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Build-It-Yourself Religion

Meditation. Chanting. Even tai chi. We're entering an age of the spiritual quest. And searchers today have no problem blending the beliefs and traditions of different faiths to make sense of their world.


Culture watchers have a new name for us: the Quest Generation.

They are referring to the noticeable number of Americans now off on spiritual journeys. Some leave church or synagogue behind, others preserve that tradition but add to it by writing, walking or simply breathing their way toward a deeper understanding of the purpose of life.

"More people are turning inward on a genuine quest for spiritual meaning," says Wade Clark Roof, a religion sociologist at UC Santa Barbara. Roof was among the first to use the term "quest culture" for the Generation Xers and aging baby boomers he studies.

"They are experiencing a profound spiritual struggle to make sense of what is going on in the world, the violence, poverty and disease," Roof says. To find the answers, "people are going off in all directions. I see a lot of do-it-yourself spirituality."

Instructions and practical tools are essential for this venture. Some questers go on an urban pilgrimage, others make a rural retreat. Some practice tai chi, or chant or study meditative dancing. Some do all of the above.

If one thing sets a modern quest apart from any in the past, it is the way a searcher will interlace cultural and religious traditions seldom seen under one roof: Catholic Buddhists, Episcopalian Sufis, Unitarian Taoists are not all that uncommon anymore.

Holly Hart of Los Angeles, who is in her 30s, was raised with no religious affiliation. Last year she began studying Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy, as part of a creative writing course offered at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. Students read from the Tao, a sacred text on how to live a moral life, before they write. "It's a help that I don't have any formal religious background," Hart says. "It means I have no preconceived ideas."

Victoria Dendinger is a practicing Roman Catholic in the Newport Beach area and a student of Zen meditation. Her mantra comes from a prayer of the Russian Orthodox church. "I don't think I am outside the Catholic tradition," she says. "This augments it."

Churches, too, are going further in their search for a richer spiritual life. They're borrowing from every religious tradition.

"I did a lot of wandering," says the Rev. M.R. Ritley, raised in the Hungarian Reform Church and now a priest at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco. She dipped into the Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox traditions, studied Buddhism and New Age philosophy, and had a brief interlude as a Quaker. Then she gave 10 years to the study of Sufism, delving into the mystical side of the Muslim faith, which many Westerners associate with whirling dervish dancers. Now she teaches a class in Sufi spirituality at her Episcopal church.

Ritley, who is in her 50s, has found a home at St. Gregory, where a Sunday service includes an incense laden procession inspired by the ancient Byzantine Christian church, the ringing of a Zen gong and an African tribal dance by the congregation gathered around the altar.

"The spiritual and religious experience is like the great American mall experience," Ritley says. Her words conjure images of modern mallsters who don't necessarily know, or care, what shop they are in. It's not like the old days, when people went to one favorite store and felt like traitors anywhere else.

"People are less swayed by loyalty to any one tradition," says Ritley of the spiritual mall she imagines. "And they bring all their experiences--Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, tai chi, New Age--with them."


"Very often in history, the proliferation of spiritual movements responds to conditions in society," says Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament professor at Emory University in Atlanta. In the past decade, the rapid changes in technology and the corporate downsizing that have cost millions of jobs left people feeling dispensable and insecure about the future, he says.

Traditional religions didn't help when they let go of the ancient practices that seemed outmoded. These older ways ignore speed and deadlines to concentrate instead on meditation, contemplation and prayer.

Johnson, who lived as a Benedictine monk for many years, wonders about the depth of our new enthusiasm for tradition. "The realm of the spirit is not a realm of blue skies," he says. "You don't leap immediately into the highest state of mystical experience. First you need to be well-grounded in the tradition. It's not as if the spiritual is as readily available as the Internet."

Actually, it is--in a way. Spiritual chat rooms are buzzing with questions about how to gain deeper insight apart from religious trappings. "Is there a way that one can embrace the presence of God without getting all hung up in a lot of rituals and prohibitions?" asks one quester, writing in to a cyberspace discussion.

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