James A. Herrick IVP Books 2004-12-15

Herrick is Guy VanderJagt professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In this book he surveys the history and various representatives of what he terms “the new religious synthesis.” Herrick contends that the predominant religious assumptions of Western culture used to include “the supernatural authority of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures,” “a personal, creating and wholly other God,” “God’s creation of the human race,” “an intervening God,” “humankind’s fall,” “Jesus Christ as God Incarnate,” and an anticipation of divine judgment (pp. 32–33). These Christian beliefs have been gradually supplanted, Herrick says, by an alternative approach to spirituality, one that supports “the dominance of reason,” “the spiritualization of science,” “the animation of nature,” “hidden knowledge,” and “spiritual evolution.” Christianity was grounded, he argues, in historical events, but the new religious synthesis grounds its pluralism in mystical experience.

Herrick does not lack for examples when describing this non-Christian approach to spirituality. He discusses, among others, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, Kabbalism, humanism, pantheism, pluralism, and shamanism, and he describes the beliefs of Thomas Woolston, John Shelby Spong, Michael Drosnin, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, James Redfield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernst Haeckel, Joseph Smith, Carl Jung, Emanuel Swedenborg, Frithjof Schuon, and Joseph Campbell, to name a few. The breadth and diversity of these subjects demonstrates this book’s value as a reference work, but readers should not be surprised when Herrick has some difficulty assembling such a varied cast of characters into a cohesive story. He groups them around particular topics (e.g., reason, science, evolution, pantheism), but the connection between various thinkers is often unclear.

Any study of a topic as large and unwieldy as contemporary spirituality has to accept its limitations, and it would not be fair to ask Herrick for even more breadth. However, his cursory treatment of The Matrix and other science-fiction films only highlights the fact that each of Herrick’s subject areas could have been expanded to interact with the visual arts, film, and music. Even more importantly, Herrick might have added a carefully nuanced discussion of the new spirituality’s remarkable popularity. Why is it that so many people find these ideas attractive? And what might one learn from the widespread rejection of traditional religion? Herrick has ably mapped the territory, but there is still much work to be done.

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