Reflexive Spirituality: Seeking the Spiritual Experience in a Modern Society

Drawing from religious traditions and modern reason, reflexive spirituality features an attitude that is constantly questioning and critically thinking in order to achieve transcendent meaning.

two young people atop a mountain looking at the sunrise

In a recent study of the culture of the American spirituality movement, Courtney Bender observed the importance of spiritual experience and the practices that support and give meaning to them; she said that these practices in reflexive spirituality made “daily life...always possibly revelatory” and “any (or every) event...potentially meaningful."

Photo by Fotolia/Dudarev Mikhail

Content Tools

Somewhere between modernity and religious tradition lies a middle road known as “reflexive spirituality” that pulls from pluralism, reflexivity, and modern society. Those who practice reflexive spirituality draw equally on religious traditions and traditions of reason in the pursuit of transcendent meaning. In You Can’t Put God in a Box (Oxford University Press, 2014), Kelly Besecke provides a window into the theological thinking of these educated spiritual seekers and religious liberals, and shows how they have come up with a unique way of addressing the problem of modern meaninglessness. The following excerpt, from Chapter 1, explains the background and attitudes of those who practice reflexive spirituality.

Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society

How can I find a spirituality that makes sense to me intellectually? How can I have an intellectual life that speaks to my soul? How can I find meaning in my life and in my religion?

These questions are central to the lives of educated spiritual seekers who find little meaning in either ordinary secularism or traditional religion. On one hand, secular life can seem spiritually empty, focused on the material, the practical, and the expedient, to the exclusion of deeper meanings. On the other hand, religious life can seem intellectually untenable, focused on lists of required beliefs, and dogmatic in a way that leaves no room for critical inquiry. Educated spiritual seekers are looking for something more than these two alternatives offer. They’re looking for a spirituality they can sink their intellectual teeth into and a worldview that puts the mundane into meaningful perspective. Educated seekers are looking for the intersection between “what’s inspiring” and “what makes sense.”

Scholars who study religion in modern society ask a parallel set of questions: What happens to religious tradition in a world that values critical thought? What’s the relationship between modern reason and traditional faith? How do people find transcendent meaning in modern society? These scholars know that religion holds a precarious place in modern society; that many aspects of modern life seem to chip away at religious meaning, that people sometimes use religion to voice opposition to patterns of modern life, and that the traditional and the modern often seem to be in overt conflict. What happens in such a state of tension? Scholars want to understand the nature of “religious modernity”—the way that the tensions between modern rationality and religious traditions play out.

There's a kind of spirituality that speaks to both sets of questions: reflexive spirituality (a term coined by sociologist Wade Clark Roof). Reflexive spirituality is popular among educated seekers in a variety of religious traditions and also among people who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Reflexive here has more to do with reflection than with reflex, and describes a habit of mentally “stepping back” from one’s own perspective to reflect on it objectively. People who practice reflexive spirituality are committed to thoughtful reflection about their own spirituality in light of other possible spiritual perspectives. They are intentional, deliberate, and self-directed about their search for spiritual meaning. They do their best to take advantage of the huge variety of religious symbols and spiritual ideas that are available in the modern world. And they constantly search for new spiritual ideas, new sources of wisdom, and new images, stories, and rituals to consider incorporating into their own spiritual outlook.

The hallmark of reflexive spirituality—and what makes it so compelling for both educated seekers and scholars—is that it blasts apart ordinary conflicts between faith and reason in favor of searching for meaning wherever it can be found. People who practice reflexive spirituality seek to move beyond doctrine-centered religion but hold tightly to the idea of a transcendently meaningful universe. They spurn forms of rationalism that they see as narrow, but they use reason to find new meaning in religious symbols, stories, and traditions.

In reflexive spirituality, educated seekers are finding an answer to their desire for a spirituality that engages their intellect and an intellectual life that speaks to their soul. Educated seekers are looking for meaning: transcendent meaning, ultimate meaning, meaning-of-life kinds of meanings. To get this kind of meaning, they use the resources of both religion and reason. They apply intellectual tools to get more meaning out of the world’s religious traditions, and at the same time, they draw on religious traditions to bring more meaning to ordinary secular life. This book explores reflexive spirituality in depth. What is reflexive spirituality, and why does it matter? Where does it come from? What does it look like in practice? How do people use it to find religious meaning? Why are people embracing it? And what influence could it have on society more broadly?

