The Age of Personalized Spirituality
Hardly a week goes by without another study or survey showing the growth of the Nones. The term None describes those individuals who do not subscribe to or identify with one of the mainstream religious traditions.
As of my last look, a few surveys had the Nones at around 40% of the US population and growing quickly. The numbers are higher in Europe.
Many interpret the None phenomenon as signaling the end of religion and spirituality. In the eyes of these analysts, the Nones are the by-product of the ongoing secularization of Western culture.
I actually think they’re wrong, or at least partially so. If you probe beneath the initial survey data, you eventually come upon numbers indicating that most Nones see themselves as spiritual but not religious. They’re not aspiritual. They simply don’t identify with any of the institutional arrangements of mainstream religious traditions.
So, in other words, what we’re witnessing isn’t the end of religion or spirituality but rather the decline and likely end of many of the current organized and institutional forms of such. Therefore, we’re not entering a new phase of atheism as much as we appear to be heading into the age of personalized spirituality.
More and more people are doing what works for them. They are reading various sources and authors, exploring Zen, Daoism, Stoicism, and forms of nature-based spirituality.
Many are adapting yoga, meditation, and other mental practices. Many are creating their own rituals and celebrations, meaningful to them.
What this all means for forms of community, shared spirituality, and religious cultural narratives remains to be seen.
Reflections on Personal Experience
My own experience more or less aligns with the general cultural trends. I find myself moving away from established, formal structures of religion toward a personalized spiritual path.
My supernatural view of the world fell apart in the early 1990s, along with my Catholicism. I’d reached a point where I recognized that my better understanding of the world and reality could no longer be squared with the convictions of a personal god or supernatural assertions.
That realization set me down a twenty-plus-year path of religious wandering. I made a few stops along the way, trying on this or that tradition, reading, studying, and seeing how things fit. None of the mainstream solutions have fully worked for me.
I understand spirituality as the human search for meaning and place in the world. It’s an arena of existentialism, attitudes of awe, gratitude, and wonder. For me, spirituality doesn’t imply anything supernatural.
Today, like many others, I find myself working out my spirituality based on my understanding of the world and reality and relying on science, psychology, philosophy, history, and personal experience to cobble together a practice of my own.
The Fruits of COVID
COVID-19 caused much damage and killed over a million people. It upended our culture in many ways. We’re still putting the pieces back together and adjusting to new realities. The world has not been the same since. I mean, doesn’t 2019 seem like decades ago?
While I mourn the loss of life, the shutdowns and upheavals provided me with the opportunity to pause, think deeply, read more broadly and reflect on my life in ways and measures I lacked in years prior.
I emerged from COVID with a better, fuller understanding of myself, my ancestry, my family history, and my place in the world. This clearer sense of identity allowed me to see that several previous spiritual engagements no longer resonated. Increased self-understanding allowed me to do some spiritual self-sorting.
Where did I emerge? Which way am I heading? I’m glad you asked.
The Ripples of Related Realizations and Insights
Along with my naturalist view of spirituality, a deeper understanding of evolution and emergent theory has helped me reorient my worldview.
I’m convinced that there’s a meaningful narrative for the human family that can be woven from understanding evolutionary processes. We’re conscious, self-aware expressions of the universe itself. If that doesn’t inspire wonder and awe, I’m not sure what would.
Such a narrative is unifying since we all participate in it. And unlike many mainstream religious narratives, evolution is connected to things that are true and real.
Further, I’ve come to understand the implications of the subsequent insights of interconnectedness better. And it is these insights into interconnectivity that are continually shaping my moral, practical, and ecological actions and thinking.
Moreso, nature has taken on a direct role in my spirituality and sense of place in the order of being. In particular, the seasonal celebrations of the Wheel of the Year have come to shape my spiritual practice, helping me mark time and provide moments to stop and experience the unfolding of my life.
During COVID, I had the opportunity to take an ancestry DNA test as well as connect online with distant family members who had been mapping out the family tree for years.
The result of all that was I deepened my understanding of my Irish and British Isles heritage. This, plus my experience of living in Ireland for four years, has left me with a richer understanding of my cultural heritage.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an American. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m Irish or Northern European all of a sudden. However, the insights into aspects of the history and cultures that have helped make me who I am today have changed me in subtle but lasting ways.
