Spiritual But Not Religious: Apologetics & New Spiritualities

June 01, 2015

Spiritual But Not Religious: Apologetics & New Spiritualities

Recently, Philip’s wife Ruth encountered one version of the panoply of New Spiritualities. She is a legal manager in a government office, and was obliged to attend a two-day management seminar: Mindful Leadership Global Forum. Some four hundred leaders from over two hundred companies and government departments were in attendance.[1] The speakers included the sports icon Paul Roos (Melbourne Football Club), and corporate executives such as Gordon Cairns (David Jones), Anna Phillips (IBM), Mark Britt (Ninemsn) and Lucy Perry (Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia).[2]

The theme was productivity, performance, and purpose. The focus was on controlling stress, improving staff productivity, and cultivating compassion. The way to realise these outcomes is Mindfulness Meditation, which is touted as a ‘robustly secular’ way for achieving serenity. Despite that rhetoric about being secular, Mindfulness Meditation is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He borrowed both the concept of ‘mindfulness’ and the meditative breathing technique from Vipassana Buddhism.[3]

Not every seminar speaker was personally committed to Vipassana, and the seminar was not devised to indoctrinate people. However, both the meditative breathing technique and the message to cultivate compassion reflect the tenets of Vipassana. Reactions in the audience were mixed as some were excited, others circumspect, and a couple of tough-minded atheists were unimpressed. Ruth noted though that the tone of some speakers’ testimonies reminded her of revival meetings.

As we talked to others about Ruth’s experience, a colleague indicated that Mindfulness Meditation is present in public schools. It also formed part of the Rabbitohs’ team strategy for winning the 2014 Rugby League grand final.[4] Mindfulness Meditation represents just one facet of the panoply of New Spiritualities that have an extensive reach in mainstream culture.


Nowadays it is fashionable to describe oneself as ‘spiritual but not religious’. When someone uses this phrase, chances are they are signalling four things. First, they distrust, and feel stagnated by, impersonal processes that operate in most public and religious institutions.[5] Second, they aspire to become the best possible person that they can be, and this transformative journey occurs outside traditional religion. Third, they create personal spaces where creative, imaginative and spiritual elements of life intersect and are explored. Fourth, they validate their transformative experiences by accessing mystical knowledge and adapting arcane rituals to present-day patterns of living.[6]

Years ago we highlighted New Age as the clearest expression of being ‘spiritual but not religious’. Now we speak of the panoply of New Spiritualities because New Age represents just one facet, and New Spiritualities cannot be reduced to creedal beliefs.

New Spiritualities in all their various forms are characterised by being highly eclectic, and their practitioners emphasise ‘Self-Spirituality’. The term ‘eclectic’ reminds us that practitioners draw upon a diverse range of sources and rituals in what might seem like a pragmatic mix-and-match approach.  The expression ‘Self-Spirituality’ indicates that the individual is concerned first of all with personal transformation, which will in turn lead to social transformation. The individual trusts their intuitions, cognitions and experiences for filtering what is helpful in the journey to spiritual renewal. It also signifies that there is potentially a higher or divine ‘Self’ that one relates to. This ‘Self’ may be another level of human consciousness, which signifies that we all partake of divinity. However, it is a common mistake to think that all practitioners of New Spiritualities are pantheists (all is divine). For many practitioners the divine ‘Self’ refers to a personal being, a creator God who is accessible to us in a variety of ways.[7]

An integral part of the journey involves choosing from a range of tools that enables one to spiritually evolve, such as yoga and meditation. Some will look for deeper spiritual connections through psychic powers, interpreting dreams, using astrology to reveal one’s personality, and reflecting on the ultimate meaning of the symbols of tarot cards.

New Spiritualities and epistemology

Some Christians are persuaded that the New Spiritualities lack epistemological depth because advocates emphasise the primacy of subjective experiences and appear to be relativists about truth. This impression could be reinforced by recent best-sellers such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.[8] For example, Gilbert cherry-picks truth from Jesus and her guru Swami Muktananda, even though their teachings are mutually exclusive.