I came to study reflexive spirituality because I wanted to understand how people were finding spiritual meaning in a society that values reason so strongly. Scholars have noticed tensions between reason and spiritual meaning, and they’ve developed theories about how these two things interact. But how do ordinary people deal with this tension? I wanted to know, so I went out and listened. I went to religious places like churches, secular places like public lectures and workshops, and “in between” places like interfaith education centers. In all these places, I listened for how people were talking about spiritual meaning and how they were relating spirituality to reason.

What I found was a spiritual culture that went beyond the boundaries of any particular religion and even of the religious sphere in general. This culture was like a language—a way of talking about religion and spirituality, transcendent meaning, and modern society. And people all over society were having a conversation in this language, both inside and outside religious institutions. This is an interpretation of that conversation—an explanation of the culture of reflexive spirituality in light of my driving theoretical questions about the relationship between transcendent meaning and modern rationality. Reflexive spirituality can be presented as three things: a critique of modern culture, a way of relating to religious tradition, and a popular theology. Each of these aspects of reflexive spirituality is an effort to bring transcendent meaning into modern society.

Reflexive spirituality as a critique of modern culture. It can be hard to find meaning in modern life. Ordinary people know this from experience, and social theorists have identified specific reasons why this might be so, such as the growth of dehumanizing bureaucracies, the separation of life into different spheres built on competing values, and the declining power of religion. Like these theorists, the reflexive spiritualists I observed identified a set of patterns in modernity—cultural priorities, habits of thought and perception—that they think makes it difficult to experience either life or religion as meaningful. They criticized these patterns and encouraged each other not to be bound by them. Modern society is too focused on the literal, they believed; too focused on the observable, measurable, and material; too focused on rules and routine at the expense of deeper purposes; and too eager for final answers and definitive conclusions to allow for mystery, complexity, and nuance.

As it happens, all these modern preoccupations are aspects of a particular kind of reason that scholars have sometimes called technical reason or technological rationality. Technical reason is about finding means to an end, and is excellent at helping us find the right methods to get as efficiently as possible to a given finish line. It’s not so good, though, at helping us find meaning in life. Reflexive spiritualists think that we give too much power to technical reason, that it’s become our default approach to life, and that we won’t be able to experience life or religion as richly meaningful until we can think outside the technical box.

Sociologists have sometimes observed religious groups criticizing modern society, and you only have to listen to Christian radio to hear regular criticisms of “the modern world,” “modern culture,” and “modernism” from conservative religious leaders. This kind of criticism—often focused on moral issues—is the kind that sociologists are most familiar with. It falls easily into a kind of “religion versus modernity” framework that sociology is heir to, because it seems in some ways to come from outside modernity and to represent a backlash from people who want to replace modern values with ones that they see as more Biblical, more Islamic, or generally more in line with their own particular religious tradition.

In reflexive spirituality, we see a different kind of religious criticism of modernity. It isn’t conservative, it isn’t focused on morality, it doesn’t seek to establish the worldview of a particular religious tradition, and above all, it isn’t hostile to modernity. It doesn’t come from “outside,” but from “inside” modernity; it isn’t a backlash against modernity, but an attempt to improve modernity—to refine it from within. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur once said that he wanted “to go beyond criticism by means of criticism”; he meant that he wanted to use the tools of modern reason to expose the limits of modern reason. And this is just what reflexive spiritualists are doing: they’re standing inside the tradition of modern reason and pointing out ways that this tradition makes it hard for modern people to find spiritual meaning.

Reflexive spirituality as a way of relating to religious tradition. For thousands of years, religion has been the world’s best source and record of spiritual meaning. Reflexive spiritualists want to get that meaning back. They want to mine the world’s religions for meaning; they want to get as much meaning as possible out of religion. To do this, they use modern tools—tools of reason. Reflexive spiritualists promote metaphorical interpretation as a way of making religious scriptures, symbols, and practices as meaningful as possible. They promote a pluralistic attitude toward religion: they embrace all religions as potentially worthwhile sources of spiritual meaning. They value spiritual experience, practices that nurture spiritual experience, and theologies grounded in spiritual experience. And they promote reflexivity, an attitude of ongoing critical inquiry into religious meaning.

