Science of Spiritual Exercise

S5E2: Transcript
The Science of Spiritual Exercises with Rev. Sue Phillips and Casper ter Kuile

Tavia Gilbert: Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m producer Tavia Gilbert. Every Tuesday and Thursday, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversations about the science behind innovative tools that help human beings flourish. Today, we’re in discussion with Casper ter Kuile and Reverend Sue Phillips. Reverend Phillips is a graduate of Colgate University and the Episcopal Divinity School. Casper ter Kuile holds Masters of Divinity and Public Policy degrees from Harvard University, and published The Power of Ritual in 2020, and both guests have served as a Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School. Reverend Phillips and Casper ter Kuile are two of the co-founders of Sacred Design Lab, which describes itself as a “soul-centered research and development lab” “…devoted to understanding and designing for 21st-century spiritual well being.” Their work “translates ancient wisdom and practices…that ground people’s social and spiritual lives.” The lab was founded in part to explore why people in every age group, but particularly young people, are participating less and less in traditional religious practices, why they’re less frequently joining organized spiritual communities. Let’s begin the conversation with what is at the heart of Sacred Design Lab’s work: the human soul. Here’s Reverend Sue Phillips:

Rev. Sue Phillips: What the soul needs can be wrapped up in three words; belonging, becoming and beyond. Belonging is an opportunity for people to feel that they are claiming and are claimed by a community, and by people that matter to them, that are larger than just themselves. Becoming is the experience of encountering that which matters most, having a sense of purposefulness and mattering, and in making progress towards becoming the people that we feel that we’re called to be. It’s a growth stance, never quite achieved, but always striven for, becoming more of who we think we are. Beyond recognizes the fact that all humans need to feel a part of something larger than themselves. What we call fully big and fully small, which is the experience of both feeling a part of something, but also a small part of something much larger, that feeds a sense of awe and wonder, that is at the heart of, of all things.

Tavia Gilbert: Casper ter Kuile adds:

Casper ter Kuile: We talk about belonging, becoming, and beyond. So the experience of being connected to the people around us and through history, the place in which we live, that experience of belonging; the process of becoming the kind of person that we want to be in the world; and then finally being connected to something bigger than ourselves, something beyond our immediate experience, which some people might use theological language for. We use language that hopefully works in all sorts of different contexts.

Tavia Gilbert: Are the words “theology,” “religion,” and “spirituality” interchangeable?

Rev. Sue Phillips: People who call themselves religious, and people who call themselves spiritual, there is no common understanding shared across a wide range of people. They can be used both interchangeably or as foils for each other. In common parlance, most people use the word “religion,” especially when it’s put up against the word “spirituality,” to mean a set of institutions and institutionally mediated leadership and dogmas and creeds and hierarchies, that transmit all of that. This is a definition that I try to push people away from, because I don’t think it does justice to the communal purposes of meaning-making at the heart of the religious idea. I think of religion as being that which binds communities of people across time, around commitments and aspirations around who they want to be and become as people.

Tavia Gilbert: How does ter Kuile articulate the difference between “religious” and “spiritual”?

Casper ter Kuile: If you ask the average person on the street, the answer they would give is that, religion belongs to the institution, and spirituality belongs to me. I think that’s a gross simplification of what we actually mean, but that’s how people talk about it. You might talk about religion as being anchored in the communal practices, whether that’s tithing, whether that’s observing certain religious laws around diet or time, for example, about services that you attend. And spirituality can often point towards more of the personal experiences that people have, the meaning they make, from suffering, or the most joyful moments in their life, the sense of ever-present connection between all living things.

Rev. Sue Phillips: I see people claiming the word and the identity of spiritual to be laying claim to something that exists in them, that they refuse to give up by throwing out the religious baby with that bathwater.

Casper ter Kuile: I think the key thing is that people feel that they have agency when they’re talking about spirituality in a way that they don’t when they’re talking about religion.