However, Jochen Scherer points out that while discourses about personal empowerment and subjective experiences are prominent, many primary texts simultaneously make strong claims about the nature of reality, with arguments favouring objective and universally valid knowledge.[9] The missiologists Lars Johansson and Ole Skjerbæk Madsen have charted complex nuances in the epistemologies of New Spiritualities.[10] Irving Hexham analysed the readability levels of both New Age and evangelical apologetic responses. The New Age texts required a much higher level of comprehension than the apologists’ texts.  New Age writers were not baffling readers with impenetrable jargon but their writing reflected some sophisticated thought about cosmology and ontology.[11]

Three brief examples about being open to objective and universally valid knowledge are worth mentioning. Deepak Chopra is an influential motivational speaker and author of How to Know God.[12] In his book and seminars he discusses indicators from quantum physics, the big bang theory, and near death experiences as evidence for our unity with God and the complexity of the cosmos.  Wayne Dyer is a prolific writer of self-transformation texts who acknowledges that he abandoned a soft agnosticism by reflecting on the design argument (teleological proofs) for God’s existence. Dyer holds that knowledge achieved by ‘realisation’ (trusting our own personal experience) surpasses mere intellectual reasoning.[13] Gus diZerega is a political scientist and Wiccan priest who speaks of the ‘enormous blessings’ of the Enlightenment while commending Neo-Pagan insights into myth and mystical knowing as a ‘fitting corrective to the excesses of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment modernity’.[14] DiZerega appreciates that there are universal myths that point to spiritual truth, and one common kind of universal myth concerns a dying-and-rising deity.  

Our experience is that many seekers are both/and, and not either/or when it comes to empirical cognition and mystical ways of knowing. Beyond this we see three other issues that apologists must take into consideration. First, we have found that New Spiritualities are not averse to universal metanarratives, which opens up the potential apologetic strategy of using the biblical metanarrative. One instance of this is found in discourses about universal myths as a conduit to transformation. We have found it fruitful in discussions to explore Christ’s resurrection as the fulfilment of all kinds of myths that carry motifs of dying and rising to new life. Rather than opposing metanarratives per se, New Spiritualities react against disempowering metanarratives that oppress on the basis of race or gender or that over-emphasise rationalism and de-emphasise human intuition (e.g. Cartesian philosophy).[15]

The second issue concerns personality-types and religious orientation. Leslie Francis’ extensive research shows that psychological types correlate to differences in attitudes and beliefs in both Christian and non-Christian religious groups. Tough-minded empirical approaches to apologetics appeal to certain personality-types, while mystically-inclined people respond to dialogical person-centred apologetics. [16]

The third issue for apologists to grapple with concerns different kinds of ‘selfhood’. Linda Woodhead indicates that a Christian understanding is normally expressed as the ‘bestowed self’. God bestows a new self on us in the person of Christ, with the emphasis on the importance of external authority (e.g. the Bible). New Spiritualities emphasise a ‘boundless’ self which places greater reliance on feeling and intuition. The contrast between the two understandings of self has deep apologetic consequences because the boundless self and the bestowed self are like oil and water, they don’t mix. One way forward in making connections without abandoning authority is to explore how Christ’s resurrection changes everything about who we are and who we will become. A practitioner of New Spiritualities will be fascinated to consider selfhood via the prism of the resurrection.[17]


Mark McCrindle’s 2011 social research into Australian religious attitudes reveals an interesting mosaic (see the diagram below).[18] Of interest are two categories: ‘spiritual but not religious’ rating at 19% and ‘none’ rating at 30%. It is a grave error to suppose that the category of ‘none’ is merely synonymous with atheism. There clearly are atheists and agnostics who register as ‘none’. However, the ‘none’ category is bigger than irreligious atheists.

Some of the ‘nones’ include people who refuse to accept any label while simultaneously pursuing an eclectic spiritual quest. There are those who participate in folk religiosity such as in Vampire spirituality.[19] Others in the ‘nones’ affiliate with social causes that have the ritual trappings of religion and the vocabulary of conversion. Scholars refer to these social causes as emerging forms of ‘implicit religion’. An Australian implicit religion that is gathering momentum, which we have pinpointed, and some sociologists also recognise, is expressed in pro-animal causes.[20]

Low rates of church affiliation and perceptions of a rising tide of atheism have produced much fearful self-talk. It is quite valid to reply to the New Atheists but their appeal, patronage and social significance have been exaggerated. The twin categories of ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the ‘nones’ point to a wide range of spiritual searchers who simply decline to identify with traditional religions.[21

Apologetic Approaches from the Counter-Cult Movement

One primary contribution to apologetic responses to the New Spiritualities comes from the Christian counter-cult movement.[22] Walter Martin, who wrote The Kingdom of the Cults,[23] spearheaded this movement in response to new religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna and Scientology. Many apologists follow Martin’s methods when responding to New Spiritualities.

