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What Happens if We "Believe in Everything a Little Bit"?

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No longer narrow and exclusive, “spirituality” now refers to what happens inside the seeker, who takes charge in the search for meaning. Some speak of “pick-and-choose” or “a-la-carte” spirituality for consumers.

This article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Until about thirty years ago – you can look it up – the word “spirituality” came prefixed with adjectives such as “Jewish” or “medieval” or “Christian” or “Hindu.” In each case the person who aspired to being spiritual tended to focus, lifelong and intensely, on “God” or “Allah” or “The One.”

Suddenly that changed. “Spirituality” now referred to what happens inside the seeker, who takes charge in the search for meaning. Some spoke of “pick-and-choose” or “a-la-carte” spirituality for consumers.

The spiritual search often had made people turn narrow and exclusive, as in “We have an absolute hold on the truth and you don’t really belong here.” Now it could turn to what its critics called dabbling at worst, eclecticism at best. Years ago a Hollywood star was asked how she could believe in Jesus and astrology, Zen Buddhism, and Presbyterianism all at once. She answered, “Oh, I believe in everything a little bit.” Critics asked and ask whether such an approach is really helpful in the task of orienting and organizing life.

What occasioned the change? In part the new individualistic spirituality sprang from a creative revolt against unimaginative uses of tried traditions and self-seeking institutions. The word for the enabler was and is “pluralism,” a recognizing that in the life of the spirit as in many sports, “any number can play, and many do.” On the positive side, when people began to notice that their neighbors who held to other faiths and philosophies were often serious, generous souls, they began to question the old prejudices, intolerances, and even persecutions that had gone with many of the old traditions and tired institutions.

Many then turned this revolt into an appreciation of many elements of others’ spiritual traditions. Some Catholics began to practice Zen Buddhist breathing exercises. Formerly “secular” citizens learned to appreciate some Jewish and Christian approaches to healing of soul and body. Presbyterians who practiced yoga at the Y adopted forms of meditation rooted in Hindu philosophy. All thus helped make American pluralism more user-friendly.

Today one can see the result by glancing at the labels on shelves in mega-bookstores. One wall will offer “Spirituality,” “Wholistic” and “Holistic,” and “Alternative” Medicine, “Ancient,” and “Antique” and “Occult” and “Metaphysical” books alongside “New Age,” “Christian,” and “Inspirational.” Who would want to limit the customers’ freedom to choose, or diminish the options available?

Still, the record of outcomes for what those critics call dabbling is not promising. Profound spiritual traditions are inexhaustible. They are demanding before they are rewarding. As many discover this, we are seeing some return to “spirituality with adjectives.” Thus Catholic women devote years to the study of medieval Catholic women’s spirituality, and bring their children with them to observe the rites and disciplines of the Church. Some of the too-easily “born again” are finding the long roots of the evangelical traditions and begin participating in congregations. Jews, weary with experiment and fearing the loss of community, are more patient again with their ancient Scriptures. They claim to find that the writers of those old texts, inspired by God or just inspired, knew some things we may not know as yet.

Such returnees are ready to let these traditions work their way into all the recesses of their souls. But, thanks to the ethos that comes with pluralism, they are finding that devotion to a particular tradition need not mean that they have to persecute or disdain what their neighbors believe in and pursue. They can even take some lessons from others, without turning wishy-washy, or losing faith. The ways of the Spirit remain mysterious, and, yes, generous.


Martin E. Marty is an American Lutheran religious scholar who has written extensively on religion in the United States. His writings include the book Politics, Religion, and the Common Good (Jossey-Bass, 2000).


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