After Heaven

Many of us who are promoting a spiritual formation focus in congregations have been especially influenced by one book: Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

9780520222281Angela Reed refers to it in her book Quest for Spiritual Community: Reclaiming Spiritual Guidance for Contemporary Congregations. John Ackerman mentions it in his Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in Congregations. I personally first saw it mentioned Penny Edgell’s Religion and Family in a Changing Society.

Published in 1998, After Heaven is the result of Wuthnow’s research into religious beliefs and practices in the United States in recent decades. In it, Wuthnow makes a distinction between two kinds of spiritualities, dwelling and seeking.

The spirituality of dwelling was big up until the 1950s. It was all about houses of worship, denominations, and neighborhoods. According to the abstract of After Heaven at,

“Habitation” is the key concept animating the spirituality of dwelling….[It] implies a mapped out territory; the spirituality of habitation marks out a definite place for God in the universe and narrates a sacred space where humans too can dwell: it implies a sense of being at home.

The spirituality of seeking has a different key concept: Negotiation.

The currently predominant spirituality of seeking emphasizes “negotiation” through which individuals seek and experience fleeting moments of being in touch with the transcendent. In a spirituality of seeking there is no sense of a familiar territory but a quest for new spiritual horizons negotiated through complex and confusing meanings of spirituality.

While “these two modes of spirituality have been historically present in most world religions,” according to Wuthnow, “neither of these models of spirituality is….satisfactory.”

The spirituality of dwelling fosters dependence on communities that are inherently undependable; it encourages idolization of particular places to the point of distracting engagement with pressing human needs in a complex world. On the other hand, a spirituality of seeking is too unstable to provide the support of social structures that individuals need and to encourage the stability required to grow spiritually and to become mature in character.

I referred to both of these models in a recent post on Three Contemporary Religious Styles. The spirituality of dwelling is part of the “Old Style” in John Ackerman’s scheme. The spirituality of seeking is decidedly “New Age.”

There is a third alternative according to Wuthnow, and it, too, fits nicely into Ackerman’s scheme. Under the heading “Emerging New,” Ackerman list “Journeying together” as the kind of spirituality that is neither dwelling or seeking.

In After Heaven, Wuthnow offers this alternative: “a practice-oriented spirituality that has individual as well as communal dimensions.”

Spiritual practices require individuals to worship and commune with God in the company of others; however, they need to be performed individually to provide meaning and enrichment at a personal level. In practice-oriented spirituality, people reflexively engage with their past examining how they have been shaped and where they are headed.

Angela Reed notes that this kind of spirituality “provides the freedom for individual initiative and spiritual exploration,…while at the same time offering a stable spiritual home….”

What does this practice-oriented spirituality look like? That’s what my next post is all about.


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