Tavia Gilbert: As part of its commitment to Innovations for Human Flourishing Initiative, Templeton World Charity Foundation has recently partnered with Sacred Design Lab to explore how to foster the most effective partnerships between spiritual practitioners and scientific researchers. But aren’t science and religion strange bedfellows? Rev. Phillips says no. Rev. Sue Philips: Science has always helped us understand religion, and religion has always helped us understand science. What we know as science and what we know as religion have been in constant dialogue, probably since the beginning of time, in terms of understanding how the material world works and what its relationship is to the inanimate or transcendent world. That just feels like an essential part of the human curiosity about the world, their place in it, and how it all works.

Casper ter Kuile: There’s a growing interest from scientists to understand what is human flourishing, and how do we get there. So you’re seeing more and more studies looking at well-being, at the impacts of spiritual practices on health, for example, a sense of meaning, sense of connection, as well as a whole bunch of physical indicators that point to a more flourishing life. And so it’s exciting to see this new interest, and a whole new set of data that oftentimes, I don’t want to over characterize, but oftentimes points to the wisdom of why these traditions have endured. So you know, if there’s a practice, that’s a couple of hundred, if not thousand years old, now we have the science to prove about why it’s effective. So, for example, there’s a whole bunch of work looking at why rituals are effective at helping people feel a sense of control in their life or a sense of rhythm. So if you come back to a practice time and time and again, it helps relieve anxiety and stress, for example. Even things that you know, like communal singing or dancing, these practices have helped people feel an experience of calm, or of belonging, or a sense of being at home in the world. And scientists are increasingly interested about, why is that the case? So we’re seeing a whole new set of data emerge that point to the impact of these spiritual practices on our brains, on our health, as well as on the quality of our relationships with one another. Now, that’s not always easy. It’s much easier to look at, you know, a set of indicators for one person as they meditate rather than 30 people as they dance and sing around a fire. But those are the kind of questions that scientists are asking, and I’m very excited about that as a new resource to point to how these practices can be most effective.

Tavia Gilbert: Applying principles of scientific research to faith-based practices demands a wide perspective. Casper ter Kuile There’s a danger when we’re asking these questions about the science of spiritual exercises to look only at the individual. One of the things I’m really passionate about is that we’re always looking at the sociality of these practices. If you’re not looking at how community shows up in these practices, I think we’re probably missing a large part of what they’re about. So many of the best practices in religious traditions are actually social practices, again, singing, dancing, but even the passing of the peace or the sharing of communion, that element of being together is built into why these religious traditions work and how they’ve been passed down.

Rev. Sue Phillips: I think this is one of the challenges in the science of spiritual flourishing, actually, is in how to study specific elements to understand the mechanics of why certain spiritual exercises work, without decontextualizing those practices so much that they become unrecognizable parts of that much larger thing.

Tavia Gilbert: And there’s not just risk in scientific research with such a narrow focus that it misses the larger context in which spirituality flourishes. If spiritual communities and religious leaders aren’t willing to explore the results of the research, they’ll lose an opportunity to incorporate the research’s invaluable discoveries.

Casper ter Kuile: I think there is an art to the science of religion. It’s certainly full of complexity and full of interesting potential findings. But I think if we keep the science of religion only in the framework of science, we’re actually missing some of the biggest impact that this research can have on both how traditional religious institutions sharpen what they offer, because of the scientific evidence that they have, but also the potential for a whole new bunch of spiritual innovations that are built on this scientific evidence that we’re hopefully going to find over the coming years.

Tavia Gilbert: Let’s take a step back, to what we already know. What does traditional religion do well, and why does it matter?

Rev. Sue Phillips: I think religion has been good at sharing and shaping the spiritual technologies that make for flourishing lives. I think it has been where human families, human persons and communities have practiced living fruitful, flourishing lives with their people, and learning how to build character, how to discern what matters most, how to sing and celebrate together, how to do rites of passage in that whole quest for what matters most that a lot of people encounter in their lives. So I think what religion has done is, it’s the sort of birthright accumulated wisdom of what matters most and the human community’s transmission of how to do that.

Tavia Gilbert: And yet, she says:

Rev. Sue Phillips: More and more people are less and less religious. It’s really quite a prodigious and kind of system-wide decline.

Casper ter Kuile: Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a really drastic decline in the traditional indicators of religious belonging. In this last year, we saw for the first time the number of Americans who said that they attend a congregation regularly dip below 50%. Those kinds of metrics are really telling a story about people stepping away from institutional religion.

