The Value of Spiritual Exile

by CSW Director Rob Field


This time of spiritual exile is a moment in which we are being invited to find relationship with Earth and one another in ways that surpass anything we have known.”

—John Philip Newell, The Great Search (due August 2024)

I know many people who recognize they are living in a time of exile. They may feel alienated from the dominant culture, American politics and economics, a consumerist lifestyle, or something else. And many feel they are in a “distant country” when it comes to their religious or spiritual beliefs. I think this is what John Philip Newell  points to when he describes our era as a “time of spiritual exile.”

In his forthcoming book, The Great Search: Turning to Earth and Soul in the Quest for Healing and Home, due out in August, Newell explores the concept of spiritual exile. He is likely to address this theme in his presentations at Brevard College on October 19, hosted by the Center. In a recent presentation, Newell stated, “Many of us are in a state of spiritual exile. We have stepped away from the confines of our religious heritage or hold those definitions more loosely. Many of us feel we are on the periphery of our traditional religious thought and practice.”

Researchers note the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the “Nones” — those who do not claim any particular religious tradition. Yet most of them are not atheists or agnostics, but seekers of God or a higher power of some sort. I have met many people who make this claim. Some (perhaps most) of them feel they’re in a time of exile because they want to connect more deeply with the divine (Source, Being, Love, etc.), but cannot find an effective way to do this — especially if they don’t want to pursue spirituality on their own.

John Philip Newell believes the Nones embody wisdom that more traditionally-minded people could benefit from if they’re willing to consider the questions and ideas of the “spiritual but not religious.” As someone who straddles the dividing line between religion and spirituality, I agree deeply with Newell that the growing number of Nones bear the seeds of new life for traditional religions — if their leaders would listen to what the Nones are saying. And the world beyond the doors of synagogues, mosques, and churches also stands to benefit from this “great search.”

Eugene Peterson, the creator of The Message paraphrase of the Bible, says that exile offers us a choice: “Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself? Or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself?” You can tell the way Peterson words the question that he hopes we will choose the latter.

To that, I can only say Amen.


A brief note in closing: our monthly newsletter series “Celctic Chronicles” will return next month. This reflection is my contribution to the series. 


The image is a photo of the sculpture “Angels Unaware” by artist Timothy Schmalz