The Christian counter-cult’s primary apologetic is the heresy-rationalist response, which highlights doctrinal differences between Christianity and New Spiritualities.[24] It also presents rational arguments for rejecting beliefs that are judged to be incompatible with biblical revelation.[25] The heresy approach is helpful in highlighting biblical contrasts, and instils confidence because doctrines are clarified. However apologists often miss this point: New Spiritualities are not centred in formulating alternative doctrines. In many respects they are impervious to this apologetic. Mystical knowledge and personal spiritual experiences are regarded as the antidote to abstract, impersonal and rationalist beliefs. It hardly matters to them that their eclectic beliefs fail a doctrinal test.[26]

Another approach focuses on the personal testimonies of ex-devotees of New Spiritualities who have converted to Christ.[27] In these testimonies, the promises of New Spiritualities are found wanting, and the gospel is commended to seekers. Personal testimonies can be helpful because the experience of the ex-devotee invites adepts to re-evaluate their own search. However, two critical points must be kept in mind. First, ‘Christianity failed me’ testimonies also circulate in print. Second, conversion stories must not be accepted at face-value because some high profile Christian testimonies have later proven to be fabrications.[28]

At best these approaches operate hand-in-glove with an attraction-based strategy where church services are the venue for apologetics and evangelism. Unfortunately, apologists tend to only preach to the choir and not much attention is paid to the practical application of apologetics in a much wider range of settings. The theme of false belief is also susceptible to exaggeration with the outcome that Christians can feel suspicious, threatened and defensive in the face of New Spiritualities.


In the early 1990s we pioneered a missions-oriented form of apologetics in alternate spiritualities festivals.[29] Other practitioners in the missionary community, including the Lausanne Movement, concur that a marriage between apologetics and missions is essential, and that the New Spiritualities warrant fresh apologetic approaches.[30]

The Centrality of the Resurrection

The resurrection forms a central element in all our apologetic endeavours because it is the lynchpin of faith.[31] We contend that Christ’s resurrection is pivotal for theology, ethics and apologetics because if he is not risen there is no message to proclaim (1 Cor 15:14-17).[32] It is the focus of New Testament preaching (Acts 2:32-37, 13:28-38, 17:31) and remains a primary apologetic issue for practitioners of New Spiritualities.[33] Many of these practitioners find the idea of Jesus’ resurrection fascinating; others have doubts about it after reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Alister McGrath observes:

In the end, the debate with the New Age movement will not be won through philosophy, but through the proclamation of Christ ... Paul's Areopagus sermon sets before us a crisp, concise, and convincing approach, ideally suited to the New Age challenge—both in terms of the movement's ideas, and the opportunities available for confronting it. As for the Athenians, the resurrection of Christ may hold the key to engagement with New Agers.[34]

Richard Gaffin claims that in the history of doctrine, especially in soteriology, the resurrection has been ‘relatively eclipsed’ by the atonement. Consequently, its soteriological significance ‘has been largely overlooked’.[35] It is the soteriological character of the resurrection, and its existential warrant that apologists need to discover. Elsewhere we have described twelve ‘zones’ for resurrection living that demonstrate the empowering personal and cosmic nature of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-21).[36] The zones include a relationship with the Divine (John 2:19; 20:28), forgiveness (1 Cor 15:17), and values for living, because a risen Christ brings new meaning to earthly wisdom. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, seen as the ‘first fruits’, demonstrates God’s concern for the whole person and the entire cosmos (1 Cor 15:22-28). These zones encompass matters of paramount concern to those exploring New Spiritualities, and this is another reason why a resurrection-based apologetic is very suitable.

Holistic Apologetics

We indicated earlier that different personality types link to different attitudes about spirituality both inside and outside the church. Apologetics has often been narrowly framed as a rational, cognitive task where illogical beliefs are exposed as one argues the case for Christian truth. A holistic apologetic goes further by blending pastoral concerns into the task of addressing intellectual questions. We define apologetics as interacting with both truth and relevance. One takes seriously the whole person in their hopes, needs, and fears, as well as addressing questions of truth. There are creative entry-points where one can explore topics of mutual interest and link them to the transforming power of the risen Christ, such as how to overcome guilt.

