Searching for God in all the new places

5/27/99- Updated 05:40 PM ET

Searching for God in all the new places

By Hollis L. Engley, Gannett News Service

A narrow shaft of low, cold sun streams through the window of the cabin among the bony persimmon trees and granite near the peak of Flattop Mountain.

It is late afternoon in the Virginia Blue Ridge. The light falls on the still face of Lisa Bright, a slight businesswoman and mother born to rice farmers in the village of Andong, in Korea's Kyoung-Sang province. Then it bathes the nearly shaven head of Rob Grabes, a young father and U.S. Army musician born in Connecticut.

The rest of the small room and the other eight people in seated meditation on this Buddhist retreat near Charlottesville are in shadow.

Neither face acknowledges the light, which flows slowly up the wall behind them and disappears as the sun sinks and darkness creeps up from the valley.

Bright and Grabes are members of a northern Virginia Zen group, Earth Sangha. Together they are evidence of trends changing religion and spirituality in this country as we enter the third millennium since the birth of Jesus Christ. And they represent one of the roads leading to the future.

Cultures and spirituality change, but rarely overnight. Sometimes it takes centuries to understand how the changes came about.

Thirty years after the execution of Jesus Christ, for example, his followers in Rome were being killed for practicing their new faith. Few Romans would have predicted that 300 years later, Emperor Constantine I would make Christianity the Empire's official religion. Today, there are 2 billion Christians in the world.

The words of the prophet Zarathustra 10,000 years ago were the basis for Zoroastrianism, whose believers now number just over 100,000. But both Buddhism and Islam also started with a single man. Now there are 350 million Buddhists worldwide, and 1 billion Muslims.

So predicting the future of our species' search for meaning is risky business. What is certain is that we still seek answers to questions of life and death, and that the search for those answers will go on. Humans have been seeking a higher power for at least 5,000 years, since the Sumerians worshipped a mother goddess in what today is Iraq.

On the surface, little about the way we worship has changed in decades. Most of us identify at least nominally with our parents' faith. Churches are still a fixture on the U.S. landscape; athletes thank God for touchdowns; a chaplain's prayer opens every session of Congress.

And Sunday still brings men in suits and women in their finest hats and dresses to the African Methodist Episcopal churches; children and adults still study the Old and New Testaments in Southern Baptist church schools; Jewish boys are Bar Mitzvahed and Jewish girls Bat Mitzvahed at 13, as their parents were. Today's Muslim 5-year-old will likely be tomorrow's Muslim grandmother, hearing her child read from the Koran.

But inevitably our faith and the ways we worship are affected by changes in the culture. During the past 30 years in the United States, the feminist and gay rights movements and the battle over abortion have marched through church doors and forced congregations, sometimes painfully, to deal with them.

Wayne Muller, a San Anselmo, Calif., psychotherapist and United Church of Christ minister who studied at Harvard Divinity School, thinks the world stands at a spiritual crossroads. It is not the coming of the year 2000 that puts us at that place, he said, but a confluence of technology and global community.

"Things are shifting," said Muller, who has written two books about spirituality and has a third, Sabbath, due in April."The way we understand what it means to be alive and human and what a life well-lived actually looks like or feels like has been changing over the last 50 years."

And it is changing more than ever as the Internet and international commerce bring Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and people of other faiths and nations literally and virtually face-to-face every day.

"There's a revolution in the sharing of the scriptures of the world, which wasn't possible 100 years ago," Muller said."It wasn't possible for me to go into a bookstore and pick up an excellent translation of the Hindu Vedas or the Buddhist sutras. Thoreau and Emerson had to translate for themselves if they wanted to understand what human beings around the world were trying to do."

In this country, increasing religious diversity aids the spread of non-Christian scriptures. When Spain's Hernan Cortes came to the Western Hemisphere in 1519, he brought Roman Catholicism and - among the soldiers who came with him - Judaism. Catholics and Protestants led the way settling the northern land that became the United States.

Today the country is still overwhelmingly (85%) Christian, but we are no longer simply Catholic, Protestant and Jew. There are more than 200 denominations in this country - 5 million Muslims, 1 million Hindus, 1 million Buddhists, 275,000 Sikhs, 133,000 Baha'is.

