The Next 20 Years of Spirituality & Health

The Next 20 Years of Spirituality & Health

We went back to our roots to see what the future might bring.

Art by Ellen Rooney

Spirituality & Health has always been driven by great questions, and my colleagues and I got a terrific one while planning a retreat marking S&H’s 20th anniversary. The retreat would take the original launch team back to the Trinity Retreat Center in West Cornwall, Connecticut, where the magazine was first imagined as part of the 300th Anniversary celebration of Trinity Church Wall Street. Our plan was to return to the Retreat Center with a group representing a variety of faiths to imagine what the next 20 years might look like. We were struggling with ways to focus the conversation when Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, director of the Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), asked the question:

“Is it right to say that when you started the magazine, you thought you were winning?”

The rabbi’s question caught us by surprise—a truth we didn’t particularly want to acknowledge. We had just described the time of the 1998 launch as one of optimism, of a sense that the world’s faith traditions were coming together to build a more loving society through mutual understanding. A national survey by Trinity Church had revealed a clear spiritual hunger across the country, even as church attendance was declining. Meanwhile, fundamentalism, with its competing truth claims and related violence, seemed in retreat. A spiritual renaissance was just beginning! We also acknowledged that things look different today. We had to admit that, yes, we kind of did think we were winning, even if the word made us wince. And if we aren’t winning, what does that mean?

Winning & Losing

Robert Wright provides a helpful lens for thinking about winners and losers in his book Nonzero, which uses game theory to look at cultural evolution. When people perceive themselves as living in a “zero-sum” world, they see a finite number of goodies for which we all compete. Your gain is my loss, and vice versa. When a situation is seen as “non-zero,” everyone can win. 

Most Spirituality & Health readers and contributors see their faith practice as non-zero—about embracing life--giving spiritual practices for mutual benefit rather than being exclusively “right” about our religious doctrines. But can anything be purely non-zero? In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haight looks at this question through the concept of the Omnivore’s Dilemma. In a nutshell: If you are a koala bear, you eat only eucalyptus leaves, so you live where they grow. If you are a human, you can eat many more things, so your species can spread around the globe. That’s a great benefit for humans and also where the Omnivore’s Dilemma kicks in: You can eat many things, but some of them will kill you. How do you know which is which? 

Another example of this sort of dilemma is fossil fuels vs. solar energy. Fossil fuels are enormously powerful and useful but ultimately limited and destructive—a zero-sum energy world of winners and losers. Solar energy is also enormously powerful and ultimately neither limited nor destructive—a non-zero energy world. But the shift from fossil fuels to solar energy has its own winners and losers. Are people willing to “lose” to create a non-zero world for everyone? Are humans capable of such a shift?

Going into this retreat, we felt called to look more deeply into this question of zero-sum vs. non-zero through the lens of spirituality and religion. We structured the sessions around a “scenario planning” exercise that has been used by CLAL, Aspen Institute, and Davos to pose provocative questions about ways that we and our work need to evolve. To frame possible futures, we used a matrix built on zero-sum and non-zero possibilities in a world that is becoming either more united or more nationalistic and tribal. Our matrix gave us four possible future scenarios to imagine. Then we divided our 25 participants into four groups. Each group would examine one future scenario and report back.

Scenario 1. What if our spiritual work really is non-zero (everyone can win), but the world is going zero-sum (intense nationalism and “us vs. them” thinking)?

In this scenario we saw our calling as providing safe places where people can connect and share stories, building bridges over widening gulfs in a polarized society, and also acknowledging the importance of defending the vulnerable.

Scenario 2. What if our spiritual work is non-zero and the world is becoming non-zero?

This happy scenario led us to envision enormous social progress as well as a warning to look out for the impact of boredom and the natural human tendency to mess things up.

Scenario 3. What if our spiritual work is zero-sum (our task is to get it right and to guard against error), and the world is going in a non-zero direction (my good is your good)?

In this scenario we might be seen as keepers of tradition and also as threats to unity. The opportunity would be to co-evolve with society in terms of learning how to get along together. 

Scenario 4. What if our spiritual work is zero-sum and the is world is increasingly zero-sum?

This scenario was our darkest by far—a short path to Armageddon in one form or another—and the group who fleshed out this scenario presented it as a monologue that could have come from a Klan meeting. It was painful for all of us, particularly for the gentle priest who had the courage to embody the darkness.

What was the value of the exercise? The goal of the retreat was ultimately to ask what mature spirituality and practice look like—and the scenario planning helped lead to that. (See “How to Create a True Spiritual Renaissance,” below.) We also came out of this process asking some very grown-up questions: Can our traditions enable us to engage with those with whom we profoundly disagree, and yet do it in a way that keeps open the possibility of transformation for all, and not merely victory for our team? Committed as we are to inclusion and openness, how do we deal with our own form of the Omnivore’s Dilemma? Not everything is OK, not everything is healthy or mature. How do we recognize the difference and hold the line with love? Are there certain truths we must defend? If not, why not? If so, what are they?

Every schoolchild learns that winning and losing depends on how you define the game. What if winning means having the best questions, and the courage to face them?

