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BOOK REVIEW : Following the Spiritual Path of the Love Generation : A GENERATION OF SEEKERS; The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation by Wade Clark Roof ; Harper San Francisco; $20, 294 pages

April 21, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The so-called baby boomers have been studied, celebrated and satirized to such excess that the subject may begin to seem a bit tiresome, especially to those who know Woodstock only as a character in "Peanuts."

Still, Wade Clark Roof makes one more effort at revealing the heart and soul of this "new, truly distinct and rather mysterious generation" in "A Generation of Seekers," a survey of the varieties of religious experience among the aging flower children, peaceniks and druggies of the Love Generation.

"They are still exploring, as they did in the their years growing up; but now they are exploring in new, and we think, more profound ways," writes Roof. "We sense that they are reaching out to commit themselves to something of importance, yearning for relationships and connections, longing for more stable anchors in their lives."

As Roof allows us to see, the spiritual life of "boomers" sometimes seems like self-parody. Molly Stone, one of seven "prototypical boomers" who are profiled in these pages, was born into a Jewish family but managed to have her ticket punched at all the way stations along the spiritual path of her generation: communal living, holistic medicine, macrobiotics, Zen Buddhism, est , Alcoholics Anonymous, American Indian rituals. Molly has a sweat lodge in her back yard, but now she says: "I'm into Quakers a lot these days."

Even the boomers who declare themselves to be religious fundamentalists bring a certain zany and zonked-out quality to their witnessing, as we are reminded when Roof introduces us to an evangelical Christian who declares that she "surfs for the Lord."

"Can you really surf for the Lord?" asks the interviewer.

"Absolutely," replies the born-again boomer. "He's the one who makes the waves."

Roof concedes that the baby boomers are a diverse lot--indeed, that's the essential message of his book--but he insists that the common experience of coming of age during the tumultuous era of the '60s shaped their spiritual sensibilities and, in a sense, sharpened their yearning for right living.

"It has been said that the '60s generation is like a tribe with its roots in a time, rather than a place," he writes. "Like many human tribes, this one was founded on a vision of what life might be and a sense of solidarity forged out of group experience."

Roof suggests that the sexual freedom, political activism and sheer exuberance of the '60s have been replaced by a poignant ache for enlightenment.

Only 1% of the boomers told Roof that they don't believe in God at all; the other 99% are characteristically ambivalent about their spirituality, but they concede the existence of "a personal God" or "a Higher Power" or, at the very least, they allow that they "don't think it is possible to know if there is a God."

But the generation for whom "Do Your Own Thing" was the 11th commandment brings the same credo to matters of faith. For that reason, the boomers tend to shun membership in conventional religious institutions, and their spirituality is often a matter of what Roof characterizes as "privatized faith." Spirituality among the boomers, as Roof points out, may focus on church or synagogue, but it also embraces Goddess worship and Co-Dependents Anonymous.

"With believing disjointed from belonging , it amounts to a 'portable' faith," he writes. "Like so many other things in a consumer society, these are 'services' they can purchase as needs arise."

Roof is a professor of "Religion and Society" at UC Santa Barbara, and he approaches what he calls "the quest for a spiritual style" with the tools of the sociologist, not the theologian.

The book is sown with statistics and decorated with bar charts that track the odd spiritual odyssey of a generation. But to its credit, the book is never quite convinced by its own scientific findings.

The author displays an engaging sense of humor, a profound compassion for the spiritual yearnings of his subjects and an ecumenical spirit that refuses to condemn even the wackiest manifestations of faith.

"We all access God differently," a computer programmer tells Roof, thereby nicely summing up the whole point of "A Generation of Seekers."

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