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Spiritual Identity in Cyberspace

theozijderveld.com : Home Cyberpilgrims : Index Download Full Paper Version (PDF) Introduction The Pilgrim Spirituality in a technological mediated environment Media, Religion, Culture and Spirituality Under Construction: Cyberspace and the Construction of Identity Spiritual Identification in Virtual Worlds Conclusion

NEW! World of Warcraft and Religion

Since the publication of the article in the Colorado Daily on World of Warcraft and religion, many websites have posted a topic on this issue. The cyberpilgrims project was my Master's Thesis. To find the new research on World of Warcraft and Religion, click here!

The autonomy of the individual Religious identification: believing without belonging? New Age and the sacralization of the self Conclusion: The pilgrim on the spiritual marketplace

The Pilgrim

The quest for spirituality and identity can be illustrated by the metaphor of the pilgrim. Pilgrimage, to Taizé, the World Youth Days, to Lourdes or even the grave of Elvis Presley is a phenomenon that has existed for centuries.

pilgrim
The Pilgrim from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
Source

What is a pilgrim? Hervieu-Léger accurately describes this person in her book Le Pelerin et le Converti (1997). The pilgrim is a figure found in almost every religion and is a widely accepted person since the early church. The pilgrim leaves the comforts and securities of everyday life to traveling through an unknown landscape in order to encounter a place where the manifestation of the sacred could be found. The goal of the pilgrimage, however, is not just found in the destination itself, but even more, in the journey. Travelling through the unknown, the pilgrim steps out of his 'comfort zone', and can freely reflect on his identity and his relationship with God, the divine, or the world.

The goal of the pilgrimage, however, is not just found in the destination itself, but even more, in the journey

The religiosity of the pilgrim is a metaphor in two senses. Firstly, it points out the fluidity of spiritual journeys, which could construct religious identification. The individual himself chooses the road he wants to follow. The second meaning corresponds to a religious sociability characterized by mobility and temporary association. The pilgrim can join fellow travelers, but can easily leave them to continue alone. The 'pilgrim condition' is a biographic construction. The past shapes the pilgrim, as he implements preferred cultural and religious aspects of his background. He does not need to belong to any religious community. He adjusts his beliefs to his own experiences and preferences.

Wade Clark Roof, describing the Baby Boom generation in the United States, calls them the 'generation of seekers'. The seeker is closely connected with the pilgrim; both construct their own spiritual journey. The baby-boomers have definitely more individual freedom. They are less bound by tradition, time and spice, and can choose from a variety of religious and spiritual sources; the spiritual marketplace. In the quest for identity and spirituality, I will place the concept of the pilgrim in a historical and sociological framework. I will show how today's spirituality has changed. My main point of reference will be the framework that is offered by Hervieu-Léger. Moreover, I will shortly describe the phenomenon 'New Age', because it is so important in the construction of post-Christian spirituality.

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The autonomy of the individual

Religious landscape is changing constantly. The changes of the last two centuries are linked to modernity. Modernity is, according to Hervieu-Léger characterized by rationalization , the emergence of the autonomous individual-subject and the differentiation of institutions. These are elements in the re-composition of religious communities and beliefs.

The individual is seen as someone who is not ultimately bound to God, church, social groups, or family, but as an autonomous being, able to make and responsible for personal choices. The transmission of religious institutions and values is in a crisis. Children of religious parents are ought to choose for themselves whether they want to believe or practice the same as their parents. From the 1960s, when the baby-boomers became adults, the religious landscape changed very rapidly. Inside the churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican II, strong reforms were being conducted. At the same time, church attendance rapidly declined. More wealth caused a more individual lifestyle with less space for authority. Freedom and a looser sexual moral became more important. Communities dissolved as well as the motivation to be an active member of a religious community. Decline of churches was very strong on the countryside that always had been relatively church attending. Religion has moved to the private domain but remains present in personal opinions in politics, education, health care and volunteer work.