 Apologetics must involve empathy, the ability to understand and be sensitive to people’s thoughts and feelings in a pluralist context. It’s a challenge to bring together the gifts of empathy with apologetic skills. In fact these traits  are  not  often  found in the  same  person, and  many  churches tend  to emphasise one over the other. Some local churches often excel at emphasising pastoral care while others excel in evangelism. The effective communication of the gospel must involve both elements working in tandem.

A practical example that we have developed in spirituality festivals and in seminars is interacting with the biblical images of the tarot card pack. This is suited to one-to-one conversations or group settings. Tarot images are very explicit with reference to biblical stories and church art, and it is very amenable for conversation and reflection as a person brings their story into contact with the bigger biblical story portrayed on the cards. For example, ‘The Lovers’ card visually represents Adam and Eve in harmony in the Garden of Eden, while ‘The Devil’ card represents them in a state of sin and bondage to the devil. The ‘Hanged Man’ card refers to the crucifixion. The ‘Judgment’ card depicts the general resurrection of the dead, with people rising from their graves in answer to the angel’s trumpet blast.

It is possible to outline from the tarot symbols the biblical plot-line from creation, Fall, incarnation of Christ, crucifixion and resurrection through to the eschatological new earth. We have discovered that these encounters often lead to prayer and release from pain.  It is also not uncommon for people to bring to the surface typical apologetics questions that relate to Jesus, the resurrection, and the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts.[37]

Another example of this kind of opportunity is found in Neo-Pagan spirituality, which is earth-centred and includes a ritual calendar known as the Wheel of the Year. The Wheel of the Year includes an eight episode story that coincides with changes in the seasons and equinoxes. The story includes a virginal goddess, who carries the child of promise, and a dying and rising god myth.[38] There are some obvious points where the Neo-Pagan story is paralleled in the Gospels: the Virgin Mary conceives the child who is born to be the saviour of the world, and Jesus dies and rises from the dead. [39]


Apologists need to rethink their responses to New Spiritualities. We need to understand more of this culture, just as Paul did in Athens. In New Spiritualities we will find lots of altars to an unknown god. Sadly, traditional apologetics have floundered in this culture because practitioners of New Spiritualities are not very receptive to a comparison of doctrines. The questions that practitioners have can be inadvertently overlooked, especially if an apologist indulges in a monologue. Apologists should make an effort to listen to practitioners and discover what questions they ponder, rather than reciting memorised answers to questions that we think are vital. We should always invite people to explore how the resurrected Christ can help us to best understand life. In pop culture we must grapple with the heart-cry for meaning in Eat, Pray, Love, while in the academy a much more reasoned engagement is needed on cosmology, ontology and a theology of the resurrection.  A shift over to a dialogical person-centred approach that is anchored in the resurrection is feasible. Apologists with a passion for making disciples are urgently needed to reach the ‘spiritual but not religious’ in both pop culture and the academy.  


[1] Dominic White, ‘Keep Calm and Carry Interest’. Australian Financial Review, 1 September 2014 http://www.afr.com/p/business/companies/keep_calm_and_carry_interest_business_mIJZMCSTHW7w16u9mjWhHI

[2] Profiles of the seminar speakers are at http://www.mindfulleadershipforum.com/?utm_source=WU_website&utm_medium%E2%80%A6

[3] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Meditation For Everyday Life (Piatkus, 1994). A popular introduction to Vipassana is Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart (Bantam, 1993). Readers should take note that Mindfulness Meditation differs from the Desert Fathers’ contemplative practice of being ‘mindful’ (Father George Morelli, ‘Mindfulness as Known by the Church Fathers’, http://www.antiochian.org/mindfulness-known-church-fathers)

[4] Daisy Dumas, ‘Unlocking the secret to South Sydney Rabbitoh’s Success’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 2014 http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/unlocking-the-secret-to-south-sydney-rabbitohs-success-20141010-10re5k.html

[5] John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000).

[6] Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson, Jesus and the gods of the new age (Lion, 2001), pp11-23.

[7] Ibid, pp104-112.

[8] Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (Atria, 2006). Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love (Bloomsbury, 2006).

[9] Jochen Scherer, ‘Truth is what’s true for me?: Reassessing the Knowledge Claims of New Age Spirituality’, PhD thesis, University of Bangor, 2009.

