Spirituality in and out of focus (introduction)

OK. This is the first post on this blog which I am going to begin with some important disclaimers, for reasons which will become apparent as the instalments of this particular story unfold:

1. The research that went into the following was purely theoretical and involved no er … practical investigation or field work with Mexican fungi
2. I am not, have never been and never will be a ‘Deadhead’
3. The only kind of pills I’ve swallowed after listening to The Doors are paracetamol to cope with the unpleasant headache their music has always induced in me. If I ever venerate a grave in Père-Lachaise cemetery it will be Frédéric Chopin’s, not Jim Morrison’s.
4. The only acid I would recommend to anyone is ascorbic.

Now I’ve put all this on the record, please read on…


DeZwaan windmill, Holland, Michigan (photo: Jarek Tuszynski)

Old Holland, New Holland …

In my previous post I alluded to my recent visit to Calvin College in Grand Rapids last month. One of the most intriguing aspects of my time there was a certain sense of déjà vu, despite the fact that this was my first stay in Western Michigan. This was triggered off at the airport when, leafing through various tourist brochures, I discovered that I had arrived during the ‘Tulip Time Festival’ held in nearby Holland, Michigan in celebration of the town’s Dutch heritage. Although there is no windmill on the campus at Calvin to rival that of Holland, MI, that same heritage is very much in evidence at the College. This is not merely reflected in the preponderance of Dutch surnames among both faculty and students, but also in the philosophical importance accorded to Dutch Calvinist theologian, politician and cultural activist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), who was Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905, and whose portrait I saw as I walked from breakfast over to Calvin’s impressive Covenant Fine Arts Center.

On several occasions during my visit I was struck by the evident vibrancy of the Dutch-inspired intellectual community at Calvin’s ‘New Holland’ (whose prime representatives include such heavyweights as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga) and found myself reflecting on the fate of Christianity in Old Holland, a country which has over recent decades become something of a by-word for the onward march of secularization that has characterized Western Europe more generally since World War II. I vividly recall my shock on discovering on a visit to Amsterdam in the early 1990s that the city centre only had one large functioning church, many religious edifices having fallen into disuse or been converted for other purposes. Of these the most celebrated case is the rock concert hall ‘Paradiso’, a former church which was squatted in 1967 and became Amsterdam’s countercultural centre, a publicly-funded entertainment venue granted to the hippies as an alternative to the nearby Vondelpark which they had been occupying previously, to the alarm of the civic authorities.

‘Paradiso’, Amsterdam (photo: Garion96)

The ‘Paradiso’, at first named a ‘Cosmic Relaxation Centre’ (cosmisch ontspannings centrum see original poster here), seems in some ways to emblematize a key sociological and cultural shift in Western Europe, with rock music and its associated rituals effectively assuming the place of institutional religion and even assuming its vocabulary.[1] It would be understandable to decry this tendency and some of its more flagrant manifestations, and there is no contesting Amsterdam’s dubious current-day  fame as a global hub for drug trafficking and the international sex trade. I would however like to argue in this series of posts that this would be a somewhat superficial analysis, and that a closer look at the watershed of the 1960s rather reveals a great upsurge of inchoate idealism which, to use some telling words of George G. Hunter III (Asbury Theological Seminary Professor of Church Growth), is ‘searching for life, but “in all the wrong places”‘.[2] It could be said that it was at least in part the Church’s inability to engage constructively with the aspirations of that generation which led young Europeans to pursue their spiritual path in other, often tragically self-destructive ways. An examination of 60s counterculture is moreover not merely a matter of historical interest; there are signs that contemporary Western Europe is currently undergoing a crisis of identity as deep as that of the 1960s, and that growing awareness of the moral bankruptcy of political institutions, the imminent collapse of the welfare state and the gravity of ecological issues may well signal a spiritual revival in the light of the demise of a belief in consumer materialism. The question is whether the Church can seize this moment of potential opportunity, or whether the result will merely be the reinforcement of New Age spirituality. My contention is that careful assessment of the crucial period from around 1960 to 1975 suggests the presence of a powerful but for the most part unfocused spiritual current within the suddenly emerging psychedelic rock culture (which generated genuinely new art-forms for which there were no prior paradigms). In this respect Amsterdam provides the perfect test case as far as continental Europe is concerned, and a consideration of Old Holland has much to teach us about the roots of the current Western European situation.

James Brown at the Paradiso, 2006 (photo: Ville Miettinen)

Two questions will be guiding our investigation in ensuing instalments: i) how did we get here? and ii) where are we going? For an understanding of the phenomenon with which we’re dealing here, a certain amount of back-tracking will be necessary to events in the U.S. beginning in the mid-1950s, without a grasp of which the peculiar combination of chemistry and spirituality that evolved in the subsequent decades is unintelligible. This will be the focus of the next sections of this post, pride of place going to a bizarre, but extremely significant incident that took place on Good Friday 1962 in the basement of a chapel in Boston involving an ordained Methodist minister and the man whom Richard Nixon would later come to label as ‘the most dangerous man in America’. For details, turn on and tune in to Part 2 (but do not drop out …).



[1] You can find some rare video footage of Pink Floyd playing ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ at the Paradiso in May 1968 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mluOJbAbkk . This TV documentary (Dutch commentary only), which features Floyd at their most experimental, provides extremely revealing (quite literally – those who may be offended by the few seconds of nudity should skip from 4:00 to 4:20) and poignant sociological evidence of the climate of the late 1960s.

[2] George G. Hunter III, The Celtic way of evangelism: how Christianity can reach the West – again (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 103.


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