By RUSS GERBER — Old friends from my post-college, early-career days recently found me through social media. Their name and greeting popped up in messages I received in recent months, and each time one did I was whisked back 25-30 years, when we first worked together, socialized together, and came to know each other well. I then discovered just how much has changed over the years when I saw a recent photo they attached, or heard about their children and grandchildren, and especially when I found out a few of them now have a strong interest in spiritual and religious matters. That recurring comment was a big surprise. Not because any of my friends had openly dismissed religion when I first knew them; it just never came up in all the years we knew each other. Not a hint. Ever.
But their interest now in living a more spiritual life was unexpected news for another reason. It is taking place in a world that we’re told is witnessing the twilight of religion.
Survey statistics in the U.S. point to a significant rise in the religious unaffiliated. Commentators who piggyback on the data refer to religion’s uncertain future and an increasingly secular society. Then there’s the age-old theme of religion’s irrelevance and demise as recently argued (sometimes angrily) by people who’ve spent much of their lives declaring that we live in a godless universe.
Thinking of those friends today — what’s important to them now, what they’re pursuing and caring about — doesn’t match what I remember about them from decades ago. From today’s perspective I would use different terms, different values, and point to different motives to describe them. Spiritual is a word I’d use, no doubt, but it wasn’t a word I would have used to describe them back then.
What’s changed? I suppose there’s a long list of factors – maturity, education, parenthood (and grandparenthood), life-experiences (mine as well as theirs). But I think there’s more to it than that. I see a more spiritual nature emerging. For some it comes through as having more patience at a time when they used to be always on the rush. For others it’s letting go of some longstanding grudges and being forgiving. Others may be resolved to support a worthy cause they ignored in the past. Still others have grown to be devoted Christians, and take seriously their role and opportunity to heal suffering in society.
Such changes in people’s lives are often subtle, so faint they might go unnoticed for awhile. But over time they add up to a transformation of character. A brighter outlook on life. The sense of discovering a buoyant, more genuine identity and realizing that the old way of seeing themselves was superficial and is becoming a thing of the past.
Some people of an anti-religion sentiment flat out deny the possibility that this character transformation could be the result of a divine influence in operation, an indication that spirituality and goodness are in fact present and, like the first signs of light in the morning, revealing more of one’s true nature.
But others are open to considering what motivates people to discover and assimilate a higher nature. Spiritual rather than material causation seems, to many of them, to be at the root of this awakening, and it’s the kind of refreshing and illuminating change they want to experience more of.
Do these few examples of a growing interest in religion call into question the larger trend-data from recent surveys? Not necessarily. They remind me that while the tendency might be to buy-in to the popular perception that religion’s influence is diminishing, that’s not the full picture.
When experiences like those of my friends and others come into notice, it’s apparent there’s much more going on below the surface-image. We shouldn’t underestimate the spiritual influence that’s quietly changing hearts and minds and what that has the potential to do. People who see themselves in a new light are then likely to see and treat others in a new way.
Although you’ll not find the word religion used anywhere in the Old Testament of the Bible, there’s no shortage of references to light. Still, you can’t help feeling, from the first verses in Genesis, that the light that comes from God – that God saw as good and that extinguishes darkness – is what religion, at its best, was meant to guide us to. It’s the illumination in human consciousness that comes with spiritual discoveries.
Some might see only glimmers of that light these days and conclude we’re heading into twilight. Others, like my friends, see such glimmers and have a different impression. They’re convinced something profoundly good is going on. It’s the beginning of a new day.
— Russ Gerber is a syndicated health blogger and a Christian Science teacher and practitioner. This post was originally published on PsychologyToday.com. Follow him on twitter @russgerber