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A new take on spirituality

September 1, 2010
by James D. Henry, MDIV
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Freedom is expanding options for how individuals in recovery view their God

The freedom to name and understand the Divine as we see fit stands as one of the fundamental tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and of recovery from chemical dependency in general. Today there appears to be a new, growing audience supporting this freedom of choice. Globally, people are becoming freed up to explore spirituality for themselves and to follow where the winds blow. This in turn broadens the base for chemically troubled people to do the same, choosing a name and perception of the Divine that is a fit for the individual and is personally more life-enhancing.

As they say, what goes around comes around. About every 500 years there seems to be a rummage sale in Christianity where old assumptions and practices are challenged and replaced with new perspectives. Roughly 500 years ago, the Great Reformation took place, emphasizing justification by grace through faith. Around 1000 AD, the church created a huge west/east schism by excommunicating the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. And, some 500 years before that, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire produced chaos in the ecclesiastical community.

James d. henry, mdiv
James D. Henry, MDiv

In his book

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox maintains that today an inclusive, ecumenical movement toward a new era is developing; he labels it the “Age of the Spirit.”

1 A retired Harvard Divinity School professor and theologian, Cox is well-known and respected for his research and teaching interests that focus on the interaction of religion, culture and politics.

Cox identifies three fundamental shifts over the last 2,000 years of church history:

  • The “Age of Faith” began with the birth of the Christian church with its focus on faith in Jesus Christ and upon following his teachings as opposed to enforcing what to believe about him. Described as “the people of the Way,” this early community had an enthusiastic faith that rapidly spread.

  • The “Age of Belief” serves as an accurate label for the period between the 4th and 20th centuries when the church became focused on hierarchical leadership, orthodoxy and right beliefs. Institutionalized as the official religion of the empire by Constantine and his successors, the church rapidly developed creeds and insisted upon their adoption by clergy and laypeople alike. Belief in dogma replaced a deep-seated confidence in, and response to, an ultimate commitment of the heart.

  • The “Age of the Spirit,” beginning in the 1960s and shaped by Christianity and other faith traditions today, largely ignores many authoritative doctrines and breaks down barriers among different religions. As dogma dies, to some degree, spirituality is replacing formal religion. In part, this reformation springs from the awe people experience in the universe, however they describe it. It results in a movement toward experiencing faith and away from belief in creeds. Flowering first in Africa, Asia and Latin America, this movement is marked by commitment to social justice, liberation theology and eco-spirituality.

Science supporting spirituality

This Age of the Spirit development also finds itself energized by some exciting outcomes of scientific research about the quantum universe. Science in general has been detached from spirituality since Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton helped shape the age of scientific materialism, resulting in the separation of sacred from secular. For a change, at least the quantum science discipline is contributing to a favorable view of spirituality rather than opposing it.

“Quantum” describes that which is the smallest, sub-atomic component of the universe. Quantum physics essentially views the cosmos as a majestic web of harmonic energy. At the deepest level of existence, quantum physicists are telling us that everything is waves of vibration, called the unified field theory. Think of it in terms of three dimensions: physical, which we experience every day with our senses; atomic, the unseen but known level of atoms, protons, etc.; and quantum, the foundation of the cosmos as perceived by some scientists today, made of quarks (basic particles made of protons and neutrons) and vibrating waves called “strings,” a majestic web of harmonic energy.

New metaphors for God

Renaming the Divine may be vital to recovery from chemical dependency because, for many during their earliest age, the most internalized image of the Almighty was probably established in the form of parents.

For example, my father stood 12 feet tall when I was under two years of age, or so it seemed. He was certainly God-like for me; I had few other reference points. Like many fathers in the 1930s who were severely affected by the Great Depression, he was hardworking and responsible but distant, unemotional and often angry. Because I knew no better, he depicted God for me, much like the old, white, angry God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

My AA sponsor, an incredible man with 32 years sobriety who currently serves 16 other men, informs me that my negative experience is not unusual. Many of his clients, abused or ignored in one way or another at an early age, developed a negative view of God.

For example, my father stood 12 feet tall when I was under two years of age, or so it seemed.