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As spiritual innovators renew religion, will their traditions’ wisdom carry forward?

A new report offers insights about the power of beloved rituals and stories to nurture new spiritual movements.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Anyone who has been tracking population trends in the United States over the past few decades knows two things: America is growing more diverse, and Americans are leaving their traditional religious homes. But while many are leaving behind their formal religious affiliations and practices, this growing nation is still seeking to connect with religious and wisdom traditions — either that of a different faith or their own faith in a different way.

“Those who are leaving — or who are not joining — may still desire religious and spiritual guidance,” said Michelle Scheidt, a senior program officer at the Fetzer Institute, “and we are seeing this need and interest crop up in other places. This is what we’re tracking, both within religious and spiritual contexts, and in the popular culture.”

Fetzer has documented this in a new report called “Sharing Spiritual Heritage.” 

The report is based on years of research as well as conversations with leaders within historic faith traditions and those leading new forms of spiritual community and practice outside of historic faiths: rabbis working in innovative Jewish communities, Catholic sisters with decades of experience in contemplative community life, seminary faculty, denominational leaders, interspiritual and multi-faith teachers and nonreligious seekers.

“I really feel kinship with so many people right now who are looking through their own lineages and wisdom traditions … to really ask, ‘What are the practices, what are the teachings that can serve us in these truly tumultuous times?’” said Adam Horowitz, co-founder of Taproot, a community that calls itself “rooted in Jewish wisdom.”

Many of the institutional leaders in this emerging sector identify as being on the “renewal” edge of their faith tradition. They refer to this time as “de-institutionalizing of religion,” particularly within American Christianity. But across several traditions, leaders see themselves reclaiming the core of institutional religion and handing it on to the next generation of followers, which may look very different from the religions of the past century.

As they serve and hold in reverence the traditions they practice, they are asking bold questions about the future, attuned to the needs of the people they serve and hope to serve:

  • How will we hold onto the rich teachings of our historic faith and wisdom traditions while applying them creatively in today’s time?
  • Are the spiritual formation processes within existing religious structures declining in relevance in public life?
  • How will we reimagine roles and institutions as the spiritual and religious landscape dramatically shifts?

These leaders find themselves carrying forward wisdom from their traditions, satisfied that though the core theologies are largely unchangeable, their practices and social norms are evolving. They are asking how these practices might carry their traditions forward without bringing their histories and social identities. Is this even possible?

Fetzer Institute's "Sharing Spiritual Heritage" report. Courtesy image

Fetzer Institute’s “Sharing Spiritual Heritage” report. Courtesy image

Proponents of this work believe it is. Asked how she would describe sharing spiritual heritage, Rabbi Sara Luria, founder of Beloved, “a home-based experiment in Jewish life,” explained, “I am holding onto someone behind me, and holding onto the person in front of me. And I’m the intermediary between what was and what will be.”

As spiritual innovation emerges both inside traditional religion as well as other places, such as the arts and sciences, there is a tension among those imagining the future of religion about whether the existing infrastructures can sustain and nurture the held sacred wisdom. People in the field question whether they should work inside of traditional institutions or offer related but separate spaces. 

However religion evolves, leaders of these movements agree that sharing their traditions must include deep respect for the source of the original practices, with attention to authenticity, cultural adaptation and potential for misappropriation.

The thought-provoking and inspiring insights in Sharing Spiritual Heritage offer pathways for individuals to engage in deep spiritual work and experience fellowship. Grounded in diverse and ancient wisdom, the report shows how spiritual communities can integrate rituals, symbols, practices and narratives that nurture the spiritual life, inspiring growth and depth.

Such practices help seekers learn to better embody love and manifest the inner life through an outer life of service to others, fostering not just their own transformation but the transformation of society.

Leaders and practitioners across multiple traditions are responding to this increasing need, eagerly sharing their learning and experience with those who continue the spiritual search. These religious practitioners offer their gifts as an inheritance to the next generation, freely given for the future and for the common good.

“I would say that I’m a seeker, like so many who have come before me who are seeking the knowledge of the divine, the knowledge of the universe and the knowledge of love in ourselves and in the world,” said Milicent Johnson, founder of The Octavia Fund, who participated in the sessions that gave rise to the report.

Stakeholders across various traditions and organizations have named sharing spiritual heritage as important work in need of cultivation. They have made recommendations for the future, including opportunities that will help create bridges between the religious traditions and spiritual seekers, developing and testing strategies for spiritual formation and building networks of collaboration that strengthen the sector.

Download this free report from the Fetzer Institute for more thought-provoking insights from a growing list of religious leaders and spiritual innovators.

The Fetzer Institute is helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. It works with thought leaders to develop programs, research projects, convenings, and funding collaborations in the sectors of faith, spirituality, democracy, education and organizational culture. Learn more at fetzer.org and sign up for their newsletter at fetzer.org/subscribe.