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A New Spiritual Canon

Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century
by Andrew Cohen

When the spiritual impulse expresses itself in a secular world, all the rules change. In our postmodern context, unencumbered by premodern, traditional moral and philosophical strictures, when that impulse begins to awaken within our own hearts and minds, we find ourselves in a position unique to our time: we can literally choose any spiritual path that appeals to us. From the ever-growing variety of popular New Age teachers and teachings to the vast treasure trove of esoteric secrets from the world's great traditions, the spiritual marketplace has never held more options than it does at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

On this new frontier, an intriguing development has occurred. Whether it's in the most popularized form of spirituality found in the bestseller section of your local bookstore or in a highly sophisticated new spiritual paradigm being taught for credit at alternative colleges in California, the line between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, has become blurred. Indeed, as we attempt to embrace a spiritual perspective with as much authenticity as we can muster, many of us find that we're actually unsure where that line is. Some may even wonder if such a line exists at all. It's a confusing picture because we're so very much on our own—literally having to make up the rules as we go along. Many of us are convinced that this freedom from the strictures and “thou shalts” of tradition is the door to an alternative and truly liberated future. But I wonder how many of us are actually free and independent enough to create such a future. The truth is that, living in a secular context with no rules or tradition or overarching philosophical and spiritual canon to guide us, we are overwhelmed, more than we're willing to admit, by the sheer enormity of having to figure it out for ourselves.

Another interesting phenomenon is that the yearning for soul development in this context is satisfied, more often than not, by practice and direct experience rather than by adherence to any overarching spiritual doctrine. Indeed, the subjective experience of the individual has achieved almost sacred status, while the notion of being beholden to anything higher than one's own fleeting intuition is often held as suspect. We have, it seems, lost our moorings to any deeper or higher principles beyond our own direct experience. And even when we do manage to glimpse a higher perspective, a deeper and more inclusive way of seeing, we're rarely able to sustain access to it. Being products of our own time and culture, our attention too easily reverts back to how we feel about ourselves. It's the rare individual who remains rooted in an all-embracing spiritual perspective to which his or her personal experience is always subservient.

It's obvious that we've got to move forward. And it is equally obvious that in order to do so, we have to find a way to define a new moral, ethical, philosophical, and spiritual canon—one that will enable more and more of us at the leading edge to face the future together. In order for this to occur, we have to begin to think out loud about what the fundamental tenets of such a canon would be. We have to be willing to stretch our capacity for thoughtful consideration in ways that embrace not only the past and the present but, more importantly, the future we need to create. We need to cultivate the capacity to reach beyond what we already know so we can begin to envision a future that has yet to be imagined.

Once we have done so, the enormous challenge for all of us will be simply this: Will we be able to sustain our adherence to a mutually agreed upon overarching perspective—a higher truth? One that may be, for most of us, far beyond what our actual experience is? Will those of us who are products of this postmodern secular context, who tend to be more infatuated with our own personal experience than any other generation in history, have the humility to live in accordance with higher principles and purpose, in subservience to a cause greater than ourselves?


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This article is from...


October–December 2004