posted May 13, 2003

Book Tracks Shift in Western Religious Attitudes

A new book by Dr. James Herrick of the Hope College communication faculty tracks and critiques how a new way of viewing spirituality has displaced the Judeo- Christian tradition of Western culture.

Herrick is the author of "The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition," published this spring by InterVarsity Press, which considers the development of the "New Spirituality" across the past three centuries through popular culture.

With its emphasis on divinity in the self and often in all things, Herrick noted, the new spirituality runs counter to traditional Christian thought. With its accompanying message of elitism for the spiritually awakened, he believes, it is even dangerous.

"There is an old Christian theological formula that states: God created everything that is, seen and unseen. It follows that nothing in that created order is God. The new spirituality denies both ideas," said Herrick, who is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication and chair of the department. "There is no longer a pre-existing creator God, only the evolving, divine cosmos. And, what Christians would term created things are now, in fact, divine."

"The new spirituality will always turn Christian assumptions on their heads," Herrick said. "For example, in place of spiritual transformation through faith in a publicly proclaimed gospel of grace freely offered by a personal and redeeming God, we get gradual spiritual evolution through the acquisition of secrets of spiritual ascent from the realm of science or through direct contact with more highly evolved intelligences."

Herrick has found the new message or reflections of it both explicitly stated and implied. He follows the thread through a range of sources, from the scathing critiques of Christianity in the early 1700s by writers such as England's Thomas Woolston, to the thinking of popular 19th century writers such as Emerson, to contemporary entertainment such as the film "The Matrix."

Irving Hexham of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary has called the book "an excellent overview of the development of Western religious thought and life that reveals the roots of much of 'modern spirituality.'" In his review, James W. Sire, author of "The Universe Next Door," said, "The dominant god today is the cosmic spirit embodied in the self. Herrick shows us how this shift has come about."

Herrick is troubled by the elitism that he sees in the new movement, which he feels places greater value on those considered to be more enlightened--and greater power in the hands of those who claim to know the way to enlightenment.

"We have moved away from the notion of a personal creator God and toward the divine self," he said. "Secrecy and codedness have displaced proclamation and openness. Hierarchy and elitism are replacing community."

"I am most concerned, however, that we have wholly embraced the idea of 'spiritual evolution' and its attendant idea of an ascending spiritual elite," Herrick said. "This is a truly dangerous idea that has had horrific consequences historically."

Herrick has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1984, and specializes in courses in argumentation and rhetoric. His previous books include an in-depth treatment of the controversy that resulted in England as Woolston and like-minded others wrote and debated: "The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680- 1750." His other books are "The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction," "Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments," and "Critical Thinking: The Analysis of Arguments."