Tavia Gilbert: He’s unvarnished in his perspective as to the cause of the decline:

Casper ter Kuile: Traditionally, religion has been good, very good, at identity formation, at giving a rhythm of life, of creating norms and values. And of course, that has also come with real pain points, when you fall outside of those norms, and outside of those ascribed values. I don’t want to be naive about the ways in which religious institutions have to own some of the culpability for the situation that we’re in. You know, as a gay man, I’m very grateful for the breakdown of some of those boundaries, because it has led to the liberation of many, many people.

Tavia Gilbert: However beneficial the breakdown of these boundaries may be, nonetheless it can be disruptive, and even painful, to experience the recalibration of social norms.

Rev. Sue Phillips: There’s evidence of a real, what I just describe as a bereavement, around access to sources of wisdom and support and succor that folks have traditionally relied on. People don’t know where to find that ballast anymore. Things like identity formation are shifting and how people come to know who they are is in such flux that folks are bereft of knowing some things about themselves that in past times, I think they would have turned to religion to shape and give voice to.

Casper ter Kuile: However, it is wrong to say that they are leaving behind religion and spirituality altogether. Because you still have incredibly high numbers of people saying, I still believe in God or a higher power. So what you’re seeing is really a sort of changing, or transformation in how people understand what religion is, and who gets to define what it is. So I’m really hesitant to say that we’re in a classic decline, I really think of it as a changing or transforming picture. The arrival of the internet is, I think, the most important factor in why we’re seeing these major changes. What has authority has totally changed because of the internet.

Tavia Gilbert: ter Kuile himself exemplifies modern spiritual transformation.

Casper ter Kuile: I didn’t grow up with any religious background myself. But as I became older, and I was a climate activist as a young man, very involved in mobilizing young people to get involved to combat climate change, I realized more and more that it wasn’t enough to think about just policies or even politics. And it was much more important to think about the paradigm, how we understand ourselves to be in relationship with each other and the world around us. I found myself, you know, at the time describing myself as a gay atheist coming into divinity school to study religion, and ended up really reframing my own life experience to see that so much of the most important moments in my life, the rituals that I grew up with, the strong community that I had around me, that those were, too, kind of religious, if seen through this different lens.

Tavia Gilbert: Why does Reverend Phillips believe young people have discovered spiritual practice through affiliations, for example, in social justice groups, rather than more traditional avenues of organization, such as a church congregation that meets every Sunday morning?

Rev. Sue Phillips: A lot of those communities are out of sync, frankly, with the idiom and the values and the stories that are animating younger generations. There’s nothing recognizable in a lot of traditional religious communities, to folks who are used to getting their content from TikTok and Instagram and Facebook. And I see traditional religious communities as having wonderful content, but very poor distribution. And I think in a lot of cases, younger generations, are not accessing that traditional content, because they don’t want to engage with the building down the street where people gather, who tend to be, by the way, 30 or 40 years older than them, at a single time, in a single place, in the week. And that’s just not how younger generations engage what matters to them anymore. And the traditional religious communities are so inartful in a lot of cases and engaging people in ways that they do consume content nowadays, that there’s just a tremendous mismatch. They’re just not fit for purpose anymore when you consider how people receive their stories, their wisdom, their community, which simply doesn’t exist in a single place at a single hour on a single day of the week anymore. And most of the congregations that I have observed, worked with and studied, have been unbelievably slow to adapt to the realities of new distribution pathways, for the things that churches and synagogues are amazing at producing content. It’s just that that distribution has completely broken down.

Tavia Gilbert: Traditional religion is not the only institution in decline.

Rev. Sue Phillips: There’s decline in institutional mediation and people’s participation in cultural and civic life. People are not looking to the institutions that they used to, like academia and government and religious institutions, for the kinds of wisdom and leadership that they used to. And that’s been a slow burn of degradation of trust in those institutions. Combine the decline in institutional mediation with the fact that the distribution mechanisms for traditional religious life are really mono-dimensional.

Tavia Gilbert: So what do we stand to lose when so many no longer look to traditional authorities and communities for wisdom and guidance? What happens when we lose spaces, people, and practices from which we have traditionally sought answers?

