Free-range soul searching replacing organised religion in New Zealand

At the beauty salon, you don’t get just a facial any more, it’s a “ritual”, complete with fragrant-oil anointment and whale songs playing gently in the background.

Pakeha mothers bury their placentas under rose bushes in honour of the sacred land. Suburban gyms offer meditation sessions, as well as aerobics.

Financial advisers suggest our melted-down credit cards are a symptom of the human search for inner fulfilment.

For $12.99, chain book shops sell tiny boxes of pocket-sized wishing stones, engraved with words such as “magic” and “create” for portable inspiration. It’s spirituality – some of it pure, some commodified – threading through our lives, in retail and recreation and language.

This “spirituality revolution”, as it has been dubbed by religious theorists, is changing perceptions of faith, intriguing theologians and sparking the churches into action.

It’s the feng shui column in the gossip magazine, middle-aged mums going on Buddhist retreats. It’s not religion, and it’s not organised, and that is the whole point.

For the past 50 years the widely accepted theory was that New Zealand, like most Western countries, was becoming secular, as congregations found other things to do on Sunday mornings.

But now that theory of secularity is “completely floundering” as it becomes clear we are still intrigued by matters of the soul, says Massey University Associate Professor Peter Lineham, author of several books on New Zealand’s religious history.

Cafeteria Religion

Cafeteria religion denotes the trend where people pick and choose religious beliefs, doctrines and practices – mixing and matching them much as they would select food in a cafeteria.

A number of publishers refer to the phenomenon as “private spirituality.” It is also described as “spirituality without religion”

“Spirituality has replaced religion in our society; formal religion is now seen as a very negative force by many in our society, but spirituality is seen as a way for people to connect with something deeper,” he says.

“People are saying ‘I’m not religious’, or ‘I have no religion’, but admit they believe in a higher power and will pray in crises. It sounds conflicting and bewildering – but what is becoming clear is that there is a good deal of religious questing that people prefer to call spirituality, a word which has become a catch-all for a great variety of practices.”

Films, literature, even the eco-tourism boom, are part of the strong and growing evidence that we are fascinated by deeper thoughts, says the Reverend Dr Kevin Ward of the Presbyterian School of Ministry, Knox College, where he teaches a course on the spiritual themes infusing films ranging from drama to action.

“People are becoming aware that the fact that church attendance is declining does not mean people are not interested in faith. There’s a growing interest in Anzac Day, for example, and it is increasingly assuming a spiritual dimension,” Ward says.

He has tagged the phenomenon “believing without belonging,” drawing a metaphor for the decline of structured belief from the dwindling membership of amateur rugby union competitions.

Players are withdrawing from the organised competitions, with their strict hierarchies and complex grading systems, and flocking to the more casual, come-when-you-can atmosphere of touch football instead.

“There’s a societal shift going on,” Ward says. “Previously everything in life was part of a structure or a club, like sport or voluntary service, but now, increasingly, people do all kinds of things without belonging.

“Take tramping; in the 60s and 70s, most people who tramped belonged to tramping clubs, but now very few people do. They’re still tramping, but they’re making their own way.”

It’s sometimes called “pick ‘n’ mix” faith – taking beliefs from established traditions (like the Buddhist notion of karma or biblical angels) and blending them with a bit of what used to be called New Age – feng shui or tarot or astrology.

New Age has been around for so long that it’s more middle-age these days, but the theologians agree there’s a less strident atmosphere of rebellion in today’s spiritual climate. Instead of rejecting God altogether, today many are finding spirituality in everyday life as well as in church.

There’s something similar happening with the big Christian festivals.

Easter and Christmas have been commercial giants for decades, but now they are also celebrated as community festivals incorporating a broad range of traditions; like this year’s Christchurch Santa Parade, which included ethnic and religious floats including African drummers, Falun Gong and the Hare Krishnas.

Books on guardian angels, feng shui and tarot zoom up the best-seller lists, especially when endorsed by Oprah Winfrey (“She’s the new Pope,” says Whitcoulls’ book promotions manager Dorothy Vinicombe).

At Borders Books and Music in Christchurch and Auckland, more and more metres of carpet are consumed every year by the ever-expanding “Mind Body Spirit” section, says general manager Justin Barratt.

At the gym, the mirrored aerobic studios which spent the 1990s throbbing with g-stringed hardbodies now serve as dimly lit sanctuaries of Zen.