[10] Lars Johansson, ‘Mystical Knowledge, New Age, and Missiology‘. To Stake A Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge, J. Andrew Kirk and Kevin J. Vanhoozer Eds. (Orbis, 1999), pp172-204. Ole Skjerbæk Madsen, ‘Theology in Dialogue with New Age or the Neospiritual Milieu’. Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue, Viggo Mortensen Ed. (Eerdmans, 2003), pp257-286.

[11] Irving Hexham, ‘The Evangelical Response to the New Age’. Perspectives on the New Age, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton Eds. (State University of New York, 1992), pp161-163.

[12] Deepak Chopra, How to Know God (Rider, 2000).

[13] Wayne W. Dyer, There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem (HarperCollins, 2001), pp201-2, also pp6-7.

[14] Gus DiZerega, Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience (Llewellyn, 2001), p224.

[15] Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson, The Cross Is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection (Baker, 2012), pp181-200.

[16] Ibid., pp68-69.

[17] For further discussion see The Cross Is Not Enough, pp161-180.

[18] http://mccrindle.com.au/resources/Australian-Communities-Report_McCrindle-Research.pdf

[19] Clifford and Johnson, The Cross Is Not Enough, pp141-144.

[20] See Philip Johnson, The Noah Challenge: Resurrecting Our Consciences for Animals (forthcoming 2015).

[21] On the difference between his church statistics and the Australian Census, McCrindle advised us, ‘the reason that total Christianity drops (from 61.1% in the Census to 40% in this) is that unlike the Census, we gave the option of ‘spiritual not religious’ as a separate category, and this is where many people who in the Census were ‘forced’ to opt for a mainstream religion end up’.

[22] Philip developed a reflective heuristic analytical tool that pin-points six nuanced approaches to counter-cult apologetics, two of which are discussed here. For more detail see Philip Johnson, ‘The Aquarian Age and Apologetics’. Lutheran Theological Journal 34 (2000), pp51-60. Idem, Apologetics, Mission, and New Religious Movements: A Holistic Approach <e-book> (Sacred Tribes Press, 2010). The tool has been adapted for apologetics-based preaching. See John A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements, 2nd Ed. (Alta Mira, 2003), pp221-223. Ross Clifford, Apologetic Preaching and Teaching for the Church and the Marketplace (Morling, 2011), pp36-44.

[23] Zondervan, 1965.

[24] Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults Rev. Ed. (Bethany, 2003).

[25] Douglas R. Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986). David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler, Apologetics in the New Age (Baker, 1990).

[26] See John Drane, Do Christians Know How To Be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality and the Mission of the Church (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005).

[27] A great example is Michael Graham’s twenty-eight year search which culminated in conversion after encountering the risen Christ in a vision. Michael Graham, The Experience of Ultimate Truth (U-Turn Press, 2001).

[28] See Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott, Selling Satan (Cornerstone, 1993).

[29] Philip Johnson, ‘Discipling New Age and Do-It-Yourself Seekers Through Booth Ministries’. Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, Irving Hexham, Stephen Rost and John Morehead Eds. (Kregel, 2004), pp227-242. 

[30] Philip Johnson, Anne C. Harper and John W. Morehead Eds. Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (‘New Age’) (Morling Press, 2004). Hexham, Rost and Morehead Eds, Encountering New Religious Movements. Michael T. Cooper Ed., Perspectives on Post-Christendom Spiritualities: Reflections on New Religious Movements and Western Spiritualities (Morling 2010).

[31] Ross Clifford, ‘Reframing a Traditional Apologetic to Reach ‘New Spirituality’ Seekers’. Encountering New Religious Movements, pp193-208.

[32] Clifford and Johnson, The Cross Is Not Enough.

[33] See J. Daryl Charles, ‘Engaging the (Neo) Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (Acts 17:16-34)’. The Gospel and Contemporary Perspectives, Douglas Moo Ed. (Kregel, 1997), p135.

[34] Alister McGrath and Michael Green, Springboard for Faith (Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), p78. 

[35] Richard B. Gaffin, ‘Redemption and Resurrection: An Exercise in Biblical-Systematic Theology’. A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times, Michael S. Horton Ed.( Crossway, 2000), pp230-31.

[36]Clifford and Johnson, The Cross is Not Enough, pp41-63.

[37] See John Drane, Ross Clifford, and Philip Johnson, Beyond Prediction: The Tarot and Your Spirituality (Lion, 2001).

[38] Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), pp122-29.

[39] Philip Johnson and John Smulo, ‘Reaching Wiccan and Mother Goddess Devotees’. Encountering New Religious Movements, pp209-225.

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