Rev. Sue Phillips: It’s a complicated question, what we lose, when we lose the power of religious institutions. On the one hand, we lose the birthright stories that have been transmitted over hundreds and hundreds of years of what makes for flourishing lives. On the other hand, we’re just in the presence of another kind of epochal change, which has always animated creativity in religious realms, whether that’s the Reformation, the Counterreformation, the Civil Rights movement, and countless other points of light in the religious story, it is a story of constant change. So on the one hand, there’s this great emergence story: what will happen next, how will people continue to make meaning? I think what is not changing is the fundamental human need to reflect on what matters most and to share the journey of that reflection with other people. So in the midst of all that change, there is a kind of immutable human experience at the center that, I think, will not change and probably will never change.

Tavia Gilbert: What does Reverend Phillips mean when she calls to humans’ “birthright stories”?

Rev. Sue Phillips: So much grounding, transmission of traditional wisdom, stories and songs that have sustained humans for countless hundreds and thousands of years, stories of resilience and celebration and mourning and suffering and survival. Those sound like abstract concepts or they can, but to my mind, what they are, they’re people’s ability to survive life that gets transmitted in religious life, and that is desperately needed now, at least, more than ever. And I think that’s part of what is at risk in this moment of declining participation in the pathways that have defined religious life in the past that are so utterly in a moment of change. And that’s part of what I believe the fuel is for increasing social isolation and deaths of despair, mental health crises, drug use, that folks, in fact, don’t know where to go. And it’s that kind of bereftness that I think is underneath a lot of what we’re seeing in terms of these deaths of despair, that in systemic oppressions of all kinds, where people cannot escape the limitations that are systemically enforced upon them. So I think that’s what the stakes are. We’ve seen no research and no evidence at all, that there’s been a decline in what humans inherently need. What the soul needs to stay connected to themselves and to other people, and to feel that sense of something larger than themselves. So on the one hand, the needs haven’t changed, but the pathways to access those needs, I think, has changed fundamentally. And that’s part of what has so much disequilibrium in the religious world, is to try to reknit that need and what’s out there available for people.

Tavia Gilbert: What concerns Reverend Phillips and ter Kuile most is the loss of community around rituals practiced in new settings, without traditional leadership, divorced from larger context.

Rev. Sue Phillips: A lot of the practices that we’re seeing people dabble with, they tend to be increasingly individually practiced. So we see a focus on individual practices rather than cohesive, all-age communities.

Casper ter Kuile: And as people move their spiritual life towards one that is more, a “choose your own adventure,” rather than something that’s a prescribed path, you are seeing a lack of social connections around that spirituality. And so it feels sort of cosmically lonely in a way, because you don’t have that community of shared experience. What’s happening in this moment more and more is that people are unbundling particular practices out of the rest of the context of religion. So a really obvious example that we’re all familiar with at this point is meditation, which gained a kind of secular language by being used in healthcare settings, as a way to help people experiencing stress, for example. So now, it’s really quite normal to see even in a reality TV show, after someone’s had an argument, they’re sitting there doing some meditation, because that’s the way that they’ve learned to cope with anxiety or stress, even if they could never tell you, you know, what are the noble truths of Buddhism or what is the Eightfold Path. There’s a lot of evidence that’s growing around the value certainly of pausing, and I think the conversation around well-being is one that’s just growing. So this is a practice that although it came from a religious kind of origin point is now being practiced far beyond in a secular context. So that practice has really been taken out of its original context. I think we’re seeing more and more of that, this looking at individual practices that have immediate benefits for the practitioner, without really looking at the broader context of the religious tradition that it comes from.

Rev. Sue Phillips: The problem is there tends not to be a cohesion quality around them, to knit them together in a way that makes it easier to digest or share. So in the personalization of unbundling, we lose a lot of the sharing of community, and I think that’s part of what’s been shorn off. Increasingly, especially if you think about yoga, or meditation, or even like psychedelic use, that have been firmly embedded in long ancient traditions of practice, and wisdom and elders and to some extent, dogma and creed and sacred text and a whole, enmeshed connection of elements, we tend to atomize the functional elements of those traditions. So that meditation has become insight oriented for an individual, and we’ve stripped away a number of the core elements of Buddhist practice, in just supporting an individual’s individuals sitting in an individual place. So that’s an example of, I think, the degradation of the power of a lot of these practices when they get plucked out of the traditions from which they arose. Now on the other hand, we can talk about the hundreds of millions of people who are now accessing the wisdom that has been transmitted through something like yoga. But removing that particular series of body movements from a wider tradition, I think, some of the power gets stripped away as well, and the groundedness and accountabilities that go along with it. People are really left on their own, in the absence of community and certain kinds of leadership, to actually make great meaning from that, or to take time to reflect on what it all means, because of this atomization. So I think there’s real loss there. It may be personalized, but it’s lonely.

