Science20of20 Spiritual20 Exercise
Sep 21, 2021

The Science of Spiritual Exercises with Rev. Sue Phillips and Casper ter Kuile (podcast)

How modern spirituality relates to religious tradition, community, science, and human flourishing

By Templeton Staff

Sacred Design Lab describes itself as a “soul-centered research and development lab” dedicated to “understanding and designing for 21st-century spiritual well being.” As part of its commitment to Innovations for Human Flourishing, Templeton World Charity Foundation has recently partnered with Sacred Design Lab to explore how to foster the most effective partnerships between spiritual practitioners and scientific researchers. This conversation with two of Sacred Design Lab's founders, Reverend Sue Phillips and Casper ter Kuile, interprets the dynamic of contemporary spirituality and how it relates to religious tradition, community, science, and human flourishing.

“What the soul needs can be wrapped up in three words: belonging, becoming, and beyond,” say Rev. Phillips and ter Kuile. These needs haven’t changed, but in today’s world, ways to access and nurture these needs have. Rev. Phillips sees “traditional religious communities as having wonderful content, but very poor distribution.” She and Sacred Design Lab are hopeful about innovations for transmitting wisdom, and believe there's ample room to forge new pathways addressing the “idioms, values and stories that animate younger generations” and others today.

“The relationship of individuals to the wider community is a question that’s at the heart of the human experience. The fact of that connection is an undeniable part of human experience, and it’s part of why various religions emerged — to address the relationship between individuals and longer, wider story,” observes the Reverend. However, people in every age group, particularly the younger generation, are participating less in traditional religion and join organized institutions less frequently.

Sacred Design Lab maintains curiosity about where people are newly finding meaning, purpose, and connection, if not in traditional religious communities. Rev. Phillips and ter Kuile offer insight into the pros and cons of secular arenas such as the workplace, fitness communities, and social justice activist groups embracing practices traditionally in the realm of religion. Ter Kuile and the Reverend also note that individual practices rather than cohesive, all-age communities are on the rise. The loss of community that results from practices divorced from a larger context is a concern to which ter Kuile and Rev. Phillips hope to draw awareness. “There’s a danger when studying the science of spiritual exercises of looking only at the individual,” warns ter Kuile. “If we’re not looking at how community shows up in these practices, we’re missing a large part of what they’re about.”

Ter Kuile trusts that innovation and disruption can infuse new energy into traditional spiritual pursuits. “Every religious tradition was once an innovation... The way they innovate is by encountering new contexts. And one of those new contexts today is the rapidly changing pace of technology.” Ter Kuile sees the practical potential the current landscape presents for “not just renewal within existing institutions, but also for making space for new ways in which people gather and build commitments around trying to be good people, trying to live good lives.”

Rev. Phillips knows there are obstacles toward fostering community and a sense of meaning today, yet she remains positive: “The problems that so many people in our culture are facing are soul-deep. They have to do with what matters most to people and whether they matter. We have to rise to the occasion by coming up with some soul-centered solutions to match those challenges. And I think that’s the opportunity underneath all those challenges. It makes the whole quest worthwhile.” She and ter Kuile are inspired by “the depth of the questions that spiritual and community innovators are asking,” and “their joy at discovering wisdom is there to be had.”

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, which features Rev. Sue PhillipsColgate University and the Episcopal Divinity School, and Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School; Casper ter Kuile, Masters of Divinity and Public Policy, Harvard University. Ter Kuile's book The Power of Ritual was published in 2020.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and host Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.