2.4 Spiritual seekers
The Second Vatican Council and radical Protestantism were both ‘elite’ or ‘top-down’ efforts towards innovation. However, a further kind of innovation – which was to influence both Christian and non-Christian religious beliefs and practices – was bubbling away at a grassroots level in the 1960s, both inside and outside traditional Christianity. We can term this orientation towards innovation – which placed great emphasis on ‘authentic’, subjective spirituality – as seekership.
The phenomenon of seekership goes back further than the 1960s: a further reminder that ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ change in this decade may have a longer back-story. The spiritual ‘guru’ figure – someone who had travelled to the East to bring spiritual and mystical teachings back to the West – was familiar even before the First World War. One prominent example was Helena Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society in the United States in 1875. Theosophy mixed Eastern religion, occultism and spiritualism, and was massively popular, reaching a peak in the 1920s of around 45,000 members (Poller, 2018, p. 86). In German-speaking countries, Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy attracted a large following, and some of the ideas he promoted, like biodynamic gardening, homeopathic medicine and ‘Steiner Schools’, are still popular today. In 1935, journalist Rom Landau’s bestselling God is My Adventure, a kind of tour guide of these emerging experiential religiosities, included pieces on various of these ‘guru’ figures. Amongst these also were figures associated with more experiential – yet essentially still traditional – forms of Christianity. An example was the American Frank Buchman, who founded the ‘Oxford Group’, an evangelical Christian organisation which spread worldwide, based on the practice of intimate small groups of Christians listening to ‘God’s spirit’. A number of kinds of ‘seekership’ communities had also emerged before the Second World War; the Oxford Group was one example, and alternative communities in places like Glastonbury and Findhorn also appeared. Yet, despite these longer trends, it was in the Sixties that seekership became so significant a phenomenon that some would see the period as the beginnings of a spiritual revolution. Wade Clark Roof argues that seekership was the defining feature of the religious behaviour of the ‘baby boomers’, the generation born in the time of increased birth rate after the Second World War, who were in general better educated and wealthier than their parents or grandparents had been, and expected greater ‘consumer’ choice.
The spiritual ‘seekers’ sought individual spiritual experience, new forms of community, sometimes turning to an imagined religious ‘past’ in search of religious ideas and practices. Some of these seekers were traditional Christians seeking to renew their religion ‘from within’. This involved a greater emphasis on the ‘Spirit’, the mystical and supernatural. Others rejected traditional religious institutions and embarked on an alternative spiritual quest. According to the sociologist Colin Campbell, the seeker could move from one allegiance to another, employ ideas and techniques from multiple traditions simultaneously, and their journey might or might not reach an end point. Some, as you will see in examining Wicca, eventually committed to a single tradition, while others (particularly those in the New Age milieu) came to understand seeking as the objective in itself (Campbell, 1972 , p. 15).