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.

  • 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
  • In "You Can't Put God in a Box," Kelly Besecke analyzes religion and spirituality in a world that values critical thinking. She specifically elaborates on Reflexive Spirituality, a new transcendent adventure that allows people to combine traditional religion with the reasonable logic of modern society.
    Cover courtesy Oxford University Press

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.

2/8/2016 11:29:01 AM

As a former Bible believing Christian who eventually couldn't accept the Bible as the word of God, I found my niche in Deism. Deism is belief in God based on the application of your reason on the laws and designs in Nature. Progress! Bob Johnson

2/2/2015 7:28:34 AM

I could have written this book! Ive been struggling with very similar ideas. We DO live in boxes, we spent a fantastic amount of time organizing things. Only one thing cannot be organized...God! He called me alone, in quiet reflection and reading. I have studied now for over 30 yrs. Always a truth seeker, I have found in the Word of God, the Bible, eternal truths. We need no religion...."we need no man to teach us". You use the word religion far too much. It is man's system devised, and operated as an organization, which cannot supplant the Spirit or Word. Abandoning 'religion' only, is the answer. If one seeks God Jesus is our ONLY lens, and His word. "The Spirit will guide you to all understanding". Do not account for mans ways, or words, nevermind orgs.

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