The differentiation of institutions is another feature of modernity. The church was 'in the good old past' the center of religious and social life. Educations, social security, power relations, to mention a few, were often regulated by clerical systems. Functions like social security and education have been taken over by the government or have been privatized. The separation of church and state, not always very consistent, is one of the fundaments of all countries in the European Union. The church is not longer the source for political thought, art, culture and moral. It is loosing many functions while the government increases its influence on health, welfare and schooling. Churches are loosing their authority on ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the sexual moral.

Religious identification: believing without belonging?

Many seem to construct their religious beliefs on an individual basis

Religion in its institutionalized form is still declining. However, it still remains important for religious identification. Spirituality has, at least in Western Europe, always been embedded in an institutionalized religious context and regulated by religious authority. This is not the case anymore. How do people that consider themselves to be religious without actively participating in religious systems identify themselves with religion? Many seem to construct their religious beliefs on an individual basis. All religions have a collective memory, constructed by rituals, symbols, stories, doctrines and traditions. They are supported and carried out by the 'professionals'; priests, pastors, and the 'lay' people; the traditional believers. Those traditional believers connected to their local religious community seem to have become scarce in Western Europe. They do, however, identify with some dimensions that are related to religion. Religion can still be an inspiration and offer a moral framework. This is also what Grace Davie (1994) argues. Her phrase 'Believing without belonging' summarizes her arguments that, though church attendance in Britain (as well as in many other European countries) has declined very rapidly, the values and symbols still play a very important role.

Hervieu-Léger lists four dimensions of religious identification:
(1) Community. This contains the social markers and symbols that define the borders of those who do belong and those who do not belong to a certain religion
(2) Ethics. This is a dimension often emphasized by people feeling inspired by, for example, the Christian ethics of compassion for the weak and poor or human dignity.
(3) Culture. This dimension is very broad and seems to overlap the other three. Hervieu-Léger mentions tradition, symbols, practices, doctrines, books, ritual codes, history, habitudes, moral, art, aesthetics and many more aspects of the cultural.
(4) The emotional dimension. Hervieu-Léger uses the example of religious feasts or events where people, for the moment, feel like belonging together for a while. Such a feeling often occurs, according to Hervieu-Léger, in religious festivities and gatherings. This can be the traditional service on Christmas Eve or Easter, for many the only times in the year to attend a church.


Easter Celebration | Source

Though these four dimensions have a large overlap, they can be useful tools in describing the construction of religious identity of the pilgrim. The dimensions often come together when people feel the emotional need for contemplation, when they want to preserve treasures of religious culture, need community, or fight for ethics that color their identity. Taylor agrees with Hervieu-Léger that festivities are still very important; they are part of the emotional and cultural dimension of religious identification. During festivities, a feeling of 'us', belonging together, can appear. We live in a world where the spiritual is unhooked from our relation to our political societies. But we need moments of fusion that wrench us out from the everyday life. Religion is not just personal and inward, but also social. It is not just religious festivities, such as the World Youth Days that can feed this sentiment. Pop and rock concerts can also be a source of a sense to be in contact with something greater. Take for example the Live Aid concert of Bob Geldoff that created a sense of belonging together that was powerfully supported by the music.

Many confess to be believers without to a religious group, as religion has become a personal matter. Religious identification is still possible on a communal, ethical, cultural or emotional dimension, but without being an integral part of one's identity. Especially the authority of clergy and regular attendance of services, two very important features of the sometimes-idealized 'good old past' have largely disappeared.

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New Age and the sacralization of the self

One of the most remarkable movements that became immense popular in the 1960's is the New Age movement. The New Age movement is hard to define, because it is a mix of beliefs and practices. However, it has some central features. New Age is concerned with self-spirituality. The self is sacred and the nature is spiritual. Interestingly, New Age is directed against the values of modernity such as rationalism, capitalism and fragmentation. A new, spiritual age should come. The New Age movement is highly critical on Christianity with its organized structures, dogma's and authority. The New Age movement with its focus on autonomy and freedom fits cultural changes and could very well apply to the preferences of the modern seeker or pilgrim.

New Age is, of course, not entirely new. It is based on esotericism, romanticism and occultism of the twentieth century. Oriental religion was not a product of oriental renaissance, but a symbol of true spirituality. New Age has some striking similarities with the romanticism of the nineteenth century that attacked technology, work, pollution, boundaries, authority, rationality and the family.