And it was part of those insights that led me to a focused study of the concept of Oran Mor. Allow me to unpack how I understand Oran Mor and how it’s slowly becoming the keystone for my spiritual development and thinking.
The Contours of Oran Mor
I’ve mentioned the notion of Oran Mor in a couple of my previous SNS articles. Lately, I’ve been going deeper with the concept.
The Irish and related Celtic peoples don’t appear to have a dominant creation myth. Maybe they did, and we don’t know it because of the oral nature of much of pre-Christian Celtic culture. Either way, there are fragments of various origination stories but no single myth.
Some of the stories we know reference the concept of Oran Mor – which means the great song of being that created the world and now holds it together.
In the pre-Christian Celtic imagination, the world came to be and was kept in being by a song – a symphony performed by the interconnected natural world. Those with ears spiritually attuned could hear the melody.
Every part of nature contributed to the music, and each orchestra member played a necessary role in its continuation.
Admittedly, there is much ambiguity concerning the exact meaning of Oran Mor, and the sparse remnants of the ancient Celtic traditions do not offer any definitive clarity. However, while we should not put words in our ancestors’ mouths, we may still reflect on the possible meanings and try to employ the term anew within our modern context.
In many ways and for eons, the Celtic spiritual imagination has heard the Oran Mor in the turning of the seasons, in the flowering of the fields, in the harvesting of crops, and in the patterns of the sun, moon, and stars.
Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a modicum of regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as a cosmos instead of chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one.
In this sense, Oran Mor can be used as a symbol of the creative, sustaining power(s) of the cosmos infused within all the world, part of the broader immanent vision that led the Celts to deem nature sacred. Therefore, in much the same way, the Oran Mor is a fitting metaphor for creative, emergent evolution.
Evolutionary and spiritual ecology thinker Thomas Berry also employed notions of melody and music as inherent in nature and, therefore, part of spirituality. For Berry, seeking to hear, listen to, and move in harmony with the great song was an essential component of spiritual practice:
We must once again learn to hear the melody of a universe unfolding in time. A melody of a numinous mystery that resonates throughout the entire universe. A melody of an unbroken bond of relatedness throughout the whole universe that is both spatial and temporal. A melody of a bond of intimacy that holds all together in communion. A melody of ourselves as that communion as it becomes conscious of itself. This sense of communion is at the heart of reality and is the central force bringing the ecological age into existence. – Thomas Berry
In this sense, nature sings a story; it sings the Oran Mor for those with ears to hear it. And those who hear it cannot but want to align with its rhythm.
Stepping Forward With Creativity
All of the above reflections are fine and maybe even interesting. However, these insights and thoughts are not yet a spiritual practice. But perhaps, it might be the roots of one.
If I decide to follow this impulse further, it will mean reflecting, writing, reading, and creating my own refined spiritual practice rooted in a mythic narrative informed by emergent evolutionary theory placed under the mythic-poetic rubric of Oran Mor.
I’m not the only one thinking in such ways or about such things. If you have the time or the interest, look at the work of John Verveake, Jamie Wheal, and especially Brendan Graham Dempsey, to name a few. If you’re interested, I highly recommend Dempsey’s book, Emergentism.
Considering all this, I’m pretty sure that Oran Mor can provide the needed inspiration, and emergentism serve as the foundation of my own ongoing, emerging spirituality.
Ideas alone are not a spiritual practice. I recognize that there’s much work to do before I have a complete, meaningful spiritual system and practice of my own. Still, here’s a glimpse of what I feel the way forward probably looks like.
First, I’ll need to find creative ways to celebrate the Wheel of the Year holidays, likely with meals, poetry, and gatherings with friends. I sort of already do this.
Second, it will mean settling into a meditation practice that reflects the above and helps me live mindfully grounded in the real world.
Additionally, it means creatively playing with rituals that might reinforce the above narrative, helping mark and call out sacred aspects of life events, seasons, and happenings. These rituals do not need to be elaborate or complicated.
Looking at all this, I understand that creating a personal spiritual system is no easy task, nor will it happen overnight. It will likely be a process of trial and error. But the effort seems justified and even aligned with today’s cultural and social trends. Perhaps I’ll even produce something that might help inform others on their way and their search for meaning.
If you, the reader, have already crafted a spiritual practice, would you care to share your results? Use the comments to tell us what your spiritual practice looks like – you never know who you might inspire.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.