Tavia Gilbert: That loneliness makes sense to Reverend Phillips. Humans are not meant to live or commune in isolation.

Rev. Sue Phillips: Humans need other humans literally, psychologically, socially, politically, economically. The story of humankind is the story of human community for good and for ill. You can’t talk about human experience without talking about community. It’s just that in late 21st century advanced capitalism, we’re increasingly taught that individuals exist, individual consumers exist, and that that atomization is in fact keeping us from a sense of belonging to other people and other people belonging to us. The relationship of individuals to the wider community is a question that’s at the heart of the human experience, but the fact of that connection, I think, is an undeniable part of human of human experience, and it’s part of why various religions emerged, is to address that relationship between individuals and longer, wider story.

Casper ter Kuile: But I think we’ve kind of swung the pendulum perhaps all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where we’re now finding ourselves without a shared reference point of what is right and wrong, of what is true and false, and looking maybe towards these religious traditions as having resources to help us build cultures of human flourishing. As we’re seeing the increase in social isolation and loneliness, and this decrease of affiliation, as people, you know, mix their own lives more and more spiritually, that’s the big design question for us, is how do you then build for relationships, if people don’t share the same practices, the same identity or even the same language, let alone the same geography. So what are going to be the things that hold us together in some form of spiritual community if it’s not going to be the same foundations that religious traditions have depended on in the past.

Tavia Gilbert: In the face of so much uncertainty and instability, what is left to rely on?

Casper ter Kuile: I trust the innate human longing for connection, meaning and purpose. And, I trust people to find ways to create communities that will help them find that. Religion is always mutating and growing and shrinking and finding new ways to live. And I have full trust that it will continue to do so. And there’s also a lot about religious institutions that were profoundly disturbing and morally incoherent. And so, perhaps this is a moment of reckoning, which can lead to not just renewal within existing institutions, but also can make space for new ways in which people gather and build those kind of commitments around trying to be good people, trying to live good lives.

Tavia Gilbert: Reverend Phillips agrees:

Rev. Sue Phillips: These longings exist congenitally. I think it’s an essential part of being human. I don’t think we’re taught it, I think it’s part of the way human brains and human hearts work, in self but also in community and families across time. I feel like these questions are ones that naturally emerge in the course of human development. Humans are meaning makers and purpose finders. And that’s just what we do. It’s how our brains and hearts work, within ourselves and in community. I think this is an essential part of what it means to be human, yes. Isn’t it wonderful?

Tavia Gilbert: ter Kuile maintains his open-hearted curiosity about where people are newly finding meaning, purpose, and connection.

Casper ter Kuile: I’ve been really interested in exploring this theme of more and more people becoming less and less traditionally religious. And really our first question was, where are young people going to find meaning and connection if they’re not going to traditional churches or synagogues? And we noticed that more and more people were engaging in communities that were ostensibly secular, whether fitness communities, justice groups, art and creative groups. But when you looked closely, it actually looked quite religious in terms of what was happening there. People were getting married and having funerals in these spaces, they were looking after one another through the biggest transitions of their lives. And so we started to look at a much less a decline of religion and more a transformation of religion.

Tavia Gilbert: For many people, gyms have, in fact, taken over as faith spaces, which has pros and cons.

Rev. Sue Phillips: So in some respects, these fitness communities begin to resemble traditional religious communities, in the devotion that they inspire and adherence and the people who go there, and the fidelity that they have for certain leaders and certain elements of those practices. On the other hand, there’s some troubling diminishment from the experience that they might get in traditional religious communities around sharing that experience and that story with an unchanging group of people, having to adapt to other people’s needs, being around people with different abilities and getting to hear their stories and share them and themselves, getting to be in an environment that really celebrates less skillfulness than less optimized physical performance. So I think it’s an interesting story on both the strengths, but also the limitations of the kinds of communities that people are finding to meet some of the needs that traditional religion has fulfilled.

