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Death of spirituality in SF is greatly exaggerated

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The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young stands inside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)
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Whether you call it spirituality or religion, the Bay Area plays a pivotal role in how humanity understands meaning. Our contribution comes from our location at the crossroads of the East and West, our special appreciation of holiness in the natural world and our enthusiasm for experimentation and seeking. The San Francisco Examiner’s launch of a new page on religion and spirituality will contribute to this spiritual movement.

Last year, the Pew Research Center published survey results showing the San Francisco Bay Area has a smaller percentage of Christians (48 percent) than all the other large metropolitan areas in the country. We also have the second highest percentage of adherents to non-Christian faiths (after New York, 15 percent) and the second highest number of people (after Seattle) who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation at all (35 percent).

This richness of perspective, along with other historical and cultural factors, accounts for the outsized spiritual importance of this region.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) describes faith as that which concerns us ultimately. Meaning arises out of the experience of feeling connected to “the whole of human reality.” Tillich uses words like “ultimate concern” instead of “God” in part because the language of traditional religion may be freighted with too much baggage for many modern people.

The words religion and spirituality evoke very different meanings in our culture. For some, religion and spirituality may seem opposed to each other. For them, the word spirituality acknowledges the mystery of our situation without implying ties to a particular tradition.

For other people, the word religion expresses the importance of responsibility to others as a necessary part of our internal life. For this reason, Rita Semel, 95, one of the Jewish founders of the San Francisco Interfaith Council frequently describes herself as “religious but not spiritual.”

From the earliest days of the state of California, figures such as the Methodist William Taylor, the Unitarian Thomas Starr King, Episcopal Bishop William Ingraham Kip and Sierra Club founder John Muir passionately engaged spiritual questions and established institutions that shape our life together. During Archbishop Joseph Alemany’s tenure, Santa Clara University, USF, St. Mary’s College, Dominican University, Notre Dame and Holy Names College were all established.

Twentieth century poets like Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder shared the spiritual power of our region’s landscape. Popular and often controversial figures like Bishop James Pike, Alan Watts, Ram Dass, Joanna Macy, Werner Erhard, Starhawk, Eknath Easwaran and Larry Harvey influenced people around the world as idiosyncratic spiritual leaders.

Religion and philosophy departments at our local universities, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, San Francisco Zen Center, the Pacific Coast Theological Society, Green Gulch Farm, The Esalen Institute, The California Institute of Integral Studies and many local retreat centers actively shape what faith means in our time. They produce spiritual leaders who will continue to teach us what it means to be human.

The story of Gay spirituality, Zen hospice, the modern labyrinth movement, ecospirituality have their origins here. The Bay Area’s contribution to the world’s understanding of faith goes far beyond frontier religion, new age spirituality and the human potential movement.

In the decades to come as our regional culture matures and as technologies developed here draw global attention we can expect to see many more examples here of how San Francisco shapes our experience of the ultimate concern.

The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral, a position he began in September 2015. He has an economics degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate of theology from Harvard University. Young and his wife Heidi Ho, a USF School of Law professor, are the parents of two teenagers.

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