How to Create a True Spiritual Renaissance

Our future “scenario planning” exercise ended late at night on a very dark note. tasked with envisioning the worst future, and the presentation was both breathtaking and too close to the hate-filled language that now regularly shows up in the news. After a restless night’s sleep, our weary group gathered in the same room that had seen the birth of this magazine. As we talked, there was a strong recognition that the focus must shift from the individual spiritual journey to the collective—from a focus on self-growth to more-generative communities and organizations.

So we asked the group to contemplate a new question: “What defines spiritually mature organizations?” The combined insights from the working groups are impressive and significant. Taken together, they provide a blueprint for how to create highly functioning organizations able to operate effectively in these complex and fragile times. It gave us some seeds of hope for a more positive future—and reopened the possibility of a true Spiritual Renaissance in the years ahead.

—DeiRdre Taylor

Deirdre “Dede” Taylor was director of communications for Trinity Wall Street and first publisher of S&H. She is now a certified Life Mastery Consultant.

Hallmarks of the Spiritually Mature Organization

There is a deep culture of consistency and trust. Such organizations are known for being reliable, truthful, and transparent, with a commitment to keeping agreements. The prevailing ethos is one of interconnectedness and collaboration, with reciprocal respect. High value is placed on compassion, courage, and truth telling. Members are disciplined: They reorganize their priorities; they show up on time.

The culture is one of recognizing, and appreciating, contribution. There is mutual respect and loyalty among the members. People look for the best in others and value the wisdom in the group. A mature culture encourages and supports diversity as the right thing to do, while recognizing that diversity leads to significant increases in innovation and creativity, which benefits everyone.

New people are integrated through an effective “conveyor belt” onboarding process, which welcomes and receives them and moves them along. There is a willingness to help people find work that fits with their skills, rather than resorting to marginalization or job elimination. The organization values mentoring, training, learning, and growth, fully supporting personal development and professional advancement. 

No one is lost in the life of the community because there is the feminine gift of reaching out to one another, being relational and nonhierarchical. Places and spaces are created for people to connect with others and themselves in a healthy way.

The power structure is flat, interdependent, or rotating, with an open-door policy for easy access to leadership. There is an awareness of the potentially intoxicating effects of power and privilege and a focus on contraction of ego. Leaders are informed and shaped by the wisdom of other groups, balancing universalities and particulars. They are guided by seeing the whole and pursuing the common good.

There is a clear code of ethics and standards with agreed-upon procedures to address concerns. Continuous reflection is built into the DNA, with a collective learning process for what went well and what could be improved. This culture of open inquiry encourages after-action reviews: evaluating the intention, what happened, what could have been better. Members resolve issues openly and directly. 

Spiritually Mature, Faith-based Communities

In addition to incorporating the characteristics of a highly evolved organization (page 55), faith-based organizations have additional mandates and responsibilities due to their extraordinary level of influence.

Like a tree, the spiritually mature community has both roots (depth) and branches (diversity). It does not compete with others to be “right,” but is clear on its own identity. There is an understanding that people who go deeply into their own tradition are often most open to embracing and learning from others.

The organization recognizes itself as part of a larger and increasingly diverse world. Members have the courage to embrace religious freedom and accept that different people express their faith differently—rooted in principles, history, geography, ethnicity, and experience. 

The organization creates space for varied expressions of faithfulness and stewardship. Deep value is placed on extending hospitality to the “other”—those with a different set of beliefs. They embrace holiness as communal and righteousness as individual. 

Qualities include friendliness, hospitality, and sharing, as well as a balance of community, tradition, and experience (three wheels of the tricycle). Faith is expressed through actions such as visiting the sick regularly—not done out of duty, but from love. There is both communal liturgical mourning and lament as well as intentional fun and lightheartedness.

Members do the inner work necessary to support the collective good, with increased connectedness as their goal. Prayerful consciousness is given to the business aspects and more mundane parts of the organization. Self-inventory and service to others, mentoring and sponsorship, arts and creativity—being inspired by and inspiring others: these are all naturally interwoven into the life of the community.

The mature community is intergenerational. One of the roles of faithful community is to recognize spiritual talent. This includes the elders/mentors/wisdom keepers. People also learn from the young, whose experience of God is active, imaginative, inviting, outward and inward, with specificity and embodiment. There is a process of formation for children.

Maturity can include being empty: waiting, having nothing to say (apophatic rather than cataphatic spirituality). The importance of silence is understood and embraced as a means of discerning a contemplative vision. It requires the skill of paying attention to the little things, the quiet things, the hidden things—being less reactive. The practice of the Sabbath as a day of rest and quiet is appreciated. 

Mature spiritual organizations may create new stories from a recognition that our traditions bring some false narratives about how we got here, which contributes to keeping the power structures in place. Maturity requires understanding our roles in perpetuating false narratives and sitting with this discomfort. 

Mature spirituality encourages the kind of non-zero practices that 12-step groups are known for. This includes a high level of support, deep trust and respect, the need to know one’s self, active listening in meetings, and the humility to say, “I’ve had that experience” or “I haven’t had that experience” when relating to others—and to be OK with that. 

Spiritually mature communities appreciate that there are no “sacred” and “profane” spaces, only sacred spaces and desecrated spaces. (All space is sacred until humans desecrate it.) Mature spiritual practice is seeing the holy and sacred everywhere. 

—Dierdre Taylor

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