Tavia Gilbert: Are people consciously looking to groups like fitness communities to fill spaces traditionally served by religious communities?

Casper ter Kuile: When you ask people, “Are you looking for replacement to a religious congregation?”, they will absolutely say no. But when you look at what behaviors are happening, in places where people are expressing themselves creatively, or they’re working through major questions about life transitions, or fundamentally engaging in questions of justice around Black Lives Matter or climate change— when you spend time looking at what happens in those communities, what you start to see a very spiritual and religious activities. You know, the Black Lives Matter protests were primarily characterized as a political movement. But they were deeply spiritual, too. There were ancestral ceremonies, there were, of course, memorials for people who’ve been killed by the police. So there was a spiritual language, even, in the way that activists leaders were talking about what they were doing and why it was important.

Tavia Gilbert: It’s not only social justice activist groups that are embracing practices traditionally in the realm of religion.

Casper ter Kuile: The boundaries between secular and sacred are becoming increasingly meaningless. I think you’re seeing secular culture travel into religious places, and you’re seeing religion and spirituality travel into these secular places. And so, you know, the workplace is a good example: Very traditional secular space, that now for many people, offers meditation and yoga classes. It offers opportunities to reflect on, who do I want to become and how is this job part of that lifelong exploration of who I am? Those are big, I think, at least theological questions in some way.

Rev. Sue Phillips: In a lot of professional environments, we’re seeing kind of spiritual elements being integrated in the workplace as essentially a workplace benefit or offering. There’s also an overlay of growing concern for the actual lived situations in which people find themselves. There’s perhaps increasing attention to taking care of people. And most folks understand that people’s spiritual and religious lives are a critical element of their overall well-being.

Casper ter Kuile: There’s certainly a multitude of reasons why we’re seeing things like meditation and yoga show up in the workplace. I think it’s not wrong to point to the benefit for the corporation that people can hang around more and feel more connected to the company, that’s certainly one. But I think you also see genuine care from people within these larger companies, for their employees, or for at least trying to resource them to make it through a challenging moment. The workplace is becoming a sort of distribution center for religious wisdom and practice.

Tavia Gilbert: And they have concerns about spirituality being delivered through the workplace.

Rev. Sue Phillips: Whenever we see workplaces engage their workers’ religious and spiritual lives, we should be cautious in understanding what the motivations for doing that are. And I think what we’ve seen over and over again, is that concern for productivity is at the heart, a lot of those engagements. Productivity, partly in terms of maximizing people’s output, but there are other ways to think about productivity that I think are a little less potentially dangerous, that have to do with making sure that folks have the support they need to be able to show up at work. There’s a real danger of control, of lack of privacy, of enforced engagement with certain practices, all of which I think we are understandably suspicious about. It remains to be seen if workplaces can find ways to engage that are healthy, employee-focused and a little bit altruistic, quite frankly, in their motivations outside of just pure productivity motivations.

Tavia Gilbert: If we fail to recognize the value of tradition in spiritual practice, and to cede control of spiritual practice to the workplace, what could result?

Rev. Sue Phillips: The stories and ancestors and teachers and songs and tunes and texts and practices that have animated those communities for thousands of years, we’re in real danger of losing that wisdom. And that’s part of why we need this new infrastructure to help repopulate those pathways, not just back to traditional religious communities, but to tell those stories and transmit some of that wisdom in fresh new ways. Personally, I’m agnostic about whether those traditional communities survive. I think that story has yet to be told. But I’m very invested in humans not losing what we’ve learned over the last tens of thousands of years about how to survive this suffering life. Our experience, human experience, has always been limited by what we could imagine could be possible for ourselves or other people. In that way, I think, a lot of these new practices will begin to change what people long for, we’ve already seen that, just in the social media age and the impact of influencers, and the kind of consumer-oriented, learned needs that people seem to have for some things that matter. I don’t think that there’s going to be any change to the fundamental human questions: Who am I? What is this life about? What do I do with suffering? How do I understand my place in the order of things? But once we move beyond the actual asking of those questions, I think they can be given shape and, in fact, can be malformed by the kinds of environments in which we ask them and answer them. And I think that’s part of what is at stake in this current moment.