Charismatic Central American Catholics share church space with congregations founded by the Puritans of Plymouth. Some Presbyterian services are in Korean, some Catholic masses in Vietnamese.

Global influences are felt locally. It is easier than ever to travel between nations, and companies doing business across national boundaries are increasing by double digits every five years.

Access to the Internet is surging, with as many as 600 million users worldwide projected by 2001. The variety of religious experience on the Web has displaced or supplemented clergy for some people, as we seek answers outside our brick-and-mortar houses of worship. Information on subjects from astrology to Zoroastrianism is available at the click of a mouse.

This urge to investigate God has perhaps reached its zenith with Sir John Templeton. The retired international investing pioneer is the originator of the $1 million-plus annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. His Templeton Foundation, based in Philadelphia, also funds research into the relationship between religion and science, a study he finds eminently logical.

"Surely, if it turns out you are a tiny part of an enormous mystery, you might be more productive, more useful, if you understood your function in this enormity," the 86-year-old philanthropist said from his home in the Bahamas.

That personal role in the enormity is what more people are seeking inside themselves and outside denominational religions, said Don Lattin, religion reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and co-author of Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.

"In the '60s ... a lot of people left organized religion," he said. "There was a lot of mistrust of institutions in the country. And it was a time a lot of people were moving out West. And every time you leave and pull up roots, one of the roots you pull up is religion."

Those roots take time to regenerate, if they grow again at all. The so-called mainstream Christian and Jewish enominations, with ponderous national and international bureaucracies, suffered. Congregations shrank, revenues fell.

The United Methodist Church declined from 11 million members in 1965 to 9 million today; the Episcopal Church went from 3.6 million to 2.5 million.

Robert C. Neville, dean of the Boston University School of Theology, went so far as to tell The Boston Globe in January that" Christendom has collapsed."

But religious faith and belief in God do not reflect the same drop. Though surveys show religious belief declining in developed countries around the world, that is not the case in the United States. Ninety-six percent of us say we believe in God.

"People believe in God more than ever," Lattin said." What has changed is the lack of loyalty to a denomination."

That's a trend expected to extend into the next century, as denominations struggle to attract the post-boomer" Baby-busters" and the generation after them.

Researcher George Barna, whose Barna Research Group has been surveying U.S. religious attitudes since 1984, calls the next group the" Mosaic Generation" for its nonlinear style of spiritual seeking.

"They don't want to go to a place where somebody tells them 'truth,'" he said of the post-Boomers." They want to sit down and talk about it. They've been raised in a culture that causes you to get involved with your world."

Although Bright and the Virginia Buddhists are among the few people literally going to the mountaintop, many - Buddhist, Christian, mystical Jewish, Islamic Sufi or vaguely defined New Age - are climbing inside for answers to life's big questions.

As a girl in Korea, Lisa Bright went to Buddhist services with her mother. She found in this country a market for more than the Asian and Buddhist antiques she sells at Mindful Hands, her Alexandria, Va., store.

An informal group of Buddhist practitioners found her store, where she practiced her own Zen meditation in between customers. Earth Sangha now has dozens of members, a Web site (, and Korean Zen monk Po-Hwa Sunim as teacher. Not one of the original group that gathered around Bright was Asian.

"Buddhism works very well with Americans who have been disappointed by religion in our modern society," Bright said.

Barna finds the trends disturbing: baby boomers turning to Eastern faiths; children of the boomers assembling a religion out of whatever appeals to them; denominations slow to respond to new trends.

Parents, he said, are not leading by Christian example. He decries the notion that" all the major faiths of the world teach the same basic lesson, (that) there is no such thing as absolute moral truth."

Muller disagrees, saying he learned" as much about Jesus by studying Buddhist meditation as I ever did at Harvard."

"If you study the teaching of some of the other world religions, you can hear the things that Jesus was trying to say more clearly. It doesn't have to bring you away from the teaching of Jesus. It actually deepens what you're hearing."

Because our experience of the world is increasingly wide, more than ever in human history we meet, work with and marry people of races, nationalities and faiths other than our own.

"I think we're at a choice point where we go in the direction of the things that divide us or we go in the direction of those things that have the potential to unite us in our diversity," Muller said." I think people are more willing to listen to the totality of what the human family has learned about what it means to be human."

©Copyright 1999, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
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