What we can learn from Canadians’ shift toward self-focused spiritual journeys

Written by Emily LaRose

In a September 2022 interview, supermodel and reality TV star Kendall Jenner sat in a comfortable armchair, smiling as she described how she seeks happiness: “I always want to live in my higher goddess, my higher self,” she says calmly, tapping her chest. “I am determined to tune into her at all times.”

From Kendall Jenner to our nextdoor neighbours, we’re living in a culture that seems desperate for answers to the meaning of life, how to find true happiness, and what it means to be human. It’s not unusual that people turn to the concept of something higher than themselves, to “spirituality,” in the hopes of finding answers to these burning questions.

While Christians may associate spirituality with the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and their relationship with God, the concept of spirituality in other worldviews and religions is very broad—calling to mind crystals, meditation, or yoga.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches sociology at the University of Waterloo, says that most spirituality practices like these have been imported and westernized from Eastern religions such as Hinduism, becoming quite different than their origins.

According to Wilkins-Laflamme, between one fifth and one third of millennial Canadians would define themselves as spiritual but not religious. In other words, they partake in, practise, or believe in some form of spirituality.

Despite this interest in the immaterial, the majority of younger demographics in Canada aren’t involved in any kind of religious or spiritual activities. In The Shifting Landscape of Faith in Canada, a report by the Christian think tank Cardus, Ray Pennings and Jenisa Los say that “over the past five years there has been a considerable shift in Canadians’ spirituality and their relationship to faith communities […] more Canadians find themselves in the Spiritually Uncertain category, rather than in the Religiously Committed or Non-religious groups.”

Pennings and Los write that younger generations and immigrants are still searching for answers to life’s deepest questions, but that this doesn’t necessarily mean opting for communal faiths. The religious freedom we have in Canada is a blessing and our faith landscape is diversifying, but this shift toward uncertainty should give us pause. What is this shift toward?

Wilkins-Laflamme says spirituality offers people something that organized religion doesn’t. It’s a way for individuals “to get in touch with something more that the material realities of our everyday lives, but not having to go through a religious group to do it,” she says. People can “take what they want from it, go where they want with it,” while being removed from religious institutional structures that have a growing number of negative connotations for some. This mindset allows individuals to take whatever works for them.

People are also often attracted to the idea of spirituality being a personal journey. “We live in societies where the individual is king or queen, we live in a society that values choice, our own personal decision making, and personal authenticity,” Wilkins-Laflamme says.

Individualism is very much a part of Western culture and presents itself in many ways. In The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society Mikhail Dobrovolskiy says that spirituality is perceived by some scholars as the “cult of self,” because it focuses first and foremost on the inner experience. Similarly, spirituality practices begin with self, where the individual is the centre.

Valuing the self isn’t all bad. It’s important to recognize that being free individuals with human rights is tied to individualism. Followers of Christ also need to make sure we are taking care of ourselves. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we are told that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and that we are to glorify God in our body and spirit, which are His.

A common thread through many popular spiritual practices is a search for inner peace, happiness, contentment, and a sense of purpose in this world.

The accessibility of these practices and the idea of getting in touch with something beyond material realities, draws people in. But if these pursuits point us toward ourselves as the sources of our own peace, that kind of inward focus isn’t healthy or biblical.

Take the growing popularity of yoga, for example. It has become a common westernized spirituality practice that focuses on individual wellness and a mind-body connection. According to the Canadian market research company Leger, 35 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 practise yoga.

The original roots of yoga come from Hinduism, a reason why many Christians took issue with it when it began rising in popularity in North America. But this practice has evolved over the years, becoming more widely accepted by many Christians as a tool for exercise, meditation, and mental calm.

With meditation comes the idea of mindfulness, a popular term that originates in Buddhism. Mindfulness is a practice of deliberately focusing our attention on the present. The idea is to become more self aware and tune in to what is tangible in the present moment. Mindfulness can be rooted in Scripture and focused on connecting with God. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

But like anything, mindfulness can be misused. An article about mindfulness on the Focus on the Family website talks about the valid scepticism some Christians feel, saying it encourages escapism or an unhealthy degree of self-focus. The Bible affirms that it is not through ourselves or what we do that we can come to God. The gospel comes from God, not from us.

“Whatever intuitions and spiritual principles we drag up from the basements of our hearts, however practical, will lead only to ruin,” Michael Horton writes in a Christianity Today article “Why we need Jesus.” If spirituality comes from our hearts apart from God, it becomes distorted, selfish, and tempts “us to grasp the divine on our own accord.”

For those who are “spiritually uncertain” or “spiritual but not religious,” Christianity may look like a bunch of rules tied to an organized institution that limits freedom of expression. Yet this perspective misses what it really means to be a follower of Christ. God is a personal God. Bending low, sending His only son, God incarnate, to live on Earth, die, and be resurrected in order that we might have a personal relationship with Him for eternity.

In the same interview where Jenner talks about how she finds happiness, she says, “I was given this life for some reason. […] Within me wanting to achieve me tuning into my higher goddess, that also entails me being a great version of myself for other people.”

The Christian tradition affirms that there’s some truth to this. We do have a purpose and a reason for being where we are. We are made in the image of God with inherent worth as human beings, and we are meant to be with Him and live out good for others.

Yet tuning into our own definitions of a higher self will never bring us true fulfillment and happiness, neither will it heal our brokenness.

Our souls are not meant to be worshipped but to worship. Our inner gods or goddesses will never deliver. We don’t have what it takes within us to become whole, no matter how deep we may look within ourselves. We need Jesus to be whole. We can surrender our brokenness, admitting that we cannot fix ourselves, and allow Him to restore and rebuild us for His glory, where more of Christ is revealed, not more of us.