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The Search for Meaning
By Mary Stucky
April 9, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the series Religion in Everyday Life

America is in the midst of an explosion of matters spiritual; with best-selling books on the care of the soul, the growth of non-denominational mega churches, psychics on the tube, and Asian religions gaining American converts. The quests of today's spiritual seekers reflect the nature of life in the 1990s.

LIFE IN AMERICA, 1998, may seem at odds with religious belief. Born a Catholic or Protestant, there are fewer pressures to stay within the fold. Constantly moving, surrounded by a culture telling us to consume to be happy and by advances in technology - why do we need religion?

Rabbi Barry Citron: To the degree that religion answers the questions that really count: why am I here, what do I do with my life, how do I handle my emotions, how do I deal with my sexuality, my guilt, my suffering? Historically, the religious tradition helped give answers to those questions.

Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God - and tell pollsters they desire richer spiritual lives. After taking a dive in the '60s and '70s, the number of people who say they pray, believe in miracles, and never doubt the existence of God is up substantially in the last ten years.

Man: For me it comes back to faith. I'll say that I have a childlike faith. If the Bible says it's so, I believe God.

Woman: I like spirituality to just happen to me. There is something inspiring and awesome around us all the time.

Man: Sometimes, the presence of God is strong and overwhelming, and sometimes one has to struggle to get a sense of it, but the struggle is worth it.

Regardless of their religious views, Americans are yearning for meaning. That's the view of Don Breel, chair of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas.

Breel: You move from one world of meaning, say at work, to another world of meaning at home, and people feel that dissociation that their lives aren't whole. People are looking for some framework to tie it together and make sense of these various elements.

And they are looking in some places that are not usually considered sacred.

The cash registers at the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul are busy ringing up sales... and some of the hottest selling books are spiritual and religious titles. A tour of the stacks shows books on spiritual topics in almost every section of the bookstore. Tom Beelenberg is the buyer at the Hungry Mind.

Beelenberg: I know that when a publisher comes and presents their list and it has spirituality titles, we pretty much order all of them.

Stucky (reporter): I'm just looking here... let's look at this, "The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, "Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety," "Soul Mates, Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships," "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

Beelenberg: And this is supposed to be the psychology section. We're not even back in religion, which also has spirituality titles, and we have a New Age section, too. There are even books on personal finance and spirituality.

The local bookstore has become a kind of 1990s church. Read a book, go on a spiritual quest, and there's no need for religious institutions. Traditional mainline churches have lost a quarter of their members in the last 25 years - in part, due to the defection of baby boomers, a generation dissatisfied with organized religion.

Man: The institutional church has a lot of problems because it's human and I struggle with it a lot.

Woman: I don't like the whole institutionalized religious thing. There's a piousness to them. It just makes the hairs on my back stand straight up.

Still, according to a recent study, more than a quarter of all baby boomers who drop out of organized religion ultimately return to give their children a religious education.

It's Palm Sunday at House of Hope, a mainline Presbyterian church on St. Paul's Summit Avenue. House of Hope's renowned children's choir delights a congregation overflowing with proud parents.

Woman: I feel it's important to convey to my kids this idea that there is something beyond explanation, that you don't need to know the "why" of everything. It's better for you if you just believe it.

Man: We definitely try to expose the kids to as much of the Bible as possible and to how we apply the Bible to our lives.

For some, this return to church because of the kids may be temporary, according to Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Roof says once the kids are grown, many parents drop out again.

Roof: There's a kind of spirituality today which is much more quest-oriented, seeking answers rather than necessarily affirming strong answers; a kind of doubtful, questful atmosphere which suggests people are interested in such issues, but not necessarily possessing strong commitments about them.

Which may account for the rising appeal of religious traditions outside the American mainstream. Noted religion scholar Huston Smith says where once we sent Christian missionaries to Asia to make converts, the US has now become a sort of mission field for Eastern religions like Buddhism.

In St. Paul's warehouse district, a loft space has been converted to a center where Zen Buddhists gather on a Saturday morning to meditate. About 20 people sit on mats on the floor. A table at the front holds a candle, flowers, and a small representation of the Buddha.

The Clouds in the Water Zen Center has about 80 members. 25 years ago, there was just one such center in the Twin Cities. Now there are several dozen.

Mike Dosho Port: It has something to offer that people are very interested in.

Mike Dosho Port is the guiding teacher at Clouds in the Water.

Port: We have huge shopping complexes and huge cars, and Zen and Buddhism, although somewhat popular now, is going quite against that trend, in terms of encouraging the wonderful quality of the present moment when the thinking, grasping, wandering mind quiets down for a moment.

Religion scholar Karen Armstrong says spirituality is the search for the meaning of life in the knowledge that we die, and when that spiritual search is institutionalized, it's religion. The overwhelming conclusion is that Americans are searching - whether in a bookstore, a mosque, or a cathedral on a hill.

Girl: I think spirituality is within every one of us.

Man: The rules of the religion - and I'm Catholic - the rules aren't nearly as important to me as the substance of the message. I get the peace of God when I come up against things that are horrible, and if I release myself to Him, then I do handle things a lot differently.

Woman: I hate to close all the doors and say, "I don't believe," because I don't want to be on my deathbed and crying and wishing I hadn't been so narrow-minded.

Once there were fewer options in matters of faith. With religious freedom comes diversity - each person desiring that his religion provide answers to life's deepest questions.