Tavia Gilbert: ter Kuile remains positive about the way innovation and disruption can infuse new energy into traditional spiritual pursuits:

Casper ter Kuile: It’s been estimated that three and a half thousand churches close in the United States every year, so a lot of that physical infrastructure, the places where people gather and meet and find fellowship, those are declining. But on the other hand, you’re seeing, you know, certain megachurches that are growing, you’re seeing online communities that are growing, you’re seeing people engage with their faith, or with spirituality and religion in other ways. What I do trust to continue is that sense of longing, that people want to be connected in some way, they want to make meaning of their life, to feel that they matter, to be part of something bigger than themselves. Even though you might not be practicing a particular ritual in the way that would be recognizable 500 years ago, the way that that tradition can live and change, and adapt, I think is really exciting. A good tradition is not something that’s static, that always is the same, but it’s one that can actually travel through time, and adapt to different contexts and historical moments. And that’s what’s happening right now, too. Every religious tradition was once an innovation. That’s a sign of a healthy religious tradition, I think. The way that they innovate is by encountering new contexts. And one of those new contexts today is the rapidly changing pace of technology. Obviously, that’s going to mean that there’s going to be differences in how people connect religiously and spiritually, too.

Tavia Gilbert: Reverend Phillips also affirms that innovation in spiritual life is nothing new.

Rev. Sue Phillips: The ways that religious traditions have innovated have been through, usually, either hierarchy or dogma. The fruits of a lot of that innovation has been schism. There are innovators that are firmly ensconced in traditions. And they’re usually innovators in distribution, not usually in content. But there are also loads of innovators along the edge of traditional religious communities. I think there’s a lot of innovation in delivering some of that traditional wisdom, even among those edge innovators. And then there are religious or spiritual and community innovators completely outside of the traditional religious world, many of whom, according to our research and work, actually grew up in traditional religious communities, in many cases were the sort of golden children of their religious communities, but having disavowed those communities, are seeking a lot of the same outcomes, but in non-religious communities. So it’s a way of transmitting that wisdom but in a completely fresh and theologically clear realms.

Tavia Gilbert: Despite the loss of spaces and communities in which wisdom has traditionally been sought, despite the disconnection and despair of the modern age, like her co-founder partner, Casper ter Kuile, Reverend Phillips remains optimistic:

Rev. Sue Philipps: A lot of young adults are trying religious practices for the first time as a result of the kind of extremities of COVID. One of the things that traditional religious communities have done is, it narrows the aperture of resources for meaning making. It focuses people’s attention in certain places. What the Internet has done, is that it’s really widened the aperture, so that there’s more available for people to experience, observe, engage, than ever before. So the aperture is so wide, it’s quite a lot like drinking from a firehose. At the risk of oversimplifying, some of what we’re seeing is a battle between what are the forces that control the mechanisms that affect what we see and how we engage it. The ethics are so complicated around who controls the algorithms that feed us information and experiences on the one hand, but on the other hand, folks are increasingly able to pursue their own interests, which I see as a total net positive. Part of why this moment is in such flux, is this, I don’t want to set these up as opposites exactly, but the contradictions between total freedom and access to information, and help in digesting what we’re encountering and making meaning from it. It’s a real tense moment around that dichotomy right now.

Tavia Gilbert: This era of transition in the spiritual and religious lives of millions of people may be particularly fraught, but Reverend Phillips sees enormous opportunity.