The hardbodies are lying on the floor meditating in time with their exhalations. Or perched on exercycles arranged in a kind of ceremonial circle, eyes shut, pedalling together in rhythm, as an instructor describes, through a microphone, the imaginary hills they are conquering together.

“Our slogan is ‘free the body and the mind will follow’,” says Philip Mills, of the Auckland-based Les Mills international exercise empire.

Les Mills’ fastest-growing exports are patented “mind-body-spirit” classes like BodyBalance, which repackage elements of traditionally esoteric disciplines like tai chi, meditation, Pilates and yoga. “We’re helping people walk more lightly on the face of the earth, both figuratively and literally,” Mills says.

Likewise, personal trainers are now also life coaches, telling clients how to motivate their minds as well as barking orders for more push-ups.

For those who feel the diluted mysticism of the shopping mall or the day-spa isn’t enough, access to eastern philosophy is easier than ever, as Asian immigrants fund and build new mosques and temples.

The 2001 census, the last time New Zealanders officially recorded their religious affiliations, showed formal Christianity falling from 2.14 million in 1996 to just over 2.04 million, despite 3.3 per cent population growth in the same period.

The number answering “no religion” exceeded 1 million for the first time, (1.02 million), up from 867,264 in 1996. Satanism, incidentally, fell from 904 to 894, which suggests times are tough for Beelzebub as well.

There was strong growth in New Age religions, nature worship and Spiritualism (which used to be called witchcraft).

Eastern religions like Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism are all rising, with Maori Christian churches like Ratana, evangelical and born-again churches.

A New Zealand Herald poll of 1000 people this year found 67.7 per cent said they believed in God and 61.9 per cent believed in an afterlife – even though only 20.6 per cent regularly went to church. Only 32 per cent said they never prayed.

In the 2005 New Zealand Study of Values, only 47 per cent of the 1000 surveyed said religion was significant in their lives, while 61 per cent said spirituality was important.

Christine Rankin, the former senior bureaucrat now running social policy lobby group For the Sake of Our Children, fits the classic “seeker” profile – a middle-aged Pakeha woman who doesn’t feel spiritually fulfilled by the mainstream faiths.

Rankin, the epitome of the secular Western career woman with a skill for waste-trimming public service reform, enthuses about the big change in her life; earlier this year she discovered Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist tradition which emphasises the power of chanting.

“It has changed my life, given me a whole new meaning,” Rankin says. “I had a Catholic childhood, full of fear about God and what happens when you die – it was not anything joyous.

“Although I believe I’ve always been very spiritual, I was adamant for a long time that organised religion was not going to feature in my life. Having had that Catholic experience and being rejected because I’m divorced, I wasn’t able to participate when my children had first communion, for example. In that kind of religion, you don’t belong unless you toe the line, and let’s face it, most of us don’t.”

Rankin enjoys the Soka Gakkai emphasis on individuals’ strength in dealing with hardship.

“I feel like I can handle anything that happens to me now.”

In the 2001 census, 53,000 people nominated their religion as “Jedi”, in response to a global email campaign. But perhaps the Jedi knights were making a genuine point as well as having a laugh.

“To say ‘Jedi’ is not completely facetious; it’s a notion of a supernatural force which represents cohesion, the triumph of good against evil, self-belief. That’s the point – the census showed a very significant decline in religious affiliation, but not a decline in the notion of religiosity,” says Lineham, who is also chairman of the non-denominational Auckland Community Church.

For many of us, modern life has been stripped of the compulsory rituals which used to punctuate our existence: blessing at birth, christening, first communion or bar mitzvah, wedding, formal funeral.

Auckland’s Cityside Baptist, with its booming congregation, is one of a wave of churches adapting and inventing rituals to encourage the spiritually curious, such as monthly events where all comers are invited into the church for quiet reflection accompanied by live music, or to explore labyrinths or spiritual artworks.

The church has a seasonal celebration called Creationtide from the spring equinox until November each year, and during Lent and Advent posts out cards with ideas for private contemplation rituals.

Cityside pastor Brenda Rockell thinks the mainstream churches “need to get a little bit more humble about hearing the stories of people’s lives, actually hearing that God is already in people’s lives and understanding that God can be there even if it’s not in a traditional Christian way.

