Spirituality in an Era of Globalization

Though I am hard pressed to draw a fine line between “religion” and “spirituality,” as the new Program Director for the Program in the Study of Spirituality (PSS), I thought I would tell you a bit about how I look at this subject and where I hope to take the PSS in the coming years. I of course have to first start by saying a word of thanks to Dr. Nathan Katz, Founding Director of the PSS, colleague, and friend, for giving me the opportunity to lead the PSS into a new era. I have big shoes to fill and I hope I live up to the challenge.

As a scholar in the field of “religion and science,” and “religion and nature,” I have always examined the role of religion in places outside of religious contexts. For instance, how have religions shaped what we know today as Modern Science and how has Modern Science in turn transformed religions? Or, how do religions shape our understandings of and actions toward the rest of the natural world and how does the rest of the natural world influence religions and religiosity. These interactions change traditional religions and even give birth to new traditions.

Though some might call religiosity found outside of the major world religions “spirituality” and that which is confined to institutional religious life “religion,” I prefer to blur these boundaries and examine the “meaning-making practices” of human beings. In other words, rather than parsing out religion, spirituality, and culture, I understand the human as fundamentally a meaning-making creature. If dolphins swim, birds fly, and dogs bark, then humans make meaning. It is just what we do. Whether one identifies as religious, spiritual, spiritual and religious, or neither, we all place our lives into a meaningful context using stories, hopes, dreams, and rituals, on a daily basis.

One reason for the shift in this thinking is that the era of globalization, like none other before, has led to a great mixing of ideas, values, languages, and practices. Globalization is marked by the rapid acceleration of transportation, communication, and production technologies that have literally made hybrid meaning-makers out of us all. Whereas 2000-4000 years ago when most of our existing religious traditions were formed most people lived their entire lives within a 100-mile radius of where they were born, now people physically and virtually move about the globe. One can see how 2000-4000 years ago it was easy to believe that one’s religion was universal: it was for all intents and purposes the organizing principle of your whole life. Now, however, we are inundated with different values, ideas, and practices from all over the world. Christians do yoga, Jews meditate, Muslims in Indonesia may practice old Javanese traditions, atheists may draw value from scientific understandings of the natural world, and a variety of people who have “no” practice still construct meaning on a daily basis from a variety of different sources.

It is this context in which I come to the study of spirituality and religion, or as I call them both: meaning-making practices. This context is marked by three primary categories: hybridity, multiple perspectives, and polydoxy. First, I contend that all meaning-making practices are hybrid mixtures from various sources in the world today. Furthermore, through exchanges along the Ancient Silk Road and other ancient trade routes, moments like the “convivencia” in Southern Spain when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace together, and through waves of colonization, meaning-making practices have always been mixed up to begin with. Second, I contend that our pluralistic and hybrid societies demand that we take into account multiple perspectives. We no longer live in relative isolation from those that have radically different meaning-making practices from our own, so it makes sense that one’s own perspective cannot exhaust the possibilities for making-meaning on the planet. Even further, through the sciences of cosmology, evolution, and ecology, we also understand that we are part of a planetary community in such a way that the human perspective is not the only perspective; rather, there are multiple earth-other perspectives in addition to the human. Third, and finally, because we exist in a sea of perspectives and hybrid practices, meanings, and values, we can begin to understand that there has never really been an orthodox position, but rather there has always been polydoxy. In other words, at any given time in the history of one religious tradition, there were always multiple perspectives. The perspectives within a given religious tradition also change over time and differ according to context. So, rather than trying to find the one true interpretation of a tradition or practice, why not just admit that there has always been a certain amount of polydoxy?

In the end if meaning-making practices are hybrid, if there are multiple perspectives on reality, and if traditions are polydox, then meaning making practices will always be living, evolving traditions. This is good news since our planet is always evolving and changing and we along with it. Though what we know as “religious” and “spiritual” practices today may look radically different from 2000 years ago, and will likely look radically different 2000 years from now, one can bet that as long as there are humans on the planet, we will still be making meaning out of our lives. In my view it is programs such as the PSS that provide us with the opportunity to learn about, reflect on, and chart these transitions in our lives.