opinions and shape attitudes.47 The mass media do this not only by organizing experience in particular ways and thereby contributing to a sense of what is real, but also by blurring the boundaries of reality. The significant point is that popular cultural forms (such as books, films, song, dance, artwork, and fashion) function as cultural texts that form and are in turn informed by societal attitudes. Partridge thinks that “there is little doubt that people are, from their own perspectives, developing religious and metaphysical ideas by reflecting on themes explored in literature, film, and music.”48 More per­tinent is the recognition of the extensive treatment of occult themes by the mass media, which testifies to the degree of popular occult commitment.

Occult in the West today is said to encompass a range of ideas and practices, including “magick (as devised by Aleister Crowley), extreme right-wing religio-politics, radical environmentalism and deep ecology, angels, spirit guides and channeled messages, astral projection, crystals, dream therapy, human potential spiritualities, the spiritual significance of ancient and mythical civilizations, astrology, healing, earth mysteries, tarot, numerology, Kabbalah, feng shui, prophe­cies (e.g., Nostradamus), Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail, Druidry, Wicca, Heathenism, palmistry, shamanism, goddess spirituality, Gaia spirituality, and eco-spirituality, alternative science, esoteric Christianity, UFOs, alien abduction, and so on.”49

These ideas and practices, which have their intellectual basis in the philosophical and worldview concepts discussed here, are what the popular cultural media lend support to. We can give only brief illustrations here.

Film and television. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was an American television series that aired from March 10, 1997, until May 20, 2003. Inspired by a 1992 film with the same name, the Buffy series evidence shifts from Christian to non-Christian, and even pagan approaches to spiritual matters. The shift detected in the Buffy series is already seen as having begun by comparing Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) with John Badham’s Dracula (1979) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In all of this, the one phenomenon that draws attention to the shift is the matter of the waning power of the cross/crucifix as a weapon against the forces of darkness. Of Coppola’s Dracula, Larry Kreitzer notes that “the cross is either ridiculed as a worthless trinket of a by-gone era, or replaced by another symbol, or simply rejected.”50 Of the shifts in vampire films and literature, Gordon Melton detects a secularization process that not only challenges the role of the supernatural in modern life but also repre­sents a protest against the truth claims of any particular religious group in a religiously pluralistic world.51 More significant to note is Partridge’s com­ment that what takes the place of the Cross is “a shift in the locus of sacred authority towards the natural world and, in some cases, natural religion.”52 With “Buffy” in particular, observers notice a shift toward paganism, West­ern religious eclecticism, magic, and witchcraft. “Buffy” is also classed among popular series such as Sabrina” and “Charmed,” which “have transformed the popularity of occult figures to the extent that they are seen as symbols of ‘girl power.’”53 One research into “Teen Wicca” in Britain since 1996 has linked an upsurge of interest from teenagers into magical traditions, and witchcraft in particular, to films and TV shows originating from the United States that depict young women or teenage girls as witches.54

On the literature front, Campbell and McIver make an important point that is worth reproducing: “No discussion of the sources of support for occultism would be complete without noting that there is at least one place where it has a secure and highly approved position within the culture of contemporary society, a place where not only is it not condemned but where it is heavily endorsed. This, of course, is in the context of the culture of childhood, which would be largely unrecognizable without the fairies, ghosts, alien beings, and magical environments which are its stock-in-trade. Virtually all of the themes of adult occultism are to be found in the books, plays, and films aimed at children, although not, of course in a fully elaborated form. Here the ‘rejected’ knowledge of adults is presented as ‘accepted’ ma­terial for children, even if there is an attempt to do so within the framework of a ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ . . . [This] necessarily means that almost all members of modern society are intro­duced to occult material at a tender age. Occultism is thus central to the world-view which they inherit and one which they must subsequently learn to reject. It would hardly be surprising if some fail to do so.”55

It may be noted that the incorporation of fairies, dragons, witches, and other mythical and/or supernatural elements in children’s stories is as old as fairy tales and Greek mythology. But for adult readers, works of fiction that have been noted to have direct influence on contemporary alternative spirituality include Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), George Lucas’ Star Wars, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Stranger in a Strange Land in­spired the creation of the Church of All Worlds in America. Apart from the church’s common greeting, “Thou art God,” which was designed to recognize the immanent divinity in each person, its emphasis on love and joyous expression of sexuality conveys sexuality as divine union.56 Similarly, Star Wars also led to the establishment of the Jedi Knight movement, whose philosophy encompasses belief systems of the major world religions including Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The Lord of the Rings is classed among the fantasy writings that “are more frequently mentioned by Pagans” and which, apart from re-enchanting the world for people, encourage “contemplation of different ways of relating to the world.”57

Music. Christopher Partridge marks the beginnings of the Easternization of music in the West as a significant moment in music’s role in promoting the occult. In particular, the Beatles’ interest in Eastern religion is credited with turning an interest shared by only a few in the West in 1965 into a popular subject of discussion right across Western society just within a matter of two years. Thus, although not the inventers of Western interest in Eastern thought, the Beatles are credited with much of the West’s fascina­tion with Eastern wisdom in the late 1960s and thereafter.

