The Growth of Mysticism and Spiritual Encounter


As you know, it’s hardly a news flash to say that patterns of religious affiliation and expressions of religious experience have changed quite a bit over the last 40-50 years. More and more in the news and on social media, we’re hearing about a variety of studies examining these shifts. But beyond the formal studies and news reports, many of us have witnessed these changes over time. Likely, some of us have experienced such shifts internally in our own religious expression as well.

As some of these changes are explored, I think it’s intriguing to ponder these two patterns together:

Since the 1980s, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen from approximately 16.1% of the population to approximately 22.8% of the population. (Keep in mind that the U.S. population has grown by approximately 100 million people since 1980, so that higher percentage is quite significant).

And at the very same time, an increasing number of people have reported experiencing mystical encounters with the Divine. Undoubtedly, people would define God or the Divine in an array of ways. People would also describe their mystical encounters in a variety of ways too. But reports of mystical experiences appear to be increasing. Or, at the very least, people are talking about them more.

Here are some thoughts from Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening:

“In 1962. . . pollsters found that 22 percent of Americans claimed to have had a ‘mystical experience’ of God. In 1976. . . that number had risen to 31 percent of the population. Back in those days, we thought we were in the middle of a revival. Apparently, however, it did not end. In 2009, 48 percent of Americans confessed that they had a mystical encounter with the divine. This was not merely some sort of short-lived emotional outburst of renewed faith. Instead the numbers indicate that, during the past thirty years, American faith has undergone a profound and extensive reorientation away from externalized religion toward internalized spiritual experience.” (pages 3-4)

– And –

“The 48 percent is, if nothing else, a theological motley crew, diverse and pluralistic in their spirituality, as ineffable as the divine itself. But whatever the differences between these people, it appears that a good many of them are traveling new paths of meaning, exploring new ways to live their lives, experiencing a new sense of authenticity and wonder, and practicing new forms of community that address global concerns of human flourishing.” (4)

More of that, please.

I wonder how this will continue to shape us collectively.

Renee Roederer

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