New Age provides solutions to the uncertainty of our times

What is the central message and why is it so attractive? According to Paul Heelas New Age provides solutions to the uncertainty of our times. There is an acknowledgement that life is not what it should be, but it offers ways to find perfection and salvation. The modern age is presented as something that blocks authenticity because we are all brainwashed by mainstream society and culture in the form of parents, education and institution. New perfection can be found if we move from the socialized self and search for the god or goddess within. As Heelas formulates it:

"The inner realm, and the inner realm alone, is held to serve as the source of authentic vitality, creativity, love, tranquility, wisdom, power, authority and all those other qualities which are held to compromise the perfect life"

This idea leads to a sacralization of the self. In popular media, there is a large emphasis on becoming what you are, authenticity, and self-realization. In New Age terminology, the divine is a part that is found in every human soul. Adherents of New Age use traditional concepts to coin the spiritual core of a human being. They use the term 'higher self' from theosophy, the 'divine spark' from the Gnostics and the 'soul' from Christianity. It creates a form of self-spirituality where one aims for spiritual evolution, realization of the self or personal growth.

New Age sometimes presents itself as a higher perspective where religion and science are one. Hanegraaff summarizes it as follows:

"All New Age religion is characterized by a criticism of dualistic and reductionistic tendencies in (modern) western culture, as exemplified by (what is emically perceived as) dogmatic Christianity, on one hand, and rationalistic/scientistic ideologies on the other. It believes that there is a "third option" which rejects neither religion and spirituality nor science and rationality, but combines them in a higher synthesis. It claims that the two trends which have hitherto dominated western culture (dogmatic Christianity and an equally dogmatic rationalistic/scientistic ideology) have been responsible for the current world crisis, and that the latter will only be resolved if and when this third option becomes dominant in society."

This clarifies why New Age could have become so popular. The syntheses of spirituality and science are what missed in traditional Christianity on the one hand. On the other hand, science has always been a thread of dogmatic and fundamental Christianity. By combining those two elements, it perfectly fits in modern society.


Happinez | Happinez.nl
New Age religion focuses on the self as an autonomous subject

Summarizing, New Age religion focuses on the self as an autonomous subject, actually a really modern thought. According to New Age thinking, each person is its own god. Core values are freedom and autonomy. The authority lies within the experience of the self and the inner realm. The 'meta-narrative' is self-responsibility. You are yourself responsible for finding true spirituality! The baby-boomers broke with the traditional power structures and left the churches in unprecedented numbers. However, this does not mean that they are not interested anymore in spirituality. This is clearly visible in the success of spiritual magazines like the Happninez in the Netherlands with 100.000 readers. New Age religion, with its sacralization of the self is a very attractive idea, because it focuses on intuition and subjectivity. The chief redactor of Happinez, Inez van Oort, writes that it is hard to find the truth of great spiritual leaders such as Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha, because they are dead. According to her, we have to find the truth in ourselves.

"Everyone can say; I am the way. Not with the accent on I, but on I am. That alone is the most beautiful truth."

The focus of the new spiritual quest is on the exploration of the self, unhindered by rules and authority. A new generation of seekers and pilgrims has emerged.

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Conclusion: The pilgrim on the spiritual marketplace

The journey of the modern pilgrim is his biographic construction. His activities are volunteer, autonomous, flexible and individual. He uses several sources to construct his own spirituality. Traditional communities have been eroding, causing a severe break with traditional roles and values. At the same time, New Age spirituality, concerned with authenticity and the inner self, has become extremely popular. The self has become a sacred object. Searching for a spiritual framework can happen on the huge spiritual marketplace where forms of traditional religion and New Age compete for the attention of the seeker. Traditional religion can still play an important role. It offers community, ethics, and culture and has an important emotional dimension. Though pilgrims can share ethics or culture, they often prefer to believe without belonging. The metaphor of the pilgrim is a perfect illustration for the fluidity of the spiritual journey that all of us have to take.

Taizé, a popular 'pilgrimage' destination the youth