All these tools resonate with intellectual reason, which is different from technical reason. Intellectual reason helps us analyze, interpret, and synthesize ideas and information. It helps us dig deeper into texts and life events; it’s given us literary interpretation, linguistic analysis, and the discipline of comparative religious studies. Intellectual reason is all about making meaning, making sense, understanding, and investigating. Reflexive spiritualists use intellectual reason to make religion meaningful to modern ears.

Sociologists have sometimes observed people making religion meaningful this way, especially since the 1960s. And metaphor, pluralism, spiritual experience, and reflexivity have sometimes made their way into sociological theories of what makes religion meaningful. Robert Bellah, for example, made the case for metaphor—what he called “symbolic consciousness”—in his 1970 book, Beyond Belief. He said that metaphorical interpretation makes it possible for us to find meaning in all the world’s religions: “Symbolic consciousness is a way of outflanking literalism...It thus frees us from being imprisoned in particular vocabularies at the same time that it makes all existing vocabularies available to us.” Andrew Greeley’s theory of religion also emphasizes metaphor. In Religion as Poetry, he suggested that the heart of religion is the use of metaphor to express experiences of renewal.

Colin Campbell and William Swatos both observed people’s growing interest in religious experience and pluralism; they saw this as a way that religions have adapted to the conditions of modern life. Robert Wuthnow has described an increasingly popular “spirituality of seeking” that “concentrates on that mixture of spiritual and rational...whereby the person in modern societies seeks meaning in life.” Wuthnow says that the shift to a spirituality of seeking “consists of movement away from a denial of doubt (shielding people from questions about the existence of God) to a redefinition of doubt as the essence of reality (uncertainty as a fixture of the human condition).” In such a spirituality, “rather than rules, symbolic messages prevail.” In a recent study of the culture of the American spirituality movement, Courtney Bender observed the importance of spiritual experience and the practices that support and give meaning to them; she said that these practices made “daily life...always possibly revelatory” and “any (or every) event...potentially meaningful.”

Jerome Baggett found reflexivity among American Catholics who were creating new religious meanings. And of course, the term “reflexive spirituality” comes from Wade Clark Roof, who defined it as an ability to understand one’s own spiritual view “as just that—a view ” among other possible views. Roof described reflexive spirituality this way:

It encourages a more open stance toward religious teachings and spiritual resources; more experiential and holistic views, and active incorporation of religious input into constellations of belief and practice, or greater agency on the part of an individual in defining and monitoring one’s own spiritual life. The effect is to create greater self-engagement with religious tradition...spiritual seeking is elevated as a prominent religious theme and can itself be a creative, revitalizing experience, even a venue to transforming the meaning of the religious itself.

Together, these authors paint a picture of a spirituality engaged with metaphor, experience, pluralism, and reflexivity. But these are not just random features of contemporary spiritual culture: they go together as a package of tools that are perfectly suited to making life and religion meaningful for people who value intellectual reason. What’s more, they’re not simply a way that religions have adapted to modernity—they’re also a religious attempt to influence the character of modernity—to make it more meaningful.

Reflexive spirituality as a theology. These tools lead reflexive spiritualists to a particular understanding of the divine, the sacred, or the transcendent. Reflexive spirituality isn’t a religion, but a way of relating to religion, and it doesn’t have a full-fledged, detailed theology. What it does have is a set of emphases: qualities of the divine that reflexive spiritualists find especially important. They see God as infinite, immanent—part of everything rather than a separate entity removed from ordinary life—and life-giving. Sociologists have sometimes made note of these kinds of theological themes in contemporary American spiritual culture. Robert Wuthnow, for example, said that spiritual seekers insist that “the sacred cannot be known fully.” Courtney Bender noted that popular contemporary metaphysical writers have an immanent concept of the divine and don’t want to “plac[e] a limit on the capacity of God.” Wade Clark Roof observed that popular spiritual culture emphasizes a God that is both transcendent and immanent, “both ‘right here’ and ‘beyond.’”

These aren’t new ways of thinking about God; they’re longstanding features of a variety of theologies in several religious traditions. But these are the aspects of God that matter most to reflexive spiritualists, and there’s a reason why: an infinite, immanent, vitalizing god is a god that makes ordinary life meaningful. It’s a theology focused on meaning, on the possibility of meaning, on the possibility that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and on the richness and profundity that that “more” can give to a life that might otherwise feel like going through the motions.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from You Cant Put God in a Box: Thoughtful Spirituality in a Rational Age by Kelly Besecke and published by Oxford University Press, 2014.