Rev. Sue Phillips: One of the joys of talking about human flourishing is in the challenge of communicating across such tremendous difference of experience and social location. When you just think about the challenges of idiom alone in communicating meaning and value and tradition, it’s a wonder we can talk to each other at all about these questions. The obstacles are so high, the accretions of history are so profound, the trauma that traditional religious communities have done to so many, the depth of commitments that fuel people’s orthodoxies. I mean, there’s a reason that religion and spirituality are hard to talk about. So yes, there are tremendous obstacles, but the stakes are so high. The problems that so many people in our culture are facing are soul-deep. They have to do with what matters most to people and whether they matter, that we have to rise to the occasion by coming up with some soul-centered solutions to match those challenges. And I think that’s the opportunity underneath all those challenges, and it makes the whole quest worthwhile. To us, the spiritual infrastructure of the future is emergent pathways of distributing human wisdom about what matters most. How to ask questions, how to find wisdom and stories and teachers of song, how to sustain commitments and resilience during movements for social justice. We’re going to see the emergence of new pathways, of transmitting human wisdom about what matters most. It’s the future birthright of transmitting all this wisdom for humans that are going to follow us in future generations.

Tavia Gilbert: What does Reverend Phillips hope for the future?

Rev. Sue Phillips: A flourishing future looks like humans accessing stories and wisdom from before, from previous generations, previous times, in other moments of time, that give them strength and succor and resilience, to make a life of meaning for themselves, and hopefully to co-create communities that are worthy of the questions at the heart of their lives. So communities that are safe, that don’t suffer from racism and inequality, communities that allow for flourishing and don’t systemically interrupt people’s ability to access their full potential, that full sense of becoming, that make the obstacles reduced to that belonging and becoming and beyond that we spoke with, that’s a flourishing community. This is going to sound perhaps cliched, especially as a as an older Gen-X-er, but honestly, the depth of the questions that spiritual innovators, spiritual and community innovators are asking, the longing that they have the ability to articulate and to convene people around, their hunger for the old stories, their joy at discovering wisdom is there to be had, that there are folks who have some of what they wish they knew, that there are practices to follow to support a meaningful life, There is so much hunger there, that I have a lot of faith that we’re in good hands, if we can do what we can to remove the obstacles to people accessing that wisdom. And if we can remove the systemic obstacles to people engaging freely with what matters most, I think we’re in for a long human story that is in very good hands.

Tavia Gilbert: ter Kuile also expresses appreciation for human resilience and virtue, and looks to a hopeful future:

Casper ter Kuile: One of the great joys of the work so far has been to find a lot of common ground and a lot of empathy and willingness from both sides to learn from one another. One of the things that gives me great hope about the future of spiritual practice and, and this interest in spiritual exercises is the continuous creativity of people who might have inherited the tradition by growing up within it, or learning about it, and then finding a new application for it, finding new contexts in which to express it. And as long as that continues, I’m going to be very hopeful.

Tavia Gilbert: We’ll return in two weeks with our next episode, a discussion of the role of education in human flourishing with Dr. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Here’s a preview of that conversation:

Andreas Schleicher: If, you know, the goal of education is about helping people find meaning for themselves, for their communities, make good choices between the present and the future, make good choices between themselves and you know, society; learn to live with themselves, learn to live with others, learn to live with the planet—then you need to build learning environments that can support that. And that’s certainly not an environment where individual students sit behind an individual desk and just, you know, learn things by heart.

Tavia Gilbert: Stay tuned for the full interview. In the meantime, if you liked today’s Story of Impact, we’d be grateful if you’d help us reach new audiences by taking a moment to follow the podcast, and to rate and review us. Join us on social media at Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Visit us at This has been the Stories of Impact Podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. Written and produced by Talkbox and Tavia Gilbert, with associate producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb. The Stories of Impact Podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.


  • Richard Sergay is an award-winning veteran network television journalist and senior media executive who spent much of his career at ABC News. He reported on major domestic and international stories for World News, Nightline and Good Morning America and ABC Radio. Richard completed a six-year assignment as Bureau Chief and Correspondent based in South Africa covering the end of White rule and Apartheid, as well as the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the ensuing peace negotiations. After the South Africa assignment, Richard began a new beat for ABC News – the first for any major network --  focused on the digital revolution unfolding in the U.S.
  • Writer and producer of several nonfiction podcasts with a global audience, Tavia Gilbert is the acclaimed narrator of more than 650 full-cast and multi-voice audiobooks, Booklist’s Audiobook Narrator of the Year, and a multi–Audie Award-winner, including for Best Female Narrator. She is also the creator of The Abels, a scripted podcast in collaboration with the BBC. Tavia holds a BFA in Acting from Cornish College of the Arts and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is in the Writing & Publishing faculty.