Self-fulfillment is the focus of a generation's spiritual quest

04/16/2010 1:00 AM

06/22/2010 3:22 PM

This is the second in an occasional series of stories examining issues facing baby boomers.

When the religion of his childhood didn't provide him with spiritual solace, David Traupman searched for one that would. That meant attending Quaker meetings and returning briefly to the Catholic Church. At one point he gave up looking altogether.

But a vigil at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks inspired Traupman to renew his search. Now he attends services there every week and sits on the church's board.

``I was looking for an open and affirming place, and I found it,'' says Traupman, 45. ``It isn't so dogmatic. People are comfortable with who they are and what they believe, and we respect each other.''

Traupman's exploration of religious practices is not unusual for baby boomers, the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. A demographic behemoth that experimented with mind-altering drugs and marched for peace during the Vietnam War is creating its own spiritual path, focusing on self-fulfillment instead of dogmatic tradition.

``Boomers want more ownership of how we interact in spiritual life,'' Traupman says. ``It's about being a member instead of a follower.''

Experts say boomers' approach to religion is simply a continuation of their individualistic take on things that matter to them. Like their parents and grandparents, boomers are seeking meaning and connection as they get older. But unlike the generations that preceded them, they're finding spiritual sustenance in highly personalized ways.

Lenny Steinhorn, an American University professor and author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy (St. Martin's, 2006), calls them a ``dechurched'' generation, a group that isn't necessarily filling the pews of mainstream houses of worship, yet is investigating yoga, Buddhism and New Age practices.

``They have always tried to figure out what works for them,'' Steinhorn says. ``They've been looking for a place to hang their spiritual or religious hat since the 1960s.''

Religiosity varies with life experience, however. Rev. Dale A. Young, director of Congregational Health for Baptist Health South Florida, compared spiritual attitudes and practices among a group of local baby boomers and a group of recent immigrants for his doctoral thesis.

Among his findings: ``New immigrants are more aware of their spiritual narrative, of their life purpose.'' So they tend to be more traditional -- or at least more in tune to how their spiritual values should influence their choices.

``To a certain extent,'' Young says, ``boomers are still wandering in the wilderness.''

ONE JOURNEY

Alex Alvarez, 50, has done his share of wandering on a spiritual journey he acknowledges has been unconventional. Raised Catholic, he began exploring Protestant faiths in the mid 1990s after receiving a personal testimony from a member of a nondenominational church.

Alvarez began studying the Bible regularly and eventually switched from Blessed Trinity Catholic Church to a charismatic Protestant congregation. At Alpha-Omega, he worked as a youth minister, then moved to Cavalry Chapel, where he stayed for about five years. Now he's back at Blessed Trinity in Miami Springs.

``It wasn't that I was unhappy at any of these places,'' Alvarez says. ``But I was looking. I trusted God would lead me where I needed to be.''

He believes he is fairly typical of his generation: ``In the past, people simply followed whatever they were told. They thought being a good Catholic was showing up to Mass on Sunday and the holy days. Now we look more for explanations.''

Lama Karma Chotso, 61, grew up attending Presbyterian and Methodist churches in her small North Dakota town. Though not particularly religious, she was always curious about other faiths and ``looking for someone to emulate.'' In her 30s, while living in New York, she found a connection to Tibetan Buddhism.

After many years of study, she became a Buddhist nun. Today she lives in El Portal and teaches her faith to students seeking the same connection and meaning she herself pursued.

``Sometimes I think they just need to learn how to relate to themselves,'' she says.

Religious fluidity is not confined to boomers, of course. About half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once, according to a study of 2007 data by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. In fact, the group that has grown the most in recent years is the unaffiliated.

``We all have to come to God in our own way,'' says Miami attorney Alan G. Greer, author of Choices & Challenges: Lessons in Faith, Hope and Love (Morgan James, 2009). ``It's the ultimate personal experience. People have trouble with religion when it's shoved down their throat.''

IMPORTANT ISSUE

That's not to say religion is not important to boomers. In fact, the Pew study found that 58 percent of boomers considered religion very important and 26 percent somewhat important. What's more, 74 percent were certain of their belief in God or a universal spirit, 37 percent read scripture weekly, 61 percent prayed daily and 46 percent meditated weekly.

Traupman is typical of this group. Having grown up in an observant Roman Catholic family in Philadelphia, he broke with the church in college after telling his family he was gay.

``The reaction was, `Go to the priest and get yourself fixed.' But I wasn't buying that.''

A class in world religions opened Traupman's mind to other faiths and launched his search for a spiritual home. In the Unitarian church, ``we have a connected community and respect for each other's beliefs,'' he says. ``We have people from all faiths as well as people who don't come from any tradition.''

Boomers are seekers, experts say. Some, like Lisa Kubis, 53, of Dania Beach, find answers in mainline churches, their faith deepening with age.

Though Kubis' family did not attend church, she went with neighbors as a child, and eventually married and had her three children baptized in the Catholic faith. She did not attend Mass regularly, however.

``I believed in God and we prayed every night, but I didn't go anywhere,'' she says.

After a divorce, she began attending Mass at St. Maurice Catholic Church, sitting in the back for a year before deciding to attend the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Kubis became involved in various church ministries as her faith developed.

``I feel I belong here,'' she says. ``The fellowship and the presence of Jesus in the community -- I've never seen it in other churches I visited.''

Other boomers shop around, diving in and out of religious practices until their needs are met. ``It's a supermarket approach, itinerant spirituality,'' says Nathan Katz, director of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. ``There isn't necessarily a settling into a tradition as generations past have done as they got older, but a cobbling together.''

A HARE KRISHNA

Bill Glick, 59, has made such cobbling his life's work. Raised Jewish in a Miami family he describes as ``extremely spiritual but moderately religious,'' Glick became a Hare Krishna in college after reading the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu scripture.

Today he devotes his time to studying and educating people about the commonalities among religions. At his website, www.equalsouls.org, he writes about ``equality based on the soul, one God with unlimited names.'' The soul, he likes to say, is neither Jewish nor Catholic nor Hindu.

``My parents' generation experienced horrible wars and a depression, so they stuck together more,'' Glick says. ``They took shelter in conformity.''

Boomers, on the other hand, have found multiple and complex ways to be spiritual without being religious, says Wade Clark Roof, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, 2001).

This has resulted in practices -- the secularization of the Jewish mystical discipline Kabbalah, for example -- that combine religious traditions with therapeutic movements, shifting attention from institution to individual.

As boomers separate spirituality from institutions, mainline religions face challenges winning them back. The Pew report found that many left traditional faiths because they thought religious people were too judgmental or hypocritical, religious leaders too focused on power and money and their institutions too hung up on rules.

``Organized religions are going to have to reevaluate if they want to remain relevant for this generation and future generations,'' author and attorney Greer says. ``People are no longer willing to be told to do something and to just take it on faith. Boomers in particular are askers of questions.''

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