The Changing Nature of Faith and Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

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The characters in Tony Kushner's magnum opus, Angels in America, are reflections of the modern, millennial age. Like so many of us, they are on a quest for spirituality, for some kind of inner fulfillment, and their search seems to have taken on a desperate significance in the closing years of the second millennium.

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Philosophically, the twentieth century has been called an "age of uncertainty," of individuals seeking meaning for their lives and order in an increasingly chaotic universe. Traditional beliefs are being altered or ignored, while new faiths and new icons appear daily. Some people continue to enrich their lives with the religious doctrines of their ancestors—Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism— while others explore direct experiences through mysticism or paganism. Some find comfort and meaning in newly created, "cult" religions or abandon the search entirely and call themselves atheists or agnostics. In America, "Materialism," the quest for money and goods, has often been called a new religion of the age. This sense of anxiety and uncertainty, so prevalent in Angels in America, is rooted in the not-so-distant past—the changes in science, philosophy, and technology wrought by the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century taught the western world uncertainty, and the lesson—as much as any discovery, war, or disaster since—has shaped the identity of the modern age. Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of Species in 1859, presenting the world with revolutionary, troubling ideas. In suggesting that all forms of life evolved from a common ancestry, and that the evolution of species continues through the ‘‘survival of the fittest,’’ the British naturalist pulled the rug out from under many of the world's most cherished faiths. If true, Darwin's theories reduce human beings to the status of natural objects, no more spiritual or glorious than animals, plants, or any other living organism. Origin of Species also suggests that humans are shaped primarily by their heredity and environment. The spiritual concepts of fate and destiny, central to many religious faiths, play no part in the drama of human existence: People have free will, make their own decisions, and are responsible for their own actions.

By the turn of the century, other great thinkers had also widely influenced the way people view the world and their existence in it. The French philosopher Auguste Comte suggested in his Course of Positive Philosophy (translated into English in 1853) that only primitive or partially evolved groups of people base their societies on religions or hopeful political theories, and that the ideal society is one governed by the principles of scientific observation. Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud reinforced some of Darwin's ideas about the primitive origins of human beings when he suggested that many of our actions are guided by deeply-rooted subconscious thoughts. The nineteenth century scientific and political notions of Darwin, Comte, Freud, and others have had a deep and lasting impact on how we view the world today.

Faith, shaken by the rigors of science and the heartlessness of politics in the twentieth century, fills Angels in America. Kushner's epic drama encompasses a variety of beliefs, including Judaism, Mormonism, and Agnosticism, and incorporates supernatural elements such as visions, ghosts, and angels. The play never claims the superiority of one belief over another, but suggests that all faiths may be important to the progress of humankind at what is perhaps a crucial moment in history: the dawn of a new millennium.

In a 1991 interview with Theatre Week magazine, Kushner suggested, "There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of...

(The entire section contains 6496 words.)

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