The music of the Beatles was a significant part of the psychedelic pe­riod of the 1960s and 1970s, which has evolved until today. Observers of the musical scene see a continuing line of development of the psychedelic music of this period, made popular by Brian Eno’s ambient music, through the post-punk years of the 1980s and “chill-out music” in the 1990s. It is important that Eno himself described ambient music as creating “an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind.”58 By the 1990s, ambient music had evolved in several directions to include “digital dub,” de­veloped to provide spiritually evocative atmospheres.59 Dub evolved from reggae music in Jamaica and has continued to influence several kinds of rock and heavy metal music, dance and trance music, hip hop, contemporary electronic, and “drum and bass.” In all of this, dub has been helpful to those intent on creating spiritual music, finding in dub’s echo, reverb, and sonorous bass a “mystical, ethereal quality.”60



Much of the Christian West is undergoing a spiritual renewal that is different from popular Christian awakenings that the West has known before. At the core of this awakening is a disenchantment and re-enchantment. There is an evident disenchantment with traditional Judeo-Christian views and methods of spirituality in favor of a spirituality that is entwined with popular culture. Interestingly, it is a spirituality that inclines more closely to mysticism. It would be naive, however, to think that these de­velopments are entirely new. There are historical antecedents that go back centuries.

The success with which this new spirituality and its spiritualistic influence are spreading can be traced to two main factors. First, they accord with the West’s changing cultural views about reality and how one relates to it. The new cultural worldview is what postmodernism represents. A second and perhaps even more potent factor in support of the new spiri­tuality is the outstanding vehicle of expression that these views have found in the West’s popular cultural media—literature, movies, music, etc. For Seventh-day Adventists, however, the prevalence of spiritualism and spiri­tualistic influences in the world is, at worst, an omen of the impending crisis and, at best, a sign of the soon-coming of the Lord.


Kwabena Donkor, PhD, is Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.



1. Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1997), 3.

2. Ibid.

3. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, J. Dover Wilson, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 204, quoted in Tanner, Theories of Culture, 14.

4. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 204, quoted in Tanner, Theories of Culture, 16.

5. Ibid., 24.

6. Ibid., 38.

7. Melvin Herskovitz, Man and His Works (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), 625, quoted in Tanner, Theories of Culture, 27.

8. Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Volume 1. Alternative Spiritualities Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occultare (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 63–86.

9. John Walliss, Review of The Re-Enchantment of the West, by Christopher Partridge, in Nova Religio 10:1 (2006): 126.

10. James A. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), 15–17.

11. Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomer and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 37, 38.

12. Ibid., 14.

13. Catherine L. Albanese, “The Subtle Energies of Spirit: Explorations in Metaphysical and New Age Spirituality,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67:2 (1999): 306.

14. Ibid., 321.

15. Hung J. Kearney, Science and Change: 1500–1700 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 24, quoted in Herrick, The New Spirituality, 43.

16. Ibid., 48.

17. Ibid., 49.

18. Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus 6.92, quoted in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Biblical Higher Criticism and the Defense of Infallibilism in 19th Century Britain (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1987), 14.

19. Herrick, The New Spirituality, 62.

20. Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism,” in New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 13–17.

21. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War (London: Collins, 1968), 87, quoted in David Lewin, “Mysticism, Experience and the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin,” Modern Believing 49:1 (2008): 31.

22. James W. Skehan, “Exploring Teilhard’s ‘New Mysticism’: ‘Building the Cosmos,”’ Ecotheology 10:1 (2005): 18.

23. Lewin, “Mysticism, Experience and the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin,” 36.

24. Herrick, The New Spirituality, 155.

25. Keith Crim, ed., Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1981), 674.

26. Frank B. Lewis, “The Bible and Modern Religions: Modern Spiritualism,” Interpretation 11:4 (1957): 440.

27. Stephen Prothero, “From Spiritualism to Theosophy: Uplifting a Democratic Tradition,” Religion and American Culture 3/2 (1993): 200.

28. Ibid., 203, 204.

29. Ibid., 206.

30. H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology (Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1998 [originally published in 1877]), 1:282; quoted in Herrick, The New Spirituality, 215.

31. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 12.

32. Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 115.

33. Keith Yandell, “Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the Minimalist Canons of Common Grace,” Christian Scholar’s Review 27 (1997): 19.

34. Diogenes Allen, “Christianity and the Creed of Postmodernism,” Christian Scholars Review 23:2 (1993): 120.

35. William Cenkner, “Theme and Counter-Theme in Contemporary Spirituality,” Horizons 9:1 (1982): 88.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Ernest E. Larkin, “Christian Spirituality,” 75: http://carmelnet.org/larldn/larkin079.pdf (ac­cessed March 13, 2022).

39. William Cenkner, “Theme and Counter-Theme,” 89.

40. Ibid., 88.

41. Scot McKnight, “Spirituality in a Postmodern Age,” Stone-Campbell Journal 13 (2010): 215.

42. Scott Bader-Saye, “The Emergent Matrix: A New Kind of Church?” Christian Century 12:24 (November 30, 2004): 21.

43. Ibid.

44. John Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (London: SCM Press, 1989), 100.

45. Albanese, “The Subtle Energies of Spirit,” 311.

46. Ibid., 316.

47. Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Volume 1, 119.

48. Ibid., 121.

49. Colin Campbell and Shirley McIver, “Cultural Sources of Support for Contemporary Occultism,” Social Compass 34:1 (1987): 70.

50. Larry Kreitzer, “The Scandal of the Cross: Crucifixion Imagery and Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in The Monstrous and the Unspeakable, G. Aichele and T. Pippin, eds. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 209, quoted in Partridge, Re-Enchantment of the West, 128.

51. Ibid., 130.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid., 134.

54. Ibid.

55. Campbell and McIver, “Cultural Sources,” 58.

56. Partridge, Re-Enchantment of the West, 138.

57. Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth (London: Hurst, 1997), 181, 182, quoted in Partridge, Re-Enchantment of the West, 140.

58. “Ambient Music”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambient_music.

59. Partridge, Re-Enchantment of the West, 175.

60. Ibid., 176.