NY Times Op-Ed: 400 Years Ago, They Would Be Witches. Today, They Can Be Your Spiritual Coach.

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New York Times Op-Ed:  400 Years Ago, They Would Be Witches. Today, They Can Be Your Coach., by Molly Worthen (North Carolina):

Worthen[A] spiritual coach [is] a relatively new occupation that is dominated by women and appears to be growing, although hard numbers are elusive (to further confuse things, some practitioners refer to themselves as business coaches, albeit ones with a generous helping of New Age ritual on the side). At a time when more and more Americans call themselves spiritual but not religious, these coaches give us a glimpse of the allure and the hazards of 21st-century D.I.Y. religion.

Spiritual coaches are a new chapter in the long history of female religious entrepreneurship in America — a tradition that runs from Boston in the 1630s, when Anne Hutchinson’s packed religious meetings outraged Puritan ministers, to today’s evangelical conference circuit, dominated by demure yet forceful female evangelists who are not ordained but whose books and podcasts constitute major media empires. By blending eclectic religious practices with the gospel of entrepreneurship, spiritual coaches pitch their clients (who, like the coaches, are mostly women) the things that religion has always promised. They offer a path to meaning in the midst of suffering and tools to recover a sense of agency in a world that flings us around by our heels. …

Typically, spiritual coaches offer a mix of one-on-one counseling and group coaching, as well as certification programs for aspiring coaches. “Some people say, ‘You’re just a coach that coaches coaches,’” Drea Guinto, who runs Soul Flow Co., based in Central California, told me. “My response is, maybe coaching is an emerging trade that is filling a true need in the population, and that is the reason why people are saying, I see there is profitability in this.” She offers a lifetime-access group coaching program for $3,333, aimed at, according to her website, “soul-preneurs” who are “ambitious” yet “also spiritual” and seeking to launch their own businesses. “I see my clients as healers of different modalities, and my premise is that the world needs more healing,” she said.

Spiritual coaches face an extra dose of mistrust because they base their claim to transform lives and careers not just on self-taught psychology and dubious certifications but also on supernatural beliefs and rituals that they swear have worked for them. …

As a historian of religion, I’m trained to stay as neutral as possible in my teaching and writing on spiritual practices. But I admit, I often have the instinct to smirk or roll my eyes when someone mentions Reiki or crystal healing. Talking to these coaches pushed me to interrogate that impulse. Once you know their stories, it is impossible to make fun of them. …

If we are tempted to dismiss their taste for crystals and energy healing as New Age flimflam, it’s partly because they face up to something that many modern Westerners struggle to admit: Neither total submission to a traditional religious institution nor atheistic materialism feels right. We kind of do want the universe to hold our hand — without bossing us around too much. …

As church attendance and other marks of the authority of traditional religion continue to decline, American hunger for a sense of transcendent meaning isn’t going away. Instead, it is fusing with a longstanding civil religion that worships the entrepreneur as a guru and mixes and matches ideas that help us to imagine our way to a better life, to pretend that making up our own rules will bring true freedom. Centuries ago, spiritual coaches would have been heretics — because, like most heretics throughout church history, they are not prophets of an alien faith. They take familiar ideas to an extreme conclusion and confront the fears that most of us try to ignore.


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