Polysymbolism and Modern Religiosity

Polysymbolism and Modern Religiosity

– Lonnie D. Kliever   I   Southern Methodist University

“The present as a time of spiritual change and creativity is widely recognized and has been helpfully analyzed by a number of commentators on religion and contemporary culture.1 For the most part, their soundings have concentrated on the so-called new religions—a bewildering variety of countercultural ideologies, cult religions, and self-realization therapies popular among the alienated and marginal members of society. Some may question the appropriateness of this focus in light of the comparatively small percentage of the population involved and of the recent revival of interest in traditional forms of religion. But, in fact, attention to the new religions is not misplaced because something is happening here that will radically alter traditional religions from within. The revolutionary possibility at work on the fringes of our time’s “return to religion” is not the content of the new religions but the form of a new religiosity.2 The new religions are contributing to the formation of a new way of being religious—a spiritual life that is not tied to any monolithic culture, tradition, or self-identity. Indeed, the widened pluralism of religious options in our culture reflects a deepening pluralizing of religious consciousness as such. In William Shepherd’s elegant phrase, we are witnessing the emergence of a “polysymbolic religiosity.”3

‘For example, see Jacob Needleman, The New Religions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1970); Robert S. Ellwood. Jr.. Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (En-glcwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.. 1973); Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone, eds.. Religious .Movements tn Contemporary America (Princeton. N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1974); Charles Y. Clock and Robert N. Bellah. eds.. The New Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1976).

‘William C. Shepherd and Robert S. Ellwood, Jr., have also drawn attention to the emergence of a new kind of religious consciousness as the most notable feature of the new religions. See Shepherd, “Religion and the Counter Culture—a New Religiosity” in Religion American Style, ed. Robert H. McNamara (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). pp. 348-58; Ellwood. Religions and Spiritual Groups in Modern America, pp. 298-300.

HVilliam C. Shepherd. “On the Concept of ‘Being Wrong’ Religiously r Journal of the American Academy oj Religion 42 (March 1974): 66-81. I agree with the main lines of Shepherd’s argument that historic theism is irrelevant to our cultural context though irrefutable in principle and that a new polysymbolic religiosity is emerging which does “fit” our changed cultural context. But, as I shall show below. Shepherd does not mark the radical differences between “monotheistic” and “polytheistic” forms of this polysymbolism nor does he discern the reductive and fictive character of these forms of religiosity.”

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