Vail Daily column: Seeking vs. stagnant varieties of spirituality |

Vail Daily column: Seeking vs. stagnant varieties of spirituality

Jack Van Ens

Jesus entered Jerusalem a hero on what Christians call Palm Sunday. The adoring crowd quickly turned on him because their spiritual styles collided.

Today, some put a spin on “spiritual” that’s different from Jesus’ take on it. In our vernacular, “spiritual” connotes something abnormal and eerie. It’s dismissed as impractical and surreal.

In contrast, Jesus’ spirituality denoted what’s real. He believed in nature’s divine life-force that acts like our breath. Breathing, along with tapping spiritual resources that animate life, motivates us to move ahead.

Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton University sociologist, tracks spiritual trends that intersect the real world. He poses questions that expose why Christ and the Palm Sunday crowd clashed about spiritual styles.

Mainline churches haven’t adapted. Nature teaches that when animals don’t adapt to climatic shifts, they become fossils.

In his book “After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s,” Wuthnow addresses the growth of spirituality through Hebraic history. He raises an overarching question: What did the Hebrew’s spirituality look like in the exodus, after they escaped Pharaoh’s slavery?

Posing other key questions, Wuthnow investigates cultural changes affecting ancient Jews’ spirituality.

Who were their clergy? Risk-taking prophet Moses led the Hebrews, cutting a path into the wilderness. He discovered novel ways to feed them, protected his people from marauders and urged them to seek God’s purpose for their journey.

Where did the people worship? They raised a tent. Nomadic Hebrews used a temporary structure easily assembled and taken down.

What did their God look like? The Hebrews’ God was on-the-move in the wilderness. They pictured him as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.

What concerns did they bring to God? How to survive? Where would food and water come from in this parched desert? Would the promised Land bless their children with a better life than slavery in Egypt?

Arriving in Canaan, the Hebrews settled in. Their spirituality changed because of a higher standard of living, which they described as dwelling in “the land of milk and honey.”

Wuthnow asks stay-put people the same questions he posed to ancestral desert trekkers.

Who were their clergy? Priests administered a religious system, which kept things of God familiar, satisfying and stable.

Where did they worship? They worshiped in a stone structure called the temple, perfect for a settled religion defined by rituals.

What did God look like? God kept to Himself in an exclusive gated community, the inner sanctum of the temple called the “Holy of Holies.”

What concerns did the people bring to God? The Hebrews worried about invading armies robbing them of creature comforts. Jews imposed laws that defined settled-in communal living.

Wuthnow tracks how the pendulum swings between these ways of practicing spirituality. The former he calls a “spirituality of seeking,” the risky way by which Hebrews survived the wilderness. The latter is a “spirituality of dwelling,” in which people settle into shop-worn cultural patterns. These settlers want life to stay “as is.”

Wuthnow’s spirituality models explain why stable denominations of the 1950s — Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans — are hurting in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the “Church of What’s Happening Now,” thrives. It features salad bowl spirituality — a mix of religious traditions practiced individually.

Today, mainline churches are sidelined. Instead, eclectic spirituality flourishes. Established churches hire pastors who manage what is. New forms of spirituality grow because leaders encourage devotees to risk what’s yet-to-be. The dominant form of spirituality attractive in the 1950s, when organized religion boomed, has declined since 1965. Mainline churches haven’t adapted. Nature teaches that when animals don’t adapt to climatic shifts, they become fossils.

Political fights over styles of presidential inaugurations parallel shifts in styles of spirituality. Presidents George Washington and John Adams adored pageantry. Coaches made for kings carried them to inaugurations. Prancing in unison, bridled horses pulled their carriages.

When Jefferson was elected president, however, he wore run-of-the mill clothing when taking the Constitutional Oath. He walked to Capitol Hill. He offended citizens who expected monarchical pageantry with trumpets blaring and flags fluttering.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, fans waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9). Hosanna means “God save us!” They wanted Jesus mounted on a warring stallion. He rode a donkey, a mascot of peace. Similar clashes in spiritual preferences are repeated today.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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