“I’d really like to see the church offering more rituals to interface with people’s growing sense of spirituality; not just weddings and funerals, but offering things like baby blessings, house blessings, rituals for things like redundancy, moving into a retirement home, or having an abortion or a miscarriage,” Rockell says.

“We don’t do transitions very well in our culture. Change is happening very fast and we’re not often equipped to manage that change, and I think that’s something the church can offer.”

This hunger for emotional engagement might help explain the growing popularity of evangelical and charismatic faiths, with their emphasis on self-discovery and personal journey, says Kevin Ward of Knox College.

“We threw out ritual and tradition as fast as we could but now people are wanting it back,” Ward says, pointing out that Catholic and Orthodox faiths were among the few Christian denominations to rise in the 2001 census – the ones which do smells-and-bells best of all.

Even the most no-nonsense Christians, like Methodists and Presbyterians, are now incorporating candle-lighting in their services, a response to requests for more participation.

But many churches are still wary. None of the mainstream religions wanted to set up stalls alongside the herbal remedy retailers, psychics and health food companies at the Auckland Visionary Living trade show, which attracted 8000 visitors this year, says event manager Dona White.

“It was a shame. The people who attended weren’t just the hippies, they were ordinary people, part of a big trend in our society, wanting to live meaningfully, to achieve balanced lifestyles, and to learn more about faith, ” White says.

At Wellington Central Baptist Church, pastor Alan Jamieson helps with “spirited exchanges”, where small groups meet, often in cafes, to explore theological issues.

“People are saying ‘I want to set my own path.’ The ways we’ve done church for 300 years are being shaken around.”

Why now? Partly the broader cultural experience of global travel, partly the postmodern desire to escape organised structure, says Jamieson.

“It’s also the move away from, and towards, fundamentalism since September 11. A growing number of Christian groups are increasingly fundamentalist, and some people are reacting to that by rejecting church altogether,” he says.

Another seeker who has found her spiritual home, Auckland Buddhist nun Dianne Cadwallader, sees a strong appreciation of Maori tradition underlying New Zealand society.

“New Zealanders all accept, whatever our faith is, that if for example somebody’s found dead in a river, that the tohunga will go and the tapu will be placed and the tapu will be lifted. Within us we have a concept of what is sacred. It’s become politicised now with the fuss over things like a taniwha stopping a highway, which is a shame,” Cadwallader says.

New Zealanders also share a kind of “landscape paganism”, says Canterbury University’s senior lecturer in religious studies, Dr Mike Grimshaw. “We have an unacknowledged spirituality; we’re uncomfortable talking about it but look at how political debates unfold.

“The seabed-and-foreshore thing was a religious debate, about the beaches being sacred spaces that bind us together and split us apart,” Grimshaw says.

“There’s an unspoken acknowledgment that although we live in the cities, the real or the authentic space we value is in the countryside, the beach, the mountains. The important thing to remember about New Zealand is belief has always been entirely voluntary; on the very first day of our first Parliament, the debate was about whether they should open with a prayer or not.

“The European settlers came out, in a sense to escape the state religions and still today there’s a real sense that you choose whether to belong or not.”

Every Anzac Day, more and more New Zealanders make pilgrimages to Gallipoli, or rise at dawn for a service. It shows the desire to mourn the ancestors, says Paul Litterick of the New Zealand Society of Rationalists and Humanists.

“It is remarkable that now, when the war generation is dying off, we are keeping the memory alive with the Unknown Warrior and the Gallipoli pilgrimage. There’s a real spirituality to the sense that New Zealand’s nationhood came about through war, that this heritage is what made us.”

Litterick thinks “spirituality” might sometimes be a fancy word for hedonism. “Aromatherapy’s nice, whether it works or not – if it smelt like brackish pond water, I’m sure people wouldn’t be embracing it so enthusiastically.

“But New Zealanders are pretty level-headed, I think many people enjoy these things but don’t take them too seriously.”

Peter Lineham worries about the effect of individuals who see spiritual vulnerability as a way to profit. “My only worry is that there is clearly money to be made from people’s spiritual gullibility,” he says.

Brenda Rockell is a little disturbed “a lot of spiritualities don’t have a very good moral compass – they haven’t worked out where they are on the political spectrum”.

“Spirituality is not about having a few nice experiences, it’s about how you live in the world, how you can help to transform society.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New Zealand Herald, New Zealand
Dec. 31, 2005
Claire Harvey

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday December 30, 2005.
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